Linhof Kardan Color: a review

by George Barr for the Large Format Page.


In the beginning... Linhof made the Technika, but some people needed a camera with fore and aft movements of a monorail, so they took the front of a technika, mounted it on a large solid block of metal and rail, made a new non folding back with no front on it but still the same four rods to swing and tilt the back, and the same rotating back. This was the Linhof Color. With the development of the Linhof Super Technika V with its pump up the front rise lever on the left, they made further modifications to the monorail, added a back rise and started calling it the Kardan Color.

The obvious question is - why would someone want to buy a camera with none of the advantages of a folding camera without the extensive movements of the usual monorail?

Well, here's why I did buy it and how it has worked out.

The other way to think of a Kardan Color, is that it's a Master Technika with more movements, fore and aft focusing, better bellows, rear rise and costs one quarter as much. How does that grab you? I picked up mine on e-bay for $575 without lens and I have seen several others for sale since.

What it is

First let me describe the camera to you. Contrary to popular but uninformed opinion, the kardan Color is not heavy - it weighs roughly the same as a super technika - 3.2 kg. without the tripod mount. It has a very rigid well made rail in two sections, 10 inches and 5 inches, with a large knob on the end of the short section to attach the larger section, very solidly! On the rail are two mounts, a front mount that is very solid and holds the lens. The front standard is identical to the Tech V lens mount with the same swing and shift, tilt and rise, including the little plastic tipped lever for the rise. There is no front geared focus - you slide it along the rail and tighten it with a large knob on the left. Once tightened, this is the most rigid front monorail made - period. It does not move - at all. The back mount flares up and out to hold two vertical posts upon which the back of the camera is mounted. The back cranks up and down these posts by a large geared knob on the right of the back. There is no lock to keep the back rise fixed, relying on friction to keep the rise. The metal back is unique to the Kardan Color and bears no resemblance to the Technika. It is cut out at the top (like a Technika Master without the hinged part) to allow rises with short lenses. The rotating back is identical to those on the technikas, except it has a locking pin.

My camera didn't come with a ground glass cover or pop open hood but it has the necessary holes for one. It has the same four rods and knobs for locking to control back tilt and swing. Unlike the Technika, it has no lock to hold the tilting swinging back against the camera body. As I always found those locks an incredible nuisance, this is a bonus to me ( I don't need three hands to tilt the back). The bottom knobs for tightening the rods are under the camera back and stick out enough to easily grip it with a gloved hand.

The back mount has a focusing knob on the right, which to my mind works backwards in direction (but is a function of the gearing to the monorail on the bottom instead of the more common top position), and a locking knob on the left. In my example the focusing is very nice and solid but sliding the back on the rail is a little stiff but even in cold weather perfectly manageable. The back connects to the front by a paper/vinyl bellows but unlike the Technika, it has two very large leather pleats at the front which give it considerably more movement with short lenses. I can finally use the full coverage of my Nikor 90 mm. f8 which is 235 mm.

The camera extends to 17 inches using the four rods and full length of the two part monorail. It compacts to about 55 mm. so I believe it would be possible to mount a 58 mm. lens on a flat board on this camera. Construction of the tripod base is such that you do need to mount both front and back in front of the tripod clamp for lenses 90 mm. and shorter, but I've found this less hassle than I expected and is a very reasonable compromise to not need bag bellows or recessed lens boards (there are recessed boards so with one of those, a 47 mm. lens should be useable).

The camera stores with both front and back standards on the short 5 inch rail, making a fairly compact package that easily fit into my back pack where previously my Wisner traditional sat. The Kardan Color is a little taller and thicker but no wider and weight is about the same.

How it works

Set up is a bit slower than with the Wisner and certainly slower than with a technika, but it's not bad. The camera comes out of the case, the long rail is removed from the tripod and attached to the short. I slide the back, just pushing it down the rail - it's a bit stiff but not difficult. I then put the monorail on the tripod. I can then mount a lens (if not already on) and set the front standard to roughly where I think it will be needed based on the focal length of the lens and how close the subject is. I then focus the back of the camera. Back rotation is a little stiff but nice and solid. You hold down the locking pin till after you have started the rotation.

To focus near/far I focus the camera using the bottom of the inverted image (ie. the far), then loosen the two top rod locking knobs and adjust the top of the back till the near is in focus. I then refocus the bottom then set the camera focus to a compromise to deal with everything that isn't in the plane of focus(eg. grass sticking up). I don't have a depth of field guide like on the Sinar F but 1/2 turn (180 degrees) of the focusing knob is 1 cm. and f64 so a quarter turn is f32 etc.

A detailed evaluation

After using the camera for a while and shooting a fair amount of film with it my overall impression is very positive. I am comparing this camera to other 4X5's that I have used, including Techinkas, Toyo C, Wisner Traditional, Calumet, Crown Graphic, Kardan Super Color, Toyo 45A, an Tachihara. It's more rigid than the Wisner, more versatile than the Toyo 45A and Technika, and fits in my backpack unlike a Toyo C



An extremely important issue for me is how the camera actually handles - do things fall naturally to hand, is it awkward to use or unnatural. Now that I have used it a bit I am very comfortable with it. I've just purchased a 480 mm. lens and plan to mount it on a juice can (as per Joe Englander). It will allow me to focus down to about 30 feet I hope. This way I'll have a camera that with one set of bellows could on flat boards take lenses from 58 to 355 mm. and with a recessed or extended board, go from 47XL to 480 mm. I use the camera with a BTZS focus cloth. It drapes over the camera body nicely and I keep it from sitting on the bellows with a couple of plastic clips used to hold bundles of electrical wires (available in most big hardware stores). The bottom goes around the back standard and the elastic in the cloth holds it there perfectly. It's true that if you raise the back, light leaks between the base of the standards and the raised back but that hasn't been a sig. issue. When storing the camera in the backpack, the compacted camera on the short rail is wrapped round the still attached dark cloth and stuffed in the bag.

The camera is great for landscape and close work, ok for architectural but perhaps not with the entire series of Super angulon Xl series of lenses, and is not a great choice for product shots where a full featured monorail is a better choice.

I think most of these weaknesses are pretty minor and absolutely no camera is perfect at everything - but if you want a rock solid camera for relatively little money, I'm pretty darned happy with my Kardan Color and would not swap it back for any of the previous cameras I've shot large format with. In conclusion, if I have to limit myself to one camera, and if I don't have to backpack more than a mile, this camera has some definite advantages over a Master Technika for 1/4 of the price and has compromises that I can live with. I recommend it to anyone on a budget that precludes two different cameras or $3000 for a used Master Technika.

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