In my last post, I detailed how I stumbled into “large format” photography by buying a vintage Crown Graphic press camera. In truth, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into or what to expect, but I found myself charging forward anyway. Once I had the camera home, I had to start digging into it to try and figure a few things out. I did some rudimentary searching on the internet about these type of cameras, including general operation, cleaning and repair, then broke out some isopropyl alcohol and lens cleaning solution.
The Graflex World of Cameras
The Graflex company, now long defunct, was an early leading manufacturer of photographic cameras in upstate New York. While they made a collection of 35mm and 2 1/4″ x 3 1/4″ sheet film cameras, they’re most known for their iconic large-format press cameras. The Speed Graphic was a folding 4×5″ sheet film camera with bellows extension, ground glass, rangefinder focusing, and a focal plane shutter that allowed for (at the time) high-speed photography. Look at any photography from the glamorous 40′ and 50’s and they’re probably holding a Graflex press camera with an attached flash-bulb.
The Crown Graphic I purchased was a variation of the speed graphic that omitted the focal plane shutter in order to lower cost and reduce size and weight. The body is made of leatherette-covered mahogany with metal rails and standards and folds to a very compact size. While they’re essentially very simple in function and operation, the engineering of these cameras is really charming.
Examining and cleaning
After spending a few minutes marveling at the engineering of the camera, I started to clean things up. I gave everything a good scrubbing with paper towels and isopropyl alcohol, starting with all the “touchable” exterior surfaces. The vinyl leatherette was grimy in a few places, but overall was in decent shape considering the possible age of the camera. There was some persistent green gunk around metal rivets in the hand strap, but visually the camera only seemed to have moderate use over the years.
I rubbed down the camera rails and metal surfaces, then gently wiped down the bellows. The front standard has two sliding brackets that hold the lensboard in place and with a little bit of difficulty, I was able to navigate around the remote shutter actuator and remove the whole assembly.
The lens is a Kodak Ektar 127mm f:4.7 lens mounted on a Graphic Supermatic shutter with speeds from 1 second to 400. The ektar is somewhat highly regarded as standard equipment for the time, though it is noted that there are essentially zero camera movements available with this lens due to a severe lack of coverage on the 4×5″ negative.
This camera’s Ektar lens is marked with the serial number of ES12813, which according to the code online appears to show that it was manufactured in 1947. Since it’s reasonable to assume this is the original lens to go with the camera, it appears that we have a 68 year old camera!
At first glance, the lens appeared to be filthy with dust trapped inside and severe cleaning marks on both front and rear elements. More concerning was a dark spot in the upper center of the lens that I hoped was not an abrasion. The spot was noticeable from a distance, but I hoped that it might be some sort of grime inside the lens that could be cleaned away. I used a jar lid wrench to gently unstick the front and rear elements from the shutter, after which they both unscrewed easily. I carefully cleaned the front element with lens cleaner, a microfiber lens cloth and a lens brush and was delighted to find that it was nearly perfect after cleaning. The rear lens cleaned similarly well, however the spot remained in place and was confirmed to be a defect in the cement between the two rear elements. While lens separation is probably expected in 70 year old elements, it was still disappointing to see that it was something that could not be cleaned away.
It’s likely that this would not impact the image when stopped down, but most certainly would at wide apertures.
I reassembled the lens and mounted the lens board on the camera before cleaning the last final bits of the camera. The spring back containing the ground glass and viewing hood came off easily and I gave the glass several passes with alcohol until it wiped clean, then reassembled everything. The bellows appeared fully light tight, no repairs, pinholes or any kind of light leaks. All in all, the camera seemed to be in very good condition for its age.
Learning the functions
Since the camera is not exactly “lightweight” by modern handheld standards, I screwed the body into a tripod and took it around the backyard to investigate function. After yanking the front standard forwards and backwards while trying to make sense of the side focusing wheels, I decided to consult the internet.
For very basic operation of the camera, there isn’t a lot of documentation, so I didn’t catch on to what I was doing wrong initially. There are two very small stops on the camera rails that are meant to hold the front standard at infinity. I was dragging the camera right past them while trying to focus which is wrong (but can be used for macro focusing with a light correction). To focus, you simply drag the front standard to the stops, lock it in place and then use the focus wheel on the side to move the entire rails forwards and backwards. This, in turn, operates the cam that moves the side-mounted rangefinder, allowing the operator to focus without bothering with the ground glass.
I was surprised to find that the rangefinder was actually darn accurate for focusing and probably didn’t need any adjustment for this lens combination. The second top-mounted rangefinder that confused me turned out to be a framing viewfinder.
For initial setup, the camera is setup to the infinity stops, the film holder is loaded and black slide removed (obviously once you’re sure the shutter is closed). Once this is set, you take a light reading to set your shutter and aperture, use the side rangefinder to focus, then switch to the top rangefinder to frame and then just fire the shutter.
Not exactly as efficient as digital, but still perfectly manageable in theory. Next would be to see how it functions in practice, but first I would need some film…