Tilt-shift on medium format: Toyo VX23D and Fuji GFX 50R - Rob de Loe

Updated March 23, 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. My budget couldn't afford one of these systems, so I looked for a cheaper alternative.

     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 but relatively uncommon digital view camera that was produced in the early days of medium format digital technical cameras. These are available for a fraction of the cost of currently available systems such as the 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.

Pictures and Notes

Additional detailed notes for building the various parts that are needed to adapt a GFX 50R and mount lenses that work well on this system are available; if you'd like to request a copy of the detailed notes, send me an email through the Contact page.

Toyo VX23D Digital View Camera

The Toyo VX23D is a digital view camera that was designed for medium format backs, e.g., Hasselblad H mount, 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.

     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 jaws.

     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 normally use a 12cm section cut from a longer rail from the Toyo/Omega line. I usually don’t need a longer rail because of the lens choices I’ve made.

     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. It is likely that the 50S and 100 will only work with 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, linked above). 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.

Lens Options

The sensor in the GFX 50R is deeply recessed (26.7mm). Thus, wide angle lenses 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.

     It is not possible to use most symmetrical lenses wider than 60mm on a VX23D with a GFX 50R. Symmetrical lenses between 60mm and less than 80mm may work, depending on their flange distance and the size of the rear barrel (length and diameter). I use the Schneider Kreuznach Apo-Digitar 80mm f/4, an excellent lens that works extremely well and mounts directly to an unmodified Toyo recessed lens board. I've calculated the the Schneider Kreuznach Apo Digitar 60mm f/4 should work, but the image circle is not large enough to provide for movements; there are better choices at 60mm.

     Importantly, wide symmetrical lenses do not work well (or at all) on a Fuji GFX 50R/S camera even when using other technical cameras, such as the Cambo Actus G. These lenses suffer from lens cast issues on the 50R/S sensor, and may not fit because insufficient space is  available to accommodate them.

     For focal lengths less than 60mm, and in general, medium format lenses designed for film cameras are a good choice for a VX23D plus GFX 50R outfit. I use SMC Pentax 645 lenses. 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 generally excellent across the whole line. The Pentax 645 line also 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. I'm currently using the following Pentax 645 lenses on my VX23D plus GFX 50R system:

• SMC Pentax-A 645 35mm f/3.5 (excellent)

• SMC Pentax-A 645 45-85mm f/4.5 (excellent – better than the primes it covers)

• SMC Pentax-A 645 120mm f/4 Macro (excellent, but rather heavy; I don’t use it much)

• SMC Pentax-A 645 80-160mm f/4.5 (very good, but rather heavy; also not used much)

• SMC Pentax-A 645 150mm f/3.5 (excellent, light, small telephoto)

• SMC Pentax-FA 645 150-300mm f/5.6 (excellent, relatively light but bulky telephoto zoom)

     Other medium format lenses that I've considered include the following:

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.

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).

     Conventional wisdom is that enlarger lenses are not suitable as taking lenses because they are optimized for close distances. That may be true for many enlarger lenses, but it’s not true for the ones I use. I’ve tried several and am currently using two that produce excellent results:

• Bogen 6x6 Wide Angle 60mm f/4

• Rodenstock Rodagon-WA 120mm f/5.6

I've also had good results from longer Schneider Kreuznach Componon-S and Rodenstock Rodagon enlarger lenses.

  Finally, I've used several large format lenses successfully on this camera. Depending on the intended purpose, image quality may be more than satisfactory with these lenses. Especially at longer focal lengths, they offer very large image circles relative to the GFX sensor.

Transporting the Outfit

My standard setup (VX23D, Fuji GFX 50R, several Pentax lenses, Rodenstock Rodagon-WA 120mm lens, and accessories) 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).

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