Medium-Format Press Camera Tips

posted 01/16/07

2-1/4 by 3-1/4 inch "baby" press cameras are extraordinarily fun handheld medium-format cameras, still capable of producing excellent results a quarter-century or more after they were last manufactured. Getting the most out of a Busch Pressman C, a baby Burke and James Watson, or a Graflex Crown Graphic, Speed Graphic, or Century Graphic requires something of a learning curve, just like with any other medium-format camera. The results are well worth the effort, and for some people, the journey is half the fun.

I've collected here a modest amount of useful information about the use of these cameras and their accessories - hints, tips, "gotchas", advice, and so on. Some small amount of it may well be applicable to those using 4x5 press cameras, but most of it is pretty specific to 2x3 ones, regardless of make. It's all taken from personal experience with a number of baby press cameras over a couple years, rather than being re-hashed "common knowledge" or "conventional wisdom" that's so often in error. (It's amazing how few of the people who criticize 2x3 press cameras have never used one...) Some of it re-hashes information available elsewhere; a lot of it is "new to the internet".

Lens Shades and Filters

Regardless of what camera you're using, and what kind of film, few things are as important as having a good shade on your lens. For the various classic lenses out there for the 2x3 format, your only real choice is to at least start with a slip-on Series adapter. Series V (5) is the smallest that will work, and Series VI (6) is probably the most common. Most of the f/4.5 lenses around 101-105mm - the Optars, Raptars, Graftars, Velostigmats - have outside dimensions around 31.5mm (1-1/4 inch); Kodak made Series VI adapters, at least, in this size, and Ednalite made, for legal reasons, 31.8mm adapters that work just fine, in both Series V and VI. If you happen to have, or come across, a slip-on 32mm hood or adapter, you can generally bend the "fingers" in slightly and make them fit these lenses. The 101/4.5 Ektar is slightly larger, 32.5mm or so; I use a 32mm hood adjusted to fit, but there were adapters in this size as well. The f/3.7 lenses, both 105mm and 107mm, take 38mm slip-on adapters; the 10.5cm f/4.5 Zeiss Tessar is 28mm across, and a 28.5mm Kodak adapter fits with a little adjustment of the prongs. As you might guess, even if there isn't an adapter that perfectly fits another lens, there's probably one that comes close enough to work.

Once you've got the adapter, you can fit a lens shade; remember that, even though you're probably dealing with a 101mm to 115mm lens, it's a "standard" length for 6x9cm; you don't need (or want!) a deep, telephoto shade. Kodak, Tiffen, Ednalite, and many other firms made all sorts of hoods to fit Series V and VI, and they're all pretty much interchangeable with each other. For Series V, a vintage Series hood is really your only easy choice. For Series VI, there are two other easy options - a 44mm adapter ring can be had that will screw into Kodak Series VI adapters and holders, and allow you to mount a Cokin "A" holder and accessories; you can also get adapters that go from the 44mm thread of a Kodak Series VI adapter to various other, more common, thread sizes - 52mm seems to be most common. Both of these approaches have disadvantages; in particular, they tend to get in the way of the shutter controls. If you want to go either of these routes, make sure your adapter ring is made by Kodak - Ednalite Series VI accessories have a slightly larger thread size than Kodak ones, and Cokin rings and several makes of step-up rings will pop right out of them. You could always glue them in, but that's kind of a kludge.

Series filters are pretty widely available; most were every bit as good as today's filters, though watch out for laminated filters that have begun to separate. You'll often find old Kodak filters in their yellow-and-black cases with all sorts of crud on them from the padding material; this usually comes off with a little lens cleaner and a tissue, and I've seen a remarkable number of downright ugly looking filters turn out to be spotless and flawless after cleaning. I haven't tried to see if it's still true, but not that many years ago, it was apparently possible to go to your local optemologist and have them re-grind larger filters down to smaller sizes; this was a popular and common way to get filter values not, for whatever reason, available in a given Series (or whatever other) size. I mention this because nobody seems to have made blank, empty Series filter rings, and these re-ground filters got mounted in whatever ring happened to be handy. Some probably re-used broken filters, but the telephoto and wide-angle auxiliary lenses seem to have been the most popular "mount donors", followed closely by the plethora of rapidly-obsolete CC filters. The point is, if you're looking thru Series filters at a swap meet, camera show, or wherever, don't automatically trust what's stamped on the ring. I have an original Ross enhancing filter in a Series VI ring marked "Tiffen Portrait +2", and what may be an IR filter masquerading as a Series V Kodak sky filter, and I've seen other decidedly mismarked filters. Caveat emptor, and all that.

Rollfilm Backs

Unless you're a zone system afficionado, you probably use (or want to use) rollfilm in your baby press camera. There's a lot of information out there about what backs fit what cameras, and what backs are "good" and which are "bad". Here's the skinny: The oldest common rollfilm back is the Suydam, originally made for the pre-Pacemaker Miniature Speed Graphic, and mountable one way or another on pretty much any 2x3 camera. They're dual-format, doing 6x6 if you have the mask. They have very good film flatness, though the red-window film advance is unwieldy. Graflex Graphic backs are designed to fit cameras with graflok backs, but will also fit others with a little ingenuity. They were made in at least four major variations, and there's a lot of misinformation about which are good and which are bad. The conventional wisdom is that those with pin rollers at the edges of the "gate" are good, those without, bad - and there's a company that will add extra rollers to your backs that don't have them.

Save the money; the rollers don't really do a thing. What you want to look for in Graphic backs is either a flat, or slightly bevelled, pressure plate on the insert; the early backs have shorter pressure plates that curve inward at the ends, and produce less-uniform film flatness. Adding pin rollers to a back like this won't do a bit of good. The pressure plate doesn't make much of a difference in the "22" 6x6 backs, which have pretty decent flatness regardless, but in 6x9 are a remarkable improvement over the earlier design.

If you've got an early back with the curved pressure plate, all isn't lost - I (and others) have found that "padding" the pressure plate makes a dramatic improvement in film flatness. I use some very thin (~0.5mm) self-adhesive black flocking paper, which, while it does the job well, makes advancing the film somewhat more difficult, as it's not exactly "slick". Contact cementing a thin piece of cardstock, or styrene, might be a better option.

Unless you're really set on shooting 6x9 or 6x6, other options for rollfilm backs are those made for the Mamiya RB67. The standard 6x7 backs are better made than even the last of the Singer-Graflex RH-10 backs, and cheaper, used. A slightly bizarre option I'm particularly fond of is the 6x4.5 "half frame" back made for the RB67; they're fairly uncommon, but not many people want them, so they're cheap - and with a 100-115mm lens, make a great portrait outfit.

While using rollfilm backs with a format smaller than 6x9 may seem slightly silly, it does have two related benefits - you're generally only using the center-most, and best, part of the image circle; Even the least-expensive 103mm Trioptar performs excellently on 6x4.5, and lenses which just barely cover 6x9 should have no problem covering 6x7 or 6x6. Related to this, obviously, is the sudden increase in available movements you gain with a smaller film format. Incidentally, if you really want to play with movements cheaply, hunt up a Kodak 100/6.8 Wide Field Ektar, intended as a moderate wide-angle for 4x5; you will run out of movements on most baby press cameras before this lens runs out of coverage.

Handles and Grips

Fairly obviously, you'll get the best performance from any camera when used on a tripod. That said, a big part of the fun with press cameras is using them handheld. To do so, you need something to hold onto. Most 2x3 cameras have (or had) a leather handle on the left-hand (from the rear) side; many are no longer in particularly usable shape after a half-century or so. It's easy enough to replace them - I use one-inch solid nylon webbing and nylon "tri-glides" to create new handles - but while they're a convenient enough way to carry the camera, I don't find them to be great for holding the camera while shooting.

Traditionally, most people attached a bulb flashgun to the side of the camera, and held on to the flashgun. You can still do this today, of course, though there are other options. If you have a shutter that does X-sync, you can certainly get a modern handle-mount or "potato masher" flash; I'm fond of the Metz 45, which those with small hands might find to be uncomfortably large, but some of the similar Sunpak units are smaller, lighter, and less expensive, and probably sufficient for fill-flash outdoors at close range. I'm not trying to imitate Weegee, and prefer a flash, handle, grip, or whatever else to hold onto on the left (from the back of the camera) side, but it's probably worth noting that most press photographers back in the day had flashes over on the other side. This wasn't necessarily for ergonomic or aesthetic reasons - that's just where the standard mounting bracket on Speed and Century Graphics, and other cameras with Kalart rangefinders, is. Using my right hand to focus and trip the shutter, it's more comfortable for me to hold the camera with my left hand, sideways, from above - and if you're going to use that flashgun, you definately want it above the lens, not below.

If you don't want to go with a flashgun, you can still mount a flash grip to your camera for improved ease of use. Most attach to a bracket that screws into the tripod mount on the bottom of the camera, and have an accessory shoe of some sort at the top that you could put a flash into. Vivitar and Sunpak made fairly nice grips, but there are certainly hundreds of others out there that will fit. One that only fits Pacemaker Graphics is the Graflex XL grip, an expensive and not terribly comfortable accessory. It's a little more adjustable than most other grips, but nowhere near as comfortable as some of the others. It might look a little, or a lot, strange, but 2x3 press cameras are small enough you could probably successfully use a pistol-grip from an old Super-8 camera, screwed into the tripod socket, if you were so inclined.

There aren't many good ways to use a 2x3 camera on a neck or shoulder strap. If you have a baby Pacemaker Graphic, you may have, or find, the Graflex flash bracket that screws onto the Kalart rangefinder, and basically adds a pair of strap or handle lugs to that side, for flashgun clamps to attach to. With that, you can attach a strap to the top lug on each side of the camera, but carrying it in a bag is probably a better all-round option.

Notes on Rangefinders

There are three rangefinders you commonly find mounted on a baby press camera. The oldest is the Hugo Meyer one; these are not particularly adjustable, and in my opinion, best avoided. Next oldest is the all-silver, square-bodied Kalart with external adjustment scales; these are fully adjustable, but pretty long in the tooth, and an unbelievably pain in the posterior to work on. The black-bodied Kalart is the later incarnation of the line, and pretty much the standard rangefinder on these cameras. (There are also two "generations" of black Kalart rangefinders, and a large number of slightly differing models, but the differences are not really all that important.)

You might be lucky, and find that your rangefinder is dead-on accurate, when checked against the ground glass. If it's not, it's a fairly trivial, if time-consuming, process to adjust it. Instructions are available in a number of places on the web, and I'm not about to repeat them here. I will say, though, that from the experience on aligning a dozen or so of these things, the absolutely, more important, number one thing you need to do when adjusting a Kalart rangefinder is to make sure that infinity is set correctly - both for the lens and the rangefinder. Once that's taken care of, it should be relatively easy to ensure critical accuracy from infinity down to the vicinity of six feet. Many rangefinders will still focus down to four feet, or even closer, but at those distances, the combination of parallax between the rangefinder and the lens, coupled with miniscule depth of field at close range, makes accurate focussing nigh impossible.

I've never replaced the beamsplitter in a rangefinder, but it can be done. If your rangefinder is dim, you can tape or glue a small piece of a gel filter over one of the windows, which will improve things considerably; several companies used to offer small filters that fit over these windows, just for this purpose. Also offered were eyepieces, either plain tubes or magnifiers. The latter are very nice, if they're clean; the former can help considerably to reduce focus errors; normally, you'd focus with your eye right up against the rangefinder, and then move the camera forward an inch or two to look thru the viewfinder and compose your shot, but the eyepiece keeps the camera a relatively constant distance from you, reducing this unintentional shift in focus.

Especially if you've replaced the lens on your camera, don't be particularly alarmed if the distance scale, if any, on the camera doesn't agree with the ground-glass, so long as the rangefinder agrees with the image on the glass. It's probably good to figure out whether the scale on the bed is accurate, but if it isn't, it's not something to be worried about, unless you were hoping to use it to help figure out flash exposures at distances beyond those you can accurately guesstimate.

Flash Options

That brings us in a somewhat roundabout fashion to flash and strobes, already briefly touched upon above. If your lens isn't in a synchronized shutter, your only real option is flashbulbs, using a solenoid. That, however, is a whole can of worms in and of itself, and not something I'm going to cover here.

If your shutter is synchronized, your options are pretty much endless. Pretty much all of the synchronized shutters found on baby press cameras will sync electronic flash - even if they're not marked for it. Most will, like any leaf shutter, sync electronic flash at any speed, but a few won't, usually at the slowest speeds. The easiest way to find out for sure is to find a manual for your shutter... or experiment. :)

Most baby press cameras don't even have accessory, or "cold", shoes, let alone a hot shoe for flash - though you can mount an accessory shoe to most, if you're so inclined. A better option is probably a flash bracket, or a handle-mount, "potato masher" flash, as mentioned above. Whatever you choose, it needs to be powerful - a guide number, in feet, at ISO 100 of at least 100, and preferably closer to 140 or higher. Most lenses for this format have a maximum speed of around f/4.5, and few are any faster than f/3.7. Even then, depth-of-field probably dictates you're going to be shooting at aperatures of f/8 or above, so you need a lot of power even at the most modest distances. Vivitar 283s are GN 120, the Metz 45 family are about GN 135, and the Metz 60 is probably the best bet, at a GN of about 190.

If you've got several hundred dollars to spend on a flash for handheld use, a Metz 60 is hard to beat, but the Sunpak 120J and Quantum's "Q Flash" are definately nice - and also definately large and expensive!

If you wind up trying to use a zoomable flash, keep in mind that they're usually marked for 35mm use, and that a 101-115mm lens on 6x9 is "normal", equivelant to a roughly 50mm lens on 35mm. Mistakenly setting the flash to a telephoto setting may produce some interesting results, but probably not those you're going for.

Ground Glass Considerations

There's no telling where the ground glass on your camera came from, or when it was made. It might be good, it might not. If it's not, cleaning both sides with glass cleaner may help. If it doesn't, don't be quick to blame B&J, Busch, Graflex, or whomever else made your camera; ground glasses can and do break, and once upon a time you could go down to your local camera shop and have them cut you a replacement to fit. Some used really excellent glass; others used glass seemingly "ground" against concrete. The worst I've ever seen was attached to a Century Graphic; the best I've ever seen was attached to a ca. 1939 Miniature Speed Graphic - but I've seen other examples of those same cameras with both good and bad ground glass. If you can't see anything on the ground glass but the texture of the glass, don't hesitate to replace it. Satin Snow Glass custom makes replacement glass for baby press cameras at very reasonable prices, and they're very much worth it if your existing glass is dim, broken, or hard to focus on.

Lenses and Shutters

There are a ridiculous number of lenses and shutters that fit 6x9 cameras and cover the format, with and without movement. This is a good thing, in that it provides a lot of options and choices. However, it's also a bad thing, because it provides opportunity to obsess about lens quality and compare quite ridiculously different lenses. It's the curse of choice for photographers - wherever there are different choices, some photographers are going to declare one the best, so they can look down on everyone who doesn't have it. Many of the former will spend all their time testing, and comparing, and re-testing, and rarely actually using their cameras. A slightly low-contrast landscape photo shot with an uncoated triplet is a better picture than a stark and contrasty photo of a test target shot with a brand-new multicoated apochromatic wide-angle, as far as I'm concerned.

Of the common, classic lenses for baby press cameras, all are good. Don't believe the self-proclaimed experts who'd like you to believe that Wollensak produced an inherently flawed lens design for more than thirty years. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that lenses made in Germany are better than those made in the United States, or the other way around. Don't believe that the number of elements is all that matters. As I've said before, if you need help making a decision between lenses, choose the cleanest, or pick the one in the best shutter, for however you'd like to define "best" - either best-working, or with the most or fastest speeds, or self-cocking, or with flash sync.

Aside from the usual Ektars, Optars, Raptars, Graftars, Velostigmats, Tessars, Xenars, and others commonly found on 2x3 cameras, you can use the lenses and shutters off old plate cameras (quarter-plate cameras often had lenses around 120mm) and even old folding cameras. One of my Busch Pressman is fitted with a 10.5cm, f/3.8 Rodenstock Trinar-Anastigmat in a Compur shutter, taken from a junked 6x9 folding Welta. There are many people who, with some reason, dislike folding cameras, because lenses with front-cell focussing never perform as well as those whose entire lenses are moved for focussing. My somewhat unscientific testing suggests that they perform better when left at infinity, and unit-focussed. A small dab of glue keeps the Trinar at infinity, and the Kalart rangefinder on the Busch is coupled perfectly with the lens, which is actually quite a nice performer. Even quite modest lenses - 115mm, f/6.8 Novar-Anastigmat, anyone? - can be amazing lenses when used carefully.

There are no truly bad lenses, but those with unreasonable expectations can definately find disappointment. Uncoated lenses from the early 1930's almost certainly won't perform as well in color as, say, a 1980's multicoated Nikkor, though they might well be fine in monochrome (and some of the early Tessars are still amazing, seventy years on). If you're really obsessive, and shooting color for large enlargement or other critical uses, you might do well to remember that apochromats are, as a rule, always anastigmatic, but anastigmats are not necessarily apochromatic, though many, in practice, are.

A few more notes about shutters, while we're on the subject. Most classic shutters for these cameras are not standardized; the 101/4.5 Ektar and the 105/3.7 Ektar both are found mounted in #1 Supermatic shutters - but the lens cells aren't swappable into each others' shutters. I've three or four lenses in vintage #2 Compurs, none of which fit each the other shutters. If you happen to get a really old shutter with "old style" aperture markings - f/6.8, f/9, f/12.5, and so on - remember they're generally just a third-stop from the "modern" standards; if it really bothers you, you can pretty easily mark the scale at the settings you most commonly use - f/8, f/11, and f/16, perhaps - with the aid of a ruler and a little arithmetic.

I'm not a fan of the Speed Graphic's extraordinarily quiet focal-plane shutter. If you happen to have a barrel lens, it's your only option, and you're out of luck as far as electronic flash goes. If you like this sort of thing, though, the Pacemaker Speed is much easier to use, with it's direct speed indicator, than the original Miniature Speed Graphic, which offers a lot more speeds, but is less user-friendly.

Depth of Field

This a very short section, because there's not much to say. Medium format and DOF are somewhat mutually exclusive, especially at close distances. There are some who suggest you can increase depth-of-field by using a smaller format, and while this is otherwise somewhat true, don't be misled into thinking that using a 6x6 rollfilm back is going to somehow give you more depth of field than a 6x7 or 6x9 back; using the same lens, "cropping" the image doesn't magically make more stuff in focus. This is also why getting really excited about "fast" medium-format lenses is pretty dumb; you're unlikely to ever shoot at f/4.5, let along f/3.7. It's not because the lenses don't perform well wide open, but because DOF is nearly non-existant.


Burke & James and Busch both made viewfinders for their cameras, as did Graflex. Graflex, in fact, made three varieties - a very early, non-removable model, found on the oldest Miniature Speed Graphics, and both long and short models of the removable magnesium finder, all of which take the same interchangeable masks. The long Graflex finder is only original on Speed Graphics, which have thicker bodies; the shorter one is for Crown and Century Graphics, and is often found on Busch and B&J cameras. Somewhat interestingly, the later removable viewfinders only offer parralax correction down to six feet; the early Miniature Speed Graphic model corrects down to four feet.

Graflex made masks for a variety of focal lengths, for both 6x6 and 6x9 formats. If you're using a 6x7 back, the short distance is the same, regardless; the tips of the center "arrows" on the sides of the 6x9 mask are a pretty good approximation of the edges of the 6x7 image. If you need a different format - like 6x4.5 - or have one of the other manufacturers viewfinders, some careful measurement and arithmetic makes it fairly easy to mask off the 6x9 frame as needed; I use black electrical tape. You could use a fine drafting pen or something, to add guide lines to the viewfinder, but I found they're pretty hard to see.

Cases, Bags, and Straps

Baby press cameras are deucedly inconvenient to find cases for. Oh, you can get a vintage case, but they're not meant to take cameras with rollfilm backs attached, and they're either inconveniently large, or don't have room for anything but the camera. A lot of camcorder bags will hold a 2x3 camera, but, again, not with a back attached, and not the Speed Graphics, which are thicker than everything else, because of their back shutters. I'm still searching for the perfect case, myself; for now I'm using an unexciting black Tamron "gadget bag", which is large enough to hold a baby Speed with rollfilm back, but doesn't have any pockets, nor room for a flash or grip or extra back.

To be honest, your best bet is probably just to carry the damn thing, and use a small bag for all the accessories. They're all well-built cameras; the leather covering on most will just shrug off the occasional bump, scratch, dirt, or snow. As mentioned above, I manufacture new handles out of one-inch nylon webbing, with "tri-glides" and sometimes buckles; they're more adjustable than the original leather handles, and more durable than the fifty-year-old originals. Who cares if they're not authentic? It's not like I go out in a tweed suit, wearing a fedora, trying to be some living-history re-enactor, after all.

It's easy enough to attach a shoulder strap to most of these cameras - I have an inexplicable fondness for really wide, vintage guitar-style straps from the '60s and '70s, but there are a number of heavy-duty straps being made today that work fine. If you're going to use a tripod, either get a strap with quick-releases, or use a tripod with quick release plates (or both); otherwise you're likely to constantly find the strap in the way.

Final Thoughts

The oldest miniature press cameras are now more than sixty years old; most are over forty, and very few indeed less than thirty. They're surprisingly easy to use, compared to modern medium-format cameras, and still capable of producing results of the highest quality. Indeed, they can do things few other more popular cameras can do; just try to apply scheimpflug correction with a Canon 20D and kit lens, for instance. Repairs, when necessary, are cheaper than pretty much any other medium-format, or digital, camera. A new bellows runs around $150; a shutter overhaul around $50. In other words, you can get an old Busch or Graphic refurbished to like-new (functional, if not cosmetic) condition for less than the price of many digital point-and-shoot cameras, and less than the cost of basic repair for something expensive and fragile, like a Hasselblad.

Hopefully, this page has been helpful, and answered any questions you may have had. I'll probably think of more stuff to add, so you might do well to check back periodically.


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