• Andy Whysall

It's been a while...part 2

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

(WARNING - still about gear)

Buying large format camera is like buying into the history of photography. Older ones can be quite cheap (e.g. my 5x4 which cost £40 from a charity shop but was a steal - they retail at around £300); brand new you can pay thousands for one. Some can come to you free! Here's an Ilford process camera, full-plate film size (6.5 x 8.5 inches) intended for making enlargements of smaller photos and other images. When I can find an Ilford plate holder (or even rarer, a cut film or paper holder) I will put it to use. It was made somewhere between 1900 and 1935-ish. A gift from a museum colleague.

Ilford process camera. 'Two Hats' to its mates.

There are two particular weak links in the large format process, and both are mechanical: one is the condition of the focussing bellows, which deteriorate with age and use and can let light leak into the camera; the other is the state of the shutter. Bellows are repairable and replaceable, the bellows in this camera are in excellent condition; leaf shutters are very complex and fragile and old ones that very obviously need more than lubricating generally are best just replaced. But they rarely turn up new any more, and second hand ones are never cheap.

A sticky leaf shutter can often be made to work again

When I bought the MPP camera it came with a trusty old Schneider Xenar 150mm f5.6 lens, contemporary with the camera, but not supplied with it originally. I won't bore you with how I know that. It was in a 1950s Synchro Compur shutter, a fine piece of, essentially, watchmaking that hadn't been used for, I guess, 25 years and probably hadn't been serviced since it was made more than 60 years ago. It was unreliable and inconsistent with individual speeds varying from exposure to exposure.

It was that inconsistency which put me off using it, bearing in mind the cost of film and the faff of processing it, trying to produce serious photographs with that shutter would have been a bit of a money pit. So, this summer (2019) I bought a used Japanese Copal No.1 shutter in superb condition, very reliable and with speeds VERY close to those marked (I have a shutter speed tester) and substantially less than half the age of the over-complex Compur. The Xenar is now in that shutter, a very simple swap-over job.

I have some other lenses and shutters for this camera, and interestingly enough the two other Copal shutters I have have speeds more or less identical to that No.1 (all from 1 to 1/250th more or less 1/16 stop slow and the marked 1/500 speed coming out at 1/300th. My two 1970s Synchro-Compur MXV shutters both come out at 1/3 stop slow at all speeds from 1sec to 1/250th, and their marked 1/500th comes out at 1/350th. They're consistent. The 1950s Synchro-Compurs are all over the place.

Lenses: I have the 150mm f4.5 Schneider Xenar, a 135mmNikkor, a 90mm f 6.3 Schneider Angulon (old, tiny and excellent). I have a novelty lens too - a 75mm f5.6 Mamiya Sekor from a Mamiya press camera. I say novelty lens because it is designed to cover 6x9cm and not 5x4 inches. It vignettes er..characterfully BUT a test revealed that it does still have an image within 1/3 of an inch from the corners. A big bright circular image in the centre and probably three stops if not four of vignetting at the corners. Very atmospheric.

Clockwise from top left: 75mm f5.6 Mamiya-Sekor; 90mm f6.3 Schneider Angulon; 150mm f 4.5 Schneider Xenar; 135mm f5.6 Nikkor-W. Top two in almost-modern Synchro-Compur MXV shutters; bottom two in Copal.

Anyway, now there really is no excuse. I have camera, some lenses in reliable shutters, film in the dark slides (Foma Creative 200, which is 'affordable' and very good, I gather) and I have a developing tank ready for it. Watch this space.

Footnote: The lens on the old Ilford has no shutter at all, you make your exposures by either uncovering the lens for a suitable length of time, or working in a dark room and switching the light on and off in the manner of an enlarger.

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