The following guide is divided into two sections. Part I is a series of brief discussions for those new to medium and large format photography. It provides the basic background information you need to become an informed shopper in the murky world of big formats. Part II (below) gives particular lens recommendations for a number of uses/scenarios. You can jump right to that if you wish!
PART I: INTRODUCTION TO LENSES AND FORMATS FOR MERCURY
INTRODUCTION TO CAMERA OPTICS
As a universal, modular, open camera system, Mercury can theoretically be adapted to accept any optical system (lens). There are many practical considerations, however, when choosing a lens. For a lens to work with the Mercury, the resulting configuration must contain the following elements (other than the optical elements themselves):
Focus Mechanism (if you wish to be able to change the focal plane to selectively focus at different distances).
Shutter (to block light from exposing the recording medium before intended, and to time that exposure)
Iris (to alter the amount of light that passes through the lens, and thereby change depth of field).
Historically, camera systems have distributed these functions in different ways. Any of these three features can be contained within the lens or within the camera body. For example, most large format camera bodies handle the focusing (via bellows), leaving Shutter and Iris to be housed within the lens. Most contemporary SLR and point-and-shoot style cameras place the Iris and Focusing mechanisms inside the lens and leave the Shutter to the camera body. Some camera systems place all of these mechanisms in the lens, and some (such as pinhole cameras) place them all in the body, or omit them.
The Mercury can be configured in all of these ways, but if you are lens agnostic (i.e., you are looking to buy a lens and have no equipment compatibility concerns), we recommend the sort of lenses that contain a Shutter and Iris but do not contain a Focusing mechanism. Typically these are referred to as “View Camera Lenses,” or as we will refer to them, “View Lenses.” These are common in large format camera systems, as well as some medium format systems (especially of the past). The have been made for tiny cameras up to huge ones, and from very cheap consumer systems to the most expensive of high-end professional ones. They have been around for a long time, and are readily available used, often quite inexpensively. They differ from system lenses in that they are more universal: they can be mounted to various cameras, rather than being tied to a proprietary mount. They are also unconstrained by the need to always match a system’s flange focal distance (the distance to every lens must be from the film plane when focused at infinity), as well as other limitations of system cameras (the need to clear a mirror mechanism, for instance, or not exceed a certain size). If system lenses are tamed optics, captured and placed in a zoo and taught how to perform for tourists, view lenses are the wild animals of the jungle: unfettered, nomadic, and self sufficient.
I joke, but the comparison is apt. View lenses are designed to do what they do best, and it is left for cameras to conform to their needs. System lenses are disciplined from the beginning, compromised in various ways and forced to conform to the needs of the system as a whole. The optical and mechanical elements of system lenses can be of the utmost quality, but these priorities always remain paramount, dictating the design tradeoffs of each type of lens. In general, system lenses suffer most from this pact at the wide angle end of the spectrum, where lenses really need to be free to give aberration and distortion free images. By the time you get to typical portrait lengths (i.e., somewhat longer than normal), system lenses don’t feel their design constraints to too great of a degree, and can benefit from systemic integration (as in the cases of auto-aperture or auto-focus). For this reason, professional portrait photographers were slowly won over from view cameras to system cameras in the late 1960s through the ’70s, while landscape, architectural, and product photographers retained their view cameras. The declining fortunes of Graflex and (to a lesser extent) Linhof and inverse fortune of Hasselblad and Mamiya chart this shift in the medium and large format photography world. This also determines the relative availability of various vintages of the view lens. The golden age of the view lens was during the post-WWII economic boom, and this era produced the best deals for shoppers today. Perhaps the giddy heights of the view lens were achieved in the 1960s and ’70s, when their level of innovation reached their peak as they competed against the system lenses that were moving from the consumer world into the professional. The exotic lenses of that era remain the pinnacle of the form, but are less affordable today. After portraiture, sports, and consumer photography were largely conceded to the system lens, view lens manufacturer’s became more conservative, but produced exceptional optics up to the current day.
The Mercury likes all lenses, but it really loves view lenses because they are low maintenance (they bring their own shutters most of the time, and don’t require fussy electronics), are much lighter and more compact, and can do things than system cameras can’t dream of. You could say that they’re more fun. As an extra bonus, however, the fact that system cameras simply cannot make use of them means that in this day and age, they are also… bargains.
A WORD ABOUT COST
Price tags for current DSLR lenses of high repute often run into the $1-3k range. Many of the lenses recommended below cost less than $100 on the used market. You must not make the mistake of thinking that the quality will be proportionate to the price. For various reasons, chief among them format size (see below), a $50 lens on a Mercury can easily outperform a $2k Canon or Nikon lens for a 35mm DSLR. This is one of the Mercury’s secrets.
On the other hand, those who already have an expensive collection of medium and large format lenses, or who are willing to invest significant money in more expensive optics, will find a vast world of amazing optics open to them. Even in the realm of expensive lenses, your money will go much further (vis-a-vis image quality) with view camera lenses on the Mercury than with any current 135 or 645 system lenses. Read on to find out why!
UNDERSTANDING FORMAT SIZE, IMAGE CIRCLES, AND FOCAL LENGTHS
Format size is a property of the recording medium. Companies manufacture digital sensors of various sizes (typically up to the 645 format). Instant, negative, and positive film is manufactured in a much larger range of sizes (typically up to 8×10”). There are four basic benefits to larger formats:
- Higher resolution. If all else is equal (pixel density or film graininess), a larger format means more resolution.
- Sharper images. All else being equal, larger formats require less image enlargement for viewing, resulting in significantly sharper, better defined images. (This is one of the reasons extremely cheap medium format and large format lenses outperform even very expensive 35mm lenses; essentially, far less burden is placed upon them.)
- Less noise/grain. This is also a direct result of lower magnification ratios.
- Narrower Depth of Field. This is actually the result of a complex relationship between focal length, image circle (coverage), field of view, and the circle of confusion. We’re going to avoid that discussion here. Suffice it to say that the larger the format, the wider the field of view will be for a lens of a given focal length (assuming that it has the necessary coverage). To produce equivalent field of view across different formats requires altering the focal length, which narrows the depth of field.
All other things being equal, increasing format size drastically improves image quality, increases creative freedom, and increases control over the image. The tradeoff is size and cost: the larger the format, the larger the camera and the more the recording medium costs.
The Mercury can currently shoot to formats from 135 (35mm film or digital) up to 4×5”. For most users, we feel that 6x7cm and 6x9cm (also known in the US as “2×3”) formats provide the best tradeoff between image quality, size and weight of the camera, and cost to shoot it: the quality will blow away anything produced on 135, the camera itself is about the size of a professional DSLR (though far, far lighter), and both lenses and film are readily available.
Once you have chosen a format, you must ensure that your lenses have sufficient coverage to be able to fill the frame of your target format. If they don’t, they will produce vignetted corners, or worse (a circular image within a rectangular frame). Thus while many users may have Canon or Nikon lenses laying around, they should only be used on the Mercury to shoot to the 135 format. (Though it should also be noted that many lenses possess coverage far in excess of their official rating. Because most cameras don’t have the ability to shoot multiple formats sizes, users generally aren’t aware that their lenses have larger coverage than advertised. So it is possible in some cases, for instance, to shoot your 135 lenses onto 645 sized frames (about twice the size of a 135 frame).
To summarize: to shoot a particular format requires a lens with sufficient coverage (measured as image circle, in millimeters) for that format. While the focal length remains the same no matter which format you shoot, because more or less of the lens’ image circle is being captured, the field of view of a given lens is relative to the format you’re using it with. This is topic that greatly confuses most beginning photographers, and there are endless discussion on the Web about “crop factors” and “equivalent focal lengths” that make matters worse.
This is much too large a topic for a buying guide, but perhaps a few more words will prove useful. I’m going to avoid math and physics here, and put this is colloquial terms:
Focal Length is an inherent property of a lens, and expresses a relationship between the world being imaged and the film plane (namely, how much the lens is bending light rays and where it is focusing, or converging, them).
Image Circle is also an inherent property of a lens, and also expresses a relationship between the world being imaged and the film plane (how widely it is casting its “net,” given a particular bending angle of light rays [focal length], and therefore how big of an image it is projecting on the film plane.
Format is how much of the the film plane is being captured onto film or a sensor.
Field of View is how much of the world you see captured in an image when you view it. It expresses a relationship between the lens, format, and viewing medium.
So, the reason that beginning photographers get confused is this: they place a 50mm lens on a 135 camera (“full frame 35mm”), and get a normal field of view. Then they put the same lens on a camera with a smaller sensor and notice that the image looks a lot more “zoomed in.” This leads them to think that the focal length has changed. But it hasn’t. The lens is producing exactly the same image in both cases; the different sensors are simply capturing different portions of its image circle. If you had the perspective of the camera’s sensor, you’d see a much smaller image for the second camera—the image circle has been cropped more severely by the format. This is the perspective in the above diagram. When we look at a camera’s LCD screen, it magnifies all images to approximately the same viewing size. That’s why the smaller sensor’s image looks more zoomed in—it has been magnified to a greater extent by the LCD screen.
This is important to understand when using an open-format camera like the Mercury. You can shoot nearly any format size you want, so you need to have a rough idea of the interplay of factors that will determine the field of view being captured by a given lens and format combination.
The following chart is taken (and slightly modified) from an old Large Format lens guide by B&H Photo. It is a very handy reference to compare coverage and field of view between formats. “Image C.” refers to the minimum image circle required to fully cover that format. As long as it has the necessary coverage (having too much is not a problem), a lens of any focal length can be used with any format. However, as formats get larger, they are capturing more and more of the image plane, being magnified less and less in the viewing medium, and thus becoming wider and wider in field of view. To get narrower fields of view, you need longer (in focal length) lenses. These field of view equivalencies are shown in the table below. For example, an 90mm lens will produce a “normal” field of view on 6×7, but a wide angle on 4×5”. To get the equivalent field of view on 4×5, you would need to move up to a 165mm lens! I have highlighted in red the conventionally accepted “normal” focal length for each format as a point of reference.
645: minimum image circle: 60mm; normal lens is usually considered to be 70-80mm.
135 Pano: image circle is 75mm; lens characteristics are roughly similar to 6×6 (but with a very different relationship between width and height).
FOCAL LENGTH COVERAGE CONVENTIONS FOR VIEW LENSES
Because there are so many possible format to shoot, the world of view lenses can be very confusing. You want enough coverage for your largest target format, but not too much coverage, or the lens will be much larger, heavier, and more expensive than you want. It can help to know some of the unspoken coverage conventions used by manufacturers. Often, the lens’ focal length is used to signal its coverage:
Wide angle: All over the map. You have to look up individual lens specs. But in general, non-digital-branded lenses wider than 65mm are for 6×9 unless they contain a modifier like “XL,” indicating coverage for 4×5. Digital-branded lenses under 75mm tend to cover only 645, unless they have a modifier like “XL” (and then only cover 6×9 at an absolute maximum).
65mm and 75mm: Unless designed especially for a medium format system, these focal lengths tend to just cover 4×5. Schneider’s 72mm lens covers 5×7—notice how they chose a different and slightly weird focal length, to signal this fact.
90mm: This almost universally signals 4×5 coverage.
100-110, 125: These focal lengths are typically aimed at 6×9.
120, 127, 135: Generally aimed at 4×5.
150: Typically covers 5×7, but often aimed at 4×5 as a normal.
210: 5×7. Not recommended for Mercury without the XL Focus Unit.
240: Signals 8×10 coverage. Not recommended for Mercury without the XL Focus Unit. (Exception: 240mm Tele- lenses, which are designed for 6×12 and are recommended for the Mercury.)
270mm: Tele- lenses designed for 6×12 or 4×5.
300: Usually 8×10. Not recommended for Mercury without the XL Focus Unit.
The “speed” of a lens is its fastest F-Stop (widest aperture, equaling the smallest F-Stop number). Generally, lenses made for larger format sizes tend to be slower (to keep them from becoming too heavy an expensive). Users accustomed to f/1.4 or faster lenses may be surprised to see f/5.6 lenses recommended here. Remember that depth of field is quite narrow for these lenses/formats, more than compensating for loss of speed. A 5.6 lens on a 4×5 camera will provide narrower DOF than a 1.4 lens of equivalent field of view on a 135 format SLR.
ADAPTING “SYSTEM” LENSES TO THE MERCURY
While we recommend View lenses for the Mercury as the number one preference, many “system” lenses (made for proprietary camera systems such as EOS, etc.) can be adapted to the Mercury. As mentioned above, these lenses tend to contain a focus mechanism, but rarely a shutter. This means that to adapt a system lens to the Mercury, you will need to add a shutter unit. The Mercury has been designed to utilize Ilex No. 4, Ilex No. 5, and Copal #3 shutters for these purposes. The shutter mounts directly to the camera body as one of its modules, and the lens mounts to that. This is slightly less elegant and more expensive than using a view lens, but it does work and can produce outstanding results.
PART II: SOME RECOMMENDED LENSES
The following are some recommended lenses, broken down into several common categories. Each lens is pictured mounted on its respective Mercury adapter, which helps impart a sense of scale. (Smaller lenses are mounted on 67mm diameter, ribbed front plates and 58mm diameter barrel sections; larger, longer, and ultra-wide lenses are mounted on 73mm diameter barrels.) Back to Part I.
MEDIUM FORMAT VALUE SUPERSTAR
For an all-around strong lens in the “normal” focal length category that will be inexpensive and deliver outstanding image quality, consider these two:
Kodak Ektar 101mm f/4.5
This was Kodak’s premium lens for professional medium format cameras (designed for 6×9). It is tiny, light, and produces sharp, gorgeous photos. Its only con is that its Supermatic shutter, in all of its several variants, can be rather finicky over time. It is prone to jamming and inaccuracy if left unmaintained for a couple of decades or more. A good CLA, however, will bring it up to speed if you have problems. One other downside to this shutter is that it is a proprietary size. If you need to remount the lens elements in a different shutter, you must get a Supermatic No. 1. A word of expectation on these older shutters: a shutter in good condition will usually only attain about half of its rated speed at settings faster than about 1/10. This is normal. Factor it in when shooting. In addition, the slowest shutter speed (usually 1 sec) often sticks: when you fire it on this setting, it doesn’t close at all without a little help. This too is normal. It isn’t a Supermatic problem: it’s common to all shutters that are 20 or more years old. A limitation that is particular to American lenses of this era: the lack of standard filter threads. These lenses were designed to use Kodak’s standard push-on filter system, but the adapters are hard to find now. For that reason, Mercury has produced an optional accessory kit for this lens that includes a front lens cap, a rear lens cap, and a press-on lens hood with 40.5mm filter threads. Finally, if you want to trip a flash or digital back with this shutter, you can do so, but you’ll need to purchase or make an adapter from the bipost standard (see those two little “prongs” on the bottom right of the shutter?) to the current 2.5mm or PC connections. Also, you’ll want to change the shutter’s setting from “M” (flashbulb) to “X” (electronic). Yep, that’s an advanced feature of this shutter. Another: a handy preview button that locks the iris open no matter what f-stop you’re set to (just hold down the button and fire the shutter). If that’s not enough for you, you can get a rarer “Rapid” version of this shutter, which goes all the way up to 800. But you should really slow down…
Graflex Century Trioptar 103mm f/4.5
This was Graflex’s (manufactured by Wollensak) popular 6×9 lens for professional cameras, directly competing with the Kodak Ektar 101mm but entering the market rather late in its reign (to coincide with Graflex’ release of their Century Graphic “prosumer” press camera in 1958. The Trioptar (sometimes also called a “Graftar”) used a slightly less complex optical formula to produce a cheaper lens than Kodak’s. It was Graflex’ default lens on their popular Century Graphic 6×9 camera. Despite its simpler formula, it is actually a very sharp, high-quality lens, nearly on par with the Kodak in overall image quality, and often sharper. Best of all, it is even smaller and lighter, cuter, and its Century shutter is extremely reliable. Even after 70 years, most of these shutters work perfectly “out of the box,” with mostly accurate shutter speeds! Another pro to this remarkable shutter is its “press” operation: instead of cocking and then releasing the shutter, the user needs only press the release. It cocks and releases automatically, making for fast shooting when needed. The con to this shutter, however, is that it does not contain a full range of speeds: it can’t go slower than 1/10 sec, or faster than 1/200th sec. In practice, this can be a limitation in low light or extremely bright sun (when shooting fast film), but most of the time you’re covered. Like the Ektar 101mm above, this len’s shutter is proprietary; the lens elements can only be remounted in this exact shutter. This is less of a problem, however, given the robustness of said shutter. Even today this lens suffers from a somewhat maligned reputation, purely based on its paper specs: it has “only” three optical elements instead of the standard four for a Tessar style lens (like the Ektars). And it is, to be fair, clearly a stripped-down (“streamlined” sounds better) package. No flash sync selector, no low shutter speeds, and no preview button (you have to shoot at “T” to preview on ground glass). For this reason, you may be able to snag one for very cheap. But now the secret’s out of the bag…
If you want to step up in price and weight, for better edge performance, get a more modern lens in the 100-125mm range, such as the Nikkor or Rodenstock 100mm f/5.6. These lenses are typically mounted in standard Copal 0 shutters, and can be freely transplanted between any size 0 shutter.
BEST VALUE LENS THAT COVERS MEDIUM AND LARGE FORMAT
Kodak Ektar 127mm f/4.7
This is Kodak’s most popular view lens of all time. It was manufactured from the 1930s through the 1960s, and was one of the last lenses to be cancelled as Kodak pulled out of the lens business. Known to be small, light, and very sharp, this one works equally well as a long-normal to long on medium formats, and wide-normal on 4×5. You can’t go wrong with this lens. It’s only downside is a somewhat finicky Supermatic No. 2 shutter that can develop problems over many decades. It tends to be more reliable than the the Supermatic No. 1 on the 101mm, simply because it is a bit bigger and therefore more robust. The same caveats I noted for the Kodak Ektar 101mm apply here regarding effective shutter speeds, filters, and bipost flash connections. Mercury produces an accessory kit that includes a front lens cap, rear lens cap, and press-on lens shade with standard 49mm filter threads. At the end of the 1950s, Kodak stopped making their line of shutters. That’s when they discontinued most of their view lenses. However, this one was so popular that they decided to rehouse it in a German Compur shutter and continue to sell it. Late models, then, are housed in an excellent Synchro-Compur No. 1 shutter (and are also capable of being remounted into any standard No. 1 shutter, unlike the Supermatic version of this and other Kodak lenses). That’s a huge bonus for this exquisite lens, but comes a cost premium.
BEST LARGE FORMAT NORMAL LENS
Schneider Apo-Symmar 150mm f/5.6
This lens is a personal favorite. Superb in every way. It can be used as a longer lens for medium format, but really shines as just about the perfect 4×5 lens. Also quite readily available. For a budget option, you can go with earlier versions (Symmar-S, or the much older, just plain Symmar). The 150mm f/5.6 options from Nikon, Rodenstock, and Fuji are quite similar. If all of these are a bit too spendy, the Graflex Optar 135mm f/4.7 makes a nice normal lens for 4×5 (but is awkward for use as a medium format lens).
WIDE ANGLE LENSES
One of the great advantages of view lenses and non-SLR cameras is that it is possible to mount non-retrofocal wide angle lenses on them (also called “true wide-angles”). Wide angle lenses on system cameras are almost always retrofocal, meaning that many extra lens groups have been added to increase the focal flange distance of the lens while retaining its wide field of view. This is necessary to clear the mirror box of these cameras. Wide angle view lenses, on the other hand, don’t require such optical fixes, and tend to be significantly sharper and free of distortion and aberrations. If you’ve only shot with wide angle system lenses in the past, moving to wide view lenses is like leaving the polluted environs of a city you never even knew had a smog problem. There’s a reason folks in the know are addicted to these lenses. Professionals will pay thousands of dollars for small technical cameras such as Alpas that can take these lenses. It’s a basic feature of the Mercury for a fraction of the cost.
Schneider 90mm f/6.8 Angulon
Okay, we aren’t quite in ultra-wide territory yet. But this is a classic wide-angle that is tiny and excellent; a perfect fit for the Mercury! This is quite wide on 4×5, but only moderately wide on 6×9. It may pair nicely (on either format) with a 127mm. The main con on this lens it that, when shooting 4×5, its corners are not nearly as sharp as the center of the image. This is recommended over Schneider’s later, and more readily available “Super Angulon” design. The Super Angulon is very large and heavy (especially in its f/5.6 version). It can be used on the Mercury, but isn’t recommended as it robs the camera of its smallness and lightness. Similarly, most 90mm view lenses from other companies (Nikon, Fuji, Rodenstock) follow the Super Angulon design and are equally cumbersome. Even this regular Angulon (which isn’t a step down, but rather a step sideways; it makes use of a fundamentally different optical formula: tessar rather than biogon) is recommended mostly for 4×5 shooters, where its size and weight can’t be beat. What you sacrifice is some speed; if you’re shooting only medium format, go with one of the ~100mm lenses for that format instead.
Schneider 75mm f/8 Super Angulon
At this focal length and speed, the Super Angulon design becomes practical. This is a great lens for moderate wide angle photography. There is a newer f/5.6 version that is better, but significantly more expensive and heavier.
Schneider 65mm f/8 Super Angulon
The same can be said of this as the 75mm version. It is an excellent, very small lens. On the Mercury, it makes for a very compact camera, and is perfect for travel, street photography, landscape, etc. Again, a newer f/5.6 version exists, but is about three times bigger, heavier, and more expensive! One downside to this lens is its absolutely minuscule shutter (a Synchro Compur 00). Easy to break, so be gentle!
Schneider 65mm f/6.8 Angulon
This minuscule little sister to the classic 90mm Angulon is also quite good, and is about as tiny as a lens gets. It’s one of the most practical wide angle lenses you can get for the Mercury. It even covers 4×5 (barely)! The only downside, again, is that tiny, vulnerable shutter. Given the size of the lens, however, at least it makes the best possible use of that Compur 00.
Another great 65mm lens (but far less common) is Rodenstock’s excellent Grandagon-N 65mm f/4.5 (also re-branded in the US sometimes as “Caltar II-N”). Even less common (outside of Japan) are 65mm large format lenses by Fuji (Fujinon) and Nikon (Nikkor).
For budget options, look at the 65mm lenses made by Mamiya for the Mamiya Press and TLR systems (though the TLR lenses are only designed to cover 6×6).
EXTREME WIDE ANGLE
Okay, you really want to push the limits of true wide angle lenses? The following lenses can be mounted to the Mercury via the Rotating Ultra-Wide Angle Lens Board, making for extremely compact camera configurations.
Schneider 47mm Super Angulon
One of the most common and popular true ultra-wides, this lens is not in the budget category, but it is readily available. It has gone through several generations:
F/8: Earliest version, for 6×9. A great performer, if a bit slow.
F/5.6: Newer version, also for 6×9. Definitely an upgrade from the slower version. (Pictured here).
F/5.6 XL: This one is significantly larger, and can cover 4×5. Significantly more expensive.
F/5.6 Apo-Digitar XL: The latest version, optimized for digital sensors and a working aperture of f/8. Don’t let the XL confuse you, though: this lens just barely covers 6×9, like the older versions.
To put it simply, it doesn’t get much better than this for a reasonable price (less than $500 for the 6×9 versions, less than $1k for the 4×5 version). This lens is enough to justify Mercury’s existence.
Zeiss Biogon 53mm f/4.5
When it comes to ultra-wide view camera lenses, the Zeiss Biogons are the legends that tower above everything else. They are insanely large and heavy in comparison to any other equivalent lens, but most folks consider these to be as good as it gets. There’s the insanely rare and expensive 75mm for 4×5 on one hand, and the legendary 38mm for 6×6 on the other (this latter was so amazing that Hasselblad designed an entire camera just for this single lens, the Hasselblad SWC). The 38mm is also sometimes available in a Copal shutter, but is too rare to be recommended here. On the other hand, the 53mm Biogon, designed for 6×9, can sometimes be found. It comes in a special mount, and was built for specific high-end cameras like the Technika. It isn’t easy to mount on a regular lens board, and thus some folks don’t know what to do with it. Well, if you come across one, you know what to do with it: put it on the Mercury! We’ve developed a special mount just for this amazing lens, so you can use the best (I said the best, not the most practical… this thing is a beast!) if you want to.
An honorable mentions go to the Rodenstock Grandagon 58mm, a classic design, as well as newer (and very expensive) Rodenstock Apo Grandagon lenses in various focal lengths from 35mm to 55mm. The latest crop of true ultra-wides are designed specifically for digital photography (though they still work fine with analog mediums). These include Schneider’s “Apo-Digitar” line, Rodenstock’s “Digiron” line, and Sinar’s “Sinaron Digital” line (with glass made by Rodenstock). This is pretty much the current generation of lenses, and they don’t go cheap! Further, you have to be watch coverage. While all of these lenses cover 645, some stop there. Others can cover up to 6×7. Check the specs before buying! These lenses go all the way down to Schneider’s 24mm, with limited coverage.
Ordinary long lenses quickly become awkward on the Mercury. A flange focal distance of greater than 150mm is not recommended, as Front Mounting Spacers need to be used after that point to greatly extend the front of the camera. (Of course, users may have many reasons for doing this for specialty lenses, special uses, etc.) So, if longer than 150mm focal length is desired, usually for portraiture, tele-photo lenses are recommended. Tele-photo lenses have enlarging elements built into them that increase their effective focal length without proportionally increasing their flange focal distance. So they can sit closer to the camera and still provide long focal lengths.
Schneider Tele-Arton 180mm f/5.5
This small lens is for medium formats, and makes a fantastic portrait lens. For an even smaller, but somewhat less sophisticated and cheaper version, get the Tele-Xenar version.
Schneider Tele-Arton 240mm f/5.5
This is a great lens for large format, but strangely doesn’t quite cover 4×5 at infinity. Still, that doesn’t matter for portraiture, where closer focal distances are the norm. The Tele- lens that does cover 4×5 at all focal distances is the Tele-Arton 270mm, but it is significantly larger and heavier. This is the longest telephoto lens recommended for the Mercury without special modules.
SUPER FAST LENSES
Especially in the 1960s, super-fast medium format (usually 6×7) lenses were fairly popular among professionals. If you have a need for speed, you may want to check these out. Just keep in mind that actually shooting at f-stops larger than 5.6 on 6×9 or 4×5 film practically requires a ground glass for critical focus—depth of field is just too narrow to be able to nail it with a rangefinder at these f-stops.
Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2.8
This is the most commonly available super-fast view lens today. It was the go-to lens for super-speed on the professional rangefinder cameras of the 1960s: the Graflex XL and the Technica. It is an outstanding lens in every way, and is a match made in heaven with Mercury. It’s main con is that it only officially covers 6×7; still, in most circumstances it will cover 6×9 just fine. It is also somewhat heavy compared to ordinary medium and large format lenses. Its contemporaneous rivals were the Rodenstock Heligon 80mm f/2.8 and the Schneider Xenotar 80mm f/2.8. The Zeiss emerged so victorious, however, that it is by far the most likely one of the trio to surface on Ebay today. The Rodenstock does come especially recommended, however, as it manages to achieve the same specs with about half the size and weight: it is housed in a Compur 0 shutter instead of the Zeiss’ 1.
If you want a super-fast lens for 4×5, it’s another matter. Zeiss and Schneider did indeed make ultra-exotic lenses at f/2.8, but you’ll have to mortgage your home to get one. There is one readily available, sub $1k super-fast lens for 4×5, and that’s the WWII era Kodak Aero Ektar, which lacks a shutter. This lens will be the subject of future writings, once we’ve worked out a way to make it work with the Mercury.
OTHER VIEW LENSES
This guide is only a starting point. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the great optics out there calling out to join your Mercury! Once you are an experienced Mercury shooter, I encourage you to experiment with as many different lenses as you can get your hands on. This guide has deliberately emphasized inexpensive lenses, and is skewed for the most part toward lenses readily available on the used market. Of the big four “contemporary” lens makers of high-end view lenses, we have only extensively covered Schneider, as they have been the most influential in the 20th century, and thus their lenses are among the most abundant on Ebay. It is generally accepted, however, that the “big four” produce lenses of comparable quality. So you should feel free to explore lenses from Rodenstock, Nikon, and Fuji as well. Fuji’s lenses (branded “Fujinon”) are rare in the U.S., as Fuji never had a good distributed here. They are, however, more readily available in Japan.
Take a look at the Mercury Lens Compatibility List to discover lenses that already have lens kits available for handheld/rangefinder shooting. Not that most view lenses under 150mm focal length that aren’t insanely large can be adapted to the Mercury. A lens that is similar to a listed lens but isn’t itself listed may will probably work fine on the Mercury with ground glass, but may require careful calibration to shoot handheld.
For further reading, these sources might be of help to you:
B&H’s guide to large format lenses (circa 1990s; doesn’t include vintage or digital lenses): https://static.bhphotovideo.com/FrameWork/Product_Resources/SourceBookProPhoto/Section04LgFormatLenses.pdf
Rodenstock Lenses, with Specification tables: http://www.prograf.ru/rodenstock/largeformat_en.html
Fujinon Lenses: http://www.subclub.org/fujinon/
Chart of large format lenses, including many vintage lenses: http://www.largeformatphotography.info/lenseslist.html
Chart of 1990s era large format lenses (formatted with different formats as reference points, but each list is the same): http://www.largeformatphotography.info/lenses/
MAMIYA PRESS LENSES
These are a special category of view camera lenses. Each lens includes an Iris, Shutter, and Focusing mechanism. You can unmount these lenses from their focus mechanisms and use Mercury’s focus unit, or you can use a special Mamiya Press adapter that accepts full Mamiya Press board directly. In this scenario, rapid changes between Press lenses would be possible.
SYSTEM LENSES REVISITED
Hasselblad V, Pentacon 6, Pentax 645, and Mamiya 645 lenses can all be adapted to the Mercury with their respective adapter kits. These kits make use of, and require, an Ilex No. 4 shutter. In some cases, kits are available for Copal # 3 shutters. Some Mamiya 645 lenses (manual focus variants labeled “LS”) and one Pentax 67 lens (the 90mm SMC Takumar 90mm f/2.8) have internal shutters and thus don’t require an external shutter to work with the Mercury (they do, however, require a simple Mercury spacer to replace the Ilex shutter if you aren’t using one). In general, don’t expect system lenses to cover a greater area than their intended format. Even if the extra coverage is there, seating the lens adapter above an Ilex shutter tends to narrow the light path and negate that extra coverage.
Mamiya RB67 lenses can also be used with the Mercury. They do not require an extra shutter, but do require another 3rd party adapter part. They can then be mounted on the Mercury XL Focus Unit. This solution allows for full focus control as well as the use of the lens’ internal shutter. Contact us for details.
Canon EOS, Nikon, and other 135 format system lenses can be mounted to a special version of the Mercury camera Front Panel. (Their flange focus distance is too short for the standard Front Panel.)
INTO THE GREAT BEYOND
These are only some beginning suggestions. There’s a world of bargain, weird, exotic, and special optics out there. Brandish your Mercury and step out into the unknown!