Large Format lenses
This page is a summary of the information on the large format lenses of the focal lengths I am interested in, as well as my brief synopsis of the individual lenses that I have used.
Axiom: Performance of lenses is as crucial in large format as it is in any smaller format. In other words, the notion that large format film is so "large" that lens performance is unimportant is false. While some of large format lenses are truly spectacular, quite a few of them perform very poorly.
I tend to be a three—lens photographer. In my mind and experience, it is the number of lenses that provides enough flexibility and room for interpreting reality while not complicating things or adding weight too much. After trying several focal lengths in the field, I have settled on 90mm, 135mm and 300mm as my large format lens kit. Unsurprisingly, they closely correspond to the focal lengths in smaller formats that I use. All lenses are used on an Ebony 45SU camera. To read about the basics of large format lenses, visit this exhaustive resource.
There are a quite few options in this focal length but, having read what there is to read about it on the Internet, I quickly decided on the below: overall, it seems to represent the best compromise between size, weight and performance.
Schneider Super–Angulon 90mm f/5.6
Image circle: 235mm; filter size: 82mm; rear mount: 77mm; weight: 570g
Note that this is not the latest, XL, version of the lens, which is significantly bigger and has a larger image circle (image circle: 259mm, filter size (front): 95mm, rear mount: 86mm; weight: 665g). In fact, the XL has such a large rear group that the lens will not fit through the opening in the front standard of cameras that use Linhof–type lensboards; you have to unscrew a ring in the back of the rear group and then screw it on from the back of the camera after the lensboard is attached to the camera. Too impractical for field use, if you ask me, but it may be necessary if you shoot architecture and need the largest image circle possible for shift.
Apparently there are several variations of the pre–XL Super–Angulons; I managed to get what I understand is the latest version (prior to the XL, that is) that has a shallow front filter mount.
There are smaller and lighter 90mm lenses, but they are slower and have smaller image circle, which may or may not matter to you. Even with f/5.6 image on the groundglass tends to be somewhat dim and focusing in less than bright light may be quite challenging; f/8 lenses can be very problematic in this respect.
Just when I thought the Schneider Super–Angulon 90mm f/5.6 was a keeper, my attention was increasingly drawn by its suspect performance. At first I thought that any image quality issues must result from user error; however, the strange behaviour persisted across varying shooting conditions. So I did some testing and the results showed that corner sharpness sucks. How bad, you ask? Well, I have not seen anything so shoddy from any lens I have ever used—and that is even before you apply any camera movements. While it may very well be that I bought a poor sample of the lens, which I honestly doubt, I am not brave and persistent enough to test this hypothesis.
Upon this discovery and having gained some initial experience of shooting with a f/5.6 wide–angle lens, I reconsidered my initial decision to go with "maximum everything". On the one hand, the Schneider is large, heavy, and takes 82mm filters; on the other hand, its rear element is so large that the lens' relatively large image circle mostly becomes irrelevant: the rear element bumps into camera bellows before you reach the limits of its image circle. Given this experience, I started looking in the f/8 area and it quickly transpired that the indisputable king of the niche is the Nikkor–SW 90mm f/8: it is the lightest and the smallest lens that, miraculously, also boasts the largest image circle among its f/8 peers (235mm). Having switched to this lens, I am happy to report that it is indeed a stellar performer in every respect. As to my previous concerns that a f/8 lens may be difficult to focus, it is not that much of a problem in real–life shooting.
This is my preferred "normal" focal length in large format. I have tried 150mm, but found it a bit too tight for my liking. 135mm, on the other hand, feels perfect. The main options among latest multi–coated offerings are as follows:
Schneider Apo–Symmar 135mm f/5.6
Image circle: 190mm; filter size: 49mm; weight: 205g
This lens is fairly inexpensive; sharpness is decent but not outstanding; image circle turned out to be too small for my use (and I seldom shoot architecture). I see no reason to choose this lens over one of the below options.
Fujinon CM–W 135mm f/5.6
Image circle: 214mm; filter size: 67mm; weight: 270g
The CM–W series is the latest/last line from Fuji that was designed to compete with the best APO lenses of the competition. Sharpness is very good; further, it boasts the largest image circle in this focal length, which is important to me. Its only drawback is a relatively large filter size—as far as I understand, Fuji wanted all lenses in the 105–250mm range to have the same filter size. I got mine for USD280 in mint condition and am perfectly happy with it.
Rodenstock Apo Sironar–S 135mm f/5.6
Image circle: 208mm; filter size: 49mm; weight: 240g
This lens is reportedly the sharpest of the pack. It arguably offers the best combination of sharpens, image circle, filter size and weight. Its only drawback is the price tag—over USD2000 new; used ones do not sell cheaply either—if you can find one. Get this lens if you can find and afford it.
Rodenstock Apo Sironar–N 135mm f/5.6
Image circle: 200mm; filter size: 40.5mm; weight: 210g
A "cheaper and lesser" version of the Sironar–S lens above. Still not as cheap as the Fujinon, though. Image circle is on the small side. I would get this lens only if weight and size were of the top priority.
All 300mm f/5.6 lenses are large and heavy, and usually come in #3 shutter; as just one example, the Fujinon CM–W 300mm f/5.6 weighs in at 965g vs. 250g of its f/8.5 counterpart below. Although an f/5.6 lens is noticeably brighter on ground glass, I would get one only if you do not plan to carry it far. If you envision lugging a 300mm lens in the field, then a slower (f/8–9) alternative would be preferable. Tele–type lenses are in the middle between the two, but optical performance may be questionable.
Fujinon T 300mm f/8
Image circle: 213mm; filter size: 67mm; weight: 415g
Sharpness and micro–contrast are mediocre and it produces notable chromatic aberration (purple fringing); while it is not exactly large and heavy, it is not as small and light as the below alternative. Its only advantage is that, being a tele–type lens, it can be used with shorter bellows. Personally, I would rather get a camera with a longer bellows than use this lens.
Fujinon C 300mm f/8.5
Image circle: 325mm; filter size: 52mm; shutter: copal 1; weight: 264g
Although it is a tiny bit slower than its T brother above, the difference in image brightness on groundglass is minor. The lens is small and light—indeed, ideal for field use. Sharpness is excellent and there is no chromatic aberration or distortion. The lens requires bellows extension of at least 270mm to focus at infinity and longer to focus closer. Thus, the only reason not to choose this lens is if you have a bellows shorter than that. Another equally good alternative is the Nikkor 300mm f/9 M.
Notes: All lens weights above are of the lenses themselves, i.e. excluding shutter and lensboard; a complete set ready for use would be heavier by the weight of the shuttter (Copal #0: 115g; Copal #1: 160g; Copal #3: 340g) and lensboard. Image circles are indicated at infinity and f/22.