Sources of Old Cameras.

So, you have decided you want to collect cameras and which themes that interest you. How do you actually get your hands on the cameras? There are a number of ways and the easiest is to let it be known amongst your social circle that you are collecting. An amazing number of people will find old cameras when having a clear-out and will happily give them to you. Other sources are car boot sales, charity shops, auction rooms, on-line auctions – I shall cover each of these in turn.

Car-boot sales

These are very hit-and-miss but great bargains can be found. The biggest problem here is the seller’s opinion of what they have to offer. Frequently, they are aware that Dad or Grand-dad paid a lot of money for a special camera and so it must be worth a lot second-hand. Unfortunately, there is only a small market for old cameras (just us collectors, actually) and the law of supply and demand means that values are much lower than these sellers realise. So, that camera on sale for £50.00, say, when clean and in working condition is probably worth £10.00 to £20.00 but is not clean and potentially will have many problems.

Frequently, old cameras will have spent twenty years or more in a box in an unheated garage. Internal corrosion is very likely, fungal growth on the shutter blinds and in the lens is a real possibility. That £50.00 should really be £5.00 rising to £15.00 once you have cleaned and checked the camera. It can be hard to convince the seller of this. On a positive note, you can actually see and handle the camera. Lens fungus is fairly easy to spot as is rust and other corrosion. You also get to check the general operation of the camera (assuming that the camera does not depend on a battery).

If you buy a lemon at a car boot sale, you don’t really have any redress, even if you find the seller at a later date (the technical term is caveat emptor). This needs to be reflected in the price paid.

Charity Shops.

These used to be a good source of old cameras. They frequently placed the price on the high side but you can offset that against the fact that you are doing good by shopping there.

This seems to have changed recently and I have not seen any cameras in charity shops for a long time. They seem to have realised that they can get a quicker sale and perhaps a higher price by selling on eBay.

The advantages of a charity shop are that you get to handle the camera. There is a disadvantage here in that the staff are likely to clean a dirty camera. Unfortunately, a good spray with aerosol polish is not actually very good for a camera. I prefer a dirty camera to still be dirty. This tells me a good deal about how the camera has been kept and the degree to which the storage conditions have damaged the camera.

Auction rooms.

Good collectable cameras can be found in an auction room. In this environment the cameras will be clean and well described in the catalogue. Again, you get to handle the camera on offer. This is probably more for the ‘serious’ collector – the price is likely to be high and you have to pay a buyer’s commission on the hammer price.

There can be a cheaper source of cameras in general sales in auction houses and this is the box of assorted stuff. These boxes generally come from house clearances and contain things the seller does not expect to be saleable individually but the boxful might be worth £5.00 or £10.00. You need to be prepared to look through many boxes to find a camera – and if you do, the camera is likely to be in a very sorry visual state. You need to be able to look past decades of grime to find the hidden gem.

On-line Auctions.

This is where I get most of my cameras. Ebay is the most famous of these sites but there are a number of others as well. There is a definite skill to successfully buying cameras here. Here are some pointers to avoiding dishonest sellers.

Photographs. All the on-line auction sites enable the seller to upload a number of photographs of the item for sale. I would expect at least three or four clear photographs showing all of the camera. In this age of smart-phones, everyone can manage this. BEWARE! If there is one, out of focus, photograph the seller is hiding something. Out of focus photographs are now quite hard to do – there must be a reason for the seller to go to the lengths of producing one. Of course, the seller could be genuine with a real inability to use a camera. Avoiding the single, out-of-focus photograph might mean that you do not get a bargain but the chances are that you are avoiding a lemon.

More sophisticated sellers of trash will provide a number of good photographs with one part of the camera missing in all the photographs – this is frequently accompanied by the statement that the photographs are part of the description implying that if the seller finds a defect after purchase that is because they did not look hard enough and back to Caveat Emptor. Why does the seller not want you to see this part? If it is a camera you particularly want, email the seller asking a direct question about the part you cannot see. Their response forms a part of the contract of sale and, if they are not honest, will give you grounds for asking for your money back. Ebay, for sure, will back the buyer over a dishonest seller.

Assuming that the photographs are clear and give a good impression of the camera (I always start by looking at the photographs), it is time to read the description. Now, this is harder to produce than photographs. If the seller is selling dad’s or granddad’s old camera, they might not know enough to properly describe the camera – which is why the photographs are so important.

As with the photographs, there are tell-tail signs of dishonesty. An ignorant seller can tell you if knobs turn and buttons press even if they do not know what they do. If the seller has a one-line description that tells you nothing, look at the photographs and email the seller with specific questions – phrase the questions so that the ignorant can still answer them.

Price matters. I have bought cameras with a poor photograph and one short line of description – but I have restricted my bid to £1.00. About half of those have been worthless rubbish but I have also ended up with several delightful cameras worth much more than £1.00 each.

When reading the description, it is worth noting what is NOT mentioned – this is like the series of photographs that all leave out one part. Why? Doesn’t mention the lens? Is the lens damaged? Is the lens missing (which is not uncommon, even with fixed-lens cameras)? It could be an inadvertent mistake but you need to email the seller to find out.

All old cameras have defects. I want those to be mentioned – if in doubt, assume faults. Shutter not mentioned? It does not work. Focus not mentioned? Lens will not turn. If the seller lists six faults, there are unlikely to be seven. If the seller lists no faults, it is anybody’s guess as to how many faults there are. Your job as buyer is to match the faults with the price you bid.

After looking at the photographs and description, look at the postage. Now, this does not really matter at all. You are going to have to pay to have the camera delivered but you do need to know how much.

The worst postage is ‘collection only’. This is fine if it is within a mile or so of where you live but very expensive if you live in Land’s End and the camera is in John O’Groats. If I read ‘collection only’, I move swiftly on.

Now, I said that the postage amount does not matter but it is important to know. That might sound a bit daft but here is why. Before you bid on a camera you want, you need to decide on how much you are willing to spend. With any auction, this is very important. It is easy to get carried away in a bidding war and spend much more than you intended. So, my technique – decide on the maximum amount and deduct postage costs. This smaller amount is my maximum bid – and I stick firmly to this. An example: you want a camera that is worth £25.00 to you. Postage is a sensible £3.50. £25.00 minus £3.00 gives £22.00 maximum bid. A second example: You want a camera that is worth £25.00 to you. Postage is an eye-watering £15.00  (why, for Odin’s sake?). £25.00 minus £15.00 gives a maximum bid of £10.00.

In both examples, the cost to you is £25.00 and in both examples the seller gets £25.00 which is why the postage does not matter to you.

What is important here is that you have a cast-iron price before you bid. Now bid your maximum bid immediately. Ebay will bid on your behalf starting at the next bid increment above the current bid. If no one has bid yet, you start at the starting price. If you do this and then ignore the auction you will avoid being sucked into a bidding war and will never pay more than you want to.

There are people who only bid in the last seconds of an auction. This is called sniping. The idea is that you have no time to respond to their bid and put a larger bid in. This is true, but we want to avoid a bidding war, so let the sniper have the sale. But stop. Not only do you not have time to respond to the sniped bid, if your maximum bid is above the sniped bid the sniper has no time to respond either. You can improve your chances with a sniper by clever bidding.

Above, I said how to calculate your maximum bid and that you should stick to it. What I actually do is calculate my maximum bid as I described and then add 51p to it. So, if my calculated maximum bid is £22.00 I will actually bid £22.51. This works as most people bid ‘sensible’ amounts which means whole pounds for most people. So, I bid £22.51 and the sniper bids £22.00, Ebay’s automatic bidding system means that I win. The reason for the odd penny is that some snipers are aware of this and will snipe with an amount ending in 10p or 50p. My bid with the extra penny is still larger so I win the auction. If I do not win I do not fret, I move on. There are plenty of other cameras for sale on Ebay.

Another bidding technique is ‘silly bidding’. I use this for cameras that I would like to buy but I cannot justify the usual price. This technique works because there are more cameras for sale than there are buyers. Example: a camera is listed that usually sells for around £50.00. In the last ten weeks, 100 of these cameras have been sold and all the people who want one at that price have just bought one. I bid £2.51. No one else bids at all so I get a £50.00 camera for £2.00 plus postage (because no one else bids, the 51p part does not come into play). Now, mostly, someone else will bid as well and I will not get the camera – but it costs me nothing to bid so I lose nothing. Sometimes – and more often than you might think – I get a very nice camera at a knock-down price.


Types of Collecting

If you are collecting cameras you are, of course, free to collect what you want in whatever way you want. Many people do this and end up with thoroughly eclectic collections – and all joy to them. Other people prefer to collect with a theme and purpose. Personally, I collect cameras that are particularly interesting in some way – mostly cameras that were innovative in some way. Other people want a copy of every variation in a small group of cameras and are very happy with minor variations between models. Some people only collect Nikons or Canon, some only SLR, others only rangefinder.

Having a theme gives more purpose and, to many of us, more pleasure than just buying every camera we come across.

I keep my cameras in a display case. This allows me to display the cameras nicely but has a secondary effect – it is now full. If I want to buy another camera, I need to dispose of one I already have. This limits my collection to about fifty cameras and keeps me focused as to which cameras are earning their keep. My collection: top shelf, various SLRs; second shelf, rangefinders; third shelf, viewfinders; fourth shelf, 35mm folders; fifth shelf, medium format folders; sixth shelf, Pentax SLRs (yes, a whole shelf for Pentax – they were very innovative at one time).

Another aspect of collecting is condition. Many people want their cameras to be in ‘as new’ condition. I like my cameras to be well-used – much wear is an added interest to me. For some people, the cameras only sit on a shelf and are never used – and frequently the collector does not care if a camera works or not so long as it looks grand. All my cameras work – that is very important to me – and most of them get used as often as I can  – both time and expense limit how much use they get.

History of Camera Development

All cameras share a basic design which has the same three components

  1. a light-tight box
  2. a means of forming the image
  3. a means of recording the image.

The ways in which those three are manifested range from crude to very sophisticated.

The earliest cameras were the crudest. In fact, they were simple wooden boxes with a slot at one end to take the glass plate and a hole at the other to take a lens. These developed into quite sophisticated cameras. Bellows were added to both enable focusing and to allow close-up photographs. As emulsion speed increased, mechanical shutters were added to time short exposures.

A variety of lenses could be fitted to give wide-angle and telephoto capability (note: I am using the word ‘telephoto’ incorrectly to mean a lens with a long focal length. See the Glossary for the correct meaning of ‘telephoto’). Both the front and back of the camera could be tilted in a number of directions and the lens raised up to help with photographing tall buildings and such.

These wooden box cameras came in a variety of sizes from cumbersome 10 x 8 inch (250 x 200 mm) plate size to cameras with plates 25 mm or so across.

The invention of roll film in 1850s had a massive effect on camera design. This was brought to commercial success by George Eastman and his Kodak camera. The early Kodaks were a simple box with a very simple shutter and a meniscus lens. These first Kodaks took 100 shots on one roll of film giving circular negatives that were 2.5 inches (65 mm) diameter. The entire camera had to be returned to Kodak for the film to be developed and the pictures printed. The camera was then loaded with new film and returned to the customer along with the photographs.

The next step in film development was the production of rolls of film that could be bought locally and fitted to the camera by the user. While the box camera design lasted into the 1950s, a plethora of camera designs appeared, many being small enough to be easily carried in a pocket. At this stage in the history of camera design, it was usual to have prints made directly from the negatives (contact prints) with no enlargement. This gave rise to some very large film formats.

The standard film camera design, which remained until 1950ish, was a steel or aluminium body with a lens which came forward on a bellows as the camera front was opened. Mostly, there was a hinged lens door with the lens/shutter on rails or with the lens/shutter fixed to the lens door – the self-erecting type.

Originally, the lens was focused by sliding the lens/shutter on the rails. With self-erecting cameras, the lens was fitted to a helical thread and focused by turning the lens. As enlarged photographs were rare, focus was not critical.

Early film cameras – into the 1930s – had very crude viewfinders. There were three basic types – a Brilliant finder on the shutter housing, a folding frame on the camera body or an Iconometer which was a large wire frame attached to the shutter housing with an eyepiece attached to the camera body. The cheaper cameras would only have the Brilliant finder. These were small and hard to use and so were not used on more expensive models. Mid-range cameras would have the folding viewfinderr on the camera body.  These ranged from a simple arrangement of two wire frames to two more solid frames with simple lenses inserted. These were much easier to use than brilliant finders but could be awkward for spectacle wearers.

The Iconometer type was the easiest to use. The viewfinder image was much larger than with the other two types, worked much better with moving objects (hence its other name of Sportsfinder) and naturally accommodated rising lenses on more expensive cameras.

In the 1930s, the folding type of viewfinder gave way to Gallilean finders which were effectively little telescopes attached to the camera body.  These are often referred to as ‘reverse Gallilean’ finders as they are a telescope mounted backwards – they make the image smaller than life. These had the advantage in that thy gave a clear image of the potential photograph – the folding frame finders relied on the user centring their eye properly and were accordingly rather vague as regards composition. But the Gallilean finders had two disadvantages in that the finder tended to be very small and they did not work well with spectacles. In time, they did become larger and in the 1960s were easy to use for all of us. In the latest development of viewfinders, bright lines were added to enable composition and giving allowances for parallax when the camera was used for close-up portraits.

With the mid-Victorian cameras, the glass plates used were so slow a shutter was not required. The user merely removed the lens cap, counted to an appropriate number and replaced the lens cap. As the sensitive emulsion got faster, the timing got shorter and verbally counting was no longer accurate enough. This gave rise to various types of mechanical shutter. The first of these were the leaf shutters. Cheaper cameras used a shutter with a single speed, controlled by a spring. Other controlling systems used a cylinder of compressed air, the shutter remaining open until the cylinder was empty. The last development of mechanical shutters used an escarpment very similar to the workings of an analogue watch. From the mid 1960s, electronic shutters were developed which allowed for more consistent and accurate shutter speeds.

Initially, the shutter release was a lever on the shutter housing. This made holding the camera firmly and tripping the shutter awkward to do and from the 1930s it became common to have a second shutter release on the camera body connected to the shutter release on the shutter housing. The more sophisticated shutters also needed to be cocked by hand for each shot. This meant that there would be two levers on the shutter housing – a cocking lever and a firing lever. By the mid 1950s, both of these functions were incorporated into the camera body, advancing the film automatically cocking the shutter and the release button being incorporated into the camera body. Both these developments relied on improvements to the design of the shutter. This was coupled to the advent of cameras that were rigidly connected to the lens – no need to open the camera for use and no bellows behind the lens/shutter.

In parallel to the development of escarpment shutters that sit within the lens, focal plane shutters were developed. The name ‘focal plane’ means that the shutter is very close to the film/plate. These shutters usually consist of two blinds that travel across the film/plate, the gap between the blinds allowing the light to reach the film in a controlled manner.

These focal plane shutters allow much faster exposures than the leaf shutters do. 1/1000 seconds was usual at the time that 1/200 seconds was the limit of a leaf shutter. Modern focal plane shutters can achieve 1/8000 seconds and faster. The reason for the higher speeds is that the shutter blinds do not have to move all that fast. On my Zenit E, the shutter blinds move 36 mm in 1/30 second which is a lot slower than the shutter blades in a leaf shutter move. The high speed of the exposure is achieved by using a very narrow gap between the blinds. With cloth blinds, the limit seems to be about 1/1000 seconds but with metal blinds 1/2000 was commonplace and 1/8000 is now usual.

In the early 1920s, a significant advance in camera design was the Leica made by the microscope company Ernst Leitz. This Leica used ciné film which is a lot cheaper to buy than film taped to backing paper and rolled onto spools. This design also meant that the negatives had to be enlarged. The Leica was not the first camera to use ciné film but it was the first sophisticated camera by a reputable maker. This Leica was followed by two very significant developments. The first was Zeiss Ikon’s competitor – the Contax. The Contax was significant for two reasons – the metal bladed, vertical travel focal plane shutter and the fact that it eventually gave rise to the standard SLR concept. The second significant development was the Retina camera made in Germany for Kodak – this used the new 135 type cassette holding 35 mm ciné film. The film was exactly the same as the film Leica had been using for ten years but was now available retail in a daylight loading cassette – the same as it still used today. Prior to the Retina, Leica and Contax users had to buy bulk film and manually load it into proprietary cassettes.

After World War II, Germany was divided into two countries. The eastern part – the German Democratic Republic or DDR colloquially known as East Germany – contained the Contax factory. The East German part of Zeiss Ikon developed the Contax rangefinder camera into the Contax S which was the first commercial 35 mm SLR camera. This Contax S design was used with little change by Praktica, Pentax, Nikon, Canon, Olympus and a host of other companies.

As well as the development of advanced cameras such as rangefinders and SLRs, there was also the development of even better simple point-and-shoot cameras. These are really a development of the early Kodak box cameras. In the days of folding cameras, they would be simple, with a non-focusing lens and a single speed shutter. After WWII, these developed into rigid versions that were much the same. In the early 1960s, Kodak took the film cassette concept further and produce 126 and 110 film cartridges which could be dropped into the camera with no need to thread the film or rewind it when finished. These became immensely popular. 126 cartridges used a version of 35 mm film – the perforations were different – and were capable of much the same quality as other 35 mm cameras.

110 cartridges used 16 mm film. The use of much smaller film meant that much more enlargement was required so image quality took a big hit. For holiday snaps, this did not matter too much and was compensated for by the much smaller camera but 110 film always had a limited appeal. Other film developments were worse. Disc cameras used film glued onto a circular disc. The cameras were necessarily larger than 110 cameras but with equally poor image quality.

APS (Advanced Photography System) cameras could have been a major advance but came along just before digital photography did. APS offered two advantages. The film stayed permanently in the cassette even after development, so was protected from damage. The other advantage comes from the APS cameras rather than the film and that was the possibility to choose from three image formats on a shot by shot basis. Unfortunately, this format choice depended on masking the film so two of the formats effectively reduced the film size and thus image quality.

At the same time as Kodak were working on new and better film formats, camera makers were working on better camera technology. Once automatic loading of film, automatic film advance and automatic rewind became cheap and usual, there was no advantage in the more expensive cartridges and discs. When coupled with good automatic exposure and automatic focus, point-and-shoot cameras rivalled expensive cameras for image quality coupled with great ease of use.

Then digital technology came along and interesting cameras were no longer made (of course they were and I have owned five. I just cannot see the joy in collecting them).


This book is about collecting old cameras. Cameras have been around since the early 1840s. Photographic cameras were invented separately by Daguerre in France and Fox Talbot in England. Initially, photographers had to make their own wooden cameras and repurpose lenses from elsewhere. Actually, cameras were in use before photography was invented. The word ‘camera’ is Italian for a room and the mediaeval camera obscura was a small room with either a small hole or simple lens in one wall which cast an inverted image on the opposite wall. Later, wooden boxes were made that worked on that principle that were used as an artist’s tool – the image being cast onto a piece of drawing paper.

The first lens to be designed as a photographic lens was designed and made by Voigtländer in 1839. This is the Petzval lens (named after its designer, Josef Maximilián Petzval). As far as collecting goes, these first camera lenses are still around although as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. When these come onto the market, they sell for several thousand pounds each. Voigtländer also produced the world’s first commercial camera – a metal Daguerreotype camera in 1849 (I got these dates from Voigtländer’s own web page – other dates are to be found on the Interweb).

As far as collecting cameras is concerned, the further back in time you go, the more expensive cameras get. This is simply supply and demand. Before George Eastman and his Kodak camera, photography was the domain of fairly wealthy people. George Eastman’s Kodak made photography possible even for working people.

An example is the development of Houghtons into Ross Ensign:

  • George Houghton
  • (Houghton + Holmes + Jackson + Levi) > Houghton Ltd
  • Houghton + Butchers > Houghton Butcher manufacturing Co
  • Houghton Butcher > Ensign Ltd
  • (Ensign + Elliot) > Barnet Ensign
  • (Barnet Ensign + Ross) > Barnet Ensign Ross
  • Barnet Ensign Ross > Ross Ensign

Roll film and simple lenses made mass production possible and this reduced costs more so both more cameras around and more photographs being taken. This had the effect of encouraging designers and the advent of standard components. Some components became so standard that tripod screws in then 21st century are either 3/8 inch or ¼ inch thread while every other engineering screw is metric.

A similar thing happened in Germany where four makers merged under the Carl Zeiss Stiftung umbrella to form ICA in 1909. These were Hüttig, Kamerawerk Dr. Krügener, Wünsche and Carl Zeiss Palmos. In 1926, ICA, together with Ernemann, C.P. Goerz and Contessa-Nettal merged to form Zeiss Ikon, still under the Carl Zeiss Stiftung umbrella. There were, of course, many other merges but space does not permit me to detail them all.

  • Hüttig + Kamerawerk Dr Krügener + Wünsche + Carl Zeiss Palmos > ICA (International Camera Aktiengesellschaft)
  • Ernemann + C.P. Goerz + Contessa Nettal + ICA > Zeiss Ikon

Japan seems to have come to later photography and some of the early makers are still with us – Nikon, Canon, Olympus to name three.

In the aftermath of World War II, there were a number of changes to the photographic industry. The English makers had disappeared by the end of the 1960s. The German makers were split by the Iron Curtain. Some companies were divided into East and West versions – Zeiss Ikon, for instance, with parallel companies using the same name which resulted in much litigation. We actually had a period when East Zeiss Ikon and West Zeiss Ikon both made Contax II cameras, being sold into the same market with the same name (and the primary cause of the litigation).

Other makers (Ihagee and Balda, for instance) were based entirely within the new DDR and became state industries – the owners started up new companies in the FDR with the same name – so we have a few years where there were two Balda companies and two Ihagee companies. This situation stopped when the DDR (East Germany) subsumed all their camera makers into Pentacon VEB (Pentacon being, originally, a Zeiss Ikon trade name).

The second half of the 20th century saw the advent of the Japanese makers and the demise of most European makers. This was coupled with the development of the SLR concept and computers being used to design lenses. By the end of the 20th century, SLR design had matured to the point that all 21st century SLR cameras are visually and functionally indistinguishable from a 1990s SLR apart from the substitution of a digital sensor for the analogue film. Of course, camera design continues to develop, currently with the ‘mirrorless’ concept.

Miranda MS–3

A Cosina CT-( rebadged as a Miranda MS-3

While Miranda were never one of the top camera makers in Japan, they were a serious maker. In 1978, the company ceased trading and in the early 1980s the rights to the Miranda brand were brought by the Dixons group in the UK. This MS–3 dates to the Dixons period.

As I was perusing this camera after I bought it, I thought the top plate was very reminiscent of my Cosina CT–1. After a bit of research on the Interweb, it turns out this is one camera not based on the Cosina CT–1 – but it is a Cosina camera, and the CT range at that. It is a rebadged Cosina CT–9. Cosina is a major maker of cameras and lenses for other marques – they currently make many lenses under contract to Carl Zeiss of Germany.

The camera body measures 136 by 85 by 50 mm and weighs 425 g (body only, no lens). The main body is die-cast aluminium and the top and bottom plates are moulded plastic – an anti-slip finish is a part of the plastic finish so there is no need for a leatherette covering. This imparts a cheaper look and feel to the camera (although this type of finish soon became standard, even on top end cameras). After 40 years of use, the finish is much reduced.

As I usually do, I shall start by looking at the top plate. As I mentioned earlier, the top plate is moulded black plastic. On the far right is the window on to the frame counter. As is usual with Japanese SLR cameras, the frame counter is reset to ‘S’ by opening the back of the camera. ‘S’ is actually -2 (‘S’ stands for start) and is printed in red. All the even numbers are printed and the odd numbers are represented by dots. Numbers 12, 20, 24 and 36 are in red as these were the standard film lengths in the mid 1980s – all the other numbers are in white. The frame counter will count to 37 and then stop moving although you can still advance the film.

Right by the frame counter is the film advance lever. This lever is plated metal covered with black plastic. This lever moves through not quite 180º (165º according to the manual – 30º stand off plus 135º movement) to advance the film one frame. There is no ratchet here so the lever must be moved in one movement.

Hard by the film advance lever, at the front of the top plate, is the shutter release button. It was the design of this button together with the shape of the film advance lever that gave me the clue that this might be a Cosina camera. This shutter release button is a fairly broad and flat black plastic button with a central threaded hole for a standard cable release.

To the left of the shutter release button is a selector dial. This is where we would usually find the shutter speed selector – and that is one of the functions here. The outside of this selector dial is a three-way switch. In its central position, the camera is switched off and nothing works. Rotating this slightly anti-clockwise turns the camera to auto. In this position, the camera is turned on and the exposure system determines they exposure when the shutter release button is partially depressed. If the button is fully depressed, the shutter is fired – without power, the shutter can not be fired.

If this selector dial is rotated clockwise from the Off position, the camera is in manual exposure mode. Here, the exposure system still determines the ‘correct’ exposure and displays it in the viewfinder but does not control the actual shutter speed. Instead, the shutter speed is set by two buttons in the middle of the selector dial. The front button increases the shutter speed – if held down, the shutter speed continuously cycles through the range – the red LED in the viewfinder displays the changing shutter speed.

The rear button does the opposite –reducing the shutter speed – and, again, if held down cycles through the speed range but in the opposite direction. While you are using these manual controls, the exposure system displays its preferred shutter speed with a flashing red LED.

Next along the top plate is the pentaprism hump. On the front of this is the camera name – “MIRANDA” and the letter “M”. On the top of the hump is an ISO hot shoe. This is a plain vanilla hot shoe with no additional contacts.

To the left of the pentaprism hump is the rewind crank. This is a standard Japanese folding crank and, as is usual with Japanese SLR cameras, the crank doubles as the catch for the back – pulling up on the crank unlocks the back. Around this crank, there is a ring to set the film speed. This is entirely in ASA/ISO (it is actually marked as both ASA and ISO as this camera was made a the point when ISO took over from ASA). The speed range is from ASA 25 to ASA 1600 which is pretty standard for the day. The film speed can be altered in 1/3 stop increments, the thirds being represented by dots.

As always with SLR cameras, the front is dominated by the lens mount. This is a plain vanilla Pentax K mount with a twist. When Pentax introduced the K mount, it was a purely mechanical bayonet mount with a mechanical linkage to pass the aperture setting to the light meter. In time, Pentax added electrical contacts and a screwdriver link which were set into the bayonet mount. We have, over the years, ended up with quite a few official variants on the basic K mount.

This particular K mount is Cosina’s own, unofficial, variant. The lens mount ring has no electrical contacts or screwdriver link but it does have three electrical contacts inside the mount at the top. These are for Cosina’s own autofocus lens. This was a large and cumbersome affair containing its own batteries and electric motor – much like Pentax’s ME-F autofocus lens introduced a few years previously. Unfortunately, I do not have this lens.

So, looking into the mouth of the mount, on the left at about 9 o’clock, is a small lever. This latches onto a lever on the lens. When the shutter release button is pressed, this lever rises allowing the sprung lever on the lens to move, closing the iris diaphragm to its set value.

All around the inside of the mount is a rotating ring with a lug at around 2 o’clock. This lug latches onto a recessed lug on the lens. Changing the aperture setting on the lens will slightly rotate this ring, communicating the set aperture to the camera’s light meter.

Just to the left of the lens mount, near the top of the body, is a rectangular red light. This is the self timer button. If you press this in, it flashes for eight seconds and then flashes faster for two seconds and finally fires the shutter. On the far left of the body is a small grip for the photographer’s right hand.

The only feature on the back of the camera is the viewfinder eyepiece. The lens for this measures 15 by 10 mm. Inside the viewfinder is the focus screen. As this is a relatively cheap SLR the focus screen is plain ground glass rather than a Fresnel screen . It does, however, have focus aids. There is a ring of micro-prisms in the centre of the screen and in the centre of that is a split-image rangefinder.

On the left of the focus screen is the readout for the light meter. This consists of a list of shutter speeds with one second at the bottom and 1000 (for 1/1000 second) at the top. Above the shutter speeds are three more items. The first is the legend “OVER” and if the red LED next to this is lit the photograph will be overexposed. Above this is “M” and this will be lit when you have selected the mode to be manual. At the very top is the legend “AUTO” and this is lit when you have set the mode to automatic.

Below the shutter speeds are two more items. The first is “LT” which indicates that a shutter speed of between two and eight seconds has been chosen by the light meter (LT= long time?) or that the user has set two seconds manually. Below “LT” is “B” which is Bulb where the shutter stays open while the shutter release button is held down.

The base of the camera has four items on it. In line with the centre of the lens is a 1/4 inch UNC tripod socket. Just by the tripod socket is the battery chamber.

On my camera, this battery chamber is free from corrosion – far from a given on old cameras! Unfortunately, Cosina saw fit to use a soft plastic cap and the slot on this is now so damaged it is extremely hard to remove and replace.

At the other end of the base is the button to allow the film to be rewound. Pressing this in allows the sprocket shaft inside the camera to rotate backwards. Once pressed right in there is no need to hold it in. In front of this button is a small sticker with the word “RESET” on it. Beneath this sticker is a small hole. If the camera freezes up completely then you push a pin into this hole to reset the electronics and allow the camera to start working again.

Inside the camera is much as you might expect a Japanese 35mm SLR camera to be. In the middle of the door is a nice large pressure plate and to the right of that is a chrome spring to hold the film cassette snuggly.

The insides of the body are dominated by the film gate. The actual gate measures 36 by 24 mm which is standard for 35 mm photography. The surrounds are large enough to hold the film flat – the surrounds measure 65 by 35 mm. To the left of the film gate is the chamber for the film cassette. At this age there are no DX contacts. On the right of the film gate is the sprocket shaft. This measures the length of film required for one negative – eight holes passing over the sprocket shaft equals one frame. To the right of the sprocket shaft is the film take-up spool. There are six slots for attaching the new film.

Around the opening of the camera is a groove. When the back is closed, the edges of the back fit into this groove. To ensure light tightness, there is a strip of black foam plastic in this groove. After nearly 40 years, this foam has disintegrated into a sticky goo and needs to cleaning out and replacing with new foam – an easy DIY job.

When new, this camera came with a Cosina 50mm, ƒ/1.2 lens. My camera has a Topcon AM Topcor lens with a focal length of 55mm and a maximum aperture of ƒ/1.7. The lens is multi-coated. This is a cheapish lens – the mount is entirely plastic as, it would appear, is the rest of the lens. A search on the Interweb tells me this is probably a lens made by Cima Kogaku who made lenses for many smaller camera makers. The same interweb source also suggest that this lens has six elements arranged in four groups. As this is Interweb information, I cannot guarantee that it is correct.

The aperture has six blades and runs from ƒ/1.7 to ƒ/16 which is quite fast for a cheap lens. The absence of ƒ/22 might be a problem in bright light but many of my cameras have a minimum aperture of ƒ/16 and that has never been a real problem for me. The aperture ring has click stops at every marked aperture and also at the half-stops.

The focus ring is marked in both feet and meters and focuses from 2 feet or 0.6 meters to infinity. The throw on the focus ring (the amount by which it turns) is about 180º which means that critical focus is easy but fast focus is not – this is the opposite of modern auto-focus lenses which focus quickly but are difficult to focus manualy.

Kershaw Eight-20 King Penguin.

This is a folding medium format camera of a style that that was state of the art through the first half of the 20th century. When this camera was made in the early 1950s, the design was rather passé. By the end of the 1950s, folding cameras had disappeared from mainstream photography.

The camera measures 170 by 80 by 40 mm and weighs 543 g. The outside is covered in black leatherette with the edges of the lens door painted gloss black. The viewfinder, tripod boss, leg and catch are bright chrome plated.

As is usual with folding cameras, there is little to see when the camera is folded. On the top, on the right, is the film advance knob. This is black plastic with a chrome metal insert in the top. The metal insert has an arrow cut into it to indicate the direction you turn the knob in – the knob will only turn in the one direction. The knob also pulls up to release the take-up spool inside the camera.

Beside the film advance knob is the folding viewfinder. The chrome part lifts from the back. As the chrome part is raised, the rear part rises under spring power. To use these 2-frame viewfinders, you line up the square holes in both frames. This is not an accurate system and works particularly badly if you wear glasses.

The back of the camera is plain black apart from the red window for viewing frame numbers on the film backing paper. As this camera produces 6 by 9 cm negatives, the red window is on the edge of the camera – for 6 by 6 cm negatives, this red window would be central.

The front of the camera has the lens door. This measures 95 by 72 mm. On the face of this is a 3/8 inch Whitworth tripod socket. This has a chrome slug screwed into it to provide a 1/4 inch Whitworth tripod socket. Also on the lens door is a folding leg. This allows the camera to be placed on a level surface in lieu of a tripod.

The lens door is opened by pressing on a chromed spring on the left hand edge of the lens door. On my camera, the lens door needs a helping hand to open, but it is sprung and probably opened itself when new 70 years ago.

When opened, the lens door is held in place by a fairly complex system of struts – there are far more struts here than on a Zeiss Ikon or Voigtländer folder. Once extended, the shutter/lens assembly is held rigidly in place. To close the lens door, it is necessary to press down on the two machined portions of the struts near the top and then lift the lens door to close it. The shutter/lens assembly is connected to the body by a collapsable leatherette bellows.

The shutter is a very simple everset type shutter with two speeds: I (Instantaneous) and B (Bulb). This is set by turning the black plastic notched ring around the shutter assembly. There are two indications as to which of I or B is set: on the front of the shutter housing, near the top, is a small window and on top of the shutter housing is a pointer which moves between I and B.

On the right of the shutter housing, as you are using the camera, is a chrome plunger – this is the shutter release. This is easier to use in portrait format but is still quite usable in landscape format.

On the left side of the shutter housing is a small lever right by the struts. This alters the aperture: only ƒ/11 and ƒ/16 are available. The lever changes the aperture by moving a metal plate so that one of two holes is in line with the lens. These are called Waterhouse stops. The reason that only two rather small apertures are available is that the lens is fixed focus and a small aperture is required to give sufficient depth of field in the photos.

At the base of the shutter housing is a strange protuberance. It took me quite a while to work out what this was for – it is the first time that I have ever seen one. It is an ASA terminal for a flash gun and serves the same purpose as the usual PC socket.

The lens is entirely anonymous but must consist of at least two glass elements as glass is visible in front of the shutter and also inside the camera behind the shutter. I cannot see any hint of a blue tint to the glass to indicate a coating on the lens and this might be one of the last camera lenses to be made without coating.

On the right hand edge of the camera is a leather carrying strap. Beneath this is a small chrome slide which releases the back of the camera. The back comes away from the camera – there is no hinge. On the inside of the back – which is painted matt black – is a yellow and red sticker exhorting the user to use either Ilford, Kodak or Ensign 120 film. What is missing here is a pressure plate to keep the film flat against the film gate. Only about half of my 120 folding cameras have such a plate.

Inside the body of the camera is dominated by the film gate. This measures 81 by 56 mm. The nominal size of a full framer 120 negative is 60 by 90 mm but some of the film must be sacrificed to keep the film flat against the film gate. Either end of the film gate is a black roller to prevent the film getting scratched whilst being advanced.

The new film goes in a chamber on the left of the film gate. In this chamber is a hinged cradle to take the spool of film. using this hinged cradle makes loading the new film very easy. When loading new film, after fitting the spool in the cradle, it is necessary to pull the backing paper leader across the film gate and fit it into the slot in the take-up spool. For people new to medium format photography, the take-up spool is the empty spool from the previous roll of film. The take-up spool does not fit into a cradle but in order to fit the spool into the chamber on the right of the film gate, it is necessary to first pull up on the film advance knob to retract the advance key. Once the take-up spool is in place, you need to push down on the film advance knob again, making sure that the advance key has located in the slot on the end of the spool.

I usually like to try out my cameras with film but the cost of 120 film together with the cost of processing the film –and only eight pictures on each roll of film – means that I am going to pass up on the opportunity to test the camera.

Sida – the camera.

This is a very simple camera from Sida in Germany.

This is a very small German camera dating from the late 1930s. The design is as simple as possible and still have a working camera. The overall shape of the camera was maintained for some years but the details seem to have changed on a regular basis. The shutter release lever moved from behind the shutter to in front of the shutter to the base of the camera – I do not know the actual sequence of the changes, it could be the other way around. The body was sometimes die-cast in gun metal and sometimes in Bakelite.

This camera is very small. It measures 70 by 55 by 40 mm. This is only just big enough to take a roll of film. Actually, although the Interweb says that this camera takes 35 mm film, it is slightly too small and the Sida film specifically made for this camera cannot have been wider than 33 mm – it cost one shilling for a ten image roll in 1937. The camera is painted matt black (or, rather, was in the case of my camera as most of the paint has come off over the last 80-odd years). The front and back of the camera have panels which are textured in the metal to resemble leatherette but the texturing is in the casting. I should say, perhaps, that I have the die-cast metal version, not the Bakelite version.

This camera was advertised in the 1937 edition of the British Journal of Photography Almanac where the price was five shillings (25p in modern money).

The top of the camera is very simple (a recurring theme with this camera). On the right is a round raised portion which is the end of the film chamber inside. On the left is a round knob which is the film advance knob. This knob is on a ratchet and will only turn in one direction, and has an embossed arrow on the top to make clear which direction this is. The knob makes a very distinct grating noise when turned.

In the middle of the top is a very small viewfinder. The viewfinder is towards the front of the top and is impossible to use while wearing glasses. It is also difficult to use without glasses! The viewfinder image is correspondingly small and only vaguely squarish.

The back of the camera has a central red window. Although this camera uses miniature film, it uses a non-perforated film with a paper backing much like a small version of 120 film. When winding on the film, you need to look at the frame numbers through this red window. Above the red window is the name of the camera: “SIDA”. Across the red window is the legend “PATENT ang DRWZ”. The DRWZ bit is short for “Deutches Reichswarenzeichen” and the whole legend tells us that either the design of this camera is protected by a federal trademark or the name SIDA is protected – I am not clear as to which it is.

The bottom of the camera has a round raised portion at either end. Again, these are the ends of the internal film chambers. Between these is a rather small – 3mm diameter – hole for a tripod. Clearly, this cannot be used with a standard 1/4 inch Whitworth or UNC tripod which is about 6mm. Actually, I cannot imagine anyone wanting to use such a simple camera on a tripod.

The front of the camera is the most complex part. Not very complex but more complex than the rest of the camera. There is a 38 by 45 mm raised portion which protrudes 11mm from the rest of the camera. In the centre of this is the lens. Around the lens it says “Sida-Optik” and “1:8 = 35mm”. For such a simple and cheap camera, this has got to be a meniscus lens – just one piece of thin glass. The colour of the glass tells us that this lens is not coated – not that any lens is likely to be coated in 1938. The 1:8 tells us that the lens has a fixed aperture of ƒ/8. This is rather slow and must be coupled to a slow shutter speed to achieve a decent exposure of 1930s films. This small aperture will be necessary to achieve a good depth of field with the simple, focus-free lens. The focal length is 35 mm. The negatives produced by the camera have a diagonal of 35 mm so this lens is a “normal” lens for this film format.

On the left of the lens, on the surface of the camera, is the shutter release lever. This is a simple mild steel lever attached to the camera withy a brass screw. This lever fires the shutter when pressed down and fires the shutter again when pushed up.

On the right hand edge of the raised portion, towards the bottom, is a small screw threaded with a nut. If this is pulled out, the shutter is converted from a brief exposure to B. With this pulled out, the shutter release lever opens the shutter which remains open until the shutter release lever is pressed in the opposite direction. In the metal beside the raised portion, there is a moulded legend: “T←M”. “T” is clearly time and I am guessing that “M” is the German for moment.

The back of the camera is opened by pulling back on a lug on the left hand edge of the camera. There is no catch of any sort nor any hinge – the back comes away in one piece. Inside the back – which is painted matt black – there is the number 1946 scratched in the paint. Is this the year of manufacture, the year of purchase or a serial number? Your guess is as good as mine.

Inside the body of the camera, there is a chamber on the right for the new roll of film. At the top and bottom of the chamber are two grooves to locate the ends of the film spool but the film spool is not fixed in any way. There is a steel leaf spring to keep the spool from moving and to keep the film taut.

On the left is the chamber for the take-up spool. This spool latches at the top into the inside of the film advance knob, the bottom of the spool sits loosely in a groove as both ends of the film spool do.

In-between the two spool chambers is the film gate. This is 25 mm square. Above and below the film gate is a rebate to guide the film. In total – film gate plus two rebates – this measures 33 mm which is the maximum width of the film. The Interweb says that this camera uses 35mm film but that is not the case – Sida produced their own size of roll film.

Agfa Isolette III

A folding, medium format camera from Germany from the 1950s.

This Agfa Isolette III was made by the German firm of Agfa in the early 1950s. Agfa is an old company and has a chequered history. Agfa was formed in 1867 to produce the new aniline dyes. Agfa is an acronym for Akliengesellschaft für Aniline which translates into English as Corporation for Aniline Production. The dye company branched out into making photographic film in 1898 and later into making cameras.

After the First World War, the German economy was in dire straits and many companies merged to survive. The most famous of these, photographically, was the mergers that formed Zeiss Ikon in 1926. The same conditions applied to the chemical industries and in December 1925, Agfa, Bayer, BASF, Hoechst and a couple of others merged to form the infamous IG Farben. Within the IG Farben conglomerate, Agfa was merged with Bayer.

After WWII, IG Farben was demerged back to its constituent businesses (IG Farben still exists as a company but does not produce anything. It is now a part of the University of Frankfurt). Agfa was a wholly owned subsidiary of Bayer at this point. In 1964, Agfa merged with Gevaert to form Agfa-Gevaert, with Bayer owning 50% of the new company – in 1981, Bayer bought out Gevaert and became the sole owner of Agfa-Gevaert, which continued until 1999 when Agfa -Gevaert became a public company.

So, this Agfa camera. It was made in the early to mid 1950s. I cannot date it precisely but this model was revised a couple of times and my camera is the original version. The Isolette range is a beginner’s range, really, and the specification is close to basic. that is not to say that the camera is not well made – it is – nor that it is not capable of producing good photographs – again, it is. The model III – this one – is distinguished by having a built-in rangefinder. This is an un-coupled rangefinder – the measured distance must be transferred to the focus ring by hand but it is still very useable.

The body seems to be made from aluminium, apart from the lens door which is steel. The metal is painted with matt black paint with most of the outside being covered with a very plasticky black leatherette with a pronounced ribbed pattern. The top plate is pressed brass which is satin plated – the metal has a blueish tint so I think the plating might be nickel but I cannot be sure it is not chrome.

lens: Apotar
focal length: 85 mm
apertures: ƒ/4.5 to ƒ/32
focus range: 3.5 feet (1 metre)
lens fitting: fixed
shutter: Prontor SV
speeds: 1 to 1/300 s
flash: PC socket
film size: 120

Starting with the top plate: on the right is the film advance. This is a fairly flat milled wheel with a curved arrow on top to indicate the correct direction to turn the advance wheel (anti-clockwise) although it is not actually possible to turn the wheel the other way. This advance wheel pulls up to release the take-up spool inside – see later. At the front of the top plate by the advance wheel is a small hole in the top plate. When the shutter release button is pressed, this hole shows a red flag which turns white when the advance wheel is turned.

Close to the film advance wheel is the shutter release button. This connects to the actual shutter by a hinged linkage which articulates when the lens door is either opened or closed. This button is plated metal and is threaded for a standard Gauthier cable release. This button is connected to the film advance wheel. Once the button has been pressed, it cannot be pressed again until the film advance wheel has been turned. This is to prevent accidental double exposures.

To the left of the shutter release button the top plate is raised. This is to accommodate both the viewfinder and the rangefinder. At the back of the raised portion of the top plate, on the right, is a vertical, toothed, wheel – this is the rangefinder adjuster. The way that this works is when looking through the viewfinder there is a central bright spot. The viewfinder image is distinctly pink and this central spot is slightly yellow/green – this gives good contrast between the viewfinder and rangefinder images. You move the camera until this bright spot is over your subject. In the bright spot, you should see a double image of your subject. You turn the toothed rangefinder wheel until the two parts of the double image are exactly superimposed. In front of the toothed wheel is a distance scale. When the double image is reduced to a single image, you read the distance off this scale and set the lens focus scale to the same distance.

In the centre of the top plate is a standard Barnack accessory shoe. there are no electrical contacts here so this is a “cold” shoe.

On the back of the top plate, just left of the accessory shoe, is the viewfinder eyepiece. This is small and circular with a diameter of 5 mm. This was a common size of viewfinder eyepiece in the mid 1950s. This camera is not an SLR so there is no focus screen – you are looking straight through the viewfinder which acts as a small telescope. Technically, this is a reverse Galilean telescope – the ‘reverse’ bit means the image is smaller than life-size like looking through a telescope backwards.

On the left of the raised portion of the top plate is a button that looks very much like the shutter release button. Pressing this button releases the lens door on the front of the camera – the lens door snaps downwards nicely and locks itself in position.

On the far left of the tyop plate is a second milled wheel – this top plate is nearly symmetrical. This second milled wheel is a depth of field calculator. In the centre of the wheel is a static focus scale from three feet to infinity (For our non-British or American readers, three feet is essentially one meter). Around this is a turnable aperture scale. To use this, you set your chosen lens aperture against the appropriate distance of the focus scale. Either side of each aperture is a delimiting line – these lines indicate the nearest and furthest distances that will be in focus for those settings. This does not alter the working of the camera, it is just for information.

On the front of the top plate are two square windows. These are both 8 mm square. The one on the right, while looking at the front of the camera, is the viewfinder window and the one on the left is the rangefinder window.

Below the top plate, on the front of the camera, is the lens door. This measures 72 mm wide by 65 mm high. On the front of this is embossed the Agfa logo, the legend “AGFA ISOLETTE III” and the legend “MADE IN GERMANY” indicating that this is an export item. As already mentioned, this door is opened by pressing the left-hand button on the top plate. This door is spring loaded and snaps to with no help from the user, pulling the shutter/lens assembly to its working position. This lens door is held in position by two chrome straps. To close this lens door, you press down on the hinge in the middle of each strap and fold up the door. The shutter/lens assembly is connected to the camera body by black leatherette bellows.

The shutter is a Prontor SV by Gauthier. There is a variety of different Prontor SV shutters – this one has the legend Ah4 on it which I assume denotes the type of Prontor SV shutter. The Prontor SV offers eight shutter speeds plus B. This is the ‘old’ range of speeds which are not entirely rational. In a rational system, moving from one speed to the next will either double or half the speed. Not so here. The first two speeds are rational – 1 second and 1/2 second – then we go from 1/2 to 1/5 seconds, then halving from 1/5 to 1/10 seconds, irrational again from 1/10 to 1/25. halving again from 1/25 to 1/50 to 1/100 and finally irrationally from 1/100 to 1/300 second. The shutter speed is set by turning a milled ring around the front of the shutter housing.

At the back of the shutter housing is the aperture scale. This is adjusted by a sliding pointer. The scale runs from ƒ/4.5 to ƒ/32. ƒ/4.5 is not very fast but was quite good for an ordinary camera in 1952. ƒ/32 would be quite useful in the summer given the slowish top shutter speed of 1/300 second. On the right hand end of the aperture scale is a second cable release socket – again with the Gauthier standard conical thread. This socket will allow you to fire the shutter even if the film has not been wound on.

On the left hand end of the aperture scale is a PC flash socket. This is in the original form of a pillar rather than the more modern recessed socket. Next to this is a synchronising selector. This has two positions – X and M. X is for electronic flash and fires the flash as soon as the shutter is fully open. M is for Magnesium flash bulbs and fires the flash a few milliseconds early to allow the flash bulb to burn to maximum brightness before the shutter opens. These are colour coded – X is red and M is yellow. These are used in conjunction with the delay action lever at the base of the shutter housing. For X sync, the sync selector must be on X and the delay timer lever can either be left alone for immediate action or moved across to give a delay before the flash and shutter fire. For M sync, the sync selector must be on M and the delay timer lever moved to the yellow dot. There will be no delay before the shutter is fired, the delay mechanism is only providing the timing for the flash synchronising.

The delay timer lever can, of course, be used without flash – the flash sync selector must be set to X – when, on my camera, you get a delay of eleven seconds between pressing the shutter release and the shutter firing. I ought to mention the standard advice to never use the delay lever on an old camera as the delay mechanism is the weakest part of the shutter mechanism and if it fails the shutter will be wrecked.

The lens is an Agfa Apotar lens. This is a triplet (made from three pieces of glass) and should perform quite well if the aperture is closed down to ƒ/8. The lens focal length is 85mm and the surfaces are coated. The focus scale runs from three feet to infinity – this is an export camera so the scale is in feet rather than metres, three feet is as good as one metre. On the focus scale, two distances are in red – ten feet (three metres) and 30 feet (ten metres). These are Happy Snapper settings and are used in conjunction with a red dot on the aperture scale. This red dot is at about ƒ/10 – actually just short of ƒ/11. To use the Happy Snapper settings, set the aperture to the red dot and the focus scale to either ten feet or thirty feet. The ten foot Happy Snapper setting is intended for group portraits. With this setting, everything between eight and thirty feet will be in focus. The thirty foot Happy Snapper setting is for landscapes and everything between fifteen feet and infinity will be in focus. – this is the hyperfocal distance for this lens at ƒ/10.

The back of the camera is plain. In the centre is a chrome slide. Sliding this down reveals a red window through which the user can read the frame numbers on the film’s backing paper. There is no automatic control for frame spacing so the user winds on the film until the next frame number is centred in the red window. The metal slide is there to prevent any light entering through the red window and fogging the film between shots.

The back is opened by a sliding catch on the left hand edge of the camera body. In the centre of the inside of the back is a sizeable sprung pressure plate. This keeps the film flat against the film gate. In the middle of the pressure plate is an oblong hole which lines up with the red window. Around the edges of the back are sizeable flanges which fit into a groove around the edges of the body. This provides light tightness – as this is a German camera, there are no foam light seals to go bad.

The inside of the body is as you might expect from a medium format folding camera. In the centre is the film gate – this is 56 mm square (the nominal size is 60 mm square but some of the film must be sacrificed to sit against the metal of the film gate). The surround of the film gate is pressed brass, painted black.

Either side of the film gate are the chambers for the film spools. The new spool of film goes on the left. To aid fitting the film, there is a hinged cradle which moves out of the chamber to take the spool of film – this is nickel plated. As well as the cradle hinging out of the chamber, the top of the cradle is also hinged. Halfway along the cradle is a spring to stop the film from loosening on the spool.

The take-up spool goes on the right – the take-up spool is the empty spool from the previous roll of film. To either insert or remove this take-up spool, it is necessary to pull up the film advance wheel on the top plate. There is no hinged cradle on this side – the empty spool locates onto a stud at the bottom and when the film advance wheel is pushed in again there is a key which fits into a slot on the end of the spool.

On either side of the film gate, beside each of the spool chambers, is a chrome roller to allow the film to change direction as it is advanced without becoming scratched.

Canon AL-1

Canon’s AL-1 focus assist film SLR camera from 1982.

At first glance, this is a normal 1960s SLR camera from Japan and there is little to distinguish it from most of the other SLR cameras in my collection. Once the basic functionality and ergonomics of a SLR camera were worked out there was not much point in changing things. Electronics in the late 1980s did change things quite a bit, of course, but this camera was right at the start of the electronics revolution.

Canon’s AL-1 dates from 1982 and is a part of Canon’s A series of cameras: A-1, AE-1, AE-1 program, AT-1, AV-1, AL-1. I have another A series Canon — the AT-1. Later T series cameras formed a half-way house between 1960s style and the modern style which Canon introduced in 1986 with their EOS cameras.

This is an A series camera – A standing for Automatic. The camera provides fully automatic exposure (aperture priority only) with manual override if required.

The biggest breakthrough with this camera is the focus system. Gone are the usual helpmeets such as micro prisms and split-image rangefinder. The focus screen is plain ground glass with a circle in the centre containing two square brackets which indicate the area that the exposure system works on (the circle) and the smaller area that the focus system works on (the square brackets). This is still a manual focus camera but with focus confirmation to aid those with poor focusing skills. I learnt my photography using a Zenit E which also had no focus aids so I don’t think this system will be of much use to me – but we shall see.

Time for my description. This camera body measures 142 by 87 by 48 mm and weighs 490g. The camera chassis is made from die-cast aluminium alloy. The camera appears to have chromed metal top and base plates but these are painted polycarbonate plastic which looks much like chrome plated brass. The main part of the body is covered with black leatherette. The battery compartment is black plastic and doubles as a small grip for the user’s right hand. Eyelets on the front corners allow a neck strap to be attached.

The top plate is ‘standard’. The film advance lever is on the right. When the camera is not in use, the lever sits flush with the top plate. In use, the lever sits proud at an angle of 30˚. The lever moves through 120º to advance the film one frame. This lever is on a ratchet so a number of short movements will work as well as one long movement. The lever is made from one piece of flat metal with a soft plastic thumb guard at the tip.

Just in front of this lever is the window to the frame counter. This counts up to 38 but 36 is the highest number displayed – 37 and 38 are just dots. Numbers 1, 12, 20, 24, and 36 are in orange as these were the standard film lengths back in the day. Even numbers are numbers, odd numbers are dots. The counter is reset to ‘S’ by opening the camera back. ‘S’ is actually minus 2.

Left of the film advance lever and at the front of the top plate is the shutter release button. This is black  metal and is threaded for a standard Gauthier cable release. Around this button is a three position switch. ‘L’ locks the shutter release button to prevent accidental firing of the shutter but the shutter can still be fired using a cable release. ‘A’ is the usual working position and ‘S’ is the delay action setting. If you use the ‘S’ setting, you get a ten second delay between pressing the shutter release button and the shutter firing — and a flashing red LED which is visible from both infant and above the camera. The last two seconds, the LED flashes much faster. This LED is just to the left of the shutter release button.

Next along the top plate is the shutter speed selector dial. This offers 1/15 to 1/1000 seconds plus B. The shutter is electronically controlled and will not work without good batteries. There is also an ‘A’ setting which is for automatic exposure. The speed selector dial moves freely between speeds including ‘A’ but to move out of ‘A’ necessitates pressing a button in the centre of the dial. This camera is intended to be used in ‘A’ where many more shutter speeds are available: from 2 seconds to 1/1000 second. 1/60 second is graced with a lightning flash as this is the flash synchronised speed. If using the camera in ‘A’ with a Canon flash, the shutter speed is automatically set to 1/60. The manually set speeds are exactly the set speed, but when in ‘A’ the camera can select the exact speed required, not just the marked speeds.

In the middle of the top plate, as usual, is the pentaprism hump. On the back of this is the viewfinder eyepiece. This measures 10 by 16 mm. Inside the viewfinder is the focus screen. As already mentioned, this screen is plain ground glass. As it is intended for the user to use the focus confirmation system, the established focus aids such as micro-prisms and split-image rangefinder are missing. In their place in the centre of the screen is a pair of square brackets to indicate the area that the focus confirmation system works on. As you manual focus the lens and approach good focus, one of the two red arrow LEDs at the bottom of the screen will light up. The arrows tell you which way to turn the lens in order to achieve good focus. Once good focus has been achieved, a circular green LED will light. This system works well but I, personally, would prefer either the micro-prisms or a split-image rangefinder.

On the right of the focus screen is a list of shutter speeds — 2 s at the bottom and 1/1000 s at the top. With the shutter speed dial set to ‘A’, a needle will point to the automatically selected speed – you need to press the shutter release button half-way to activate this. If you have the shutter speed dial set to anything but ‘A’, the needle will point to the camera’s preferred speed but you are free to ignore this if you want to. Along the left hand edge of the speed list is a red line from 2 s to 1/30 s which is there to alert you to the fact that camera shake is likely and you should consider using a tripod. This red line also double as a battery check scale. Pressing the battery check button, the needle should rise to a position above this line.

On top of the pentaprism hump is the accessory shoe. This is an ISO hotshot with a central electrical contact. There is also a single Canon-specific contact for when using Canon’s own flash guns.

Left of the pentaprism hump is the rewind crank. This is the usual small folding crank. This also doubles as the catch for the camera back — pulling up on the crank releases the back. Around the rewind crank is a selector wheel for setting the film speed. This is in ASA only (ASA is essentially ISO) and ranges from 25 ASA to 1600 ASA. 25 ASA might seem a bit slow in this Digital age but Kodachrome was always a slow film and was made at 25 ASA. In order to move this selector wheel you first need to press a small chrome button by the wheel at the rear of the top plate. Also by this wheel/crank is a small black button at the front of the top plate. This is the battery test button mention a bit earlier. When you press this, the pointer for the shutter speeds in the viewfinder should point to above 1/60 s if the batteries are good.

Moving to the front of the camera. As always with an SLR camera, this is dominated by the lens mount. This is Canon’s FD mount which is a breech-lock bayonet mount. There are three bayonet lugs which are on the outside of the mount with a locating notch on the top lug. The breech-lock part refers to a locking ring on the lens which is turned to lock the lens in place rather than turning the whole lens. This lens mount is partially compatible with Canon’s earlier R and FL mounts.

Inside the mount are the usual three components that connect to the lens. On the right hand side is a lever that communicates the set aperture value to the exposure metering system. At the bottom of the mount is a lever that moves sideways when the shutter release button is pressed — this closes the iris diaphragm to its set value. In the bottom right hand corner (at about 5 o’clock) is a sprung pin. This pin transmits the maximum aperture of the lens to the metering system so that full aperture metering can work.

Also on the mount, at about 8 o’clock, is a small hole. This is to accommodate a pin on the lens which protrudes when the lens aperture ring is moved to either ‘o’ or ‘A’ (those two are the same – some lenses have ‘o’ and some ‘A’). This is the automatic aperture setting which is not supported on this AL-1 camera but the pin needs to be accommodated in case someone sets the lens aperture to ‘o’ or ‘A’. The camera’s manual warns you against trying to use the camera with the aperture set to either ‘o’ or ‘A’. My test film will show me why, perhaps.

Of more interest with this camera is the reflex mirror. At a quick glance, it looks as though the silvering on the mirror has become damaged. There is a network of fine lines all over the mirror. The lines are actually a closely calculated design — the lines are only partially silvered and allow a part of the light striking the mirror to pass through the mirror to a sensor beneath. This sensor is the focus sensor. This uses phase detection technology ( or so I am told) — if you want to know more about this, Google is your friend.

This focus assist system works well so long as there is sufficient detail contrast in the centre of the image. If the image under the two square brackets has low contrast, the focus assist system does not work at all. While the image is very unfocussed the focus assist system also does not work. As you turn the focus ring on the lens and approach good focus, one of the two red arrow LEDs at the bottom of the viewfinder will light — the arrow points in the direction that the focus ring needs to be turned to improve focus. When accurate focus is achieved the red LEDs go out and a central circular green LED lights. For me, the biggest drawback of this system is that you need to partially depress the shutter release button — and keep it partially depressed — while focusing. This isn’t really difficult, I just find it annoying and my finger on the shutter release button keeps relaxing and stopping the focus assist system from working.

On the top left of the lens mount (left as in when using the camera) is a chrome button on a black plastic base. This button is an exposure compensation button — Canon call it back light compensation. Pressing this increases the exposure by, it would appear, 1.5 stops. This adjusts for very bright backgrounds which will usually confuse the metering system and cause under exposure. On the front, near this button, is a small plaque with the letters ‘qF’ —quick focus.

On the other side of the lens mount is the battery compartment. This takes two AAA batteries which are both readily available and cheap. This battery compartment protrudes slightly from the front of the camera ( by about 10 mm) providing a grip for the photographer’s right hand.

The base of the camera has connections for a power winder. These consist of two electrical contacts at one end and a mechanical connector to the film advance system at the other end. There is also a small locating hole at this end. The underneath of the battery compartment has the door which is poorly designed. The catch on my camera does not work at all and the door needs to be held shut with sticky tape. Looking at the Interweb, this would seem to be the usual case. Also on the base is a tripod socket — at this age it will be an ISO socket: 1/4 inch UNC thread. This is behind the lens mount — central on the base rather than in line with the centre of the lens. There is also a button in line with the internal sprocket shaft. This needs to be depressed to allow the film to be rewound into the film cassette. There is a white dot on this button which visibly moves so you can see the film being rewound — this is useful as you can stop rewinding as soon as the film leader has become detached from the take-up spool, leaving the leader outside the cassette. The downside to this is you need to keep your finger on the button while rewinding which makes seeing the dot difficult.

Opening the camera back is done by pulling up on the rewind crank. Inside, there are no surprises. The cassette chamber is on the left. There are no DX contacts here as Kodak did not introduce the DX system until the year after this AL-1 was introduced. The film gate is nice and large, helping to keep the film flat. Next along is the sprocket shaft which counts the sprocket holes in the film as the film is being advanced — eight holes equals one frame. At the right hand end is the take-up spool. This last has six slots for the film leader. The back has a good sized pressure plate to keep the film flat against the film gate. There is also a chrome roller to keep the film snug on the sprocket shaft.

Where the back fits the body, the join needs to be light tight. As this is a Japanese camera, the light tightness is achieved by having a flange on the back which fits into a groove on the body, with a black foam light seal in the groove. With time, these foam light seals degrade to a sticky goo. This has happened to my camera — these seals need to be replaced before I can use the camera. This is a fairly simple job to do and the foam can be bought cheaply on the Interweb. Also in this groove, at the top and between the sprocket shaft and take-up spool, is a very small button. When the back is closed, a small prong on the top flange of the back presses on this button and allow the frame counter to work. When the back is opened, this button is released and the frame counter resets to ‘S’.

The Lens

This camera came to me with a lens attached (not something that usually happens nowadays). It is not the kit lens that Canon supplied the camera with. It is a cheaper after-market lens from Sunagor. The focal length of the lens is 135 mm which is significantly longer than is usual for a walk-0about lens. I rather think that the person who sold me this camera sold the kit lens separately — a 50 mm ƒ/1.4 lens so would attract a good price — and attached a virtually worthless lens to sell the camera.

This lens looks to be well made — it is entirely made from aluminium alloy. When focusing, the entire lens more — no front cell focusing or internal focusing. The lens barrel does not turn when focusing so if you are using a graduated ND filter or a polarising filter, the filter does not need adjusting as you change focus —something many lenses fail at. I am aware that I just said that this is a worthless lens and then said how good the mechanics are. Unfortunately, the value of old lenses is mostly down to perceptions and Sunagor is not a well known or well respected maker of lenses – I could find nothing about their camera lenses on the Interweb — so they will not attract much attention from potential buyers. Actually, Sunagor do still exist and sell fairly cheap binoculars

Minimum focus is 1.5 m (or five feet) which is not too bad for a 135 mm lens and is close enough for nearly all amateur photography. The throw of the focus ring (the distance between 1.5 m and infinity) is around 220º which makes critical focus easy to achieve. This is why manually focusing a modern auto-focus lens is so hard — the focus throw on these modern lenses is about 30º making fine adjustments difficult.

Maximum aperture is ƒ/2.8 which is not extremely fast but certainly useable. I rarely go faster than ƒ/5.6 regardless of the maximum aperture available so a maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8 is not going to limit me at all. Minimum aperture is ƒ/16 which is more limiting but not very much so. If using the usual film speeds around in 1982 then the range of apertures and shutter speeds is fine for general use. There is an aperture setting on the aperture ring of ‘o’ which is for automatic exposure cameras which allows the camera to set the aperture. This ‘o’ setting will not work on this AL-1 camera and the manual warns you not to try to use it.

As camera lenses did at the time, there is a depth of field scale on the lens. As the camera has no depth of field preview facility, these scales are very useful. A nice feature is a built-in lens hood which can be pulled forward about 10 mm if required. Another feature that I have never noticed before is the angle of view of this lens is printed on the lens bezel: 18º diagonal field of view.

VP Twin

A neat Bakelite camera from 1930s Britain.

This is a camera of superlatives. It is very small, very simple, very basic and, when new, very cheap. The first part of this article comes from my “research’ on the Interweb so I cannot vouch for its veracity.

The camera was made by E. Elliott Co in Birmingham. The maker’s name is not anywhere on the camera but their logo of a yacht with a capital ‘L’ superimposed on it is in the inside of the moulding. This camera was sold by Woolworth’s (a very common and cheap shop – every high street in Britain had a branch). It was the proud boast of Woolworths that nothing they sold cost more than 6d (six old pence) which equates to 2.5p in modern money. To get around this price limit, Woolworth sold expensive items in parts – this camera was sold in three parts as 6d each, giving a price for the whole camera of 1‘6 (one shilling and six pence or 7 1⁄2p in modern money).

This camera was introduced in 1935. In 1952, it was re-issued with an updated finish. The lens is a meniscus lens – a single piece of glass, concave on one face and convex on the other. The focal length is reported to be 35mm. The single, fixed, aperture is ƒ/12 which will give good depth of field with the non-focusing lens. I have no idea as to the shutter speed – but on similar cameras shutter speed is around 1⁄30 second.

The rest of this article comes from my own observation of the actual camera that I have just bought myself and so is completely reliable.

The camera is small – too small for me to use comfortably. It measures 85 by 70 by 50 mm and weighs an astounding 115 g. The camera is made from Bakelite – an early hard plastic. The colour is brown and it has a textured surface to imitate leatherette. The two exceptions to the plastic are the shutter and the viewfinder, both of which are metal.

Controls are basic – there are only two: the shutter release and the film advance. On the top of the camera, on the left, is the film advance knob (which is broken on my camera). This connects to the take-up spool inside. That is all there is on the top.

The back of the camera is more involved. There are two red windows which are there to allow the user to read the frame numbers off the film backing paper. There are two windows because this is a half-frame camera – the camera takes two images on each normal sized frame of film. Each frame number on the film is used twice, once in each red window. Between the two red windows there is a moulded rectangle bearing the legends “VP Twin” and “Made in England”.

On the left edge of the back is the viewfinder. Actually, the word “viewfinder” is not really appropriate. It is more a view-hint. It consists of one bendy metal frame which hinges at one end. When opened, it does not locate to any particular position which means that the precise limits of the view are academic.

The lens/shutter assembly is on the front, as is usual. Both are very simple. The lens is a simple meniscus lens with no focusing facility. The shutter is a very simple leaf shutter. It is actuated by a lever on the right hand side of the shutter assembly. Pushing this lever down fires the shutter and pushing it up again fires the shutter again. There is no double exposure prevention here – you can take as many exposures on each frame as you wish.

To open the camera, there is a moulded groove on the left hand edge. You need to put a small coin in this groove and twist. The back comes away in one piece – no pesky hinges to bother with. Inside the back there are two plated steel springs, one on the outside of each red window. These springs hold the film snug on the spools. There is no pressure plate to keep the film flat over the film gate. In fact, the film gate consists of four thin bars of Bakelite.

Inside the body are three chambers. In the middle is the film gate. This gives onto a circular steel plate with a fairly small hole in the centre which allows the light from the lens into the camera. On the left of the film gate is the space for the film take-up spool. The end of the spool links to the inside portion of the film advance knob. On the right of the film gate is the space for the roll of film. The roll of film is not fixed in this space but is inhibited from moving by the spring in the camera back.

I have no intention of using this camera. I can almost certainly source some 127 film to fit, but it will be expensive and the results are bound to be very poor. Yet this camera is a keeper as it is interesting in its crudity – it is the most basic camera that I have yet to purchase.

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