|Houghton, Ensign Focal Plane roll film Reflex, 120 SLR camera, c1928|
Ensign Focal Plane Roll Film Reflex - subsequently called the Ensign Speed Reflex. A mahogany box form single lens reflex camera for eight pictures on 120 roll film, image size 9 x 6cm. Although bearing some resemblance to similar format versions of Ensign Roll Film Reflex cameras, this camera is an entirely different and more capable instrument. The principle selling point was the convenience of roll film married to the capabilities of the large SLR. The focal plane, two blind shutter is adjustable from Timed to 500th/sec, by virtue of altering the slit widthn running vertically from the top down. The shutter mechanism is a three roller type, where the first curtain is free to slide up and down the second curtain tapes, there being sufficient friction to keep the two curtains synchronised during travel. The shutter is self capping*. During the shutter cocking process, the two curtains advance together, again the friction keeping them locked, once the first curtain draws taught the friction isn't sufficient and the action of winding further pulls the second curtain tapes through - opening up the slit to the desired shutter speed. The first curtain has a wide capping plate, designed to cant over at the end of it's travel, this action changes the angle the tapes run through it, reducing the friction significantly, it is this that allows the second curtain to cap without hesitating, and also close when timed exposures are used. It's a neat arrangement, although can be a little tricky to keep working after all these years. At the time though, it was well made and quite innovative. The design of the shutter makes it sensible to set the speed before cocking the curtains, for although it is possible to widen the slit (slower Speed), it may not always slide closed (faster speed) reliably after setting the curtains. Construction of the main shell is of mahogany, joints are machine cut tenons, the whole box is covered in black leather with the typical Morocco pattern of the period. The rest of the camera is constructed mostly from a folded steel mirror box, pressed steel top plate finished in crackle paint and sundry brass bar components. Typical for the 1920s, the finish is almost all black paint, save for a handful of nickel plated bright parts. The lens is brought into focus using a rack and pinion via a knob on the left hand side to move the entire lens assembly, flexibility supplied by short square section leather bellows. The extending hood, a work of origami, collapses neatly beneath a hatch and it is this which generally proves to be the camera's failure point. It has unprotected springs to push it up and these almost invariably tear the hood towards it's base, partly due to pressure on the hood, but also as they are prone to rusting and become extremely abrasive in the process. Just behind the hood under the top plate is the top shutter roller, running down a tunnel between the mirror box and the film, and tears in the back of the hood allow light into this area. The camera hinges and splits lengthwise to gain access to the film chamber, an extreme act of faith by Houghton's in their ability to keep the construction light tight. And the amount of leader needing to be advanced before reaching the take up spool makes the photographer wince, best done in very subdued light. All this means these cameras are a real challenge to keep working. There was a version fitted with a Dallmeyer telephoto, which remains very sought after to this day.
This example joined the collection in 1996 and has yet to be entirely satisfactory. It's now on it's second shutter and fourth hood. In October 2017 a very tired donor camera was obtained that was beyond saving but yielded all the parts needed to give this example one last chance. A new hood was made using the original's top springs but a modified arrangement at the bottom to avoid the tearing issue. At the same time we also swapped the top plate and hatch, part of the shutter assembly and the lens shade - as the blue velvet liner was much nicer than the original. The donor camera also came with a case, which after some treatment will serve to look after our example for a long time. It is pictured at right, as it left the workshop in May 2018.
* Self Capping. After the exposure the gap between the two curtains closes completely, ensuring that the film is not exposed when the shutter is next cocked and the blinds are returned to the start point.
The Ensign Focal Plane Roll Film Reflex shown open, displaying the very long joint line required to keep light tight. The shutter is positioned half cocked, to show the wide capping plate required for this three roller shutter. The metal box structure, is the mirror box, the base of which slides rearwards to gain access to the bottom shutter rollers, and give the camera a good de dusting on occasion.
Despite its many drawbacks Houghton's persisted with it until the mid 1930s, by which time factories in Dresden were producing SLRs of much greater refinement, such as the ExaKta VP or Reflex Korelle, spelling the end for the clumsy British wooden box SLRs.
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