I’m a huge fan of vintage photography. I love old cameras. I love old lenses. I love old photography methods. There are times when I wish I could just flush the studio out and start over shooting nothing but wet plate photographs. Someday I’d love to start shooting wet plate and tintype.
I’ve been looking for a long time for an old brass lens that I could use with the Toyo 4×5 field camera Sara and I have. Sara bought the camera right before we graduated from college. It hasn’t been used for a long time; probably since we took a vacation to Acadia National Park back in 2004-ish. That is way too long to not be using such a beautiful camera. So I’ve been on the lookout. I always wanted to find a Petzval lens for the camera, but the more I searched, the more I found that Petzval’s are hard to find, if at all, in a small format like 4×5. Most Petzvals were made for 8×10 cameras and up. Which was why I was happy to get one of Lomography’s Petzval lenses for digital SLR cameras – it gave me a chance to play around with that distinctive Petzval swirl (and because it’s a gorgeous piece of brass sculpture as well!).
After casually searching, we finally found a 4×5 brass lens that fit my budget last year at the Brimfield Antique Flea Market. What sold the deal on the lens was that it also came with the mounting flange (it’s the piece that lets the lens mount to a mounting board), so it would be ready to be mounted when the time came. So I grabbed it. It also came with a metal waterhouse plate. Waterhouse stops are little plates with aperture openings in them. Each waterhouse plate is an f-stop. This only came with one, so once I figured out what aperture the lens was with no plate in it, then I had to calculate what f-stop the waterhouse was. I guesstimated that the plate was an f/11, and the lens with no plate was f/6.3. You can see the slit for the waterhouse stop halfway down the lens.
Heliograph 4×5 Brass Lens
Geneva Optical Co.
This little guy is a Heliograph lens. I did some internet sleuthing, and it turns out that his is what is known as a Rapid Rectilinear lens. RR’s are different from the Petzval design:
“The Rapid Rectilinear also named Aplanat is a famous photographic lens design.
The Rapid Rectilinear is a lens that is symmetrical about its aperture stop with four elements in two groups. It was introduced by John Henry Dallmeyer in 1866. The symmetry of the design greatly reduces radial distortion.” – source: Wikipedia
This type of lens helps straighten things out that might otherwise become distorted by other lens. For example: if I took a picture of a building, the building would seem to “curve”; the lines of the building wouldn’t be straight. With this lens, it corrects that distortion and straightens it out automatically because of the design of the lens.
Which is great, because Sara loves taking landscape photographs, and this would help any distortion issues she might face. After digging up some information about the lens, I started looking into finding a lens board mount to attach it too. There were a few boards that would pop up on eBay, but I kept thinking about the lens and it’s age, and I kept thinking about how awesome it would be to find a wooden mounting board. The lens is old. It wouldn’t have been used with some laser cut metal mounting board. It would have been mounted to something made out of wood. So I started searching.
I didn’t have much luck until I remembered that we have a woodworker in our building. In fact, he actually resides in the very same studio I used to have when I first moved into the Picker Building. Darold Robacher works entirely with hand tools only. He doesn’t use electrical table saws or any electronic wood working tools. Everything Darold makes is by hand. He’s a hand-crafter. Talk about awesome. Someone dedicated to the craft of wood-working using only his own arm power and strength and craftsmenship. I connected with him and showed him what I was looking for; a mount made of wood that I could attach the lens on. He kinda chuckled at the idea, and said he’d give it a shot. I gave him the existing Rodenstock Copal lens with mount that came with the Toyo camera, and after about a month, he brought up the final design:
It was beautiful. Just a lovely wooden square. We made sure the hole was correctly cut and centered and I gave him the go-ahead to mount the lens to the board and put on the finishing touches.
What came back to me was a gorgeous polished and sealed wood mount for the lens. The lens was screwed on by three screws into the wood. The flange was actually stuck to the lens, so this attachment is permanent to the mount, but that works for me. The lens needs to be removed from the camera before the camera is folded up and put away, so having it connected to the board at all times makes sense.
The lens, just after putting the final touches and mounting it to the board.
I love the look of the wood and the brass. It has a beautiful quality and texture to it. Darold found the challenge of making the board fun, although he still found it a very odd project for me to ask about and laughed as he handed it over to me.
And there is something so special about owning a hand-crafted item that was made for me specifically. That’s awesome. And Darold is awesome for taking on the challenge, and for making such a beautiful mount for this lens.
With everything good to go, I attached the lens to the front of the camera, and popped in the polaroid film-pack back for it to take a quick polaroid to test exposure.
First test with the lens.
A boring shot of the corner of my studio.
Shot with Fuji FP-3000B
f/8 @ ?/sec
Because the lens is around f/6.3 wide open with no waterhouse stop inserted in the lens, I went ahead and guessed that the waterhouse plate that came with the lens was somewhere around f/11. I took a reading of the room with a light meter, and it came up to 2 seconds at f/11. I made a little lens cap for the front of the lens because this lens has no shutter, so I need something to uncover and cover the lens when making exposures. Then I made the 2 second exposure and crossed my fingers as I pulled the polaroid. And it worked!!! Hooray!
The next step is to pick up some ISO 100 instant film so I can try making some test shots outside in sunny weather. Once testing is done and everything looks good, I can start making some exposures on to 4×5 sheet film. Sara has boxes of it in our fridge that hasn’t been used in a long time, and it’s time to get this sucker working again!
Darold Robacher is an artisan working in the Picker Building on the 2nd floor. He doesn’t have a website. If you would like to contact him about anything, or if you are a photographer interested in having a lens mount of your own made, please leave a comment down below and I can get you his contact information.