Ask the VR Photography Experts

Q: I have just received several old medium format Graflex 4”x5” cameras (circa 1956) from my father’s estate. I’d like to know the basics of how to use these and whether it’spossible to use them for VR photography? The lenses that came with them are 127mm and 180mm, but it looks like you can put other lenses on them simply by attaching them to the removable lens boards.

The cameras have something called a "Graflock back" on them which allows some type of film insert/loader to slide between the large ground glass focusing plate and the bellows/lens. I think you can even get some type of roll film holder for 120 or 220 film.

I am also a bit confused by the triggering mechanism. There's a front and back trip mechanism, one for the lens up front and another for "curtain" at the back of the camera hiding the film.

A: The Graflex cameras, particularly the Speed Graphic, were the photojournalists' camera of choice back in their day. They were "portable" (did not require a tripod) and many had flash gun (bulb) attachments. They shot 4"x5" film (considered large format, rather than medium), and were the mainstay of most newspaper photographers in the '40s, '50s and early '60s. Most of the Pulitzer Prizes won during those years were shot with Speed Graphics. The cameras are however, cumbersome and limited in their capabilities by today's standards, but they can be fun to work with if you're looking to broaden your photographic horizons. (Note that every shot will cost you significantly more in the cost of film and processing than medium format or 35mm will (expect $6-$8 per shot for 4"x5" color transparency film).

Other 4x5 lenses can be mounted on the camera, but these start getting fairly expensive in the wide angle and ultra-wide focal lengths, which you’ll usually need for VR panoramas.

Kodak and Fuji both sell ReadyLoad-type 4x5 film (with its own light-tight paper holder). They also sell 4x5 sheet film (which you load into your own wooden or metal 4x5 film holders). The Graflock back, if I remember correctly, allowed you to load half a dozen or more sheets of film into a single film holder, which you could then cycle through simply by pulling a release plate out and in, rather than having to remove the film holder (which required first inserting a dark slide) and turning it over or replacing it with another in order to shoot your next shot. The Graflock backs were considered a more deluxe and efficient way to shoot in their day, but they were prone to jamming and light leaks if not cared for properly.

There were some roll film holders available also, but I'm not sure how readily they can be found today. If you're wanting to shoot roll film, there are more practical systems that are easier to use and cheaper to operate than the Graflexes (the Rolleiflex was the medium format camera that replaced the Graflex and Speed Graphics at most newspapers in the late fifties and early sixties -- and the Rolleiflex was replaced by the new 35mm camera systems shortly after that).

The shutter speeds for the rear curtain are only a rough approximation due to the varying strength of the springs used and their age. I have an old Speed Graphic that we actually measured the shutter speeds on. They worked out as follows:

1/30 sec.
1/15 sec.
1/50 sec.
1/30 sec.
1/125 sec.
1/80 sec.
1/250 sec.
1/160 sec.
1/500 sec.
1/250 sec.
1/1000 sec.
1/550 sec.

It is a large focal plane shutter on the back. It could be used with both leaf shutter lenses on the front, or non-shutter lenses. If using a lens with its own shutter, the rear shutter needed to be set to a slower speed than the front lens, or its shutter needed to be left open and only the lens shutter tripped. The leaf shutters on the lenses were far more accurate than the focal plane shutter on the camera. There were double cable release mechanisms that could release both shutters at the same time I think, but generally, most photographers used one or the other depending upon whether the lens they were using had its own shutter.

Speed Graphics were used by Joe Rosenthal to shoot the flag raising on Iwo Jima and by Nat Fein to shoot Babe Ruth's last at-bat in Yankee Stadium, as well as a dozen other Pulitzer Prize winning images. These cameras are mostly collectors' items today, and seem to sell for a couple hundred dollars or so on eBay, depending on their condition. Other Graflex cameras were commonly used in portrait studios and by landscape photographers in the '30s, '40s and '50s.

It is possible to mount other lenses on them, but note that there are significant differences in the back focus distance from 4x5 lenses as compared to medium format and 35mm format lenses. 35mm lenses cannot be mounted successfully, because the back focus distance is so short and there's no way to get the lens close enough to the film plane to get the image in focus on the Graflex cameras. Also, the image circle is so small that most of the 4x5 film area would be wasted. Other Graflex models had larger film holders. Medium format lenses can be used more successfully, but will require a custom lens plate. Even so, they need to be focused with the bellows almost off the back rail in order to get the lens positioned with the proper back focus distance relative to the film plane.

You'd be making your life fairly difficult by trying to use these cameras to make VR panoramas. Mind you, it's not impossible, but there will be considerable technical challenges and not insignificant expense involved.

Be prepared to go through a lot of film as you try new things with these cameras. However, there is something magical about viewing an original image on a 4x5 inch (or larger) piece of film, especially to those of us who have become so used to looking at our film images with a loupe (magnifier) after having shot 35mm for so long.

Enjoy the bit of photographic history you have in these cameras, and savor the legacy of your father's work which your cameras were a part of.

- Scott Highton