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[Sticky] Old 'Un's guide to using period cameras  


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Joined: 14 years ago
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I'm not an expert by any means ...nor is this an exhaustive or even an authoritative guide,
just my experience gathered over the past year. Lets say just an attempt to encourage
given the number of questions I've been asked with my cranky old cameras . Bottom line is,
it's cheap, easier than you think, and great fun , which is what we are all about . :good:


In the 1930’s there was a growth in interest in popular photography, and throughout
the war common soldiers took pictures alongside the professionals. I have never been
a keen photographer, and my experience until recently was with 35mm point and click
and latterly Digital point and click. Light meters, f-stops, shutter speeds and focus
were all (and in all honesty, remain) a black art. Probably not too different to the skill
levels from soldiers using them in action back in the 1940’s.

What I do like about using vintage cameras in events is the period feel that they give
to the pictures; slightly out of focus, slightly under or over exposed, and you never
know what you are getting until they come back from developing. You can Photoshop
digital images to get the same feel, but having done this myself in the past it still lacks
a certain reality to the end result.

Digital image as taken, fooling no one this is 1944 ..

Digital image as photoshoped to BW and add some noise , still very sharp , ok I could
play with blurs etc but you get the point .

Similar pic taken on vintage camera , notice a lot less sharp, bit blurry , looks more
like the pics you see in the books .

What follows is a short guide to cameras film and their use.


The cameras are cheap ish to buy, typically less than the cost of another new pistol.
Two popular formats were 120 size film and 35mm, as pioneered by Kodak in 1934.
For use in the field I would ignore the expensive Leicas and Contaxes as they were
more professional cameras and have long disappeared into mega buck collector world.
The Russians did a Leica copy post war which can be found cheap. I’ve not acquired
one of these but have been told they function ok. Below are a couple of the camera’s
I have used, it is not a guide of everything available by any means. I have picked
German cameras since that is my normal leaning, and to be honest they are a means to
an end rather than a real part of my events.

If you look around on eBay one of the more common vintage cameras is the Zeiss
Ikon. These were made in large numbers and sold all over Europe, so can be used by
all sides without comment. Below is a picture of my 1937 515/16, a cheap popular
camera using 120 film. Immaculate almost unused condition on eBay for around £40

The other camera I favour is my 1936 Kodak Retina Model 126. I bought this in a
bit a bit of a rough state (cosmetic not functional) for about £50. Bit of cleaning with
cotton buds a light oiling and back to functionality.
Note the simplicity , no flash to contend with , no wind on lever, no shutter button on
the Kodak (you prime the shutter and take the shot with levers on the lens itself) .
The view finders are small and primitive, and also no zoom !

Buying Cameras

I’ve used eBay, and also been given a few by people who say “oh I’ve got granddad’s
old camera here you can have if you’re going to use it”. No priceless Leicas been
handed over as yet though!

£30-50 on eBay will find you a half decent camera. Some people try selling
everything as “collectable and rare”, avoid these as we’re looking for a camera to
use in the field. Be aware that cameras that have been unused can suffer from either
shutters that gum up and stick, or mould growth on the lens, both of which render the
camera unusable. These problems can be sorted but not within a reasonable budget
or unless you can do it yourself. Sellers sometimes say “run film through it shutter
speeds seem ok” these are the better bets for the amateur, especially if the seller
specialises in old camera gear.

Using them

It is not hard to get to grips with using pre war cameras, in that they often don’t have
a lot of things to twiddle. They are often manually winding on, you have to remember
to do this after every shot to avoid double exposure. You can set the focus (normally
marked in feet), the aperture (F-stop) and the shutter speed. The aperture and shutter
speed effect the exposure of the film, and work in conjunction. This is the only tricky
bit, and you have some options on how to get to grips with it.

You buy virtually any high street book about photography and read up the hard way,
practicing using either your digital SLR camera on manual settings or shoot endless
reels of film.

Secondly you can cheat a little by buying a cheap light meter. I use a 1960’s Weston
Master V I picked up for £15 . Point it at the scene you want to shoot, use the little
turning dial and it will advise the aperture and shutter speed settings. Normally I find
you only need two settings, one for bright sunlight, one for darker days. The focus
I often keep on infinity. 99% of pictures seem to come out ok, and you can always
adjust brightness and contrast digitally later.

Finally there is what is known as the “sunny 16 rule”, i.e. on bright sunny days set the
shutter speed to match the speed of your film, set the aperture to 16 and click away all
day. This has worked for me as well!

Any of the above works, and to be honest if you’re not an expert then that’s fine,
neither were a lot of the people taking pictures during the war! Authentic eh !
It’s also worth searching for the original user manuals on line, as most are easily
available, and often they were written with first time novice users in mind.

Film and Developing

Film is relatively cheap to get hold of and you have a choice of two options:-

Use genuine black and white film.

Ilford FP4 is popular in both 120 and 35mm sizes. . FP4 is a “slow” film by today’s
standards (ASA100) but “fast” by 1940’s standards (typically ASA40-60). The
results you get are high definition and often quite “soft”. Now is not the time for a big
discourse on film speeds needless to say I’ve used FP4 and it gave me good results.

The downside of black and white is that you will have to send it to a proper lab
specialising in BW film to get them developed. I’ve use The Darkroom as you can
order on line, they do a good job and have not lost anything (and they are cheap)

It will cost you about £10 for the developing and having the prints scanned to CD. it
is the same price if you go for 35mm with 36 exposures or 120 with 12 , something to
bear in mind when looking at what camera to buy .
Choose your processor carefully, I have seen a lot of bad stories about J###ps sending
films off……never to be seen again.

The other option is to use Kodak’s BW400CN which is B/W film that can go through
normal colour developers. It is a faster film ( ASA400) which makes it easier for me
to use, and I can take the films to Boots and get them processed , every time being
told “not sure we can do this…..oh it’s the C41 process …yes we can”. Boots will do
you 36 exposures, prints and a CD in one hour for £9. BW400CN is only available
now in 35mm not 120.

Although I’ve raved on about film, as most of these pictures are used digitally I
normally get a scan to CD. This does give you the further option of playing with
Photoshop for cropping etc as well.

The only thing using old cameras can’t do …is shoot video, but that’s a whole
different story for someone else.

Hals und beinbruch!! :good:

More info on IKONs here
More on Retinas here
And Camerapedia is also your friend
More on light meters her

Copywrite Old ‘Un

Estimable Member
Joined: 11 years ago
Posts: 174

THe post war Leica copies made in Russia (from essentially the same machine tools!) are relatively easy to come across. I have a FED 2 made in the 50's that passes for a pre war Leica. Main things to watch are that the Rangefinder is accurate (for focusing) and the shutter is in decent condition. The shutter speeds will be all over the place so don't worry too much. Using Kodak BW400CN film will give good results and proper B+W has good enough exposure latitude to cope with most misplaced controls!

The FED 2 or Zorki 4 are both relatively common and do turn up on ebay from time to time.

It is definately worth having a play with these old cameras as it makes me feel less alone....... :D :slap:

Hänschen klein
Famed Member
Joined: 12 years ago
Posts: 3479

Love the old pics they really are the real deal. Sitting here reading this I am in arms length of a original Zeiss Ikon rescued from a Hamburg bombed out building of my wifes Grandparents

Illustrious Member
Joined: 14 years ago
Posts: 6310

I managed to get a Zorki 2-c camera for £10 +P&P from ebay. Only issue was the selftimer was not working - got that working in about ten minutes :D

Currently waiting for a FED-1 to arrive.

It's Old Un's fault !!-- attachment is not available ---- attachment is not available --

Famed Member
Joined: 10 years ago
Posts: 4507

Interesting. We should have a dedicated thread for pictures shot on vintage cameras.

One bit of advice I'd give - considering that the price-per-pic is significantly higher than shooting digital, is to take a bit more care with each shot. Having a Ford Mondeo in the background sort of spoils it. Also, keep it in the context of "immersion" and use it how the real veterans did, namely as a record of your mates, where you have been and what you have seen, instead of trying to fake up some haunted expression of the horrors of war :roll:

It doesn't all have to be Robert Capa style blood n guts either. Frank Hurley (the photographer on the Shackleton Antarctic debacle) took some amazing pictures of the Western Front during WW1 using a very basic camera and without a Ford Mondeo in sight (ignore the combined negative ones, which are all wank)

Illustrious Member
Joined: 14 years ago
Posts: 6310

just picked up on of these:-

A 1937 Zeiss Ikon Nettar 515/16 fully operational - £12 and comes with some film.

Martin, I think your right about a new thread :wink:-- attachment is not available --