Buggrit - A Review of the Century Graphic 2x3 Press Camera

posted 06/14/06

"2x3 inch" - really 2-1/4 by 3-1/4 inch, or roughly 6x9cm - "baby" press cameras are much underappreciated, still very usable cameras, and in many respects are - despite their age - the pinnacle of medium-format camera technology. Much more about these cameras in general is to be found in the introduction on this page.

This page is about the Graflex Century Graphic, the last new 2x3 camera Graflex introduced (in 1949). A lot of people consider this the best 6x9cm press camera ever made, which is very interesting indeed.

The Century Graphic was the low-end, budget miniature Graphic from Graflex. The body is made of plastic - admittedly a very strong, reasonably lightweight, quarter-inch thick plastic - and all have a Graflok back molded on. This, more than anything else, seems to be what accounts for the cachet of the Century, as they can all be readily used with rollfilm backs without modification. Don't be fooled into thinking the Graflok back is removable, as many would have you believe - it's molded into the body, and the only way you're getting it off is with a saw. Even then, it won't fit any other camera, because the design of the Graflok on a Century Graphic is different than that on Speed and Crown Graphics. The "standard" lens ranged from a pair of inexpensive triplets, to the famous 101mm, f/4.5 Ektar, to the very high-end 105mm, f/3.7 Ektar which, now as then, costs more than the rest of the camera combined.

Graflex were building cameras along the same basic lines since the 1920's, and by the end of the Graphics - 1973 - they definately knew what they were doing. It shows; the fit and finish of a Century Graphic is extremely good, as should be no surprise. The shell of the body is plastic, but everything else is aluminum or painted brass. Bellows extension is on par with other cameras of it's size, and - despite being the low end of the range - it has a droppable bed, rising front, front shift, and front tilt.

There is of course no focal-plane shutter, a feature found only on Speed Graphics. Lensboards are easily swapped in the field, but are relatively difficult to come by, and not particularly easy to fabricate. Everything operates smoothly and easily, and rigidity is excellent.

In it's most basic configuration, the Century sports a wire "sports" finder and the popular magnesium tubular viewfinder with interchangeable masks. The coupled rangefinder cost around a third the price of the camera and cheapest lens, but was useful enough that many - though by no means most - are found sporting it.

Folded, a Century Graphic is 5-3/4 inches wide (including the protruding portion of the spring back, and/or the rangefinder), 6-3/4 inches tall (including one inch for the tubular viewfinder),and about 3-3/8 inches deep.

The Century Graphic does nothing any other non-Speed Graphic press camera can do. Indeed, it's a little bit less user-friendly than it's predecessors - it has no focus lock, for instance, and the movement controls are tiny and difficult to manipulate. Yet, it's far and away one of the most popular 2x3 cameras today, is said to have been one of the most popular in it's day, and is one of the most oft-recommended. Yes, the Graflok back is nice, but far from necessary, even to use Graphic rollfilm backs. I suspect the big attraction is that it was the last Graphic made, and, being made of plastic instead of wood, and correspondingly more angular in appearance, seems more "modern". Compared to Busch Pressmen and other "baby" press cameras, the Century commands a significant premium, often selling for twice as much. I really can't fathom why, though it is worth noting that, for whatever reasons, Century Graphics tend to show up in overall better condition than other similar cameras (but watch out for the gray-bodied Century Graphics with red bellows; the red bellows, in my experience, have aged much worse than the plain black ones.) As press cameras were giving way to 35mm and other systems, Century Graphics enjoyed a short period of popularity as studio cameras, and these - usually in the most basic configuration, without rangefinder - often have survived in much better condition than those which rattled around in the cars of press photographers, insurance adjusters, and police officers.

As an aside, law enforcement was one of the last major users of press cameras in any size; even as late as the mid-1980's, the current edition of Sam Sansone's definitive textbook on police photography recommended the 4x5 inch Crown Graphic as superior to all other cameras of any format. As there were no new press cameras available at the time, and finding processing for 4x5 film - particularly in color - may have been less than easy, I would not be at all surprised to learn that used Century Graphics and rollfilm backs were a popular alternative.

Yes, the Century is a very nice camera, but there's little to justify it's high selling prices. The Graflok back adds a small degree of convenience, but paying more for the Graflex name seems wasteful. Yes, there's a kinship between the Century and the famous Speed Graphic, but it's about the same degree of kinship between, say, a 2000 Ford F-150 and a 1968 Mustang convertible.

One last thing worth noting is that Century Graphics, with or without rangefinders - and the same is true in part of later baby Speed and Crown Graphics with Graflok backs - were often used with rollfilm backs more-or-less perpetually attached, focussing either by the scale on the bed or thru the rangefinder. A lot of these cameras have become separated from their ground-glass spring backs over time, and often their dark slides as well. The latter is easy enough to remedy, but ground-glass backs to fit the 2x3 Graflok fittings are fairly difficult to come by and reasonably expensive. You can of course roll your own with an appropriately-sized piece of ground glass in an old film-pack holder, but this is significantly less than ideal. Busch Pressman, B&J Watsons, and other 6x9 press cameras that weren't used with rollfilm backs pretty much always have the ground-glass and focussing hood still attached, as part of the spring back. It's an important thing to watch for, because the only thing worse than paying too much for a Century Graphic would be paying too much for a Century Graphic without the ground glass and spring back.


All Contents of BUGGRIT.COM are (C) 2002-2006 M. Gilday. All Rights Reserved. No portion may be reproduced in whole or in part without the express written permission of the owner.