Through A Vintage Lens Is Moving!

January 8, 2011

Those of you who follow my blog will notice that nothing new has been written for several weeks.  This is because Through A Vintage Lens is moving to its own hosted site.  I am being helped by a very able programmer and computer specialist, Matt Fields of MFDEZINE Inc.  Consider us to be (virtually) hammering and sawing, tearing down walls, plastering and painting.

There is still much to do, but the new blog is coming along.  Images must be reformatted, posts need to be recategorized, and statistics software must be started anew.  Over the next few weeks, the blog will be tweaked, smushed, sorted, and reorganized.

If you would lie to visit the new site, it can be found at:

Drop in and visit during the renovations.  Soon Through A Vintage Lens will be up and running again, and new posts will be coming out!

The Barista

November 14, 2010

The Barista

This image is an example of the importance of seizing the opportunity, not being bashful, and connecting with your subject.  On a day with our daughter in Denver, we stopped for coffee in a quaint neighborhood south of the Denver Art Museum.  My wife’s caffeine levels were dangerously low, and a small coffeeshop caught our eyes.  A cozy place, it was filled with retired couples reading papers, yuppies in jeans absorbed in laptops, and students doing homework.

The most interesting feature, however, was the barista – a young Latina woman with silky black hair and a fascinating array of tattoos whose patterns linked her with her Aztec ancestors.  After she served us with rich, flavorful coffee – obviously from a local specialty roastery – I complimented her on her tattoos and asked if I could photograph her.  She kindly assented, and I slid in beside her as she prepared the next brew, catching her against the backdrop of the espresso machine and the wine rack.

This image was taken at f/2.8 and 35mm equivalent focal length on my Canon digital camera, which was all that I had with me at the moment.  With the low light and close quarters, this shot would have been difficult with a vintage Bessa or Ensign, with a 50mm equivalent lens, a maximum aperture of f/3.8 (remember the limiting effect of the shutter mechanism around the lens), and the inability to change film speeds.  The image still suffers slightly in sharpness due to the slow shutter speed I was forced to use under these challenging conditions, but it is a good example of what one can capture if one is always ready.

First Annual Mid-Island Photo Expo

November 5, 2010

Mid-Island Photo Expo, Ladysmith Waterfront Gallery

Through A Vintage Lens is at the Mid-Island Photo Expo at the Waterfront Gallery in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island this month.  “Tulips, Water Tower Place” and “Mission San Jose” won a place in the exhibit, which is to become an annual event.

With My Entries to the Mid-Island Photo Expo

The venue, managed by the Ladysmith and District Arts Council, is a large gallery with high-quality lighting located in a renovated warehouse near Ladysmith’s waterfront.   The quality of the entries underlines the sophistication of Vancouver Island’s artistic community.  Including such well-known Vancouver Island artists as Neil Fatin, the breadth and quality of the images is impressive.  I am honored to be included.

I was delighted to discover that I have been invited back to talk about fine art photography with vintage cameras.

The Photographer As Predator

October 14, 2010


The Question


Let’s face it – every artist is a predator.   Writers use their childhoods, their mothers, their life experiences (Tennessee Williams and the sordid South, Hemingway and the Spanish Civil War).  Painters use atrocities (Picasso and Guernica) and their mistresses.  We all take from our surroundings and companions to feed our art.  Often, the result is beautiful and restorative.  Sometimes the relationship is symbiotic; consider Alfred Steiglitz’ erotic images of Georgia O’Keefe that built her career.  And often it’s downright parasitic – let’s not even talk about the National Enquirer and the paparazzi.

When I’m out on the street with my camera, I often see people in terms of images – and I’m hunting.  No jungle cat with an empty belly could be more alert for its prey.  The temptation is always to shoot someone – anyone – who would make a dramatic image.  This is the essential moral dilemma of the photographer: how far are we willing to go to make a statement?

Much has been written about this dilemma.  I think that this question was best summed up by Ruth Fremson, a photographer for the New York Times, who has see much suffering through her lens:

“I don’t set out to exploit another person’s suffering in order to make art,” she said. “I set out to tell a story, to explain a situation, to enhance viewers’ understanding of the world around us.

“The way a photojournalist can drive home the severity of a situation, for readers to fully understand them, is to make the most compelling image possible from an event — an image that will make someone stop for a moment, take it in and give the situation some thought.

“A photojournalist who has mastered the visual tools of composition, the use of light and color and the ability to capture the ‘decisive moment,’ will be able to produce a photo so compelling that it can be described as beautiful — or perhaps even as art — even if the subject matter is one of pain and suffering.

“Interestingly, museums around the world are filled with art that depicts human suffering, often based on real events in history…”

I struggle with this question every day that I am on the street with my camera, and constantly try to balance my art with my sense of my subjects’ dignity.  Yet even in this process, often the most rewarding part of the experience is the connection with the people in my pictures.  I met this gentleman sitting in a doorway on Seattle’s Broadway, itself a rich palette of street cafes, college students, and many who spend their days on the streets.  Many of the individuals one meets on benches and doorways are obviously in pain, and if I photograph them, it is from a distance and in a manner that preserves their anonymity.  But many, if one stops to visit, are delightful and original.  This gentleman gave me a quick smile as I stopped to talk, happily agreed to have his picture taken, and even offered me a choice of messages on his sign!  I was late for a meeting, and unfortunately, could not stop to visit with him.

This image was taken with the Ensign 16-20 on Kodak VC-160, and appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Canadian Camera magazine.


Estrin, James.  LENS- Photography, Video and Visual Journalism: Forum – Suffering and Art.

Johannes, A-M.  News Media’s Depiction of Human Suffering.

Reinhardt, M. et al.  “Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain.”  University of Chicago Press, 2007.

DAM and Clouds

September 22, 2010

Denver Art Museum and Clouds

Buildings and Sky

To use a subject, I must be able to truly see it.  Sometimes, I experience the presence of a striking subject, yet try as I may, I simply cannot make it into an image where color and line, form and balance come together into something that works.  At times like this, I always think,  “A real photographer could make this work”  and go away frustrated.

Yet I’ve learned that sometimes you just have to come back.  At times, I have to wait for my mind to climb out of its rut and see in a new way.  Other times, the light changes, a cloud moves, or a cat wanders across the square, and suddenly everything falls together.  Most often, it’s a bit of each, as in these images of the Denver Art Museum complex.

I have visited the Denver Art Museum several times, and been drawn by the dramatic upthrust of the museum and its attendant metal sculptures, as well as the striking architecture of the other buildings in the complex.  I have struggled to capture the drama of this site, yet my images always failed.

Yesterday, while on a family visit to the King Tut exhibit, I walked out the front door to face a downpour with thunder and lightning, accompanied by soft light and gray, wispy clouds contrasting with the sharp lines of the museum and the upthrust of the metal sculptures.  I began snapping digital images with my point-and shoot, the only camera I had, and suddenly, everything began to fall into place.  I began seeing the buildings only as abstract shapes, and juxtaposed the spear of the museum’s North wing with the gray streamers of cloud.  I then moved to the neigbouring buildings with their stylized, toylike structure contrasting with the hooks of the lampposts.  I abandoned the horizon, and positioned squares and triangles in the corners of the frame.

Uploading the images, I increased contrast in the image of the museum’s north wing to accentuated the ribbons of cloud.  With the buildings, I cropped,  jacked up the contrast, then tweaked Curves in Photoshop  to boost the darkest zones, giving an unreal, posterized appearance to the buildings.

Shutters – A Landmark Patent!

August 29, 2010

In 1910, an event occurred that revolutionized photography:  two Bausch and Lomb shutter designers, Rudolph Klein and Theodor Brueck (the latter had designed the “Volute” shutter in 1902) filed U.S. Pat. 1,092,110 for a shutter delay mechanism involving a rotating gear and a rocking pallet.  This was the basis for the slow speed escapement that was to make possible the very best leaf shutters of the twentieth century – the Compur, the Copal, the Prontor, and the many, many other fine clockwork shutters that made possible the greatest images of the last century.

Consequently, this patent is reproduced here in its entirety:

Afternoon, New Bonaventure

August 29, 2010

Afternoon, New Bonaventure

New Bonaventure is a tiny and wonderfully picturesque village on the south side of the Bonavista Peninsula on Newfoundland’s eastern coast.  Located just one mile from the site where the PBS series Random Passage was shot, it is often bypassed by tourists navigating the tortuous track from the highway to the set, Frommer’s in hand.

Yet the beauty of the village hides the struggle that rural Newfoundlanders face in the wake of the collapse of the fishing industry.  Although fishermen warned the government for years that stocks were diminishing, they were ignored.  Enormous deep trawlers scoured the bottom around the Grand Banks, destroying habitat, and no action was taken. Finally, the Canadian government imposed a moratorium on commercial cod fishing, and an industry and a way of life died.

Although fish stocks are slowly coming back, it will be years before cod fishing is a viable way of life, and inhabitants of rural communities like New Bonaventure have had to turn to other

Rugged Beauty Boat Tours, New Bonaventure

sources of income to survive.  Newfies are a resourceful lot, however; lobster fishing has blossomed, and the one working boat in the New Bonaventure harbor belonged to Rugged Beauty Boat Tours.  Clearly, Newfoundland enterprise did not die with the cod industry!


Kurlansky, Mark.  “Cod:  A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World.”  Penguin Books, New York. 1997.


August 1, 2010

Compur Leaf Shutter Mechanism

This article introduces the topic of classic camera shutters.  Subsequent postings will explore in more detail the protean topic of clockwork leaf shutters, followed by discussions of pneumatic shutters and the various types of classic curtain shutters.

Lens With Guillotine Shutter

There are two ways of controlling the amount light used in exposing a glass plate or sheet of photographic film: the area of the lens opening, known as the aperture or f-stop, and the length of the exposure.  In the early days, when plates were wet and emulsions were deadly slow, life was simple – the photographer merely removed his hat, placed it over the lens, removed the dark slide, and then uncovered the lens for the desired number of seconds.

As emulsions increased in speed, life became more complicated, and the need arose for a mechanical device to control short exposures.  The first known shutter, a “drop” or “guillotine” shutter consisting of a board with a hole in it moving past the lens opening, was used in1845 by the French physicists Fizeau and Foucault for photographing the sun.  A similar shutter was used by Matthew Brady, the great civil war photographer, in 1850.

Shutters became more common between 1850 and 1880, but slow emulsions made them more of a handy accessory than a necessity.  Many shutters consisted of pivoted lens covers or

Guerry Flap Shutter, c. 1881

Early Pivot Shutter (EP)

variations on the simple flap.  After 1880, the advent of hand-held cameras and the development of faster films increased the need for a way of controlling short exposure times and led to a period of rapid technological advancement.  By 1890, the early forms of all of the common shutters used in the 20th century had been developed.

Overall, shutters fall into three main categories:  Rotary or “sector” shutters, leaf shutters, and curtain-type shutters.  In their simplest form, sector shutters may be considered to represent a rotary version of the  guillotine or drop shutter, consisting of a pivoting metal plate with a round or kidney-shaped opening exposing the lens as it rotates.  Leaf shutters, also now frequently called “between the lens shutters”, consist of a set of blades that rotate to uncover the lens opening.

Five-Bladed Prontor SVS Leaf Shutter

Early versions were air-driven, while the majority of later models were spring-driven with a pneumatic or clockwork timing mechanism.  Curtain-type shutters may be divided into focal plane shutters, situated next to the film plane and used until the 1990s on millions of 35mm cameras and the famous Speed Graphic large format cameras, and “Rouleau” or roller blind shutters, situated behind or in front of the lens and represented by the highly successful Thorton-Pickard shutters common before 1915.

Thornton-Pickard Royal Ruby Triple Extension Camera with Roller Blind Shutter

Common to all three types is the need for an accurate and reproducible timing mechanism. Until the 1880s, shutter timing was very crude, depending on the tension of a spring or rubber band or the retarding effect of a leather brake.  The rubber band-powered Lancaster Rotary shutter from 1885, frequently found on Instantograph cameras, is an

Lancaster Rotary Shutter (EP)

example of this type of shutter. The first major advance in shutter timing occurred in 1886, when Arthur S. Newman developed a shutter with a pneumatic cylinder retarding mechanism,  thus introducing a new era in shutter accuracy and setting the stage for the dominance of pneumatic shutter timing for the next quarter century.  This was followed in the early twentieth century by clockwork time delay systems, and finally, in the late twentieth century, by electronic timers.

In the late 1800s, a variety of sector shutters were in use.  While many, like the Lancaster shutter, were of simple design, some, like the Newman and Guardia of 1895, were complex

Newman and Guardia Sector Shutter (EP)

devices with pneumatic timing that were capable of a number of speeds from 1/2 to 1/100 second.  Unfortunately, these sophisticated models were abandoned in favor of leaf and curtain shutters, and the sector shutter was relegated to the cheapest form of photographic technology, the box camera.  However, in this role, the sector shutter found its true home, and millions of

Kodak Rotary Sector Shutter, 1896 Pocket Kodak (EP)

these cheap and durable devices were produced for the consumer market by Eastman Kodak and other manufacturers well into the 1960s.

The first leaf shutter was probably constructed by Mann in 1862.  Another early model with only two blades, the Sands’ Patent Shutter,  was designed by C. Sands of Sands, Hunter and Company

American Optical Acme Tailboard Camera with Sands and Hunter Shutter, 1885 (EP)

in 1881.  A major milestone in shutter development and manufacture occurred in 1890 when Bausch & Lomb, one of the most famous of the early Rochester optical and camera companies,

Bausch and Lomb Iris Diaphragm Shutter

entered the shutter business in 1890 with their pneumatic “Iris Diaphragm” shutter.  This was a “self-diaphragming” shutter, a precursor to the modern shutter with its separate aperture and shutter blades, in which one set of blades opened to a preset aperture, then closed at the the end of the exposure.  Later B&L pneumatic shutters such as the Victor had both shutter blades and an iris diaphragm.

1904 Bausch and Lomb Catalog

Like many technological advances, the concept of the pneumatically-timed shutter sprouted in more than one site; in the same year, Voigtlander independently introduced in Germany  the four-bladed “Verschluss” pneumatic shutter (see Reiss’ site on Compur shutters).

Bausch and Lomb was, and still is, one of the main pillars of the American optical industry. Yet in the story of the pneumatic shutter, it was as important for those who left the company as it was for its own accomplishments.  In 1878, Ernst  Gundlach, reputed to be a difficult individual, left the company and eventually founded the Gundlach Optical Company.  In its several manifestations with and without Ernst Gundlach this company manufactured the well-known Gundlach cameras, together with  shutters, and other optical equipment until 1972.  In 1899, Andrew Wollensak, who designed the Iris Diaphragm and other shutters,  left Bausch and Lomb and founded the Wollensak Optical Company, manufacturing a line of high quality, reasonably-priced shutters.

Optimo Pneumatic Shutter

The famous pneumatic “Optimo” shutter was designed by Wollensak in 1909 and was sold extensively until 1930.  It was joined by the popular Betax, Alphax, and Rapax shutters.  Production of lenses began in 1902, with production in subsequent years of shutters and lenses for all of the major camera manufacturers.  The  Wollensak lens and shutter catalog from 1919 is worth reviewing both as art in its own sake and as a piece of

Wollensak Lenses and Shutters Catalog 1919

history with fascinating images of the time.  The company existed in various forms through the war years, manufacturing such well-known items as the Optar lenses and Graphex shutters for the Graphic press cameras, until it finally closed its doors in 1972.

One fascinating historical tidbit is that the Wollensak factory stood abandoned and essentially undisturbed, an undiscovered time

Equipment in the Abandoned Wollensak Factory

capsule, until 2007, when the building was put up for sale.  At that time, an explorer from the Urban Landscape entered the building, found it virtually untouched since the day the last employee left,

Wollensak Factory Stairs

photographed its interior, and posted his photographs on the Internet.  They can be viewed at The Urban Exploration Forum site.  The entire building and its contents finally sold for $85,000.

Unfortunately, the maximum accurate speed of a purely pneumatic shutter is limited to 1/100 sec or less.   Later models, such as the Optimo and Koilos, achieved a greater range with a combination of pneumatic regulation for slow speeds and spring-driven timing for faster speeds.  However, the advent of faster films with their requirement for very fast shutter speeds, together with the development of a simpler alternative, doomed the pneumatically braked shutter.

This advance was to come from a third offshoot of Bausch and Lomb: Ilex.  In 1910, two Bausch and Lomb shutter designers, Rudolph Klein and Theodor Brueck (Brueck had designed the “Volute” shutter in 1902), invented a revolutionary shutter delay mechanism, involving a rotating gear and a rocking pallet (U.S. Pat. 1,092,110). This mechanism, similar to that used for regulating clocks, made possible a compact mechanism allowing a shutter’s slow speeds to be accurate independent of temperature and atmospheric conditions.  The original patent is reproduced in its entirety in the post “Shutters – A Landmark Patent!”.

Klein and Brueck left Bausch and Lomb and set up their own business, initially called the “XL Manufacturing Company”, to manufacture the new shutter.  However, they soon discovered that C. P. Goerz was also making a line named the “X excel L” shutters, so to avoid confusion they renamed their shutter the “Ilex,” and in 1911 renamed their firm the “Ilex Manufacturing Company” and later the “Ilex Optical Company”.  Shortly thereafter, Friedrich Deckel of Munich bought the rights to use their delay mechanism on a royalty basis in his famous line of Compur shutters.  Ilex had one other major contribution to twentieth-century photography:  the invention of the self-contained internal flash synchronization mechanism during World War II.

Ilex Paragon 215/355 mm f/4.8 Convertible Lens in Ilex Shutter

In addition to shutters, Ilex produced many quality lenses under the Paragon name.   Ilex lenses and shutters were sold and used in large numbers until well after World War II, and are readily available on the used market today.

The invention of a slow-speed braking system that was compact, durable, and accurate under all conditions was a springboard for shutter development for the next half century.  Prior to Klein and Brueck’s invention of the clockwork slow-speed escapement, non-pneumatic, variable-speed shutters for handheld cameras had been around for a number of years, the most notable being the indestructible Kodak Ball-Bearing Shutter.  However, these either lacked slow speeds, depending on varying spring tension to vary shutter speeds and, like the Kodak, being restricted to speeds faster than 1/25 second, or depending on a variety of exotic braking systems to regulate slow speed exposures.  Valentin

Linhof Shutter, Early 1900s (EP)

Linhof, manufacturer of the famed Linhof technical cameras, actually launched his career as a shutter manufacturer, with his first models of 1887 using a leather brake to control slow speeds.  Later, Kenngott used a similar mechanism in the first Koilos shutters.  In fact, a leather brake was in use as late as 1902 in Steinheil’s “Universal Automatic Shutter Model C”, designed by Christian Bruns.  Klein and Brueck’s compact device changed the direction of photographic innovation.

After Ilex sold the rights to the clockwork slow-speed escapement, the spotlight on shutter development shifted to Germany.  One of the giants of the German optical industry in the late 19th century was the firm of C. A. Steinheil, a major manufacturer of astronomical and optical equipment as well as photographic lenses and shutters.  Both Friedrich Deckel and Christian Bruns were employed by Steinheil.  Deckel left to found his own establishment in 1898, and was joined by Bruns in 1903; the resulting company was eventually named F. Deckel.  Their cooperation produced in 1905 the famous Compound pneumatic shutter.  This was the longest-lived of the pneumatic shutters, being

Compound Shutter with Zeiss Protar

produced continuously until 1970.  It longevity can be attributed to its large size and dependability; some of the these shutters are still in use today, being the best choice for the largest of classic large format lenses.

After receiving rights to Ilex’s design, Friedrich Deckel wasted no time in putting the slow-speed delay escapement into production, and the first of the famous Compur shutters appeared in 1912.  It is interesting to note that the Compur was not actually a new shutter, but rather a modification of  the Compound.  In designing the Compur shutter, Deckel apparently took the Compound shutter and replaced the pneumatic cylinder with Klein and Brueck’s clockwork slow speed escapement, thus simplifying and expediting the new design.  The name “Compur” reflects this genesis from the Compound shutter, being a fusion of  “Compound” and “Uhrwerk”, the German word for “clockwork” (see Reiss).  Consequently, the Compur is actually a “Clockwork Compound” shutter.

It should be noted that the actual relationship between Deckel, Bruns and the development of the Compur shutter is somewhat murky;  Bruns stayed with Deckel for only a short time, but continued to work on shutter design after severing his legal relationship with him.  The majority of the design work was done not by Deckel, but by Bruns.  Carl Zeiss owned a portion of F. Deckel and may have obtained the Compur patent from Bruns in order to share it with Deckel.  Zeiss also quietly owned stock in the German Gauthier shutter factory and in Bausch and Lomb, and may have facilitated use of this design by both companies (see Reiss).  Zeiss was in turn obligated to use Compur shutters in the majority of their cameras.

The original Compur shutters were set by a dial at the top of the

Compur "Dial-Set" Shutter (Note resemblance to Compound shutter)

shutter and have become known as “Dial-Set Compurs”, as opposed to the more familiar “Rim-Set Compurs”, introduced in 1927, with their speeds set by rotating an outer ring.

Compur Shutter, Rim-Set Type

Independent of Deckel and the Compound/Compur branch of the evolutionary tree, the brothers Alfred and Gustav Gauthier established a shutter factory at Calmbach in the Black Forest region of southwestern Germany in 1902  This produced the the well-known pneumatic Koilos shutter, followed by a long line of less expensive leaf shutters that were, by agreement with Zeiss, mostly equipped with fewer speeds and destined for cheaper cameras.  However, the Gauthier factory did produce one professional-quality shutter, the Prontor, in 1935.  This became Gauthier’s star product, with a daily production of 10,000 Prontor shutters by 1960.

Until the patents on the Compur and the clockwork slow speed escapement expired, Germany largely controlled shutter production. Part of the impetus for the development of American shutters such as the the Kodak Supermatic was an effort to find an alternative to the monopoly held by German manufacturers such as Deckel, and Gauthier.

By the late 1950s, the majority of photography was done with 35mm cameras, and Zeiss and other German camera manufacturers were riding a tide of success based on the concept of a small, eye level camera with an interlens leaf shutter and interchangeable front lens elements.  These were of excellent quality, but expensive to produce and  mechanically complicated.   Because of the leaf shutter mechanism surrounding the lens opening, the maximum aperture of the lens was limited.  Starting in 1953 with Zeiss’ Contaflex, a number of single lens reflex cameras with leaf

Zeiss Contaflex S

shutters were developed, including the Retina Reflex, the Voigtlander Bessamatic, and the Wirgen Edixa (1962). However, these required coordination of a flip-up mirror, the leaf shutter, and a focal-plane baffle plate, making the mechanism complex.

Caught up in their success, German manufacturers ignored the growing popularity of the simpler and less expensive Japanese designs based on interchangeable, high quality lenses of large aperture combined with focal plane shutters.  The collapse of the German camera industry was inevitable, and during the 1960s and 1970s, Zeiss and the majority of the other German manufacturers ceased production.  The effect on the leaf shutter industry was predictable, and by the the mid 1970s, production at Deckel and Gauthier was a mere trickle, primarily devoted to Hasselblad and large format lenses.  Ironically, the East German camera manufacturers, based in Dresden, embraced the Japanese concept and achieved excellent success with the  Exakta and Practika lines based on focal plane shutters and interchangeable lenses.  The East German camera industry collapsed not because of lack of vision, but because of the collapse of the Soviet-type German Democratic Republic in 1989.

The best known of the curtain shutters is the focal plane shutter, consisting of a moving curtain with a transverse slit that moves across immediately in front of the film, exposing it in a sequential fashion.  The first known use of a focal plane shutter is thought to be by the famous English photographer William England in 1861, whose camera employed a drop shutter with adjustable slit width located at the focal plane.  He is therefore credited with the invention of this type of shutter.

There are two ways of controlling the exposure using a focal plane shutter:  curtain speed and slit width.  Early curtain shutters, both behind the lens and focal plane, used a combination of both methods.  The typical early focal plane shutter consisted of a rubberized fabric curtain driven by a clockwork mechanism.  Increasing the tension in the driving spring drove the curtain faster, thus effectively increasing shutter speed; however, top speeds were limited by the strength of the curtain material.  Slit width was adjusted by using two half-curtains linked by chains or tapes that allowed the spacing between the curtains to be adjusted.  In early shutters, changing the curtain spacing meant opening the camera to manually adjust the shutter mechanism; later models used tapes that could be adjusted from outside the camera.

Functional focal plane shutters reminiscent of those used on modern film cameras came on the market around 1890.   Thornton-Pickard marketed a focal plane shutter in 1891 in addition

Thornton-Pickard Focal Plane Shutters (EP)

to their behind-the-lens shutters; this was produced in improved versions into the early part of the 20th century.  As early as 1902,

Newman and Guardia Focal plane Shutter 1902 (EP)

Newman and Guardia created a two-blind focal plane shutter whose shutter speed varied by controlling slit width and which achieved speeds of 1/10 – 1/800 second.

In 1925, Leitz, manufacturer of the Leica, introduced the dual-curtain focal plane shutter.  This was a major technological breakthrough, eliminating precut slits and the need for adjustable spring tension. The slit is formed by opening the first curtain; as it opens, it is followed by the second curtain after a delay timed by a clockwork escapement mechanism.  The curtains move at a single, predetermined speed across the film. Faster shutter speeds are provided by changing the delay between the opening of the first curtain and the closing of the second, thus effectively varying the slit width   Dual curtain focal plane shutters are also self-capping, as the curtains are designed to overlap as the shutter is cocked to prevent double exposure.  This mechanism formed the basis for the focal plane shutters in most 35mm single lens reflex cameras until the advent of lightweight metal vertical blinds in the 1980s.

The evolution and mechanism of focal plane shutters has been carefully and extensively described on the Early Photography web site at

Each shutter type has its advantages and disadvantages.  Leaf shutters can synchronize with most flashes at any speed, and tend to be quieter and more compact than focal plane shutters.  However, unlike focal plane shutters, their mechanical complexity typically limits them to speeds of 1/500 sec. or less.  Having interchangeable lenses necessitates a shutter in each lens, like the Hasselblad 500, a behind the lens shutter, like the Paxette, or lens arrangements where only the front half of the lens can be exchanged, like the many German rangefinder cameras of the 1960s.  Today, between-lens leaf shutters’ one remaining stronghold is in large format photography.

Focal plane shutters, mounted immediately in front of the film plane, readily allow for interchangeable lenses and are capable of very fast shutter speeds.  However, they are noisy, less durable than well-crafted leaf shutters, and, when combined with the bounce of a reflex mirror flipping upward, cause a significant degree of camera shake.  In addition, the progressive movement of the curtain slit across the film results in distortion of the shape of a fast-moving object, which is actually in a different position as the curtain exposes different parts of the film.  Modern designs, with vertically-traveling lightweight shutter blades, have partially remedied these problems.  Finally, care must be taken not to leave cameras with focal plane shutters uncovered in the sun, as the sun’s image focused on the curtain can actually burn holes in the curtain.


Some of the historical data on shutter development is covered in more detail in Rudolf Kingslake’s excellent article on the Rochester, NY camera companies.  Many superb photographs of early shutters and vintage cameras can be viewed on the Early Photography web site and on Wagner Lungov’s site. The Early Photography site is one of the best on the internet and has excellent discussions of shutter mechanics and function.   Images from this site are designated (EP).  Special thanks are in order to both of these authors for use of images of antique shutters.  Klaus-Eckhard Reiss’ web site is a rich and insightful analysis on the development of the Compur shutter and the demise of the German camera industry.

This article provides a survey of the development of the photographic shutter.  Pneumatic shutters, clockwork leaf shutters, and curtain shutters will be described in more detail in subsequent postings.


Cosens, Robert.  “Photographers of Great Britain and Ireland 1840 – 1940:  William England.”

“Diaphragm or Leaf Shutter.”  Living Image Camera Museum article.

“Early Photography.”

“Exposure.”  Wikipedia Article.

Kingslake, Rudolf.  “A History of the Rochester, NY Camera and lens Companies.”

“Leaf Shutter.”  Camerapedia article.

Lungov, Wagner.  “Photographs of my Family and Other Adventures.”

Purdum, Ernest. Online posting for Large Format Photography Forum. 2006.

Reiss, Klaus-Eckhard.  “Up and Down with Compur:  The Development and Photo-Historical Meaning of Leaf Shutters.”

“Reprinted Company Catalogs.” Craig Camera Web Page.

Urban Exploration Forum.  “Wollensak, the Time capsule.”

Wikipedia article.  “Focal Plane Shutters.”

“Wollensak Lenses and Shutter Catalog, 1919.”

Readers’ Requests… and a Trip to Newfoundland!

July 27, 2010

Dear Readers:

I have enjoyed your comments over the last year, and your encouragement has helped me to keep writing.  Each month, I have come up with ideas for posts based on my own technical questions, topics that are not addressed in a coherent manner on the Internet, the images that come my way, and my own quirky photographic adventures.

Now I’d like to hear from you about topics you’d like to see – it’s your turn to drive the ship!

I will be vacationing in rural Newfoundland August 3-18, 2010, and largely out of touch (except when I manage to park our RV outside a little local library that may have Wi-Fi).  I hope to come back with many wonderful images to share with you.  It will be a trip long awaited;  Janie’s family comes from the Gooseberry Islands, a remote island outport now long abandoned,

Newfoundland Fishing Village (from

and her grandfather was a Newfoundland doryman jigging for cod in his sou’wester in the 1920s.  We are in Montreal with our cousins, Uncle Tobe has been paired with “…was she Aunt Susan or Susanna…?”, the genealogical charts cover the kitchen table, and the family has been traced back to William Parsons from Dorset in 1768.  We’re set for an adventure!

When I get back, there will be more images to see , plus the occasional adventure and musing on the creative process.  In addition to my Montreal and Newfoundland adventures, I am planning a large section on shutters, both pneumatic and spring-driven, the completion of the restoration and history of the 3A Ansco (which I’ll be polishing on the kitchen table of our Newfie cousins) , and a posting on a fascinating Mexican photographer and inventor.

But this is your turn – see how many ideas you can come up with while I’m gone!

Montreal, Quebec

July 22, 2010


What do a 1920 Newfoundland dory and the engine on the Wright brother’s airplane have in common?

Hint: Google “Make-and-Break Engine.”

Coaker (Collected by MacEdward Leach)
See also: The Six Horse-Power Coaker (Arthur R. Scammell)

Ye fishermen free that go forth on the sea,
With engines of various makes;
This old jump-spark of mine I will take every time,
You can keep all your new makes-and-breaks.

She was easy on fuel but she kicked like a mule,
And the screws on the bedding were slack;
And we all swore that she’d rise from the floor,
And we feared that she’d never come back.

One evening last fall we went out to our trawl,
It looked like ’twas going to blow;
We turned to go in in the teeth of the wind,
With a three-handed dory in tow.

Tom hove up the wheel and he cursed a great deal,
He cranked till he found of his heart;
He tested the oil and examined the coil,
But the devil of it would she start.

‘Twas coming on night, with the seas feather white,
When up to us rowed a small skiff;
And a bedlamer boy with a cast in his eye,
Kindly offered to give us a lift.

The kid stepped on board with the air of a lord,
His movements unhurried and slow;
He noted the string and the window blind spring,
But he got the old Coaker to go.

Go, go, he makes that thing go,
How he does it I’m sure I don’t know;
We can race with the Clyde and keep her alongside,
When he coaxes that Coaker to go.

So we shipped on the kid, and I’m sure glad we did,
Now it’s seldom we ask for a tow;
He gets a full share which I think only fair,
For coaxing the Coaker to go.

Go, go, he makes that thing go,
How he does it I’m sure I don’t know;
We can race with the Clyde and keep her alongside,
When he coaxes that Coaker to go.

Emmons Make-and-Break Engine

Variant of The Six Horse-Power Coaker by Arthur R. Scammell (1940)

This variant sung by Eddy Primroy [1928-1999] of Pouch Cove, and published in MacEdward Leach And The Songs Of Atlantic Canada © 2004 Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive.

Originally published as The Six Horse-Power Coaker in Gerald S. Doyle’s Old-Time Songs and Poetry Of Newfoundland: Songs Of The People From The Days Of Our Forefathers (Second edition, p.74, 1940).

From the Dictionary Of Newfoundland English:
Bedlamer boy — a youth approaching manhood; applied rather contemptuously to young fellows between 16 and 20; derived from the French bête de la mer (beast of the sea) used to describe a half-grown seal.
Coaker — a gasoline-fueled engine used in fishing boats ca.1920, and named for Sir William Coaker, founder of the Fishermen’s Protective Union (FPU) in Newfoundland.

The Nap – An Exercise in Creative Cropping

July 3, 2010

The Nap

There are times when I’m creative because I’m creative, and there are times when I’m creative because I’m scrambling to fix an error or rescue an image.  This photograph is one of the latter cases, and I ended up being ripped away from my comfortable dependence on the Rule of Thirds.

The 1950 Ensign Selfix 16-20 is my primary street photography camera.  It is a superb little camera, hardly larger than a point-and-shoot, yet with the excellent Ross Xpres lens and a full range of shutter speeds.

I recently spent two wonderful afternoons wandering the streets of Seattle, and shot two rolls of film of street people and an itinerant street preacher with the Ensign.  Receiving my film scans two weeks later, I was dismayed to find misaligned images with space above the heads and feet cut off!  After many years of photography, I should be able to avoid cutting off feet!

A careful examination of the Ensign’s pop-up Albada viewfinder revealed it to be more sophisticated than I had realized.  Peering through the rear window, one sees the image, together with a superimposed pale inner frame which I had ignored, taking it to be a reflection of the eyepiece.  However, on examining the finder more carefully, it is clear that a white mask painted on the inner surface of the eyepiece is designed to reflect on the front finder

The Ensign Albada Viewfinder Mask

lens, forming the true frame for the image.  Research on Albada viewfinders indicates that this is how they work –  information that I should have known from the start (see References). These are the challenges in working with older cameras that make it rewarding – and frustrating!

Now that I had discovered how to use the finder, I was faced with the problem of two rolls of dramatic but misaligned images.  Some were past saving, but I began cropping in an effort to use the remaining images.  The sleeping street person was a problem; his

The Nap, Original Image

foot hit the edge of the frame, and he definitely could not be aligned according to the Rule of Thirds.  I decided to see if I could use the misalignment for dramatic effect.  I cropped from the top, removing the bus and as much of the upper extraneous detail as possible, while leaving in place as much of the empty space in the square as possible.  I then cropped from the left, removing the base of the trash bin, and leaving the unkempt sleeping figure surrounded by the empty space, the bases of trees and a solitary lamp post.  In this arrangement, the surrounding empty square emphasizes the isolation of the sleeping figure, and may be more effective than a traditionally-balanced image.


Oleson, R.A. “Looking Forward:  The Development of the Eye Level Viewfinder.”

Petrakla, P. “Petrakla Classic Camera Site: Albada Viewfinders.”  “How to Get the Best Results From an Albada Viewfinder.”