This book by Reg Holloway describes the types of cameras that were developed to meet the special needs of press photographers and the laborious procedures involved in using these early cameras. The Evolution and Demise of the Larger Format Press Camera - Book by Reg Holloway

Book Extracts

by Reg Holloway


Read extract

True press photography dates from the 1870s after it became possible to print pictures without the help of an artist-engraver. This was 50 years after William Fox Talbot in Britain invented the negative-positive process and Louis-Jacques Mande Daguerre in France perfected his popular, but relatively short-lived, method of capturing a single image. Within that half-century, the early photographers had striven, with ever-improving results, to document the world, its people and its wars but their work had been seen by very few people. ...

The first recorded photographic assignment was the sending of Roger Fenton (a lawyer) to cover the Crimean war in 1855. He was commissioned by a London firm of publishers, Thomas Agnew and Sons. They were said to have been asked by the War Office to try to counter written reports that the war was not going well for Britain and had turned into a messy bloodbath. Fenton sailed from Britain with a horse-drawn delivery wagon that had been converted into a darkroom. He used an 8 x 10 inch camera on a tripod and wet plates for which he had to prepare the liquid emulsion before each exposure. When his supplies of chemicals and sheets of glass were exhausted he returned home. He prepared an exhibition of 312 prints and some of his pictures appeared, as artists engravings, in the London Illustrated News. For his pains, he was criticised for not capturing the armies in action and his avoidance of the gore of war.

In 1860, Harpers Weekly in the United States carried on its front page a picture of Abraham Lincoln taken by Matthew Brady, then a portrait photographer with studios in New York and Washington. The original photograph was converted into a wood engraving. Brady and his staff (working under Brady's name) went on to document the American civil war from 1861. Brady almost lost his life at the battle of Bull Run when his darkroom wagon, where chemicals were being mixed for the next batch of plates, was caught in cross fire. At considerable risk, he and his team recorded the major battles and made more than 7000 pictures They plainly showed - even when converted into engravings - the death and the misery caused by war.

Many photographers in Europe and North America chronicled the social scene around them and their pictures of squalor and wretched working conditions helped create an awareness that led to calls for changes. Others recorded for history many famous (and some ordinary) faces. A daring few accompanied expeditions to un-surveyed lands and some took their cameras to far-off places that were already known but had never been photographed.

Still, relatively few people saw their images at that time. This changed when a major advance in publishing gave newspapers and magazines a mechanical means to reproduce photographs without the assistance and interpretation of an artist.

This advance in printing was the half-tone process. The basic idea, that the tones of a photographic image could be mechanically reproduced through a screen, had been hinted at by Fox Talbot but it was not developed and perfected until 1869 (in Canada). Once the potential of the half-tone was recognized, the process was explored by many newspapers and magazines. The days of press photography - the taking of pictures specially for publication - had begun. ....

Fortunately, at about the same time as the half-tone process was introduced, photographers were being liberated from the restricted era of tripods, field cameras, wet plates and long exposures. Commercially-prepared dry plates (in packets of ten or twelve) became available from the 1870s and they were ten times as fast as wet plates. Over the next 20 years sharper and faster lenses were developed; shutters were produced that allowed the rapid exposures made possible by the faster emulsion (with exposures of parts of a second rather than several seconds). Hand-held cameras were made. These were tremendous changes but nevertheless, the first cameras made with the news photographer in mind were still large, heavy and limited compared to those that would evolve. During a period of 60 years (and for some, a little more) press photographers would wield large and rugged, but often handsome, equipment and they created a romantic image of themselves; an image that remains synonymous with the craft they established.


Read extract

The photographers who would concentrate on serving the illustrated newspapers and magazines had specific needs. They wanted cameras that were hand-held for mobility; robust enough to withstand bold treatment; big enough (up to 5 x 7") to provide a good-sized glass negative for contact printing. They needed a lens of the best possible quality mounted to allow precise focusing; a shutter that could freeze action; and an accurate viewfinder. They were not asking for the moon - at that stage nobody had yet thought of such refinements as rangefinders or exposure meters or an independent source of illumination.

There were definite possibilities in some of the many cameras being developed towards the end of the 1800s; other lines that were being pursued could be discounted so far as the press photographer was concerned. They would not need the disguised 'detective cameras' that were popular, or the impressive stereoscopic equipment that was being produced. They were not too sure about temperamental magazines that were claimed to be able to shuffle a dozen plateholders inside the camera. Generally, they did not trust roll films. They saw no need for the splendid mahogany and brass 'tropical' versions of some of the new cameras. Consequently the press camera developed as a good-quality, single-shot, distinctly utilitarian piece of equipment - usually black.

During the 10 years from 1890, the various types of camera that found favour with the press photographers settled into five main categories, all produced and developed concurrently:

  • A rigid box with the lens in a helical focusing mount.
  • A single-lens reflex with the lens on a track, with bellows.
  • A folding unit (Klapp) with struts to extend the bellows and lock the lensboard in a rigid position, the lens in a helical mount.
  • A similar folding unit, the lens panel extended and retracted by scissor-operating lazy-tong struts controlled from the body of the camera.
  • A folding camera with a baseboard and bellows, the lensboard travelling on a track. In North America, the baseboard was called the bed.

In almost all cases, a focal-plane shutter was fitted. This was a shutter built into the back of the camera. It consisted of a curtain, or blind, that was wound upwards and dropped under variable tension. The blind contained an adjustable slit that travelled down the plate, making the exposure. This vertical action, with the slit traversing the narrowest part of the plate, gave the shutter a greater potential for speed than would have been possible with the horizontal arrangement adopted for miniature cameras many years later. The focal-plane shutter allowed exposures of from a fifth of a second to better than a thousandth. It was the brain-child of Ottomar Anschutz of Berlin. ...

The single lens reflex, using conventional single or double plateholders, was developed at a very early stage in several countries and became popular with the press. One of the first was the German Mentor in 1898. Most of the big reflexes that followed, looked similar. They were bulky, square and used at waist level with the photographer viewing the picture on a horizontal ground glass screen, down a folding viewing hood that doubled the size of the camera. The picture on the ground glass screen appeared via a mirror the right way up (anything viewed on a ground glass screen on a non-reflex camera was upside down). The focusing was precise and the composition was certain. The picture could be viewed up to (almost) the instant of exposure. When the trigger was depressed, the mirror was tripped out of the way allowing the image to fall directly onto the plate and at that moment the shutter was operated. Most of the reflexes had a focal-plane shutter. ...


Read extract

In one way it was not surprising that the reflex should have attracted the attention of camera manufacturers. The basic design had been around for a couple of hundred years, pre-dating photography. It was derived from the camera obscura (Latin for darkened chamber) that had developed from the pin-hole and had long been a novelty. In its most sophisticated and smallest form, it consisted of a box with a lens that projected a scene onto an internal mirror which in turn reflected the picture onto a ground glass screen. It was used by artists as a drawing aid. It did not take much to convert this derivation of the camera obscura into a photographic camera. Another pre-photography aid for artists was the camera Lucida, a prismatic device that could be used in daylight. It produced an image of the scene in front of the artist. Fox Talbot took one on a sketching visit to Italy but found it difficult to use. On the other hand, Capt. Basil Hall of the British Royal Navy found it excellent and published a book, "Forty Etchings from Sketches made with the Camera Lucida in North America in 1827 and 1828."


Read extract

Another design that attracted press (and other professional) photographers was the simple but strong folding camera with a bed or drop baseboard - the style that would be developed into the classic designs of the Graphic in the United States, Linhof in Germany and MPP in Britain. Many other manufacturers produced cameras of a similar style. It was a design that lent itself to changes and technical improvements. ...


Read extract

In the 1920s, when the large-format press cameras were still getting bigger and heavier, a young cuckoo arrived in the nest, in the form of the miniature camera.

There had been considerable experimentation with small cameras from the turn of the century (many 'detective' cameras were very small) and several companies in Europe and North America worked on cameras that might be able to use perforated cine film. The most ingenious and best-made of these cameras was the Leica (LEItz CAmera) introduced in 1925. It was a masterpiece of precision craftsmanship. It had a non-interchangeable 50-millimetre 3.5 lens and a shutter giving speeds of 1/12 - 1/500 sec. ...

The Leica heralded a new era of candid photography. It appeared to meet many of the requirements of the press - portability, quality, a fine shutter and later the interchangeability of lenses and a range-finder - but in fact it failed to win the general approval of the press photographers of that time. They could not foresee all the advances that were to come in 35mm photography: the improvement in the sensitivity of film and the reduction in grain; the simplification of processing systems; and the ability of manufacturers to develop so many different lenses, culminating in the zoom.

The Leica was an immediate success among avid amateurs (60,000 units were sold in the first five years of production) but few professionals could believe what history would surely prove: that eventually, the miniature camera would be the way forward for press photography.

The old hands, who were always pressed for time, preferred to develop their images singly by hand in a dish or in a batch of four, with a visual check of progress against the darkroom safe-light. They pointed out that after fixing and washing and a quick dip in metholated spirits (or wood alcohol) a glass plate could be dried almost instantly, ready for printing, by waving it in front of a gas or electric fire. Dangerous perhaps, but certainly not practicable with a 35-millimetre film. They also emphasized the advantage of a large negative in yielding up a small part of the picture. This point was well-proven by Jimmy Hare, a renowned early press photographer who in 1908 hid some distance from the publicity-shy Wright brothers hanger at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina and secured a small, but enlargeable, image of the first powered flight. They also clung to the theory that a larger negative gave them a better chance to correct faults: a single large negative could be intensified or reduced and even re-touched. None of these procedures would be easy with the considerable number of exposures on one length of film and retouching would be out of the question on a 35mm image. It was all too fiddly. ...


Read extract

The Second World War represented a hiatus in camera manufacturing in Europe (not so in North America): only military equipment was produced. Which is why British and German cameras that had been perfectly serviceable but ageing at the beginning of the war (1939), were looking distinctly tired by the time the war was over (1946). It took a few years for manufacturers to re-establish production lines.

In Europe in the 1950s, it was not unusual to see press photographers working with cameras that were 20 years old. The fact that most of these cameras were wooden had allowed some extensive repairs and some clever modifications to be made with glue and screws. Cannibalization was also practiced, with the surviving unit bearing little resemblance to any of the cameras from which its components had been derived.


Read extract

However, also out of the war-years came a new design that was to stir the imagination of all professionals, including some press photographers. It was the Hasselblad that had its roots in a design for aerial cameras for the Royal Swedish Air Force. It was a modular, single lens reflex with a body containing a focal plane shutter and with interchangeable lenses and magazines. It took 120 film and provided a 6 x 6cm picture. Its elegance and practicality ensured a trial but some sceptical press photographers were unsure about the 6 x 6cm format.

The Hasselblad was copied, particularly in the Soviet Union. Elsewhere, also, the style of the camera was adopted but in some cases it also gave rise to some independent design features. This was so with the Japanese Bronica (from 1958) which evolved with its own technical character and with some innovations. Rolleiflex made their own 6 x 6cm modular single lens reflex from 1966. They began with focusing bellows built into the body and changeable magazine backs. Modifications continued and the camera became cube-shaped with many interesting features.


Read extract

By the early 1960s the number of large format press cameras had declined, though some of the baseboard types were still being made (Graphic, Linhof, MPP). Some of the photographers who were loath to abandon their large cameras had nevertheless switched from plates to cut film or had even invested in roll film backs. They were deemed by some manufacturers to be ready for something smaller than the 4 x 5 inch but larger than the 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inch (6 x 6cm) popularized by the Rolleiflex and the Hasselblad.

They were offered a new modular press camera: a simple, solid body (no bellows or racking or focal plane shutter) with an interchangeable lens in a helical mount and a fast front shutter with various backs taking cut film or roll film up to 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 inches (6 x 9cm). Most had a coupled rangefinder built into the top of the body. It was a rugged, versatile design with bold scales and simple controls. An anatomical grip was a feature of these cameras, some built-in. They were quick to operate and versatile. They were made by Linhof, Graflex, Konica and Mamiya. They were sold for about 15 years. However, they proved to be a final fling: an attempt to meet a supposed need for a new type of larger-format camera.

Their demise coincided with the end of an era in that most of the larger formats had by then retreated to studios and technical locations and the press photographer in the street had finally been won over by lighter, more versatile equipment.


Read extract

Ironically, it was not long before the illustrated magazines that the big camera had helped to launch (and that the little 35mm had sustained), would fall prey to further progress. In their case the predator was the electronic media that provided instantaneous news and made history of the superb coverage offered by publications like Life (1936 - 72), Look (1937 - 71) in the United States, Picture Post (1938 - 57) and Illustrated (1934 - 58) in Britain. In their hey-day, each of these picture magazines (and there were many more) had been handling more than 10,000 pictures a week. Their closure, and the disappearance of the big press cameras, were similar occurrences in the development of photography and the media. ...


Copies are available from the author for the reduced price of $15 (US or Canadian) plus postage. Please contact Reg to order a copy or chat about early press photography.


Web design and hosting by Wolf Song Communications