Toho FC-45X

Article text
My intention in this article is not to duplicate what is already available on the net but rather to provide some specific information on areas not covered in detail (e.g. Usability with ultra-wide angles) and things that I have found helpful in my time using the camera. Kerry Thalman's comprehensive review of the Toho is a must read if you are considering buying a Toho or are looking for further information.

I have been using the Toho since 2003 and carried it on trips throughout Australia, New Zealand and South America. A good deal of my photographs are taken on bushwalking/hiking trips where weight is a significant consideration. The Toho replaced my first 4x5 camera, a cherry-wood Tachihara. For general photography I use an Arca Swiss F Line Field

The Toho FC-45X is one of a number of cameras that were made by the Toho Machine Co. in Japan. Designed for field photography, the cameras minimise weight while still offering a wide range of potential movements and usable lens range . Unlike many “field” cameras which are flatbed cameras, the Toho is a telescoping monorail design.

At 1.4 kg the Toho is featherweight, up there with the lightest of all 4”x5” cameras. Compared with most others in this range it is far more versatile, in fact more so than many cameras double its weight and more. The Toho comes in two main sections, the rail and lower part of the standards , and the bellows frame/ground glass. This construction means that the camera also packs very compactly.

The weight/bulk savings do come at a cost. Rather than having a reversible back, the whole bellows arrangement must be unclamped and orientation changed. The back is a simple spring arrangement with a ground glass (no fresnel). The bellows are fixed but the camera is usable within its mechanical limits without the need to change it.

On the plus side, full movements are available on both standards. Although only the focus is gear all the movements are well designed and easy to use.

My lens selection ranges from a Scheinder 47mm Super Angulon XL to a Fujinon 400mm telephoto. The Toho is capable of handling this range, although I have made a few easy modifications which have improved it's usability for shorter lenses(see modifications).

Short focal lengths
The Toho is able to use the Schneider Super Angulon 47mm XL on a flat lens board. Due to bellows compression, movement is limited but given the limited coverage of the 47 XL large movements are not possible anyway.Toho does offer an eccentric lens panel which allows shifts and rise/fall movements without restriction by the bellows. It still doesn't allow for tilts and swings which are the movements I tend to use with the 47mm XL. The simple modifications that I have made really do make using the 47mm XL much easier (see Modifications). In a nut shell, I have never been limited enough to stop me taking a photograph.

It may also be possible to use Linhof-style recessed boards BUT first the lens opening would need milled slightly to accept the outer diameter of the recessed board (its usable with flat Linhof boards unmodified). I have not tried this, so undertake it at your own risk!

I have also used the Toho with 65mm, 75mm and 80mm lenses. Obviously as you increase the focal length the range of movements becomes greater. From 90mm onwards movements required in landscape photography are really not an issue.

Longer focal lengths
The Toho has enough bellows extension to use a 300mm normal lens or 400 telephoto for general landscape work. The Fujinon 400 T is one of the lighter lenses in the 350mm+ range at 600g with a Copal 1 shutter. However, using the Toho with larger lenses at extension is really pushing it's capability. Therefore, I rarely use the 400 with the Toho and would be reluctant to try a heavier lens, especially in windy conditions. It is possible to use non-telephoto lenses around the 400mm mark with the use of an extension lens board (See Kerry Thalman's profile of the Toho).

Extension is also a issue for macro photography. I use my 150mm and 200mm lenses regular for close up work with the Toho. The bellows do get stretched pretty tight at times but it is still possible to use moderate movements.

The first modification I made before even using the camera. This was to remove the round tripod attachment and replace it with an Arca style plate I made to suit the camera.

The second arose out of using the camera with the 47mm XL. When the standards are brought close together the locking knob for the front bellows/lens board frame (also shift control) sometimes interfered with the rear standard or bellows. To improve this I simply swapped the knob from the standard lock (B) with the smaller one from the rear tilt control (A) (see Image 1). This allows slightly increased movements (tilt and swing) when the standards are brought very close together.

The rear standard of the Toho showing the repositioned knobs allowing the front and rear standards to be brought closer together

The rear standard of the Toho showing the locking knobs which have been swapped to allow the standards to be brought closer together without interference

Another small modification was to remove two of the screws that stop the telescoping section of the rail sliding out from the lower section. This means the front telescoping section can be removed and the rear geared section brought to the front of the lower rail (see Image 2). When using ultra-wide angle lenses, this allows both standards to run on the rail with the focusing track while avoiding the risk the rail projecting into the picture area.

Both standards running on the geared focusing track which has been moved to the front of the rail

Both standards running on the geared focusing track which has been moved to the front of the base rail

In The Field
The Toho comes in two main sections, the rail and lower part of the standards , and the bellows frame/ground glass. I store the sections apart but it would be possible to keep them together if you use a bigger camera bag.

I use a Lowe Pro Orion AW to transport the camera. This bag fits neatly into the lower compartment of my Macpac Cascade 90L pack. On really long trips I usually carry the Toho; a Nikkor 90mm SW f8; a Fujinon 135mm W; and a Nikkor 200mm M. One of the lenses travels mounted on the camera.

On shorter trips I might add a Schneider Super Angulon 47 XL or 65mm; Schneider Super Symmar 110mmXL and/or Fujinon 300mm C.

As well as the lenses, the Orion holds a Sekonic L 508 light meter, a Lee filter holder, at least two ND grads, an 81 series filter or two and a Polarizer. I store a Fuji Quickload holder with film and/or Graphmatic film holder separately in my pack. I carry my tripod, either a Gitzo G1325 or Silk 714 CF, by hand or attached to the side of my pack.

Toho 3 lens kit

The Toho with a basic 3 lens kit packed in a Lowe Pro Orion AW

This setup has been ideal for the kind of photography that I specialize in. It is versatile to cover most situations while being light and robust enough to carry on ten day journeys. On trips when the weather is likely to be extreme or where creek/river crossings are involved, I put the Orion in a lightweight drybag for an extra margin of safety.

No camera is perfect and the Toho has its share of faults. Firstly, the standards on mine are not completely parallel. Not by a large amount but enough to shift the focal plane slightly. I have read that a few other users of the camera mention this concern, so I am sure it is not just a one off with my camera. Countering this involves being super careful when focusing the camera and at times adjusting the swing to compensate.

Rigidity and stability are other issues. Being a light weight camera, the Toho is never going to come close to a Linhof, Sinar, Arca etc. In windy conditions (e.g. a Patagonian gale) it takes a beating and it is very important to shield the camera as much as possible.

When the telescoping sections of the rail are closed, the Toho is quite rigid considering its weight. At full extension it does get a bit wobbly. So far I have avoided soft images as a result of movement but care really is required.

Finally, as the locks wear, slipping and movement are becoming more frequent. This can be countered by tightening them but of course this creates more wear and the cycle continues. When very slight movements are involved, I find that I have to be very careful tightening the locks.

In the world of 4x5 field cameras, the Toho FC-45X certainly stands alone in terms of its design. Compared to traditional flatbed cameras it offers many benefits. All in all, for a camera to use for landscape photography especially on multi-day walking trips, the Toho certainly deserves serious consideration.