Update (3/16/01): After using the Toho extensively for over a year and a half, I have a few minor updates to my original review. I am still quite pleased with the camera, especially for backpacking. These updates mostly concern a few accessories I've tried that improve the usability of the Toho with both short and long lenses. I've left the text of my original review intact (in gray text), and to make them easier to distinguish, my new comments appear in teal colored text.
Figure 1. The Toho Shimo FC-45X
No, that's not a typo. It really is T-O-H-O (not Toyo). Most people have never heard of the Toho brand. Probably because they do not advertise in the North American popular press and until recently they had no US importer (see "Pricing and Availability" below). The Toho Shimo FC-45X is a unique, lightweight 4x5 monorail camera designed for use in the field. It is manufactured in Tokyo, Japan by Toho Machine Co. Ltd. Unlike conventional wood/metal field cameras, the Toho FC-45X does not fold up into a single self-contained unit for transport. Instead, it is transported in two pieces: the telescoping monorail unit and the bellows/frames unit (See Figure 2.). The camera has full movements (rise/fall, shift, tilt and swing) on both the front and rear standards.
Figure 2. Disassembled for Transport
Weights and Measures:
1 This is the measured weight of the camera, complete as supplied by the manufacturer (unlike most products advertised as "lightweight" these days, this one actually weighed less than the published spec.). This weight does not include the two padded soft carrying cases supplied by the manufacturer (See Figure 3.). Although these cases do a good job of protecting the camera during transport, they add 6 oz. of weight, and I did not find them necessary (see the "Getting Around" section below for more information on how I carried this camera in my pack). Note: I have been informed that these cases are no longer included when purchasing a Toho FC-45X camera. Given the way I generally carry the camera, this isn't a big deal for me (the only time I use the Toho soft cases is to provide additional padding in an airline carry-on when I fly with the camera). If such soft cases are desired, equivalent products can easily be obtained from other sources. The case that holds the rail section (red case on the left) could be replaced by a zoom/telephoto lens case of appropriate size. In fact, that's exactly what it is (mine has a little tag on it that says, "ZOOM POUCH 24" and it is made in China). Gara Gear, and others make soft padded cases that could be used in place of the silver bellows/frames case formerly supplied by Toho. One of the larger lens wraps from Domke or Calumet would also be a viable substituted. Or, like me, you could just wrap this section in your darkcloth when carrying it in the field. Also, after a couple of simple, non-permanent modifications (see "Modifications" below), I was able to reduce the weight of the camera to 2 lb. 12.5 oz. without compromising performance.
Figure 3. The Toho Carrying Cases
2 I am unable to determine what reference points the manufacturer used when measuring the minimum bellows extension of 46mm. I measured 55mm as the minimum separation between the front surface of the ground glass (film plane) and the front surface of a blank lens board. This equates to the flange to focal distance (ftf) specified by lens manufacturers for infinity focus.
Note: Throughout this review I will be comparing the Toho Shimo FC-45X to the Anba Ikeda Wood View and the K.B. Canham DLC. The Anba is a little, lightweight, double extension wood field of traditional design that is in the same weight class as the Toho. The Canham is a heavier triple extension metal camera of innovative design. The Anba has been my dedicated backpacking camera for several years and the Canham has been my general purpose camera, used for about 90% of my photography, for the last 2½ years. I included comparisons to these two particular models for two reasons: I am intimately familiar with both (and will eventually add in depth reviews of both to this web site); they represent opposite ends of the spectrum in field camera design, construction and capability. By comparing the Toho to these two very different cameras, it will give the reader a better appreciation of where the Toho fits in compared to the two extremes.
This camera is certainly a unique design. Every effort appears to have been made to keep the weight to a minimum while still providing a camera with generous (compared to other 3 lb. class field cameras) bellows extension and full movements. This has lead to a couple unusual compromises. The first is that the entire bellows/frames unit must be detached, rotated 90 degrees and re-attached to switch between horizontal and vertical orientations. This was, no doubt, done to save the weight of a separate, detachable vertical/horizontal back. This is indeed unconventional, and sounds cumbersome (and for most, will probably be the biggest criticism of this camera). It is slower than swapping a conventional vertical/horizontal back, but is not too bad once you get used to it (see, "Ease of Use" for more on this issue). The second oddity in the design is the shape of the lensboards. Unlike every other large format camera I have ever used, the Toho lensboards are not square, or even rectangular - they are ROUND (See Figure 4.). This seems to be a byproduct of the unique method of switching between vertical and horizontal orientations. The round lensboards allow easy rotation of the lens without completely removing it. This allows the user to position the lens controls/markings in the preferred manner without taking the lens off the camera (again, to learn more about the practical aspects of this feature, see "Ease of Use" below). One other unique aspect to the FC45-X is the availability of the monorail section in numerous colors. The standard color is flat black, but the monorail section is also available via special order (at slightly higher cost) in red, green, blue, gray and gold.
Figure 4. Toho Lensboard - Copal #0 Size
After playing around briefly with the camera indoors, it was obvious it was not as rigid as a Sinar or Linhof monorail. Still, I didn't expect it to be (and anybody who expects a 3 lb. camera to be as rock solid as one weighing 3 - 5x as much will be disappointed). The real comparison is how stable is it compared to other cameras in the same weight class. Or, more importantly, is the rigidity adequate for the desired use. The only way to know for sure, is to use it extensively in the field under a variety of conditions with a wide range of lenses.
Quality of Construction:
The Toho is made almost entirely out of machined black anodized aluminum. The fit and finish of the aluminum parts is good, but not quite up to the high standards of something like an Arca Swiss or Sinar. The only defect I've been able to find with my sample, is the springs on the front and rear standard locking knobs quickly deformed and got in the way when tightening these controls. The purpose of these springs appears to be to provide a modest amount of tension when the knobs are loosened for positioning the standards along the rail. This is more of a tactile nicety than a necessity. The camera functions perfectly well with the springs removed. Still, I replaced the stock springs with some I picked up at the local hardware store for a few pennies. They are made of lighter gauge wire than the stock springs, plus they are longer and of slightly smaller diameter. After extensive use, they seem to duplicate the nice feel of the originals without any deformation or binding. Again, completely removing these two small springs has no real effect on the operation of the camera. So, if no suitable replacements can be located, simply removing the springs will solve the problem. Other than these two springs, I found no defects with the fit and finish of my sample.
The bellows are made of a good quality outer material, lined with a nice satin like cloth. Just based on visual inspection, I could not determine if the bellows outer material was a thin leather, or a high quality synthetic (I'm leaning towards synthetic). In any case, the Toho bellows appear to be made from much higher quality materials than the bellows on my Anba Ikeda (basically a paper outer material). They aren't as flexible as the "wunderbellows" on my Canham DLC. Nor do they suffer from bellows sag, like the Canham. The outer fabric on the Toho bellows has a glossier black appearance than the dull nylon of the Canham bellows. All-in-all, the Toho bellows seem to be pretty much what you'd expect in a camera in this price range. Nothing innovative (like the Canham bellows), but they appear to be of sufficient quality and durability that they should hold up reasonably well under typical field conditions. The bellows on my sample bow slightly to the right when fully extended. This looks a little odd, but doesn't effect performance (the bowing is slight with no possibility for vignetting). Not sure if this is function of the bellows design, or just a minor manufacturing variation in my particular sample.
The camera also comes with a light weight, removable pop-up focusing hood. The sides of this focusing hood are made from a satin lined synthetic material. I don't care much for such focusing hoods, and usually end up resorting to a dark cloth for focusing and composing anyway. In which case, the hood just gets in the way, but it does serve double duty as a ground glass protector during transport. Since I prefer a focusing cloth anyway, I decided to replace the pop-up focusing hood with a much lighter ground glass protector. For details, see the "Modifications" section below. The only other point of interest on the construction of the camera is the material used for the ground glass frame. Unlike the rest of the machined parts on the camera that are all made of black anodized aluminum, the ground glass frame is machined from some type of black composite material. I'm guessing it's either Delrin or ABS. This was evidently done to help keep the weight down. Whatever the material, it seems well suited to the task.
The ultimate test of any camera is how it performs under actual use. I was originally considering this camera exclusively for backpacking, where weight is always a concern. It is nearly identical in weight to the Anba Ikeda Wood View I have been using as a backpacking camera for many years. On paper, the Toho has a significantly longer bellows and more extensive movements. That makes it a likely candidate to replace the Anba. Still, not everyone has the need/desire/money to have a camera dedicated to such a specific purpose. So, I was also interested in how the little Toho would perform as a general purpose field camera. With that in mind, I have actually tested the camera under both circumstances. The first was a 10 day trip to Colorado and Utah where most of the shooting was close to the vehicle, with a few short dayhikes (up to 3 miles round trip). On that trip, I carried a full complement of lenses from 75mm - 500mm. Specifically: 75mm f4.5 Nikkor SW, 90mm f8 Nikkor SW, 110mm f5.6 Super Symmar XL, 150mm f5.6 APO Sironar-N, 210mm f5.6 APO Symmar, 300mm f9 Nikkor M and a 360/500mm f8/11 Nikkor T-ED set (single front element/shutter with both 360mm and 500mm rear elements). The second trip was a 6 day backpacking trip to Grand Gulch in Southeast Utah. On that trip, weight was definitely a concern, so I limited myself to three very small, light lenses. They were a 90mm f6.3 Congo Wide Angle, 150mm f6.3 Fujinon W and a 240mm f9 Fujinon A. As a result of those two trips, combined with a little shooting closer to home, I have now exposed over 300 sheets of film with the Toho with a wide assortment of lenses, under a huge variety of conditions. The camera has been used in everything from 19 degree cold to temps in the 90s - wind, sun, rain, you name it. It has been used to photograph distant vistas and close-ups of ancient rock art. It has been thoroughly put through its paces, and here's, in my opinion, how it did.
Figure 5a. The Toho with a 75mm Lens Focused at Infinity
Let's start with the wide angles. Just a word of warning, in case you aren't already aware, I'm not a big user of ultrawide angle lenses. The widest lens I currently own is a 75mm (See Figure 5a.), and it is my least used focal length. With that in mind, here's what I think of the "wide angle friendliness" of the Toho. Like the traditional double extension flat bed designs, wide angle use with the Toho, in particular the ability to use movements, is limited by the inflexibility of the compressed bellows (or, in common terms, the "scrunching" of the bellows). Without the ability to change to a bag bellows, rise/fall and shift are limited to about 3/4" with a 75mm lens focused at infinity. With a 90mm lens, movements become less restricted. In subjective terms, based on actual usage, I would say this particular camera allows "modest" movements with a 75mm lens and "moderate" movements with a 90mm. This is real similar to my experience with the short (~12") bellows flat bed designs. Bellows "scrunching" aside, using a wide angle lens on this camera is a piece of cake. It's possible to slide the front and rear standards together without any additional considerations (unlike some of the triple extension flat beds that allow unlimited movements with the bag bellows, but require all sorts of view camera gymnastics to get the standards close enough together to focus the lens).
At first, it sounds like this is probably not the ideal camera for those who like to work a lot with ultrawide lenses. Perhaps it is not (but then, neither is any of the other short, fixed bellows designs). However, Toho makes a unique accessory to help alleviate this problem. Warning: I have not used this device, and only comment on it here based on what I've been able to learn from the manufacturer's literature. The device I am referring to is the Toho Eccentric Lens Panel. To quote the Toho brochure, this device allows "Rise, Fall and Shift without any physical restriction from bellows". This device is not cheap (about $225), but then neither is a bag bellows. It is basically a panel within a panel that allows movement of the lens eccentrically 0 -15mm in any direction. The outer panel has the same exterior dimensions as the standard Toho round lensboards. The inner panel is designed to accommodate wide angle lenses mounted in #0 shutters. This is not simply a lensboard with the whole drilled off-center (a common old trick), but a combination of two panels that allows displacement of the lens in any direction from 0 (centered) to 15mm. Since most lenses short enough to require this adapter (say 65mm and shorter) have very limited coverage (typically in the 166mm - 170mm range), this adapter will allow full advantage of movements up to the limits of such lenses. This is a unique solution to the age old problem of using movements with wide angle lenses on a field camera. Although the traditional solution of a bag bellows may be more versatile, the Toho Eccentric lens panel is cost competitive with a bag bellows; it is considerably less bulky, lighter, less fragile to carry in the field, and appears faster and easier to use in the field. The more I think about this solution, the more it appeals to me. As stated, I am not a huge user of ultrawide lenses, but I will still try to get my hands on one of the Toho Eccentric Lens Panels for a more detailed review of this interesting device. OK, I've had a chance to use one of these extensively in the field and here are my comments on the Toho Eccentric Lens Panel.
I had one of the Eccentric Lens Panels for several months and used it extensively with my 75mm Nikkor SW (which was my shortest lens at the time). I also used it briefly with my Schneider 80mm Super Symmar XL. Although it increased the maximum displacements permitted with these lenses, I found it wasn't really necessary for my modest needs. For me, I get all the movements I need with a regular Toho board without the bellows causing problems. However, for lenses shorter than 75mm, or if you require extreme movements with a lens in the 75mm range, I highly recommend the Eccentric Lens Panel. This is one trick gadget. It is very easy to use, and a lot more convenient than a bag bellows. My initial impression was that it felt rather stiff. Well, it is stiff and it needs to be to work (to hold the lens in place when doing lateral shifts). It only really felt stiff when I tried to turn it by hand without a lens mounted in the board (see Figure 5b). With a lens in place, it turns smoothly by just grabbing the lens and turning it until the desired displacement is reached (see Figure 5c.). It then holds the lens firmly in place. I recommend using it with the lens positioning screw installed on the back of the shutter. New lenses usually come with this pin installed, but most lensboards don't have a mating dimple to use them. The Eccentric Lens Panel has the dimple, so the pin should be installed to prevent rotation of the lens within the board. This keeps the lens from unscrewing from it's retaining ring as its position is manipulated on the Eccentric Lens Panel. Although I found it unnecessary for my needs (landscape photography with lenses no shorter than 75 - 80mm), I still think the Toho Eccentric Lens Panel is a clever, easy to use solution to an age old problem. It's about the same price as a bag bellows, but a lot faster and easier to use, plus easier to carry in the field with no fear of damage. If you intend to use ultrawide angle lenses (47mm XL - 65mm), the Eccentric Lens Panel will permit displacements up to the coverage limits of these lenses (on 4x5), and make your life a whole lot easier to boot.
Figure 5b. The Toho Eccentric Lens Panel
Figure 5c. The Toho Eccentric Lens Panel
with 80mm Super Symmar XL
Figure 5d. The Toho Eccentric Lens Panel in
One other common problem when using ultrawide lenses, especially with some triple extension cameras, is the front rails creeping into the image area. There are a couple ways to get around this with the Toho. The first is to just slide the rear standard onto the front half of the telescoping monorail (Note: this is not necessary with a 75mm lens). The only problem with this method, is that only the rear half of the monorail is geared for focusing. When using the camera in this manner, you lose geared focusing capability. Other than the geared focusing track, the front and rear halves of the monorail are identical, so you could swap the two halves when using wide angles (See Figure 6.). Workable, but tedious (it would require switching the halves back when using normal or long lenses). Toho offers another solution. They sell a small separate wide angle mount (sorry, no pricing information at this time) that basically lets you use the rear half of the telescoping monorail in stand alone mode. This is probably only slightly less tedious than swapping the two rail halves. I think a far better solution would be to add a geared focusing to the front half of the monorail. This should be a piece of cake, since the front and rear rail halves are otherwise identical. The focusing track is a small, light single geared rack less than 4" long that is mounted to the top of the rear rail with three tiny screws and only weighs ½ oz. (See Figure 7.). Adding an identical geared rack to the front rail half would allow geared focusing over the entire length of the rail with a minimal increase in weight. It would also be a lot less tedious than the other solutions, and would be easy to install, if the part was available. Since the camera works perfectly well with my shortest lens (75mm), I have not pursued this option further. Still, combining this modification with the Eccentric Lens Panel would make the Toho FC-45X VERY wide angle friendly. It would easily accomodate lenses in the 55 - 65mm range. Unless the Eccentric Lens Panel adds more than 4mm of extension, the 47mm Super Angulon XL would also be useable. With an image circle of 166mm and an ftf of 59.1mm, it is the shortest lens ever made capable of covering 4x5. Something for you ultrawide fans to consider.
Figure 6. Minimum Extension (55mm) - Front and Rear Rails Swapped
Figure 7. Geared Focus Track on the Rear Rail Half
Now let's move onto the long lenses. This, in my opinion, is one area where the Toho has a distinct advantage over the traditional double extension field cameras. On those designs, the maximum bellows is usually limited to somewhere in the 11.5 - 12.5" range (many of the metal drop bed designs, such as the Horseman FA/HD, Wista VX/SP/RF, Toyo AII/AX, etc. suffer from similar bellows length limitations). With an extra 3" or so of maximum extension, the Toho is capable of using longer lenses than these other models. With my old Anba, I was limited to using either a 300mm non-telephoto (like the Nikkor M), or a 360mm telephoto (Nikkor T-ED) as my longest lens (the 400mm Fujinon T will also work with these cameras, but I don't own one). With the 390mm maximum extension, the Toho is capable of using non-telephoto designs up to 360mm. However, for most people, this may be a moot point (for info on lightweight lenses in this focal length range, see my article elsewhere on this web site on "Lightweight Lenses 300 - 450mm").
Figure 8. The Toho with a 500mm Telephoto Focused at Infinity
On a more practical note (for most), the added 3" of bellows extension on the Toho makes it useable with the 500mm Nikkor T-ED telephoto (See Figure 8.). The flange-to-focal (ftf) distance for this lens is 349.9mm (13.78"). This, of course, makes this lens unusable on the short bellows wood fields. This is no lightweight lens (810g), but I used it extensively with the Toho on my trip to Colorado, and found the Toho to be up to the task. Also, according to the specs, you could just barely focus the 600mm Fujinon T at infinity (ftf = 383.9mm) using the Toho. However, I would not recommend this combo. Just to focus at infinity, you'd have the bellows stretched to maximum. Forget anything closer than infinity, or using any camera movements (the bellows are stretched tight as a drum at this point). Plus, the 600mm Fuji T is a very heavy lens (1000g or 2 lb. 3.2 oz). I think all that weight racked all the way out to maximum would be more than the little Toho could handle.
The one other "accessory" I've been using lately that allows the Toho to function with a wider range of the lenses is a custom made extender board. The reason I put "accessory" in quotes is that this is NOT a Toho supplied item. It was the product of some custom machine work by Steve Grimes. I sent Steve my specs and he did the rest. First, just let me start by saying this custom made extender is MUCH more elaborate than necessary for most applications. However, I wanted to be able to test it with a variety of lenses. Specifically, 14" f9 Goerz L.D. Artar, 360mm f10 Fujinon A and 450mm f12.5 Fujinon C. In order to test the extender under different conditions with all three lenses, I had Steve make the length of the extender and the shutter size it would accept configurable. All this flexibility greatly increased the complexity of the machine work required, which added greatly to the cost. It also makes the extender a little heavier than need be for a given length. In hindsight, I probably would have been better off to have Steve make two or three dedicated extenders, rather than one configurable model. That said, here's what I had him build and here's how it all works on the Toho.
Figure 8b. The Toho Extender Project
Figure 8b. shows all the pieces of the configurable extender board I had Steve fabricate. The base spacer is designed to mount right on the Toho camera just like a conventional Toho lensboard. All the spacers and the two lens disks are threaded and knurled so they can be screwed together in any desired combination. The accompanying table shows the weights and lengths of each piece. The weight and added extension of any configuration can be found by simply adding the weights and lengths of the individual pieces. For example, in it's longest configuration, the extender consists of the Base Spacer, Spacer 2, Spacer 3 and the Copal #1 disk with a total length of 4 3/8" and a weight of 220g (see Figure 8c.). All exterior surfaces are hard black anodized for durability, and all inner surfaces are painted flat black to minimize reflections.
Figure 8c. The Toho Extender in Maximum Length Configuration
With a maximum bellows extension of 390mm, the Toho FC-45X is capable of focusing non-telephoto lenses in the 14" or 360mm focal length range for distant subjects. However, that leaves very little headroom for movements or closer focusing. For example, with the 14" L.D. Artar or the 360mm Fujinon A, is is only possible to focus down to about 18 - 20 feet. And at that distant, the bellows are stretched so tight, that there is no possibility of using movements. With the extender in its shortest configuration, it becomes possible to focus down to about 5 - 7 feet with these two lenses. Or, for distant subjects, substantial movements are possible. Figures 8d. and 8e. show the extender in minimum length configuration with these two lenses mounted. In this configuration, an additional extension of 1 11/16" (43mm) is provided. This combination of Base Spacer plus lens disk weighs 95 - 100g. Not too bad, considering a flat Toho lensboard weighs 50g. Although it can focus these lenses at infinity on a flat board, I feel they become much more usable with the additional extension. If you wish to use non-telephoto lenses in this focal length range, it is definitely worth the small weight penalty of the extender. The combined weight of a non-telephoto lens plus extender is still much less than the weight of a 360mm Nikkor T-ED on a flat board.
Figure 8d. The Toho Extender in Minimum
Figure 8e. The Toho Extender in Minimum
The REAL appeal of this extender project is the ability to combine the delightfully light and compact 450mm Fujinon C with an ultralight camera like the Toho. With a flange to focal distance of 425.3mm for infinity focus, that is just not possible without some added extension. With the extender in its minimum configuration (1 11/16"), it actually becomes possible to focus the 450mm Fujinon C at infinity, but JUST barely. The bellows are stretched within a few millimeters of their limit, so there is no hope of focusing closer or using any movements. At the other extreme, with the extender at a maximum length of 4 3/8" (111mm), it is possible to focus down to about 11 feet, or use substantial movements for subjects reasonable distances from the camera. Even with just the Base Spacer plus Spacer 2, an additional 3 3/8" (86mm) of extension is provided allowing this lens to be focused down to about 16 - 17 feet. Figure 8f. shows the extender at maximum length with the 450mm Fujinon C mounted. As can be seen in Figure 8g. with this configuration focused at infinity, there is nearly 3" of bellows extension left over for movements and closer focusing.
Figure 8f. The Toho Extender in Maximum
Figure 8g. The Toho Extender in Maximum
Originally, I had two concerns about using such a long extender. The first was mechanical vignetting when using movements. I had Steve Grimes make the diameter of the spacers as large as possible to prevent this problem. Testing with the maximum extender length indicates there is absolutely no mechanical vignetting when employing the maximum rise the Toho is capable of achieving, even with the lens wide open. In other words, experimental testing has proven that mechanical vignetting is not an issue. The second concern was reduced contrast due to internal reflections. The 450mm Fujinon C has a HUGE image circle, and that means there is a lot of excess, non-image light bouncing around inside the extender. Due to their mechanical and physical properties, camera bellows do a good job absorbing most of this non-image light. So, on a camera with longer bellows (and no extender) this is rarely an issue. The extender is both smaller in diameter and lacks the geometric advantage of the pleated bellows in absorbing this light. For that reason, I have initially been using a lens shade to help limit the excess light entering the camera. I have also taken a few images without using a shade. So far, I have not noticed any reduction in contrast or other ill effects that could be attributed to internal reflections within the extender. However, before I am ready to declare this a total non-issue, further testing is definitely in order. In the end, it is possible that the use of the extender could cause a very slight reduction in contrast in some lighting situations. In these extreme cases, proper lens shading techniques (always a good idea anyway) might alleviate any problems. Once I have had a chance to further test the extender under a wider variety of lighting conditions, I will post an update. Due to the physical geometry involved, this is absolutely not an issue with the extender in its shortest configuration (as used with the 14" L.D. Artar and the 360mm Fujinon A).
Finally, if you just desire simple dedicated extender for a specific lens, both the cost and weight would be less than my more elaborate configurable model. A dedicated extender in the 3 1/2" - 4" range for use with the 450mm Fujinon C would cost about $125 (contact Steve Grimes for an exact quote) and likely weigh less than 150g. If I were getting one made today, that's the route I'd go.
One final consideration when considering lens/camera compatibility is the size of the opening in the front standard, and the size of the lensboard. In other words, how large a lens can this thing hold. To me, putting a huge lens on such a light camera seems to miss the whole point, but some of the newer wide angle designs (especially the Super Angulon XL series) have huge rear elements, so anyone considering the Toho as a general purpose camera may find this information useful. The diameter of the opening in the front standard (circular light trap) is 80mm. So, if you have a 90mm f5.6 Super Angulon XL with an 86mm diameter rear element, you're out of luck (unless you want to unscrew the rear element from the shutter every time you mount/remove the lens). The 72mm Super Angulon (75mm rear diameter) is fine, as is every other current production lens 90mm or shorter. In fact. other than the 90mm Super Angulon XL, I can't think of any lenses with a rear diameter exceeding 80mm that are commonly used on 4x5 field cameras. If you do use such large lenses, check the diameter before ordering a Toho. BTW, just for a frame of reference, the circular opening in the front standard of a Linhof (4x5 Technikardan and Technika) is about 84mm, and a Horseman (FA or HD) is about 65mm.
Pre-drilled lensboards for the Toho are available for #0 and #1 shutters only. There is no #3 lensboard available from the manufacturer. I suspect there are two reasons for this. First, any lens in a #3 shutter is probably bigger and heavier than most users would ever want to use on such a lightweight camera. Second, the mounting method for attaching #3 shutters to lensboards has changed over the years, and depending on how the shutter is mounted to the board, it might not clear the two bars used to secure the lensboard to the front standard of the Toho. The space between these two bars is 90mm and the outside diameter of a Copal #3 shutter is 102mm. The Copal #3 shutters I currently own are of two varieties (and I suspect there may be more). The first variety has a chrome plated ring for setting the shutter speeds and dates from the 1970s. The shutters I own of this type have a mounting ring that can either be used like a modern day retaining ring (mounted behind the lensboard) or the older style lens flange (mounted on the front of the lensboard using four small screws). If used like a modern retaining ring the mounting bars will not clear the body of the shutter. However, if used like an old fashioned lens flange, there will be sufficient space for the lens mounting bars to secure the board without interference from the shutter. The same is true for the current all black #3 shutters. The ones I currently own of this variety come with a mounting spacer. Placing this spacer on the front side of the lensboard (where it belongs) allows sufficient clearance for the lens mounting bars. So, with reasonable care, it would be possible to use both varieties of #3 shutters on the Toho. However, the two varieties of #3 shutters mentioned require different variations of the lensboard. So, even though it may be possible, using such a heavy lens/shutter on such a light camera is far from ideal.
One other note on the lensboards. Although the Toho round lensboards are well made and relatively inexpensive (see "Pricing and Availability" below), the Toho is also capable of using the standard Linhof/Wista lensboards. This was obviously a designed-in feature that I discovered when preparing for my trip to Colorado. When I ordered the camera, I only requested 5 lensboards (three #0 and two #1). I figured that would be enough to thoroughly evaluate the camera and make a final purchase decision. The camera actually showed up earlier than expected. I had originally intended the Grand Gulch trip in October to be the Toho field test, and was planning on taking my Canham DLC to Colorado. Since I had the camera in hand, it made since to use the Colorado trip to put it through it's paces as a general purpose camera. Problem is, I wanted to take a wider range of lenses with me to Colorado. So, not enough lens boards and no time to get more. That's when I discovered that the circular light trap on the front of the Toho was a perfect match for the raised round ridges on the back of the Linhof/Wista boards I already had for use with my Anba. A quick test confirmed that the seal was indeed light tight. Using the Linhof/Wista style boards requires that the board be mounted at an angle. It looks a little odd (See Figure 9.), but works like a charm. I used lenses mounted in Linhof/Wista boards extensively on my Colorado trip, including my much-used 210mm APO Symmar, without a single problem. So, if you already have several Linhof/Wista boards on hand, or wish to share lenses with another camera that accepts this style of board, have no fear, they are fully compatible with the Toho (note: make sure your boards have the raised circular ridges on the rear, some cheap imitation boards lack these ridges which are essential for a light tight seal).
Figure 9. Using a Wista Board on the Toho
Ease of Use: As mentioned above, the Toho is transported in two separate pieces: the monorail unit and the bellows/frames unit. To use the camera, the monorail is first attached to the tripod. As the camera comes from the factory, this is accomplished using a standard ¼-20 threaded socket in the the round monorail support base. Personally, I prefer the convenience of an Arca style quick release system (see "Modifications"). The next step is to mount the bellows/frames unit to the monorail. This is accomplished using the two large clamping knobs on the front of each vertical standard. This is a different procedure than unfolding the typical wooden field camera, but in practice takes about the same amount of time. As a comparison, I measured the set-up time of the Toho against my trusty old Anba. For an apples:apples comparison, I used Arca style quick release plates for mounting both cameras to the tripod. I used a stop watch to time how long it took the mount the camera on the tripod and unfold/assemble the camera with all movements in the neutral positions. I timed five runs with both cameras, and in all cases, for both cameras, the times were between 20 and 25 seconds. So, that's a wash. The time to assemble the two piece Toho was offset by the fact that the Anba has six knobs that need to be tightened to lock the movements in the neutral positions. The Toho has a slight advantage in that it can be transported with a lens installed. So, assuming it's the lens you want to use, that can potentially save a little set-up time. On the other hand, if it's not the lens you wish to use, you have to uninstall it and install the desired lens. Disassembly times for both designs are also comparable.
Speaking of installing lenses, the Toho requires loosening/tightening four knobs to swap lenses. In this regard it is definitely a slower than most other 4x5 cameras I have used. Again, for sake of comparison, I timed this procedure on both the Anba and the Toho. Swapping lenses on the Anba took approximately 6 - 7 seconds. For the Toho, it was in the 18 - 20 second range. BTW, these times are in the controlled comfort of my home and would likely take a little longer in the field. The extra 12 or 13 seconds may, or may not be, significant. I'm just trying to illustrate that changing lenses on the Toho is more cumbersome than other typical field cameras.
Same goes for switching between vertical and horizontal orientations. On the Toho, not only do you have to completely remove, rotate and re-install the entire bellows/frames unit, you also have to re-zero the front rise when switching between vertical and horizontal. With the Anba (like most other field cameras) you simply remove the back, rotate it 90 degrees and re-install it. For the Anba, this takes about 4 - 5 seconds, compared to the 25 - 30 seconds it takes to make the swap on the Toho. Again, it's not really the absolute times I'm trying to emphasize. This is one area where the compromises in the Toho design make it differ substantially from most other field cameras. By comparing the times, I'm attempting to convey that changing vertical/horizontal orientation on the Toho is a slower, more involved process than doing so on the typical field camera.
Movements: When using movements, I found the Toho to be a pleasure to use compared to most other field cameras. Being a monorail design means that all the controls are easily accessible no matter what focal length lens is being used. The controls are logically placed, and the knobs are large and easy to operate. Full movements on both front and rear standards, with all controls located in the same positions on both standards, makes using the camera a joy. For example my Anba does not have any direct shift capability on either standard. A shift can be accomplished indirectly by using both front a rear swing (which are also quite limited and crudely implemented on the Anba), but this is cumbersome and tends to be imprecise (no easy way to tell if the standards are precisely parallel). On the Toho, all movements are accomplished directly. No indirect movements are required (although additional front rise can be accomplished, if needed, by pointing the camera up and using the front and rear tilts to re-align the standards). The swing and tilt movements have very solid detents at the neutral positions (unlike the Canham, which has no detent for the swings), and the rise/fall and shift movements have obvious visual indicators for the neutral positions. This makes squaring up the camera with all movements in their neutral positions a piece of cake (again, unlike the Canham which is rather imprecise in this regard).
Figure 10a. Full Front Rise Combined with Rear Fall
Figure 10b. Front and Rear Tilts
Figure 10c. Front and Rear Swings
Figure 10d. Front and Rear Shifts
Figure 10e. A Very Generous Complement of Movements
In terms of displacement, I would characterize all the Toho movements as "generous" for a field camera (See Figures 10a. - e.). In terms of absolute displacements, it's only slightly less generous than my Canham, but much more so than the Anba. The Toho literature lists the available tilts as ±30 degrees and the swings as ±25 degrees on both standards. In actual practice, the forward front tilt is limited only by the bellows (not that it has any practical application, but the front can be tilted forward beyond 90 degrees). Front and rear shifts are listed as ±18mm and ±20mm respectively. In actual practice, you can get a little more (about ±27mm front and ±25mm rear). In horizontal configuration, the front rise is listed as 24mm (and front fall is 21mm). In actual use, you can push this a little to about 30mm of front rise. which can be combined with 6mm of rear fall for an effective rise of 36mm (a little less than 1.5" ). In vertical orientation, the spec is 13mm front rise (and be pushed to about 19mm) and 6mm rear fall for a total effective rise of 25mm (1"). Of course, as mentioned above, additional rise can be accomplished indirectly if needed (See Figure 11.). In fact, other than an occasional need for additional indirect rise (with lenses of sufficient coverage), I can't imagine a situation in the field where the Toho movements would not be more than sufficient.
Figure 11. Additional Front Rise using the Indirect Method
Focusing: Focusing the Toho is accomplished using a single, large, horizontal knob/dial at the base of the rear standard (See Figure 12.). As mentioned above, only the rear rail has the mating gear track for fine focusing. When changing lenses, rough focusing is accomplished by sliding the telescoping rail halves to the approximate correct position, and then fine focus is achieved by dialing it in using this knob. I like the location of the focusing knob near the rear of the camera. It's easy to locate while under the dark cloth, and doesn't require reaching far forward, like cameras with front focusing, when using long lenses. The control can be operated with either hand, but I prefer to tweak the focus with my left hand and use my right hand to tighten the focus lock knob. The focusing action is smooth and precise. I like both the design and implemetation of the focusing mechanism on the Toho. It makes focusing the camera a simple, painless process.
Figure 12. The Focusing Mechanism
Rigidity: As mentioned above, it's no Sinar. But, for such a lightweight camera, it is amazingly rigid. Like most cameras, it's least rigid at full extension (exactly where you need it to be most solid). At full extension, it definitely locks down much tighter than the Anba (which gets very rickety over the last 1" of extension). The problem, and my Canham is the same way, is not a question of things locking down tight. It's a function of the "springiness" of the metal. Unlike the little Anba, which is just plain weak at full extension, the Toho (and the Canham) vibrates like a tuning fork when when bumped at full extension. The key is just to allow sufficient time for all vibrations to die down before tripping the shutter. In other words, wait ten or fifteen seconds after touching the camera to trip the shutter. As I said, the Canham, a much heavier, more robust camera, has this same characteristic. Also like the Canham, it doesn't seem to be a problem during actual use. As long as you allow sufficient time for all vibrations to dampen out and the camera to return to its steady-state condition before tripping the shutter, you should notice no ill effects on your images. On the Colorado trip, I used the 500mm Nikkor T-ED extensively and there was no sign of camera vibration on any of my transparencies. Of course, when using shorter lenses, the camera is very rigid (again, amazingly so for such a light camera). So, it's no Sinar, but it does the job (and who'd want to carry a Sinar on a six day backpacking trip?).
Modifications: Being a former engineer, I'm always looking for ways to improve everything I use (it's just my nature). In general, I found the Toho design to be very well conceived and executed. It was obviously designed by someone who is also a photographer. It has full movements with controls that are easy to use and logically located. It is very lightweight, but still decently rigid with a more generous bellows extension than most cameras in the 3 lb. class. The accessories are few, but they also appear well thought out and designed to complement the basic camera without adding excessive weight or bulk. That said, I did find a couple things to change. I made two small, but I think significant, non-permanent modifications. Here's the details.
Tripod Mount: As mentioned above, the stock tripod mount was a round platform with a standard ¼-20 mounting thread. I found this solution lacking in a couple of regards. First, I prefer the Arca style quick release mounting clamps over conventional threaded tripod mounts. They are faster and more convenient to use with less chance of dropping the camera when mounting/dismounting. Also, they often provide a more rigid connection between the camera and support system. That was definitely the case with the Toho. The stock round tripod mounting base appeared to be a weak link in the rigidity of the camera/tripod system. The surface area where the base connected to the monorail was quite small and of odd shape (round). I replaced this base with an Arca style quick release plate from Really Right Stuff (their model #B80). The holes in this plate lined up perfectly with the mounting holes in the Toho rail. So, by simply unscrewing the stock circular tripod mount and bolting on the RRS plate, I got a faster, more convenient method of attaching the camera to the tripod, PLUS it also improved the rigidity of the system. As an added bonus, the RRS plate was ½ oz. lighter than the stock tripod mount. The RRS plate arrived two days before my Colorado trip, so I used it as is. With a little more time before the Grand Gulch trip, I shortened the RRS plate down to 1 3/4" - the same length as the Kirk Enterprises Arca style quick release clamp I use on my backpacking tripod (See Fugure 13.). This saved another ½ oz. of weight. So, in the end, faster, easier to use, sturdier and an ounce lighter.
Figure 13. Stock Tripod Mounting Block and Shortened RRS Replacement
Focusing Hood: The Toho came equipped with a removable focusing hood that doubles as a ground glass protector during transport (See Figure 14.). As far as focusing hoods go, it is an OK design, and the intention seems obvious - eliminate the need to carry a focusing cloth. In practice, I personally, have little use for focusing hoods of any design. Like most others (with the exception of the old all metal Graphic models) the sides of this hood are made of a thin vinyl material that tends to bow in when the hood is opened. This makes it hard to see the entire ground glass without using your hands (which are needed for adjusting the tripod head and camera controls when composing and focusing) to hold the sides of the hood fully open. Plus, like all other such focusing hoods, it doesn't form a very light tight seal between face and camera. This means stray light hitting the ground glass making it harder to compose and focus. Finally, all of these hoods seem to be just a little too long and get in the way just a little too much when attempting to use a focusing loupe. So, I prefer to use a conventional darkcloth and a loupe for focusing and composing on the ground glass. Based on my personal preferences, the only remaining benefit of the hood was as a ground glass protector, and at 3½ oz. it seemed heavier than necessary for that task. Since the method of attaching/detaching the hood was simple enough, I decided to try something a little lighter as a ground glass protector (mind you, I've carried my Anba in my backpack for years with no ground glass protector and never a broken glass, but better safe than sorry). A trip to the local craft store yielded just what I needed, some 1/8" think foam core. A 12" square section was cut down in size to make four ground glass protectors for a whopping $1.80. The original focusing hood was a hair under 1/8" thick, so I needed to add two thin washers to the attachment points (another $0.10) to accommodate the slightly thicker foam core (See Figure 15.). Total weight savings - 3¼ oz. The local craft store only had the 1/8" thick foam core in white, but I'm going to try to locate some in gray so my ground glass protector can double as a gray card.
Figure 14. Toho Focusing Hood (right) and Foam Core Ground Glass Protector (left)
Figure 15. Foam Core Ground Glass Protector Mounted on the Camera
So, after both modifications, the camera (with ground glass protector) tips the scales at 2 lbs. 12½ oz. A total weight savings of 4¼ oz. (hey, that's almost 8.5%) with no sacrifice in performance or function. IMHO, the mods didn't just make the camera lighter, but easier to use and more rigid. Win:win.
Figure 16. General Purpose 4x5 Field System:
Getting Around: Carrying large format gear in the field is always an issue. Obviously, a lighter camera is preferable, but it's not just a question of weight, bulk is also an issue. There is only so much room in a pack, and the camera has to fit in there with everything else. The unusual two-piece construction of the Toho may actually be slightly advantageous in this regard. Taken on whole the two pieces of the Toho definitely take up more volume than the Anba, and are probably on par with the Canham. However, what you get is two small pieces rather than one big piece. The Anba and the Canham fold up clamshell style. The Canham is a sturdy metal camera that comes with it's own padded case which makes transporting it in the field a simple matter. I have always carried the Anba in the field by simply wrapping it in my darkcloth and placing it in he bottom of a small daypack with my lenses in protective wraps. Although the Anba is a wood camera and the ground glass was protected only by the darkcloth, I never encountered any problems carrying it in this manner. The Toho came with two small padded cases, which I used on the Colorado trip. On that trip, the Toho, seven lenses (eight focal lengths), film, meter, filters, etc. were carried in a Kelty Redwing pack with the addition of a divider insert from a Pelican case (See Figure 16.). The bellows frame unit, in its padded case, rode in the divider insert in the main body of the pack with the lenses, meter and film (just as a side note, the Canham would not fit in this same divider set and still allow room for all seven lenses). The monorail unit, in it's padded case, was carried in one of the side compartments on the Kelty. This method worked fine and offered the camera a good deal of protection with quick and easy access to all the lenses (no individual lens wraps to fiddle with). For the backpacking trip to Grand Gulch, I wanted to keep both the weight and bulk as low as possible. For that trip, I eliminated the Toho supplied cases and carried the camera gear in a smaller daypack, The North Face Yavapai model (See Figure 17.). Like the Anba, I wrapped the bellows/frames unit inside the darkcloth for protection. Unlike the Anba, I also had the 1/8" foam core for additional protection of the ground glass. I also carried this section of the camera with a lens installed. That took up less room in the pack, protected the ground glass from the front and occasionally made set-up/tear-down go a little faster. This bundle rode in the main body of the daypack along with the other two lenses (in protective wraps) and my film (Fuji Quickloads). The monorail section was carried in an outer compartment on the front of the daypack without any additional protection (it's all metal with no overly fragile parts). When not photographing, the daypack was carried (along with my clothes) in the top compartment of my large Kelty external frame backpack. This made it easy to pull the daypack out of the larger backpack whenever I wanted to photograph something. It also meant I could leave the larger backpack at the campsite and head off on dayhikes with my camera gear. This is the same method I've been using with the Anba for years. I've never had any damage to the Anba, but the Toho, with the ground glass protector and metal construction, seems even less prone to damage in the field.
Figure 17. Lightweight 4x5 Backpacking System:
In North America, the Toho Shimo FC-45X is available from Badger Graphic (800-558-5350). As of this writing, the price is $1295.00 (please note: this price is subject to change based on currency exchange rates - best to call for current pricing). Also, as of this writing, lensboards for the Toho are $25.00 each and the Eccentric Lens Panel is $225.00 (again, best to call for current prices). In Great Britain, the Toho Shimo FC-45X is available from Robert White with a current selling price is £645. Lensboards are £15 each. From either source, call for prices and availability in colors other than the standard black.
The Toho Shimo FC-45X is lighter in weight than any of the currently available traditional flat bed wooden field cameras. It also has a longer bellows, more versatile movements and is more rigid than the lightweight wood models. Where weight is a concern (i.e. backpacking, or long dayhikes), this camera excels. In some operations (changing between vertical and horizontal orientations, and changing lenses), it is slower and more cumbersome to operate than more conventional designs. In all other respects, the Toho is a breeze to use. It is very easy to set all the movements to their neutral positions. There are very positive center detents on all tilt and swing movements, and clearly marked neutral positions on the rise/fall and shift movements. Due to the telescoping design of the monorail, it is fast and convenient to adjust the camera for any focal length lens. For landscape use, this camera adequately handles lenses from 75mm - 500mm telephoto (or 360mm non-telephoto) without additional accessories. With the optional Toho Eccentric Lens Panel, it is possible to use even shorter lenses without the compressed bellows restricting movements.
I was initially interested in the Toho strictly as a backpacking camera, as a replacement for my Anba Ikeda Wood View. The camera was sent to me on a trial basis to see if it would be up to that task. Once I actually had my hands on the camera, that decision was a "no-brainer". It was able to accommodate a wider range of lenses than the Anba, was nearly as light (slightly lighter after the simple "Modifications" described above), had better movements and was more rigid. That lead me to consider it as an all-around camera, possibly even a replacement for my Canham DLC. At this point, I am holding onto the Canham due to the longer bellows (it allows me to use the wonderful little 450mm Fujinon C, or the 720mm Nikkor T-ED). Still, if you don't anticipate using lenses at the extreme focal lengths, and don't mind the slightly more cumbersome method of swapping vertical/horizontal orientations, the little Toho is amazingly versatile for such a lightweight camera.
In terms of capabilities, the Toho Shimo FC-45X falls pretty much right smack in the middle of the gap between the lightweight, short bellows drop bed cameras and the heavier, long bellows models. I don't think it's any coincidence that it also falls between the two extremes in terms of selling price. All view camera designs are a series of trade-offs involving cost, weight, rigidity, versatility, etc. The Toho seems to have been targeted at a definite niche between the two extremes (light, inexpensive and limited vs. heavy, expensive and versatile), and it fills that niche quite nicely. It is a well thought out and executed design that should appeal to the many large format nature photographers who prefer a lightweight camera, but long for something a little more versatile than the typical lightweight wood field. At it's current selling price, I believe it represents a good value in terms of price vs. performance. If this sounds like a camera that will meet your needs, I recommend checking out the Toho Shimo FC-45X, in whatever color you prefer.
© Kerry L. Thalmann, 1999, 2001