In February I spent a week with my good friend Scott London shooting in Death Valley and the Salton Sea. My camera of choice this trip was my new Cambo Wide RS AE camera and the Leaf Aptus II 12 digital back. It was a fantastic trip and great way to get familiar with this technical camera.
At first I thought I'd made a mistake going with the Cambo Wide RS instead of the Arca R. I was disappointed at the lack of focus precision on the Cambo lens compared to the many turns of focus resolution on the Arca. However, within about an hour of using the Cambo I was very happy I made the decision to go with it. Other's have reported the fine focussing of the Arca can be a hindrance and for my style of shooting this would almost certainly have been the case.
The Cambo Wide RS AE is a joy to use. Originally I'd planned to purchase the non AE model and I'm so glad the folks at Capture Integration talked me into the AE model. Aside from being an absolutely beautiful camera, the movements are smooth and fast and shifts are well marked. Shifts have positive detents every 5mm but do not have locks. Locks would be a welcome addition as it's possible to roll on some shift by accident when handling the camera. On a couple of occasions I noticed a small amount of unwanted shift after a shot. This can be a real problem if you think you're shooting centered and haven't made an LCC exposure. However, after shooting with the body for a while you just get used to checking shift before making an exposure.
Bubble levels are located top, bottom, and side and are of just the right precision.
Fitted with the Schneider TS lens, access to the focus and shutter controls is tight and takes a little getting used to. But the compact size of the camera is very welcome and after a while your fingers just know where to find everything. One thing that seems to be missing are options for attaching any straps. The beautiful grips are a little on the small side and those with larger hands would appreciate an alternate way of really getting a grip on the camera (with an expensive back attached to it) when handling it off tripod.
Latches for the back adapter are smooth and positive but without locks. On one occasion I noticed one of the latches open. This can be a little unnerving to discover. A little gaffer's tape provides a lot of comfort and insurance.
I used the optional cambo viewfinder with lens mask about half the time. I like it quite a lot. I usually carry it detached from the camera and often would pop it out of my bag and pre-frame a shot using it off-camera. On camera it's a great aid at getting you in the ballpark but you'll use the preview on the Aptus for all of your precise framing adjustments.
The back sync cord is a tad of a nuisance, but a necessary one. A coiled cord was provided with my system and works fairly well. I'll be checking to see if a shorter non coiled version is available but then again a non coiled version won't offer any give in the event it gets snagged. In any case I'll be sure to carry a spare with me as without this cable you're dead in the water.
The Cambo comes with a short shutter cable release that can be threaded through the handle. It's ok, but I wound up taking it off and leaving it in the bag. In its place I use a much longer release that I do not pass through the handle. Shooting on tripod this is much preferred and off tripod is no bother to hold the release in either hand.
Focus; this is the big issue with these cameras. If you haven't used a technical camera before you'll discover the approach to focus is really quite different from focusing a small dslr or a view camera. Before purchasing my Cambo I was just sure that I would focus using the ground glass despite what I was reading on line and hearing from CI about using presets. Well, in my opinion you can just about forget using the ground glass, at least for something as wide angle as the 47mm. I print very large and critical focus is very important to me and I can tell you that presets work. If you're not using lens tilt, figuring out your own presets should be fairly simple. If you are using tilt (I use tilt often) then things get a little trickier.
For those of you with view camera experience, forget about dialing in tilt visually while using a ground glass. As a starting point you need to dial in tilt using measurements of lens height off the ground. Remember, this is just a starting point and the following is only good if your camera is level and the ground part of your subject is level. If you're shooting up slope or down slope then you'll have to make some adjustments, but this starting point will help you get close. For a given lens focal length, every degree (or fraction thereof) corresponds to an exact lens height above the ground. Here's a sample table for a 47mm lens:
Tilt Distance off the ground
1/2 degree 17.6 feet
1 degree 106 inches
1-1/2 degrees 60 inches
2 degrees 53"
3 degrees 35"
4 degrees 26"
5 degrees 21"
Ok, so you're half way there. Now you have to determine where your new focus at infinity is. My approach to determining this was to set the camera up at night, and at each degree of tilt, focus using the ground glass on a distant point of light. Perhaps a better way of doing this would be to shoot tethered and to zoom your shots to check focus, but this wasn't available to me at the time. With the Schneider 47mm, infinity focus moves toward you as you dial in more tilt. Unfortunately the last engraving on the 47mm lens before infinity is 30 feet. My suggestion is to add your own additional focus reference marks on the focus ring. Using a tiny paint brush and white acrylic paint I made 3 arbitrary marks between the infinity mark and the 30 foot mark. I did this before I ever took the camera into the field so I wasn't sure if it would be useful. Well, those marks made all the difference. For example, in my case infinity at 2 degrees of tilt is at my "dot #3". I determined this using the method above. If the ground is flat where you are shooting and you have measured your lens height off the ground, have dialed in the right tilt, and focused on your new infinity preset, your image will be absolutely dead sharp from the close foreground through infinity. Of course, there's more to it than that. Your choice of f stop will determine how "fat" your focus wedge is and usually our shooting world is not flat. But, however you determine your best tilt, your new infinity reference will always be correct as long as your camera is level.
The Aptus II 12 back; My high resolution camera choice before shooting the Aptus was 8x10 film. I decided to try out the 80 megapixel back because I felt I was just missing too many shots with the 8x10. 8x10 film resolution is killer and yes, film does have it's own wonderful character, but none of this matters if you miss the shot. My venture into digital MF with the Aptus II 12 was no disappointment. The images it creates are just stunning and the Schneider 47mm produces exquisitely sharp images. I don't think I really believed the claims of extended dynamic range before I started shooting and this was not a factor in my decision. However, there is absolutely no question that the Aptus back provides measurable extension of dynamic range. Before I started to play with this gem I expected that I'd be doing a lot of exposure stacking. After now shooting the back in many high contrast situations I can tell you that I'll rarely need to exposure stack. It really is that good.
The display of the Aptus in daylight is marginal. You'll want to come up with your own scheme for using the display in bright sunlight. Using wide gaffers tape I made a hood that I could slide on an off the back. It was easy to make and worked great. I also ended up using a dark t-shirt as a kind of dark cloth. This worked wonderfully as well and I'm not sure I'll even go to the trouble of fashioning anything more formal. All of this is important as you'll be using the 100% review mode on the back to check focus and you need to be able to see the screen well to do so.
The Aptus user interface is very straightforward and intuitive. In no time I figured out how to navigate my way around.
Again, I want to say the image quality of the Leaf Aptus II 12 is just stunning. My hopes were high, but this system exceeded my expectations by a wide margin. I had hoped for a kit that provided a significant increase in agility over my 8x10 kit while returning a competitive level of image resolution and quality. Both goals were met handily by the Cambo and Aptus.
I also want to thank Doug, Chris, Andrei, and Dave at Capture Integration for their help in choosing the right components for me and their support while I was just getting started. Pre-sale they suggested a few changes to my kit that proved to be exactly right on. And their reputation for customer service is well earned. While on my trip I ordered a few extra batteries and chargers and they really came through getting them to me overnight.