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Using the Graflex RB Super D 4x5 SLR

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Using the Graflex RB Super D 4x5 SLR

There aren’t many large format cameras that that I would describe as spontaneous or hand-holdable. Linhof Technikas, Speed Graphics, Horseman Field cameras and their like are often used unencumbered by a tripod. All employ an attached rangefinder or frame finder to view an approximation of the image. If you want to use the ground glass to see your actual image you must remove the film holder, focus on an upside down and backwards image, replace the film holder, and hope your subject hasn’t moved and you are pointing your camera in the same place…

Wouldn’t it be cool if someone would invent a Single Lens Reflex 4x5? Well, of course someone did; Graflex started selling their first version of the RB Graflex in 1923!

  For over ten years I’ve kept their best incarnation, a Graflex Super D, behind the counter at Seawood Photo. I use it primarily to take quick portraits of our customers, sales reps and each other. It suits itself well to portraiture as I can set it up the camera, pose the subject, and pack it all back up in less than a minute or so. Might seem like a long time in this digital age, but quite remarkable for a 4x5. The large leather handle on the top makes carrying the camera akin to carrying a toolbox. Be careful, however, as the leather on these older cameras is often brittle and most of the S.D.’s we see are missing this handle. I’ve seen people replace these with metal gate handles!

The lens on my camera is a Kodak 190mm f5.6 Ektar. It has reasonable contrast for amonocoated lens, and is very sharp with a smooth bokeh. I usually shoot with it wide open to take advantage of the format’s inherent lack of depth of field. Looks nice!

The Super D is a true SLR with many features one would expect with modern medium-format cameras, such as:

  •  Automatic Diaphragming (their title). Early SLR’s would require you to focus at wide-open aperture, then stop down to the desired aperture to shoot. This meant you were often looking at a dark image when the shot was fired. With the Super D you choose your aperture, than cock a lever on the lens that holds the diaphragm wide open until the shutter is released.

  • Rotating Back

  • Fast Shutter Speeds. Top speed is 1/1000th!

  • Interchangeable Film Backs. I often use a Polaroid 545 holder for instant B&W prints. The color shot for this article was shot with a Graflex “23” 120mm rollfilm holder. This gives you eight 6x9 shots per roll. (Earlier Super D’s do not have a modern “Graflok” back, which means you can’t use newer accessories such as Polaroid. The earlier ‘Graflex” back system had similar options, but it is becoming difficult to find holders and rollbacks. (There is a company called S.K. Grimes that does machine work and will convert your old style back to Graflok. They will do both the 3-1/4 x 4-1/4 and 4x5 S.D.’s, plus mount your lenses. See their website at

The camera is relatively simple to operate. To set the shutter speed you first look at a chart riveted to the right side of the camera. This tells you what “Curtain Aperture” (a-d) and “Tension” level (High or Low) combination is needed for the desired speed.


The Curtain Aperture is set by winding the key on the upper left until the letter indicated on the chart appears in a small window. If you wind it too far there is a release bar behind the key that allows you to back it down.

The tension level knob on the bottom left is wound clockwise from “L” to “H”. To get back to “L” push up on the button just below the wind knob several times until the “L” indicator shows in the window.

It’s a good idea to store the camera with the tension level set to “L” as this causes less strain on the mechanism.

The mirror must be dropped down into position after each shot if you wish to look through the camera. This is done by pulling back on the mirror drop lever.


The lens aperture is set on the lens barrel. By pulling out on a button you rotate an arrow until it aligns with the desired f/stop. You then cock the lens (see photo) by moving the auto diaphragm lever counter-clockwise until it catches, allowing you to look through the lens at a nice, bright f5.6!

Finally, the camera is fired bydepressing a small lever on the left side of the body.

Shooting with the Graflex

So what’s it like to shoot one of these guys?

  • For portraits and close action this is a dream 4x5…for most other jobs it kind of sucks! For starters, your slow speeds are limited to 1/30th and up. No f/32 landscapes with this puppy…

  • Lens choices are very limited. You cannot use a wide angle lens at all due to the body size. There are no camera movements at all (one of the best reasons to shoot 4x5). I’m surprised they didn’t add rise/fall at the very least.

  • Holding the Super D is like holding a large box at your waist. There is nothing ergodynamic about it. Maybe my UPS guy should get one!

  • There is no provision for a neck or shoulder strap either, which I find strange for a handheld camera.

  • Color photos could use a bit more contrast, perhaps a later multicoated Ektar version would give it a bit more snap.

  • On the plus side, black and white images are fantastic! Portraits have a great glow about them, and it’s a fun camera to use. I’ve picked up a 6x9 version with a rollfilm back that will be easier to schlep around, and expect similar results.

  • Super D’s are usually priced around $700 or so. 2-1/4x3-1/4 versions generally go for around $400-$500 with a rollfilm back. Perhaps it is because they are a bit much to lug around, many we see have seen little use; it is not uncommon to see one in truly mint condition.

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