During the never-ending cycle of lockdowns here in the UK, I’ve set myself a little project wandering about on my permitted ‘one-exercise-a-day’ time, documenting my hometown of Stone in the West Midlands. My preferred film is ILFORD HP5 PLUS: absolutely bomb-proof. A friend regularly develops his in his coffee (Caffenol) and he gets printable negatives — Note to self: must try one-hour semi-stand in Whittard’s Arabica!
For those of us who can recall a time long, long ago when ‘digital’ was more to do with fingers than pixels, Durst would have been a familiar name as the makers of a range of high-quality darkroom enlargers. What isn’t so well remembered about the company is that it also made cameras.
Brothers Julius and Gilbert Durst, both keen amateur photographers, began a business in 1929 in Bressanone in the Italian Tyrol repairing cameras and other photographic equipment. By 1936 they had established Durst Phototechnik AG to manufacture print copy machines, and two years later, in 1938, they released the ‘Gil’ box camera which took eight 6x9cm frames on a roll of 120 film.
EM: There’s lots more information on the Durst Gil and other very interesting Durst products and history on Davide Cavallaro’s “Durst Vintage Site”. I highly recommend it!
In post-World War II 1945, the Italian economy lay in tatters. On their way back home over the Dolomites, the Germans stripped out all machine tooling from any factory left standing after four years of Allied bombing. However, Julius Durst saw an opportunity in making enlargers and cameras to restore the firm’s fortunes. Photography was becoming an increasingly popular hobby and in 1956 Durst launched the 35mm ‘Automatica’ which is still readily available for not a lot of your hard-earned Lira/Euro/Dollar-Pounds.
At the same time, the company introduced the lesser-known and now quite rare Durst Sei Sei (Six Six) which takes twelve 6 x 6cm frames on a roll of 120 film. A very nice example caught my eye a couple of months ago in the virtual shop window of a trusted Dealer from whom I’ve bought analogue cameras and a fair few bits and pieces and the rest, as they say is history. Or at least, part of my government-mandated once-a-day exercise regimen.
Philosophy, Style… Substance?
The Durst Sei Sei (I’ll be calling it the Durst 66 from here on in), is certainly a camera like no other. The underlying philosophy of the design brief was to remove the need for anything beyond the most basic knowledge of photography in order to be able to make successful pictures. And of course to make it very stylish – Durst is Italian, it’s what they do!
As the Press Release of the time put it:
“In the construction of the Durst 66 the manufacturer started from completely new principles, which aimed to ensure good photographic successes. Therefore everything impractical found in normal cameras has been made functional. The result was: maximum readiness in recovery, effective robustness, extended depth of field, extreme ease of use in any climatic condition. The Durst 6-6 therefore combines in itself, despite the modest price, many advantages of an expensive precision device, without however presenting certain drawbacks which, in the latter, can occur due to its mechanical sensitivity. Automatism irresistibly asserts itself even in amateur photography’.
This was Everyman’s camera — perhaps not so much for the serious photographer. It was a nice thing to be seen with slung casually over the shoulder, which could also take a few snaps posing at the Fontana di Trevi if one felt inclined. The first line of the owner’s manual quite possibly tells us all we need to know: “Let the photo-dealer load the film for you”
Sat on the table in front of me the Durst shouts “I’m stylish, I’m Modern, I’m high quality”. The controls are simple and obvious and there’s no need to read the owner’s manual — except of course for the laughs! Its made of cast aluminium (aluminum, for Webster’s users) and feels solid yet light; about half the weight of contemporary roll-film cameras.
Ergonomically it feels right, much easier to hold and use than say a folder or TLR from the same era. The viewfinder is small but clear and shows about 80% of what is recorded on the negative, so there’s a bit of guessing with framing. There’s a pointer to indicate when the film hasn’t been wound on.
The neck strap is unusual, the 12mm tapered ends go into slots each side of the body casting and then grub screws tighten to hold it in place. I was lucky to find a nice new leather strap of the right dimensions at a reasonable price which matches the colour of the original. Film loading is simple even if the dealer isn’t around to do it for you! A catch in the form of a revolving plate removes the back from the camera and also opens and closes the red window to read the frame numbers when winding-on.
Metered to extinction
The camera has an exposure meter called an ‘extinction meter‘. To quote from the PR again: “The Durst 6-6 exposure system automatically adapts to the shooting conditions, excluding arithmetic data such as aperture values, brightness values, guide numbers, degrees of sensitivity, etc”.
When the camera is pointed towards the subject, a series of boxes light up on the left of the top plate. These ‘extinguish’ in sequence according to the luminance of the scene. See below.
The one which remains visible appearing opposite an icon for bright sun, hazy sun, overcast or rain, gives the correct shutter speed setting while the other boxes remain blank. The appropriate shutter speed is read off the scale and set with the knurled disc and pointer on the right side of the top plate. Simple — only it’s well nigh useless, so I either guess or use Lightmeter App on my iPhone (£4.99 in the App store far away from you).
It’s systematic, it’s hydromatic, it’s pneumatic
Greased Lightning it’s not, but the camera’s patented pneumatic shutter control mechanism does make this camera unique and rather bizarre.
Winding the film using the knurled disc at the left end of the top plate also cocks the shutter. Nothing unusual there, only the Rolleicordus Dinosaurus and a few pre-War design folding cameras didn’t do this by the late 1950s. The owner’s manual advises that the film should not be wound on directly after an exposure but left until a few moments before taking the next frame.
The camera needs to breathe. Cocking the shutter compresses a small volume of air: on pressing the shutter button on the front of the camera the air is released through an appropriate sized hole in a rubber valve. The diameter of each hole controls how fast the air is let out until the shutter can close again and thereby the length of time the shutter remains open. Selecting a slower shutter speed (by turning the knurled disc on the right of the top plate anti-clockwise) aligns the next hole which is half the diameter of the previous one, so the time the shutter remains open is twice as long; or to put it another way, the air rushes out of a large hole at the 1/200th setting, is released over twice the time at 1/100th and so on until it dribbles out very slowly through a tiny hole at 1 sec.
Still awake at the back? I have to say, the shutter release is very quiet in operation, gently emitting a little fart: “young man, did you just…?” , “no ma’am, I took a snap”!
Both kinds of aperture
As you can see in the extinction meter photo above, there is a choice of two aperture settings which are selected by a couple of icons looking a bit like speech bubbles, on the black plastic ring around the lens tube. By trial and error, I have found that the red one equates to approximately f/8 and the white one f/11. The manual is very helpful on this!
“The red aperture mark must be set when colour and black and white films of normal speed are set; for high speed films set the white mark”.
No mention of the film speeds but in 1956 a normal speed film would have been 50ASA (or ISO as it’s called today) and 200ASA would have been considered high speed. Remember the design mantra: “remove the need for anything beyond the most basic knowledge of photography”.
The Durst 66 in use
So what’s left to talk about? Ah yes, the lens and focusing. The PR describes the lens as ‘the Durst Color Duplon 8cm Ø 2.2cm lens, coated for color film, with adjustable focus on a scale from 1m to infinity’. In real life it’s a doublet lens — two bits of glass stuck together, one convex, one concave. Simple construction and not very good in practice. To compensate for the physical properties of this design the film guide is curved, rendering an image that is relatively sharp across the horizontal axis of the focal plane but not the vertical.
This means that photos are in focus when cropped to landscape format but in portrait format, the top and bottom are decidedly soft. See the roof in the frame below:
There is also some pincushion distortion, all of which you can see in the accompanying photos. Or, as Rob Smith of The Vintage and Classic Camera Co from whom I bought the Durst 66 put it, ‘most Italian lenses have the optical qualities of a detached retina’!
As for focusing, the owner’s manual is quite clear on this: “In order to obtain absolutely sharp pictures it is important to set the distance as correctly as possilbe (sic), especially for close-ups. When taking portraits, the subject distance should be paced out: one long step is about 3 feet. For taking groups set the distance to about 16 feet. The laying eight on the scale denotes “infinity” and this distance covers all distances further than 65 feet”.
Indeed. You may be able to see a little red dot I have painted on the focus scale — this is a guesstimate for the hyper-focal distance setting for f/8 which in practice seems to work quite well. With the focus scale set to my red dot, everything will now be in focus from about 25 feet away through to infinity when I use the red aperture setting. Every other medium format camera I own has an aperture/distance scale but Durst obviously felt such complex calculations would discombobulate the user and remove the joy of the distance guessing game from their hobby.
If you’ve come with me thus far you’d probably be thinking this strange little camera is cumbersome and irrelevant in today’s fast-moving world of pixels and electronics. You’d be wrong. Setting the f/8 aperture, 1/200th sec shutter speed, and the focus to my hyper-focal distance red dot covers the majority of my subject matter on a typical English overcast day.
To my specific usage so far, well, unfortunately, ILFORD uses secret ink to print the frame numbers on the film backing paper which can only be revealed by applying lemon juice (just joking about the lemon juice bit but the numbers are so faint I certainly can’t read them through the red window of the Durst 66 that is the subject of this article). So I’ve turned to Fomapan 200 Creative with its nice bold black numbers on the backing paper, which I can see clearly now… even in the rain!
All I have to do is to wind on the film immediately before I take the photograph: I then pull the development by 10% which gives an even tone curve and printable highlights with Fomapan 200 Creative — remember the old mantra ‘overexpose and underdevelop’. A few rolls of 120 and the Durst 66 have kept me (reasonably!) sane over these past few rather trying months.
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