My dream camera

By Jonathan Bourla


Clearly if you were to ask a number of different photographers what their dream cameras were, you would get a variety of responses as everyone’s needs (and wants) are different. My primary camera is a four by five inch field view camera, made by the English firm of Gandolfi, which sadly ceased to trade in recent years after a very long history of production. I scan the negatives produced on the Gandolfi and create a digital file to be interpreted on the computer. I then print the fine art photographs on cotton rag paper with pigment inks.

gandolfi-cameraI also have a second camera, a Mamiya 7 medium format rangefinder, for those occasional times when, for example, the weather is too extreme for the bigger and susceptible Gandolfi.

I have been a staunch film user. In general with film, the bigger the film size the better. Of course with the bigger film size usually comes a corresponding increase in camera size, and cumbersomeness, so different photographers may find their ideal camera is a compromise between film size and camera practicality. Four by five inch is the most commonly used large format size, although there are much bigger cameras available, from five by seven inch up to a whopping twenty by twenty four inch! Not exactly a pocket camera! So what of the digital world? In the small 35mm-like digital single lens reflex models, the pinacle is the “full frame”. The next step up is to a medium format digital back, and the “full frame” models here are approximately six by four and a half centimetres in size. There are larger backs than these, intended for large format cameras, but they work in a different way. Known as scanning backs, they apparently produce excellent results but are not ideal for use in the field.

So how do the medium format digital backs compare to a good scan from a four by five inch negative? Going just on the number of pixels produced I had assumed the scanned negative would be the easy winner, but I started reading online from photographers that said the results were comparable. Since I didn’t know of these photographers I was rather sceptical, until I read an article by Charles Cramer, who from magazine articles I knew to be very exacting and demanding of very high standards.

phase_one_iq260_achromaticI understand that for a given digital sensor size there will be an optimum number of pixels. The manufacturers can squeeze on more pixels per inch, but there are quality compromises like increased noise. Looking at the medium format backs, the current state of the art is sixty or eighty megapixels. I made the assumption sixty was best. One digital back really caught my eye – the Phase One IQ260 Achromatic. This is a black and white only device, and I thought this would be the most similar to what I am used to with black and white film. There is also a supposed resolution advantage to using such a digital back. Colour sensors have a special built-in filter to create the colour image. This is known as a Bayer filter, and although it does its job admirably, it is said to cause a loss in resolution. I have read a couple of reviews of these achromatic backs, one which reported this advantage over a similarly sized colour sensor, whereas another report said there was no measureable difference. So who knows?

So what camera body to go with the Achromatic back? You might think I would want a high end view camera. The one that springs to mind is the Japanese-made Ebony brand, which has a reputation as the ultimate wooden field view cameras. But I’m happy with my Gandolfi. After I had bought it, I found two areas of its operation to be problematic. I decided to effect some DIY modifications – with hindsight really quite a sacrilege for such a lovely new camera – but the modifications did the trick, and I find the Gandolfi an effective tool.

ALPA_max_wooden_handles_largeNo, I would love a camera that was in some way a melding of my Gandolfi and Mamiya cameras. My choice is an Alpa Max. Alpa is a Swiss company that produces specialist cameras, built to very exacting tolerances. They even have a system of shims, to get the digital back in perfect registration. The Max has camera movements of rise & fall, and left & right shift. There is an adapter to offer tilt, but with wide angle lenses this isn’t really necessary. The Alpa cameras were, I believe, originally intended for use with medium format film backs, in particular modified Linhof models. Now one can also use them with medium format digital backs, like the Phase One Achromatic I mentioned. Another possibility of the camera movements, in addition to image perspective control, is to make photo stitching possible. Using the camera’s stitching adapter you can keep the lens stationary and perform stitching movements on the camera back only – an ideal situation. The movements offered by the Alpa Max would seem ideal for a medium format digital back, and combined with the Achromatic would seem to make an ideal camera system for me.


Of course, a camera system isn’t a proper camera without a lens (or lenses). I have been loyal to Schneider Kreuznach with my Gandolfi camera. I have three lenses I use all the time, from a very wide angle, a moderate wide angle, to a mildly long lens. I also have a longer telephoto lens of much older vintage which I thought at time of purchase I could use, but find in reality it is left at home most of the time. Schneider make a range of lenses geared to digital sensors, called Apo-Digitar.  They also produce an exclusive range of lenses for Alpa called Apo Switar and Alpa Helvetar.


So there you have it, my dream camera of Alpa Max body; Phase One IQ260 Achromatic digital back; and Schneider  Apo-Digitar lenses and Schneider/Alpa Apo Switar and Apo Helvetar.   Hopefully one day I will be lucky enough to have first-hand experience of this dream camera system.

Jonathan Bourla

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