Going big II: The 6×9 medium format view camera

Ebony SW23

Ebony SW23

In the dark ages before the prevalence of digital SLRs, there was a natural progression from 35mm to medium format for some types of photographers. My early photographic interest was primarily street photography, which meant 35mm rangefinders. I started with a Petri 7, moved up to a Canonet, and finally made the jump to a Leica when I got more serious. I also had Nikon film SLRs for some types of work.

After shooting a job with a rented Nikon D1X about 5 years ago, I realized the speed and economy of digital SLRs was a big advantage. Because I was interested in night and low light photography, I switched from Nikon film SLRs to Canon digital when the 10D came out.

I often shoot with two cameras at night, one film and one digital. Around the full moon, digital exposures are usually in the 3-8 minute range. Sometimes I’ll shoot 15 minute exposures with the 5D for longer star trails. My strategy is usually to work the scene with 5-6 minute digital shots, and use a film camera for 20-30 minute exposures. I would really like to replace the $79 Voigtlander rangefinder I’m using with a medium format film camera. As a rangefinder fan who usually prefers small format focal lengths between 21-35mm, the best choices look like the Mamiya 7 or Fuji GSW690.

After years of shooting mostly 35mm, I’m most comfortable with the 1:1.5 aspect ratio. I’ve owned a twin lens reflex and Hasselblad, but I just don’t see in squares. Medium format shooters have long pondered the format question: 645, 6×6, 6×7, or 6×9? For me it’s between 6×7 and 6×9.

When you’re shooting 20-30 minute or longer exposures, medium format is great because you’ll shoot one roll in a night. A 6×7 camera is 10 shots on a roll of 120 film, 6×9 is 8 shots. With 35mm film it sometimes takes me 2 nights of shooting over two full moons to go through a roll of 36. I’m a reasonably patient guy, but waiting 9-10 weeks to see your photos is ridiculous.

If night photography didn’t involve crawling around in some funky places, there would be an underdog contender for a medium format camera. I haven’t had a bout of camera lust quite this bad in a long time. I tried not to look. I tried not to think about it. Blame it on Lance Keimig, who brought one to the Mono Lake Workshops this year. I want an Ebony SW23.

Ebony is a small Japanese large format camera company with a reputation for superb design and craftsmanship. The SW23 is actually a 6x9cm or 2×3″ format camera with the movements of a view camera. The camera does not fold, making it light weight, and easy to setup. Optimized for wide angle lenses, focal lengths from 47-180mm can be used, which translates to about 20mm to 65mm in 35mm format.

Sounds expensive, right? The Ebony SW23 is $1995, about $500 less than a Canon 5D. Of course you still have to buy lenses and a film back. And I’d need to hire a bodyguard to take this camera on a night photography shoot. And it’s challenging enough to frame your images at night, much less when they’re upside down and backwards on the ground glass (you can also use a Horseman SW viewfinder).

But if you want to print large, consider these numbers: A 6×9 negative scanned at 4000dpi is about 9,400 x 14,000 pixels. A 300 dpi print is 30×45″ without any interpolation. That’s about 130 megapixels, or 10 times the Canon 5D. That’s food for thought. To read more about Horseman and other choices in 6×9 medium format view cameras, have a look at this interesting thread on www.largeformatphotography.info.

5 thoughts on “Going big II: The 6×9 medium format view camera”

  1. You mentioned that you found it harder to compose a shot when the image is upside down and left-to-right. I’ve heard a lot of photographers say that.

    Ironically, but not to anyone’s surprise, I find it to be the opposite. My YashicaMat 124-G (a TLR) proejcts the image USDALTR, but I actually find it easier to compose that way because it seems to reduce what my brain sees without the camera, into a more abstract image.

    But, maybe I’m just different. What do I know? My last roll of 120 night shots is over a year old, and I still haven’t processed it.

  2. Hi Andy,

    A laterally reversed viewfinder image in a TLR isn’t that tough to get used to. It’s the upside down part about large format that I’m not sure about.



  3. Joe,

    I use a Fuji GW690 pretty regularly and it has many wonderful attributes. For me, it is light, portable, rugged (not all the Fuji rangefinders I have used share this last characteristic) and optically very fine. Its viewfinder is not the best ever, but it is large, bright, and usable enough to not hinder my photography. I could see it being a great night-photography camera (although it does have a bizarre engineering oversight: closing the shutter after an exposure on the T setting requires either changing the shutter speed setting or advancing the film.)

    Here are some photos made with this camera for a commercial assignment.
    The lens resolves high-contrast details 3 – 4 feet wide on objects about 2 miles distant!

  4. Joe-

    Digital always seemed to be too much instant gratification for the art of photography. I may be stepping on toes here, but photography is so much more than framing your subject and shooting. I have shot with 6×6 Rolleicords for years (I guess that makes me square) and I am satisfied that my photographs took more intelegence than simple composition. My only complaint is that I have been limited with the 80mm lens. Right now I am looking to purchase a Mamyiaflex c2. These TLR cameras have interchangable lenses from 55mm to 260mm. Still square. I have tried old 6×9 folders but I have been disappointed in the quality. Also it is very hard to compose with most rangefinder cameras because of the small rangefinder window. I had a 4×5 view camera for a while but it was heavy and the trouble of sheet film was more than I was willing to deal with at the time. I found myself not really using the tilt and shift ability of the camera that much. If the photographed more architecture I might have found more of a need for this type of camera.

    If you get a field camera with removable roll film backs that can be an advantage because you can switch betwwen different films on the same camera if you had several roll film backs. In the end it all comes down to how much trouble and thought you are willing to undergo to get the images that you want to capture. I usually take 2 months to shoot 12 pictures on 120 film while night shooting. Most of the time I go out 2-3 nights a month. Personally I like to see, touch and hold the film in my hand something that you can not do with digital. Go for the film!

    If you do not like the aspect ratio of square, you can get 4×5 (thats cm) masks for Rolleiflex and ‘cord cameras. You then can get 16 images per roll of 120 film. You also can do what I have seen some photographers do and mark the ground glass with pencil 4x5cm rectangles and compose from those marks and crop off the extra when printing. Wedding photographers do this a lot.

    Upside down and reversed images on the groundglass does not bother me when you realize we live on a sphere in a void of space where we are neither right side up or oriented on any particular fashion.

    Again. Go for the film!


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