The reason why I have so many folding cameras in my collection, and why I tend to use them so much, is due to many reasons.
Firstly, they are so solidly made and are a delight to handle. Some have quirky features that you have to learn to work with, and all of them without doubt produce absolutely unique results.
Then there’s the attention they attract in the street. Whenever I use a folding camera, I tend to take my shots as fast as possible and then disappear from the scene, as I know that within a few minutes of people seeing me use such a camera, there will soon be a small group of people asking how it works or how quaint it is, etc etc.
And because I like to answer every question, it can delay my day quite substantially if I keep stopping to talk to people after every shot! Nevertheless, I really love using them, my favourite at the moment being the Zeiss Super Ikonta.
First of all, a little history lesson about the origins of these cameras. The Zeiss cameras date back to around 1925, when 4 of the biggest camera makers merged into one company. Those makers were Ica of Dresden, Goerz of Berlin, Ernemann Werke of Dresden and Contessa Nettel of Stuttgart. More than that, the link between this newly formed company to the world famous lens makers Carl Zeiss is the main important point that was to decide how the Zeiss cameras became so highly sought after.
By the time Zeiss had become an established camera maker all over the world, time was also forging ahead. very soon, camera makers in Japan also started to produce excellent products and by the late 60s, Zeiss found it very difficult to compete with it’s Japanese counterparts, which in many cases were cheaper, with comparable specifications, and came from companies that were very quick to introduce new innovations.
Even though the quality of German cameras was better a that time, the market was driven by price, a market which the Japanese won hands down and one which the Germans could not beat. Those new entrants to the camera market were Olympus, Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Minolta.
So, not being able to control costs as well as the Japanese, Zeiss finally closed down in the 70s. However, the legendary quality of Zeiss cameras still reigns supreme and has seen an upsurge in recent years, so much so that Zeiss cameras now command a high price.
As far as the Zeiss folding range is concerned, it was mainly the 531a, 530 and 531/16 which led the way. These were all labelled Super Ikonta, the super meaning a coupled rangefinder (next question is going to be “what is a coupled rangefinder”! I will address that in a later article solely about range finders).
The main feature of these folding cameras is their use of 120 roll film, that can give either 6×6 or 6x9cm size negatives, large enough to be contact printed and viewed as-is, without the need for enlargement. Also due to the size, is the phenomenal amount of resolution you get with these huge negatives. Ok, so it is dependent upon the lens quality too, but even with an uncoated, simpler lens, you will be astounded at the results from such an old camera.
So, onto the cameras themselves. The best of the range were indeed the Super Ikontas, as they came with coupled range finders, better lenses and better shutters. Lenswise, the best in my opinion was the 105mm f4.5 Zeiss Tessar, which was uncoated in the earlier models, but coated after 1945 or so. All of these models also had the option of shooting smaller, square negatives of 6x6cm, which gave you more shots per roll of film. Of course, these days when you buy a Super Ikonta, the metal film mask which enables you to do this may be missing, but I’ve made one up at home quite simple with stout cardboard cut to the right size, and it works!
What do you need to look out for when buying one of these and how much can you expect to pay?
Well, the main things to look out for are leaking bellows, as replacing them can be costly. To check, just unfold the bellows, open the back cover, point the camera to a bright window or light and look carefully through the back…if you see any pinpricks of light, walk away….at the prices these sell at, I wouldn’t want to shell out even more cash to get new bellows fitted!
Check the rangefinder images; do they coincide properly? If not, again walk away, as realigning will also cost you. For focussing, you have to look through the one of 2 windows; make sure that the rangefinder window especially is clear, as age may have caused it to become very milky and fuzzy, again something which is not fatal but will cost money to get cleared up. Finally always carry a roll of an exposed 120 film with you when buying a medium format camera. Load it up into the camera, wind on to each frame, checking that everything works as it should and that the shutter speeds fire at roughly what the pointer is saying. Finally, check that the camera folds back up properly and securely.
What kind of results can you expect from a Super Ikonta? Know this, that there are many Super Ikonta users out there as we speak, producing high quality images that are, and have been published by leading magazines. That should say a lot to you!
In the near future, I will be offering a few of my own Super Ikontas for sale here; keep it here!
Meantime, I’ll leave you with a few examples of the shots this beautiful piece of engineering is capable of:
all photos courtesy http://www.flickr.com