D.Germany mucking out. The pandemic causes one or the other to rummage through the many boxes and boxes in the attic or in the basement that have been stored there untouched for a long time. Obviously there are many old cameras that are no longer used, which, too bad for the bin, are now being offered on flea market platforms on the Internet. Among the old treasures are a surprising number of cameras from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the old plate cameras that are now looking for a new owner are offered as decorative objects.
As a decorative object? Actually, they are too good for the showcase. Can you still take photos with it? The answer is: yes, with a little luck you can. Many cameras that are around a century old have survived the decades dry and protected in a suitable leather box. There are currently many wooden cameras in the 13 × 18 cm format and folding cameras, mostly in the 9 × 12 cm format. The wooden cameras, known as travel cameras, often date from the turn of the last century and were the common camera used by amateur photographers at that time. The professionals used heavier and larger cameras and formats. After 1900 the folding camera became more popular. With the format 9 × 12 cm, it also offered good image quality for the conditions at the time. It could be hand-held and didn’t necessarily need a large tripod. The photo material was cheaper and the camera was more convenient to use and transport. It was simply folded in so that the lens and bellows were perfectly protected from all external influences like in a protective cover, often to this day.
A quick check of the camera is advisable for use now after so many years. Is the bellows still tight, does the shutter work, is the lens clean? The folding camera can be opened on the top with a push button hidden under the leather cover, then the walking floor folds out. It is locked into place and then the lens slide is carefully pulled out on the rail until it also clicks into place. In principle, the camera is now ready to take a picture. A visual inspection from the outside reveals cracks and damaged corners on the bellows. An examination with a flashlight in the dark reveals hidden damage. The lens shutter should be carefully cocked and released. Sometimes the lock is resinous and can only be started again by using it several times.
With the focusing screen, the picture can be examined before it is taken, reversed and upside down. As a rule, the folding cameras have a glare shield for the focusing screen to assess the image in sunlight, so that a dark cloth is not required. Most cameras also have either a frame finder or a brilliant viewfinder, which also shows the correct image section. The distance is then to be estimated. To record, you now need recording cartridges, the so-called disk cartridges. A plate camera usually included three or six plate cartridges that were equipped with negative glass plates. These negative plates were sold by the dozen in a box, but there were also half boxes with six pieces. Different versions were available, for plates and for sheet films, for pack films and also for roll films. Cassettes with sheet films can only be used with a sheet film insert. This is important, because the position of the emulsion must be identical to the screen, otherwise the photos will be blurred.
How does it go from here? From this point on, it takes more than just basic film and camera skills and the ability to be creative with the possibilities. Photo plates for 9 × 12 folding cameras and the larger 13 × 18 travel cameras made of wood were no longer available for a long time. There is now a photographer in the United States who coats photo plates by hand and also produces a wide variety of formats (J. Lane Dry Plates from Pictoriographica, LLC.)) In Germany, the products are made by the black and white photo laboratory – atelier for analogue craft in Düsseldorf expelled. There are two versions that, like at the beginning of photography, are not sensitive to red light, i.e. orthochromatic, with different sensitivities: 2 ASA and 15 ASA and different contrast behavior. The advantage: the old cameras can be used without modification as they were a century ago. You only need a kind of darkroom or a dark bag to insert the plates, which are placed in the cassette with the layer side up. Slider closed and ready to take. A light meter is helpful for time and aperture. Insert the cassette, pull the cassette slide and expose.
Then you either go to your own darkroom, or you can send the cassettes with the exposed plates to the black and white photo laboratory in Düsseldorf. Its owner Thomas Ochs then professionally develops the negatives and can also scan them in, so that the photographer not only receives the developed negative plates back, but also a digital file of his images. The file enables further processing without a special darkroom. For photo fans with a darkroom: You don’t necessarily need an enlarger to convert the large negative formats into positives. The contact method produces good and sufficiently large images. The 6 × 9 format is less suitable for contacts, 13 × 18 format is better as a contact, but also more expensive. Enlargers for the format 9 × 12 and larger are expensive, because it is technically not easy to achieve good transparency of the negatives. There are also devices for sunlight with a fixed magnification, but these are only used and rarely offered in full.