Updated February 22, 2021

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 needed 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 than a medium format back  (albeit with important limitations). My challenge was to find a camera to use it on that provided the  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.

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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

Lenses

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 medium format backs can't be used with a GFX 50R/VX23D outfit. Fortunately, many other lenses can be used, 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.

Most wide symmetrical or near symmetrical lenses 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 normally 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 currently use these lenses:

35mm: SMC Pentax-A 645 35mm f/3.5. This retro focus medium format SLR lens is an excellent performer and allows for a useful amount of shift. Using it requires a custom lens board, but no modifications to the lens.

50mm: Mamiya G 50mm f/4. Designed for the Mamiya 6 rangefinder camera system, this superb near-symmetrical lens allows 15mm of shift. Symmetrical lenses shorter than 60mm usually exhibit lens cast on the sensor in the GFX 50R, especially when shifting. This lens does not, and it's also nearly distortion free. Adapting it required several inexpensive but  irreversible modifications, and construction of a custom lens board.

60mmSchneider-Kreuznach Apo-Componon HM 60mm f/4. This lens has a small image circle at 60mm, but it's an excellent performer. It mounts on a custom recessed lens board.

80mm: Schneider-Kreuznach Apo-Digitar 80mm f/4. This lens has a generous image circle that allows 15mm of shift. It's another excellent performer, and mounts in a standard Toyo recessed lens board.

120mm: Schneider-Kreuznach Makro-Symmar 120mm f/5.9. Strictly speaking, this is a macro lens. However, at f/11 it's sharp across the entire frame at infinity. At its design distances (under 2m), it's superb from wide open. Mine is in an industrial mount (hence the unusual f/5.9 maximum aperture). 

150mm: Mamiya G 150mm f/4.5. This is another superb lens for the Mamiya 6 rangefinder system. It's sharp and contrast from wide-open. It shares a lens board with my Mamiya G 50mm f/4. Like the 50mm lens, it's only usable following inexpensive but irreversible modifications.

180mm: Schneider-Kreuznach Componon-S 180mm f/5.6. This is an enlarger lens, but it's also a very nice taking lens, even at infinity. The large image circle of this lens makes it extremely prone to veiling flare, so it's only usable with flare control measures on the rear side. Sharpness and contrast at f/5.6 improve dramatically when I use a special "beehive" hood with a 26mm opening.


Many other lenses can be adapted to a Toyo VX23D / Fuji GFX 50R outfit. I discuss some good choices, and some that won't work for various reasons, in a separate document that you can request from me.

Stitched panorama using Mamiya G 50mm f/4: f/11 with -/+ 15mm shift

Click on the image for a full-resolution JPEG. The point of focus is the cell tower in the centre of the image at the horizon. I used the Flat Field Correction tool in Adobe Lightroom prior to stitching to correct the light falloff on the far-shifted sides of the source images .

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

When I'm evaluating lenses to see whether or not they work well on my outfit, one of the tests I perform is infinity performance. The view from the highest point of land in Guelph, known as "Catholic Hill", offers a long view over downtown Guelph. From  where I stand to make these pictures, there's a cell tower in the centre of the frame, located 4,280m from the shooting position; it provides a convenient target for "infinity" tests.

I've placed full resolution JPEG sample images for various lenses that I tested in a Google Drive folder. For each lens, I provide at least three images, at f/8, f/11, and f/16. In some cases there are larger and smaller apertures. Files are organized in folders by lens, and labelled with the lens used, and exposure information. For zoom lenses, I usually provide three focal lengths. Processing is minimal: sometimes none, but occasionally a slight lowering of exposure. For some lenses I made panoramas to test shift performance (usually f/11); these are included where available.

The collection includes lenses I currently own and use (the ones listed earlier), along with ones I've used but no longer own. There are a couple large format Fujinon-W lenses that show how good these old lenses can be on digital. There are also samples from the native Fujinon GF lenses: the GF 63/2.8 and the GF 50/3.5. These both are superb lenses that showcase what the GFX 50R/S camera is capable of. The files from these lenses provide a useful baseline for judging the performance of the adapted lenses I use.

You are welcome to download these files if you're interested in comparing lens performance. However, please keep the following caveats in mind:

• The pictures were made on different days, different times, and even different seasons. Some days were cool and crystal clear, while others were hazy. Contrast is strongly affected by the intensity and angle of sunlight. Comparing a picture made on a cloudy day with flat light to one made on a sunny day with strong shadows will give you a misleading impression of relative lens contrast and sharpness.

• The intended focus point is a cell tower over 4km from where I'm standing when I make these pictures. For each lens, I made several exposures, re-focusing in between each set. The pictures posted here are the ones where I think I focused most accurately on the tower. Nonetheless, extremely small focus differences can have a significant impact at wide apertures. Especially when comparing different lenses with similar focal lengths, these differences can give the false impression that one lens is better than another.  Differences may be entirely due to minor focus differences.

• When using adapted lenses, many issues that affect image quality, but are not related to the lens itself, can be introduced. Most common are adapter problems (e.g., misalignment of the lens relative to the sensor, stray light causing flare and reducing contrast due to shiny adapter interiors). The risk of problems is much greater on a camera like the VX23D, where the lens and camera standards tilt, swing and shift. I did my best to eliminate errors, but on occasion I've discovered that what I thought was a bad lens was simply a poorly  adapted lens.

• For some lenses, the hood used makes an enormous difference. For example, as noted above, the Componon-S 180mm f/5.6 is soft and unusable at f/5.6 with the standard hood, but nicely sharp and contrasty with my "beehive" hood, which has a tiny 26mm opening. In the folder for this lens, I've posted sets of pictures , made using the beehive and standard hoods. The beehive lens hood has the same effect (but much less pronounced ) on the Makro-Symmar 120mm f/5.9; I've posted sets for the standard and beehive lens for this lens too.

• Finally, I didn't keep all the lenses I tested. Some were very good, but I found better ones (e.g., I liked the Bogen 6x6 60mm f/4, but the Apo-Componon HM 60mm f/4 was much better ). Others simply were not good enough (e.g., as much as I liked the SMC Pentax 67 45mm f/4.5, it wasn't good enough in my view).

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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