Fuji GX617 (with 300mm lens)
Introduction (updated January 2010)
There are three major choices in 617 panoramic format, using a 168 x 56mm (3:1 ratio) on 120 or 220 rollfilm. These 617 bodies are made by Linhof and Horseman, and formerly by Fuji; while there were previously fixed-lens cameras, each offers a body with several interchangeable lenses. They are similar in size, weight, and operation, but each offers different coverage at the long and short ends of the focal length spectrum.
The Horseman 617 is a fairly new model and I have neither seen nor used it; consequently I have no opinions on it, and it will not be considered in this review.
Linhof 617SIII (with 180mm lens)
The Linhof body is extremely tough; one could probably run over it with a car with few ill effects. Of course, remove the lens first if you want to try this at home. It is totally mechanical without electronic features of any kind, and is therefore very simple. It accepts either 120 or 220 rollfilm, for which it can be adjusted by sliding its pressure plate. A roll of 120 gives four exposures; a roll of 220, eight.
The Fuji, while less robust than the Linhof, is nevertheless well-made of what appears to be a carbon-fibre type of composite material. It's very similar in size and weight to the Linhof, and also accepts 120 or 220 rollfilm by using a reversible pressure plate. It uses a small lithium battery to operate its electronic shutter, but can also be used without the battery if one uses a secondary shutter release attachment and a slightly more cumbersome means of operation. I find it more user-friendly for several reasons. The back is hinged along its bottom edge, unlike the Linhof back which pulls completely off and must then be set in a clean and dry location while film is being reloaded. Fuji also includes a true film-winding lever rather than Linhof's quirky hand crank. Ground-glass attachment backs are available for both Fuji and Linhof cameras, which are attached for composition and focus, then removed prior to exposing the film. Of course, these ground glass backs can only be used prior to loading film, since neither* camera has a darkslide or other means to prevent light from striking film if the back were opened midroll. *Update: newer Linhof cameras have a darkslide, although mine is old enough to lack this feature.
The Linhof 617 system includes 72mm, 90mm, 110mm, 180mm and 250mm lenses. It seems odd that Linhof didn't choose to make a 300mm to compete more directly with Fuji, as the 250mm isn't enough longer than the 180mm to make it worthwhile to own both, in my opinion. Each lens requires a matching viewfinder for proper framing; the latter includes a bubble level to make certain that the camera isn't tilted upward (causing convergence), but strangely not the seemingly more important direction of left-to-right to maintain a level horizon! The optics are actually Schneider large format lenses, each in a dedicated 617 mount with helical focus.
I've not seen a need to go as wide as 72mm, so I have the 90mm and 180mm lenses for the Linhof. The 72mm and 90mm lenses require a large (95mm) center filter to correct light falloff common to all wide-angle view camera lenses; this unfortunately eats 1.5 stops of light, but is a must when using transparency film. The 110mm most likely also needs a center filter, but this is a newer lens with which I have no experience. One may be able to get by without a center filter and later correct the falloff during printing when using negative film. The two lenses that I have both offer superb quality with crisp, contrasty images.
Fuji offered 90mm, 105mm, 180mm, and 300mm lenses. The older G617 model has a fixed 105mm lens, presumably the reason why Fuji kept this lens in the present lineup despite the fact that it's little different from the 90mm. Because I bought the Fuji exclusively to use with the 300mm lens, I have no experience with the other focal lengths; given the high quality of Fuji lenses, I have no reason to believe that they're anything but excellent, as is the 300mm.
Scale focus is the normal means of focusing a 617 camera; there is no built-in rangefinder and no way of viewing through the lens to focus, unless one uses the optional ground glass attachments prior to loading film as noted above. It's actually quite simple to use scale focus; just estimate the subject- or hyperfocal distance. Small apertures are required, as with all large format lenses; Linhof recommends that f/16 should be the largest aperture used, and I typically use apertures between f/22 to f/32, going to f/45 if need be.
Since here is no provision for a darkslide in either model (*Update: this is no longer true for newer Linhof bodies), midroll lens changes must be done in a changing bag or darkroom. This is a considerable inconvenience, and very cumbersome in the field. One wishes that a darkslide could have been provided. Since I use only the 300mm lens with the Fuji, this problem does not apply to it, but a single body with three lenses would surely be even more inconvenient than my present arrangement.
My method of use in the field
A 617 camera is bulky and heavy. The Linhof requires a mid-sized shoulder bag of its own, which holds the body, two lenses, changing bag, spotmeter, film, cable release, plus a few filters and small accessories; the Fuji also has its own bag. Since I have two 617 bodies with lenses and accessories, it becomes difficult knowing what to carry if I'm not shooting close to the car. Due to this bulk, it can't really be carried afield at the same time as another "system" camera such as a 4x5 or Fuji GX680; using it requires a separate hike, or a location close to the car. I've actually carried my GX680 and a 617 simultaneously for limited distances, but I can't stress enough how difficult it is to do this, and I avoid doing so if at all possible.
Update: February 2005
I've added a Canham MQC 5x7 camera with dedicated 617 rollfilm back to my equipment selection. It will enable me not only to obtain panoramic images with a larger lens selection than the Linhof and Fuji bodies offer, including 450mm and 720mm long lenses, but also to allow a full range of movements such as tilt, swing, and rise. l'll post a review at some point in the future.