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Large Format Camera Build: Horseman LD for Nikon, a Review and Setup Tutorial

Large Format Camera DIY build for DSLR

This is my technical review and photography tutorial for setting up a Horseman LD large format camera system to convert your DSLR to a view camera.  The Horseman LD System features a full range of tilt and shift motion.

Imagineering Studios Horseman LD: Large Format Camera DIY Build

We’ve all seen Alex using his technical view camera in his photography tutorials and webinars.  We all know how much he loves it.  For many of us, the huge contraption is something of an alien piece of technology.  For some DSLR shooters, it can get a little bit of a “what in the … ” reaction when we see it.

For a studio product photographer, it can quickly become an essential piece of equipment.  Not because you can’t do proper product photography without it, or because photography without it is somehow inferior.  Rather, once you’ve used a technical/view camera for product photography and experienced the control that you have with focus planes and perspective shifts, you don’t really want to go back to shooting products with a fixed piece of glass on the front of your camera body.  It’s like moving from a point-and-shoot to a DSLR; from a Canon 7D to a 5D Mk III; from a Nikon D7000 to a D800.

But, when you start looking into the options that you have for technical cameras and 4×5 digital backs, you quickly find that you either need to sell one of your kidneys, or stick to fixed glass on your DSLR.  Fortunately, if you already have a DSLR, there are actually a lot of bellows options to look at that will bring your studio product photography to a whole different level.

Alex has a great post on how he developed his own system based on the Cambo system.
How to: Developing a tilt/shift system for 35mm digital camera based on 4×5 large format camera

There was another great post written by Darren Coleman on building your DSLR system using a Sinar P large format camera.
The dSLR to large-medium format DIY build: Nikon D800e on Sinar P camera

Finally, there’s an awesome video that Alex posted on the effects of tilt/swing on focus and perspective. I won’t be dealing with this in this post.
Exploring tilt and swing of a view camera with 35mm DSLR

I’m super thankful to Alex for providing this info, because there just isn’t a whole lot of information out there on building a good DSLR bellows system.  Even for pre-built systems, I had a hard time finding information and reviews on any particular one.

At first, I wasn’t so sure if I was going to build my own or purchase a pre-built system. One would take time, the other had potential to be very expensive. Well, I came across a Horseman LD system on eBay not too long ago for a great price, and I took the plunge, still not having a clear idea of how to piece it together.  So, let me walk through how I did it.  I hope you find it helpful!

   In the Gearbox

  • Horseman LD bellows system for Nikon
  • Nikon D800 body
  • Rodenstock Grandagon-N 90mm f6.8
  • Copal #0 14cm x 14cm (Sinar / Horseman) lensboard
  • Toyo Copal wrench


About the Horseman LD System

As I mentioned before, this is a self contained system. You can purchase it on B&H or Adorama. But, every once in a while, a deal will pop up on eBay.  That’s where I found this one.  Not including the D800 body, I spent less than $2000 on this setup. Take a look.
Horseman LD Disassembled

 

First a little bit about this large format camera system.

The system will work with any Nikon F-mount body (you can also purchase it with a Canon EF mount), but I highly recommend a full frame camera. The larger your sensor, the more you’ll actually be able to utilize the tilt/shift movements. Because of the sensor crop factor, even a full frame DSLR has a limited range of motion before vignetting. On the resolution side, however, the D800 is the currently unrivaled DSLR for this system. I actually purchased my D800 body with the possibility of building a system like this in mind. I generally don’t like to make comparisons between camera systems, but the D800 provides the highest resolution currently available to 35mm DSLR market (36.6mpx, close to the lowest medium format resolution), which makes it the best candidate for this type of system.

Horseman is a Japanese company. The build quality of the Horseman LD system is fantastic. It’s an all die-cast, machined aluminum alloy body with incredibly smooth and precise adjustments. The bellows itself is made of nylon canvas and is segmented into two “bags.” Everything locks down snugly, and the movements “snap” to 0, making for very quick resetting. The unit weighs approximately 9 pounds (4.0 kg) without the body or lens, so a pretty hefty tripod is required to stabilize it.

The system is compatible with Sinar 14cm lensboards. It can accept a plethora of lenses including large format lenses 90mm and up, Horseman, Hasselblad V system, Mamiya 645/67 and Asahi Pentax 645/67 lenses. Each lens type requires a different lensboard.

The camera mount itself is designed to quickly rotate between landscape or portrait orientation by loosening a knob, readjusting and tightening it down again.

Both front and rear standards of the Horseman LD system feature 360 degrees of swing and tilt movements, 60mm of rise/fall/lateral shifting (30-0-30) and 400mm of forward/backward movement for focusing. The minimum flange distance (distance from lens to sensor) is 70mm.

Large Format Camera Horseman LD Movements

 

I opted for a Rodenstock Grandagon-N 90mm 6.8 for my first large format lens purchase. Since I have shot a lot of my products with 105mm up until now, I figured this would be a good focal length for me to start with. It also happens to apparently be the widest large format focal length that will work with this system using a DSLR body. One thing that I’ve found is that you can get great deals for large format lenses on eBay.

?? Focal Length Conversion ??

You might have a question about the focal length conversion. The answer is quite simply, there is none. Since you’re still shooting with a 35mm sensor, your focal lengths are going to remain the same that you’re all too familiar with.

If I were to upgrade to a 4×5 sensor (which this system actually allows me to do), then the conversion rate is approximately 3.345:1. So, a 90mm lens will give me approximately 27mm equivalent with a 4×5 back (90mm / 3.345).

Assembly

Putting this beast together was a lot of fun. I purchased many of the pieces separately, so I was really holding my breath for weeks before I finally had everything in place. Here’s how I put it all together.

First thing is to construct the bellows. It’s important to keep the L-frame of the standards with the vertical bar on the left side. If you put the “L” on backwards, your camera will go on upside down. The bellows simply slides onto the L-frame and tightens in place.
Large Format Camera Horseman LD Bellows Assembly

 

For those unfamiliar with large format lenses, they’re broken down into front and rear elements. Note the diameter of the rear element (the side without the shutter). This diameter gives you greater movement in your tilt/shift adjustments. This system will not work with standard F-mount lenses because the rear element is too small to project the image properly to the sensor.

All large format lens leaf-shutters have specific diameters that are given in Copal measurements. Different diameters will require lensboards with different sized holes.  This particular one is a Copal #0 board made for Sinar, after market.  I ordered it on eBay from China for a fraction of the cost that I could have spent on an OEM board.

The lens unscrews at the middle, and a mounting ring is removed.
Rodenstock Lens Disassembled

The lensboard is put in place with the grooved side of the board facing the rear element, and the mounting ring is tightened to fix the front element to the lensboard. The lens elements are then cleaned of dust and screwed back together.
Horseman LD Lensboard

 

The lens board is then mounted onto the bellows unit.
Rodenstock Lens Assembly

Finally, the body is mounted by lining up the red dot on the mounting ring with the white dot on the camera body and twisting into place.

Large Format Camera, Horseman LD Lens and Board Assembly

I wasn’t completely happy with the fit of the ring, but I’ll cover that more in the “Challenges” section.

Now, we’re ready to shoot!

 

Large Format Camera, a Horseman LD System

 

Shooting with the Horseman LD Large Format Camera

Shooting with the system is pretty straight forward. My shooting functions are basically divided between the lens, the bellows and the camera body. My DSLR body still controls the shutter speed and ISO whereas the lens now controls my aperture, and my focusing is dictated by the distance between the lens and sensor (bellows adjustment).

My studio settings remain the same, so my typical 1/160s @ f/16 ISO100 is still a good starting place for exposure. Here’s a shot of the camera body settings.
Nikon D800 Settings

My aperture is set by the lens shutter. But there’s a bit more to this than just turning the ring to the desired f/stop. If I just set the aperture and take a shot, I’ll get nothing but black. The lens shutter has to be kept open in order for the camera body sensor to capture the image.

I set my aperture to 16.  The shutter is set to “T,” which stands for “timed exposure.” This is a long exposure setting that is similar to “bulb,” but you don’t have to hold the shutter trigger down to keep the aperture open. One click will open the aperture ring, a second click will close it.

So, to allow the image to come through, I cock the shutter and hit the trigger once.
Rodenstock Lens Prep

 

The aperture is now open indefinitely or until I hit the trigger again. I can now see the image through my camera view finder or in live mode.

(To get a viewable image for focusing, you may have to open the aperture completely, depending on how much ambient light you have. Just remember to close it to the appropriate f/stop before taking a shot.)

Moving the rear standard forward or backward to change the distance between the sensor and the lens adjust my focusing. The closer the sensor is to the lens, the closer it will get to infinity. The farther apart the lens and sensor are, the more macro we are focusing. This is great for jewelry and other macro photography!

 

Large Format Camera , Horseman LD Focusing

 

Once I’m in focus, I can trigger the camera shutter and it will capture the image. Here’s the first image I produced with this setup.

Imagineering Studios Mics

One thing to keep in mind is that sharpness and contrast of the images are a function of your lens and sensor. The bellows system does not play into the clarity of your pictures. To learn more about the effects that tilt/shift/swing have on an image, check out Alex’s article.

Challenges of the Horseman LD

As much as I’m loving this system so far, I immediately ran into some issues.

First, because Horseman is a Japanese company, their support is practically non-existent in the US. Since I got my LD system on eBay, it did not include a manual of any kind. When I requested one through the Horseman USA website, I got no response. I contacted them twice over four weeks through their online form, and I got nothing even though they say they’ll respond within 24hrs. There is no phone number or any other contact info that I could find. After tons of digging, I finally stumbled across this: Horseman LD for DSLRs
I was able to finish building my system based on the information presented there, but it’s more marketing material than it is instructional/informational.

Second, I found that I had difficulty using PocketWizards with this system. Landscape, it works just fine. But when I want to shoot in portrait orientation, the L-frame actually prevents me from rotating the body with anything mounted to the flash mount.
Large Format Camera Horseman LD pocketwizard_challenges

 

In order to overcome that, I had to tether my PocketWizard via PC sync. Therein lies another problem (with the D800 specifically). The D800’s PC sync port is on the front of the body. Well, on the LD system, there’s a “cross bar” that connects the F-mount adapter to the L-frame, which sits right in front of the D800’s PC sync and remote terminals.

 

horseman_pocketwizard_challenges_2

So, not only can I not use a standard PC to 3.5mm cable (because the PC connector sticks out too far), I also can’t connect my wireless trigger remote while in portrait orientation! Fortunately, I found a PC to hotshoe cable with a PC male connector that is just shallow enough to fit into the gap between the body and the “cross bar,” so at least I can use my PocketWizard in portrait orientation.
Large Format Camera Horseman LD pocketwizard_solution

Sadly, this still leaves me without a remote trigger. It’s a bit of an annoyance, but I can still trigger the camera via Lightroom while tethered. While not essential, I’d grown used to wireless triggering, so it’s still a bit frustrating.

Which leads me back to the lack of support. I can’t even complain to the company or make a suggestion!

Lastly, the F-mount isn’t completely locked in. When you mount a lens onto your DSLR, there’s a *click* and the only way to remove the lens is by pressing the lens release and twisting. The Horseman LD doesn’t lock in completely, so removing the body from the system doesn’t require you to press the lens release. You can simply twist it off. This poses some possible expensive accidents if one isn’t careful. Once it’s on, it stays on fairly well, but it requires some care when rotating the camera between portrait to landscape orientations.

Closing Thoughts

The Horseman LD system for DSLR is, as I discovered, far from perfect. But for the price and with a couple of work-arounds, it is an amazing piece of equipment. I’m very impressed with the build quality and the fluidity of the movements. There is nothing sloppy about the construction of the unit. A couple of oversights which is frustrating, but nothing sloppy.

As mentioned above, the system will also allow me to upgrade to a 4×5 digital back simply by replacing the bellows, a relatively inexpensive upgrade all in all. So, this system gives me a lot of room for growth. I don’t feel locked into shooting DSLR with this system, and I can look forward to going beyond what I’m currently doing.

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16 responses on "Large Format Camera Build: Horseman LD for Nikon, a Review and Setup Tutorial"

  1. Hi Tim
    I know this thread is like 2 years old and I just hope someone still following this because I would need a bit of help building my system, I have a couple of questions and after a couple of weeks of research I came to the conclusion that virtually any 4×5 camera can be used with a DSLR attached of course with the right adapters and a bit of work around, is that correct??

    If yes I have an old Toyo View camera sitting in its original box and a couple of Mamiya 645 format lenses that I can use (Mamiya 80mmm f/2.8 Lens and Mamiya 150mm f/4.0 Lens) to be precise, also I have a Mamiya mount and a Fotodiox 10-LA-4×5-NIK-P2 Nikon Mount Graflok Adapter but I saw that for your rig you have the D800 attached straight to the bag, I’m saking you this because after I put everything together in my system I get a very extreme close up view and I’m not getting any infinity focus and also even with the front and rear very close together the effect I’m getting is similar to what you get using bellows extension rings.

    I’m doing something wrong with this build? or it’s supposed to be like that please note that the fotodiox adapter separates my camera from the bag by about an inch.

    I need some help with this please.
    Also a friend of mine is giving me a Horseman LE camera as a gift but I see that the one you’re using is a different model, I honestly like better the Horseman for this than the Toyo one that I own, please let me know if it work, I’m planning to sell my Toyo and keep the Horseman LE.
    Thank you so much.
    Nuurs

    • Hi Nuurs. From what I understand, yes… generally you can rig a DSLR to just about any View Camera. That said, there are a couple things to consider.

      Does your View Camera have geared movements? If not, you’re going to have a hard time fine tuning focus & focal plane.

      Also, the reason you are essentially getting super macro DoF with your set-up is the fact that you are using a DSLR lens. Even though it’s a MF lens, it’s the wrong kind of architecture. If you look above in there post, you’ll see that Tim is using Large Format lenses. When these lenses are mounted, the rear element of the lens sits a bit inside the bellows closer to the sensor, so the distance between the less and the sensor is much closer than with mounting a DLSR lens to the front standard.

      I believe there are systems which can make use of MFT lenses but I’m not sure how you can retrofit your system to do that.

      If you buy some Large Format lenses, be sure to research “Image Circles” for your Sensor size. You’ll also want to focus on “Digital” versions of these lenses as they will be sharper, better color and better overall IQ.

      If you are interested in just getting a system which was purpose built for attaching a DLSR, I would suggest you either look at a Cambo Ultima 23 or the new Cambo Actus. The Actus will also require different lenses though… Here’s a link to the Actus.

      Cambo Actus:
      https://captureintegration.com/cambo-actus-view-camera/

      And here’s an article I found but did not read. :)
      http://nikonrumors.com/2015/04/28/cambo-actus-and-nikon-d810-part-1.aspx/

      • Thank you Joshua.
        Naw that I think about it what you said makes a lot of sense, I did not had in consideration the lenses.

        I love that set up you pointed in the link it’s just that right now I can’t do an investment like that and trust me I had it in mind since I saw that article in NR and the other one as well, I just thought I can save a couple of bucks since I have that camera hanging in my room.
        For sure I’ll consider that set up for future due to the size and relatively low weight compared to those gigantic 4×5 cameras.
        But like I said in my comment my friend is giving me he’s Horseman LE and a Copal Nikon lens with it and I really love that camera it resembles a lot Tim’s camera.

        My question is, that Horseman LE camera will work with my D800 as Tim’s camera does if I use a 4×5 lens on it??

        I’ll get the right relatively macro size for product photography that I was missing with my setup, and also can I use that camera to focus to infinity as well?

        I know I can save even more if I do stacking with Helicon Focus which I own a copy and is awesome, but I’ll like to have all done in one shot and also since I shoot film and love landscape photography I can take the camera to the field as well.

        Thank you so much for your response and for your suggestions for that setup I love it, I know I’ll get it soon.

        • Hi, Nuurs.
          I just saw your message. I looked up the Horseman LE, and the system looks almost identical to the LD. However, the big difference is the bellows/camera mount. If you take a look at my pics of the LD system above, you’ll notice that the back element (camera body element) has the Nikon F-mount on it, and it is manufactured into the bellows. The bellows is also manufactured onto the front element. So, the bellows and the front element and the F-mount are not separable. In my top image, however, you can see that I can take the entire system apart, leaving just the “L” system in tact.
          That I’m saying is, the “L” part of the system is identical between the LD and the LE. The difference is what kind of bellows/mount comes with the L system. And the LD is designed specifically for DSLRs.
          So, in order to make the system work for your D800, you’ll need to find the bellows/camera mount that will convert your LE into an LD. This would give you the flexibility to quickly switch between a 4×5 back and DSLR. Just take note of the challenges that I had with the LD system. It’s not perfect, but with some tweaks, you can make it work really nicely.
          I hope that answers your question.

          • Thank you Tim for your response.

            Awesome! so I’ll go and pick up the camera this weekend and get the Bellows online, my friend is also giving me a Nikon Nikkor-W 150MM F5.6 Lens Copal 0 with shutter and with the retaining ring all mounted into the plate and ready to use.

            You think the Nikon 150mm lens will do good for product or you recommend a wider lens like the one you have?

            In fact if you can point me to some of the ideal focal lengths I can use for product with this set up will be much appreciated, I don’t want to spend a lot of money on this yet I just want to experiment and I saw that a lot of the Nikon and scheneider lenses are very cheap online, very very old looking but good lenses, any thoughts on this?
            Thank you so much!

          • 150mm should be fine for product photos, but it depends on what you’re trying to do. For some shots, you might want a wider lens. If you’re shooting medium format, your lens is going to give you a much wider field of view (FOV) than a DSLR would.

            There’s really no such thing as an “ideal” focal length. That’s why there are so many lenses out there. You shoot the focal length you need for the shot.

            As for used lenses and such, as long as the glass is in tact, I would say go for it. Just keep in mind, for an LD system, 90mm is the widest that the DSLR will handle because of its recessed sensor. This is still telephoto range, so if you want to shoot a wide angle shot tilt/shift (t/s) with a D800, you’ll need to get a t/s lens. Rokinon makes good product for the price.

  2. Hi Tim

    My question is the same as Benni Hotz (May 29, 2013 at 11:38 am · Reply)

    Can I get an adapter plate and bag bellows to attach to my Nikon body to my L Series 5×4 Camera?

    The LD camera configuration looks the same as the other models in the Horseman L Series. The only difference is the bag bellow and the camera adapter to attach camera body to L series 5×4?

    Here is the link to the L Series Instruction Manual.

    http://www.kenko-pi.co.jp/horseman/manual/HORSEMAN/HORSEMAN_L_Series_manual.pdf

    I look forward to your response.

    Neil Holden
    Plymouth UK

    • Hi, Neil. Forgive me for my slow response. October, November and December are super busy. Please allow me to look over this before I give a more complete response.

      Thanks so much for posting the manual. I’m sure that will be helpful.

  3. Paul.. I’m afraid I fed some slight info.
    The camera is a Horseman LX-C.. their top range (then) yaw free camera with a focus computer on board, hence the C.

    Thanks for your advice. I visited B&H from whom i have previously dealt with and had no problems. ( I am in South Africa).
    The prices seemed a bit high, probably because not many made or demand.

    What I want to try is get a lens board, and see if Nikon will sell me a F mount ring as a spare, and adapt that to the board. I don’t know if thet will co-operate!

    But I think it’s worth the try.

    Thank you again

  4. Hi Tim

    Thanks a lot for this very helpfull tutorial!!

    I’ve got this question for you:

    do you attach your DSLR directly to the ring on the ballon bellow?
    Or do you have another attach between the DSLR and an arm of the Horsemann
    so that the lens ring of the DSLR is not harmed by its weight?

    Thanks again
    Laurence

    • Laurence, thanks for the questions.

      The DSLR body is attached directly to the Horseman bellows ring for now. The weight of the body isn’t too much for the ring. The ring is designed to handle quite a bit of weight (think lenses), and the body is only somewhere around 2 pounds (less than 1 kg).

      Thanks again!

  5. Hi Tim,
    I have a Horseman LXE whichi have used for a number of years. When i was still shooting film they made a number of roll film adater backs which i still have..eg: 6x9cm; 6x12cm.

    I then bought a PhaseOne system as my digital entry…but it was slow, because it was in effect a scanning back which needed four passes!

    Eventually, because i have been using Nikon for nearly forty years i moved on to Nikon DSLR’s.

    My BIG question: How do i get an adapter plate to attach the Nikon body to the rig??

    BTW i have three rodenstock lenses.

    Hope you can help?

    • Benni, thanks for the comment.

      I’m afraid I’m not familiar with the Horseman LXE. I’m positive I’ve run across it in my searches for info on building a bellows system for DSLR, but I can’t seem to find anything on the LXE when I search. Can you point me to some more info?

      O remember the old PhaseOne digital backs. I saw them at a PPA show when they were first released. My first thought was, “wow that’s a slow camera.”

      I’m not 100% sure this will work with your LXE system, but there’s a DSLR adapter that you can purchase on B&H
      http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/475834-REG/Horseman_23762_SLR_Adapter_with_Bellows.html

      or Adorama
      http://www.adorama.com/HM23762.html

      Again, Horseman is pretty terrible with service since they’re a Japanese company with little representation in the US, so I’m sort of shooting in the dark here. I recommend you do your own research on this unit before purchasing it. Or purchase it, and if it doesn’t work you can return it.

      Hope that was helpful. Happy shooting!

  6. Neat write-up Tim, that set up looks great. I’ve also been spending some time trawling sites for information on tilt/shift solutions and its an eye opening murky pool of “this or that could work”. I’ve flitted from Mirex adapters to Hartblei T/S lenses and onwards to the Mamiya bellows kits, none of which have the same range of movements and are at a low enough price point for me to consider them as a decent stop gap. Btw, to step up to a MF back with this rig, I’m presuming you’d need a wide angle bellows bag?

    • Thanks, Paul.

      Have you looked at Kipon adapters? I’ve never tried it, but it looks pretty nice. Japanese made. I was seriously considering purchasing a Nikon 45mm T/S lens, but I just didn’t feel like it gave me the flexibility I would need in focal lengths. An T/S adapter is an interesting alternative. I might actually try it out.
      Upgrading to a MF back would require me to purchase a new bellows unit, yes. This nylon one is made for DSLRs, but I think the MF bellows is a full accordion. Not 100% sure on that, though.

      • Hi Tim
        A quick search for Kipon T/S adapters seemed to show they don’t support the Canon EF mount. Fixable with a converter/adapter ring I guess, but that would push the lens farther from the sensor and maybe reduce the available movements. Most of these adapters work on a rotating lens design to provide the shift/swing, as far as I can tell the Mirex also has some rise/fall ability. Ultimately it could quickly get quite pricey for something that can only provide the equivalent of moving just the rear standard of a view cam. I’ll keep hunting, but in the long term I think a jump up to a rig similar to yours is probably a sensible move.

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