Camera review: Me and my Nagaoka 4×5 – Andrew Sanderson
Today I’m going to be reviewing my Nagaoka 4×5, a compact 4×5 field camera designed and built in the 1970’s by Nagaoka Seisakusho in Tokyo. This camera and its siblings (the Nagaoka 8×10 and 9×12) were conceived as “the most portable, the most compact large-scale wooden cameras”. A name that the 4×5 certainly lived up to at the time.
If you have never used a large format camera before, they can be daunting, and even confusing. Operating one for the first time is quite a different experience to shooting 35mm or medium format film. Large format cameras can not typically be grabbed from the bag and immediately used, they must be set up in a particular way, taking care to mount, position, level and set the camera methodically.
What makes a large format camera?
Every large format camera is simply described as a lens panel on the front and a screen on the back, with bellows in between and somewhere to mount a film holder, but the design and layout of knobs and locking nuts can be quite varied from one maker to the next.
Some are heavy and awkward, some are marvels of design. In use, the Nagaoka is a joy and is simple to operate, but it takes a little while to remember how to fold it back up again. With practice though, this action soon becomes second nature (as the videos further below demonstrate), and a sense of wonder at the beautiful design takes over.
Looking at the camera’s specifications on paper, the movements available with the Nagaoka are not as extensive or versatile as some more advanced models, but if you feel you need those extra features, then you had better be prepared to carry a much heavier camera. In most situations they won’t be necessary, the Nagaoka has enough versatility for any amateur, or enthusiast situation.
The camera is also so light and compact, it will fit easily into a backpack and would not fatigue, even on a long hike. It weighs about the same as six loaded film holders at 2.6lbs, or just over 1kg.
This is not the first of these cameras that I’ve owned. I had one about ten years ago, but as I was into other stuff at the time it didn’t get much use. I sold it to a student of mine and later wished I hadn’t. This particular Nagaoka cropped up on Instagram and the owner mentioned that they were selling it to fund an Ebony. I immediately got in touch and got it for a very good price (with lens). Since then I’ve used it about a dozen times, which is perhaps not as much as I would like, but I’ve had a lot on this past six months.
About the camera and day-to-day handling
The original catalogue for this camera states that it weighs only 2.6 lbs (just over a Kilogram), and it claims that this is lighter than the average 35mm SLR. The dimensions of the camera when folded are; 7 x 8 x 2.5 inches (WxDxH). Just think about that – that is pretty compact.
The camera can use lenses from 65mm, to 300mm and provides a maximum bellows extension of 330mm. It is made from Cherrywood with a natural lacquer finish, metal parts are brass with chrome plating.
According to the catalogue, the movements available on the Nagaoka Seisakusho 4×5 are;
- Front tilt: 45º back, 25º forward.
- Back tilt: 18º back, 55º forward.
- Front swing: 8º each side, 16º total.
- Rising and falling (front standard): 2.3cm up, 2.8 cm down.
- Rise and fall using maximum back tilt: 4.7 cm up, 7 cm down.
There were two versions of this camera (the original Nagaoka 4×5 and model II, as well as 8×10 and 9×12 versions. The owners manual for the model II can be seen below.
Opening and closing the camera
The camera has a small catch that keeps it closed when not in use. This is easily lifted, and the back standard will hinge up into position as soon as the locking nuts on each side are loosened. The correct position for the back is when the locking nuts sit in a notched recess on the supporting struts (easier to do than to explain).
Lifting up and locking the front standard is a little fiddly at first, as I mentioned above, so I’m not going to attempt to explain it in words.
Opening the Nagaoka 4×5
Closing the Nagaoka 4×5
Focusing and making exposures
Once locked open, focus on the Nagaoka 4×5 is achieved by turning the front right, or back right knobs. If you have a lens of short focal length, the front standard will be racked so far back that it will not sit on the rack and pinion set at the front of the body. So, focus can only be altered from the back.
The smaller knobs on the left side are to lock the rack and pinion sets in position. These need to be loosened – often more than once – as they sometimes tighten up as you focus (this is common with all cameras that use this design).
The rest of the photographer’s sequence when using this is much the same as with other large format cameras;
- Close shutter
- Set aperture
- Set shutter speed
- Cock shutter
- Insert film holder
- Remove dark slide from film holder
- Expose scene
- Replace dark slide into film holder
- Remove film holder and on to the next shot
The camera can be left on the tripod and carried around with ease if you are taking a number of shots in one location. In fact, it is so light that I often do this to save on the setting up time. The important thing if you do this is to remember is that you must tighten all locking nuts and check that your lens panel is not likely to fall out!
The sliding lock that holds the lens panel in place can easily be tightened more if necessary, so carry a small screwdriver in your bag just in case. If you’d rather not risk it, you can take the lens panel off and just keep the camera on the tripod.
One aspect of large format cameras which is never mentioned, but has been important to me with all of the models I have owned is, how easily does the film holder go in? If the fit is too tight, it is easy to inadvertently move the camera or the focus whilst struggling with it. This camera, with its lacquered wood, allows film holders in and out without a fight. (A simple method I employ to avoid this sticky film holder problem is to take the camera back off, Insert the film holder, then re-attach the camera back).
The lens you choose will obviously make a difference to the weight, I have a Schneider Kreuznach 150mm f/5.6 lens on my Nagaoka camera, which weighs 300g, but the 180mm Schneider Symmar f/5.6 lens on my MPP is much bigger and weighs 400g!, so do some research before buying a lens if you are concerned about weight.
The lens panel for the Nagaoka, is the common Linhof board, quite small, but common and easy to find.
The examples shown here have all been taken with my Nagaoka. It would have been easy for me to supply any large format image and claim that it was taken with this, but I have purposely chosen shots that were taken on this camera.
I found the Nagaoka 4×5 such an elegant, light and compact camera, and it has been a joy to use. Simple in operation, light and well designed, it makes large format photography much less burdensome and tiring. I own other large format cameras, in larger formats, and another 4×5 made of metal. All of these are quite an effort to carry, especially with the accompanying lenses, film holders and tripod.
I always work by the maxim; ‘A tripod should be heavier than the camera it is supporting’. This prevents wobble and shake with large format cameras, and usually means that I have to use a fairly heavy tripod for my 5×7, or 8×10 work. A light 4×5 camera doesn’t need a heavy cumbersome tripod, and mine currently sits on top of a Velbon Sherpa Pro CF 645 Carbon Fibre. Together, these mean that I can go further on foot, and carry other camera gear too (something I never do with my larger gear).
I’m thinking now about what other lenses I’d like to use on this camera. I currently have a 150mm as a standard, and a Schneider Kreuznach 75mm Super Angulon, so I’ll probably look for a longer lens around 250mm. Now that the weather has improved here in the UK, I’ll be out doing some landscape stuff as soon as I can get away from this damn computer.
One last thing; I mentioned above that Nagaoka also made a 10×8 version of this camera! I would love to find one, but I think they are quite rare.
Thanks for reading
~ Andrew Sanderson
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