Having only ever used shop-made view cameras I’ve always wanted to try an actual production camera. I saw a used monorail on a forum for sale for $400, so thought I’d treat myself after all the work remodeling and repairing the house this year. 5×7 monorails are relatively rare, and a 5×7 Arca Swiss even more so. This is an older Oschwald-era Arca, but it appears to have a lot of the functionality of the newer F-line models. There were some issues disclosed in the listing- no ground glass, missing light gasket where the back meets the rear standard – both are really easy fixes. It also had a few other issues such as dry spirit levels and some cosmetic damage, but nothing that would impact usage. The important thing was that it had light tight bellows, or so the seller claimed in the listing.
I was pretty disappointed when receiving it. Before running film through it I took it in the darkroom, put a bright LED light inside the bellows and installed a lens on the front and a film holder in the back to seal the ends. After a dozen pinhole leaks I quit counting. There were also leaks at the film holder gasket. The ground glass frame itself was very sloppy- so loose that even with the camera level the ground glass frame would tilt away from the back under its own weight and rattle. I thought about returning it, and sent a message to the seller, but so far no reply. But it is the holiday season, we have no guests this year, so why not tinker with this thing a bit.
Taking the back apart, I noticed one of the pivot saddle stays was missing from the back of the spring. Also, the pivot thrust bearings were missing which guide the ground glass frame into the center of the back when the bail is released. I fitted the pivots with a flanged sleeve bearing to get rid of the slop at the back and to engage the spring, and filed down the flange on the bearing to center the back between the spring rails. To register the pivot to the spring, I removed the copper spring rivet and bore a small hole in the bearing and pinned it to the spring. This repair was easier than making a new saddle with the materials I had on hand.
The rear bellows frame is such a loose fit that it pops out of the retaining clips even with modest movements. I happened to have some tapered rubber bumpers that were the perfect size to snug the frame downward to better engage the clips on the bottom of the standard, which only capture about 1mm of the bellows frame. I shaved the taper off the back side of the bumpers to fit into the corner. The bumpers have adhesive backs, but fastened them to the rear standard with screws just to be sure they don’t fall out over time.
I still need to find some bellows or make new ones. It’ll probably take a while to find a replacement, unless I want to spend another $300-400 to have a new one made. In the meantime I painted all of the inside corners of the bellows with some liquid electrical tape, which stays flexible and doesn’t flake off under stress. It’s now light tight, but will wrap it up with a darkcloth when exposing film just to be safe. I also redid the light seals on the rear standard and back with some soft closed cell EPDM foam tape (3mm) from McMaster-Carr.
The 171mm boards are truly elephantine, and since it was fun working in the shop I made a basic lens board adapter. I just cut out a square hole in a blank 171mm lens board, then made a smaller reducing frame with a light trap and attached it with screws through the back of the lens board.
Also noticed the standards were out of parallel in both directions when zeroed-out, and that the rear swing and tilt detents were a little sloppy. Unfortunately, the screws for some of these detent adjustments are behind thin little Arca Swiss badges that are glued on the sides of the function carriers. The large brass ‘screws’ (they’re actually more of an adjustment cam than a screw) behind these badges control the neutral position of the swing detent. To adjust these, there’s a two things than need to be loosened first- the set screw perpendicular to the adjustment, and the locking knob for the swing. You can also adjust the detent tension by sliding the adjustment dial in and out of the socket shaft when the set screw is loosened, then re-tightening it when the desired tension is achieved. After the function carriers themselves were parallel, I double checked by installing the standards and checking parallel with calipers.
The rear tilt was a little trickier. The function carrier tilt block wasn’t machined exactly parallel, there’s a slight taper to it, so just squaring the block to the rail did not work. I had to keep removing the rear standard to adjust and then reinstalling it to check plumb at the ground glass with a machinist’s level, but it was useful to leave the square in place to judge the tiny adjustments. This adjustment is made from another dial screw in the dovetail shift platform, again locked in place by a perpendicular set screw.
Might have been easier to use a level directly on top of the function platform, using a precision setup block large enough to clear the shift knob. I would have just used a feeler gauge and judged it relative to the front function carrier, but that one was a little out too, with no obvious means for adjustment. The trick to calibrating alignment is finding the proper surfaces to measure neutrality. I figured the ground glass and lens board stages are where the wheels hit the road, so just used those directly.Anyway, there is some inherent slop in the detents that can’t be adjusted out, so no point in getting too anal about it.
As mentioned about there doesn’t appear to be an adjustment for tilt on the A-series function carrier, which makes sense because there is no base tilt on that carrier, only axis tilt on the standard itself. I thought at first the tiny screw below the swing adjustment controlled this, but even after fiddling with it for 15 minutes I still can’t tell what it does.
For the ground glass, just used some old picture frame glass, cut and seamed the edges, and clipped the corners slightly. The ground glass frame only supports the glass on the short ends. Chips and burrs along the cut line can refract light into the focusing area. Grinding then slightly beveling the edges with silicone carbine helps. I ground the glass using a piece of plate glass as a flat work surface, and used an old lens element with a flat bottom to grind with, starting with 320 silicon carbide and finishing up with 25 through 12 micron aluminum oxide. It’s difficult to lap glass with such fine grit, but this is only 5×7 and the glass was pretty flat to start with.
The camera cleaned up pretty well. I cleaned the old lube off it and used some dry film Teflon lubricant on the rack and pinions. The shift was a little rough on each standard, so put some .005″ UHMW pads on the dovetail platform, and now it’s a little better. But I like the function carriers, simple yet generous movements and they all lock down fairly well. There is a lot of focus shift when tightening the focus lock knobs, but the focusing rack is helical so it’s almost self-locking, they don’t really push/pull as easily as straight-cut rack and pinions. Down side of that is it takes forever to rack this thing in and out. Maybe the knob to the inside of the focus knobs are for friction adjustment rather than locking. But in use it is alarmingly easy to accidentally move the rear standard when inserting the film holder, it doesn’t have the metal clamping pads like the front carrier, so I’ll have to remember to rough focus with the back, lock it down, then adjust focus on the front.
Use in the field
Without the rail the camera is pretty compact- hard to believe it’s a 5×7- but the 45cm rail that came with the camera is really long, and the thought of taking the standards on and off the rail for use in the field is a nonstarter.
I found an extra 40cm rail along with an extension bracket that fits this camera. I cut the rail in two parts- one 13cm long to leave attached to the camera, and one 27 cm long to leave installed on the extension bracket. So now the short rail can just quickly slide into the bracket and it’s ready to go, and the bracket can stay on the tripod or get lashed to the side of the pack.
Camera is stored on short 13cm rail for quick setup. After cutting the rail, a gap is needed to keep gear rack in alignment with the pinion gear in the function carrier. Once the proper gap was found by focusing back and forth across this seam, I installed a permanent shim at the cut end of the longer rail. [Note: when cutting the rail, make sure the blade you use isn’t too thick, otherwise the pinion might not span the gap in the gear rack made by the cut. If this happens you may have to resort to filing the rail back to the next tooth to get the proper spacing. I used a chop saw with a 3/32″ blade but a horizontal band saw for metal work would be a better choice for this.]
Since this is the only factory made camera I’ve ever handled I can only judge it against what I’ve built myself. I’m quite pleased that my homemade 5×7 compares so favorably to this, but then again this might not be the best standard to judge against… It’s nice in some areas and yet lacking in others, so I can only assume that this unit is a mix of parts from different camera that the seller put together and sold without ever using it. Now that it’s working properly I’m sort of glad he didn’t disclose the issues- I never would have bought it, and would have missed the chance to mess around with it, which has been a lot of fun.
However after actually using the Arca a few times I quickly realized that I vastly prefer my folding field camera. It’s much quicker to setup and breakdown, the steeper taper on the bellows is much better for movements over a wider assortment of focal lengths, and it just feels less clunky to operate. But this could be because it’s more familiar. About the only think I like better on the Arca is the bail back, and may make one for my folder at some point.
At this point I’m thinking about more drastic hacks for this camera. I need a new bellows for this, but hate the aspect ratio of the standards so much it hardly seems worth making one. I’d get a 6×9 front standard but would loose a lot of rise. What I should do is reduce the width of the front standard and make an entirely new smaller lens stage. That way I can get an new bellows with a sharper taper, which should allow more movements when racked in. I also want to re-build the ground glass back, maybe even the entire rear standard. The quality of the back is surprisingly poor, there’s a lot of random welding arc strike on the inside surface, the overall machining and finish of the part is remarkably half-assed, and there’s a slight bow to the back plate itself. Also, like the bellows clips, the retaining fixture for the back is really under-engineered- it only engages the back a mm or so and it’s really easy to accidentally bump the clamp and have the whole back drop off.