View Cameras  –  Vintage Camera Type

Typical View Camera Traits

Construction: wood / metal
Lens Quality: high
User Controls: comprehensive

View Camera Characteristics

Fundamentally, view cameras are cameras that feature a removable ground glass viewfinder that sits directly on the film plane. An inverted image is projected directly onto the ground glass from the lens without the aid of any mirrors or prisms and, once composition and focus are finalized, the ground glass can be removed and a film holder (typically containing sheet film or glass plates) can be inserted in its place to take the picture. Furthermore, a flexible bellows sits between the rear standard (which houses the film plane) and the front standard (to which a lens is attached) on the vast majority of view cameras, allowing for movement. Although most definitions also require a view camera to be large format, I will include smaller format cameras like the Ernemann Heag XV that otherwise ticks all the boxes.

View cameras are second only to box cameras in terms of age and even then, it’s a very close second since many early box cameras can be technically classified as view cameras themselves. View cameras as we now know them first emerged sometime in the 1840s as early photographic mediums like the daguerreotype became available. Many of these early cameras—which were typically made of mahogany with brass fittings and could be folded up for relatively easy transport—were naturally built by cabinet makers since they were already well versed in both precision woodwork and hinges. Many of these artisans would take advantage of this opportunity to branch out into the rapidly growing camera industry for good. As technology eventually progressed, metal began to replace wood and two main categories of view cameras came into being: the field camera and the monorail camera.

The earliest view cameras were field cameras: foldable behemoths that were next to impossible to operate without setting them up on a tripod. Two notable companies still in operation today that have a long history of building wooden field cameras are Gandolfi of London which started in 1885 and Deardorff which was initially founded in Chicago as a camera repair service in 1893 but became a camera company in 1923. A well-known subtype of field cameras are press cameras like the Graflex Speed Graphic which became extremely popular among photojournalists in the 1930s (case in point, the Graflex Crown Graphic in my collection once belonged to a St. Louis area newspaper). Designed for speed, press cameras usually offer an external viewfinder for composition so that the photographer can keep film loaded and ready to go at all times. Press photographers like Weegee used these cameras (which were small and light enough to be hand-held) to document grisly crime scenes and other newsworthy events (the Hindenburg disaster, for example) all over the world.

As the name might suggest, a monorail camera’s front and rear standards are each mounted to and travel along a rail as opposed to a flat, rigid base. The ability to independently position and adjust both film and lens (as opposed to the typically fixed film plane of a field camera) means that monorail cameras enjoy significantly more flexibility. There are four primary types of movement for the film plane and/or the lens board on monorail cameras: rise/fall (vertical movement), shift (lateral movement), tilt (slanting forward or backward), and swing (swiveling from side to side). With this level of control, there’s not much you can’t do on a monorail camera when it comes to photography. On the downside, adjustability and simplistic design mean that monorail cameras are not exactly portable; most of them need to be loaded into bulky cases in order to be safely transported. Popular monorail camera manufacturers include Sinar, Calumet, Toyo, Linhof, Horseman, Omega, and Cambo.

As with all camera types, there are a few models here and there that defy convention. There are several models like the Hasselblad SWC and Kodak Medalist that effectively become view cameras when used with ground glass accessory backs. There are also a few strut-folding view cameras like the Plaubel Makina and compact press cameras like the Mamiya Super 23. Last but not least is the truly unusual Jos-Pe Dreifarbenkamera which simultaneously takes three separate exposures (each through a red, green, or blue filter) on three glass plates as part of an early technique for color printing.

Interested in starting or growing your own collection of view cameras?
Check eBay to see what’s available.

McKeown, James M. and Joan C. McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique and Classic Cameras, 2001-2002. (Grantsburg, WI, USA: Centennial Photo Service, 2001), p 174, 241, 260, 268, 306, 354, 538-539.

Holmes, Edward. An Age of Cameras. (Hertfordshire, UK: Fountain Press Argus Books Ltd., 1974), 10-11.

Vintage Camera Lab