Silvestri H: the 6×12 ultracamera
Imagine what would happen if a HAL9000 mated with a Graflex XLSW. The Silvestri H (and as earlier models are designated, the “Hermes”) is designed to be a hand-holdable architectural camera for travel.
Why 6×12: The 6×12 format (or really, 55×114) has a 2.07:1 aspect ratio, which is wider than 16:9 and well into the range of widescreen cinema formats. It is a format that, when used horizontally, provides a field of view not unlike your own binocular vision. The natural question is what this format can do when the negative is in the vertical orientation. Having a very tall top-to-bottom frame (and particularly being able to shift the lens) allows you either to create a 6×12 image or a very perspective-corrected 6×9 image. If getting the verticals on your building (or other subject) straight requires the subject to be near the top or bottom of the frame, you just crop the rest out. Large format users have been doing this for years.
Configuration: the Silvestri H (previously called the “Hermes”) is basically a camera body that appears as a tall hexagon from the front. It consists of a foot with dual tripod sockets, a main section, and a Galilean viewfinder (reversed telescope type). The camera body is a substantial combination of substantial aluminum castings. It is not light or flimsy. And do note that when the Silvestri specs give a weight for the camera, that doesn’t include film back or a lens. In other words, this camera will not flutter away with a light breeze nor will it disintegrate or misalign itself if you look at it wrong. It will probably give you scoliosis. Here is a stock photo marked up to show the various parts (the lens mounted appears to be a 75mm Super Angulon XL). Normally, the crash bars would be present.
Lens units: various lenses are available for the H, from 35mm to 100mm. Note that not every lens works with 6×12 backs. Only the 47mm XL, 58mm XL, and 75mm XL Schneiders and 65 and 75 Rodenstocks do. You you can use any lens from 35mm to 100mm with the 6×9 or 6×7 backs and the appropriate spacers, etc. Here is a table showing just how complicated the permutations are:
Here are the Rodenstock combinations:
Lenses are generally packaged in helicoid mounts that bayonet on and off the front standard. Mounts feature both focusing marks and depth of field (DOF) scales. Some configurations come optional “crash bars” to prevent the lens unit from being knocked sideways. This camera was tested with a Schneider 58mm XL Super Angulon in a Copal shutter, which is designed to cover 4×5″. Note that the H is a scale-focus camera, the catch being that it does require you to focus (longer than 58mm, you are well advised to use groundglass focusing). Remember, in a 4000dpi scan at 100%, it’s still a 58mm lens being scale focused – so be conservative in your use of the depth of field scales.
Media: the Silvestri has a four-pin rotating connector built into the camera. It rotates with click stops in 90 degree increments. To this you bolt on either (1) the rotating rollfilm/groundglass adapter or (2) the Polaroid adapter that is integrated with a 3×4 pack film back.
- The rollfilm backs are similar to Horseman Graflok backs in most ways – except that they are taller top to bottom at the adapter plate.
- The rollfilm/groundglass adapter has two bullseye levels – one operative when the back is in horizontal orientation and one operative in vertical.
- The Polaroid adapter/back has one bullseye level – since it can only be used horizontally.
- The 6×12 and 6×9 backs have mechanisms made by Horseman, which really means Mamiya. They are quite smooth in winding, and the spacing looks perfect with TMX and TMY.
- All film backs come equipped with dark slides, which you must remember to remove and store before shooting. If you lose one, it may not be the end of the world; this camera shoots 6 frames per roll of film. So it may not be difficult to just finish the roll of film before changing backs.
Note: although it is outside the scope of this article, the Silvestri H body also came configured for 6×7, 6×9, or 4×5. These configurations use totally different rotating back adapters, and rollfilm holders and groundglass units for those adapters do not fit the 6×12 rotating back adapter (they are standard 2×3 rollfilm holders similar to Graflex/Mamiya/Horseman – the 6×12 uses a different adapter plate). In lieu of bullseye levels on the top of the rotating back adapter, these other configurations have considerably less convenient linear bubble levels on the side and back of the camera “foot.” The 6×9 Polaroid film back has an interesting feature: it does not rotate; instead, it shoots a plus-shaped frame that does vertical and horizontal simultaneously.
Shift: The raison d’être of the H is easy shift capability, operable in either film orientation. Shift lets you move the horizon line up 15mm or down 10mm on the film frame. This is the equivalent of changing the effective shooting position of the camera up or down by several meters and allows the user to take pictures of taller objects with fewer converging verticals – or to move the horizon at will. A thumb wheel on the front of the camera raises or lowers the lens standard. There is a scale on the front that shows the amount of shift, and the finder automatically shifts its frame mask up or down, There is also an external gage on the back of the finder that shows the shift amount. There is no issue with lens coverage, since most lenses sold for Silvestri cameras are 4×5 inch lenses.
Viewfinder: The H has a fixed Galilean viewfinder. Framing is achieved via interchangeable masks that drop into a slot and engage a ball detent. Stock masks consist of the same frame vertically and horizontally (for example, 6×12, 58mm, looks like a plus sign). They are also available in strict horizontal orientation There is a bullseye level (visible via a mirror) at the bottom of the finder picture. As the front standard rises or falls, the mask moves to match. Look at the bubble level, not the apparent convergence (or divergence) of tall objects in the frame. Framing using the mask generally works; the user should watch out for parallax at close range.
Ergonomics: The ergonomics are mostly good, and the H is surprisingly pleasant to use. Here are some notes:
- There is no natural place to mount a cable release. The former owner of mine taped a short cable release to the right side of the lens cage. Consider a Vivitar PG-1 pistol grip with integrated shutter release.
- There is the question of where to put your left hand – probably best directly under the camera.
- With a 6×12 film back mounted, it can be challenging to see both the bubble level and the frame at the same time. This is not a problem with the much thinner Polaroid back.
- It is easy to bump the rotating back counterclockwise a degree or two out of position (imagine the tremendous leverage of a 6×12 back). This does not really show up on film, but you should keep the lock lever in the up position at all times.
- With a rollfilm holder in a vertical orientation, where the open-close lock for the film back is at the top, you might pop open the film back with your thumb if you are not careful with your grip on the camera.
Optical Performance: because there is not very much to the camera, the optical performance is primarily defined by the lens unit selected and film flatness. All of the lenses are excellent. Testing with scrap TMY and looking through the film gate on a detached 6×12 back, you can see that the film should probably have a minute to settle before being shot. That said, the depth of focus at the film plane is fairly large, and any distortion of such a wide piece of film is negligible. The shutters are all bullet-proof Copals. The 58mm XL tested with this camera had extremely low distortion, extreme sharpness when focused correctly, and reasonably little light falloff on a 6×12, unshifted negative.
Focusing: as already noted, precise focus is rewarded. Consider a Leica FOKOS if you work close-in; otherwise, a Nikon Aculon rangefinder provides precise distance measurement if your typical subject is 6m or more away.
Center filters: most wides sold with this camera come with center filters. The unit examined came with a Schneider IIIB, which has a compensation of approximately 1.5 stops at the center. Rear threads are 67mm; front threads are 86mm. Then there is the question of whether to use the center filter at all with negative film – on 6×9, it’s pretty much unnecessary, and on 6×12, it’s marginal. That said, it’s better to have the center filter on hand to test for your particular application.
Output: this might be tricky. You have these alternatives:
- If you are only using a 6×7 or 6×9 section of the negative, any 6×9 enlarger or medium-format film scanner should be usable. Depending on your scanner, you may need to cut filmstrips into individual frames.
- If you need the whole frame, you need a 4×5 enlarger, a flatbed like an Epson V750, a stitched output from a medium-format film scanner, or a Flextight scan. A 2000dpi scan yields a ~156mp image when stitched, which is plenty for any but the most gargantuan outputs.
The Polaroid Sprintscan 120 is one of the best options for scanning and stitching, since its medium-format carrier can take a strip of two 6×12 frames (you have to rotate the film to do the second frame; the 6×24 carrier just relieves you of having to cut the negs apart). You can also contact Focal Point in Florida and get a 3mm AN glass that replaces the top frame of the standard frame of the medium format film carrier. This makes for very flat film without an extra dust surface.
Choice of film: if you use a tripod, you can use any 120 film you like. For b/w use handheld, count on using ISO 400 film all the time.
Contrast filters: You can screw an 86mm contrast filter into the front threads of the center filter with no vignetting. The alternative is to use a 67mm contrast filter behind the center filter; however, this will vignette at extreme shift settings. B+W makes a series of EW (extra wide) contrast filters that have 67mm rear threads and 82mm fronts. These cannot be used with the Schneider center filter. If you are really feeling lucky, you could use a 67-86mm step up ring and screw in an 82 or 86mm filter (which may or not be economical).
Starting points for setting your meter with 400-speed film:
- Center filter only: ISO 160 (+1.5 stops)
- Center filter plus 023 deep yellow/orange or 060 light green: ISO 50 (+3 stops)
- Center filter plus 040 orange: ISO 32 (+3.5 stops)
What kind of bag: the Crumpler December Quarter is about the only bag available with the right combination of vertical size and an inside that accommodates the 6.5″ depth of the lens/camera/back. Even so, it’s best to turn the back vertically before stowing. A photo backpack would seem ideal; however, depth is an issue.
Versus some of the competitors: every 6×12 camera is an orchid. The Silvestri has the unique touch of being able to shoot a vertical 6×12, with shift, while allowing an automatic shift-corrected view, while viewing the bubble level. No other camera really has that complex of features. But here are some competitors and where they place in terms of features:
- Linhof Technorama 612 PC II: This is wonderful and tiny (relatively), provided that you have $10,000 to create a basic camera setup. The Linhof cameras have a single-axis level that works in two orientations (so it cannot measure roll, just pitch), beautiful Albada finders with reference lines (much better than the Silvestri optical finder) and parallax insets, and a range of high quality lenses. Note, though, that the Linhof shifts but 8mm, cannot shift in the vertical orientation and does not have interchangeable film backs (if you feel daring, it has a tripod socket on the top of the camera so that you can mount it upside-down and turn that 8mm of rise into 8mm of drop). The Linhof does not have interchangeable backs or ground glass capability. Note that the widest lens available with this camera is 58mm.
- Horseman SW612 Professional: This is the closest to the Silvestri in concept, since it is a lens unit-body-film back configuration (backs come in 6×12, 6×9 and 6×7). It comes with Rodenstock lenses down to 35mm. Its back does not rotate, but the camera does have +/- 17mm vertical and +/- 15mm horizontal shift. The viewfinder is similar to the Silvestri concept, but it does not show shift and its bubble level (visible through a peephole in the finder but not inside the finder) does not work for vertical shots. This camera costs $7,700 complete with a 65 APO-Grandagon, finder, and 6×12 back.
- Horseman SW612: The non-professional(?!) version lacks any type of shift capability. It too is very expensive.
- Noblex 6/150. This 6×12 panoramic camera shoots without normal geometric distortion (making objects at the sides of the frame larger). But it does create its own cylindrical distortion and flares strangely when the sun is in the frame. Some models have shift; some have variable focus; some can take a slow-speed module; none really has a realistic leveling capability. It’s a fun camera with a 50/4.5 Tessar, but it is not in the same league as a conventional 6×12.
- Fotoman Dmax. This is a nicely designed 6×12 with interchangeable lenses on cones. It shifts in two directions, but the viewfinder does not shift in either. It does have a roof level that is operable when the camera is in its horizontal orientation.
- Fuji G617 and GX617 series: These cameras go wider in terms of format (6×18) but have much narrower angles of view from top to bottom of the frame (due to the shortest lens being a 90mm) and lack shift capability.
At the end of the day, a purpose-built 6×12 shift camera is going to be a compromise. The Silvestri is a workable if heavy handheld camera that is suitable for fast shooting.
Conclusion: the Silvestri H is one of those cameras that, due to the decline of the film camera market, has become almost affordable. It is fun to shoot, is not afraid to play hard, and it produced great pictures without a tripod or clumsily switching between a groundglass and a film back (the exceptions being close-focus work, special filtration, and initial calibration of the various levels). If you find one, jump on it.
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