This weekend I had the pleasure of testing a pre-production bellows meant for DSLR camera made by Horseman.  Not only was I thrilled to be able to test one of, if not the only, pre-production model available, I was nervous, as I’ve never shot bellows, or large format photography.  Before I delve into the review, understanding what a bellows is from the Wikipedia is probably helpful,

In photography, a bellows is the pleated expandable part of a camera, usually a large or medium format camera, to allow the lens to be moved with respect to the focal plane for focusing.

The bellows provides a flexible dark enclosure (the camera obscura) between the film plate and the lens. In some cameras, the photographer can change the angle of the film plate with respect to the optical axis of the lens, providing alterations of perspective distortion and of the object plane of focus.

The Horseman model I was given comes with the ability to use darkroom enlarger lenses, which means finding them shouldn’t be too hard. It’s still not worked out if Horseman will sell the bellows with or without a lens, though.  Needless to say, I was very excited to get this thing out and play with it.

Horseman

The overall build quality is everything you’d expect: Solid aluminum, smooth rails, knobs that are easily accessible, and the look of a serious camera when mounted to a tripod.  The base is solid, flat and easily accommodated the tripod mount with no question as to how stable it would be.  Fit and finish are also top notch, although I’ve been told there will still be some more minor tweaks to the production model.

Horseman

I mounted my Canon EOS 5d to the Horseman bellows and put it atop a tripod. This one was equipped with Manfrotto 410 geared head, which, in my opinion, is one of the best heads made, especially for this application.  The lens was a 105mm f/5.6, a bit longer than I would have liked, but it was what was available to me and I was hell bent on making the most of it.  The bellows would be more at home on a 5d Mark II with its live view LCD screen, but I am not ready to upgrade just yet.  Once mounted, I was ready to start shooting.

Horseman

The first time you look through the view finder and tilt, shift or swing the bellows and micro-adjust to focus, it all makes sense.  Little bells go off in your head and a warm feeling takes over inside.  This is what photography is all about.  Digital photography has taken something away from traditional film based photography: Shooting on the Horseman bellows really makes you plan a shot out, think about composition, focus and conceive how it should be before shooting.  That aspect alone is probably what was most enjoyable to me, spending 5 or 10 minutes composing each shot I took, swinging and tilting the lens around to find the optimal angle at which I’d shoot my subjects.

Horseman

Because this has no electronics for the EOS system to focus or give feedback on, (Nikon mount will also be available) shooting the lens in manual or aperture priority mode is a must.  Additionally, the auto-focus confirmation points don’t work so on a full tilt or swing of the bellows where focus is critical; you’ll be chimping and zooming on your LCD to see if you did hit your focus point or not.  Again, with the 5d Mark II this won’t be as much of a problem with the live view, but still fully expect to be zooming in, possibly shooting several of the same shot, and adjusting the focus rail slightly just to make sure.

Getting familiar with the bellows is straight forward, as the knobs and locks are all in somewhat standard locations.  I utilized the left focus rail knob to focus while tapping the shutter button to check for exposure, which worked out well.  Also on the right side is the knob for tilt adjustment while the shift lock release lever is on the left side.  The tilt needs to be operated with both hands, and I accidentally moved the lens board release lever a few times while adjusting everything but quickly got the hang of it.  The first attempt with the bellows is probably the most frustrating because as you look through the lens, it’s hard to do anything but focus: It took me about an hour of using it before I could start to remember where the knobs are, and what they did, so I could utilize the bellows efficiently without having to peak around the camera body to see which knob I was on.

Shooting, like I said, was a pure joy for me.  Most every shot I took was at a full swing, tilt or shift, or combination of some sort for maximum depth of field effect.  I didn’t have much in the way of subject matter to shoot to test out the perspective on it, but I can only imagine the bellows would nail it.

My style of shooting tends to lean more towards people and fashion than landscapes, where a bellows is traditionally at home.  This didn’t stop me from shooting people though, and I got a few other fun items in the mix, too.

img_7370-lr

img_7387-lr

The above two shots were taken in the middle of nearly cloudless day, so reviewing on the LCD playback proved to be very hard.  Truth be told, they are slightly back-focused when viewed at 100%, but the first shows a full swing and the second shows the ability to pick a focal point of two subjects standing side by side.  Traditional lenses simply can’t do this. Shooting people tends to be a bit more tricky since they are always moving, no matter how hard they try to stand still. This is where digital photography really comes in handy.  The ability to shoot many frames of the same subject of focus will ensure you get the shot you want when you can’t see through the viewfinder or in review well enough.

This telephone booth was a blast to shoot; it was the first still object I put in front of the camera.  I tried my best to focus on the telephone inside, but with more than 40 shots, I simply couldn’t.  Maybe with wider angle lens I could have, but I still really like this shot and how it came out.

img_7393-lr

Right down the street was an old sedan rotting away; it seemed as if time passed by this little town in rural Pennsylvania.  Knowing right away how great this would look if shot on black & white film, maybe even high ISO film for added grain, I set the tripod back up in front of it and went to town. Pulling the image into Lightroom then Photoshop later, I used a filter to emulate Tri-X  400ISO film.  The full sized image has a wonderful grain to it.

img_7402-lr

As I adjusted the focus point to the other headlight prepping for the next shot, it dawned on me how much fun I was having, and how amazing the creative control being put in my hands was.  There are effects and filters in Photoshop that could give you similar results, but nothing could get this close, not without a lot of work.  Additionally, I could still use Photoshop and Lightroom to develop the RAW files from my camera and add virtually any film effect with plug-ins and add-ons that I use for my normal photography.  Truly, the Horseman gives the best of both worlds; all the advantages of a bellows and the flexibility to post process however I see fit, as is the case with this similarly composed yet drastically different image below.

img_7404-lr-lomo

The next day I called a friend to see if she could meet me in a field for some quick shots before the sun went down to give the lens one last go before I had to hand it back.  She agreed, and we went out for the following images.

img_7475-lr

img_7495-lr

img_7525-lr

The bellows has a lot to offer, and I wish I had had it longer both to learn how to use it better and to shoot more with it.  I’ve been promised a second go at the production model when that is released, which will hopefully be soon, as I’d like to expand on how I’ve used it, and continue to learn more about it.  Currently, I have no technical specs on the bellows or a release date. Hopefully, it’s due out this summer.

The production model is said to have a thinner mount, and hopefully slightly larger knobs and a notch on the rise/fall portion, so you can feel when you’ve hit the middle rather than have to look around the camera. Horseman will also more than likely put this into some sort of protective field box as well to make transportation safe.

Who is this lens for?  I’d say landscape photographers right off the bat, but also commercial photographers who shoot everything from architecture to catalog work and even food photography.  The price point is rumored to be around $1,700 without a lens. I’d like to see this sell for $1,500 with a lens, but still not 100% sure on any of it.  It’s a very spendy setup, but the results and the pure enjoyment I got from shooting it would put it right up there on my want list of camera gear.  It’s not for everyone, though. A tripod is essential, and so is time – there isn’t much that’s quick about shooting a setup like this. 

I think aside from the joy of shooting, the results speak for themselves, even if I didn’t really get to play with as much perspective as I would have liked.

More photos from my weekend of shooting can be seen here on mikepanic.com.