Buerbekken

Buerbekken
Viken, Norway - August 2021

Having a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera (MILC) or a digital single-lens mirrorless (DSLM) as they are known as, or even an old fasion digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera is great! You have fast and accurate auto focus, clean high ISO and long exposure images in a reasonably priced system. But what if you really wanted a fancy digital view camera (FDVC)? And what is it a view camera can do that you miss by only having a MILC?

Caveat emptor

This article is written with tongue in cheek, but there is good information here. I will give useful and practical information along the way, and sum opp what to do in real life at the end, so read on. Also remember that this is written from the point of view of a landscape photographer taking images of things that for the most part don’t move! For other kinds of photography this will not make any sense at all. When I’m shooting handheld I use a completely different technique and lenses on my R5, and use the auto focus in the R5 to it’s full capability.

View Camera

Let’s be honest. At some point when you are sitting there filming 8k with your Canon R5, hoping to extract the best frame in post, you will realize that you are getting into trouble fast! The camera is filling up your memory cards awfully fast (at CFexpress speed!), it’s eating your batteries, and the camera will soon be to hot to touch! At that point you realize that you really need a view camera to slow things down to take a more artistic approach to your photography.

So lets start by having a look at what sets a view camera with a digital back from Phase One apart from a common DSLM/MILC like the Canon R5, and what our requirements for a FDVC (fancy digital view camera, remember) is. I propose that the requirements is the following:

  • High price
  • Manual focus
  • Lens tilt and swing
  • Rise, fall and shift of front and back
  • High resolution and a larger sensor size
  • Must have a tripod
  • External light metering
  • Slow to use

Will it be possible to get some or most of these traits that exists in a digital view camera, by “rebuilding” a Canon EOS R5 with stuff you can buy? Let’s try!

Equipment needed

This is a list of what is needed to convert your Canon R5 into a view camera the McGyver way.

  • Tripod: A solid tripod is a must, something along the lines of Gitzo GT3542LS Systematic 6X Carbon. Tripod Weight is 1.96kg and it can handle 25kg.
  • Tripod Head: A good tripod head is just like the tripod an must have. I recommend the Arca-Swiss d4 Geared Tripod Head. It makes precise adjustments very easy compared to a ball head that tends to sag after you tighten the knob.
  • L-plate: A RRS L-plate for the camera to have an effective way to mount the camera to the tripod head in both landscape and portrait format.
  • Cable release: A cable release is a must have to not introduce shake when exposing the image.
  • Bubble level: Hot shoe two-axis bubble level to get things nice and level.
  • Tilt/shift lenses: Buy the Canon TS-E lenses in the focal length that suits your needs
    • Canon TS-E 17mm f/4L
    • Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L II
    • Canon TS-E 50mm f/2.8L Macro
    • Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8L Macro
    • Canon TS-E 135mm f/4L Macro
    • Or buy some of the older versions used. The old Canon TS-E 90mm f/2.8 is an especially nice and sharp lens, and one of my favorite focal lengths. There is also a ton of other brand lenses that can be bought used an put on a Canon camera with adapters.
  • Focusing Rail: Focusing Rail & Slider. Buy Really Right Stuff Macro Focus Rail Package With B150,LMT,B2-FAB.
  • Light meter: Light meter with spot metering and incident metering. And if you buy a light meter you should get one with a flash meter as well. I use a Sekonic L-558 Dual Master.

Tripod Tripod Head L-plate Calble release Bubble level Tilt/shift lenses Focusing rail Light meter Camera

After buying the equipment above (and the Canon R5!) you will realize that you have spent quite a bit of money, so you are now close to satisfying the high price requirement of a view camera, even if we still are far from the price of a real view camera with a digital back. And since the lenses needed only have manual focus, that requirement is also met.

  • High price
  • Manual focus
  • Lens tilt and swing
  • Rise, fall and shift of front and back
  • High resolution and a larger sensor size
  • Must have a tripod
  • External light metering
  • Slow to use

That was easy, but what about the rest of requirements?

Camera movements

Tilt and swing

This is built into the TS-E lenses, so this is easy to do. But it’s a bit tricky to get the plane of focus right by only looking through the viewfinder of a DSLR. The lenses have the possibility of up to 8° of tilt or swing, and the lenses can be rotated so you can use Scheimpflug principle to place your plane of focus in any direction.

Rise, Fall and Shift

Front rise, fall and shift is also built into the TS-E lenses with ± 12 mm of movement.

Focusing Rail & Slider from RRS

Focusing Rail & Slider from RRS

To get the back rise, fall and shift movements we use the focusing rail & slider B150B + LMT + B2-FAB from RRS (see picture). If you want a left shift of the back, you shift the lens to the right, and use the focusing rail to shift the whole system the same amount to the left. That way the lens will stay in the exact same position and you have effectively done a left shift of the back.

  • High price
  • Manual focus
  • Lens tilt and swing
  • Rise, fall and shift of front and back
  • High resolution and a larger sensor size
  • Must have a tripod
  • External light metering
  • Slow to use

So we have managed to make a system that can duplicate most lens movements in a view camera.

High resolution and a large sensor

There is only one way to get this from a MILC: stitching.

By using the capabilities of back shift, rise or fall, you can take two, three or four separate exposures of the same image though the same lens but positioning the sensor in different spots within image circle of the lens. Because the TS-E lenses cover a larger image circle than needed (58.6 mm), you are in fact just using more of the available image circle than one frame can capture by itself. This is why there is no distortion or registration problems when doing the stitching, and that makes it possible to do flat stitching without the need to do any cylindrical projection.

By doing this it is possible to double the amount of pixels captured, letting you get approx 100 Mpix images in a variety of formats, from 2:5 aspect ratio to 3:4. And by doing this you are in effect getting images that would be the same as using a larger sensor. By using your back movements carefully, you can get the following “sensor sizes”:

  • 60 mm x 24 mm (3 horizontal images shifted ± 12 mm)
  • 48 mm x 36 mm (3 vertical images shifted ± 12 mm)
  • 53 mm x 41 mm (4 images shifted ± 12 mm at 45°)

Back in the old days when the solar system had nine planets, you had to process the three raw files using the same white balance and setting in your raw converter, and then process them into PhotoShop. Create a new file with a large enough canvas, and then copy the files onto the new one. Each would be on its own Layer. Line them up to roughly overlap, and then enlarge the join area to about 300%. Reduce the transparency of one of the Layers to about 50%-75% and then move them so that they are in registration. This worked because of the clever use of tilt/shift lenses so the images could register up perfectly. This was very important when part of the scene was close to the camera, to avoid parallax errors.

Railroad Tracks

Railroad Tracks
Buskerud, Norway - May 2010

Today it’s so easy to stitch together RAW-files in Lightroom to a new DNG-file, that it’s almost no fun anymore. But only almost. I do not miss the old days with all the manual work.

So we now see that we have been able to increase the effective size of the sensor and increase the resolution. As a bonus we also have gotten a great panoramic format 2:5 with the R5. And to do all this with stitching and back shifting we must use a tripod, or the whole thing falls apart. So that requirement of a view camera is also satisfied.

  • High price
  • Manual focus
  • Lens tilt and swing
  • Rise, fall and shift of front and back
  • High resolution and a larger sensor size
  • Must have a tripod
  • External light metering
  • Slow to use

External light metering

When shooting this way you have to use the camera in manual mode. All exposures must be equal to make stitching possible (or at least easy), and when you are using shifts the cameras internal light metering will not see the whole picture to evaluate the “best” exposure. The solution is to use an external light meter like the Sekonic L-558 to make a good measurement.

  • High price
  • Manual focus
  • Lens tilt and swing
  • Rise, fall and shift of front and back
  • High resolution and a larger sensor size
  • Must have a tripod
  • External light metering
  • Slow to use

Slow usage

With all the things mentioned above going on you are definitely slowing down, you are now at view camera speed.

  • High price
  • Manual focus
  • Lens tilt and swing
  • Rise, fall and shift of front and back
  • High resolution and a larger sensor size
  • Must have a tripod
  • External light metering
  • Slow to use

And we have ticket off on all our requirements. We have successfully managed rebuild a Canon R5 to a capable view camera!

Conclusion

It’s possible to get much of the capabilities of a view camera this way and at much lower price point than buying av Phase One digital back to a view camera.

But does it work?

In short: yes! The images below is the first two images I shot this way, and the result is two perfect 20+ megapixel images taken with my original Canon 5D in 2006!

Dead Tree

Dead Tree
Buskerud, Norway - July 2006

Dry River

Dry River
Viken, Norway - July 2006

Other resources

Here is some links to other articles that describes much of the same as I have done here:

  • Horseman LD Review: Another way to use a DSLR as a view camera is to buy a Horseman LD as described in this article by Bernard Languillier.
  • Avoiding parallax: Digital Outback Photo article about avoiding parallax while stitching with shift lenses.

End Note

So do I use all this equipment and technique to make my images?

Well yes, mostly. 15 years ago this was my workflow when I wanted to make an image. And I used all this stuff! But today, more than 15 years later, there have been some advances in the cameras and software that makes it possible to take some shortcuts to simplify the whole thing.

The most important improvement is in computer software. Today you do not need tilt/shift lenses to get the depth of field from front to back (use focus stacking), and stitching software today handles and stitches images taken with ordinary lenses also.

So, what equipment do I use, and what do I feel I don’t need anymore? Here is the breakdown:

  • Tripod: Yes, absolutely needed.
  • Tripod Head: Yes, absolutely needed.
  • L-plate: Again, yes, absolutely needed.
  • Cable release: Useful, but these days I prefer a 2 sec. timer and touch release. Much simpler and no cable to put into the camera. The Canon R5 can also be controlled with an app from the phone, so no need to touch the camera once things are set up and you are waiting for the light or the right moment.
  • Bubble level: Not needed. The Canon R5 (and most other cameras today) have an excellent electronic level that I use.
  • Tilt/shift lenses: This is essential for me. I love the tilt/shift lenses and the capabilities they offer.
  • Focusing Rail: Not needed any more, the software today can do miracles stitching together images, even with some parallax error.
  • Light meter: Almost never use this any more, live preview and knowing my sensor does the job.

Tripod Tripod Head L-plate Tilt/shift lenses Camera

Examples

Below you can see some of my images that have been made this way, and that have benefited by the use of lenses with tilt/shift, and to utilize the ability make the plane of focus go where I needed it, not at a fixed distance from the lens.


Lørenskog, Norway - September 10, 2021