All my cameras, 14 – Crown Graphic 4×5 press camera

January 6, 2014

crown graphic bellows extended_4904 blog

This was the first large format camera I owned, a Graflex Crown Graphic 4×5 inch press camera. I had used 4×5 cameras at art school, where they had Toyo monorails, but for years after that I mostly used 35mm and some medium format for my own work. Later, when I was thinking about buying a 4×5 camera I knew a guy who wanted to sell a Linhof Technika kit that came with three lenses that could be used for either rangefinder or ground glass focusing. It looked like a good system however he was asking around $3,000 for the lot and I wasn’t sure about spending that amount on a format I wasn’t familiar with. The worst thing would be to spend all that money and then after a few months to realise that I didn’t really get along with the camera, or even find out that large format wasn’t for me after all (both these things are quite common in photography.) Around that time I was talking about this to a guy who had been a fine art and commercial photographer for decades and he suggested I get a Crown Graphic as a cheap way into large format, which turned out to be excellent advice.

crown graphic closed_4836 blog

Crown Graphics are plentiful and can be bought for a reasonable price; I think I paid around $400 for mine with a lens. They are also simple to use yet capable of producing high quality photos. There are basically three designs of large format cameras – monorails, field and press. Press cameras were designed to be used by newspaper, wedding and general jobbing commercial photographers. They don’t have all the options that are available on monorail or field cameras but their advantage is being lightweight, simple and able to be set up quickly. When not being used they fold up inside a box; pressing a button opens the front panel and allows the lens and bellows to be moved along the tracks for framing and focusing.

crown_4852 side blog

Crown Graphics came with a rangefinder system that allowed them to be focused like a regular handheld camera, however my camera didn’t come with the correct cam for the lens, so it could only be focused with the ground glass. This was fine with me as it was how I was planning to use the camera anyway. A dark cloth is useful for ground glass viewing, however the built-in pop-up viewing hood means that you can often frame and focus without one.

There were two things I didn’t like about this camera. The first is that it was designed to be used in landscape, horizontal format. To make a vertical, portrait orientation photo meant turning the camera on its side to go on the tripod, whereas most large format cameras offer some type of rotating back that lets you change between vertical and horizontal without remounting the camera. The second was the limited range of movements available – essentially just front rise (which becomes front swing when it’s on its side.) I wouldn’t call these design flaws – it’s just part of the simple design of a press camera. These days I make more use of a Chamonix field camera that has a switchable back and a lot of front and rear movements, however it was the lessons I learned by using the Crown Graphic that enabled me to know what I needed as I moved on in large format. I would still recommend it as an ideal camera for anyone who wants to dip their toe into large format and doesn’t want to commit a lot of money.

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