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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
The lens board is then mounted onto the bellows unit.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.