Large-format camera movements allow you to make images that would not normally be possible with common “fixed cameras” (my term). An example of the benefits of camera movements is the depth of focus obtained in the above photograph. It was made with a 210mm lens, yet manages to keep the majority of the leaves along the stream in focus over a wide distance. Without movements, you could not achieve the same result just by stopping the lens down. The smallest aperture would not provide a sufficient depth of focus alone with such a long focal length lens.
Using movements need not be complicated. This is a topic I cover early in my weekend large format photography workshops. So let’s get started by explaining a few large-format camera movements.
Which Large-Format Cameras have Movements?
Cameras with significant movements are most commonly found in the 4×5 inch film and larger sheet film formats. These include cameras from Linhof, Wista, Tachihara, Arca Swiss, Sinar, Intrepid and Chamonix to name but a few.
You can get movements in formats smaller than 4×5 inches. Medium format camera models using a 6x9cm format for roll and sheet film also exist. The Japanese made Horseman is an example of a 6×9 camera. Linhof also makes a 6x9cm format camera.
Some lenses for fixed cameras have movements. Olympus and Nikon make specialist 35mm format camera lenses with some degree of shift movement. These are usually sold as architectural lenses for perspective control.
More recently, lens attachments for digital cameras such as Lensbaby imitate some effects by creating a shallow plane of focus.
To use movements effectively you need a ground glass screen physically large enough to critically appraise the visual affect of a movement. You may struggle to see movement effects on screens and viewfinders smaller than 4×5 inches.
Front and Rear Standards Large-Format Movements
Most large format cameras are designed around moveable front and rear standards. The front standard is where the camera lens is attached. The rear standard is where the ground glass focusing screen sits, and where the film backs are inserted for picture taking. Both the front and rear standards can move independently of each other on most models. It is these movement options around those standards that are referred to as large-format camera movements.
The maximum camera movements are obtained from large format cameras with monorail design. As the name suggests, monorail cameras are designed along a single, central rail, to which the standards are attached. Monorails are great in the studio but are less common out in the field. However, some outdoor photographers prefer monorails.
For outdoor work, flatbed or field camera designs are more frequently used. Flatbeds and field cameras are generally of foldable design, convenient if traveling, although their range of movements is not as great as monorail designs. Below demonstrates the opening of a field camera. Field cameras can fold flat protecting the bellows during transport.
Leather compendium bellows link the front and rear standards. When a film back is inserted into the rear standard and the lens shutter is closed on the front standard you have a light-tight box. Removing the dark slide from the film back and firing the lens’s mechanical shutter exposes the film.
I will concentrate on field camera movements because these are the cameras I use. Not all field cameras have all possible movements, with variability within models, brands, and designs.
Rise and Fall Camera Movements
Let’s start with an easy camera movement – Lens Rise and Fall, located on the front standard. This movement is described exactly as it sounds. From a neutral, central position, the lens can either slide up or down.
The thing to remember here is that lenses produce circular images. Although we are used to viewing modern photographs as rectangles or squares, the full potential image area is actually circular. The image below shows a circular image cropped to a central rectangle, representing the area on film.
When might you use rise or fall? Well, the obvious example is photographing architecture. If you point a camera upwards, to the sky, buildings converge. If you want to prevent this you need to keep your film plane parallel with the buildings. So, to gain more image height you take advantage of your lens’s image circle and move your lens upwards. This will place more sky region into the rectangular imaging area, without tilting the camera.
Lateral Lens Shift Movements
Left and right lateral shift is similar to rise and fall. The plane of focus does not change. Like rise and fall, the only change is the image area falling onto the focusing screen and eventually the film.
Lateral shift, lens rise and fall, are invaluable when making close up or macro photographs. It allows you to fine-tune your composition. You can adjust image composition up and down, left and right. While doing this you’re keeping a constant subject distance, without the need to physically move the camera or refocus. I used this movement in the black and white photograph below.
Lens Coverage and Image Circle
The greater the image circle diameter produced by a lens, the more movement is theoretically possible. The more image forming area falling beyond the film area represented diagrammatically by the rectangle above, the more room there is to move. The image forming diameter of a lens is also referred to as lens coverage. The only other restriction is the extent of the physical movement itself on the camera body.
When you are choosing a large format lens it is a good idea to find one with good coverage for your film format size you are using. Long focal length lenses have greater image circles and therefore coverage, than say, shorter focal length wide angles. Within the same brands, some lenses of the same focal length are cheaper than others, because they offer very little coverage beyond the actual film format. With these cheaper, low coverage lenses, movements may be severely restricted.
Working Close-Up Lateral Shift Rise and Fall
When you are working camera and tripod, with subjects close up, small adjustments in the camera’s position can make for a large impact on composition. With a regular camera, without movements, small changes to framing your subject and composition must be done by moving the camera. Other-times, it is achieved by turning the camera and lens on the tripod head. This may change the lens to subject distance and require further re-adjustments to compensate for this.
However, with lens board movements such as rise and fall, you have finer control over image composition, without changing the camera’s position or changing the lens to subject distance. This is because you are making full use of the image circle created by the lens. You are fine-tuning your composition, represented by the rectangle in the examples above. By moving the lens you shift the image projected onto the rectangle. That rectangle represents what you see in the ground glass screen and what will ultimately be recorded on your film back.
With close-ups you are not restricted to using lens shift. In the above image I combined both lens shift for compositional control, with rear tilt for focus control. Altering the plane of focus with tilt controls helped maintain a large degree of sharpness over the entire viewing field. I explain the use of tilts further on.
Can You Control Exposure using Camera Movements?
Here’s a handy hint about lens rise, fall and lateral shift. Think of them not only as controls for compositional but also as exposure aids. It puts a slightly different spin on large-format camera movements.
Lenses suffer from light fall-off at the edges. Especially wide-angle lenses. Focal lengths of 90mm and shorter show significant fall off. It can be as much as 1 to 2 stops difference from the centre. I think of it as a graduated neutral density filter. Some photographers purchase centred neutral density filters for wide-angle lenses to compensate for this, but why not use it to your advantage?
If you have an area of horizon that is just on the edge of your film’s exposure range, then deploying some lens rise may be helpful. The lens rise will position the image circle to the outer edges of the ground glass and film back. With a wide-angle lens there will be some light fall-off of light, and image quality, at the edges. But, as a result, your brighter horizon area will receive less exposure than the central part of the image, thus aiding you in managing the contrast range.
I use this to control exposure in the sky, especially when using colour transparency film. Simply using the rise movement to give yourself a stop less exposure on the edges of your image where it counts most – the sky.
Front Tilts Camera Movements Large-Format
Some of the most common movements are Front and Rear Standard Tilts. Both these movements shift the plane of focus. Only one standard is tilted at a time, either the front or the rear, but not both when shifting the plane of focus.
There is an example I can think of where you might tilt both standards. This would not be to shift the plane of focus, but rather to maximise the amount of lens shift. For example, photographing a tall building. You could tilt both standards backward but keep them parallel to each other and the building while pointing the camera bed upwards.
Tilting the standards is used to achieve a greater depth of focus than could be achieved by just stopping down a lens to its smallest aperture. Tilts can also be used to create a shallow plane of focus for creative effects.
Differences between Front and Rear Tilts
There is a difference between using a front or rear standard tilt. The Front Standard Tilts alter the horizontal plane of focus only. An example of a horizontal plane of focus would be the top of a table. It could also be a plane starting at your feet and extending to the horizon. The Rear Standard Tilts shift the horizontal plane of focus AND distorts the foreground image shape.
If you are doing a product shot in a studio, you may want to use the front standard tilt to change your plane of focus without distorting the shape of the product. That way you can maximise your range of focus and keep your client, who otherwise may not be too happy with a distorted product shot.
Rear Tilts on Large-Format Cameras
On the other hand, landscape photographers regularly enjoy using the Rear Standard Tilt. While shifting the plane of focus to create the illusion of great depth of field, it will also make foreground subjects loom. Ansel Adams is one well-known exponent of this effect. In landscapes, some degree of subject loom is acceptable, even desirable. But maybe not so much if you are making someone’s portrait…….
Lefroy Brook Pemberton
I have tried to avoid complicated lens diagrams while trying to explain the concept of changing the plane of focus using large-format camera movements. But I do have one diagram below, I think, is worthy of your consideration – if you can just bear with me a little further.
With a regular non-movement camera, the lens image is parallel with the film back. That’s a great set up for photographing something in an upright, vertical plane of focus. For example, that could be the vertical walls of a building facing the camera. It could also be people standing together for a group photo. Both subjects are in the vertical plane. When the camera lens is stopped down to a smaller aperture it will increase the depth of field.
Altering the Plane of Focus alters Depth of Field
That depth of field, depending on the lens focal length, will give a range of focus in front of, and behind, the actual plane of focus.
But when you tilt or swing a front or rear standard, the plane of focus is no longer upright and parallel to the camera back, but angled. In my experience, depth of field is not even across the plane of angled focus either.
Consider the Lefroy Brook Series images above. Made at dusk, it posed a few technical problems. My first issue was obtaining a pleasing composition, and that required the use of a 210mm focal length lens. No matter whether you are used to 35mm or large format camera, a 210mm, is a long focal length lens. Subsequently, it does not possess a great deal of depth of field. Compounding the shallow depth of field of the lens, is the fact I am positioned relatively close to my subject. So, the closer the subject to the camera the more depth of field is diminished.
Alter the Plane of Focus
For this composition to work I needed the leaves in the stream to remain in relative focus. I chose to use the rear tilt to change the plane of focus. The stream itself was not vertical but sloped. I have diagrammatically represented the stream’s side contour in pink in the diagram below.
Next you see a red line that touches part of the upper side contour lines, with it cutting through some of the pink contour at its lower length. This red line represents a theoretical plane of focus that is angled from my feet, extending outwards away from me.
Consider your Depth of Field
The yellow cone around the red line is my broad generalisation about the depth of field either side of the plane of focus. It is based on my observations that the depth of focus at my feet will be less than the depth of focus either side of the red line further away from me. I’ve not found this sort of explanation anywhere else, again these are my observations.
Apart from the lower clump of leaves, most of the visually important ones are pretty much on, or near, the red line or “plane of focus”. When I stop the lens aperture down, the lower clump of leaves are brought into sharper focus.
Notice how the very lowest section of white water is completely out of focus. This is not only due to the time exposure of moving water, but largely due to the vertical plane of water being outside the yellow cone of depth of field.
The Front and Rear Standard Swings shift the vertical plane of focus. Think of a door swinging on its hinge. That door could represent a vertical plane of focus.
Another example of a vertical plane of focus would be to imagine looking down the side of a long brick wall to its very end. Then if you looked at the wall nearest to where you are standing you would see bricks in focus. If you focus your camera lens on the distant end of the wall, the bricks close to you become out of focus and blurry. You can stop the lens aperture down to increase the depth of field, even setting the lens to its hyperfocal distance. This might gain you more depth of field, but still may not be sufficient focus coverage.
Swinging the lens towards the wall will move the vertical plane of focus. Focus on the furthest point of the wall, then slowly swing the lens towards the wall. Use small amounts of movement. Observe the ground glass and watch the foreground bricks come into focus. Stop your swing movement. Now re-adjust the distant focus for the most distant part of the wall. Re-adjust the swing, carefully bringing the foreground brick into focus. Repeat this sea-sawing of focus at infinity and swing on the near until you have the desired result, then lock the camera movements. You should now have obtained a vertical plane of focus across the wall’s length.
Similar to the Tilts, the front standard swing shifts the vertical plane of focus. The Rear Swing shifts both the vertical plane AND distorts the foreground detail in the vertical plane.
Rear Swings in Landscapes
I use swing movements far less than tilt movements in landscape photography. The following example is an application of the rear swing movement which I incorporated into making the image Paperbarks, Denmark.
I used a 300mm lens on my 4×5 to retain the compact pattern of the paperbark branches. The downside of using such a long focal length lens is the shallow depth of field. The paperbark branches began nearest to me on my right and angled away to my left. Even if I stopped the lens right down, the shallow depth of field was not going to give me the image I desired.
The branches are in a vertical plane running left to right. So, to help me get around this problem of shallow depth of field I used the rear swing.
The branches at far left are furthest from me, so I focused the lens on that side first, ie focus on the far. Viewing the ground glass screen with the lens wide open, I swung the camera back towards me, bringing the near right-hand branches into focus. I re-checked my focus on the far, then made another finer adjustment of my swing focus on the near.
With these actions, I had shifted the plane of focus from a vertical plane parallel to me and the camera back, to a vertical plane lined up with the spatial flow of the branches. With the lens wide open, not all branches were in focus. But stopping the lens down gave me an additional depth of field.
The design of rear swings on view cameras varies with camera makes. I personally prefer a rear swing that pivots or turns from a single fixed point. This gives you greater control in making a rear swing movement. Remember, the amount of movements required is a lot less than the movements demonstrated in these photos. A little goes along way!
My Wista field camera’s rear standard swings from a central point. On the other hand, my Chamonix F2 rear swing has two knurled knobs on sliders either side. This arrangement gives a little too much freedom to the rear standard in that in swinging you can also potentially change the lens to film distance, losing focus on the far.
Swings are like tilts in that the steps are similar: focus on the far, back the rear standard off swinging away from your subject to get your close focus point.
How to use Tilts and Swings
I like to think of the late Fred Picker’s description of large-format camera movements. Regardless of whether you are using camera Swings or Tilts, always start by Focusing on the Far. This will set your bellows extension to the shortest distance from the film plane. The far may be a point on the horizon, such as the sea and sky. It can also quite simply be the most distant part of the composition in which you want to retain focus. For example, in the black and white close-up above, the far would be a leaf at the top of the frame.
Vertical or Horizontal Planes
Next, choose the film plane that you want to work with. This is largely determined by your subject matter. For example, in the image above I required depth of focus from the foreground lichen to the horizon. The plane of focus is similar to a tabletop, so it is in the horizontal plane. You will want to use a Tilt for the horizontal plane. Do you want to avoid foreground distortion? If yes, you should alter the horizontal plane of focus by Tilting the Front Standard. Or, if you want to exaggerate the visual dynamics of the foreground, then you would choose Tilting the Rear Standard.
The Lens Looks
Regardless of tilt or swing, if you are moving the front standard always point the lens towards the subject after you have focused on the far. Use Fred Picker’s simple reminder “the Lens Looks“.
The Back Backs Away
Conversely, if you desire foreground loom, use rear tilts or swings. As before, focus on the far, then to bring the foreground detail into focus by tilting or swinging the Rear Standard backward. In both cases, you may need to make a small adjustment to re-focus on the far, and re-check your tilt or swing focus on the near. Repeat small, incremental, sea-saw, camera movements until you have what you want. Slowly close the aperture of the lens down and watch the image on the ground glass to observe the image’s depth of field. As Fred says, “the Lens Looks, the Back Backs Away“.
In the image below I used the rear tilt to alter the horizontal plane of focus to exaggerate the foreground perspective. Using a 90mm wide-angle lens for 4×5 format at its smallest aperture for depth of field would not have given me the desired effect. The combination of rear tilt with a small aperture gave me a wider range of focus across the image area. The rear tilt also increased the visual strength of the zig-zag lines in the composition.
Use Large-Format Camera Movements Sparingly
The movements shown on the cameras in this article are mostly exaggerated so you can see what parts are moving. In reality, smaller incremental movements are used when photographing.
Most times you will have to repeat the fine tuning of your focus on the far. This will be followed by re-focus on the near using your chosen camera movement. This sea-sawing between the two allows you to fine tune the plane of focus to best suit your camera’s subject.
You can see now why working with large-format camera movements on a ground glass smaller than 4×5 inches, or smaller viewfinder could be problematic. The larger the screen, the easier it is to see changes. The combination of Focusing on the far, using the Lens Looks and the Back Backs Away, are easy to remember applications of the Scheimpflug principle.
Rear Asymmetrical Tilt
Some large-format camera movements, such as those on the Chamonix F2 below, provide Asymmetrical Rear Standard Tilt. This has the advantage of reducing the sea-sawing incremental adjustments that I described above in Swing and Tilts.
The image above shows the side view of my Wista 4×5, with the Rear Standard tilted backwards. Notice the pivot point for the Rear Standard is at the base. Now take a look at the Chamonix F2 with asymmetrical Rear Standard Tilt.
In addition to the pivot point at the base, there is an additional metal plate with a cut away arc. Within that cut away resides a second, silver, Rear Standard release screw. When loosened, it allows the Rear Standard to move not from a fixed point but in a predetermined arc.
Just as in Tilts described above, you start by focusing the lens on the far. Then releasing the silver screws on the Rear Standard, tilt the back backwards until you have achieved the foreground focus required. The Rear Standard, moving along the arc, will help maintain the focus on the far. I have found the asymmetrical tilt reduces the need for sea-sawing, incremental adjustments substantially.
Summary Large-Format Camera Movements
Key Points for using Swings and Tilts
Focus on the Far
The Lens Looks
The Back Backs Away
Benefits of using large format camera movements
- make in-camera images not possible with fixed focal plane cameras
- exercise fine compositional control of image with shift and rise/fall
- manipulate image shaping with rear tilts and swings
- adjust for perspective control using shift, rise/fall, or angling camera base combine with front and rear tilts and rise and fall.
- control exposure with shift and rise/fall
- alter the plane of focus with either rear or front tilts and swings
- maintain a high degree of focus over image even with long focal length lenses with inherent shallow depth of field
The Camera, Ansel Adams, 1985, New York Graphic Society, Boston
View Camera Technique, Leslie Stroebel, 1986, 5th Edition, Focal Press, Boston
Zone VI Newsletter #34, Fred Picker, 1982, Zone VI Studios, Vermont
Zone VI Field Camera supplement, Fred Picker, 1984, Zone VI Studios, Vermont