Camera Index

Leitz Eldia

A simple film copying device from Ernst Leitz, the makers of the Leica camera.

I saw this device on Ebay with a very vague description – no real indication as to what the device might actually be. It was made by Leitz (the makers of the Leica camera) which suggests it would be both well designed and well made. So I put a bid in and got the device for £8.00 – a bargain! Fortunately for me, the device came with full instructions, making the use of the device clear (full instructions are three small pages of text plus a diagram).

The device itself has the maker’s name – Leitz Wetzlar, Germany – on it but no other writing. The box has the additional information of “Eldia 17900W” but no more and that is all the information that I had when I bought it.

The instructions (four small pages) have the additional information “Eldia printer” and “printing device for transparency film strips”. It seems that the device is intended for producing projectable positives on black and white film from black and white negatives. Searching on the Interweb suggests that this device was first introduced in about 1930 (dates on the Interweb vary a bit). Leitz Wetzlar was incorporated into a GmbH in 1930 and this name is printed on the instructions – “Leitz Wetzlar GmbH” so my device was made in or after 1930.

Early versions, according to the Interweb, had nickel plated knobs, later versions had chrome plated knobs and the last versions had plastic knobs. Mine has anodised aluminium knobs – so much for the Interweb! Both the device itself and the instructions say that it was made in Germany rather than West Germany which might suggest that it was made before 1945 but might also mean that it was of late enough manufacture that the distinction between West and East Germany was old hat and West Germany had returned to calling itself just Germany. On balance, I think mine is a later rather than earlier model.

The device itself is very simple – no lens, no shutter, no meter. It is fully manual and really simple. The device is basically a box with semicircular ends. It is made from brass which is painted black with a coarse crinkle finish. The is a hinged front – also brass painted black but with a finer crinkle finish.

The top has the only controls there are – a knurled knob at either end. These are different heights – the right hand one is taller and has an arrow embossed on top to indicate the direction of turn. The left hand knob is lower and has no arrow. Half way between these two knobs is a spring catch that holds the hinged front in place.

The rear of the device has a red glass window measuring 38 by 30 mm. It is far from clear why this window is there. In film photography it usually indicates illumination for blue sensitive emulsions but this red window is not involved in illuminating anything. if the red window was replaced by solid metal, the device would work just as well.

The front of the device has a hinged flap. This has a central clear window. On my device, this window measures 25 by 19 mm which is half a standard 35mm film frame. It can be replaced with a larger window measuring 25 by 37 mm. This hinged flap also contains the maker’s logo – “Leitz WETZLAR” and the country of origin: “GERMANY”. This flap is held in the closed position by the spring mentioned earlier.

When the flap is opened, the front of the device is exposed. There is a large aperture – 82 by 35 mm – with a glass window centrally. This time the glass is colourless but, as with the red window on the back, this glass window serves no discernible purpose. On the right side of the glass window is a sprocket shaft. When rotated, this shaft clicks once every time four sprockets pass the front – this equates to half a standard 35mm film frame. This allows you to measure one frame (two clicks) or one half-frame (one click) when winding the film in the dark. The inside of the flap has two guides to hold a strip of developed negatives.

If you open the flap, it is then possible to remove the top of the device – this top is just a push-fit lid with two holes. The two knobs that protrude through the holes are attached to spools to hold a length of 35mm film. The instructions say the spools will hold three metres of film which is about two 36 exposure cassettes worth.

In use, you load a length of unexposed copy film onto the spool with a small knob and pull the film across the glass window with the emulsion on the outside and on to the spool with a large knob. The strip of negatives that you want to copy fits between the guides on the flap, again with the emulsion on the outside. Note that the unexposed film you use must be copying film that can be used under a red safe-light. When the flap is closed, the emulsion side of the two films will be in close contact.

You expose the copy film through the glass window in the flap – through the negative you want to copy – by holding the front of the device 1.5 m from a 25 watt incandescent bulb. If you use black and white film and black and white negatives, you will end up with a black and white positive for projecting which is the original purpose of the device. If you use colour reversal film and colour slides, you will end up with a duplicate colour slide.

Mir or Мир

This is a Soviet camera made in the KMZ factory in Krasnogorsk near Moscow. KMZ stands for Krasnogorski Mekhanicheskii Zavod (Krasnogorsk Mechanical Works in English) which is still operational (September 2022). KMZ is better known for their Zorki and Zenith cameras both of which were derived from Leitz’s Leica II camera. The name “Mir” can mean either peace or world. This camera shares its name with the Mir space station launched by the USSR in 1986.

This Mir is a cut-down version of the Zorki 4 and was produced only for the internal Soviet market. This camera was a ‘grey’ import to the UK. The outside of the camera looks just the same as my Zorki 4. However, I am going to describe the camera from scratch rather than just list the differences.

The camera is made from die-cast aluminium alloy with a satin chrome plated top and base plates. The camera, without lens, measures 142 by 90 by 35 mm and it weighs 595 g. Most of the body is covered with black leatherette.

As mentioned above, this camera is derived from the German Leica II camera of the 1930s. It is not a direct copy – the FED I was a simplified copy of the Leica and the Zorki 1 was a straight copy of the FED I. The Zorki 1 was developed and improved in stages to the Zorki 4 and this Mir is a cut-down version of the Zorki 4. This heritage is most noticeable in the design of the top plate which is stepped with controls at different levels.

At the far right of the top plate is the film advance knob. This camera was made in 1960 and most cameras had film advance levers by this date. Turning this to advance the film you can detect the difference between top German engineering and Soviet engineering. The mechanism works well even after 62 years but you can feel a slight but definite bearing grumble. I don’t have a Leica to compare it to but none of my Zeiss Ikon cameras of a similar age have any sort of bearing grumble.

In the centre of the film advance knob is the frame counter. This counts up from zero and needs to be reset by hand when you load a new film. This film advance knob is on a lower portion of the top plate and is close to the edge of the raised portion which makes it quite hard to get a grip on the knob.

Just up on the higher part of the top plate, towards the rear, is the shutter release button. This is chrome plated metal with a machined top. The button is threaded for a standard cable release. If you turn the shutter release button as you press it, it will lock down until you turn it the other way.

Around the release button is a knurled metal collar. This has two positions: П Д  – these are actually embossed in Cyrillic letters, the Latin equivalents are P and D. Normal operating position is Д – the actual position is denoted by a dot. Turning the collar clockwise to just past П (no dot this time) releases the sprocket shaft inside so that the film can be rewound.

Left of the shutter release button is the shutter speed selector. This is the standard Leica type – you lift and turn to select the speed and the whole thing turns as the shutter fires. Being a Leica type shutter, it is important to wind on the film before changing the shutter speed – failure to do so can fatally damage the shutter mechanism.

This is one of the areas where simplification occurred as KMZ made the camera cheaper to make. Speeds are from 1/30 to 1/500 seconds – the original Zorki 4 had a sequence of much slower speeds and one faster speed of 1/1000 second. If you are willing to set the shutter speed without numbers to guide you, there is a dot past the 1/500 setting which seems to be the 1/1000 speed but without acknowledgement. The slower speeds are not much of a loss as in 50 years of photography I have rarely even used less than 1/60 seconds.

Around the shutter speed selector is a second selector which is very unusual. The outer ring turns allowing you to select the flash synchronising delay. There are six selectable delays: 0, 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 milliseconds. 0 is for electronic flash and the others are for various types of flash bulbs.makes a difference from just having X and M! The Zorki 4 which this camera is derived from has a similar ring but with far fewer options.

Next along from the shutter speed selector is the accessory shoe. This is a standard Barnack shoe with no electrical contacts – so a cold shoe. While these are usually referred to as flash shoes, on rangefinder cameras they are likely to be used with separate viewfinders for use with other focal length lenses. The built-in viewfinder only gives an accurate representation of the image with the 50mm lens supplied with the camera. If you fit either a wide-angle or a telephoto lens to the camera you need to use an appropriate wide-angle or telephoto viewfinder.

On the far left of the top plate the level of the top plate dips again. On this lower portion is the film rewind knob. This is knurled metal. This will turn in both directions and has an arrow stamped on to to indicate the correct direction. Like the film advance knob, this is much to close to the edge of the raised portion of the top plate for the user to get a grip. This time, the designers have thought this through and the rewind knob pulls up 10 mm so that it is above the rest of the top plate and getting a grip is easy.

Below the rewind knob there is a rotating lever. This lever has a short travel of just a few degrees. It moves a lens inside the viewfinder and adjusting this allows the photographer to use the viewfinder without wearing their glasses. This is actually important as the viewfinder eyepiece is metal and will scratch spectacle lenses. I speak from experience!

The rear of the top plate has some writing on it. As this camera was only available in the USSR, the writing is in Cyrillic. Prominent is “Made in USSR” – I cannot type this in Cyrillic, unfortunately. Below this is the KMZ logo of a prism with a ray of light passing through it. To the right, at the base of the top plate, is the camera serial number. KMZ is one of the Soviet makers that started the serial numbers with the year of manufacture. This serial number starts with ’60’ so the camera was made in 1960. Not all the other Soviet makers did this – particularly FERD – so even if the serial number appears to start with the year, it is just coincidence.

A the left end of the rear of the top plate is the viewfinder eyepiece. This is quite viscous as it is metal and will easily scratch modern spectacles. if you are a spectacle wearer, you need to use the dioptre adjuster mentioned above and keep your glasses in your pocket.

The viewfinder image is tinted mauve – this is to make the rangefinder easier to use. In the centre og the mauve image is a pale yellow spot. The two colours are to maximise the contrast between the general image and the smaller rangefinder image.

To use the rangefinder, you centre the pale yellow spot on your main subject. if the subject is out of focus, there will be two images within the spot – a mauve image and a yellow image. As you turn the lens focus ring, the yellow image will slowly move. keep turning the focus ring until the mauve and yellow images are in the superimposed.

The front of the top plate has more going on on it. On the right is the viewfinder window. This is nice and large, 19 by 12 mm. In the centre of the front of the top plate is the rangefinder window. This is much smaller at 5 by 4 mm. At the left of the front of the top plate is a PC socket for connecting a flash gun. Between the rangefinder window and the PC socket is the camera name in Cyrillic script – Mir – which looks like Mur to Western eyes but is, of course, in Cyrillic.

Below the top plate, in the middle of the front, is the lens mount. This is the standard M39 thread used by Leica. It is also known as the LTM (Leica Thread Mount). It will take any lens intended for a threaded Leica, Canon rangefinder, FED, Zorki and quite a few others.

Looking in the mount, you are looking right at the fabric focal plane shutter – no mirror in a rangefinder camera. Just inside the mount, at the top, is a lever on a swivel. This actuates the rangefinder. As the lens is focused nearer, the rear of the lens extends and pushes this lever inwards and, in turn, this moves the image in the yellow spot in the viewfinder.

To the left of the lens mount is the self-timer lever. To use this, you turn it through 90º clockwise. Above the lever is a small chrome button which activates the timer when pressed. This gives a 6 to 8 second delay before the shutter fires. On each corner of the front, just below the top plate, is a lug for attaching a strap.

To access the insides of the camera to load or remove a film, you have to remove the back and base in one piece. This is achieved by turning two semicircular folding keys, one at each end of the base. One turns clockwise and the other one turns anti-clockwise. Between these folding keys, in line with the lens, is a tripod socket. This is the older 3/8 inch Whitworth thread.

The inside of the back has a rather small pressure plate for keeping the film flat. On the left of the base (on the right when looking at the inside ) is inside of the key for opening the camera. This has a cutaway which locates on the base of FED-type refillable cassettes. When this key is turned to fix the back/base in place, this opens the cassette to allow the film to move both into and out of the cassette without scratching the film. Turning the key to release the back/base closes the cassette rendering it light tight.

Inside the camera body, in the middle, is the film gate. This is reasonably large – much larger than the pressure plate. The actual gate is 36 by 24 mm – the standard size for 35 mm film. Behind this is the focal plane shutter. This is black light-tight cloth which is in very good condition – others of my old Soviet cameras have wrinkled or translucent (and on one camera, both). The shutter speeds look to be very good at the higher speeds (I have no means of checking the speeds, I am going by a general impression) but on lower speeds (1/30 or B) the blinds move very slowly and erratically.

On the left of the film gate is the chamber for the film cassette. This can be either a Kodak style cassette or a FED type refillable cassette. On the right of the film gate is the sprocket shaft for counting the sprocket holes in the film when advancing the film. Eight holes equals one frame. To the right of the sprocket shaft is the drive for the take-up spool. This looks remarkably complex with teeth and a spring. This drive fits the supplied take-up spool. I have been told that you can fit a second, empty, cassette here to avoid having to rewind the film, but my FED cassettes will not fit here. The supplied take-up spool has a spring-steel grip to take the film leader.

The edges of the back fit into a groove on the body to provide a light seal. This camera is ultimately derived from the German Leica and no foam light seals were used and no foam light seals to go bad.

The lens that cvame with the camera is an Industar-50 lens. This is essentially a copy of the Carl Zeiss Tessar. Zeiss’s patents on the tyessar had expired a long time before the Soviets started copying the Tessar design. Tessars are my favourite lenses. They might not be as sharp corner to corner as some other lenses and distortion is not completely eradicated but the Tessar renders images very nicely with something of a 3D effect. Many people get carried away by the technical excellence or otherwise of their equipment and forget that they are producing pictures. Tessars help with the story telling so sod the technicalities.

The focus range is from one metre to infinity. To move the focus from one metre to infinity (or from infinity to one metre) you need to turn the focus ring through 180º. This is enough of a turn to allow for precise focusing (something missing on modern autofocus lenses which are a nightmare to focus manually). Apertures are from ƒ/3.5 to ƒ/16. There are two aperture scales so as you focus, one of the two scales is always at the top of the lens barrel and easily visible.

Tessars – and this Industar – have four glass elements in three groups – there are air gaps between the groups. The lens is coated – there is a red П on the lens bezel. This П stands for покрытый (or pokrytiy in the Latin alphabet) which means ‘coated’. I would assume that this is multicoated and on each glass surface as was usual by 1960. but that is definitely an assumption on my part.

Rajar No 6

This is another Bakelite camera – my others are the Soho Model B and the VP Twin. The later Soho Model B design is clearly derived from this Rajar No 6 – they even use identical struts. This camera appears to have been designed in 1929 and is an Art Deco design. It was made by APeM – this company had a chequered history and part of it ended up as Soho Ltd, the makers of the Soho Model B mentioned above. The camera measures 167 by 90 by 38 mm when closed and 167 by 90 by 115 when open for use. It weighs 450 g.

  • lens: meniscus
  • focal length: 85 mm
  • apertures: ƒ/12
  • focus range: ?
  • lens fitting: fixed
  • shutter: simple
  • speeds: I & T
  • flash: no
  • film size: Rajar No 6

As mentioned earlier, this camera is made from Bakelite, one of our earliest plastics dating from 1907. The Bakelite is black (many other colours of bakelite were available) and the body is rectangular with only the ends being curved. There are a few parts not made from Bakelite. The struts holding the lens board in place, the metal wires holding the back in place and there is a metal chassis behind the Bakelite lens board and a few rivets.

All the controls apart from the film advance key are on the lens board – not that there are many controls: only one shutter speed, one aperture and a fixed focus lens. So, the camera body is an unadorned rectangular box with curved ends. The only ornamentation on the front are two rectangles, one above and one below the lens board. The back has eleven parallel grooves. These are broken at the top by a curved box bearing the legend “ONLY RAJAR NO 6 SPOOL WILL FIT THIS CAMERA”

Towards the other end of the back is the circular red window for viewing the frame numbers on the film backing paper. although this window would have been a very definite red when new it has faded over the last 90 years to a pale orange. At the other end of the body to the red window is the film advance key. This is made from nickel plated brass and has a slight twist to it to make it fit the hand better.

To use the camera, it is necessary to extend the lens board. this pulls out and is held on four folding struts. It is a little hard to start it moving but once it has moved a bit it is easy to pull out to its final position. The four struts hold the lens board securely in place and parallel to the film.

The lens board is essentially rectangular with a curved cutaway at the top for a finger grip when extending the camera. At the bottom of the lens board is a semi-circular extension which has no function – it is entirely decorative.

In the centre of the lens board is the lens and shutter. The lens is a meniscus lens – one piece of glass – and is not usually visible as it sits behind the shutter blades. I am told by Collection Appareils that the lens has a focal length of 85mm and a fixed aperture of /12. This is a rather small aperture but is needed to give the required depth of field to compensate for the non-focusing lens.

The shutter is a very simple everset shutter offering just one speed –I – and timed exposure – T. deferring again to Collections Appareils, I (for Instantaneous)gives a shutter speed of between 1/50 and 1/30 seconds. This is not a precise speed and nor does it need to be. this camera relies on the film’s exposure latitude to produce usable pictures.

The shutter release lever protrudes from behind the semi-circular extension – it is a flat serrated metal tab. This works in two directions – moving it left to fires the shutter and moving it right fires the shutter. The T setting – Time – causes the shutter to open when the shutter release is moved and the shutter then stays open until the shutter release is moved again. To use the T setting you need to be able to keep the camera steady on a table. There is no tripod socket but there is a folding leg hidden away behind the bottom of the lens board. This allows long exposures in the portrait orientation but not in the landsca[[e orientation.

Beneath the lens on the lens board is a triangular plaque bearing the legend “RAJAR No 6”. This looks as if it was originally silver and red but now is mostly murky brown.

At the top of the lens board is a 7 mm (actually 3/10 inch as this is a British camera) hole behind which sits the viewfinder. This is a Brilliant finder which I never really like. this one is marginally better than the run-of-the-mill Brilliant finders as the top piece of glass is ground glass rather than the usual plain glass which gives a clearer (but not clear) image. This Brilliant finder is on a swivel so you can move it through 90º for when you are taking landscape pictures.

The back is held in place by two sturdy wire clips. These are a very tight grip and require significant effort to remove. When they have both been unclipped and moved to the front of the camera the back comes away in one piece.

The inside of the back is completely plain – no advice as to film, no patent numbers, no nothing. The only feature is a cutaway near one corner to allow for fitting around the film advance key.

The inside of the body is dominated by the film gate. This measures 82 by 56 mm which is about what you would expect from 120 film but this camera uses Rajar’s own Rajar 6 film. My camera has an empty spool in it and I can measure the width of the backing paper which is 62 mm. It would seem like Rajar No 6 film is the same as 120 film although the Rajar spot is very different. The Rajar spool has an extension on one end with a square hole for the film advance key. Apparently, adapters were available to allow 120 film to be used.

Neither the film spool nor the take-up spool are fixed in any way. The only concession to the spools moving is a nickel-plated leaf spring in each spool chamber which will be mostly about keeping the film snug on the spools.

Dating Cameras.

You might not be interested in knowing the exact age of your cameras but most collectors are. Having a precise date is good but no always possible.

The dates that cameras were made between can be ascertained from promotional literature and catalogues. The British Journal of Photography Almanac has adverts for many camera models – these do not actually date the camera but if a camera is advertised in, say, 1954 then it musty have been available in that year. The Almanac also has a section called New Goods which does date the introduction of a particular model.

A London retailer – Wallace Heaton – published a catalogue from 1938 to 1972 called the Blue Book (because of its cover). Again, a camera model being advertised in this does not precisely date the camera but does show that the camera model was available in that year. Other retail catalogues can provide the same information. Manufacturers’ catalogues can provide more precise information as they will announce new models.

There are two tomes of use to collectors: McKeown’s and the Hove Blue Book. These give the dates that a camera was produced but with the caveat that both contain mistakes.

Serial numbers can be very useful for dating individual cameras. There are limits to this, however. Some makers, usually of cheaper camera, did not use serial numbers. Most makers did use serial numbers but which serial numbers were used when has never been made public. Some markers, Kodak and Hasselblad for instance, used code words to date their cameras. I have some useful tables of serial numbers available here.

Some, but not all, Soviet makers start their serial numbers with the year of manufacture. It is difficult to tell which serial numbers have the date and which just start with digits which could be the date but are not.

Some serial numbers have well established serial number date ranges – Carl Zeiss lenses and Schneider lenses for example. Some serial number date ranges have been meticulously assembled by camera enthusiasts – Zeiss Ikon, for example, and Nikon. Some makers, Zeiss Ikon and Voigtländer are examples, used the same serial number sequence for all their output while others, Nikon for example, have separate serial number ranges for each model.

When you have a camera with a body serial number, shutter serial number and lens serial number, you would hope that each would give the same date but this is frequently not the case. The main reason for this is batch manufacture. Firms like Zeiss Ikon would make a large batch of a particular body moulding and then use that batch of mouldings over many months. They would buy in batches of shutters and lenses and, again, use each batch over many months. This can result in bodies, shutters and lenses being assembled into a finished camera with the components dating from different years. When this happens, I assume that the date of manufacture is the most recent of the three.

There is another reason for a mismatch of serial number dates and that is repair/update. For repairs, either the lens or shutter might be replaced several years after the camera was originally made. Other than repair, the owner might upgrade either shutter or lens when finances allow. When this happens, one of the serial numbers will be significantly out of step with the others. This can happen today with a repairer having no source of new components having to cannibalise old cameras to get the parts for the repair. This might result in components being several decades out of sync.

Soho Model B

My instinct is to call this a folding camera but it does not actually fold; rather, it collapses. This is an Art Deco camera dating from the 1930s. In fact, I think it could be called Streamline Moderne as it has plenty of curves and no angles. From my Interweb searches, it would seem that this camera dates from 1935.

This camera is almost entirely made from Bakelite which is a very early plastic invented in 1907 and used for all sorts of things in the first half of the 20th century. After WWII, other plastics displaced Bakelite although it would appear that it is still being made. The Bakelite here is coloured dark red with a tortoiseshell pattern – the red is so dark as to look brown to me and the tortoiseshell pattern is only discernible in good light. There is a pattern moulded into the Bakelite which simulates (poorly) a leather covering.

There is only one control on the camera body and that is the the film advance. This is a folding metal key which is chrome plated brass. The key is slightly twisted – at first I thought this was a defect on my camera but looking at pictures of other cameras of this model, it would seem to be a design feature. This key is on a ratchet – it will only turn in one direction. The key will also pull up slightly to release the film spool inside the camera.

The rest of the controls and features are on the lens board. With folding cameras, this lens board is hinged and pulls the shutter/lens assembly out to its operating position as it hinges open. This is not a folding camera – the lens board pulls out on four folding struts remaining essentially parallel to the body as it does so.

When the camera is fully collapsed ity is rather hard to start lifting the lens board. There are semi-circular cutaways at top the bottom of the lens board to help you get a hold of the lens board. Once it starts moving, it lifts easily and snaps into place on the four chrome struts. Collapsing the camera involves pushing the four struts slightly further out and pushing the lens board in. When the lens board is extended, the shutter and lens are attached to the camera body with a collapsable bellows which are made from Burgundy leatherette.

At the top of the lens board is a round hole behind which is the viewfinder. This is a hinged Brilliant finder. If you are using the camera in the landscape orientation, the finder swivels out from behind the hole and sits just outside the corner of the lens board. These Brilliant finders are hard to use – see the photo of the image.

The centre of the lens board has a moulded circle. Inside this is both the shutter and the lens. The lens is right in the centre but is not visible from the outside as it sits behind the shutter blades. The lens has no name and would appear to be a simple meniscus lens. The people at Art Deco Cameras have measured this lens and say that the focal length is 100 mm which is ‘normal‘ for a medium format camera. They also have worked out that the fixed aperture is ƒ/14 – this will give the necessary depth of field for such a simple lens.

Above the lens is the legend “MODEL B” and above this the two letters “I” and “T” – and above these two is a tab to select between them. “I” is instantaneous and is the setting for everyday use. Those nice people at Art Deco Cameras have measured the shutter speed to average 1/50 second which is about what I would expect. On the left of the lens is the shutter release lever. This has two positions – up and down. The shutter fires when this lever is moved from one position to the other – both moving up and moving down will fire the shutter.

“T” is time. With this setting, the shutter opens when you move the shutter release lever and stays open until you move the shutter release lever a second time. Underneath the lens is the maker’s name: “SOHO LTD LONDON”. The shutter is the everset type and there is no cocking lever.

Behind the bottom of the lens board are two swivelling legs – one long and one short. The long leg swivels through 90º and provides a support for the camera in the portrait orientation. This long leg is offset to one side and provides a very unstable support – unstable to the point of being next to useless. This is not helped by the camera having to rest on the chrome fitting for securing the back. The short leg swivels through 180º and provides support for the camera in the landscape orientation. This short leg provides very stable support.

To open the back of the camera there is a large sprung catch on the top of the camera. To open this, you slide it towards the film advance key and then lift it. The back of the camera comes away in one piece – the bottom of the back is held in place in a clip which doesn’t need opening.

The outside of the back is plain apart from the moulded ‘leather’ and the circular red window for reading the frame numbers off the film’s backing paper. The inside of the back has information on the type of film required (“any 2 1⁄4 x 4 1⁄4 or 6 x 9 cm film”) and the patent number (330403/29). Also on the inside are four metal studs near to the corners. It took me a while to work out why they are there. Turns out that they line up with the flanges of the two film spools – as the metal flanges turn they are prevented from wearing away the Bakelite.

The inside of the body is dominated by the film gate. This measures 82 by 55 mm which gives quite large margins around the negatives on 90 by 60 mm film. The outside edges of the film gate are nicely rounded to prevent the film from being scratched as it moves across the film gate.

Either side of the film gate there is a chamber for the film spools. At the bottom of these is a T-shaped steel spring to keep the film taut on the spools. The film spools sit loosely in the chambers apart from the inside of the film advance key locating in the end of the take-up spool.

Wirgin Supreme

This camera is a bog-standard folding camera from the Inter-war years (for our younger readers, “Inter-war” means from 1919 to 1939). This is a German camera made in Wiesbaden in Hesse. The only name on the camera is the model name “Supreme” embossed in the leather on the back. There is no maker’s name anywhere. I know it is German because there is a small leather carrying handle which is embossed “MADE IN GERMANY”.

  • lens: Trioplan
  • focal length: 10.5 cm
  • apertures: ƒ/4.5 to ƒ/22
  • focus range: 6 feet (2 metres) to infinity
  • lens fitting: fixed
  • shutter: Vario
  • speeds: 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, B, T
  • flash: No
  • film size: 120

So how do I know which camera this is? I have several techniques that I use. I have a series of camera catalogues going back to the early 1920 and I look through them for a camera model called “Supreme” – they usually have illustrations so I can check that it is the same model. I also have copies of the British Journal of Photography Almanac going back to 1922. These have a section on new kit and again I search through these for cameras called “Supreme”. Both of these have failed me which leads me to think that this camera was made by a minor maker without a good dealer contract.

My third method is a search on the Interweb. This last is very unreliable as the Interweb is full of errors. However, needs must when the devil drives. So, a Google search (other search engines are available) for “Supreme camera” and select the images option. Well, there have been quite a few camera models called “Supreme” but this search did find quite a few images of my camera and they all called it “Wirgin Supreme”. A text search on Google confirmed that Wirgin did indeed make a folding camera called “Supreme and that it might have been made in 1938.

Wirgin are probably better known for their Edixa range of cameras made in the 1960s and 1970s. I already have articles on two of these: the Wirgin Edixa viewfinder camera and the Wirgin Edixa-Mat Reflex mod B SLR camera.

This is a fairly typical folding camera from the Interwar years. Some features are typical of the 1920s such as the shutter but these did continue well into the 1930s on cheaper cameras. The Interweb says it was made in 1938 but that was a single web page and perhaps not reliable.

The body seems to be made entirely from pressed steel. The body is covered with leather (not leatherette) with the edges of the camera bright chrome plated. These edges have significant rusty areas. The camera measures 155 by 83 by 40 mm when closed and 155 by 83 by 133 mm when open for use. It weighs 575 g.

The ‘top’ of the camera (it doesn’t really have a top as such) is featureless apart from the folding viewfinder. Lifting the top of this allows the bottom/rear part to spring up on its own. The viewfinder consists of a hole in each part – there are no lenses in either part. The holes is both frames must be lined up by the user’s eye to compose the picture.

The ‘bottom’ of the camera has more on it. On the right-hand side is a milled wheel which is the film advance. Once upon a time, this was covered by a disc of leather but on my camera this is long gone. Next to this wheel is a small nickel-plated button. Pressing this opens the lens door on the front of the camera. When new, this door would have sprung fully open under its own spring-loaded volition but on my 80+ year old camera, the lens door only opens most of the way and needs a bit of manual help to open fully.

Just to the left of centre on the bottom is a disc. This is 27 mm in diameter. In the middle of this disc is a threaded hole for a tripod. This is a 1/4 inch Whitworth thread. It looks to me as though this is a 1/4 inch slug fitted into the original 3/8 inch Whitworth socket. It is the positioning of this tripod socket that was the clue to the identity of this camera when I did the Google image search.

The back of the camera is plain. The leather is embossed with straight lines and the word “Supreme” in italic script. Towards the top left corner of the back is a red window. For those who have not come across 120 size cameras before, the film has a backing paper which keeps light away from the film when handled. On this backing paper, there are three series of numbers with different spacings. These are for cameras that produce 6 by 9, 6 by 6 and 6 by 4.5 cm negatives. These numbers are read through the red window so this red window is positioned over the appropriate series of numbers. This camera produces 6 by 9 cm negatives.

The front of the camera is dominated by the lens door. This measures 97 by 780 mm. As with the rest of the camera, this is covered with black leather. In the centre of this door there is a raised portion. I think this is basically for stiffening but it also has a decorative function. In the middle of the lens door is the hinged foot. This is nickel-plated metal – I suspect brass as there is no rust apparent. The purpose of this hinged foot is to allow the camera to stand level and solidly on a level surface in lieu of a tripod. Also on the lens door is a second tripod thread. This is, again, 1/4 inch Whitworth and, again, looks to be a 1/4 inch slug in a 3/8 inch thread.

To open the lens door, you need to press the small plated button next to the film advance wheel. Originally, the spring will have snapped the lens door securely in place but on my 85-odd year old camera a little manual assistance is required. When open, the lens door is held in place by three metal struts on either side. Two of these are nickel plated and one is painted black. Incidentally, I can tell that it is nickel plated and not chrome plated by the colour. Nickel plating has a softer shine than chrome and has a subtle but definite blue tinge. Nickel plating also has a tendency to corrode with a blue/green colour.

When opened, the lens door is held solidly in place and the shutter/lens assembly is parallel to the film plane. The shutter/lens assembly is connected to the camera body by leatherette bellows.

The shutter is a Vario by Gauthier. Gauthier are better known for their Prontor shutters but they always had a series of simpler and cheaper shutters available. This Vario shutter offers 1/25, 1/50 and 1/100 seconds plus B and T. Nearly all cameras, including modern digital cameras, have B available. This is where the shutter stays open while the shutter release is depressed. The letter ‘B’ is short for ‘Bulb” and refers to the pneumatic bulbs used in the 19th century as shutter releases.

‘T’ used to be very common on cameras – it is available on my 1973 Nikon F2 SLR. ‘T’ stands for Time. With ‘T’, the shutter opens when the shutter release is depressed and stays open until the shutter release is depressed a second time. This is for very long exposures and was useful in film days when ISO 3,200 was fantastically fast.

This shutter is an old-fashioned shutter in as much as the speed selector is a dial above the shutter housing rather than a ring around it – technically, a dial-set shutter. The change over from the two styles centred on 1930 but dial-set shutters lingered on well into the 1930s on cheaper cameras.

The dial has initials under the name Vario: DRP and DRGM. DRP stands for Deutsches Reichpatent and DRGM stands for Deutsches Reich Gebrauchsmuster and they indicate that the design is patented (and made before 1945).

Looking at the lens, to the left side of the shutter selector dial, is the shutter release lever. This is a thin piece of nickel plated metal. To the left of this lever, on the side of the shutter housing, is a threaded socket for a standard cable release. This shutter is an Everset type so there is no cocking lever. Underneath the speed selector is the legend “Original Gauthier”

Below the lens are two scales. The upper scale, in yellow, has 6, 7, 10, 15, 30, ∞ which are distances in feet – this is the focus scale. The lower scale, in white, has 4.5, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22 which are ƒ/numbers as this is the aperture scale. Below this lower scale is a moving pointer to adjust the lens diaphragm. On my camera, the diaphragm blades have come loose from their fittings and the aperture can no longer be adjusted.

In the centre of the shutter housing is the lens. This is a Trioplan made by Meyer Görlitz. This is a triplet lens (it has three pieces of glass) and it has a focal length of 10.5 cm (measuring focal lengths in mm started after 1945). This is a ‘normal‘ lens for a medium format camera. This is a focusing lens (not a given on cheap cameras) and is front cell focusing which means that only the front piece of glass moves to focus rather than all three pieces.

On the top right of the shutter housing is a small Brilliant viewfinder. These, at best, give a vague idea of the composition – I really don’t like them and much prefer the larger folding viewfinder. This Brilliant finder is on a swivel allowing the camera to be used in either portrait or landscape orientation.

Closing the lens door is simple if not immediately obvious. To unlock the holding struts, you press in at the top of the rear-most strut on either side. The lens should be focused on infinity and the Brilliant viewfinder in the portrait position or it will foul on the side of the camera body. when collapsing. It is then a simple matter of pushing the lens door into the closed position.

On the right hand end of the camera is a small leather handle. This is stamped “MADE IN GERMANY”indicating that this was an official export version (distances in feet suggest this as well). Beneath this handle is a small nickel plated lug. Sliding this down releases the catch on the back. The back opens on a hinge revealing the insides.

Inside the back itself is a 70 by 90 mm sprung pressure plate. This is to keep the film flat against the film gate. Inside the camera body is the film gate. This measures 57 by 87 mm. The film (size 120) measures 60 mm wide so there will be 1.5 mm margin around the exposed portion of the film. Either side of the film gate is a chrome roller to allow the film to move gently over the metal parts without scratching.

At either end of the body is a chamber for the film spools. These chambers have hinged lugs to hold the film in place. My camera has lost two of these but it is clear where they were. The new roll of film goes on the left and the take-up spool goes on the right. The take-up spool is the empty film spool from the previous roll of film.

When loading a new film into a size 120 film camera, you need to wind-on a considerable amount of backing paper before the film itself it revealed. You need to be looking into the red window while doing this – as the first frame approaches there is a series of dots or circles of diminishing size just before each frame number.. After the last shot – number 8 on this camera – you need to wind-on a further considerable amount of backing paper before opening the camera back to remove the film. The end on the backing paper has a self-adhesive tag to keep the end of the backing paper in place.

Given the price of 120 film and the costs of development, I will not be trying this camera with film.

Appraising Old Cameras and pricing.

This chapter deals with deciding on whether you want a particular camera or not. The first stage s to have a good look at the camera and deciding if it is a camera that you want in your collection – on line, the ‘good look’ means at the photographs. The second stage, once you have decided that you want the camera, is to decide how much you are willing to pay.

This section is entirely about how I go about curating my own collection but it should be mostly applicable to most collections. 

So, I come across a camera that fits my collecting paradigm. First, I ignore dirt. Dirt can be easily removed and tells me that no one has done ghastly things to the camera to make it clean. Actually, I do not ignore the dirt, I look past it. My first concern is the physical condition of the camera. Things that concern me

  • dents, which mean that the camera has been bashed at some time.
  • Cracks in the plastic, which also mean that the camera has been bashed and further suggests that the plastic is aging badly – more cracks are likely to occur in the future. The cracks might be letting water and dirt to get inside.
  • Water damage, which is likely to result in internal corrosion.
  • Oil, which will hold and move dirt and also get inside the camera.
  • Bits and pieces missing.

Things that do not really concern me but affect the price

  • covering/leatherette coming unglued
  • paint worn off with handling
  • chrome or nickel plating worn off with handling.

Dents – many of my cameras have dents. The presence of small dents will lower the price I am prepared to pay but will not inhibit me from buying. Larger dents matter more. If the camera model is a common one, I will wait for a good one to come along. On the other hand, my 1912 Icarette has quite a bit of damage, yet I bought it – I am unlikely to get another chance.

Where the dent is matters. Viewfinders and pentaprism humps get bashed frequently. If the viewfinder still works fine, I will be happy to buy at a suitably lower price. The corners of the camera also get bashed a lot but if the camera works fine I will not care. As I am not looking for shelf queens dents, in and of themselves, do not matter to me but dents that stop the camera working as it should matter a great deal.

Cracks – most cameras that I collect have very little or no plastic but it is far from unknown. Cracks are bad. If plastic is used on the outside, it is likely to be used inside as well. Metal can also crack. If the camera has suffered sufficient violence to crack the outside it might well have damage to the inside as well – which I will not be able to see. Also, cracks grow. A small crack can easily become a large crack. Plastic, as it ages, becomes brittle if old plastic has started to crack, the plastic is likely to old enough for all the plastic to be very brittle. I do not buy cameras with visible cracks.

Water damage – the camera having been significantly wetted is very bad. Water can get into small gaps – most cameras are designed to be splash resistant but they are most decidedly not water-proof. However, if the water damage is away from joins in the body, all is not lost. First, I want to know how much water and where. Then I want to check for corrosion. If visible parts are corroded then hidden parts are also suspect. I will look inside the back of the camera and, with a removable lens camera, inside the throat of the lens mount. Any visible corrosion and I will put the camera back. This is the big drawback of buying on-line as the water damage is unlikely to show up in the photographs and you cannot examine the camera.

If an on-line seller claims that the camera is in good cosmetic condition, that precludes both water damage and corrosion – but only if he is honest.

Oil damage is not so common. Usually, it signifies that the camera has been stored in a garage in a box with other things that are oily. Oil actually protects the camera so long as there is not enough oil to make the inside oily.

Bits missing are important to me. Some people delight in buying a couple of non-working cameras and making one good one. If this is you, then all power to your elbow. Me, I am mechanically inept and I have learnt the hard way to leave mechanisms be. If a camera has parts missing, still works and it is an uncommon model that I particularly want, then I might buy that camera but mostly I will pass it by.

All this is about the physical condition but there are other aspects that are important. Often, cameras are sold with accessories. A common one is a case – I always dispose of these. Other common accessories include filters and rangefinders. I do not have much interest in filters – I have a small collection but only because I do not like throwing things away. I also have a small collection of rangefinders – these are interesting but any more that I acquire I sell on.

Lenses are a more important addition. Many cameras have fixed lenses but for those cameras with removeable lenses, I want to have at least one lens included. Many sellers try to maximise their revenue by selling body and lens separately. Unfortunately, a camera body with no lens is useless. If you are interested in an interchangeable lens camera with no lens then you need to factor in the cost of buying a lens separately. If the camera has a common mount (M42, Pentax thread, or Leica M39 thread) many lenses are available and many are available at quite a low price. In extreme cases – where the camera has an unusual mount – it might not be possible to buy a lens at any price. If you are interested in a lensless camera, make sure a lens is going to be available first. 

A further problem with a camera with no lens is that you have no idea as to how long the camera body has been without a lens. If the camera has been indoors for a few days without the lens while the seller sells the lens, that is OK. If the camera has been lensless for several years in the garage, dust, moisture, grit, insects and god knows what else will have had free access to the mechanics of the camera. This cannot be a good thing.

As well as offering bodies with no lens, some sellers offer two (or more) lenses with one body – a good bonus. I find the lenses as interesting as the bodies – both the lens’ design and the range of makers.

Lens condition makes a big difference as does the make and model. Some cameras are offered with a cheap, after-market lens where I suspect that the seller has sold the OEM lens separately. If buying on-line, there should be a photograph of the lens showing the bezel with maker’s name and lens model. Most lens defects are rather obvious. Scratches clearly reduce the value as do excessive cleaning marks (but probably have little effect on the lens performance). Lenses that have a ‘daylight’ filter in place are good as the lens is unlikely to have any physical damage to the front piece of glass.

It is worth looking to see if a lens has been dismantled or even if an attempt at dismantling has been made. The pieces of glass are held in place by screw-in rings. If these are scuffed and scratched, someone has tried to (or succeeded in) removing them. This is frequently most visible from inside the camera. Inside, the surroundings of the lens should be matt-black. Any scuffing around the glass inside tells us that someone has made an a crude attempt at removing the lens. If they had succeeded in removing the rear piece of glass there is a very good chance that they have not replaced it exactly as it should be. For exchangeable lenses (for SLR cameras and rangefinders) there are several small screws around the lens – these should be in good condition. any chewing of the screw head, no matter how slight, indicates that an amateur has tried to dismantle the lens – not good. The rings that hold the glass in place have threads with several starting points. If the ring is replaced using the wrong starting point then infinity focus will not be possible.

Another problem with old cameras, particularly those stored for years in an unheated garage, is the growth of fungus inside the lens. This is visible as a network of very fine lines. You will probably need to look at the glass with a magnifying glass or jeweller’s loupe. Personally, I do not buy lenses with known fungus and bin those I do buy which turn out to have fungus. A further welcome addition is the original manual. These are rarely offered and if they are, they do not alter the price that I am willing to spend (except, perhaps for a particularly rare camera). The same goes for the original sales invoice and any repair bills – nice to have but I am not going to pay for them. Sales invoices do have the advantage of enabling you to accurately determine the age of the camera.

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).

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