After my first exposure to working with large format sheet film in a DIY pinhole camera, I decided to explore this line of film photography a bit further. My local second-hand camera shop offered me a battered pre-WWII Linhof Technika II, which I duly restored back to a working life. But I quickly found out that although this particular model works fine with a standard focal length lens, wide angle and telephoto lenses are very awkward to use. Also, while tilting and shifting the lens is possible, only within very strict limits. So I decided to shop around for a camera that was within the price range of a more recent – but pre-owned – Technika: versatile in terms of usable lenses and camera movements, solidly built, yet compact and light.
The Intrepid came to mind, but this time I was really after something perhaps a bit more “special” and I finally found the camera for me in the form of the teak wood and carbon fibre Chamonix C45F-2 4×5 field camera.
The look and feel
What got me interested in the Chamonix in the first place were simply the stunning good looks of the camera: the subtle yellowish-brown tones of teak wood, the sleek matte black finish of the aluminium and steel parts and the unpretentious grey of the carbon fibre components.
All of these combine into a very minimalistic, modern design without betraying their origins in late 19th-century camera engineering. As such, at least as far as I am concerned, they form a pleasant contrast to the offerings of Wista, Nagaoka, Tachihara, Shenhao and others.
There’s no fancy brass or silver glitter here, no plethora of screws, levers, knobs and dials to distract from the essentials. Forms and shapes are simple and clean. There aren’t a large number of components that can succumb to wear and tear, break or fail under operating conditions.
In a nutshell: this camera is a beauty.
Attention to detail
A closer look shows that this beauty does not only run skin deep: each component is precision-cut, machined, drilled, varnished, assembled to perfection. This precision is reflected in the way the camera operates.
The camera’s surfaces feel super soft to the touch and all movements run as smooth as silk while at the same time conveying a sense of rugged strength, made to withstand the rigors of rough handling out in the field, up and down mountain trails and in busy cities. Levers snap quickly into place, locking screws grip easily and every component instantly falls into place when the camera is set up or folded down.
I was very fortunate in being able to contact Chamonix’s European agent, JOBO artisan in Gummersbach, Germany. JOBO’s Johannes Bockemühl invited me down to his studio to take part in a workshop on the basics of large format (LF) photography and to try out the Chamonix hands-on.
Long story short: on my way back home I carried with me a brand-new C45F-2 with the auspicious serial number 0088.
The character and genes of the Chamonix
To understand why the Chamonix stands out from the rest of the pack, a short glance at its origins might be helpful.
Legend has it that Beijing-born mountaineer and filmmaker-turned-photographer Yu Xiang (於翔) couldn’t find a suitable camera for his photographic needs: a very light yet utterly reliable LF camera. So he simply built his own. Working with his first model he trekked up the slopes of Mount Everest twice in order to carry up all the necessary equipment needed to operate his home-made 12×20 ULF camera, just for the sake of taking a single exposure of a mountain scene.
This experience set him up on a path of perfecting his design of a lightweight and portable large format camera. He eventually teamed up with Richard H. Phillips: another case of two photographers making their own equipment, tailored specifically to their own photographic needs. This puts Yu Xiang firmly in the tradition of other photographer-engineers, notably Leica’s Oskar Barnack and Victor Hasselblad.
Word of mouth quickly spread the news that here was a man who would build custom-made cameras for LF enthusiasts. In 2004 Yu Xian eventually founded his own manufacturing company in Haining, China with his grandfather as employee No. 1. The rest is history.
Today Yu Xiang employs 13 people, most of them expert carpenters, who produce a small range of cameras and accessories, including custom-built units for very specific needs, including wet-plate photography. Half of their production goes to the USA, 40% are sold in China and the remaining 10% are left for the rest of us to enjoy.
In the field
The Chamonix does not come with any operating instruction. I feel that none are needed. Everything is essentially self-explanatory. I have attached an Arca-Swiss compatible camera plate to my unit, so it easily slips onto my tripod head and can be secured into position. The camera back is then tilted upwards and quickly locked into place. The front is also lifted and screwed into place on the focusing rail, using one of five possible positions, depending on the focal length of the lens to be used.
Only when the camera is set up so far can the lens be attached (the C45F-2 accepts lenses mounted onto standard Linhof Technika lens boards).
Taking time to speed up
The process of getting the camera ready to shoot is slightly more time-consuming than the simple lifting and clicking into place of front standards that other field cameras offer.
It does, however, have the advantage of the user being able to make a choice about bellows extension: short for wide-angles, medium for standard focal lengths and long for telephoto or close-up work. This makes focussing quicker and easier because it cuts down on the distance the focusing rail has to move.
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The focusing knob is right where it should be for when you operate the camera from under a focusing cloth: straight under the ground glass screen. Focusing runs buttery smooth, with just the right amount of torque needed to turn the ring (the friction of the drive can be adjusted by the user to suit individual preferences).
The C45F-2 comes with a useful number of spirit levels attached, so levelling the camera is easy and efficient. In order to change from portrait to landscape format, you simply lift two levers, take out the removable back and turn it into the desired position, slip it back on and relock those two levers.
A first look at the ground glass shows a bright, well-defined image. The C45F-2 comes with a Fresnel screen included. The screen features a faint grid and markings for various non-4×5 formats. No serious complaints here, but a direct comparison with a friend’s Linhof screen, using identical lenses, showed that the Linhof screen offered a slightly more contrasty image and a much more clearly visible black grid, which made me replace the Chamonix standard screen with a Linhof screen that I picked up on eBay at a very reasonable price.
This example of interchangeability demonstrates that Chamonix uses standard measurements wherever this is necessary: ground glass, lens boards and, of course, film holders all take standard sizes, so that it is painless to buy the necessary accessories, wherever you can find them.
As regards accessories: like practically all LF cameras, the Chamonix comes as a BYO unit. You have to Buy Your Own lenses, film holders, light meter, cable release and focusing cloth – to mention but the most important items. You might want to add filters and a lens hood…
All these will have an impact on your bank account and add to the weight that you have to lug around with you whenever you don’t just work out of the comfort of your car boot on the parking lot a few steps away from what you are about to shoot.
Shooting the C45F-2
After you have set up your shot you insert your film holder in front of the focusing screen. It glides smoothly into place without compromising the camera position that you have just painstakingly set up. In order to pull it out after making your exposure you gently lift the focusing screen back and out it comes without a hitch.
The real strength of an LF camera lies in the camera adjustments you can make in order to compensate for the convergence of vertical lines, adjust perspective and extend or limit the plane of precise focus through the application of the Scheimpflug principle.
The front standard of the C45F-2 can be shifted, tilted and swung, the only limits being defined by the image circle of your lens. There is one caveat, though: employ a very long bellows extension, an extended shift of the lens and small apertures at the same and time you might encounter slight vignetting at the top of the screen – meaning the bottom of your image.
This is not easily visible when viewing the screen at wide aperture under the focusing cloth; but it becomes painfully visible on the stopped-down image after you have developed the film. It can be seen in some of the images posted here.
The movements of the back of the C45F-2 are slightly more limited. You only have tilt and a very limited swing at your disposal here, but no shift. But what the C45F-2 does offer is an additional asynchronous tilt that can be very useful in landscape photography. What this means in practice is that if you focus on a landscape feature in the background and then tilt the back using asynchronous tilt, the foreground automatically shifts into focus. No need to continually refocus the background as you increase or decrease tilt to get your foreground into focus.
Very nifty, indeed! My railroad tracks image above shows how this feature can be put to use.
But bear in mind: all these movements are strictly hand-adjusted, no geared fine-tuning is available. This can sometimes make precise adjustments a bit tricky. But unless you do a lot of studio or high-end architecture work with a digital back, this should not really be too bothersome.
Yes, it is a real pleasure to own and, more importantly, to actually use this camera. All in all, as is every piece of engineering, the Chamonix C45F-2 is a compromise. For my work, which is mainly landscape, architecture and a bit of still life thrown in, I opted for low weight and volume, sufficient adjustability, excellent build quality and, I have to admit, affordability. The big prestigious names such as Linhof and Sinar proved to be too heavy, bulky, technically complicated (think Sinar’s back-of-lens- shutter) and probably too expensive for my liking.
Using the Chamonix and adopting a one-scene-one-shot doctrine has encouraged me to take things a bit easier photographically, to take my time in planning and composing an image carefully and taking more care of how I expose and develop film – in other words: I feel my work is slowly becoming a bit more focused.
But venturing out into the open with a camera like this can also distract from your moments of photographic genius in a mildly pleasant sort of way. Be prepared to field questions and comments from passers-by: “Do they still make film for these?”, “Oh, this is new? It looks like it dates back 200 years ..”, “Made in China? Heck, I thought only the Germans and the Swiss make such beautiful stuff…”
I have included some technical data with the images posted here. A shifted lens always means: shifted upwards – with the exception of the wild boar portrait, where I moved the lens down.
Thanks for reading,
Chamonix C45F-2 Technical specifications
|Camera name||C45F-2 CHAMONIX 4x5"|
|Camera type||Large format field camera|
|Format||4x5" sheet film / dry plate / wet plate|
|Manufacture dates||2004 - today|
|Minimum bellows extension||45mm|
|Maximum bellows extension||300mm|
|Front standard rise||45mm|
|Front standard fall||25mm|
|Front standard shift (horizontal)||+/- 32mm|
|Front standard tilt||+/- 30°|
|Front standard swivel||+/- 45°|
|Rear standard rise||45mm|
|Rear standard fall||None|
|Rear standard shift (horizontal)||None|
|Rear standard tilt||+/- 20°|
|Rear standard swivel||+/- 20°|
190 x 170 x 90 mm (WxHxD, collapsed)
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