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Folding Camera Tips

  1. The lenses most often used on the better quality folding cameras are generally Tessar types (four lens elements in three groups) and triplets (which as the name implies, has three lens elements). These classic lenses characteristically give their best overall performance when well stopped down to approximately f8-f11. At this setting they generally show the best sharpness and contrast. Setting the aperture to this range also has the added advantage of a greater depth of field so that focusing by estimation becomes much less critical.
  2. Folding medium format cameras are very light relative to their format and focal length. As a result they are rather sensitive to camera shake. If you feel your results are not as sharp as expected, the problem may be due to your technique rather than a faulty lens. For best performance try to release the shutter as smoothly as possible. Also consider using a slightly faster film than you might normally choose so that you can utilize faster shutter speeds as well. (Due to the medium formats much larger size, the slight increase in grain caused by faster film is considerably less noticeable than it would be in a 35mm camera.)
  3. A tripod is really the best option for cutting vibration and creating sharp picture perfect postcard landscapes. But if you find that too cumbersome at least try to brace the camera on or against something solid. Fences, posts, trees, doorways, car fenders… all of these options and more, can offer support and help improve your photos.  
  4. If you have to shoot a camera free hand and you need to use slow shutter speeds (possibly due to limited light indoors) you can use a very old trick straight out of the 1930’s to help. Simply turn your camera upside down and hold it firmly against your forehead to steady it. Compose your shot through the (upside-down) viewfinder and shoot when ready. This technique may look odd but it really works.
  5. Many folding cameras rely on a simple red film exposure window to help you count the exposures. To avoid double exposures, always advance your film right after taking a shot. Make it a habit and you’ll never waste film on double exposed negatives.
  6. When walking around a town with your camera, even though it is closed, always preset the shutter and aperture to roughly match the light levels and set the focus scale to distance you often prefer to shoot at (for example 5-10 meters). That way if a great photo suddenly presents itself, all you’ll need to do is unfold the camera, compose and shoot. This can often be done in about 3 seconds and you’ll have a very good chance of capturing the shot. Presetting your camera also works for candid shots taken from a table top or your lap at a sidewalk café.
  7. For ease of use and the most fun, I recommend using color film in your classic folder. This type of film works well with all types of lenses (coated as well as uncoated). It has a wider exposure tolerance (less fussing with settings), color prints appear to be sharper than black & prints (strange but true) and you can also scan the negatives (and convert to B&W if desired).
  8. Even though the shutter speed range may be a bit limited on some simple cameras, it’s often adequate for many shooting situations. With ISO 100 color print film the average top shutter speed is right on the money at f16 on a sunny day. (You actually have more leeway than most users realize because many modern color print films can tolerate an exposure latitude of -2 to +3 stops and still deliver useable results.)
  9. For best optical performance follow the 1930’s practice of avoiding backlit compositions. Rembrandt style lighting (light off to one side, above and behind the photographer) is particularly effective. Paying attention to the light and correct technique will increase the contrast and richness of your shots and allow you to get the most out of uncoated or single coated lenses.
  10. Shade the lens. If need be, use you own shadow, or a buildings shadow, or a hand or hat. Avoid direct sunlight falling directly on the glass and the image contrast increases with leaps and bounds. It’s certainly worth your effort to locate and by a vintage lens hood for your camera. Most of them simply slide on (rather than screw on) onto to the lens.
  11. Send us a couple of your favorite photos taken with your vintage camera. (Ok, technically that’s not a tip… but we would enjoy it and we may post it for others to enjoy on this site.)