TO BEGIN (Part I): the 4×5 Press Camera

Considering the three basic varieties of 4×5 camera available for large format photography —

  1. the Press Camera;
  2. the View Camera; and
  3. the Technical Camera

— we’ll begin this short series by focusing on the Press Camera.

The Press Camera is compact, nicely self-contained and — for what it does — light in weight.  This makes it simple to operate and inexpensive when assembling a working kit for portraiture, landscape or still life.  What the Press Camera lacks in features, it overcomes in ruggedness, portability and elegant mid-Century design (despite its crude appearance).

Note the two most common Graflexes: the Speed Graphic and the Crown Graphic.  Jo Lommen’s pages cover the differences between models and offer helpful detail on the rangefinder mechanisms (which can be tuned and used or taken off to reduce weight and bulk).  The Speed Graphic’s focal plane shutter permits the use of both mounted leaf shutter lenses as well as barrel lenses  — which are plentiful in all varieties, vintages and conditions and can still be found at reasonable prices.  My own Speed — available to use at the New55 FILM workshops and featured in the action of our HowTos & Tips videos — carries the notorious Kodak Aero Ektar 178mm f2.5 barrel lens taken from a B-17 bomber.

The Crown Graphic is my personal favorite because of its simplicity, smaller size and lower weight.  I removed the top rangefinder to use the camera for landscape work with the ground glass.  With a small normal lens on board, it weighs less than 4 pounds (about 1.5 kg) and fits easily in my pack above the film and accessories case.

The Crown Graphic initiated me to large format photography in 2009.  I was shooting landscapes and rustic buildings with a 2 1/4 camera and quite soon came to the realization that the converging lines (typical in architectural perspective) required some control.  The remedy was a small amount of front-rise (or shift when shooting verticals) which, Cole Bellamy convinced me, the Graflex provides in perfect measure.  So my introduction to sheet film came — despite the amazing, huge negative — in favor of the modest but sufficient movements of a Press Camera.

Weaknesses of the Graflex include its modest ground-glass visibility and the lack of back rotation (solved by turning the camera sideways).  These are niggles against what is an awesome and timeless package for making real photographs.

For backpacking, this folding camera — essentially a leather-covered mahogany box (replete with dovetail joinery) — is a strong early choice.  And there are some classic small 90mm and 150mm lenses that are perfect for travel work at f16.  The Kodak or Schneider press lenses that often come on a Graflex (at 90mm, 127mm and 135mm focal lengths) are also excellent and ideal for getting started.

The list of artists known for their work with this camera is too long to mention without omitting (and insulting) many gum-shoe press Jakes, but in the creative arena it includes Ansel Adams, Arthur Fellig (Weegee), Robert Mapplethorpe, Barbara Morgan, Frank Petronio, Louis Mendes, David Burnett, Suzy Pickle, and of course many others.

Today, tens of thousands of these cameras repose in American attics, basements, steamer trunks and fallow darkrooms; and they perform yoeman service in creative hands around the world.  Graflex was last owned by the Singer Corporation in 1973 when it sold its tooling to Sakai Special Camera Mfg. Co., Ltd. — today’s makers of the excellent Toyo brand.  Joining Toyo, other contemporary Press Camera manufacturers include Linhof, Wista, and Horseman.

When buying a Graflex, try to inspect the camera in person to ensure the bellows is good (they are tough).  Check that a Speed’s focal plane shutter is at least intact and that the focusing track travels soundly throughout its whole range.  (Especially check the inner tracks, which can be mangled or loose from the camera’s lid being closed with the tracks in the wrong position.)  Expect to have a Speed’s focal plane shutter tested and its spring calibrated, and have any rangefinder you intend to use (the Kalart is the one) re-calibrated to your lenses by a professional camera-tech.  (If your new Graflex can’t seem to get the focus right, it may be necessary to have the ground-glass assembly checked for correct film-to-flange alignment.)  These cameras, when obtained opportunistically in poor shape, can make an absorbing restoration project.

– Sam Hiser, CEO, New55 FILM

Credits: Anniversary and Pacemaker Speed Graphics by Jo Lommen.  Pear and Clementine, Peter Lu, at the New55 FILM workshop at Digital Silver Imaging.

Related Articles:

GETTING READY: the 4×5 Lens & Shutter

GETTING READY: the 4×5 Tripod & Head

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *