This is the first of a six-part series in which I will describe the process of creating a “naked” Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic 4×5 camera and Kodak Aero Ektar lens combination; something I call the AEROgraphic.
I created this series to help those of you interested in trying your hand at making one for yourself, as well as those of you who are interested in just the process alone.
While working my way through this build, I found only patches of truly useful information to help me along the way. Unsurprisingly there was a complete lack of documentation for the process, so I made extensive notes to present here. Initially envisioned as a single article, this documentation has since ballooned into something a much more substantial and I hope, more useful than it would have otherwise been.
Note: you don’t need to have an Aero Ektar lens, or even a Pacemaker Speed Graphic camera in order to use this guide for your own project. The instructions provided for rangefinder tuning in part five can be used for any lens, and a Graflex Crown Graphic can still be stripped to show off its gorgeous wood shell. Naturally, if you want to mount an Aero Ektar lens to anything other than a Pacemaker Speed Graphic, you’re going to run into a few problems. More on that later.
The ~80 reference images you will find dotted throughout this series are all of the late 1950’s Pacemaker Speed Graphic model (there are a few variations). I belatedly realised the extent that I should have been documenting my process, so you’ll find example images from my work-in-progress, the finished article, as well as my other Speed Graphic.
Depending on the model of camera you choose to use, you may find some small differences between these images and your camera. That said, the basic mechanical aspects should be very similar across all models.
In this, the first article, I’ll be describing the donor camera, lens and materials you’ll need to assemble before you begin.
Parts two to five will discuss:
- Part 2 – disassembly and strip down
- Part 3 – preparing and finishing the body
- Part 4 – reassembly
- Part 5 – focal plane shutter and rangefinder tuning
Finally, part six includes example photographs taken with the camera, and my conclusions/recommendations.
Along the way, I’ll be sharing tips, tricks and gotchas, so that if you follow along, you hopefully won’t make the same mistakes as I did. I’ll begin by sharing an image of the finished article, my AEROgraphic.
Here’s a quick rundown of what’s covered in this article:
History of the Kodak Aero Ektar 7″ f/2.5 lens
Some of you might be wondering where the “Aero Ektar” bit in the title comes in. It refers to Kodak’s Aero Ektar, a 7″ (178mm) f/2.5 lens which came as part of a variety of WWII-era large format cameras used by the US and Royal Air Forces.
If we’re talking equivalent focal length and aperture on 35mm film, the lens translates to something like 52mm and f/0.9 but that’s based on my own calculations and the aperture could be totally wrong. Either way, it’s ludicrously damned fast for a large format lens. A quick search on Flickr yields some absolutely stunning work with this lens.
After WWII, these cameras and lenses were sold for next to nothing and although the combination may be considered a modern one, the Speed Graphic / Aero Ektar pairing has existed ever since the lenses were made available to the general public (they were optionally sold off with lens boards made to fit the camera host camera).
2019 prices will run you between $400 and $600 for a lens in good condition and anywhere up to $1200 for the lens plus original camera.
Probably the most famous photographer to use this camera/lens combination is David Burnett and it’s often referred to as the “Burnett Combo”. You can see some of David’s stunning work with the combination at the London 2012 Summer Olympics here. While you’re there, check out some of his work during Rio 2016.
One final note for this preface, I am currently investigating options to sell these modified cameras in the near future. If you’re interested in finding out more for yourself, we can talk.
The AEROgraphic project part 1 – introduction and required materials
I’ll start off with a single piece of advice: take your time to understand what you’re doing and plan, plan, plan.
The process of converting this camera isn’t particularly difficult but it can be complex and is absolutely not quick. Almost anyone can accomplish the same result but the devil is very much in the detail. If you already own the camera and lens, your main investment from here on in will be time and patience. Planning helps a great deal and you certainly need a fair amount of desire.
Don’t expect to be finished in a single weekend. You will find it much easier to split the project up into a number of smaller, manageable chunks and complete it over a few weeks instead. This project took me two weeks to complete from the first screw removed to the final rangefinder calibration set. I’ll admit, I thought of little else during that time.
Should I be keeping the process to myself as something proprietary? My opinion is no, this should be out there and not be “black boxed” – EMULSIVE is about knowledge transfer, after all. Putting this project together was a joyful and occasionally frustrating experience and I want to share that with the community.
If this helps you create your own AEROgraphic Pacemaker, then it’s effort well spent in my opinion.
The AEROgraphic: camera, rationale, name
I’ve been using my own Aero Ektar / Pacemaker Speed Graphic combination for some time now, after having procured both a 1957 Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic and USAF Kodak K-24 camera with a 7″ (178mm) f/2.5 Kodak Aero Ektar lens back in 2016.
Over the past few months, I’ve been using my combo with both 4×5 film in standard sheet film holders and 120 medium format film with a 6×12 film back. I’ve learned more about this lens than I thought possible and had my fair share of excitement and disappointment.
Recently, I’ve had a rather strong and wholly irrational desire to use the lens, Speed Graphic and 6×12 film back for street photography. This mostly stemmed from some wonderful experiences shooting the format on a road trip around the US last year.
I love the look produced by the lens and have been searching for a way to get out and take more portraits. I figured the combination of lens and camera gets enough attention that using it on the street might encourage more people to say yes when I ask for a portrait.
As the 6×12 film back I plan to use takes the place of the camera’s ground glass when mounted – focus on the ground glass first and then swap out the film back – I would need to rely on having a rangefinder tuned into the lens in order to focus quickly.
Sadly, the Speed Graphic which captured the photograph above is a late model and has a top mounted rangefinder. This configuration is hard to tune for reasons discussed in detail below, so a little while ago I decided to purchase a separate side-mounted rangefinder that could be installed on the camera.
Quick aside: the great thing about the Speed and Crown Graphic cameras is that many parts across many variations are interchangeable and it’s possible to do weird stuff like have two rangefinders on a single camera. They were press cameras in their day and whilst they don’t offer as much flexibility as a “proper” view camera, they were responsible for taking some incredibly famous images.
Aside from a new side mounted rangefinder assembly, I also wanted a spare focal plane shutter curtain and other spares/accessories which I thought would come in handy in the future. So, when I came across a complete camera for sale at the same price as the parts I wanted to purchase, it was pretty much a no-brainer.
The deal was sealed and a few days later I had a new camera delivered.
Apologies for the poor quality picture, I didn’t plan on taking “before” pictures until after starting the build.
It was the unexpected procurement of a complete camera motivated me to start this project, as it meant that instead of cannibalising it for parts, I could use it as a dedicated body for my Aero Ektar, my 6×12 project and have a go at making my own naked Speed Graphic. Three for the price of one.
The name? Aero Ektar + Speed Graphic + an allusion to Kodak’s aerial black and white film. Mostly, I think it sounds cool.
Selecting the camera: Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic
The Graflex Speed Graphic went through several revisions over the course of its life (1912-1970). The series shares parts with Graflex’s Crown Graphic, their monorail field cameras and even Toyo large format gear (Sakai Special Manufacturing, producers of Toyo, purchased Graflex’s tooling platforms in the early 1970s).
That camera you see in this conversion is a 1953 Pacemaker Speed Graphic with a side mounted Kalart rangefinder – almost identical to the image below. My original camera, which I use for some reference photographs is a 1957 Pacemaker Speed Graphic with a top-mounted rangefinder. The rangefinders on both cameras are coupled, meaning that as you focus the lens, the rangefinder patch diverges or coincides with the aspect of your frame that you want in focus. The coupled rangefinder is enough to get you a pretty good ballpark focus when calibrated correctly.
The “Pacemaker” bit in these cameras names comes from the 1/1000 second top shutter speed but the name wasn’t introduced until 1947, even though all Speed Graphics have had this capability since the very first in 1912! There’s marketing for you.
That said, the Pacemaker has a number of technical enhancements that make it the best choice for this project in my opinions. Shutter speeds on the Pacemaker Speed Graphic series descend in full-stop increments from that 1/1000 top speed to 1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/50 (a slight abberation), 1/30 and Bulb mode.
The Speed Graphic has the ability to trip either its built-in focal plane shutter, or the front lens shutter using the same button – more on this later. If you have the optional flash, you can even use a conveniently placed button to electronically trigger the lens shutter…or you can take the battery pack and turn it into a lightsaber.
There’s more information on Speed Graphic variations over at Wikipedia and as you can see, there are Pre-Anniversary and Anniversary models, the Speed Graphic and the Crown Graphic, Pacemakers and a whole bunch of other model and format options.
The simple takeaway is this: if you don’t own one already and want to try this project for yourself, get a Pacemaker Speed Graphic made between 1947 and 1955 with a side mounted Kalart rangefinder (black), not a side mounted Hugo Meyer rangefinder (silver)
Pacemaker Speed Graphic pre/post 1955 differences and why you should care
Side mounted rangefinder VS top mounted rangefinder
The top mounted rangefinder / optical viewfinder version of the Speed Graphic was introduced in 1955 and uses cams – little wedges of metal – to match the (coupled) rangefinder to a specific lens. In principle this is a great idea, simply snap in the cam matched to your lens (which is conveniently attached to the back of the lens board), and away you go.
In reality, it’s not.
They are small and get lost. Whilst there are pooled lists of cams and specifications available on the Internet, there was no cam for the Aero Ektar, so if you want to make your own you will need to apply pure trial and error. Having access to a workshop helps.
There is another option for focusing: make a custom focus scale which you can stick onto the focusing rails of the camera. Great idea but when you’re trying to get critical focus on an Aero Ektar set at f/2.5 at anything closer than 15 feet, you’re gonna have an out of focus image, I guarantee it.
Still, the custom focus scale is something I find useful and I’ll be providing further instructions in part five.
All this considered, if in doubt, get the side mounted rangefinder Pacemaker Speed Graphic.
About the Aero Ektar lens
As mentioned above, the lens was made by Kodak and was found on a number of WWII US and Royal Air Force cameras; Kodak’s K-24 being the most famous.
The camera was typically used for aerial reconnaissance and checking the position of bombers over target sites after payload delivery. It has a built-in 24-volt motor drive and remote shutter release which requires an external power source. Here’s mine, which I purchased unused.
…and another shot of the film back compared to my Leica M6.
The camera is HUGE and strangely enough, also has both manual shutter and film wind-on controls. The shutter speed is set by replacing the curtain in-field and as you can tell from the image above, the film back is swappable. Suck it, Mamiya RB/Z, Hasselblad, Bronica and all you other folks. This film back is almost as big and heavy as your cameras alone.
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The film back was typically loaded with 5-inch wide roll film in 100 and 300 feet rolls capable of taking up to 250 5×5″ photographs and naturally, the lens had a fixed mount and was set to infinity.
It’s a little known fact that there were in fact three versions of the Aero Ektar 7″ f/2.5 lens: “no dot”, “yellow dot” and “purple dot”. Lenses with no dot are so-called “pre-optimisation” lenses. They were produced to inventor George H Aklin’s originally patented design – you can see the lens design further up near the beginning of this article.
Later in the lens’ production life, versions optimised to daytime and nighttime use were made. These had either a yellow dot or purple dot added to the lens hood. Mine is a 1943 yellow dot.
Bleaching a yellowed Aero Ektar lens
Whilst most people seem to lust after the yellow dot, it’s the purple version which is the rarest and most sought after by Aero Ektar collectors. These are rarer than hen’s teeth and supposedly offer better low light performance. The rear elements of all 7″ Aero Ektar lenses lens were made from radioactive thorium glass, which yellows over time. Don’t worry, it’s low-level radiation and doesn’t present a danger to you…just don’t sleep with it every day.
As the process of bleaching your Aero Ektar lens can take several weeks, it would be best if you started at the beginning of your build.
As Michael S. Briggs points out on his excellent Aero Ektar resource:
By design, the Aero-Ektars incorporate glass lens elements that contain significant amounts of Thorium. That the cause of the radioactivity is Thorium is indisputable, both on the basis of the documents from the the World War II era and from gamma-ray spectral measurements that I have made. The Thorium-containing glasses were used because these glasses have a high refractive index with a low dispersion (variation of index with wavelength), a highly desirable combination.
I have never seen an Aero Ektar lens (of any of the many versions) without at least a slight yellow or brown tinge to the rear element(s).
Like other lenses constructed with radioactive glass elements, this discolouration can have an impact on your results, especially if you are shooting color film. Think of the effect like a warming filter similar to what you might use on tungsten-balanced film. I’ve heard a few photographers remark that the effect can be partially controlled through the use of “cooling filters” but the idea of purchasing yet another filter and forgetting to take it with me wasn’t particularly appealing.
If your len’s discoloration isn’t too severe, the tinge on your film can also be corrected in post but where’s the fun in that? Better advice comes in the form of removing the discoloration using one or a combination of exposure to:
- Natural and focused LED light
- Focused Blacklight Blue (BLB) light
By far the most efficient option will be for you to expose your lens to UV light using the BLB bulb for at least a fortnight, ideally three weeks and possibly as long as four or five if you have a severe case of discolouration.
Here are the two options:
Option 1 – Bleaching your Aero Ektar lens using natural / LED light
If you have access to strong natural light in a spot in your home throughout the whole day, you may leave your lens there (with both caps off). Place the lens on its front element, leaving the rear element exposed to sunlight.
At night, use the LED lamp to continue shining light onto the rear element and in the morning, turn off the lamp, flip the lens over to expose the front element and repeat. You will need to repeat this process for at least a week, longer if you have weak sunlight or a low-powered LED and longer if your lens has a bad case of brown tinge.
You can track the progress of your bleaching by holding the lens over a light box, or piece of plain paper and noting how “off white” the objective is. Take pictures, it’ll help.
Note: check to see if the window your light is shining through has UV filtering/protection. If so, this will mean the amount of time you will need to bleach your lens will be longer. It will probably make sense for you to follow option two below, especially as the LED lamp will only give off a small amount of UV light.
Results will be cumulative the longer you maintain your light source. Be patient.
Option 2 – Bleaching your Aero Ektar using a Blacklight Blue bulb (BLB)
Normal blacklight bulbs output an element of visible light. Blacklight Blue bulbs (BLBs) block nearly all visible light from escaping the bulb and are easily identifiable due to the blue/purple glow they emit (you’ll see them used in counterfeit money detectors). BLBs are thankfully cheap and come in a variety of mounts (including normal screw and bayonet types used in domestic lamps, etc.
“Doesn’t UV light exposure cause skin cancer?” Well, yes. That said, BLBs emit UVA light (the safest of the three types of UV rays), so occasional exposure won’t cause you any problems especially if the bulb’s light is focused onto your lens using a loose tube created by some kitchen foil or a similar apparatus.
Once you have a BLB purchased and installed into a directional lamp, follow roughly the same process as above: place the lens front-down and focus the light on the rear element. One day later, flip the lens over and repeat for at least a fortnight.
The bleaching result should be much faster than sunlight alone and you should start seeing a difference within a week. BLBs and LEDs run quite cool, so you can have the bulb focused on the lens for an extended period of time without worrying about overheating.
With your lens bleached to your satisfaction (don’t worry about a slight yellow tinge), it’s time to mount it to your camera…
Mounting your Aero Ektar to the Speed Graphic
Once you have a 7″ Aero Ektar lens, you will need a lens board. You can procure one from Jo Lommen, who produces batches a few times a year once a minimum quantity have been ordered. Alternatively, you can make one for yourself, as I did.
I designed my custom lens board to use a donor Speed/Crown Graphic lens board for the camera side of the mount. I had a tube machined to order which mounts to the by way of eight small screws. The tube it is double-threaded to allow the lens to be screwed into an inner thread and for an 82mm step-down ring to be mounted. This secondary thread allows other lenses to be attached via additional step-down rings down to 39mm.
Some takeaways and repetition if you are planning on making your own AEROgraphic:
- Get a Pacemaker Speed Graphic manufactured between 1947 and 1954/5 with a side mounted Kalart rangefinder.
- Find an Aero Ektar lens, purchase a lens board or have one made.
Finally, it’s your choice if you want to purchase a separate viewfinder for your project camera to help you frame.
As I will be using my camera to shoot street in 6×12 format for the most part, I simply used the image on the ground glass to help mask up the optical finder that came with my camera. More on that in part five.
Time, materials and tools
This is a relatively simple project which requires careful thought and planning. It requires more time and patience than woodworking skill or technical ability. Trust me, you can learn as you go along,
The most important aspect of this project is already mentioned above: preparation.
I have listed all the materials and tools you will need to complete the project below. Total investment in materials excluding accessories for the camera and the lens plus lens mount worked out to about $70. You could spend more if you wanted to.
Your time investment will vary depending on how much finishing, varnishing, and paint stripping you want to do. I did not use power tools and based on that I would suggest a conservative 36 hours of work spread over at least a fortnight if you are planning on working each day.
Here’s a rough idea of timings for each step based on my experience:
- Disassembly and strip down / cleaning: approximately 3 hours.
- Preparing (cleaning) the shell: 1-2 hours.
- Masking and internal painting: 9 hours, assuming three coats of paint and three hours between coats.
- Masking, external staining and sanding: approximately 5 hours, assuming one coat plus drying time. Actual time spent: 1 hour.
- Varnishing: 6 days, assuming 6 coats with one day between coats. Actual time spent: 30 minutes for prep and spray varnish, 1 hour for liquid varnish.
- Touch-up: 30 minutes to 1 hour.
- Camera rebuild: 4 hours (slowly).
- Rangefinder tuning: 3 hours.
- Creating a custom focus scale: 1 hour.
- Snag time: 3 hours, because you never know.
You will ideally want to spend a good deal of time varnishing, sanding and revarnishing to build up a nice lacquer. You’ll want to do this before reassembly.
One final thing to consider is that many of the Speed/Crown Graphic’s metal parts are brass, and if you plan on stripping the camera door down as part of your build, it pays to invest time to remove paint and bolt coatings to let these details shine through in your final build. It adds a real shine to the final build.
Required materials and tools
These are the materials and tools you will absolutely need in order to complete this project.
I won’t go into specific details for the required materials except to say that you’ll need most of this list in order to complete the job. Some materials (chopsticks, scouring pad, magnet), will make life easier.
- Camera – Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic or Crown Graphic – 1947-1954/5 (4×5 not 2×3!)
- Screwdrivers: 1x crosshead, 1x slot head, approximately 4mm wide.
- Precision/watchmaker’s screwdriver set.
- Needle nose pliers.
- A small wooden mallet.
- A small coin no more than 2mm thick.
- A small magnet.
- A small ruler, preferably metal.
- 20-30 resealable plastic bags (at least 10x15cm).
- A sharpie or soft pencil.
- A notepad – preferably Shoot Film Co’s Photomemo.
- Some rubber bands.
- A small, sharp craft knife.
- A small metal spoon.
- Strong scissors.
- PVC / wood glue.
- Painter’s tape/masking tape.
- Electrician’s tape, black.
- Sandpaper/sanding blocks (three sheets each of 120, 280, 600 and 1000 grit or similar paper, plus at least one medium and one fine sanding block).
- Some kitchen/cooking foil.
- Wooden chopsticks, 1-2 pairs.
- A lens cloth, a small piece of silk or lens cleaning papers.
- Dishwashing soap.
- Paint stripper.
- Matte black spray paint.
- Wood stain (colour of your choice: liquid or staining cloth).
- Clear varnish (spray or liquid).
- A 2-3cm wide paint brush.
- A small sponge.
- A kitchen scouring pad (not metal).
- Protective gloves.
- Several expendable containers for your paint, varnish, paint stripper, etc.
- A UV lamp / flexible LED lamp or a windowsill and direct sunlight
- Patience, patience, patience.
Optional materials, tools and accessories
Regarding this materials list, the grips and cable release really are optional but will make the final product much easier to use. Here’s the list:
- Linhof left-handed grip (an M4 nut/bolt pair x2), or Graflex left-hand grip (with mounts).
- Shutter speed testing tool – photocell, not sound-based
- 50cm cable release – Linhof or Hakuba. It must have a “strong” action that cannot be suppressed with a finger over the pin.
- Saddle soap and dubbin.
- Matte black nail varnish.
- External cold shoe mount kit x2.
- 3-axis hot shoe spirit level.
- External hotshoe viewfinder (~180mm).
- Harley Davidson matte black “crinkle” paint.
- One black and one white paint stick.
Regarding this list, you may choose to use a shutter speed tester or not. I will be providing instructions on how to tune the shutter in part five of this series and you may choose to refine speeds yourself on sight, or more scientifically.
My current shutter speeds are accurate to thousandths or tens of thousandths of a second thanks to a $30 dollar kit, and you can reuse the same gear to test your other cameras.
The saddle soap, dubbin, nail varnish and crinkle paint are for you to decide upon. The first two will help you bring the camera’s leather strap up to scratch. Nail varnish can be used to fix small pinholes in the bellows, should you have any. The crinkle paint will help you replicate the black paintwork on the inside of the camera door/bed.
Finally, the cold shoe accessory and finder/spirit level are totally up to you. I rely on my masked viewfinder and sight to ensure everything I want is in frame and level.
Signing out for part one
That’s part one complete. It sounds like a lot of hard work but for the third time, trust me, it isn’t.
The great thing about these press cameras is their ability to take a beating and be almost endlessly repaired. They are truly modular and considering people are still using the original 1912 Speed Graphic for large format photography, it’s safe to say that these cameras will likely outlive anyone reading this article today.
I found the most difficult aspect of the entire project to be the rangefinder tuning, which should have taken only an hour but took me two afternoons to get right. That particular joy will be covered in part five.
For the moment, you can safely purchase or assemble the required materials list above and prepare yourself for what turned out to be a fun learning experience and a source of immense satisfaction and joy.
I can’t stress that enough, actually. I have received more satisfaction from this project than any other mod, or build I’ve undertaken to date and I’m already planning my next. The feeling of seeing everything come together from the pieces you’ll be breaking it into the next part will be immeasurable, I guarantee.
For those of you just here for the ride, or those of you wanting to see if this turns into a train wreck, grab a cold beer and sit back. Part two is where things start getting FUN.
If you’re looking for the later parts of this project, please use the links below to jump to a specific section:
- The AEROgraphic project part 1 – introduction and required materials (this article)
- The AEROgraphic project part 2 – disassembly and strip down
- The AEROgraphic project part 3 – preparing and finishing the body
- The AEROgraphic project part 4 – reassembly
- The AEROgraphic project part 5 – focal plane shutter and rangefinder tuning
- The AEROgraphic project part 6 – conclusion and example images
Article update 01 – 2017-02-21:
Eagle-eye readers will notice that the original “Peacemaker” name has been changed to AEROgraphic. I had a change of heart, so there you go!
Article update 02 -2017-04-10:
The article has been updated to include details on how to remove any yellow/brown tint on your Aero Ektar lens, originally intended for part 5. Thanks to Salvador Calaf for the nudge.
Article update 03 -2019-06-08:
Updated text for readability/flow. Checked current Aero Ektar lens prices.
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I tried to mail you EM… hope it was not lost in spam box.
Did you take the leather off the body there, or what? It looks great.
damn it.. there goes my last hope for a life-lasting marriage…
PS I am totally going to do this to an MPP Micro-Press.
Pretty sure this article is the true origin of #IblameEm
It looks amazing finished. A beast of a project (and camera). Well done on the vast knowledge transfer in progress. Also I hadn’t actually seen those Olympics shots you linked too, they are amazing. Look forward to your updates.
Wonderful info, look forward to following the series. I have a speed graphic that might be a good candidate for this, except the focal plane shutter, but I use it with original Ektar or Optar lens and be fine with that.
looks interesting but you forgot to explain why you would do this in the first place….
There’s an entire section dedicated to the why of it all: “The AERO Peacemaker: camera, rationale, name”. Perhaps you missed it?
the whole plot on why downs in too much details, might read again
It’s all there to see.