British camera manufacturer Barnet Ross Ensign boldly advertised in the post-Second World War period that photographic development had now moved from Europe to Great Britain. It also claimed that the Ensign range of cameras was the equal of or better than the German equivalents. In the period post-war, up to 1960, Ensign developed a range of roll-film folding cameras called the Selfix and Autorange but did not produce a 35mm model because they considered it had no future.

How wrong can you be?

I recently bought an Ensign 12-20 folding camera, made in the 1950s and one of the range of roll film folding cameras made by the Barnet Ensign Ross company. This company was one of the oldest in Britain and had gone through a series of amalgamations and take-overs in its long history, having been formed in the 19th century originally as Houghtons, then Houghton and Butcher, Barnet Ensign, Barnet Ensign Ross and finally Ross Ensign. Along the way, they incorporated other manufacturers of quality equipment, Sanderson for example.

The closest German equivalent was, of course, Zeiss Ikon. With a similar history, Zeiss Ikon as a company came about after an amalgamation of some of the best manufacturers in Germany. Carl Zeiss was originally an optical instrument and lens manufacturer and supplied some of the major German and foreign manufacturers with lenses for the cameras they produced. In the mid-1920s, the depression years, Carl Zeiss joined with four of the companies who used their lenses, Contessa-Nettel, Ernamann, Goerz and Ica to form Zeiss Ikon. The new company continued to produce the best of their products under the new name and developed new models in addition.

Somewhat ironically, at the outbreak of World War 2, the British military selected the 6×6 Zeiss Super Ikonta as the camera of choice for their photographers and even advertised in the press for owners of these cameras to donate them to support the war effort. Eventually, British camera manufacturers would have to develop their own version as the supply of the Super Ikonta no doubt dried up. One result was the Ensign Commando, a similar coupled rangefinder folder, which was originally developed specifically for military use then sold on the civilian market after the war.

Having owned and used a Super Ikonta 532/16 and now an Ensign 12-20 I thought I would see how the advertisers’ claims from the 1950s stack up. I no longer have the Super Ikonta but I do have photos of it and a collection of negatives made with it.

Some of these I can replicate on the Ensign for a reasonably close comparison.

The Super Ikonta in use

The Super Ikonta is a very solid, professional-level camera with a quality feel about its construction. Fit and finish are near perfect, with quality materials used throughout. Nothing about the camera feels as though it has been skimped. Its general design is very much in line with the earlier Zeiss cameras and is hard to distinguish from pre-war models. A leatherette finish contrasted with polished and satin chromed metal parts is very much the norm for quality photographic instruments of the day.

The viewfinder is a little tight for a spectacle wearer like me but not enough to make using the camera difficult. It just meant that there was some peeping round the corners to check composition at the edges of the frame.

The rangefinder is combined in the viewfinder on this model, previous models having a second, separate eyepiece. It is clear and precise, giving accurate focus without moving the eye around the finder in order to see the focus spot clearly as I have to do on my Voigtländer Vitomatic 2a for instance.

Controls are positive in use. The diaphragm and shutter speed adjust smoothly and locate easily, whilst the Syncro Compur shutter feels very positive when setting speeds and operating the cocking lever. It is speeded B, 1second to 1/500. The fastest speed must be set before cocking the shutter to prevent damage, and speeds proved to be accurate at all speeds to judge from my results.

The delayed action operation of the Compur is set by moving a sliding stop which then allows the cocking lever to move further and prime the DA mechanism. The same arrangement is used on my 5×4 lens and was generally used before the “VXM” lever became the norm and possibly puts less strain on the mechanism, as the DA is only cocked when needed.


The lens is a coated Zeiss-Opton Tessar, of 80mm focal length and f/2.8 maximum aperture and free from any blemishes. Depth of field is indicated around the front of the lens, and the focus wheel is incorporated into the front standard for convenient operation with one finger.

The only slightly quirky feature is the frame counter. This has automatic film transport after setting the first exposure in the red window but only gives 11 exposures on 120 rather than the usual 12 for this format, giving a wider frame spacing. Setting the first frame also requires a specific procedure to be followed for subsequent frames to be accurately positioned, but is easily learned.

Every other aspect of using the camera has a quality feel. Opening and closing the front panel and loading and unloading film are positive and precise in operation and inspire complete confidence in the camera.

Ensign 12-20 in use

The Ensign 12-20 is a similar camera to the Zeiss in layout terms with a horizontal fold-out front but lacking rangefinder focus. In design terms, it is much less traditional, however. The design of this model and the 16-20 – and to some extent the 820 also – used similar finishes to the Zeiss with black leatherette covering an exposed metal finished in either satin or polished chrome, but the design is less traditional.

The top plate of each range had a folding Albada reflected frame viewfinder set into it, which in this case opens along with the camera front when the release is operated.

The lens is a 75mm f3.5 Ross Xpres set in an 8-speed Epsilon shutter (1-1/300, B and T but no delayed action). The general form and specification matches many of the contemporary folders of the period, though the Ross Xpres puts it more in line with cameras equipped with the Tessar, Voigtländer Color Skopar, Agfa Solinar and other four element types.

The 12-20 has the rather unusual styling of the shutter release and front/viewfinder opening controls which are tear-drop shaped, chromed components which move outwards horizontally rather than the usual buttons to press on the top plate. I get the feeling from using the camera that the sideways movement is less likely to induce camera shake than the downward pressure that is more usual. The top plate generally is designed very cleanly with the viewfinder set into the shaped top, a very modern look for its day.

Wind-on is by a winding knob at the right-hand end of the top plate seen from the back and a red window with no automatic frame counting of any sort but with double exposure prevention. This means that a cable release has to be used for Time exposures because it prevents the necessary second pressure on the release to close the shutter.

There is a depth of field calculator in the form of a matching knob on the left-hand end of the top plate.

The camera feels solid in the hand and generally of good quality. Materials, fit and finish are all to a high standard but do not have quite the same refined feel as the Zeiss. In fairness, my Super Ikonta had been owned by a photographic company executive and so had probably been very well looked after whereas the Ensign has had a less known history.

For example, I had to have the lens cleaned for a mild fungal growth when I first acquired it, thankfully with no lasting effects, and there is light rusting on some components. The camera needs a little help to erect the front fully and also gives a discreet squeak, befitting its age, as the front is closed. This lack of regular maintenance could be disadvantaging the Ensign a little in terms of perceived operational smoothness.

The Epsilon shutters fitted to Ensigns from this period tend to get a bad press and have the reputation of being unreliable and fragile. This one seems to be working well and based on my tests with my homemade spinning disk tester (no record players these days). Most speeds run well within the usual 30% tolerance of the time apart from the 1/2 and 1/10 speeds, which vary by 50%. 1 second and 1/25th are almost spot on so maybe it just needs a clean. To my mind, it does not have quite the same watch-like, positive feel in use as the Compur or Prontor shutters but it is pretty close. I also understand that, provided you don’t change speeds with the shutter cocked, there should be few problems.

The folding Albada viewfinder deserves a particular mention. This is a device which gives a high magnification view through a larger than usual eyepiece, once again great for spectacle wearers like myself. In an age of tiny eyepieces, it is a big advantage. It is a type of suspended frame finder which it achieves by reflecting a frame printed on the inner face of the eyepiece frame onto the semi-silvered rear surface of the front lens of the viewfinder. The only thing to be aware of is not to push on the rear part of the finder when holding the camera to the eye which displaces the view but not the reflected frame, giving incorrect framing.

The Ensigns were designed to accept both 120 and 620 film, the latter having a thinner spool and centre spindle, by providing a stepped, spring-loaded locating pin for the spool end. This allowed the thinner 620 spool to fit nested inside the 120 step. This can make film loading and unloading a little tricky depending on the strength of your fingernails, not allowing the spool pin knob to extend far enough to grip it and lock it off.

Whether modern 120 plastic film spools have thinner end flanges than those back in the 1950s I don’t know but pressing down on the spool to be removed doesn’t extend the spool spindle quite far enough to make it a comfortable operation. I have seen a suggestion to put a washer in the spool seat but unfortunately, I have yet to find one that clears the spindle while fitting in the recess in the base.

Overall the camera feels up to the job, however, and has a solid and reassuring heft in the hands.

Conclusions

Both cameras are well made and workmanlike and, apart from the rangefinder and the lens coatings, are pretty well equal performers. The Zeiss Ikon’s Tessar lens shows a little less contrast whilst the Ross Xpres lens looks apparently sharper by being a little more contrasty.

The Tessar does have a smoother, almost buttery look to some of the results but this is down to the lens designer, going by the Leica versus Contax debates in the ‘30s and Minolta versus Nikon more recently. It all depends on personal preference and the final result the photographer is seeking.

The Ensign is a much rarer camera, with far fewer having been produced. The Super Ikonta has a much longer history and is more plentiful. Unfortunately, Ensign never produced an Autorange, coupled rangefinder version of the 12-20 as it did with the 16-20 and 820, which would have been an excellent instrument to use.

In construction terms, the Zeiss has that bit more of a quality feel to it, perhaps possessing a touch more refinement overall. Whether an Autorange version of the 12-20 would have been more its equal I don’t know. The incorporation of a coupled rangefinder must demand complete accuracy and very careful construction I guess.

So in answer to my earlier query regarding the claims made in Ensign’s advertising, I don’t think that the British photographic industry was ever likely to displace that of Germany from the top spot, despite the ravages inflicted on it by World War Two.

That would be left for the Japanese to accomplish a little later.

~ Tony

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Tony,

    Thank you very much for a very thorough and informative piece on both of theses cameras, I really enjoyed reading this. Your framing, exposure and filter choice on all of the example shots are beautiful. My favourite being fourth from the top in the first set of the Ensign – the fence is framed lower camera right – it’s very cinematic and reminds me of something from a Hitchcock film.

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