Using types of cameras 1: folders

Using types of cameras.

There are quite a large range of old cameras out there.  I am going to look at using serious amateur cameras. So, I am going to ignore point-and-shoot cameras (mainly box cameras as far as vintage cameras are concerned) and large plate cameras.

The cameras I am going to look at can be divided into three groups – folders, viewfinder and SLR (single lens reflex) and I shall deal with them in that order.


These date from the early days of film photography (as opposed to glass plate photography). The basic structure is a compartment to hold the film taut over the film gate and an open-able door revealing a lens that either can be pulled forward into a  locked position or will spring forward as the door is opened. This means that they are very compact when not in use and so make ideal pocket cameras. They have been made since the late 19th century and are still being made today. They were made in a variety of film sizes and those using 120 film (also called BII by German manufacturers) and 135 film (35 mm cassettes) are still usable today.

The viewfinders on folding cameras tend to be designed to be physically unobtrusive in line with their being thought of as pocket cameras. This can cause problems for the user. The best are the folding finders which are relatively large in use. The worst are the fixed finders such as on early Balda and Kodak Retinas. These have been made as small as possible so as not to get in the way but, as a result, are very difficult to use while wearing glasses.

Some cameras (Zeiss Ikon’s Icarette, for example) have a choice of finder – the easiest to use being a large wire frame mounted by the lens and a small frame at the rear of the camera. These are direct vision finders with no lenses and allow the camera to use rise-and-fall mechanisms for the lens and have the finder view the the scene the same as the lens. Using these requires the photographer to align the edges of the rear frame with the edges of the forward frame. This is not difficult but does require attention.

All of these viewfinders are set up for a distant landscape. For close work, the viewfinder will see a slightly different view than the lens does (called parallax error). Sophisticated cameras (Balda Baldina, for example) have a distance adjuster on the viewfinder to slightly alter the direction that the viewfinder points in to remove the parallax error. In the absence of a parallax adjustment, the photographer needs to remember to avoid the area at the top of the viewfinder.

On almost al cameras made before 1939, the shutter is going to need cocking. Cheaper cameras had ‘evereset’ shutters that were spring loaded and did not need cocking. Typically, an everset shutter only offered two or three shutter speeds.

On most shutters, there are two protruding levers. One cocks the shutter and the other releases the shutter. Here is not usually any indication as to which lever is which but the cocking lever is generally at the top. When cocking the shutter, the cocking lever will move quite a long way and will move against resistance (as it tensions the clockwork spring inside the mechanism). If the shutter is set to its highest speed, the resistance to moving the lever might be considerable when compared to the slower speeds. This is quite normal and not to be worried about.

The way you set the speed varies with the age of the camera. Originally, the speed was set by turning a dial above the shutter. These are known as dial-set shutters for the obvious reason. In the very late 1920s this method was replaced by a ring around the shutter housing to set the  speed – known as rim-set shutters. It took a few years for rim-set shutters to completely replace dial-set shutters and dial-set shutters can still be found on cameras made in the mid 1930s.

The speed numbers on a shutter refer to a fraction of a second – 50 being 1/50th of a second and so on. Just about all shutters have a B setting and with this the shutter will remain open while the shutter release is pressed. Pre-war (i.e. before 1940) shutters will usually have a T setting as well. With T, pressing the shutter release will open the shutter which will remain open until the shutter release is pressed a second time. This is intended for very long exposures – films were no faster than 25 ASA/ISO and frequently slower – and the advent of modern fast films made T unnecessary. None of my post-1940 cameras have a T setting (exception being my 1950s Asahi Pentax SV).

Shutter releases can be found in a number of places. Originally, they were always near the lens (I am ignoring focal-plane shutters as I have never seen these on a folding camera). This is rather awkward physically and moves were made to move the release to the camera body. Doing this involved a flexible linkage which need to fold when the camera was closed. By the mid-1930s both Zeiss Ikon and Agfa had body releases. Voigtlander and Balda had their releases on the lens door initially – Balda moving to a body release by 1938 (Balda Jubilette at least) but Voigtlander still used door releases into the 1950s on their Vito folders.

Where the body shutter release is linked to a lens-based shutter mechanism, the release provided by the shutter manufacturer is still there and just about usable. In addition, there is usually a cable release socket on the shutter housing.

As the release button migrated to the camera body, the makers tried a variety of methods to prevent the photographer taking a second photograph without winding on the film. In old cameras. These mechanisms can fail. My Voigtlander Perkeo will allow me to take as many pictures as I like without winding on – unless I give the camera a sharp slap right after pressing the release (indicating the need for lubrication!). On the other hand, my much cheaper Adox Golf has a double exposure mechanism that still works as intended.

Where there is a double exposure prevention system, there is usually an indication as to whether you can take another photograph. This is usually a white/red dot but the Perkeo has a forward/backward arrow and the Nettar 518/16 has a flag in the viewfinder.


Author: John Margetts

I am a keen photographer who also collects cameras. I am retired with about 50 years photography experience.

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