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Camera Anatomy - Bellows Cameras or more correctly, folding cameras

Bellows Cameras, or folding cameras as they are correctly known, get their name from the folding box of pleated material forming the light tight seal between lens and film. The folding camera exists because of the desire to take cameras into the outside world and the requirement to keep them as small as was practical. The earliest form of collapsing the camera for storage was to make the camera from two boxes, one sliding inside the other. The bellows offered still greater shrinkage, and also flexibility to move the lens off centre, for example to incorporate lens Rise and Fall. Early lenses and films required the use of a fairly sizable negative - which in turn led to a fairly sizable camera. The folding bellows camera evolved very early in the development of the camera and the principle stayed in widespread use for over a century, even today new models for studio photography are being created - as a result there are literally thousands of different models. The idea is simple enough, a pleated cloth or leather bellows collapses as the camera is closed, to occupy a fraction of it's volume when open. Most folding bellows cameras have a baseboard to which the front lensboard is attached by some means, the exceptions are the scissor strut type or plain strut type. Most, but not all, have a means of altering the focus either by changing the distance between the lensboard and the film or by moving the lens independently. Generally, the earlier types had ground glass focus screens - that is, the image was inspected by the photographer as projected on a piece of ground (frosted) glass in place of the sensitized plate, this was swapped for the plate just before taking the picture. Later and/or cheaper types evolved scale focussing, that is focus was set against a distance scale, the distance being measured or guessed. Three broad types of folding cameras evolved, those where the lensboard was removed from its housing and clipped into lugs or sockets, those where the lens board is pulled out, located in and then slid along a rail built into the lensboard and finally the self erecting type which neatly extends and locks into place as the camera is opened. An example of this latter type is shown at right. The longevity of the principle means that there are considerable detail differences and they have serviced every film type and format from the earliest Daguerreotypes, wet plates, dry plates, roll film and 35mm cassette film.

There are many exceptions of course, the Ensign Focal Plane Roll Film Reflex, does have bellows tucked away inside, but in no way would it be described as a bellows or folding camera, in this case the bellows only serve as a flexible mount so that the lens can be moved to bring it into focus.

Camera Anatomy - Bellows Cameras

The bellows themselves were sometimes made of a lightweight close weave material treated to make it light proof, but this was only on the cheapest models and proliferated during the 1920s and 30s. From a vintage camera point of view these tend to be problematical as most will have some "pin holing" at the corners by now - that is they will allow light to leak in. The more usual method of construction is a thin leather skin with a fine linen cloth layer inside, between which are thin strips of card which encourages the leather to fold along the creases. Leather bellows that are crushed so that the card reinforcing is creased will never be able to be completely straightened. Leather bellows can show remarkable longevity - we have several over a hundred years old that are still soft and light proof. However if poorly stored or treated, they will simply fall to pieces in a few years, or if allowed to get wet go stiff as card. Disintegrating bellows can be tricky to replace and will degrade the collectible value of the camera. The earlier bellows had square cut corners, but this was found to promote pin holing, so a shift to chamfered corners began around 1900 where the folds aren't so tight, so can be used as a good indicator of date. Likewise, red or maroon coloured bellows were simply a trend, which went out of fashion, all but gone by around 1910.

Also see the Folding Camera page that illustrates the common folding camera mechanisms.

Square cornered pleats

Chamfered cornered pleats

Square Corners
1889 Lancaster Instantograph

Chamfered corners
1904 Sanderson

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