Buggrit - A Review of the Watson 2x3 Press Camera

posted 06/14/06

2-1/4 by 3-1/4 inch "baby" press cameras are extraordinarily versatile cameras still very much usable to this day. This page is about the 2x3 inch Watson camera manufactured by Burke and James. If you're looking for information about the 4x5 inch version, you're out of luck.

For an introduction to 2x3 cameras in general, please see this page first.

The "Watson" 2x3 inch or 6x9cm "baby" press camera was made by the long-lived Burke and James company of Chicago, Illinois. It's all wood, except for the focussing bed, which is a thick slab of aluminum. Covered in black lacquer and leather, it closely resembles many of it's larger 4x5 brethren. As 6x9 press cameras go, it's fairly uncommon, perhaps with good reason.

In terms of features, the Watson is on par with it's competitors of the day. A drop bed, rising front, front swing, and modest front tilt allow a goodly degree of perspective control; a good six or more inches of bellows draw allows the use of a wide range of lenses, and it can - more about this in a minute - be used with rollfilm backs.

In terms of quality, it's built very much like a tank. Definately able to withstand the rigors of professional use for which it was designed, not a lot of extra effort went into it's construction. There's no chrome; few cast parts, and few milled parts, just a lot of (thick and heavy, admittedly) stamped aluminum.

Despite it's dated appearance - it's very comparable to late 1930's, or wartime, Speed Graphics - it's a very capable camera, every bit the equal of it's competitors in terms of performance. Everything is easy to use and well made. It's pretty much the only press camera without a sport finder, but - unlike most other cameras - it came with an optical viewfinder as standard equipment, not an accessory. It's not as good a finder as the ubiquitous Graflex one - and good luck finding a new mask for it - but it gets the job done, and is much better made than Busch's.

The controls are easy to use, and large enough to be used when wearing gloves - a big advantage here in Minnesota. Where a lot of other press cameras seem to have been the product of "feeping creatureism", the Watson seems to have been designed for ease of use by photographers - and, it must be admitted, economy of construction.

For the most part, this results in a reliable, robust, capable (and heavy!) little camera. There is one part, though, that makes Watsons less than ideal today, and that's the design of the back.

No Watson ever came from the factory with anything but a ground-glass spring back. It's a well-designed spring back, and the ground glass is good, but the lack of a Graflok back leads most people to believe 120 rollfilm can't easily be used with this camera. Unlike every other 2x3 camera I've seen, they're - almost! - right.

On a 2x3 camera with a ground-glass back, cut-film holders are slid under the sprung glass and into place from the right-hand side. A vertical ridge on the holder slips into a vertical groove in the back of the camera, ensuring proper placement of the film in relation to the body, and it's held in place by the spring back itself. On most cameras, it's entirely possible - if you're in a hurry, say - to insert the film holder too far to the left, and pop the ridge up and out of the groove. There's usually a little lip over on the left side, to prevent you from making the major faux pas of shoving a film holder in one side of your camera and right out the other. It also helps when you're sliding the dark-slide back into place, to keep from accidentally unseating the holder and fogging the film.

On the Watson, however, the back is designed so that a standard 2-1/4 by 3-3/4 DCFH (double cut-film holder) not only "interlocks" positively with the groove in the camera back - it also fits quite snugly up against the stop on the left side. No worrying about if the holder is in all the way, or if it's in too far; as far left as it'll go, as hard and as fast as you can insert it on the Watson. The recess for film holders is also deeper than on most other similar cameras, and the "throat" is wider (deeper?), allowing easier use of thicker holders, like the Grafmatic and film-pack holders.

That's a wonderful thing if you shoot 2x3 sheet film, and one of the many little features that make it seem like a lot of thought was put into the design by the actual people who would use the things.

Not a whole lot of people use 2x3 sheet film any more, though. 120 rollfilm, though, is still very popular, and inexpensive. Relative to the ridge-and-groove interlock, however, Graphic, Horseman, and Mamiya rollfilm backs are about a quarter-inch wider on the left than a 2x3 DCFH. (They stick out further to the right, as well, but that's not a problem.)

The point being, while it takes ten minutes and virtually no effort to 100% reversibly modify a Busch Pressman or non-Graflok "baby" Speed Graphic to accept rollfilm holders, if you want to use a 120 back on a Watson, you have to remove a quarter-inch of wood from the back of the camera itself.

That critical little bit of wood out of the way, mounting a rollfilm back is trivial. I've done it, and while it's not terribly difficult, I won't be buying another Watson anytime soon.

That one big hurdle out of the way, it's a very enjoyable camera to use. Lensboards are simplicity itself to fabricate, and are readily switchable in the field without any tools. Closed, it's 5-1/4 inches wide (plus an inch for the rangefinder, if one is fitted), 6-1/2 inches tall (including the viewfinder), and 3-1/2 inches deep (including the viewfinder again, which protrudes about 1/4 inch from the front of the body). The handle on the left side doesn't interfere with the use of the tripod socket.

I'm not sure what range of lenses were available for Watsons; mine sports a 101mm f/4.5 Wollensak Raptar in a Rapax shutter with M, F, and X sync, and I wouldn't be too surprised to learn this was the only stock lens. Pretty much any lens that covers the format could be fitted, of course. A 1-1/4 inch slip-over Series VI adapter ring permits a lens hood to be fitted, and the lens is a more than adequate performer in both color and B&W.

There's probably a reason these cameras aren't more common. They're well made, if not the most modern in terms of design, but the irreversible camera butchery needed to make them truly useful today undoubtedly puts a lot of people off. The impractical suggestion of a lot of internet know-it-alls - namely, to mount an entire graflok back from another camera onto the body in question - is even more impractical on the Watson than most. The back of a Busch Pressman can be screwed off, and you could then set about installing a different one, but the Watson would need a good bit of wood sawn off to make such an attempt possible.


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