The main lens I have used on the Graflex RB 4X5 is an uncoated Zeiss Tessar that had a bad ding on the front making the filter ring inoperable. It made for an ugly looking lens. The Tessar lens design, dating back to the end of the 19th century is a durable anastigmat, a good performer and still in use in some modern lenses. The Zeiss Tessar came in several forms, the one I have, a f 4.5 was perhaps the most common, but there was also a f 3.5 in the first half of the 20th century, a fast lens for its day, and the slower f 6.3. The f 6.3 was known for being the all around best performer. There are some authorities who claim that the venerable Kodak Commercial Ektar of the 50’s and 60’s was a slightly modified version of that f 6.3 Tessar and the story continues with the Calumet Caltar f 6.3 lenses which, it is said, were designed and sold to replace the Kodak Commercial Ektars when they went out of production. I have a 12 in. Calumet Caltar for my 8X10 camera and an 8.5 in. Commercial Ektar for my 4X5, and both are nice and bright and very sharp, considering their maximum aperture is rated rather slow.
The Graflex’s Zeiss Tessar, at f 4.5 still does not produce a brilliant illumination in the old camera. The mirror shows its age and using the camera in a dimly lit room is just about impossible. Even when it was marketed that limitation was apparent and noted. It is best outdoors in bright light or in a studio brightly illuminated. The photographer must press his or her face to the opening of the lens hood, head keeping out extraneous light, and in that short dark tunnel the rectangle of light glows, a window to the world. That is, I think one of the attractive things for me in using the Graflex. This was reinforced when I mounted the new viewing hood from Hong Kong, as it opened much wider to reveal the whole of the ground glass.
Using the dinged Tessar produced good images but it really was ugly so I permanently added an adapter ring and now am able to use filters and a lens hood.
On a tripod the Graflex becomes even more useful for me. Before I got the NOS curtain installed I was limited to rather slow shutter speeds. This moved me towards more subtle forms of light.
There are some idiosyncrasies to every camera, I suppose and the Graflex has its. Using the regular 2-sheet holders in the vertical mode presented a problem: getting my fingers onto the dark slides small wire pull ring, as the darkslide rested nearly flush with the back of the camera. For awhile, I used the RB back to point the holders down, necessitating pulling the slide from underneath the camera and that was awkward, especially on a tripod. So I bent a stiff wire with curved hooks on both ends and carried that in my pocket. I was able to hook the dark slide loop easily and pull it. Of course, things dropped into pockets get lost so my latest solution is pictured here, the hook attached to a rubber band wrapped in electrical tape and looped around the camera handle. I stretch the band, hook the dark slide and the hook remains out of the way but always ready.
You can read in Weston’s Daybook how he used his Graflex to shoot outdoor portraits in the brilliant Mexican sunlight, at 1/10th of a second, handheld. This sounds like an amazing feat! He must have never touched coffee! There are a couple things to note: First; the shutter speeds posted on the camera plate, which go from 1/10th to 1000th of a second are not to be taken literally. This is, of course true for any film cameras. In other cameras besides the Graflex, the numbers are rounded off and set into mathematical relationship to the aperture numbers , which ARE meant to be accurate. Even in the 1920’s photographers noted that the shutter speed changed on the Graflex depending on the context of the shooting: was it the first exposure after the camera had been sitting or was it immediately following a number of other exposures, i.e., how tightly was the curtain wound? Shutter speed testing was a crude affair compared to today. Second: 1/10th of a second was the number noted when the widest curtain aperture was used at its lowest tension setting. With the big mirror clunking closed one should expect vibrations to intrude into the slow shutter speed immediately following. For such reasons camera designers used mirror lock up. Today when we check shutter speeds there are several things that seem consistent. Lower shutter speeds tend to be closer to the mark, such that 1/30th of a second on a 35mm SLR on a well tuned shutter will probably be very close to 1/30th. On the same shutter, however, 1/1000th of a second might fall into the 1/800th area, and the photographer should call that good, because it is. When we installed the NOS curtain in my Graflex, shutter speed tests resolved that my 1/10th setting, the widest curtain at tension 1 produced consistently 1/30th of a second exposures. At the smallest aperture setting at tension 1, the shutter produced 1/1000th of a second! At tension 6 the same aperture setting produced 1/1400th. The speeds were consistent and THIS is what is important to the photographer. Weston knew that using his 1/10th setting he could get good handheld exposures in bright daylight and close down his lens aperture to adjust.
As an aside, the great photographer Paul Strand used over many decades a Home Portrait 5X7 Graflex which he had modified to produce 5X6 negatives. Ever the braggart, Strand claimed that his Graflex would do a 1/5th of a second slow speed, a feat that, he claimed, other Graflexes could not do.
In fact, the Graflex Shutter allows us to go past the Time exposure position to the “O” position in which the curtain is completely open. What keeps out light is the mirror which is down for viewing. If there is enough tension in the shutter spring, pressing the shutter release will lift the mirror as usual, and the curtain will more or less slowly roll down to a closed position. With my new curtain, at tension 2, this amounts to a 1/4 of a second exposure. On a tripod this is totally doable. and i have used it fairly often.
Next time I will turn to the Ansco Universal 5X7 Deluxe model view camera which I only recently acquired and restored and which has become the new home of the Protar VIIa convertible lens.