The Shen-Hao HZX4x5-II Large Format Field Camera

by Ken Cravillion | December 1, 2004

© Ken CravillionWhy large format? Large format allows you to slow down and methodically perform every aspect of image making. You have control over metering, focus and composition. Another advantage is the large film area. We are talking 4″x5″ of film to render even the minutest detail, thirteen times the size of 35mm film! Grain virtually disappears on a print of any size up to 40″x50″.

To get going in large format, at bare minimum you need a camera, lens, film holder, dark cloth for focusing, meter and a tripod.

Due to the convincing of Danny Burk who also shoots 4×5, I decided to return to large format after a year’s hiatus. It was hard deciding what camera to get, as initially I wanted a Toyo 45CF because it was selling for a low price. This is a very light camera made of carbon fiber and plastic. I had heard many positive and negative reports about the camera, with the biggest negative being a lack of certain movements which were important to me. I then discovered a company in my home state of Wisconsin which stocked the Shen-Hao camera for a reasonable $625. I visited to look at the camera and ended up coming home with one.


The Shen-Hao camera is built with teak wood and comes in a natural wood finish (illustrated here) or painted black. The build quality is good, with the camera sturdy and stable. All of the controls are easy to turn and when locked down make the camera pretty rigid. Set-up is a snap, taking only minutes to unfold and shoot when necessary. The camera folds into a pretty compact size for transport.

The ground glass (where you focus the image) is reasonably bright with normal and long lenses. Wide lenses can sometimes be a problem to focus as with any large format camera.

Rapids near Bond Falls, upper Michigan © Ken Cravillion

Rapids near Bond Falls, Upper Michigan

Shen-Hao © Ken Cravillion
Side view © Ken Cravillion
Alternate view © Ken Cravillion

Other view © Ken Cravillion

What makes the Shen-Hao stand out are versatile back movements. Not only does it have rear tilt, but it has rear rise, shift, and swing. One other thing is you can slide the whole rear standard forward about 70mm. This provides great balance with wide-angle lenses such as my 65mm and reduces the chance of the bed vignetting.

By tilting the back, you can alter the plane of focus. Tilt the back to the rear and you extend the apparent depth of field from near the camera to near infinity. You also exaggerate the size of whatever is in your foreground. This is nice if you want a looming foreground. By swinging the back to the right or left, you can extend the point of focus along a fence or other object.

The camera also has front tilt and swing for even more control of your image.


For focusing the ground glass I use a Toyo 3.6x loupe. It is small, light and a bargain at $40 new.

Meter © Ken Cravillion


In the past I used another camera for metering large format. That was very cumbersome and meant I had to carry extra weight. I finally sprung for a handheld Sekonic L-608 light meter with my new large format purchase. I consider it to be the best light meter money can buy. Small and light, I can use a spot meter or an incident meter all-in-one device.


The Shen-Hao can use lenses as wide as 47mm up to about 300mm. It can also use up to the Nikkor-T* 500mm telephoto lens by extending the front and rear standards out to gain a few centimeters of extra reach. Popular large format lenses are made by Schneider Kreuznach, Rodenstock, Nikon (Nikkor), and Fujinon. Each of the lenses needs to get mounted into a Linhof/Wista style lens board to allow mounting to the camera. To get a rough idea of how large format lenses compare to 35mm, divide the large format lens focal length by 3. Here are lenses that I currently use:

Schneider Super-Angulon © Ken Cravillion

Schneider Super-Angulon 65mm f/5.6: Equivalent to about 22mm in 35mm terms. Shown with the appropriate Schneider Center Filter.

90mm f/5.6 © Ken Cravillion

Schneider Super-Angulon 90mm f/5.6: Equivalent to about 30mm in 35mm terms. A great general wide-angle lens.

Nikkor-W 150mm f/5.6 © Ken Cravillion

Nikkor-W 150mm f/5.6: Equivalent to about a 50mm in 35mm terms. I use this lens for landscapes as well as for close-up photography. A great normal lens.

Schneider Symmar-S 210mm f/5.6 © Ken Cravillion

Schneider Symmar-S 210mm f/5.6: Equivalent to about a 70mm in 35mm terms. This lens is good for bringing in farther objects as well as some dramatic near/far images.

Nikkor-M 300mm f/9 © Ken Cravillion

Nikkor-M 300mm f/9: Equivalent to about 100mm in 35mm terms.

Each lens gets its own cable release, which speeds up shooting time. I do keep two spares in one of the pockets of the bag because you never know what could happen in the field.

Packing Large Format Gear

How is all of this gear carried? I find the Lowepro Mini Trekker makes a nice home for my large format equipment. Filled, the bag tips the scales at about 30 pounds. Attached to one of the outer straps is my dark cloth, formerly a black t-shirt.

Shen-Hao © Ken Cravillion

The Shen-Hao 6×17 Roll Film Back is a great accessory for shooting 6x17cm panoramic images.

About the Author

To see more of Ken's work, please visit his website at

Post a Comment

Logged in as Anonymous