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Are Things Really Simple at the Top?

By Mark Dubovoy

Some readers may be old enough to remember the venerable Swiss brand Alpa.  Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Alpa used to manufacture truly gorgeous 35 mm SLR’s.  The unusual colors, curved contours, amazing Swiss precision, flawless finish and unique ergonomic ideas (such as a film transport lever that worked using the index finger instead of the thumb, and moved in the opposite direction of traditional film advance levers), set Alpa apart from other camera manufacturers.

Alpa also had a superb line of lenses, including several very unusual designs.

Fast forward roughly 4 decades, and after major changes in ownership and strategy, the venerable brand is alive and well, and still producing products of incredibly high quality.

The company’s slogan is: Things are Simple at the Top.

Are they?

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WHY USE AN ALPA?

I was a large format film shooter (4x5 and 8x10) for many years. I switched to digital capture almost 10 years ago.  I started with a 4x5 scanning back and eventually moved to a PhaseOne Medium Format back.

To me the quality of the image is everything. I have reported on this site, as well as in some print magazines that the digital view camera lenses from Schneider and Rodenstock are significantly better than anything made for Medium Format SLR cameras.

The absence of a mirror chamber and the absence of moving optical elements (among other things) gives optical designers a huge advantage in designing view camera lenses. Furthermore, as these lenses are used almost exclusively by extremely demanding professionals, they also tend to be designed and built to the highest standards.

I would like to say to all the Hasselblad or Mamiya or Contax or Rollei or Fuji or Zeiss “zealots” who get irrationally emotional and have a hard time accepting the above: Get over it. All you have to do is look at the MTF curves or run your own tests. The difference is significant and immediately obvious to the naked eye.

It is because of the better lenses, and the fact that I enjoy the process of slowing down  to carefully think about an image, pre-visualize it, and then slowly compose it and focus it on the groundglass that I have continued to use a view camera (Linhof M679 CS) for much of my landscape work.

The view camera/digital back combination is wonderful, but unfortunately has three major disadvantages:

-  Weight

-  Bellows

-  Magenta/Green cast

The weight issue needs little explanation.  View camera outfits tend to be bulky and heavy.  Even though I now use a lighter Medium Format view camera, my pack is still quite heavy.

The bellows issue has more to do with hassles in the field.  Bellows tend to vibrate if there is even a small amount of wind, and one often has to change back and forth between bag bellows and regular bellows when changing lenses.

The Magenta/Green cast has to do with the fact that when using camera movements,  the angle of incidence of the light varies across the sensor. As a result, part of the image will have a green cast and another part of the image will be rendered with a Magenta cast. The Green/Magenta cast can be neutralized by shooting a white translucent plastic with exactly the same camera movements and then using a special tool in the RAW conversion software to make a correction. Therefore, as wonderful as camera movements can be, they imply some extra work in the field and during RAW conversion.

So the two key questions are:

1.  Is there a camera system that is light and small, can use the best digital view camera lenses and does not require bellows?

2.  Is there a way to obtain huge depth of focus without having to contend with diffraction or the Magenta/Green cast?

The answer to the first question is:  Yes.  And the camera is the Alpa.

The answer to the second question is: Probably yes in many, but not all situations.  I am still running tests, but it appears that with judicious use of the new tools in Photoshop CS4, and in Helicon Focus, it is possible to shoot multiple images focused at different points in an image to produce a final blend where everything is in focus. This will be the subject of a subsequent article.

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WHICH BODY? WHICH LENSES?

There are four basic families of Alpa bodies.  I chose the smallest, simplest and most compact:  The Alpa TC or “Travel Compact”. Those interested in having rise and fall or  rise and fall plus shift in the camera body may choose one of the other bodies.

The Alpa TC is tiny and light as a feather.  It measures a mere 109 mm in width and length, is almost flat with a depth of only 20 mm and weighs 220 grams (approximately 4 1/4 x 4 1/4 x 3/4 inches in size and a mere 7.76 ounces in weight). 

The camera weighs roughly 1/7th to 1/10th of what an SLR body weighs, and the lenses also weigh a very small fraction of what SLR lenses weigh.  In terms of weight and bulk, an Alpa system is as close to Nirvana as it gets today.

The last time I checked, there were 37 lenses (!) from 23 mm to 250 mm in Alpa helical focusing mounts available for this camera.

There are also huge numbers of accessories such as viewfinders, groundglass and fresnell lenses, focusing bellows, grips of all kinds, sizes and flavors, extension tubes, a tilt adapter, film backs, digital back adapters and many more.

For a complete list of cameras, lenses and accessories, go to the Alpa site.

The basic idea is to choose one body and then start to add accessories to configure and customize the camera precisely the way the user likes it. Alpa will even customize the viewfinder frames on an individual basis. There are also many luxury options like exotic wood grips with custom mother of pearl inlays. I personally find luxury options in cameras to be totally useless since I consider a camera a tool, but I suppose that some wealthy users are willing to pay extra to have something uniquely customized just for them.

For my camera (shown above), I chose to attach the Linhof zoom viewfinder (which I already owned), I also chose to purchase the groundglass and the focusing bellows. I added the left grip with PhaseOne cabling and wake up button and the smallest right hand grip (both in black composite material). And of course, the appropriate back adapter for my PhaseOne digital back.

In terms of lenses, I chose the Schneider 35 mm APO Digitar XL, and the following Rodenstock APO HR lenses: The 60 mm, the 100 mm and the 180 mm.  I may add the new Rodenstock 23 mm HR lens at some point in the future.

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QUALITY AND SIMPLICITY

The quality of the machining and finish of each and every piece of Alpa gear is Mind-boggling. I can state without hesitation that in over 40 years of using and testing just about every type and brand of camera equipment, I have never encountered anything that can match Alpa in terms of fit, finish or tolerances.

The ergonomics of the system are also outstanding.  My only complaint at this point is that I wish that the cables in the PhaseOne grip came out of the bottom front of the grip instead of the top back of the grip, a minor quibble. Otherwise, I am at a loss to find something else to complain about. Everything is extremely well thought out and each and every piece is a standalone jewel that could easily be mistaken for a work of art.

And things are indeed very simple at the top: You get no autofocus, no image stabilization, no lightmeter, no focus assist, no autoexposure, no focal plane shutter, no gimmicks!

Photography with the Alpa is all about you and your basic skills to capture the image.  I find this approach refreshing, rejuvenating and much more intimate than having a whole bunch of electronic gizmos encased in some sort of plastic composite, with a chip making some of the decisions for you.

I have found three basic ways to use the camera:

1.  Estimate the distance to the subject (luckily, in the case of many landscapes the subject is quite far away, so one can basically set the focusing ring at infinity or very close to infinity), make sure that there is enough depth of field when you choose your aperture, look through the zoom viewfinder to frame and shoot.  This technique is particularly effective with wide angle lenses, or when in a real hurry because the light or something else is changing fast. This technique also works extremely well for handheld shooting. By the way, the camera is extremely nimble and dead quiet with practically no shutter vibration, so it is a joy to use for handheld shooting.

2.  Use the same method as above, but instead of estimating the distance, measure the distance to the subject by using either a laser rangefinder (I particularly like the Leica Disto 5 for about $450 dollars) or an optical rangefinder (Fotoman makes an inexpensive rangefinder available from Midwest Photo for slightly over $100).

3.  For critical work, I remove the digital back and attach the groundglass frame (which has the Fresnell lens and appropriate cropping mask for the digital back mounted in the same frame). I carefully compose and focus on the groundglass, I then remove the groundglass, re-attach the digital back and shoot.  This process is basically the same as using a traditional view camera.

Note:  There is no sliding back available for the Alpa. Apparently, the extra separation between the sensor and the front of the camera that a sliding back would produce, would in turn preclude the camera from being able to focus with a number of lenses.

I wish there was a sliding or rotating back, and I also wish that there was a viewfinder with a built-in lens-coupled rangefinder, but I think it is highly unlikely that either one of these will become a reality anytime soon.

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MEASURING THE LIGHT

In the days of film I used to be a fanatical user of spotmeters and incident light meters. It was definitely the right thing to do with film; I hardly ever ended up with a badly exposed original.

I still own several meters and I make it a habit to always have at least one meter in my backpack.  I must confess, however, that I no longer use the lightmeter. Instead, I guess the exposure, shoot and look at the histogram.  I make corrections to the exposure until the histogram looks perfect. I find this method to be quicker and easier than using a meter, and it is deadly accurate. As a test, I did not take a lightmeter with me during a recent trip to Zion with Michael Reichmann, and I did not miss it at all. My old trusted meters seem to be obsolete for my type of landscape shooting at this point.

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PRICE

It does not take a genius to figure out that equipment of the quality of an Alpa does not come cheap.  However, compared to other cameras on the market, I think the Alpa is very reasonably priced.  The 12 TC body costs $1,900.00.  An Alpa viewfinder with spirit level goes for $1,500.00, while some of the more expensive grips like the one with the PhaseOne cabling and wake up button cost around $1,350.00.

My fully configured Alpa cost in the neighborhood of $6,500.00. This is right in the ballpark of the price of 35mm size professional DSLR’s, and less expensive than top of the line Medium Format view cameras.

The price of the lenses is roughly $1,000.00 more than you would pay for the same lens “naked”.  In other words, having the lens mounted in the appropriate Alpa helical mount and lens tube adds around $1K to the price of the lens.  You can expect to pay between $2K and $4K for most top of the line lenses.  Some exotic lenses are obviously much more expensive.  I believe that the most expensive lens currently in the Alpa line is the Rodenstock HR Digaron-S 23 mm lens.  Apparently this lens has negligible vignetting, no discernible light fall off at the edges and immeasurable distortion. It is also the shortest focal length Medium Format lens in existence. It costs close to $8,000.00.

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THE PROOF IS IN THE PUDDING

Below is one of my photographs from the recent trip to Zion using the slow and careful ground glass method with the camera on the tripod. This image required very careful composition and focusing and I had the luxury of having the time to do it right. I believe the photograph is actually better than if I had used a conventional view camera, because it was quite windy where I was standing at the time and the bellows would have been a problem.  Seeing a JPEG on the screen will obviously not give you the real impact of the image, so you will have to trust me when I say that the quality of the file is simply stunning.

Full Moon Dome

The two images below are quite the opposite.  Michael and I were driving to the airport  to go back home when we realized that there had been a snow dusting during the night and the sunrise might be extremely interesting.  We rushed back to the park and had only a few short minutes to shoot.  All my gear was already packed in different suitcases, so I decided to grab the Alpa body with a wide angle lens (the  35 mm), focus at infinity and shoot handheld.  Because of the low light level, I was forced to shoot at shutter speeds between 1/15th and 1/30th of a second (pretty marginal).  Still, the images are extremely sharp.

Virgin River at Sunrise

Zion Peaks

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CONCLUSION

Call me eccentric, but I enjoy immensely the experience of shooting with the Alpa. It is a wonderful camera for many situations.

Does it have limitations?  Of  course.  If you are shooting subjects at varying distances with a normal or long lens, and you need to shoot fast, this is definitely not the right tool.  If you need a zoom lens this is also the wrong tool. If you need to shoot with a long lens, say a 300 mm or a 500 mm lens, sorry, you cannot use the Alpa. For these kinds of applications the right tool is an SLR.

If you do not like non-reflex viewfinders, or hate to futz with measuring distances, figuring out the right exposure or swapping a groundglass frame for a digital back or film back in the field, this camera system is not for you.

The same holds if you are not used to seeing an upside down and left right reversed image on the groundglass.

On the other hand, if you like precision machines and you enjoy the “back to basics” approach to capturing your images, an Alpa system is likely to give you much enjoyment, as well as absolutely state of the art image quality.

April, 2009

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Mark Dubovoy is a Scientist, Venture Capitalist and Photographer. He is a contributor to this site and to other Photographic publications. His photographs can be found in private collections and in the permanent collections of several major museums in the United States, Mexico and Japan. Mark holds M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Physics from UC Berkeley.

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Concepts: Camera, View camera, Single-lens reflex camera, Wide-angle lens, Photographic lens, Large format, Focal length, Digital single-lens reflex camera

Entities: The 12 TC body costs, Hasselblad, Contax, Mamiya, JPEG, Nirvana, Michael Reichmann, Rodenstock, Rodenstock APO, Schneider, Michael Reichmann, Michael, Midwest, laser

Tags: camera, alpa, view camera, image, Medium Format, view camera lenses, bellows, digital, camera movements, Alpa TC, digital view camera, format view cameras, Medium Format view, swiss brand alpa, viewfinder, mm lens, Alpa helical mount, Alpa bodies, Alpa site, Alpa gear, Alpa viewfinder, Alpa cost, Alpa body, zoom viewfinder, long lens, Alpa line, traditional view camera, conventional view camera, gorgeous 35 mm, Rodenstock 23 mm, PhaseOne cabling, camera manufacturers, digital back, tool, mere 109 mm, groundglass frame, APO HR lenses, wide angle, RAW conversion, wide angle lenses