Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Autograph Hound

This camera dates to about 1925, which would make it my grandfather’s—one he would have used as a young man.

The camera came fully loaded. It uses large film (116 size), so you get good resolution. And you can manually set focus, aperture, and shutter speed, so you don’t have to rely on a computer to pick automatic settings that can come out wrong and ruin a good picture.

The little hole in the front cover is a tripod mount for when you’re taking a vertical-frame picture. Later on I figured out why “Kodak” is upside-down here, although I might have designed it differently.

Notice the little widget up and to the left of the main lens. More on that in a minute.

Once you have picked your subject, you’ll want to focus on it. This is accomplished by setting the catch into the correct notch on the focusing scale.

The Ilex f/7.7 Anastigmat lens indicates the age of the camera. Kodak used a series of different lenses on the same basic camera model, and they were using these lenses in the mid-1920s. (Anastigmat indicates that a certain lens distortion has been corrected with advanced optics.) The little lever with a knob at the end of it in about the 8:00 position on the lens is the shutter release.

You can set shutter speeds from permanently open to as fast as 1/100th of a second. The shutter is tripped and timed mechanically, with springs and bearings. With this camera, you’ll never need to replace a battery.

I haven’t tested it, but I suspect the threaded fitting next to the manual shutter release is a receptacle for a cable release, similar to what you’ll find on more recent Kodak models.

The lens is wide open at f/7.7, and it tightens down to f/45.

(That’s focal length ÷ x , for those who aren’t familiar with the terminology. It describes how wide the lens opens—how much light gets in—and determines how forgiving your focus will be. This lens has a 130mm focal length—i.e., the front part of the lens sits 130mm in front of the film—so f/45 means your lens aperture will be a little less than 3mm in diameter. At f/7.7, the opening will be nearly 17mm wide, or .66 inch. More light will get in, but your foreground and background will be less clearly focused than when you use a tighter aperture. With a modern compact camera that uses—let’s say—a 35mm lens, the same f/45 would be less than a millimeter across, but its characteristics, both for focus and exposure length, would be roughly the same as they are for the identical f-stop on any other lens, long or short. A “fast” lens today might open up as wide as f/2.8 or even f/1.4, letting in a lot of light so you can take really fast shots, letting you freeze motion. The great landscape photographers of yesteryear had a little clique they called the f/64 club, because when you shoot with such a tiny aperture, your focus is brilliantly clear. You wanted to know all this, right?)

Remember the doohickey attached to the upper corner of the lens? It took me a while to figure out. It’s the viewfinder, to let you see what the camera is pointed at. Here I’m looking into it at some objects on a table (a toy camera and the case for this camera), with a ceiling light hanging overhead. Everything is left-right reversed, or up-down, depending on how you prefer to understand it.

The round opening lets in light, which bounces off the back of (I presume) the prism at a 90° angle. You look into the +-shaped opening to see the image. It’s not a really exact way to frame your shots, but it’s better than a blind guess.

This is what the film sees.

A distinguishing feature of the Autographic cameras was this stylus and the special film rolls they used. The film itself is standard 116-size film, which you can still buy today, but it was wound in with carbon paper sandwiched between the film and the standard black-paper backer.

After you take a shot, you flip open a little door in the back of the camera and use the stylus to write on the heavy backing paper. That presses the carbon paper against the film, leaving a black mark on the film. When the negatives are printed, those words written in black show up in the prints as white lettering.

For its time, this was a convenient camera to carry on a trip, or to a family outing, or just about anywhere. It’s lightweight and can be carried in one hand, though it’s too big to slip into a pocket. It sets up fast and gives the photographer good control over exposure, but it doesn’t have a lot of fussy settings that will take forever to get right. And compared to making your exposures on eight-inch by ten-inch glass plates coated in light-sensitive gel, shooting on Kodak film is a snap.

(See how I did that?)

The Autographic was replaced later on by other similarly convenient collapsible cameras, like Mom’s Kodak Tourist from the late 1940s, each succeeding generation refining the mechanisms, improving the lenses, tightening up the machining standards. Keep in mind that a large part of Kodak’s mission in producing cameras was to sell lots of rolls of film.

And then in the 1950s Leica released the M3, a revolution in convenience: It used 35mm film, which meant the camera could be about a third the size and weight of one of these bellows-style cameras, and it featured interchangeable lenses to let photographers switch quickly to adapt to different shooting situations.

That pretty much was the end for medium-format cameras like this one, except for a small cadre of “serious” photographers who appreciated the larger frame size with its corresponding higher level of detail and resolution.


techie said...

Actually, interchangeable lenses (39mm screw mount) were introduced with the Leica I in 1930. The Leica II introduced the built-in rangefinder, and the M3 introduced the bayonet mount lenses.

When I was at Paly, I got a lot of use out of Ray Kortan's Leica IIIc (donated from a dental office with a bellows), with a 50mm f1.2 Canon lens pulled off a Canon with a mostly broken shutter.

It was a nice combo, very quiet, and good in low light. I would love to get a M4/M5/M6 some day..

mrjumbo said...

Yup. Actually, there's a lot of other juicy info that could be squeezed in there (coated glass, SLRs, and so on), but it was a recap, not a detailed history. I would argue that the bayonet mount was what really made the Leica system handy, although if you've used an M3, you know that handy is a comparative term: it was more handy than what came before, but later developments (better film loading, no film at all, etc.) made cameras even more handy than that.

Making shooting easy without compromising quality is a tricky business.

Andrew Shields said...

I doubt that many cameras made in 2010 will still work in 2095.