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View camera

Sometimes also called a "studio camera" or "field camera"

A view camera – the largest of the four basic types of camera – must be attached to a tripod when being used. This is a "large format" camera, a term that applies to cameras that produce an individual image size of 5" X 4" or larger. The use of sheet film in sizes of 5" X 7" or 8" X 10" is not uncommon.

It is most often found in a studio, and is sometimes even called a "studio camera," although the view camera can be transported and set up in the field, which explains why it also known as a "field camera." Indeed, some of the most famous early outdoors pictures were taken with rugged brass and mahogony view cameras, and many view cameras today continue the tradition of fine landscape photography. (See "A more compact view camera" below.) The modern view camera looks and functions in very much the same way as early cameras.

The view camera's basic design remains unchanged from the earliest models.
The view camera's basic design remains unchanged from the earliest models.


Its principal advantages are:
(1) the tremendous image detail obtained from the large-sized film (enabling the printing of very big, sharp enlargements);
(2) the camera’s ability to tilt and twist both the lens and film panels to correct distortion, perspective, depth of field and focusing problems;
(3) its direct through-the-lens viewing; and
(4) its large glass viewing screen which enables needle-sharp focusing.


The lens and camera back are two separate units, joined together on a focusing rail by an adjustable, accordion-like bellows that is light-tight. The lens is focused by moving it either forward or back on a rack-and-pinion focusing movement, stretching or contracting the bellows, until a clear, sharp image is visible on the viewing screen, which is located on the camera back. The ground glass viewing screen will often have several evenly-spaced horizontal and vertical hair lines intersecting on it to aid in composition and alignment.

Focusing and composition are done without film or a digital back in the camera, enabling direct through-the-lens viewing. What the photographer sees on the ground glass viewing screen is exactly what will appear on the negative or in digital memory because the sheet of film or digital back is placed in the same location as the viewing screen when the photographer is ready to take the picture. The large size of the viewing screen enables fairly sharp focusing with the naked eye, but focusing can be additionally fine-tuned in all parts of the viewing screen by using a magnifying glass.

The individual planes of the lens and viewing screen are not fixed in parallel alignment, which means that each can be angled differently in relation to the other. These movements are known as tilt and shift movements, and permit the photographer to alter the appearance of perspective in a manner that cannot be done with other camera types. The lens, for example, can be tilted up to frame the view of a skyscraper while the camera back remains parallel to the building, resulting in an image that has the lines of the building remaining parallel, not converging.

There are two fundamental problems with the viewing screen, however. First, it is typically not very bright, and ambient light can make it appear less bright. Photographers generally block the ambient light by placing a dark cloth over the back of the camera. They then place their head beneath the cloth to see the image on the screen more clearly. Second, the image appears reversed and upside-down on the screen, which, by the way, is also the same inverted way that film or digital image sensor “sees” the image in any camera.


Photography with a view camera is not a speedy process. Its subjects must therefore be relatively stationary. After composing the image, making focusing adjustments and calculating exposure, the viewing screen is removed and replaced by the film slide or digital back. The shutter must be closed and the aperture must be manually set before the film's or digital back's protective shield can be removed. The shutter release is then tripped, and the exposure is made.


A type of camera known as the "baseboard" or "field" camera is essentially a portable view camera, because it functions in much the same way and with similar controls and features. With its hinged front, it is designed to be folded up to be used outside of the studio for landscapes and general purposes. However, its relative compactness and portability come with a price, specifically more limited film plane and lens movement. They are intended to be used on a tripod, however they can also be compact enough to be hand held. The field camera has its origins in the early 1900s.