Review: Shen Hao PTB-617 Field Camera by Peter McDonald

Review: Shen Hao PTB-617 Field Camera by Peter McDonald

Shen Hao and Chamonix are the best known large format field camera makers in China, with both producing very well made  and innovative cameras. Chamonix offer 20 field cameras from 4 x 5 to 20 x 24, in cherry/teak, carbon fibre and anodized aluminium. Shen Hao produce around a dozen formats from 4 x 5 to 12 x 20 in black walnut and aluminium alloy. They also make three medium format field cameras, 6 x 9, 6 x 17 and 6 x 24, and are the only makers of such cameras currently available. The Shen Hao is said to be based on the Ebony 617.

Shen Hao also produce a 6 x 17 extension ground glass viewer/film back combination to fit any Graflok 4 x 5 camera. I have owned and used such, and while it saves carrying another complete camera, weight  is similar around 1500 grams,  usage can be a little awkward , and there is a practical focal length limitation of between 90mm to 200mm; vignetting occurs outside of those limits.

The Shen Hao 6 x1 7 is available in two flavours, folding (PTB-617) and non-folding (TFC-617). The former packs more conveniently, but lacks the rear rise and rigidity of the latter.  The TFC-617 can be packed with the front standard set in position.

PTB movements:

FRONT:Rise 40mm, Fall 14mm, Shift ±38mm, Swing ±45° , Tilt ±25°

REAR:Swing ±40° , Tilt ±30°

TFC movements: 

FRONT:Rise 56mm, Fall 22mm, Shift ±36mm, Swing ±45° , Tilt ±20°

REAR:Rise 58mm, Swing ±10° , Tilt ±11°

The major advantage of the field camera is the availability of focal lengths – as long as the image circle notionally exceeds 220mm, any lens could be used. Even such lenses as the Schneider G-Claron 150mm f9, with an official image circle of 189mm, will still just cover the 6 x 17.  The short lenses, 90mm or less, are assisted by a ND centre filter to even out the exposure. 

The Cascades near Metcalfe, Victoria – Argyrotype

Setting up the PTB-617

The Shen Hao setup is much the same as the Chamonix. Slackening the rear standard knobs opens up the camera, and allows the front standard to be then attached to the focusing bed in one of two positions. The front position allows the use of, at least, a 300mm lens at infinity. The other attachment point is used for the shorter lenses, and 90mm is about as short as I would be prepared to use – movements become quite restricted with the standard bellows. While there are no detents for zeroing the standards,  the rear has two little slides that hold the standard correctly. The front standard can be zeroed by moving it to level with the top of the metal struts. (Photo from Shen Hao website).

The camera uses Technika-style lensboards, and while it can manage a Copal 3 size lens, it can become a little unbalanced. Lensboards are secured by a pair of semi-circular revolving plates, simple but effective. It won’t take the simpler Chamonix lensboards – to use those, the bottom mounting plate needs  to be reversed so the curved metal parts are facing outwards.

Using the PTB-617

I use three lenses regularly  Super-Angulon 90mm f5.6 (rather large), a 150mm G-Claron, and a 300mm Nikkor-M. The 300mm is my preference, primarily because it reduces the amount of foreground inevitable in panoramic images with normal or short lenses, and I like the somewhat shortened perspective it brings.

Ground glass

The ground glass comes with a Fresnel, which hinges down for attaching the roll film back. It is marked with 6 x 9, 6 x 12, and 6 x 17 formats. With short focal length lenses where the rear standard has to be moved forward, some care needs to be taken, as when it hinges down it comes in contact with the focusing knob. Once the bellows are at the right extension, focusing is done with a single worm screw which holds it position firmly. While the ground glass with the Fresnel is manageable with an f5.6 lens in the daytime, a dark cloth is necessary.  Once the image is in focus you simply twist two latches up to drop the ground glass screen down on hinges to make way for the 6 x 17 film back.

Roll film back

A specific Shen Hao roll film back (Art Panorama NSH-617) is supplied with the camera. The 6 x 17 back is very well made indeed. The construction might be seen as agricultural,  but it is lighweight,  rigid, easy to use, and frame numbers are able to be seen in sunlight. One part houses the film spools and the tension plate, the other part is a cover with a dark slide. The film is inserted in the right side with the film coming from behind (similar to a Hasselblad), run it across the tension plate and  into the take up reel on the left side, turn the wind knob a couple of times to take up the slack, and put the cover back on. Next open the small red glass window on the back and wind the film to the number “3” position. Close the window; future shots will at the 6, 9, and 12 positions. Film comes out sharp and evenly spaced with plenty of room between exposures (about 10mm), and at the each end of the roll. When you have exposed the last of the four exposures, keep winding until you feel the tension go slack.  A very good habit is to immediately wind onto the next image after an exposure.

The film back has two slots on the bottom which hook into a corresponding projection on the field camera, and two grooves at the top for the latches. It is a snug fit: you will need to gently push the film back into position to allow the latches to work. Select the aperture and shutter speed, cock the shutter, remove the metal dark slide, and take the exposure. 

Bellows

The bellows is of the universal type, with 310mm extension. Using a ~150mm lens is probably the easiest; that requires placing the front standard in the second attachment point, thus achieving focus with just the front standard. However, the rear standard will need to be moved backwards to achieve infinity for a 300mm, although that still leaves around 50 millimetres front standard forward movement. With a long lens, setting the rear standard is best done first, ie magnification, then final focusing with the front standard.

As with the 150mm lens, the 90mm is also placed in the second attachment point, and both standards will need to come together to achieve focus, but without very much ability to apply movements. I’m unsure as to whether a 75mm lens would work.  A bag bellows would be very useful.

Hall Village Cemetery, populated by gravestones and brown snakes – Argyrotype

Caveats

Coverage

While the movements are limited by the 17cm negative length,  the vertical 6cm length can run out of movements fairly quickly. On a couple of my initial test rolls, using too much rise chopped off the bottom of the negative, even though the whole image wasn’t vignetting on the ground glass; the relationship between the ground glass image and the film position in the back needs to be remembered.

Wind

 As it is so light, the camera is affected by wind and requires a sturdy tripod. When I use a lightweight Feisol travel tripod, I invariably hang a some weight off the hook; that usually provides enough stability. It is particularly vulnerable when using a voluminous dark cloth. Using it in the vertical requires some additional counterweight. 

While the PTB-617 is a very well made camera, it is still lightweight (1500 gms; TFC is 2500 gms), so using the heavier f5.6 lenses do need to be managed carefully. It really responds well to Copal 0/1 shutter size lenses, especially the G-Claron types with their small size and large image circles.

Portability

The camera folds down quite well but the long side does take up room in a pack. However, if it is being used by itself, a medium pack holds the camera, the roll film back, two lenses, dark cloth, spare film and filters without too much fiddling. Carrying it with a 5×4  is not too difficult either, needing a somewhat larger pack, but as the lenses, filters and darkcloth are common, there is some space saving.

Conclusion

Granted it is a special purpose camera, the Shen Hao is still fun to use, but does perhaps require a more critical approach for choice of subject. The camera’s competition are the various Linhof, Fotoman, Horseman, and DaYi cameras which are limited in lens choice and require an interchangeable cone for each lens; and are similiarly expensive (but they can be used handheld).

It is not a cheap camera, approximately AU$3600 before GST and other duties, and can be purchased on line on eBay (vendor is ecbuyonline2008). Thoroughly recommended.

Peter McDonald at The Cascades, Victoria. Photograph by David Tatnall.
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Peter McDonald is a Canberra based photographer.

There are 5 comments for this article
  1. Andy Cross at 5:23 am

    Dear Peter.
    A good well put together review of the PTB617. I have been thinking about the 617 format for some time. But alas I will stick with my sinar 612 zoom back because I don’t really have room to include a 5″x7″ enlarger to accommodate it. I wasn’t aware they also made other banquet formats.
    Regards,
    Andy.

  2. PAUL at 8:08 am

    Great review.

    Does the Schneider 90mm f5.6 Super Angulon fit through the lens aperture plate in the film standard. the 90mm has a very large rear element. Is there enough movements possible using such a large lens??

    thank you

    • Peter at 12:44 am

      Paul:

      The rear element fits easily, it uses a Copal 0 shutter. Movements are limited, especially fall (maybe 10-12mm). The lens image circle is ~235mm at infinity which covers 17cm comfortably, and gives space for lateral shift. Swing and tilt are not an issue. A centre filter is probably a good idea. Rise is quite good – with qualification. At maximum rise, the ground glass shows an image without vignetting, which is to be expected with the lens’s large image circle. However, in practice I have noted that that amount of rise will chop off some of the bottom of the image, which I suspect is to do with the limitations imposed by the 60mm film width. I have limited rise to about 20mm without a problem.

      Focusing a lens of that short focal length on the Shen Hao requires the rear extension moved forward a fair way. I suspect a 75mm lens would not achieve infinity focus, but I haven’t tried one.

      Cheers.

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