Horseman 980 technical camera – some thoughts

I’m no stranger to medium format photography. I’ve owned a few box cameras, a basic folding camera, and a cheap TLR for a while. Last year I started to take it seriously by buying a Mamiya RB67 outfit. I’ve been using it mainly for landscape photography and perhaps inevitably, I ran into the need to have movements on the camera.

I don’t have a scanner or an enlarger capable of taking 5×4″ negatives, and with the added cost of the sheet film, it would be an expensive venture. So I decided to buy a medium format technical camera, aka field camera. After looking around, I settled on one of the Horseman cameras – 970, 980, 985, VH or VH-R.

Horseman 980

But this isn’t my life story, nor is it a review of the Horseman 980. This is supposed to be a few snippets of information that I have found out for myself about the 980, and have decided to publish here given the scarcity of information about the Horseman 6×9 technical cameras.

Mamiya RB67 backs

Compatibility with RB backs is an important factor for me, since I already have several Mamiya backs for my RB67. Information is hard to come by, but as far as I can gather…

Will work with RB backs Will not work with RB backs
  • Horseman 985
  • Horseman VH
  • Horseman VH-R
  • Horseman 960
  • Horseman 970
  • Horseman 980

I think this can be roughly summarised to say that the Horseman cameras with rotating backs can take Mamiya RB67 backs. The older ones can’t.

The baby Graflok mechanism is the same, but the older Horseman models have raised silver metal areas around the film gate that do not allow the Mamiya backs to get close enough to the camera body for the sliding Graflok blades to mate. To mount a Mamiya back on a Horseman 960, 970 or 980 you will need to modify the camera itself. I haven’t seen a later Horseman body to compare.

Horseman 980 film gate

Film counter

This note particularly concerns the older roll-film back (pictured) with a chrome knob advance rather than a lever – although I have no idea if the same also applies to the lever-advance backs.

Horseman old-style 6×9 back

When loading a new film, there is no painted or engraved mark to align with the arrow on the paper backing. Instead you have to wind the paper on until you see the arrow peeping through a hole in the pressure plate. At this point, you close the back and wind until number 1 appears on the film counter.

However, in my experience, this means the film is wound about 5cm too far before the first exposure, meaning the last exposure is cut off. Now that I’m aware of this, I’ll just advance a little less to begin with. After I’ve figured out the best way of doing this reliably, I’ll comment on this post.

Shutter release

These Horseman cameras do not take a standard cable release. The standard type of cable release found on 99% of (non-digital) cameras has a small screw thread on the tip of the cable, and screws into a socket somewhere on the camera or lens. There is no threaded socket on the Horseman lenses. Instead, there is a tube that the cable release sits in, with a screw clamp to hold the cable in place. Sounds OK, except the diameter of the tube is 6.5mm and almost all cable releases are too thin to be gripped by the clamp.

Horseman cable release socket

The Horseman cable releases seem extremely rare – I haven’t found one anywhere online. There is also an adapter that exists but is very rare. I’ve searched extensively and found them only occasionally supplied with lenses – never on their own. I’ve pinched this photo from an eBay auction, to illustrate what the adapter looks like. It’s the small chrome thing in the shutter release hole.

Lens with shutter release adapter

I’ve contacted the Analog Photography Users Group and a camera shop that sells Horseman accessories, but neither were able to offer any insights.

I have worked around this by taking a standard cable release and wrapping it in a few layers of electrical tape to fatten it up a bit, so it gets clamped in the Horseman shutter release. It works reliably enough for me, and even looks OK when mounted.

Modified cable release
Modified cable release in Horseman socket

15 Comments

  1. Peter
    January 15, 2012
    Reply

    Hi Johnathan,

    Quite interested to read in your blog the Horseman VH-R will work with RB67 backs! I am trying to figure out how to mount a Sinarback eMotion75 digital back on a Horseman VH-R to use as a hand held MF digital rangfinder. User changeable mounts for this digital back do include Mamiya 645 and RB67 but am not sure if either of these would work on Horseman VH-R, so would like to ask what you think about this? Also, have you tried to use the VH-R hand held and focus with the rangefinder? Did it work or was it like trying to hand hold a kitchen sink and focus with a donut?

    • Jonathan
      January 15, 2012
      Reply

      Hi Peter,

      Glad you think my blog is interesting – you must be in a minority 😉

      If RB67 backs work on a VH-R then I don’t see why a digital back adapter wouldn’t work. It’s a standard baby Graflok fitting with the same sliding blades to keep the back against the body. It’s just that the older Horseman cameras had extra metal ridges that get in the way.

      By the way, I’ve never mounted an RB67 back on a VH-R with my own hands – only read that it is possible while researching. I wanted to buy a VH or VH-R myself but none were available at the time I was in the market, so I settled on a 980. I can say with certainty that the 980 won’t take an RB67 back 🙁

      I did once attempt to use the 980 handheld, but it was too heavy to hold steady, lacked decent hand grips, was too inconvenient to set shutter and aperture dials at the front. The rangefinder did work nicely, but overall the whole camera felt too fragile and I was worried I’d slip and stick my fingers straight through the bellows.

      I think that hand-holding kind of misses the point of high-quality photography, so the benefits of medium format are wasted. If I’m handholding, I’ll take one of my old 35mm SLRs or a 35mm rangefinder – have a look at my selection of classic cameras. It’s not quite hand-holding, but with a neck strap the RB67 rests nicely on my belly and is quite stable. That’s the camera I’d take if I needed medium format but didn’t have the luxury of a tripod.

      Let me know how you get on 🙂

  2. Peter
    January 15, 2012
    Reply

    typo! I meant to write the eMotion75 MFDB can be configured with RZ67 mount but wrote instead RB67

    • Jonathan
      January 15, 2012
      Reply

      Ah, RZ67. That changes everything. I’ve never used an RZ camera or back so I don’t know if the backs are physically compatiable.

      Also I don’t know how a digital back works on a camera with no electronics. How does the back know when to expect the shutter to fire? Maybe this is a daft question – I’ve never used a digital back 🙁

  3. Peter
    January 15, 2012
    Reply

    Thanks for the quick reply Johnathan!

    “It’s a standard baby Graflok fitting..”

    Now that is what I need to know. For some reason adapter plates for mounting digital MFDB on standard baby Graflok seem to be as rare as hen’s teeth, don’t know why as they should work well together. Have come across mention of baby Graflok to 4×5 Graflok adapters but they also seem to be extremely rare collectors items these days, so back to the drawing board…

    What you say about hand holding the Horseman makes sense. What interests me more is how the rangefinder system of the Horseman or a similar camera (if there is one?) would permit me to focus with my MFDB mounted directly on a MF-LF camera with a single adapter plate rather than having to go the far more expensive and bulky route of using a sliding adapter with GG to focus or even worse having to remove the GG to mount the MFDB every time I shoot.

    For many years before moving to digital I worked with a Crown Graphic 4×5 that I still have stored in my cupboard and also I think somewhere in a corner of my heart 🙂

    • Jonathan
      January 15, 2012
      Reply

      There were a couple of other technical cameras with coupled rangefinders but I think they are more expensive than the Horseman cameras. I can’t remember what make they were, but I think I searched for “6×9 technical camera”.

      My 980 doesn’t seem to have any way of reading off the focal distance, but my RB67 does. You might be able to use a handheld or shoe-mounted accessory rangefinder to find the distance, and then dial that distance into the RB67, using the focusing scale on the side. This would avoid having to remove the MFDB but might not be quite so accurate. You’d need to stop down a bit, I guess. Of course the disadvantage of the RB67 is that it doesn’t have movements.

      For what it’s worth, when I’m working with the Horseman I remove the groundglass and swap it for the film back each time. It’s laborious and time-consuming, but I think it helps me to take better photographs. Let’s face it, 120 film isn’t cheap these days and if I shoot too much of it, I’ll be out on the street!

      I’d love to have a go with a 4×5 camera some time. I keep toying with the idea of moving into large format, but I don’t have the room for a 4×5 enlarger. My 6×7 enlarger takes up enough room as it is 🙁

  4. Peter
    January 15, 2012
    Reply

    Before going digital I ended up using this flextight scanner to scan my 4×5 negs rather than an enlarger and still use this scanner today whenever I want to dust off one of my old negs.

    http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Imacon-Flextight-Precision-Scanner-/280748987714

    This “legacy” scanner still works great but I agree nothing beats the thoughtful methodical process of working with film both in the field and the darkroom — if you can get hold of film and have a darkroom to print it in.

    Mostly I do portraits that I used to manage fine with 4×5 film holder and the standard Graflok revolving back on my old Crown Graphic but consider it would take much longer to swap a GG and MFDB (hmmm…maybe not?) than to slide a 4×5 film holder into a Graflok revolving back.

    Plus there is the fear I would most certainly drop the MFDB in mud though never did this with any 4×5 film holder… it is just that the MFDB costs slightly more than a used film holder and is less easy to rinse off under the tap if I did drop it in the mud 🙂

    • Jonathan
      January 16, 2012
      Reply

      Isn’t using a MFDB on a large format camera just like putting diesel in a Ferrari? 😛

      I’m young enough that I was brought up entirely on digital photography, so for me analogue photography has only been a hobby for the past 2-3 years. I’ve learnt a lot by talking to older and wiser photographers but mainly I enjoy spending time in my darkroom and experimenting. If I want to shoot digital, I’ll take out my DSLR but otherwise I enjoy a fully computer-free workflow (except for low resolution scans for my photo blog).

      Anyway, good luck finding the magic component to fix your MFDB to a Horseman or similar. Keep in touch, and let me know how you get on. 🙂

  5. Peter
    January 16, 2012
    Reply

    thanks and good luck to you too

  6. February 4, 2012
    Reply

    A couple of points-

    1)There are several system cameras that will accept 2×3 Graflok style backs. I own many, perhaps most of them. Broadly (applies to most of this response):

    a)2×3 Graphics (late 30s on)
    b)Graflex XL
    c)Mamiya Press with fixed G backs (includes the Super 23, albeit rare)
    d)Mamiya Universal with G adapter (rare part, often pricey)
    e)Mamiya RB67 with standard rotating adapter in several versions
    f)Mamiya RZ67 with G adapter (rare part, often pricey)
    g)Horseman technical cameras, as above
    h)There are 4×5 -> 6×9 reducing backs. All have limitations, many shift the imaging plane.
    i)It is possible that some 2×3 Graflex SLRs were converted. I do not know. I do know that my Super D 4×5 has what appears to be a factory installed Graflok back (and I do know factory installations were done).
    j)Arca Swiss monorails (including reflex type)
    …and there are others (e.g. Silvestri).

    2) As far as rollfilm backs go:

    a)Graflok 2? / RH?? in all their knob/lever/roller pin variations
    b)Graflex backs. These will work as Grafloks, but will slide off to the side without a bit of a hack (you need to make an indexing ridge)
    c)Early RB67 backs. Much more rounded than later models. Best balance of modern flatness and light tightness.
    d)Late RB67 S/SD backs. Heavier, more interlocks. I believe I have an example of all RB67 back models except the two part motor backs (quite intentionally so).
    e)Toyo/Horseman/Wista backs. Often have (removable) screw posts to hitch into the retaining arm.
    f)Arca Swiss backs. Unlike the above, I don’t own any examples. Look very much like the Japanese backs without the posts.

    In general, the younger the back, the more compatible. I’ve never had a camera not work with a Graflex (company, not back style) back. RB67 original backs are very much the same; I have everything but one of those on hand at the moment – but these are ideal for use on Press/Universals. When I find it, I’ll try it on my 970. If memory serves, they work. There are no hard and fast rules beyond that. I should make a chart.

    3)A Horseman 980 (or any other, excluding the RF-less models) does have a way of providing focus distance. Assuming you are using a lens from the system (e.g. a Tokyo Kogaku 105/3.5) the matching focal length cam dropped in the bed will not only allow the RF system to work, but push a needle along a distance scale. Cams are a pain to find.

    3.5) Failing that, I suppose a Vernier scale can be made. Um, good luck? 🙂

    4)Lots of companies made RF coupled 6×9 technical cameras. Graphics, Technikas, B&J Watsons, Pressmans, etc.

    Adam
    (visit) http://lipstadt.com | (like) http://facebook.com/lipstadt | (follow) http://twitter.com/lipstadt

  7. Dan
    February 29, 2012
    Reply

    I’m in the market for one of those rangefinders. In your experience, how are the topcor lenses? I have a fuji gw 690 III but was not satisfied with the image quality from the lens. So a hand holdable 6×9 with movements look enticing for me.

    • March 1, 2012
      Reply

      I’m really happy with the quality of the Topcon 90mm lens, although it’s the only one in the series that I have used.

      The Horseman is a great camera but I wouldn’t really call it handheld. It has a flexible leather handle but it’s hard to hold stable, and too easy to accidentally put your fingers through the bellows. The viewfinder and rangefinder work nicely but setting the controls on the front can’t be done by touch – you need to look at it. The focus knob is on the bottom and awkward to use while handholding. Also you can’t really handhold while using movements because the rangefinder would no longer reflect accurate focus.

      My recommendation is to use this on tripod like any other view camera! I don’t have any experience with others cameras with movements, but if I’m shooting medium format and I want to handhold, then I would take my Mamiya RB67. Obviously this has a smaller frame, and lacks movements…

  8. Prince Charming
    December 12, 2012
    Reply

    I just purchased a 980. It came with a Horseman 105mm lens on an original lens board. The well where the cable release would go is factory threaded in the bottom of the well. There is no need of an adapter/insert or modification of the cable release. Simply insert the threaded end of the cable release end to the bottom of the well and turn it until it is tight.

    • December 12, 2012
      Reply

      Thanks, that’s good to know. Yours must be different from mine then, as my 90mm lens doesn’t have any thread at all.

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