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Folding Cameras, the common types of folding mechanisms

Early cameras were generally quite large so, understandably, methods to fold them to a smaller size began almost as soon as photography was born in 1839. The earliest method was to construct the camera from two boxes, one sliding inside the other, but the pleated bellows folding camera dominated the folding camera market by 1880. Several methods of folding were tried, some evolved others faded away, and these are outlined below. First off, there is a catch to hold the camera closed, sometimes a visible hook or tab, but by far the most common release mechanism is a button beneath the leather covering, highlighted by a circle pressed into the material. This is principally because this method was adopted during a golden age when millions of folding cameras were manufactured by hundreds of different factories, for decades ... so these are the common types you will find. This typical release button is that of a Zeiss Icarette from 1931.


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A commonly found method of folding is demonstrated by this Butcher's Cameo Quarter Plate camera from around 1908. The release catch is operated by the almost ubiquitous leather covered button, this pops open the hatch a little (1) which is then opened fully by hand until the braces locate into recesses with a click (2). The hatch now forms what is called the Lens Bed, the lens is unlocked and pulled forward with its Lens Board and located upon rails built into the Lens Bed (3), then pulled forward until it (usually) locates into a slot which is almost invariably a point at which the lens is focussed for distant views, or infinity (4). This method also enable the image to be brought into focus simply by moving the entire lensboard back and forth whilst observing the image on the ground glass screen. This method is cheap and easy to make, but takes several seconds to deploy, and the natural tension in the leather bellows tends to pull the camera out of shape, distorting the image. In picture (4) you can see this undesirable convergence if you look closely. However this didn't stop millions of such cameras being made and the method continued in common usage into the early 1930s.

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Kodak introduced this folding mechanism with their 1897 Folding Pocket Kodak, although the example in the pictures is a later model dating from 1912. In this camera the hatch is popped using a catch (1) opened and pulled down (2), which in turn withdraws the lensboard, extends the bellows and locks into position, ready for shooting (3). Clearly much more convenient for the non-technically minded photographer. The earliest version of this camera didn't have a hatch, the user simply pulled the lensboard out of the recess until it locked. This design was fixed focus, so there was no requirement to move the lensboard. The method of folding is quite complex, needing many more parts than other designs and the multiple pivots require a high degree of manufacturing accuracy, this would have made the camera comparatively expensive to manufacture and Kodak did not persist with it after 1915, However a variation did resurface some years later in the Kodak Jiffy

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This is a trellis strut folding mechanism as fitted to Kodak's Vest Pocket Kodak, introduced in 1912. The user simply pulls the lensboard forward to the end of its travel, set the camera up and it's ready to go. It's a neat solution. Closing the camera is equally simple, just push on the lensboard with evenly centred pressure. The trellis struts made the camera rigid enough to serve their purpose well, so much so that the VPK sold in the hundreds of thousands, although later versions went back to the simpler pull along the lens bed method.

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This is a strut braced folding mechanism as fitted to Houghton's Vest Pocket Ensign, introduced in 1923. The user simply pulls the lensboard forward to the end of its travel, making sure the lens board snaps into each of the four locating slots. Closing the camera requires that the struts are sprung out of their slots before collapsing the mechanism to stow it inside the body. The strut braced arrangement was cheap and easy to manufacture, ensuring many of this and close relatives were produced.
By the early 1930s folding cameras evolved into the self erecting type, pressing a button released the hatch, and a spring deployed the lens in a beautifully choreographed mechanical ballet, the lens board locked into position and formed a very rigid and true arrangement. The mechanism made use of a fairly robust spring to open the camera, this should not be allowed to spring open unrestrained however - as the volume of air required to fill the bellows is likely to suck the film into the bellows which will very definitely ruin the picture. This 1934 Kodak 620 Junior is typical of this type, and works delightfully. The majority of folding cameras after the mid 1930s were of the self erecting type, and the method stayed in production until the early 1960s, when folding cameras were rendered obsolete by the increasing use of 35mm film, and the smaller cameras needed.

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Even though the self erecting mechanism dominated from the 1930s, there were occasions when the design was too limiting, notably in those cameras that required "double extension". Double extension (5) involves extending the lens forward from the usual length (4) required to focus at infinity. Double extension cameras allowed for close up photography, since focus was critical, they were usually plate cameras with ground glass screens. They died out as the Single Lens Reflex developed into a viable instrument. So cameras like this exquisite 1931 Zeiss Icarette persisted the use of method of pulling the lensbed out manually. This wasn't considered a disadvantage, as this type of camera tended to be used by keen photographers adept in their manipulation.

Zeiss solved the flexing lens board issue by using a neat hinged longer foot that resisted the bellows bending it back, yet folded away at the hinge, shown to the right.

 

 

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