When it comes to medium format cameras we’re spoilt for choice. This is not surprising considering that 120 film was the main format used by professionals and enthusiasts alike for a good chunk of the 20th century before 35mm film took over.
Of course, the usual suspects come to mind first when talking about medium format: Hasselblad, Rolleiflex, Pentax, Bronica, Fujifilm. All of them offer great image quality and flexibility, and come in all frame sizes (6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, 6×9…) as well as in differing focusing systems: SLRs, TLRs, rangefinders and even autofocus. If we expand the horizon a little bit we have access to a huge scope of more consumer-oriented cameras, especially folding designs from the 1950s and beyond, mostly viewfinders but also rangefinders, which offer a great compromise in terms of camera size vs negative size.
I should note that there are non-folding models from the same era, plus a tone of box cameras going all the way back to the first Kodak Brownie. You can even get a brand new 6×9 camera, freshly baked from the ovens of Cameradactyl, which was recently featured here on EMULSIVE.
When I became interested in vintage cameras back in 2010 I began my foray into 120 film with an Adox Golf 45s. What I was most curious about old cameras was how differently their lenses would capture reality, compared to the modern equipment I had been using up until then, and with modern I mean my 1970s SLR and a couple of lenses. That curiosity made me acquire cameras that were every time a bit older than the last. And one of those purchases is the subject of this piece. Was this too long an introduction? Bear with me.
The camera I’m referring to in this article though, is an Ihagee 9×12 plate camera made somewhere between 1912 and 1918. I can’t remember how I do know it’s an Ihagee, I guess it was listed as such. These beginning-of-the-century cameras are annoyingly free of branding often displayed only in the hand strap (not in this case) or on the focusing screen leather cover (missing in my example).
After spending a stupid amount of time on the internet trying to establish the exact model, my best guess is that it’s a later incarnation of the Photorex, the first Ihagee camera manufactured in 1912 with production running until 1918. I believe this mostly because of the fleur-de-lis shape of the metal pieces that attach the strap to the sides of the body. Of course, because of the IBSO compound shutter, which Wikipedia tells me were manufactured by Gauthier until 1926, this camera could also well be from any time during the 1920s. If any reader is an early Ihagee specialist I’ll be happy to be corrected/ enlightened.
The camera sports a Rodenstock Doppel-Anastigmat Eurynar f/6.5 13.5cm lens. The body is made of wood with a metal door. The 135mm lens offers an angle of view slightly wider than a 50mm in 35mm terms. The focusing scale goes from 1 to 15 metres and infinity and is controlled by a rack and pinion system. The lens can be risen and lowered though there are no lateral movements. There is also a spirit level next to the mirror finder, the liquid of which evaporated long ago.
The aforementioned compound shutter relies on compressed air to be released and the range goes from 1 second to 1/100th of a second. When I bought the camera it only operated at B and T settings plus one speed, which seemed to be the fastest. This was not a huge problem as my preferred time to go take photographs is around sunrise and at dusk, although a few years later I had the shutter fixed (not cheaply) to have more flexibility. A good thing about this shutter is that it’s “ever set”, so it doesn’t need to be cocked, which is great because you won’t forget about cocking it.
The camera came with a Rollex-Patent 6×9 roll film adapter but no plate holders or focusing glass. At this negative size, you get 8 exposures per roll of 120 film. At the beginning I used the mirror finder to compose, having drawn on it some frame lines to have a rough indication of the smaller image I would be getting on film. That was not ideal although you can see on the images below (maybe you can’t online, but take my word for it) that the sheer size of the negative allows for quite a heavy crop with no detriment in detail.
The Rollex adapter has two red windows and at the beginning, I didn’t know which one to use. I remember using the wrong one first, the one on the right which sits a bit higher, although I don’t recall the exact outcome. I guess this window was used to get a frame size different than 6×9 with the help of a mask? In any case, I covered both of them with a bit of backing paper and blue tack as I’ve had issues of light leaking inside. The first time I used the camera I forgot to remove the dark slide so I wasted a whole roll of film. When I shot the last frames it was pretty dark so the exposures were about 15 minutes! Still, it was worth it as I saw a badger’s bum wobbling while running away from me.
Many if not all of my medium format vintage cameras often scratch my negatives. I don’t care much as most of the time you’d need a magnifying glass in order to see them and that’s not the way you look at photographs anyway.
In the end, I decided to get a dark cloth and made a focusing screen with a 6×9 window using tracing paper. That helped a bit with composing the image although in low light and with an f/6.5 maximum aperture it still wasn’t super easy. The texture of the tracing paper makes critical focus challenging but for woodland photography, I mostly rely on guessing the distance and using a narrow aperture.
So as you can gather using a 100 year-old plate camera is not straight forward. It’s inconvenient to compose and focus, especially in low light; it scratches the negatives; the fixed focal length can be limiting; it’s big and rather heavy… Why bother then? Well, the answer is the Rodenstock Eurynar lens. The rendering of this lens is just amazingly beautiful. It produces what I call ‘soft sharpness’, and when well stopped down the negatives look like finely detailed pencil drawings.
When using the lens at smaller apertures it gets softer, and wide-open it shows its age as it has very low contrast. The lack of coatings makes it prone to flare too. Personally, I’m not against flare in the right scene, and contrast can be increased in development or in printing. Photographs with shallow depth of field are something I want to explore further with this camera.
The Eurynar lens is supposed to be a Dialyte design, composed of four uncemented glass elements in two groups arranged in a symmetrical design. This should allow for using either group separately according to a Rodenstock catalogue, achieving a doubling of the focal length and a soft-focus effect. I still haven’t managed to focus the lens with the front element removed so, again, if anybody has some input, I’ll be more than happy to hear it.
Another advantage of this camera is the double extension of the bellows, making close-up photography possible. I haven’t been very successful at this but I think it has a lot of potential, especially combined with the extremely shallow depth of field inherent to large format.
I haven’t used the Ihagee for two years now for different reasons, but after re-visiting the negatives I’ve taken with it I feel like it’s time to take it for a spin again. It is certainly not the easiest camera to work with, and it took some time before I felt comfortable using it and had a good chance of getting the results I wanted. Still, I think is the tool from which I get a bigger satisfaction when it comes to the negatives it produces.
This is a camera that’s going to remain in my collection forever, and that’s the reason I decided to have the shutter repaired. The negatives have a quality that modern equipment can’t come close to and, although it could be argued that as an old design the Eurynar lens is imperfect, its imperfections are what makes it, for me and for the photographs I want to make, perfect.
The prints seen here were made with the lith printing process, about which Alexander Elkholy recently wrote an excellent guide. The black and white images are straight scans with no editing. All the photographs used in this article were taken in Scotland between 2011 and 2017, mostly in Corstorphine Hill, and Blackford Hill, both in Edinburgh, as I lived near one or the other at different times. The snowy scene belongs to a trip to Sutherland, in Scotland’s far North.
Thanks for reading,
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