Updated September 2, 2020

Introduction

Digital view cameras allow for a full range of camera movements -- sometimes as many as are available to people using monorail 4x5 and 8x10 view cameras. Typically digital view cameras are used with specialized and very expensive medium format backs. I need a less expensive, and more robust, way to use camera movements with a digital camera.

Fujifilm's GFX 50R medium format camera offers a much less expensive option (albeit with important limitations). My challenge was to find a tool that provided the camera movements. The Actus system from Cambo is a popular choice for people seeking camera movements  with a Fuji GFX camera. Relatively inexpensive tilt-shift adapters are another option. I used tilt-shift adapters extensively with my APS-C tilt-shift outfit. They provide a useful but limited set of movements. I always wanted more, e.g., the ability to combine tilt with rise, which isn't possible with a single tilt-shift adapter.

A friend and fellow photographer showed me the Toyo VX23D, a very flexible professional digital view camera that was produced in the early days of medium format digital technical cameras. These are available on the used market for a fraction of the cost of currently available systems such as the Cambo Actus.

The Toyo VX23D, in combination with a Fuji GFX 50R, gives me all the camera movements I used to have when I worked with 4x5 film and view cameras. It has limitations, which I discuss below, but for the kind of photography I do it is an excellent and inexpensive solution.

On this page, I provide an overview of the system I have built. I've also prepared a gallery of pictures that show the camera and its features, and a collection of sample images that show infinity performance (bottom of page).

If you're interested in building a system like this, send me an email via my contact page, and I will send you detailed instructions.

Toyo VX23D with Fuji GFX 50R mounted. The lens is a Schneider Kreuznach Apo-Digitar 80mm f/4 (in barrel instead of the more common Copal 0 shutter). The standard Toyo rail is replaced with a lightweight aluminum rail in this picture.

Toyo VX23D Digital View Camera

The Toyo VX23D is a digital view camera that was designed for medium format backs, e.g., ones using the Hasselblad H mount or Mamiya 645AF mount. Both stationary and sliding adapters were available. With these kinds of backs, the sensor is in almost the same plane as the mount adapter; on a VX23D, these kinds of backs can be used with wide angle symmetrical lenses for technical cameras such as the Schneider Kreuznach Apo-Digitar XL 35mm f/5.6 and the Rodenstock HR Digaron-S 28mm f/4.5.

As a fully-fledged monorail view camera, the VX23D provides generous movements on both the front and rear standards:

• 70mm of rise

20mm shift in one direction and 40mm in the other (allowing for a maximum combined shift of 60mm using the movements on both standards)

+/-25 degrees of base tilt

+/-25 degrees of swing

The rise movement is geared and lockable on both standards. Shift movements are geared, but cannot be locked. Tilts and swings are by pressure, and are lockable. There are detents for the 0 position for swings and tilts. The fine focus mechanism on each standard is geared and lockable, and allows 14mm of forwards and backwards travel. For coarse focus, the standards slide by pressure along the rail, and are locked down with a knob.

The standards can be mounted on the rail on either side of the tripod mounting block (my preferred approach), or both together on one side or the other of the tripod mounting block. The tripod mounting block has a foot that, at first glance, resembles an Arca-Swiss-style foot. However, this foot does not fit on most Arca-compatible clamps because it is too wide. It does fit in a Hejnar F63 clamp, which has extremely wide.

The standard rail supplied originally with the camera is two sections that screw together to make a 24cm rail; separated the sections are 16.5cm and 7.5cm. Rails from other Toyo G series cameras can also be used, subject to the limitations of the bellows. To save weight, I sometimes use a 12cm section cut from a longer rail from the Toyo/Omega line.

The Toyo bellows supplied originally with the camera is a leather, bag style bellows that clips into the standard. It allows the full range of movements when the standards are close together; when the standards are fully separated on the 24cm rail, very limited movements are available.

Toyo likely intended this camera for work in studios. Thus, weight saving does not seem to have been a top priority. Using both sections of the original rail, the front and rear standards, the bellows and the tripod block, the VX23D weighs 2,544 grams. Using my short aluminum rail cut from a Toyo/Omega rail brings the camera down to 2,194 grams.

Flat and recessed lens boards compatible with the Toyo field cameras (45A, 45AX, 45A II, 45CF), and the Toyo 23G and 45CX monorail view cameras are compatible with this camera. The compendium shade for these cameras also fits the VX23D; the compendium for the larger 4x5 Toyo cameras  does not fit.

Using a Fujifilm GFX 50R as a Medium Format Back

Toyo did not design the VX23D to be used with a mirrorless camera like the GFX 50R. Therefore, using a GFX 50R on a VX23D requires some compromises, and the creation of some custom components. I have found this to be well worth the effort, and can provide additional details upon request.

While some other mirrorless cameras could be used with a VX23D, I view the GFX 50R as the best all-around choice. The 33mm x 44mm sensor is a good match for available lenses (see below) and provides outstanding image quality. Most importantly, the design of the body is ideal in that the grip is small and the camera can lay flat on its mount. Mirrorless cameras with larger grips generally do not work. For example, the Fuji GFX 50S and GFX 100 have a much larger grip than the GFX 50R. The 50S will only work with select lenses 60mm or longer. Among full frame cameras, the Sigma FP could be a good choice too because of its flat design (but I have not tried it).

To mount my GFX 50R, I built a custom board that allows the camera to mount and dismount easily, while leaving the front function button and the lens release button accessible (see pictures in the Gallery, bottom of page). The camera adapter board is square, which makes switching from portrait to landscape orientation straightforward (release the clip on the standard, rotate the board 90 degrees, remount the board and secure it with the clip). Details on how I built the camera mounting board are available in separate notes. Send me an email via the Contact page if you'd like a copy.

Path of light through the frozen flood water

Lens Options

The sensor in the GFX 50R is deeply recessed (flange focal distance of 26.7mm). Thus, wide angle lenses from Schneider Kreuznach and Rodenstock (like the two noted above) that work with the medium format backs the VX23D was designed to use can't be used with the GFX 50R. Fortunately, many other lenses can be used on a VX23D plus GFX 50R combination, subject only to the availability of mounting boards, and limitations imposed by the designs of the lenses, the VX23D, and the Fuji GFX 50R.

I have had to fabricate custom lens boards to use most of my lenses (see picture gallery), and can provide details upon request. In most cases this involved adapting and modifying Toyo lens boards. A machinist would consider the necessary work to be very simple.

Wide symmetrical lenses (those shorter than 60mm) do not work well (or at all) on a VX23D plus GFX 50R pairing, but they also don't work with other technical cameras designed for the GFX 50R/S, such as the Cambo Actus GFX. These lenses suffer from lens cast issues on the 50R/S sensor, and may not fit because insufficient space is  available to accommodate them. Fortunately, there are good options that get around this problem.

On my VX23D plus GFX 50R setup, I use  this combination of lenses:

For wider than 60mm, I use the SMC Pentax-A 645 35mm f/3.5. It's an excellent performer and allows for a useful amount of shift.

From 60mm and longer, I'm using various enlarger lenses, or lenses derived from enlarger lenses.The ones I use perform extremely well.

I also have other SMC Pentax-A 645 lenses that I use with a Fotodiox adapter for times when I want a lighter, smaller kit. I use these  lenses with a Fotodiox tilt-shift adapter and custom collar.

Pentax 645 medium format lenses are generally a good choice on this kind of setup, and provide good options from wide angle to telephoto. They have an image circle that is large enough to provide useful movements (nominally 75mm, with some having much larger image circles). All but the newest digital models have an aperture ring, and image quality is excellent across the line (with some exceptions).

The Pentax 645 line offers two excellent choices at 35mm: the older A version I use, and the newest D-FA digital version, which has an improved optical formulation yet still has an aperture ring; the FA 35mm lens is not as good a choice because of field curvature. Note that several Pentax 645 lenses meant for digital sensors do not have aperture rings, and thus require a special adapter that provides an aperture control mechanism.

An important consideration for those considering Pentax 645 (or other medium format) lenses is their weight and length. Lenses that are too long and too heavy may pull the front standard down, causing unwanted tilt. A case in point is the Pentax 645 zooms. For instance, the SMC Pentax-A 645 45-85mm f/4.5 is an excellent lens that I've used a lot on my VX23D, but I stopped using it when I noticed that it is too heavy for the front standard and causes a bit of tilt even when the standard is at the 0 setting for tilt. It's possible to work around this issue by setting up carefully, but I didn't want the bother. Fortunately, the light primes are all fine.

For 60mm and longer on my VX23D plus GFX 50R outfit I'm currently using enlarger lenses, or lenses derived from enlarger lenses. Conventional wisdom suggests that enlarger lenses are not suitable as taking lenses because they are optimized for close distances. That may be true for  inexpensive enlarger lenses for smaller formats, but it’s not true for many good quality ones designed for larger film formats. The ones I'm currently using on my GFX 50R are the following:

• Schneider Kreuznach Apo-Componon HM 60mm f/4 (in Makro-Iris design)

• Schneider Kreuznach Apo-Digitar 80mm f/4

• Rodenstock Rodagon-WA 120mm f/5.6 

• Schneider Kreuznach Componon-S 150mm f/5.6

• Schneider Kreuznach Componon-S 180mm f/5.6

The image circles on all of these lenses, except for the 60mm, allow for plenty of shift movements. The Apo-Componon HM 60/4 has a nominal image circle of 60mm, but I am able to shift 9mm even at infinity. At distances less than infinity, a bit more shift room becomes available as the image circle increases in size. The image quality of the lens is so good that I'm willing to work around the less-than-ideal image circle size.

Stitched panorama from Schneider Kreuznach Apo-Componon 60mm f/4 at f/11, 9mm shift left and right

Click on the image for a full-resolution JPEG (11,392 x 6,169 pixels). Exposure and tone are adjusted. The point of focus is the cell tower in the centre of the image at the horizon.

I've tried several other lenses, some of which work well but didn't fit into my lineup.

• At 60mm, I evaluated four enlarger lenses: Schneider Kreuznach Apo-Componon HM  60mm f/4 (which I'm using); Bogen 6x6 Wide Angle 60mm f/4 (also sold as Hoya and Osawa); Rodenstock Rodagon-WA 60mm f/4; and Schneider Kreuznach Componon-WA 60mm f/5.6. The Schneider Kreuznach Componon-WA is the weakest of the four. The Bogen and Rodenstock are both quite decent performers, with larger image circles than my Apo-Componon 60mm f/4. At f/11 through f/16, the Rodagon-WA approaches the Apo-Componon in image quality in the unshifted image area, but is much weaker shifted even though it has a larger image circle. The Apo-Componon is easily the best lens of the four, and is the only one that is already usable wide-open (albeit with strong light falloff in the corners at f/4).

• For my longest focal length, I tried three enlarger lenses: a Rodenstock Rodagon 180mm f/5.6, a Schneider Kreuznach Componon-S 180mm f/5.6 and a Schneider Kreuznach Componon-S 210mm f/5.6. The Rodagon was very poor (but that could have been my copy). I chose the Schneider Kreuznach Componon-S 180mm f/5.6 lens because it's smaller and lighter than the 210mm and is in an iris mount with 19 blades. However, the 210mm Componon-S is also an excellent performer, and a good choice if you need the longer focal length and don't mind a bit more weight.

• In the SMC Pentax 645 lineup, I was not satisfied with the SMC Pentax-A 645 55mm f/2.8. Centre quality was very good, but towards the edges of the unshifted frame, image quality was not satisfactory until f/11. Image quality degraded further with shifting. The 55mm position of the SMC Pentax-A 645 45-85mm f/4.5 is significantly better than the 55/2.8. I have not tried the SMC Pentax-A 645 45mm f/2.8 because it has a reputation for being weak, and because the 45-85mm zoom is superb at 45mm. I've also owned two copies of the SMC Pentax 645 120mm f/4 macro lens, and both were superb (if a bit heavy). The SMC Pentax-A 645 80-160mm f/4.5 and SMC Pentax-FA 150-300mm f/5.6 zooms are both good optics, but are not good choices on the VX23D because they're too long and heavy.

• Pentax 67 lenses are large and heavy, but many have excellent optical quality, and the image circle on these lenses, which were designed to cover 60mm x 70mm film, allows for  more movements than lenses in the 645 line. In the SMC Pentax 67 lineup, the 55mm f/4 (latest version) is excellent (but large and heavy). The SMC Pentax 67 45mm f/4 has pleasing colour and consistent image quality across the frame; nonetheless, I didn't keep my copy because image quality was only adequate. The SMC Pentax 67 75mm f/4.5 (latest version) is excellent (but I prefer the smaller SMC Pentax 645 75mm f/2.8, which is as good).

• Some large format lenses are very good performers. I had good results using Fujinon-W lenses designed for 4x5 (125mm, 180mm, 210mm); and a Nikon Nikkor-M 300mm f/5.6. However, I prefer the enlarger lenses at all comparable focal lengths. I also don't like working with Copal shutters. 

Other medium format lenses that I've considered but not tried  include the following:

• Mamiya 645 lenses are a popular choice among people using medium format lenses on mirrorless cameras with tilt-shift adapters. Based on my calculations, I don't think they will work on a VX23D with a GFX 50R because they require the standards to be too close together to easily allow movements.

• Hasselblad V mount lenses should work, based on their long flange focal distance. However, I have not tried them, and do not know whether or not they would fit within the available space on a Toyo 27.5 mm recessed lens board. 

• Contax 645 N lenses are not usable because they lack an aperture control ring, and their apertures cannot be controlled manually (unlike the digital Pentax 645 lenses, which still allow manual aperture control despite most lacking an aperture ring).

I can share a spreadsheet I use for determining whether or not a particular lens will work based on the lens characteristics and the mechanics of a VX23D combined with a GFX 50R. Send me an email if you're interested.

Transporting the Outfit

My standard setup (VX23D, Fuji GFX 50R, accessories, and the lenses listed above) weighs approximately 20 lbs (9 kg). This is a heavy load for me; a good pack is essential. My solution is twofold:

• A good backpack designed for hiking rather than photography (Ortlieb Atrack 35 litre)

• A custom foam insert that fully protects the VX23D and the GFX 50R, while leaving room for lenses and accessories

I work in all kinds of conditions, from swamps to cities. This carrying system makes working with a full-blown medium format digital view camera both possible and enjoyable. Pictures of my setup are in the gallery (link at the top of this page).

Pictures and Notes

Sample Images from Infinity Test

Guelph's Catholic community build its church in the late 1800s on the highest point in the city. The site became known as "Catholic Hill". It offers a clear view over downtown Guelph, and thus provides an excellent location for testing infinity performance of lenses. From  my shooting position, there's a cell tower in the centre of the frame, located 4,280m from the shooting position; that's where these are focused.

When I'm using my VX23D outfit, I usually shoot at apertures between f/8 and f/16. Therefore, in the full resolution JPEG pictures provided at this link to a Google Drive folder, I'm providing f/8, f/11 and f/16 files files for each lens (or for each focal length tested in the case of zooms). You are welcome to download these files if you're interested in comparing lens performance. The time of day and season vary among test groups, but it's still possible to compare the major features.

The images are based on RAW files imported into Lightroom and exported as full resolution JPEGs (quality 95%) with no modifications beyond Lightroom's standard RAW development for Fuji GFX 50R files.

Other Resources

For information and review about Pentax lenses, including 645 and 67, see the Pentax Lens Reviews database at the Pentax Forums site.

A comprehensive inventory of enlarger lenses of all brands and types is available at Jon Jovic's Photo Cornucopia site.

Robert O'Toole's Close-up Photography site is a phenomenal resource for information about enlarger lenses and machine vision lenses.

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