A Victorian camera lives again

Duncan Waldron

Camira, Australia

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Artist's Description

This image was taken with an old wooden camera that I found in an antique shop in Edinburgh. I decided recently to see how it performed, and so loaded it with a sheet of BW printing paper. The paper, at approximately ISO3 (yes, three), is probably similar in speed to the glass plates that would have been in use at the time (around 1870s); the exposure here was 45 seconds at about f/14 (double that would have been better). The focal length of the lens is around 145mm, and the focusing adjustment was extended to its maximum, which was presumably the setting for a group portrait.

For this ‘resurrection’ of a lovely old camera, I decided to take the photograph in an antique shop. It seemed more appropriate than the Coffs Jetty! My thanks to David Mann at Olde Memories & Treasures, who patiently sat for me today – without the aid of a Victorian neck support! Incidentally, David is reading a copy of The Age from 1854 – Vol. 1 No. 1.
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Since taking this picture, I have managed to open up the lens to clean some significant fungus off the inside; any further images should show some improvement in flare, although as an uncoated basic lens it will still have a certain ‘old’ quality to it.
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More about the camera

This is a camera designed to take glass plates approx. 3.5 × 4.75 inches (88 × 122 mm). It can be loaded with several plates, which are exposed sequentially in the field, a new plate being moved to the front of the stack by using the bellows device on the top – avoiding the need for a ‘dark tent’ during use. I believe it was possibly made around 1870, and might be French. There is no maker’s name, and the only identifying mark is the number ‘838’ punched into the inside of the rear door.

The lens is a double meniscus design, with 2 aperture stops, on a sliding plate (f/14.5 & f/29); the shutter has instantaneous and ‘Bulb’ settings, and by trapping a bead (now missing) attached to the Bulb cord, in a small covered recess on top of the camera, the shutter can be held open indefinitely. There are 2 options for focus, achieved by sliding the front of the body forwards, presumably allowing correct focus for a group portrait as well as infinity when the front is in its rearmost position.

There appears to have been the facility to attach a viewfinder of some sort, judging by the position of pairs of small screws on the top and the left side of the body (for ‘portrait’ and ‘landscape’ format).

Artwork Comments

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