More Stylish Designs

Camera manufacturers have always been an inquisitive lot constantly studying each other's product line, looking around for new improvements, and striving all the time to outdo their rivals in competition. There is nothing essentially wrong with this, for were it not for this trend, we would still be stuck with Daguerre's wooden cameras today!

The classical box design described in the last section remained in manufacture well into the 1950s, but suffered from two noticeable drawbacks. The image seen in the tiny reflecting viewfinder was too small for the user to compose his pictures with ease, and besides, each time the photographer aimed his camera he had to hold the device at waist level to peek into his finder.

These drawbacks were apparent all along and to overcome the first of them, a design known as a ‘Reflex type’ box camera, or ‘Large finder box camera’ was put into use. A large-finder box camera was a most suitable companion on holiday outings, it gave square pictures 6 x 6 cm size on 120 film, and was marked by the absence of the two ‘eyes’ found on older types. In their place a large brilliant finder was incorporated. The brilliant finder was nothing more than a large sized version of the earlier reflecting viewfinder found on traditional models ; thus, although laterally inverted, the picture seen in the viewfinder was nearly as large as the negative itself. This was convenient for the user who no longer had to strain his eye peering into a picture the size of a postage stamp.

Several manufacturers introduced the reflex type camera as a convenient alternative to the classical model. Ensign Limited of London, for example, had one such camera within its range of photographic equipment. While retaining its usual E-20 box model, Ensign announced in 1939 the Ful-Vue, “the camera with the bigger, brighter, better viewfinder.” Fitted with a T and I shutter, the camera had a metal body finished in crystalline enamel, and gave 12 pictures on 120 size film. “Here is the box camera that everyone has been waiting for,” the ad shouted. “It possesses a feature that distinguishes it from all others. It has a bigger, brighter, better viewfinder which gives a better idea than ever before of what the finished result is likely to be, and makes it far easier to achieve that result. It is the box camera supreme!”

A Large-finder box camera. The lower lens
takes the picture, while the upper lens in
conjunction with a 45 degree mirror within
the camera projects an image of the scene
which can be seen in the viewglass
at the top. 

The first half of the twentieth century saw a vast profusion of hand-held folding cameras for amateur use. A folding camera used daylight loading roll film and carried a lens connected to the body of the camera with bellows. After use, the lens which was supported on a hinged baseboard could be pushed back into the camera making the assembly compact enough to be carried around easily. Photographic stores were flooded with hundreds of these tiny bellows cameras. Some of the inexpensive ones were no better than box cameras offering a single speed and one or two lens openings while more expensive makes carried precision lenses and shutters suited to the most demanding work.

An early advertisement showing
folding (top) and miniature
The arrival in 1925 of the world’s first 35mm camera, the Leica, followed by later models like the Contax posed a serious challenge to this situation. Both were revolutionary designs, and both were equipped with lenses carried in tubular lens mounts, at that time a radical new concept in camera design. While the bellows assembly resulted in compactness when folded up, it also called for the utmost care in handling : even a tiny pinhole in the bellows could let in enough light to fog the film inside. The tubular mount on the other hand, though less compact, offered robustness, maintaining the lens in permanent alignment with the film.

As 35mm grew in popularity, it became increasingly clear that the rigid body construction possessed merits which far outweighed its disadvantages. By the mid-1950s, bellows folding models were already on the decline. Roll film and 35mm cameras with rigid body design had come into a class of their own. They were refreshingly simple to use in knowledgeable hands, they allowed a large number of exposures to be taken in sequence without reloading, and the fine grain films developed for use allowed negatives to stand up to considerable enlargement. Fashionably known as miniature cameras, they defined a new approach in candid photography hitherto unknown ushering in an exciting new branch of photography called ‘miniature camera technique.’

Manufacturers were quick to note the shift in emphasis. As well as being robust and versatile, the miniature was also stylish in appearance and camera firms could sense that the traditional box seemed to be drawing progressively less attention from customers. A new generation of box cameras now began to make an appearance on the market. Agfa introduced in 1958 the Click I followed a year later by the Click II, Click III and other similar models. The new-look cameras on offer tended towards the following specifications : (a) they were made to look like 35mm miniatures, (b) like the miniature, the shutter release button was placed on the top plate of the instrument, and (c) they were fitted with direct vision optical viewfinders to enable them to be used at eye level.

The traditional box camera thus underwent a transformation bringing it to a point where it could be used with the same ease as a 35mm instrument. Roll film with its large negative format continued to remain the preferred film size. One further improvement effected was in the way the film was threaded. Conventional models required the user to open the back of the device and withdraw an unwieldy film carrier. With modern makes the process was greatly simplified. All the user had to do was open the camera back, insert the film spool, thread the leader into the slot in the take-up spool, and close the back shut.

Specifications could vary, meeting the needs of the casual snapshotter as well as the serious amateur who wanted to experiment. A notable example was the Isoly. Agfa introduced the Isoly range of box cameras in 1960 beginning with the Isoly I which came with a focusing achromat f/8 lens. Two years later the company came up with a deluxe model called the Isoly II. With its 3-element Agfa Color Agnatar f/5.6 lens, the Isoly II was the amateur’s dream camera. Lens apertures numbered 5.6, 8, 11, 16 and 22 with click stops, the shutter offered a choice of 1/30 sec, 1/100 sec or B, and the lens came with front-cell focussing moving across a scale on the outer barrel graduated from 5 feet to infinity. Additional refinements included a hotshoe on the top plate and a double exposure prevention arrangement.

The Isoly II gave 4 x 4 cm negatives on 120 film; although this led to some wastage of emulsion area, it resulted in greater film economy with 16 square pictures squeezed onto a roll designed only for twelve.