« Advice for Aspiring Photographers | Main | Errol Morris, Ruminator Extraordinaire »

Thursday, 22 October 2009


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

A few months ago I was testing a Linhof prior to purchase when a friend loaned me his Graflex Crown. Graflex stole my heart right away. It felt rigid, smooth, beautifully machined without feeling pretentious nor "precious". It fit my hands well, it balanced well, focused easily... at 1/8 of the price of Linhof I just could not say "no". It came with 135mm Optar, which is not supposed to be a lens about which legends are made. Nonetheless, the first batch of T-Max 100 negatives tray processed in Rodinal had me scratching my head; I just did not expect this level of sharpness, glow, smoothness, beauty... (and I am picky about negatives). I am a Graflex enthusiast now.

Well, having spent some intimate time with a Speed Graphic in my gloriously misspent youth, and considering the toys I have to play with today ... oh, nevermind. I feel like such a party-pooper.

As I left PhotoPlus Expo today at the Javits in NYC, this gentleman (a contemporary of mine) was sitting outside with a Speed Graflex and a Polaroid 110b. iPhone photo is here

I purchased a Crown Graphic 2 days ago and I thought I was having a hard time waiting for it to arrive. Now I can't wait.

It's interesting to note that in the photo, Weegee is holding what appears to be a movie camera.

I wish you'd kept this article to yourself, Mike. During the past two years I've been "this close" to getting one of these relics. (Most recently a Crown Graphic, like Matthew's, from an Ohio police department.) In the end, I was always stopped by the same tough questions: what the hell would I do with this thing and how often would I do it? Failing satisfactory answers to those questions, one more was the killer: Where will I store it?

I just hope this article doesn't rekindle the lust.

Mike, I am one of these 'kids' who recently picked up a Speed Graphic. I got a Pacemaker Speed Graphic after reading up about David Burnett's work who caused quite a number of people to take digging into their grand-uncle's attics. My Pacemaker -- that I got from that auction site -- is in pretty good shape and I think had all of its original parts -- at least until I dropped it off its tripod last weekend, destroying its ground glass. Before my mishap I think I started to understand the wonder of staring at an image upside down through the ground glass and took these two images (on my blog):


I think they're the first ones I've taken with any camera that I have the urge to see really blown up. It's not like I've had poor cameras before, just that working with that old Speed Graphic really did make me slow down and consider. Well, that's me.

Have to say I'm a fan of the Graphic cameras - I've got a Pacemaker Crown Graphic that I use with a graphmatic back - great for group shots at weddings and the like. Probably the only time the photographer gets his photo taken by the guests ("I remember those when I was young, what is it?? You shoot FILM????).

Don't knock the old lenses, they are really sharp too - I use both the ektar and Xenar....and they couple to the rangefinder too! And the old 90mm Graflex Optar and Schneider Angulon lenses are great too - not much movement, but gret for shooting 6X12 panos....

I too swapped my Technika for Crown. I started getting more keepers simply because my arm wasn't fatiguing as fast ;-) And the $2000 price difference came in handy as well.

Until the early 1970s, Rochester NY-made photo equipment was capable of producing the finest results, without being overly fussy or too expensive. To me, that's the best kind of engineering.

I love my Speed and my Crown, the 127 ektars are pretty wonderful lenses. They are really great for hand held portraits. One of the cool things about them is the Kalart Rangefinder and the Focusspot, a device that projects two spots of light through the rangefinder. You simply rack the focus until the two spots merge, and as Mike says "Viola!" whatever the spot is on is in focus. More likely you would do the fine focusing by foot ( moving the camera ) Once you got good at visualizing where the edges of the frame are in relation to the spot, you could do the classic press photographer "hold the camera over your head and get a perfectly focused picture", and of course the wide-ish image gives plenty of cropping room. Oh, yes and the focusing by foot technique maks flash exposure a snap, set up the F/stop and shutter speed to match the pre-focused distance, match the dots and trip the shutter. If only today's auto focus cameras worked half as well.

I was experimenting with attaching a Focusspot to a Leica IIIc for a while.

The baby rollfilm Speeds are big fun too, all the same tricks but with with the speed and convenience rollfilm.

If you are going to use a tripod, you might want to buy a Busch Pressman, they have revolving backs, more movements and cost about the same.

It's spreadin' faster than swine flu... I just bought a Crown Graphic 2 weeks ago.

Another Advice for Aspiring Photographers I suggest.

it's a 16mm Bolex (classic Swiss movie camera whose winding lever shows on the left - no batteries required).

I guess photojournalists shot moving images as part of the job long before Canon stuffed video in a 5D?

About a month ago, I purchased a Crown Graphic Pacemaker at an estate sale in Santa Monica. It's in excellent shape and belonged to one of LIFE magazine's first photographers, Hart Preston. Here he is in action in 1943:
I believe he later opened the first foreign bureau for LIFE, in Brazil. He joined Walt Disney on his goodwill trip there in the early 1940s, as seen in the recent documentary film "WALT Y EL GRUPO," taking one of the better shots I've seen of the movie icon:
It's been a great adventure researching the background on the camera and it's owner--and I haven't even shot one sheet film yet! Thanks to Mike for including such almost- forgotten gems like the Graphic along with the newer and shinier models.

It's interesting to note that in the photo, Weegee is holding what appears to be a movie camera.

There is a book in our local library which shows Weegee working on movie sets taking stills with a Rolleiflex in his home made Perspex (Plexiglass) sound proof casing.

Perhaps he got into movie film from doing this work.

On a DPR thread for Ricoh's we mentioned the use of a wire viewfinder as a less expensive, and probably just as effective, alternative to the shoe mounted OVF.

Ikodot do what seems to be the only one around.

Harks back to the cameras you are discussing here - which seemed to work totally succesfully with wire frame viewfinders.

Why don't more people offer them for finderless P&S cameras?


Nostalgia! My 2nd LF camera was a Crown Graphic. Still have it, though somewhere in the garage. Also have a Century Graphic which I used for grab shots. Has a medium format film back as well as film holders with 2.25X3.25 film still available. As long as you don't mind the minimal movements, they are great tools.

Cosmic post, Mike. I spent last night doing an internet search for a Graflex Super D for sale. I came up empty (there were a few for sale on EBay but either too much $ or in "as is" condition.) I'll keep searching..........the lure of the 4x5 is a powerful thing!

I own one of these and don't use it as much as I would like. I've exchanged the lens board for a JoLo board and have mounted the Kodak Aero Ektar 2.5 lens on it. It looks like a monster with this lens and is quite heavy after this major "pimp". If you do get one of these though, note that it goes hand in hand with setting up your own darkroom, which as we have read a few months ago is definitely a good thing! (Now back to downloading LR3 beta.)

A Speed Graphic was the first "real" camera I ever used when I first started learning photography in junior high school. Its operation was far from intuitive and there were dozens of ways to screw up. You had to know what you were doing to have any hope of getting a usable photograph from one of these beasts. But if you did know how to handle one, it would reward you with amazingly gorgeous negatives and prints. Ah, the memories...

I was just reading about someone's preference for a Crown Graphic with a rollfilm back*, yesterday, and had begun to look at them on ebay. Serendipity. I wonder what I would be getting myself into.

*Dante Stella, maybe? I can't remember.

One other thing that I forgot, a Crown Graphic is a really good tool for teaching photography. It's so big and simple that it's easy for students to figure out what's going on inside a camera. Put fast enlarging paper in some holders walk outside focus the camera, put the holder loaded with paper into the camera and make an exposure, go to the darkroom and develop the paper negative, stick the wet paper negative to the wall and rephotograph it using the Graphic loaded with paper. Develop that in the darkroom, and in about an hour the student has covered all the basics and the rest of their photo career is just refinement.

Of course you don't *have* to refine your technique much beyond that. Yesterday when a friend and I walked past the gentleman with a Graphic mentioned above in front of Photo Expo NYC, my friend commented that she knows a street photographer in Mexico City who's family has been making paper negative portraits on the same street corner every day for four generations.

Mike wrote (emphasis mine): Hold out for a hardcover from the '40s, which shouldn't be too expensive if you find a later edition at a used bookstore.

That was until you mentioned it, Mike. Now the price has automatically gone up a few hundred percent due to MJ-induced inflation.


There's nothing I can add to these great testimonials to Graphic cameras. All I can say is that I have an ear-to-ear smile on my face. The cameras and using them are pure joy. If you're just getting started with one of these old dears,congratulations! You're in for a treat.

And, leave it to Mike and TOP is stay open to the depth and breadth of photography. I finally got a digital camera because of this site (a Pentax K10 followed by a K20). My Pentax and my Graphic seem to get along very well in my camera bag. Gotta love Photography.

One of the great tricks of a Crown is get a grafmatic back; these things are awesome. It will easily let you do things like this while out walking around, and still cycle the next sheet in quickly. 6 negs is also a very nice batch if you are using a Jobo....

There is a story told here in Chicago about a reunion of Sun-Times photographers, perhaps in celebration of the publication of Real Chicago back in 2004. One of the current photographers showed his digital camera (probably a Canon 1D) to an old-timer who reacted, "Naw, you hit someone wit dat and they may go down but they won't stay down. You hit someone with this (Speed Graphic) they go down and STAY DOWN!".

You're right about the paperback version of Naked City Mike - the quality is pretty horrible.
Back in the pre-internet days I special ordered a copy from a bookstore after reading an article about Weegee in American Photo. The images were sharp and crisp in the magazine but dull and grainy in the book. They're still great images though so I'd love to see them reproduced properly!

The Speed Graphic was my dad's old workhorse that shot many a wedding and lots of other events. He became a photographer in the Navy during WWII, and then worked as a professional photographer until he retired. His Speed Graphic really shows the wear and tear of a pro but I am sure it still functions properly. Someday, it will be passed down to one of us.

Here is one more thing I forgot to mention. My mom says that dad bought the Speed Graphic in the mid 1950s over her objection because they had three young boys at the time and she wanted one of those new "automatic" washing machines. He convinced her that he could make extra money shooting weddings so I guess he was right.

Did you know that Peter Sellers voice in Dr. Strangelove was based on Weegee's slightly strangled voice. Want career advice from the man himself:

I just recently got a "Super" from 1971. Never used, brand new. It even had batteries that could produce a shutter click once every two hours! By the way, the 22.5V batteries are still available for under 10 bucks each! Anxious to get my first transparencies back from development...

I still have my Speed Graphic and an assortment of flash bulbs. I love my digital DSLRs, but when I pick up the Speed Graphic I FEEL like a photographer. When I was in the USAF in the early 1970s we were still using these a lot. They never let us down. Unless, of course, you forgot to wind the focal plane shutter up out of the way. A good number of our Speed Graphics had the focal plane shutter ripped out so photographers wouldn’t miss shots.

Excellent post, and fantastic supporting stories and photos. I especially like Carl's first pic and Martin's, as it seems to be taken very recently.

One of my tenants has a Speed Graphic, and he is like 150 years old.

What a contraption.

Greg Smith-- Even more exciting, when your buddies would crack the big flash bulbs, just enough to let in a little air-- Check the blue dot-- and of course when that sucker went off the generals would duck for cover. surprise, surprise.

Mike, this is another great post in what I feel is the most intelligent website for photographers.

Interestingly, Weegee also used a Burke & James 4x5 press camera. There is a similar endorsement in the owner's manual.

Recently I was given a near-mint B&J press camera that sat in its case in a friend's basement for the past 7 years. Three lenses including a wonderful Steinheil Munchen Culminar 135mm. Also included was a tiny Kodak rangefinder that still works quite well. The neat thing about the B&J press camera is that the back rotated.

The whole kit fits into my photo backpack quite handily for an excellent field setup.

My 23 year old friend Eddy shoots almost exclusively with a Crown Graphic. He's got 3 of them, the newest of which is probably twice his age.


He's lousy at tags so there's probably quite a few more shots than that link includes.

True, the cameras are not very expensive today--except when they are equipped with 3-cell flash units. Prices for these--with or without camera--have skyrocketed, thanks to Star Wars fans seeking to replicate the lightsaber props used in the original movies, which were built up from various Graflex-style flash handles. A few rare MPP models, as used for Darth Vader's saber, reportedly sold for around $1,000.

"Where will I store it?"

I'm afraid that's not a very strong objection, Ken. A Crown or Super folds up into a tidy package, smaller than any toaster or lunchbox I've seen, and smaller than some dictionaries. A smaller lens, like the kit lenses, can stay mounted, too. Fits well on a bookshelf (minding the parts that can scratch).

I did Santa photos one year back in the 1970s with a Graphic of some sort (not mine) and 4x5 Polaroid back. And a modern Honeywell electronic flash. That's the closest I've come to shooting one of these beasts, but indeed, I probably should have gotten one early on (except they weren't cheap in 1972; not really cheap, not compared to my budget). (I did get an Omega 45D that I've still got, much later, all the way into the 80s).

Say, when did 1972 and 1982 get to be close together, anyway? Huh?

I've had my Speed Graphic for something like 30 years. One thing I love about it is that with the focal plane shutter you can put pretty much anything out in front of it and use it as a lens. You don't need to have a shutter out front. Once I was talking with a friend who is a Holga fan. I said I could take "Holga" photos with any crappy camera. I could even use a $3 magnifying glass as a lens to take photos. She didn't believe me, so I did it, using my Speed Graphic. Just a little duct tape, magnifying glass and an empty lens board. I've also taped a pinhole to an empty lens board. Just use the rear shutter and you are in business. I have a polaroid back that takes pack film, so that makes it easy to figure out what is happening with whatever weird thing you've put out front.

The comments about the flashbulbs reminded me of a story Chuck Scott once told me about the old days at the Milwaukee Journal. They used to use flare guns to do night photos outdoors. Just get ready to take the shot and then fire the flare gun and shoot while the flare came down under a parachute. But the highway patrol would get upset at accident scenes where there was gasoline spilled.

Duluth (Minnesota) photographer K. Praslowicz has some interesting blog posts about his press camera use.

found this on youtube - Weegee Tells How

About the rotating back issue: My Speed Graphic has two tripod sockets, one for vertical and one for horizontal mounting. I just put a quick release plate for my tripod in each of the sockets and the switch from one to the other is quick and easy.

I have and regularly use a '38 Speed Graphic and a 1950's Press King 4x5, as well as a host of old folders of various sorts. Each of them has a distinct personality and a quirk or two, which make them very rewarding to shoot. My friends are constantly bringing me old camera gear they've come across, to see if I can do anything with it.

I've gotten a few strange looks on commercial shoots busting out the old gear, but the results speak for themselves.

- CJ

The youtube thing looks like the same sound clip as what Calvin posted with just some stills to go with it. I looked up his Dr. Strangelove reference too and I'll-be-damned...

@ Michael Elenko: I often wondered why The Online Photographer (of all places) would not let me include a photo in my comments. You seem to have figured it out. Please share. Thanks!

Matthew McConaughey uses a Crown Graphic in studio portraiture in "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past", now out in the rental store.

I owned a camera shop in Bklyn back in the day and in the 80s and early 90s,used a Speed Graphic to shoot double passport photos with a lens splitter and Polaroid back.I saved it and have it packed in a box somwhere?
I wonder how many of those puppies Marty Forscher worked on?,may he rest in peace!

"The youtube thing looks like the same sound clip as what Calvin posted with just some stills to go with it."

Right. It's a track from an old vinyl record called "Famous Photographers Tell How." We did a post about it a while back.


I was waiting for a Star Wars mention. Looks like there's one. :P

Interestingly enough, I sought one of these twice; first for the lightsaber mod, the second for actually taking photos. Twice I didn't manage to get them. Oh well.

I've had a Speed Graphic for some time but have only taken one photo with it- processing film has become such a chore. It has been superceded with a 1911 bicycle camera, which is loaded with 5x7 black and white and sits waiting for the necessary burst of enthusiasm. I made a portrait of the Graflex:

I think it photographed rather well....

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007