Folding Cameras: Medium Format in the Pocket

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Folding cameras have been popular from the beginning of the 20th century to the 50s. How usable are they today ? What are the benefits and what are the drawbacks ?

Folding cameras have been the typical amateur camera from the beginning of the 20th century to the 50s, mostly using either 120 or 620 medium format film.

We probably all know the look of the typical bellows, giving us an image of a vintage camera from the past. But does it make sense to still use them as a lomographer today?

Here’s an old Kodak Six-20 from the 30s:

Credits: berndtotto

…and here’s a more modern Fujica Six from 1949:

Credits: berndtotto

First of all, the concept has been ingenius. A medium format camera, which you can stick into your pocket and which does not have the size and weight of a rocket launcher, like the Hasselblads and Mamiyas, that we know from the photo studios of the past.

Especially tempting, the 6×9 size. 6×9 cm format is something. It provides a wideangle view but an extreme shallow depth of field, because the usual lens on those cameras has a focal length of about 105 mm. That would be already a tele lens on 35 mm, but the 6×9 format is much bigger and therefore providing a much larger angle of view at the same depth of field.

Saying that in easier words, it provides a great creativity, having the chance to choose, what should be in focus and what should be blurr, even in a wideangle shot. The look of a 6×9 format picture is something, you will never ever get on any digital camera, because sensors of that size does not exist yet ( or they are at least not affordable for common users – the NASA or Air Force might have a few though ).

Not really an interesting picture, but a nice example:

The man in focus is sitting in a distance of about 15 meters to the camera and the background is still slightly blurr. Could we take such a picture on 35 mm film as well ? Yes … but you would need to step back a lot for getting the same things in frame and that is a space, we mostly don’t have ( especially in closed rooms, buildings or on the street ). So for example this picture would have been impossible on 35 mm, because I couldn’t have stepped back so much:

So idea of using medium format in general is “getting a shallow depth of field on a narrow space and/or a wide angle view”. Perfect for shooting groups of people for example, like this snapshot of me and my friends. Something that is impossible to get on 35mm film:

But as we know, where there is light, there is always shadow, and it is exactly the shallow depth of field which makes those folder cameras difficult to use, because most of those old beauties have been just viewfinders (and not rangefinders). It means that there is no help for setting the focus. It needs to be guessed, which is rather tricky and more a miss than a hit.

Only a very few (and unfortunately expensive) folder cameras have been equipped with a rangefinder, as for example this Carl Zeiss camera ( a Super Ikonta 531/2 from 1940):

So, what most people in the past did is, to stop the lens down and use mostly small apertures like 16 or 32 for getting a larger depth of field and a better tolerance for setting the focus. Then, those cameras can be used as “real Lomography cameras” in the meaning of just point and shoot, but it definitely requires a faster film then (up from 400 ASA). The actual benefit of getting a shallow depth of field, is of course, gone. Or we need to improvise a little bit sometimes. I just had a Fuji Velvia 50 in my camera for this picture, just guessing the exposure time and put the camera on a handrail. It is taken with an 1941s Clover Six. I couldn’t clean the lens perfectly and the shutter has been working just at 1/125 sec and B on this one, but film is forgiving and there is still a chance for getting good shots.

Credits: berndtotto

Plus, not super clean and sharp lenses can have a certain vintage charm as well. Here is another snapshot that I took with the same camera of a friend during one of his classic “roof parties:”

Credits: berndtotto

Talking about formats, 6×9 is not the only format, folder cameras are using. There are also many, which are using 6×6 and 6×4.5, sometimes native, sometimes using an adapter (masking). Here is a picture taken with a Semi Minolta P from 1951, using a native 6×4.5 format. The camera is capable of exposing 16 pictures on a 120 film then.

What is important to know, when wanting to purchase such a camera from an auction or wherever?

First of all, the film type. Most of those cameras want 120 film, which is still available, but some are also using 620 film, which is exactly the same as 120 film BUT spooled on smaller spools. Ordinary 120 film spools do not fit into those cameras. It is still possible to get 620 film, but there are only a very few suppliers. Another way would be “re-spooling” the film, which is not difficult, but it is not easy to get empty 620 film spools for doing that. So, my recommendation would be, just looking for folders that can directly take 120 film and there are many of them.

The cardinal weak point of those folder cameras are the bellows. Sellers often state that they are not light leaking, but they often do so. That’s not surprising after decades of usage and folding them back and forth, and light leaks are often very difficult to detect. It can be just a pinhole, somewhere hidden in a corner of the bellows and creates a picture that looks like this:

However, it’s no reason to become desperate. Go into a dark room and point with a small but bright LED flashlight on every corner of the bellows and you will find it. It’s worth doing that before wasting the first film role and if it is just a small hole, it can be fixed quite easily in many ways. In case of a bigger crack, the bellows mostly needs to become replaced though. There are many manuals for DIY, but I can’t say, if it is easy or not, because I never tried it myself.

The good news: old cameras are mostly simply constructed, which makes it easy to clean the lenses, but they also provide a lot of creative opportunities. Why not try to load a 35mm instead of a 120 film and get a super panoramic view? I haven’t tried it yet, but I definitely will and it would be possible on some very old 120 folders like this 100-year-old Kodak No. 2 Autographic Brownie:

It’s capable of taking pictures like this:

Is a rebirth of this type of camera possible? Why not? Maybe Lomography will come up with the first “toy folder” someday. At least, its a very compact and portable camera design, used by film photographers for half a century.

written by berndtotto on 2012-01-25 in #reviews #120-film #format #6x9 #620-film #folding-cameras #depth-of-field #6x6 #folders #medium-format #vintage-cameras

30 Comments

  1. mafiosa
    mafiosa ·

    I want one!

  2. alex34
    alex34 ·

    Fuji just produced a new 120 folder rangefinder, the GF670-expensive as hell, but proof that the folder is not quite dead!

  3. jeffr
    jeffr ·

    love the article! my grandfather just passed down his old zeiss ikon super ikonta 532/16 to me last month - im excited to get my first roll back today!

  4. leftofnever
    leftofnever ·

    I've been looking at folding cameras on eBay; some real bargains to be had. The colours on your example pictures are so strong; are these direct scans or did you do some post work on them?

  5. highdesertdan
    highdesertdan ·

    I have been looking at folders for a while and have been saving my pennies. As soon as I can scrounge up the cash I'll be getting one from this guy.
    www.certo6.com/cameras
    I have heard some good reviews, this guy buys refurbishes and sells all sorts of folders, specifically for shooting. His website is a wealth of info as well.

  6. berndtotto
    berndtotto ·

    @jeffr: A fantastic camera. Looking forward to your pics, taken with it !!!
    @leftofnever: Yes, I do some post work on my pictures sometimes, but just for making them look closest to the original slide. I don't scan by myself and have often been disappointed with the results, being provided by shop services. The original slide do always look still much better ( also the strong colors ), but I try to adjust the scan closest to the original look. I often use the Kodak E100VS, which let's you get really vivid but still natural looking colors.
    @highdesertdan: The prices are decent, I think. Definitely less risk to buy an already refurbished one.

  7. gvelasco
    gvelasco ·

    I've been looking for a good 6x9 folder for a while now. Other things have been a higher priority, but it's bubbling up on the list. The new Fuji GF670 is awesome, but expensive. I would love to see plastic bodied 6x9 "toy" folder, or even an update like they did with the Lubitel 166+. Your shots are great.

  8. szzs
    szzs ·

    Great article, colorful pictures! The tittle is so true, I have Agfa Isolette, it fits easy in my pocket.

  9. street_smile
    street_smile ·

    I have something similar to the Fujica Six, GB Kershaw with a fixed focus lens. I love looking at old cameras, its funny how they have survived decades of wear but are still useable.

  10. jimmunro
    jimmunro ·

    This is a great article about some great old cameras. I've recently started a collection of the entire Brownie line of cameras including the folders. I'm excited to actually use some that are over 100 years old.

  11. simonh82
    simonh82 ·

    Great article and fantastic pictures. I've got an Agilux Agifold from the 1950s, fantastic camera, but it's got a small light leak that I just can't track down. I think it is on the bottom of the bellows so pretty inaccessible.

  12. neanderthalis
    neanderthalis ·

    I would love to have something like that in my collection.

  13. yyyhorn
    yyyhorn ·

    great article!! lovely photos too!! everyone needs a folder (or five)!

  14. blu132
    blu132 ·

    Try an AGFA Isolette III they are around 10-20 € and have a Rangefinder pay attention to the brat/bantling (german "Balg") its often leaked in these cameras.
    Anyways I think guessing the Distance is easy (sorry for my english i'm german)

  15. carsten-schmitt
    carsten-schmitt ·

    This guy has put up an awesome tutorial on how to convertold (mostly Kodak) 116film folding cameras to use 120 film and thereby converting them to a quasi-panorama format as well. 116 film is nigh impossible to get and if you it's darn expensive so I'll have a go with my Kodak Folding Hawk Eye which is in just too beautiful a condition not to be used.

  16. carsten-schmitt
  17. neurodiaz
    neurodiaz ·

    Wow, my cousin's grandmother gave me an Agfa Billy I, I can't wait to test it! :D I'm waiting for some Ektar 100 Film I ordered weeks ago! It's from earlies 50's. I'm impressed, it works!

  18. berndtotto
    berndtotto ·

    @carsten-schmitt: That looks like an interesting project. I recently tried a different film type emulation ( Bolta film by 35 mm ) for bringing a rare 24x24 cm TLR back to life and it worked perfectly.
    @blu132: Das Schaetzen der Entfernung ist leider nicht ganz so einfach ;-)) Fuer groessere Enfernungen ja ... aber auf kurzer Distanz kann die Schaerfentiefe bei Mittelformat und offener Blende ( F:3.5 oder so ) nur wenige Zentimeter betragen. Eine Vorstellung davon gibt Dir vielleicht dieses von mir gemachte Test-Photo: www.lomography.de/homes/berndtotto/photos/13229620
    Folder-Kameras ohne eigenen Rangefinder sind daher eigentlich nur fuer weitraeumige Landschaftsaufnahmen einsetzbar ... oder Du hast einen "externen Rangefinder". Solche hat man frueher genutzt um den Fokus auf solchen Kameras zu bestimmen. Ich habe meinen von meinem Grossvater aber evtl. kann man so etwas auch auf E-Bay finden. Ich hab es jedoch nicht versucht. Ein Beispiel fuer ein solches Geraet waere der "Watameter": camerapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Watameter Er kann auf den Blitzschuh der Kamera gesteckt werden und ermoeglicht eine ziemlich praezise Entfernungsmessung.
    @neurodiaz: Looking forward to seeing your pictures !!!

  19. carsten-schmitt
    carsten-schmitt ·

    @berndotto: Für die kurzen Entfernung dachte ich an schon mal daran, mir einen Laserentfernungsmesser zu kaufen, wenn mal wieder ein großer Discounter welche im Angebot hat. ;-)
    Gibt es von der 24cm TLR Bilder? Würde mich mal interessieren.

  20. berndtotto
    berndtotto ·

    @carsten-schmitt: Meinst Du von der Kamera oder mit der Kameras gemacht ? Die Kamera ist diese hier: www.lomography.de/homes/berndtotto/photos/15179252 und ich habe auch schon einen Testfilm geschossen, der allerdings noch nicht digitalisiert ist. Ich habe selbst nur so einen "El Cheapo"-Scanner, den ich eigentlich nur zur groben "Preview" nutze. Sammle die Bilder, die gut sind dann und gebe sie zum scannen. Ein Laserentfernungsmesser ? Warum nicht ? Wenn er auf kurze Distanzen gut arbeitet. Kenne mich damit nicht so aus aber die Geraete, die ich bisher gesehen habe, waren mehr fuer grosse Entfernungen ( Jagd, Militaer, etc. ) konzipiert. Nicht unbedingt die perfekte Loesung aber viele Photographen nutzen auch ganz einfach eine Digitalkamera um sowohl die Belichtung als auch die Entfernung zu messen ( funktioniert, wenn man ein manuelles Objektiv drauf packt ). Ich nutze meistens meinen Watameter, der erstaunlich praezise Ergebnisse liefert oder ich wuerde, wenn es denn eine Folder Kamera sein soll, dann doch zu einer mit eigenem Rangefinder raten. Ist auf die Dauer besser als ne Tasche mit zusaetzlichem Equipment mit sich rumzuschleppen. Das fuert das Taschenformat dieser Folder dann doch irgendwie ad absurdum ;-)) Dann ist man mit einer TLR eigentlich besser bedient, weil man den Fokus auf diesen superpraezise und einfach einstellen kann. Die Ergebnisse sind die gleichen, es sei denn, Du willst wirklich auf 6x9 gehen. Gute 6x9 Folder mit "coupled Rangefinder" sind allerdings nicht ganz billig. Ist halt die "Koenigsklasse", wenn man so will. Ich habe mir letzes Jahr eine davon gegoennt, die o.a. abgebildetet Zeiss Super Ikonta. Neben der Voigtlaender Bessa eine der besten Folder, die je hergestellt wurden. Ein Traum oder eine Kamera fuer's Leben, wie man so schoen sagt. Ich sag immer, wenn eine Kamera von 1940 im Jahre 2012 noch funktioniert, dann wird sie das hoechstwahrscheinlich auch noch bis zu meinem Lebensende. Solche Kameras sind rein mechanische Praezisionsinstrumente und daher zeitlos.

  21. prettyflowers
    prettyflowers ·

    My Grandmother gave me my Grandfather's Beier Voran. Im now anxious to try the camera especially in his honor.

  22. liquorice
    liquorice ·

    Great article! I've always love how that kind of cameras look, and now, I love the results too (:

  23. jvacierto
    jvacierto ·

    I just shot a friend's wedding using a Welmy-Six folder I bought at a local antique store. I must say, I got a heck of a lot more comments using it compared to my DSLRs. I love the camera and the photos I get out of it: www.flickr.com/photos/samuraislice/sets/72157629593908653/

  24. berndtotto
    berndtotto ·

    You shot a wedding with a folder ? Wow ... that's brave ;-)) Usually not much time for settings at such an event ... and mistakes are unforgivable ( if you are the main photographer ).

    >>> I got a heck of a lot more comments using it compared to my DSLRs <<<

    Certainly ... because it's art ... but I also noticed that the people, you want to take pictures of, are getting a different attitude. Showing up with such an analog "real" camera, people start to show respect and posing in a different way. It's different from the digital klack klack klack shooting. A thousand pictures and a few will come out good anyway and if not, Photoshop will do the rest.

    BTW, from you Flickr pics, I like the train picture best. Good job !!!

  25. jvacierto
    jvacierto ·

    berndtotto, thanks for the compliments! Yeah, I definitely wasn't the main photog, just a friend having fun. The bride, who I've known since she was born, is a real artsy type and she's into the analog look (Instagram, Hipstamatic, etc.), so I wanted to take photos that would fit her aesthetic rather than my usual DSLR photojournlistic style. I sent the film to the lab yesterday and I really can't wait to see what the results look like!

  26. berndtotto
    berndtotto ·

    @jvacierto: Hope you will share the pictures then. Really curious too !!!

  27. brandkow93
    brandkow93 ·

    Awesome article and awesome photos, i only own one folder but its a great camera, its a agilux agifold, made in england in the 50s, shoots 6x6 and has a non-coupled rangefinder, hopefully will be writing a review in the next few days

  28. jvacierto
    jvacierto ·

    Here are the keepers from the 3 rolls I shot at my friend's wedding:
    www.lomography.de/homes/jvacierto/albums/1839927-maria-and-…
    I wish I would've had better photos during the first dances (I was trapped in a corner because of how the dinner tables were laid out), but overall I'm happy with how the photos turned out.

  29. berndtotto
    berndtotto ·

    @jvacierto: Thanks for sharing your wedding pictures. I think, it's very difficult to shoot medium format in such a narrow space ( and without flash ). The DOF ( depth of field ) is getting quite shallow, always somebody in the way and the slow shutter times are causing motion blurr. A flash would have helped though. Then, you can stay about F:8, 1/125 sec and you are fine. I often use the Kodak Tri-X Pan 400 on weddings ... but just on a 35 mm film camera then ... and flash. Then, you really get a fantastic 50s press style look and every bride looks like Audrey Hepburn ;-)) This B/W film works brilliant with flash. Doesn't whiten the faces too much like on digital ( still having a good tonality ) and the 400 ASA provide a good depths of light. I just wish to have one of those ancient bulb flashes. Then it would be perfect ;-))

  30. ayer
    ayer ·

    This article contains a prophey in the last paragraph!! you're a visionary hahaha ;)

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