The Camera Shutter

FURTHER ON IN THIS site I have described the box camera scenario in India, the various models which appeared on the market, and some of my experiences while hunting around for a camera. Perhaps I have not recounted how while I was on my camera hunt, I was also lucky enough to receive a gorgeous gift from an old aunt who stayed in Bombay. It was an old Agfa Isoly - I camera marketed by Agfa Gevaert India Limited and assembled in their camera factory at Baroda. My aunt had shot but a roll or two of film on it, and the camera was as good as new. But mechanical wizard that I was, I decided to open up the box, tinker around with the screws, alter the internal arrangements, all in the hope of ‘improving’ the device. And a week later, I was left with a box which was truly no better than a box.

Before I consigned the instrument to the dustbin, I was wise enough to salvage the lens, and the shutter. And for thirty long years, the shutter has remained with me, carefully put away in an envelope and stored in a trunk. It is still in working condition and is operated by turning a shaft at the back by inserting a pin or key sideways through a slot cut in the metal. Speeds offered are B, 1/30 and 1/100 second. I think this is an example of what is known as a 'Singlo' shutter.

Was it a wise thing for me to tinker around with the camera in the first place? Yes and no. The camera was destroyed in the process it is true, but what use would it have been to me anyway, now that roll film is no longer available in our country? So I would say that it was good I decided to try out my brains on the innards of this old box from the house of Afga. The camera was lost, but in return I have with me the shutter and can see for myself the mechanical genius of those magnificent men of old who devised this wonderful array of springs and levers for a camera.

Classic cameras are here...

This website originally started out with a detailed exposition of box cameras of old, and all the accompanying trappings, and yet how lovely it would be, I have lately felt, if one could have a site here dealing with various other types of classic cameras too.

Consider for example this single lens reflex. It’s a Pentax, and although its auto function is dysfunctional, it has given me many happy hours of pleasure. Just load up with a roll of 35mm film, go out with an exposure table, and shoot! And how delightful when the pictures are back from the processing laboratory!

Or consider this twin lens reflex from Rollei Fototechnik, Germany. In years gone by, Rollei have brought out updated versions of two of its outstanding cameras, the Rollei 35, and the other a twin lens reflex. Both had fixed focal length lenses, both were equipped with exposure meters, but were capable of full manual operation too. 

This site is all about classic cameras, and in the days to come, you may expect to find here a lot more than just box cameras. So then, friends, be on the lookout for something exciting coming your way!

The Houghton Coronet

This Houghton Coronet comes from West Yorkshire and is owned by Mr James Mitchell of Castleford, UK. I don’t wish to give full particulars of the Coronet, but would like you, the reader, to see what a charming thing an old box can be. See how close to each other are the two reflecting viewfinders. That’s how they were made in days of yore. And this one has a portrait lens too, an essential feature for the gentleman who wanted to get in close to his subject !

If this picture has set you wondering who James is, and what does he have to do with an old Coronet, you had better scroll down for a fuller introduction.


Picture courtesy of James Mitchell

Camera Antiques from Yorkshire

There are two breeds of camera collectors I know of. There are a good many enthusiasts who find the greatest pleasure in collecting a wide range of cameras, to be carefully put away in glass cases in their homes. Whether the instrument works or not is of no concern to them; the vintage Edixa from Germany is there, and the fact that it is his possession gives him indescribable pleasure. On the other hand, there is the enthusiast who owns a camera and sets out to produce photographs with it. His sole reason for owning a camera is to create images using an antique instrument, making use of an equally antique process. The first is attracted to the instrument, the second is keen on what he can get out of it.

It gives me great pleasure to say that we have Mr. James Mitchell from the UK here with us today. James is a classic camera collector with a difference: he combines the qualities of the ardent collector who is proud of his antiques, and the man who goes on to load his camera with film, all prepared to experiment. James is the collector who likes to put his cameras to use.

I first came to know James after I had registered on an online analogue photographers’ community. When I asked James if he would care to share with me his photographic expertise, he was delighted, but later fell silent owing to various personal issues which kept him occupied for over a year.

I am pleased to say that Mr Mitchell is back again. James is full of enthusiasm, and while he hasn’t accumulated a truckload of vintage stuff, nor yet a sackful, he certainly owns a bagful of antique beauties. And he is here to share pictures of his cameras with us. How delightful, and so very charming !!

James lives in West Yorkshire in the UK. Now that name strikes a familiar chord for me. Yorkshire in England brings up faint recollections of a lady....  a lady named Hazel Sanderson who many years ago created a most stunning portfolio of pictures of the Yorkshire countryside. The Dales of Yorkshire, it was called, put out by that bold venture named Creative Monochrome. I have two of Hazel’s atmospheric pictures with me: undulating hills, tiny farmhouses in the distance, sheep grazing on the pasture, a vast unbroken silence... Or again, a vast open landscape, trees swaying with the breeze, a pathway leading to a farmhouse; I can almost feel the silence of the landscape, hear the toot of a horn far away, the distant cries of a mother calling out to her children...

What has become of Hazel? I have not the slightest idea. I have two of her pictures with me as a memento of my brief encounter with her. And that is all. I have not the faintest notion where the lady might be today. It looks as if she has disappeared --- lost in the mists of the dales she loved.

Getting back to business we have James with us from Castleford in West Yorkshire. For some reason I had thought Mr Mitchell would hate to go out into the countryside with his cameras, but I was proved wrong. James has taken some stunning views in the Wolds of Yorkshire. And while we are not going to reproduce an example of his pictures taken in the Wolds, we do have a charming picture he took in the countryside using an Agfa Synchro Box camera right at the end of this post.

Here is a charming picture of a bandstand James took during one of his rambles:

The bandstand was taken with a Ful-Vue dating back to 1946, a reflex type box camera put out by that revered name, Ensign Limited -- of High Holborn, London. And below is the Ful-Vue James used on the occasion...

Mr Mitchell has interesting bits of information telling us about Ensign and its products. “The only box-type camera I've been out within the last year or so is the Ensign Ful-Vue with which I took the photo of the bandstand above,” says James. “Although this looks nothing like a box camera—or indeed any other camera, for that matter—it is essentially a box camera, albeit with a huge viewfinder such that it's a box camera masquerading as a faux Twin Lens Reflex.”

James also owns an Ensign Ful-Vue Super. “The Ful Vue Super you see below is actually a later model dating to about 1950, despite it's less futuristic styling,” he tells us. “What is better about the Super, though, is that it has a TLR-like hood around the viewfinder making the image easier to see, especially in bright sunlight,” he points out.

What has become of Ensign Limited of London? It appears the company saw dwindling sales and eventually had to wind up business as they did not keep in step with the times. “While the actual styling of the later Ful Vues is very futuristic, they were actually a somewhat out-dated design for the 1940s - 1950s,” James tells us. “It is said that the demise of Ensign was caused in part by the firm refusing to accept the growth of 35mm after the second world war,  when they just kept producing box and folding cameras.”

James has other interests besides the Ful-Vues he owns. He loves to experiment a good deal with folding cameras with bellows. Here he encounters problems peculiar to these tiny bellows-cameras, as polish gives way to rust and fungus with the passing years. To quote James, “I like folding cameras but I've bought a few that have had to have new bellows put in them which can double or triple the overall cost.  Similarly, I've had to have shutters serviced which again costs money. One thing I've found with cheaper folders is that when using faster film, one can run out of exposure speeds in brighter weather, that is, even when stopped right down, you can't set the shutter speed fast enough so as not to over-expose. Consequently, what I try to do on bright days is to use a film that is the reciprocal of the fastest shutter speed on the camera, that is, if the fastest shutter speed is 1/125, then take a film with a maximum ISO rating of 125.”

Stowed away in a loft in his home, James Mitchell has a set of antique cameras that will gladden the heart of any camera enthusiast. To the casual onlooker, they may look like a set of boxes with glass eyes, some rusting away with age. To us they mean a lot more. For the Ensign Ful-Vue we have seen is not the only box James owns. He has several other models, all closely guarded, each a priceless bit of treasure.

Here’s a Kodak Brownie from James’ collection. It has a premium look to it, but I have no idea of the date of manufacture. Whatever it may be, this camera is grand old vintage stuff !!

What does James have to say about his collection of Brownies ? Being a box camera, many of these cameras came with simple uncorrected optics. “The fact is that most lenses on Kodak cameras weren't that great,” points out James. “This was in part based upon the fact that, given the 6x9cm negative size, most amateur negatives weren't enlarged, but merely contact-printed onto photographic paper for snapshots.  Thus, the lenses didn't have to produce a high-quality image given the relatively small size of the final print, as any defects in the camera lens weren't going to be magnified by enlargement.  Also, Kodak were really a film manufacturer, and got into cameras only as a way of creating a market for their film.” 

It has been very kind of James to share his pictures and expertise with us here, and we can never thank him enough. As you go along this website, you are going to find more examples from James' treasure chest. Each is a shiny, sturdy instrument with pretty 'glass eyes' , each a misty reflection of a bygone age -- an age of classic cameras, roll films and developing chemistry.

This lovely view of the English countryside was
captured by James using an Agfa Synchro Box.


Photographs on this post courtesy of Mr James Mitchell.
Text by Ravindra Bhalerao.

Welcome to the World of Box Cameras

“My box Brownie was a trusted companion for years and has given me more pleasure than I could ever imagine possible. Family gatherings, holiday outings or a visit to dad’s old farm were just the occasion to get my sturdy little friend out of its closet. It was an incredibly simple camera with no dials and knobs to fuss about. My husband chose to steer clear of me : he worked with an expensive folding camera and used an exposure meter as a crutch all along. So while hubby was busy measuring the light and distance I would wipe my lens clean with a handkerchief, back up the ten feet from the group, put the sun at my back, peep into the tiny view-glass at the top and snap away happily. . .”

--Maria Ward

Maria’s words bring back the long forgotten romance of box camera photography in the first half of the twentieth century. Imagine the thrill of buying a roll of film, loading your box and moving out into the wooded landscape on a sunny day. On your way back late in the afternoon, you drop the film at the nearest photo lab, or if you are adept at handling chemicals, head straight for a session in the kitchen-turned-darkroom. Whichever the method, you are working along the same lines as did hundreds of others in the early days. And the reward of your labors comes on the following day when family and friends crowd around you letting out squeals of delight, each of them eagerly passing around the snaps, and  junior enormously pleased to see himself standing beside the car with a sombre expression on his face.

Although a precision instrument made with the same care and thoroughness bestowed on its more sophisticated rivals, the key feature that distinguishes a box camera is its simplicity. Hundreds of these gadgets were in production earlier using a variety of film sizes. Thousands were stocked by photographic dealers to be eagerly snapped up by people who wanted to take family get-togethers back in the home or out on a picnic, and who were just a bit scared of the intricacies of a gadgety professional camera. Turn over the leaves of an old album and you will find evidence in the form of those golden-brown snapshots showing granny when she was a girl, or granddad trying to push hard against the lawn mower. And how charming these pictures look!

First Lessons

The reader who is coming to the subject of photography for the first time may find himself bewildered by the terminology used by the camera dealer down the street : the stops, shutter speeds, film development and the like. If you are planning to buy a box camera and are feeling confused and hopelessly at sea, this article should help dispel most of your doubts.

The simplest kind of camera is a pin-hole camera. As the cut-out illustration here shows, this is a light tight box with a tiny pin prick made on one side and a sheet of film held at the other side. If the box is now aimed at an object, rays of light coming from the scene criss-cross each other as they pass through the pin-hole giving rise to a faint upside down  image on the film.

A pinhole camera forms an inverted picture of a scene, and forms
the basis of the camera-obscura, the forerunner of the
modern camera.

The pin-hole camera is often looked upon as a mere scientific novelty, but actual photographs may be taken with the device, the only impediment being that as the image produced is exceedingly dim in illumination, the film or plate has to be exposed for a lengthy period running into several minutes.

A pin-hole device can also be used as an object of amusement. For this purpose, the back of the box which receives the film is replaced by a sheet of tracing paper or a ground glass screen. If the box is now pointed at a brightly lit scene and the user takes cover under a dark cloth or blanket, he will find a faint image appears on the screen. If the picture is too faint to be viewed comfortably the pin-hole may be enlarged. This gives a brighter result but increases the fuzziness of the picture. For best results, a simple positive lens from the optician’s shop held in a cylindrical cardboard tube may be substituted in place of the pin-hole. With a bit of trial the lens can be focused when a bright and clear picture will be seen on the screen. A device of this kind is known as a camera obscura, and was used in the 17th and 18th centuries by artists to trace perspective views of landscapes and architecture in paintings.

The camera obscura with its bright, magical image was also used as a novelty in public places in earlier times. People marvelled at the lifelike picture showing branches swaying in the wind, people moving around, and architecture, but the picture seen was only a fleeting impression leaving no permanent trace on the wall or screen which received the impression.

The camera obscura embodies within it the basic principle of the photographic camera, but the arrival of photography had to wait till the mid-nineteenth century when advances in applied chemistry made it possible to record the image permanently on a chemically treated surface.

Photography is thus the result of two distinct lines of scientific progress : optics, which helps form an image of a scene on a flat surface, and chemistry, which produces a permanent record of this image.

In 1851, a London sculptor named Scott Archer came up with a chemical process of photography known as the Wet Plate Process, which though far too cumbersome by present day standards, was nonetheless a great improvement on earlier processes in use (read more about this later). Archer's process remained in use until 1871, when Richard Leach Maddox came up with the idea of dry plates. A dry plate was a glass plate with a photographic light sensitive coating quite similar to the one we have on photo-film today, and the process, unlike Archer's method, made it possible to take camera exposures whilst the plates were dry. This innovation was to set an important milestone; it marked the beginning of modern photography, paving the way for further improvements in the line. It also led to the invention of flexible photographic  film as we know it today. Once the basic problems of the process were overcome inventors and designers turned their attention to devising all kinds of innovative features aimed at making the camera a versatile tool. In the early days of dry plates, a great number of detective spy cameras appeared, each tiny instrument promising a feature that made it remarkably easy to take pictures outdoors without drawing attention to itself. Among the camera models developed from the last decade of the nineteenth century onwards were the hand-held folding camera using accordion style bellows designed so that the camera could be made to collapse ; the twin-lens reflex and the single-lens reflex ; and the miniature, a camera so unobtrusive it made possible for the first time true candid shots of everyday scenes. Each of these designs was highly sophisticated and gave splendid performance in the field for which it was intended, but the knobs and dials on these instruments also meant that amateurs generally tended to look upon photography as an impossibly difficult pastime requiring specialized knowledge. The box camera, first introduced by George Eastman in 1888, overcame this difficulty by presenting the amateur with an instrument simple enough to operate and having the minimum of adjustments, thus bringing photography within the scope of the average layman who had no knowledge of the subject.

With this background information in hand, we are in a position now to take a closer look at the inside of a box camera. No matter how complicated it may seem, every film camera is made up of a light tight box with a lens at one end whose purpose is to project a clear, well-defined image of the scene being photographed onto a light sensitive film held flat at the other end.

The figure here shows a simplified view of the interior of a box-type camera. These cameras typically used ‘roll film’, available earlier in a variety of sizes. As you can see, the loaded spool is held at the bottom of the box and after each picture is snapped a film wind knob or key is turned to bring fresh unexposed film over the picture area in readiness for the next picture.

The interior of a box camera. Note that the film carrier which
holds the spools is omitted. 

Many box cameras employ a simple meniscus (or spectacle type) lens to form the picture on the film. Working on its own, a simple lens of this kind gives a fuzzy image, and the manufacturer gets round this trouble by having a thin metal plate next to the lens with a tiny hole punched in it. This plate, known as a ‘stop’ blocks off all extraneous light rays coming from the subject letting only a narrow central beam to get across resulting in a picture that is sharp and well defined over its whole area.

Working close to the stop is another mechanical contrivance that is known as the shutter. In a box camera the shutter may consist of a spring-driven plate which in its normal state covers the lens opening in the stop thereby allowing no light to reach the film. When you press the button to snap a picture, the shutter blade smartly flips aside flashing the picture on the film briefly (usually 1/25 second) before it moves back into place to cover the lens opening again.

The shutter therefore decides the duration of time light acts on the film when you take the picture. The stop on the other hand governs the brightness of the image momentarily flashed on the film—the tinier the lens opening, the fainter the picture flashed. Between them, these two components govern the total quantity of light reaching your film during picture taking.

Film instruction sheets carried exposure tables to
guide the novice. This exposure chart was supplied with
a film having a speed of 400 ASA. As such films are generally
used for low-light work, the chart lists both indoor and
outdoor subjects.
If you pick up a professional camera like a single lens reflex, you will find that it carries a number of dials and levers with numbers printed alongside. These cameras being sophisticated are provided with expensive lenses with a stop whose opening can be varied within wide limits, and likewise the shutter is an intricate mechanism giving a range of exposure times. The beginner when asked to take a picture with such a camera may find it requires a good deal of mental gymnastics to select the lens opening and shutter time that will lead to a successful picture. He will find that he is better off with a box camera which requires very little thinking on his part. The camera manufacturer is aware of this difficulty and he simplifies his box by having a single lens opening and a fixed exposure time, so chosen that a picture taken outdoors in bright sunshine comes out with perfect success. A box camera is therefore a fair weather camera, although several models were made with 2, even 3 different lens openings which allowed pictures to be taken outdoors even when it was dull and cloudy.

But to return to our illustration, the lens shown here is set in the body of the camera with no adjustment for focussing. This may appear strange, but it is yet another way the designer simplifies the operation of his camera. A lens of this kind is known as a fixed focus lens ; it is set during manufacture to give sharp pictures of distant objects. As the stop opening used on these cameras is only the tiniest hole about a few millimeters wide, objects even as close as 7 or 8 feet away from the camera begin to pose as ‘distant’ for the lens. This means that everything about 8 feet away and beyond will appear with equal sharpness on the film, a feature welcomed by most amateurs as it frees them from the worry of focussing while snapping their pictures.

Having now seen the interior of a box camera, let us now suppose we actually load our box with a film and try our hand at taking a few pictures outdoors. Roll films, as your photo dealer will show you, come in a variety of ‘speeds’. The speed of a film is  measure of its sensitivity to light. Thus a film with ISO 50 marked on the box  has low sensitivity and is said to be a slow speed film. A speed of ISO 100 or thereabouts is considered a medium speed film and is recommended for general photography. On the other hand if the film box is marked ISO 400 or so, it means it is a high speed film requiring only a very short burst of light to register the image.

For most general photography, a medium speed film is all that is needed, so we load up our box with a roll of medium speed.  Now as we go about snapping pictures, what actually happens within the camera is this : each time you click a picture, the lens projects on the film an image of the scene in a short burst of light. Although no picture appears at this stage, a chemical change has in fact occurred on the emulsion, which is the light-sensitive coating on your film. An invisible picture known as a latent image has been formed on the emulsion. Next, the film is removed from the camera in total darkness and put through a solution known as the developer which brings out the image. This is followed by another solution known as a fixing bath which makes the picture a permanent record and keeps it from fading away in time.

After the film has been washed and dried it may be inspected by holding it up to the light. The picture will be now clearly seen. It is a darkish record ; light areas in the original scene appear dark, while dark areas are rendered white. The image formed is thus reversed in tones and is known as a negative. 

Having secured a record of the scene as a negative, the next step consists of laying the negative on a photographic paper and shining a light onto it. When the paper is processed in chemicals similar to those used in making the negative, a picture in life-like tones is produced.

This is only the beginning of our excursion of this fascinating subject. As you go along, you will find more examples of work produced with a box camera. You will also find interesting historical details as well as a full technical discussion of the features of these cameras further on in this website.

Ravindra Bhalerao