Some Favorite Large Format Lenses

240mm Fujinon A on 4x5 film

There are countless Large Format lenses and part of the joy of photography is exploring the different effects we get as we try different pieces of equipment. Here are a few recommendations I can make, based on my own experience. This is by no means a complete survey.

The "Big Four" and More

Large Format lenses have been made since the beginning of photography, but in recent years the big four manufacturers have been Schneider, Rodenstock, Fuji and Nikon. In most popular focal lengths we can find lenses of similar description from each of these manufacturers. They're all very good and in most cases only a trained eye or rigorous tester can distinguish differences between them. Advantages often boil down to secondary considerations like size, weight, filter size, price and performance under extreme conditions.

Because Large Format lenses have been manufactured over a long period of time, models and brands still circulate in the used market that were made by illustrious design houses of yore: Kodak, Zeiss, Goerz, Wollensak, Cooke, Voigtlander, Bausch and Lomb, Dallmeyer, Ilex, Meyer, Pinkham and Smith, etc. These "vintage" designs are still in use today by photographers who appreciate the special way they render an image: not always as sharp or contrasty corner-to-corner as modern designs, but with other qualities. Lenses are like musical instruments: each design is a little different and individual samples can often vary.

A Few Favorite General Purpose Lenses

General purpose lenses are good for photographs of landscape, architecture* and miscellaneous subjects at moderate to long distance. For these subjects we value lenses of excellent sharpness with a wide circle of coverage. When we're shooting in the field - walking or trekking with our equipment - we appreciate lenses of compact size and light weight. Here are a few lenses which meet that description.

Nikkor 200MThe 200mm Nikkor M is my favorite lens for use in the field. It's very small and weighs only 180 grams - but it's razor sharp. It comes in a Copal 0 shutter and takes 52mm filters. Unlike longer lenses for 4x5, it renders images with only a slight sense of compression and distance.

(Lenses don't create perspective or flatness: subject distance does. With shorter lenses, we need to move in closer to the subject. If we move in too close, we get a distorted "stretched-out" effect known as foreshortening. If we step back too far, the subject looks compressed. At close range, the distance between a horse's eyes and nose is substantial, but from a great distance, it's rather small. There's a reason why the most popular focal lengths for portraits are of moderate length: they give a look which is least contrived and distracting: neither foreshortened not compressed. Here are some pictures made with a Nikkor 200M lens on 4x5 film. On 5x7, a 300mm lens (12-inch) gives the same basic perspective).

The Nikkor M series are Tessar designs: they are very sharp but have less coverage compared to "standard" Plasmat designs such as Sironar, Symmar, etc. On the other hand, they have lovely blur rendition and are tiny in comparison. Nikon says they are APO (highly color-corrected) at infinity but I have found that Tessars work very nicely moderate distance too. Except when shooting at genuine macro distance like 1:1 and beyond, these lenses are excellent.

* For photographs of architectural interiors and facades we often need lenses which provide extra-wide coverage to facilitate extreme view camera movements. Fuji and Nikon lenses for these purposes generally have the name "Wide" or "W". The Schneider Super-Angulon and Rodenstock Grandagons designs fall into this category.

Rodenstock APO Sironar-S 150 Concerning the Rodenstock 150mm APO-Sironar-S, noted lens expert Kerry Thalmann writes: Out of all the lenses I own, this is the last one I would ever part with (you'll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands) . Many photographers agree that there is something special about this lens. The MTF charts for this line of lenses is quite impressive: click here to see the Rodenstock lens catalog. Note that most lenses in this category give their best performance at f/16 and f/22.

This 4x5 image was made with a 150mm Rodenstock APO-Sironar-S lens. The tonality and detail is...delicious. As you can see from the detail section, this lens is so sharp, it's crazy ! It weighs only 230 grams and takes tiny 49 mm filters. Yet, it covers 231 mm - enough to cover 5x7 as a wide lens and plenty for 4x5 as a normal lens. It does nicely for close-up shots as well. Here are some pictures made with a 150mm APO Sironar-S.

The Fujinon A series of lenses represents an innovative compromise in lens design. Like their plasmat cousins (Sironar, Symmar, etc) they provide excellent correction and wide coverage. Unlike standard plasmats which open to f/5.6, the Fujinon A series only open to a maximum aperture of f/9, a modification which makes them considerably smaller in size and weight and allows them to take comparatively small filters. While standard plasmats are corrected for distance-shooting at a ratio of 1:10, 1:20 etc. Fujinon A lenses are corrected for closer work, more like 1:5. This "intermediate" correction makes them well suited for both Macro and Landscape photography.

Fujinon 240AThe Fujinon 240 A weighs only 245 grams and takes 52mm filters, yet it has a 336 mm circle of coverage: enough to function as a portrait lens on 4x5, a normal lens for 5x7, a wide-angle for 8x10 and an excellent close-up lens for all 3. This lens is so small, it's a delight to carry into the field and is ideal for portraits in 4x5.  It does nicely for 4x5 landscape too. This 4x5 photo was taken with a Fujinon 240 lens. In the 12x15 print, you can clearly see details in the legs and wings of the fly on the lower right.

Fujinon 300A Like the others in the A series, the Fujinon 300 A is remarkably small and light, considering its performance. It has a generous 420 mm circle of coverage, takes 55 mm filters and weighs only 410 grams: much less than comparable lenses for the 8x10 format, for which it serves as a normal lens.

300 mm is my favorite focal length for 5x7, equivalent to a 200 mm lens on 4x5.

When used on 4x5 or 5x7 cameras, it becomes a wonderful longer lens for portraits and gives tremendous accommodation for view camera movements (Check out this vertical rise). It is also superb lens when used close-up on any format. This lens was discontinued by Fuji, but you can see it listed in this 1981 catalog.

This 4x5 image was taken with the 300A, with a lot of rise. A small section from the top shows plenty of detail, way off-center. This portrait of Richard Ritter was made with the 300A on 5x7. So was this one.

Fujinon 450C The Fujinon 450C is a compact lens with long reach and tremendous coverage. Mounted in a Copal #1 shutter, it weighs only 270 grams, takes 52 mm filters, yet covers 486 mm, enough for the 11x14 format. It makes a nice portrait lens for 8x10, a long lens for 5x7 and it's a very long lens for 4x5, but it's smaller and lighter than most lenses. The 300C is another in the same family: C stands for Compact !

This image was made on 8x10 with a 450C. It tells the whole story.

Fujinon 400 T The Fujinon 400T is a telephoto lens for 4x5: even though it gives a 400 mm effect, it requires only 250 mm of bellows draw. It works great on cameras like the Tachihara wooden field camera - which is otherwise limited to 300 mm lenses of "normal" design. Mounted in a Copal #1 shutter, it takes 67 mm filters and weighs 700 grams.

This 4x5 image was made with the 400T, at a great distance from the subject. Here is a detail section of the negative. Here is another one taken with this lens: sharp as a tack. If you want a long lens for 4x5, but your camera has limited bellows extension, then this is a great option.

Favorite Vintage Lenses for Portraits and Flowers

Notice the diaphragm in these vintage lenses and how many leaves they have: The aperture is almost circular at all settings. This helps retain lovely out of focus rendering - something overlooked in many modern lenses. Nowadays, most lenses have only 5, 6, or sometimes 8 blades. When everything in an image is in focus, diaphragm shape doesn't matter. But for portraits and close work, where blurry points of light will appear in the image, having a round diaphragm makes a difference. You can see an example portrait here and an example photo of flowers here.

Vintage Lens in Barrel A venerated choice of portrait photographers, Heliar lenses are a kind of hybrid design: as tack-sharp as most modern lenses, but when shot at wide apertures they render out-of-focus regions with a slightly exaggerated blur. At wide apertures the optical design results in slightly un-corrected aberrations. With longer versions of the lens it's more obvious: for an 8x10 contact print, 360mm was a "standard" portrait length. Shot at wide aperture, the depth of field of a 360mm lens is quite shallow and the exaggerated blur is stronger. At smaller settings, the aberrations disappear. We can use a Heliar as both a portrait lens and a general-purpose lens: very convenient !

These images nicely demonstrate the unique "signature" of the Heliar. Made on 4x5 film with vintage 300mm, 210mm and 150mm Voigtlander Braunschweig Heliars, the edges fade smoothly into the background. These photos were made with the lens stopped-down only a few stops.

Back when Kodak set the standards for image quality, many of their best Ektar lenses were based on the Heliar design. (Their Commercial Ektars were f/6.3 Tessars). Here is another example, made with a vintage 210mm Heliar lens on 4x5 film. With Large Format, even 100-year old lenses can make razor-sharp images.

250mm Tessar Another classic design from the early 1900's, the Tessar is also very sharp, with smooth blur. Were it not for its limited circle of coverage, there might have been no need for any other design, after the year 1902. Some contemporary lenses are still modeled on the Zeiss Tessar - including the one in my Sony digital camera. Not bad for someone using little more than a slide rule and a pencil!

I prefer Tessars over Heliars, because the blur they gives is moderate, not exaggerated or contrived. Even when they render sharply, Tessars can possess a smooth, velvety quality which is nicely suited to portraits. To see a gallery of photographs made with Tessar lenses, click here.

Although "Tessar" is the name of a lens design, only certain licensed manufacturers were permitted to use it as brand name. Other companies manufactured similar lenses under different trade names: Leitz Elmar, Schneider Xenar, Agfa Solinar, Rodenstock Ysar, Kodak Ektar, Yashica Yashinon 80mm and Minolta Rokkor 75mm.

This image shows off the lovely bokeh of the Tessar. It was made on 4x5 film with a 250 mm f/4.5 Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar barrel lens, whose diaphragm has 18 blades. Note how sharp the flowers are, compared to the leaves in the background - and notice how the leaves are rendered: it's hard to describe and it's hard to get this look with many modern lenses. Here is another example, made on 4x5 with the same vintage lens.

Vintage Portrait Lenses

Portrait lenses - also known as "Soft Focus" lenses, are designed to produce images with aberrations: blur, glow, diffusion, halos, etc. These lenses were popular in years past, because they soften imperfections in the skin and render the subject with a pleasant ethereal quality. Jim Galli and others on the Large Format Photography Forum have done extensive shooting with vintage portrait lenses, some of which go back to the 1800's (Read discussion here.) Many of these lenses allow you to control the "softness" by rotating a dial which moves one lens element relative to the another.

Here is a set of photos I made using a very old and very rare 9 inch Kershaw Soft Focus lens, provided by portrait photographer Eddie Gunks. The Kershaw produces a strong halo effect which can be quite beautiful. One method of determining the ideal portrait length for lenses, is to simply add the length and width of the film edges. On 4x5 film, 4 + 5 = 9 inches or 225mm.

Reinhold Schnable has re-introduced the Wollaston Meniscus lens, one of the earliest designs of all. It's a superb lens for "pictorial" effects and comes with a set of perfectly round apertures. He makes them in a variety of focal lengths and configurations.

Modern Portrait Lenses

There are also modern portrait lenses, such as the Cooke Portrait PS945. It's a wonderful lens that is still being manufactured by Cooke, a venerable name in the world of still and cinema optics. The Rodenstock Imagon and Fujinon SFS are no longer made and give similar results - but every portrait lens has its own "personality". With these modern designs, uncorrected aberrations diminish as you stop down the lens, so you can control the effects by your choice of aperture. Stopped down sufficiently, they behave like ordinary lenses: razor sharp. The Imagon and the Fujinon SFS also come with special filters which modify the look and shape of highlights and halos.

Not everyone is fond of the full diffusion effect. To some, it looks contrived and distracting. However, when opened to just the right aperture, these lenses provide a sublime blur rendition and a very mild "soft focus" effect. Here are some photos made with a 180mm Fujinon SFS lens, a 3-element design. Stopped down a bit, it shows just a trace of the special "portrait" effect in the highlights. The blur is smooth: "like butter" as they say.

For further insights and great photos shot with a wide variety of vintage lenses, see the work of Jim Galli.

Macro Lenses

Normal lenses for landscapes and portraits (like the ones above) are optimized for shooting at an average distance, at a ratio of 1:10 or more. For very close work however, normal lenses do not perform at their best, particularly as we reach out towards the edges of lens coverage. Once we focus close to 1:1 and beyond, macro lenses come into their own.

210mm APO Macro-Sironar S Macro lenses are designed for shooting in ratios of at 1:1 and closer. Like other modern lenses, macros have a complex design: many elements, several groups. They are similar to general-purpose lenses, but have different internal designs which are optimized for very close shooting. They produce a wide image circle, enabling full use of view-camera movements for control of perspective and depth of field. The Rodenstock APO Macro Sironar, Schneider Macro-Symmar HM and Nikon Macro Nikkor-AM (ED) lenses fall into this category.

Most Macro lenses open to f/5.6, which makes it easy to view the subject and achieve precise focus at close distances, even under poor lighting. They usually come mounted in a shutter, or like mine, mounted on a Sinar DB lens board. This photo was made with a 210mm Rodenstock Macro Sironar N, at around 2:1 magnification. Here is a gallery of photographs made with that lens.

Process Lenses

305mm APO Nikkor Process lenses are designed to make color separation negatives in "process" cameras for photo engraving. They are optimized for shooting flat surfaces at 1:1 magnification. They are often available in barrel - without a shutter - and are thus priced lower than other lenses of comparable focal length. They don't have a lot of extra coverage, but they are very sharp and their images have very low distortion.

The Goerz APO-Artar, Schneider G-Claron, Nikon APO Nikkor and Rodenstock APO Ronar lenses fall into this category. They generally open to f/9 and are thus comparatively small and light. If you have a Sinar shutter, you can use them as-is. Some of them come in shutters and some people purchase them in-barrel and proceed to mount them into a shutter. Here's a photo made with a 150mm APO Nikkor lens. I mounted it on a simple cardboard lens board and used it with a Sinar Copal Shutter.

Their optics are rather simple: 4 or 6 elements in 2 groups, a symmetrical design, with modest coverage - which works very well when shooting straight ahead. This image was made with a 240mm APO Nikkor, at around 1:1 magnification. Because they open to f/9, they can be a little difficult to focus when working at a close distance in dim lighting. For other applications however, f/9 is plenty wide enough: this image was made outdoors, with a 360mm APO Nikkor, on 5x7 HP5+ film.

Here are some photos made with a 610mm APO Nikkor, on 4x5 TMY film.

The Sinar Copal Shutter and Barrel-Mounted Lenses

Sinar Shutter Barrel-mounted LensesSome of the finest lenses are mounted "in barrel". They have have no shutter of their own: just a diaphragm. Many vintage and modern lenses are available in barrel. Some are wonderful old portrait lenses. Others are modern process lenses taken from high-resolution engraving machines - like the APO Nikkor series, which are affordable, easy to find, small, light and razor sharp at all distances. Buying barrel-mounted lenses can save you money, size and weight.

The Sinar Copal Shutter lets you shoot with vintage and barrel lenses. It fits onto the front standard of Sinar cameras, just behind the lens board. You set the shutter speed with the dial at the top. The Copal shutter is self-cocking and precise exposure times go from 1/60 to 8 seconds. Of course, you can still use lenses that are mounted in a standard shutter if you like: just leave the Sinar Shutter open.

Here's a link to the Instruction Manual for the Sinar Copal Shutter on CameraEccentric.com.

Sinaron DB-Mounted Lenses

Sinaron DB LensSinaron DB-Mounted lenses (like the one on the right) are mounted to work directly with the Sinar Shutter. They hook up automatically. You set the aperture, not on the lens, but on a large dial at the side of the shutter. With DB-mounted lenses, you can operate everything from behind the camera: there is no need to walk to the front to close or open anything. No need to cock the shutter, because it is self-cocking. You can preview depth of field by gently squeezing the cable release: Otherwise, the lens stays wide open for best focus and viewing. Pictured at right is a 210mm Sinaron DB, a Sinar-mounted 210mm Rodenstock Sironar-N lens. Sinar chose Rodenstock lenses for their Sinaron line, but you can mount any lens of reasonable size.

Here is a gallery of photographs made with a 210mm Macro Sironar lens, mounted in a Sinar DB Shutter. Here are a few photos made with the Sinar Shutter and a 610mm APO Nikkor lens.

Front-Mounting a Vintage Barrel Lens into a Classic Shutter

Alphax ShutterFront-mounting a lens in an Alphax or Betax Shutter is another attractive option: all you need is an adapter. SK Grimes did a wonderful job with my 1950's Red Dot Apochromat Artar lens. The barrel-mounted lens fits into the front of the shutter and can be replaced with another lens. Grimes made the adapter and it works perfectly.

Normally, a shutter is positioned between the front and rear elements of a lens: the shutter mechanism provides both the shutter and the adjustable aperture or iris. When front-mounting, we place the entire lens in front of the shutter (just as we do with the Sinar Copal shutter). If the lens has its own iris (as do barrel-mounted lenses), we get to keep it - which is usually a good thing since vintage barrel-mounted lenses have round apertures with many blades. The Artar has a 14-bladed iris, making it effectively round at all settings.

On the left you can see the Alphax Shutter on the front of my vintage wooden 5x7 camera, a Kodak 2D. The Red Dot Apochromat Artar lens is screwed into the adapter. The Alphax shutter has speeds from 1/2 to 1/50 second, as well as B (bulb) and T (time exposure). On the right the same lens is mounted on my 4x5 Tachihara Field camera. Grimes made an adapter for the Alphax to a standard Technika board.

On 5x7 film masked to the 4:5 ratio a 10 3/4 inches (273mm) is an ideal "portrait" length, equivalent to a classic 9 inch lens on 4x5 film (225mm). Here is a gallery of photographs made on 5x7 film with a 10 3/4 inch Goerz Red Dot Apochromat Artar lens, mounted in an Alphax #4 Shutter.

Longer Lenses For Stronger Blur

360mm APO Nikkor

The longer the lens, the easier it is to get beautiful blur or bokeh in the background. Large Format cameras use longer lenses. Large Format photography is really bokeh heaven !

As depth of field diminishes, blur or bokeh increases. It's a reciprocal relationship.

A 50mm lens at f/1.4 has the same depth of field as a 100mm lens at f/2.8, a 200mm lens at f/5.6 and a 400mm lens at f/11. A 300mm lens at f/8 has the same blur as a 150mm lens at f/4 and a 75mm lens at f/2.

These numbers are not affected by film size, sensor size, or shooting distance. They are determined by the laws of Optics. Small cameras have small lenses, which get more depth of field. More depth of field means less blur at the same aperture.

If we are accustomed to think in 35mm terms, it's easy to remember that 4x5 lenses are basically 3x the length of their 35mm counterparts. They have 1/6 the depth of field. A 300mm lens on 4x5 is equivalent to a 100mm lens on 35mm. It will have the same "magnification" or field of view. However, you'll have to stop it down by 1.5 f/stops to get the same depth of field. If not, you'll get 6 times the blur.

Large Format Bokeh Test: Surprise!

Bokeh Comparison Here is a photo that compares the bokeh or blur rendition of 4 different lenses of standard "portrait" length: 210mm Heliar, 210mm Tessar, 240mm Fujinon A, 240mm APO Nikkor. These lenses represent a sample of designs old and new. In this comparison, all the lenses are stopped down to f/11.

Shot wide open, a Heliar should show the greatest amount of blur, because it's designed to do just that: it's a "portrait" design where aberrations appear when the lens is wide open, but disappear by the time we stop down to around f/9. Stopped down moderately, it is hard to see any difference whatsoever between these lenses. At this point, the only difference we expect could be attributed to a circular aperture, but in order to see the effect, we need specular highlights: small points of bright light. Most subjects don't have that.

This doesn't mean that all lenses are the same - only that to get good blur, we need to shoot the lens at wide settings. Since Tessars and Heliars open to f/4.5, we can shoot them at f/8 and they will be sharp (having been stopped-down a bit) but will still have nice blur.

Symmetrical process lenses like APO Nikkor, APO Ronar and Apochromat Artar lenses have a smooth and neutral blur, not exaggerated. However, these lenses open only to f/9 and can be hard to work with in dim lighting. If we get them mounted in barrel or in a vintage shutter, they will give a smooth neutral blur and because the aperture will be almost round, with 10 or more blades, highlights will look lovely.

If we mount a vintage or barrel-mounted lens into a modern shutter and replace the iris, we may end up with only 5 or 7 blades depending on the size of the lens. The lens will be fine for general purpose shooting where we want everything to be in focus, but for best blur rendition, the lens may be disappointing. That's why it's better to shoot with a vintage barrel-mounted lens when possible and use either a Sinar Copal Shutter or front-mount the lens into a vintage shutter.

Sample Image Galleries

Here are some collections of photographs made with a variety of large format lenses, at different apertures and film sizes.

More Information

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