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Using the Press Camera
Tom Rittenhouse
Copyright 2004


Outdoors: Super XX, 1/50 of a second, f22, 15 feet (7ft to infinity), No. 5 flashbulb if it is in the shade or heavily overcast. Indoors: SuperXX, 1/25 of a second, f22, 6 feet (3 to 10ft), No. 5 flashbulb. That was all you had to know. What is it that makes that seem complicated today. Millions of photographers managed to get good photos with those settings for many, many years.

If I told you I had a camera that had a 35-135 zoom, ASA 50-400 speed sensitivity, could take one shot or many with no waste, could do extreme close ups without any accessories, you would think I was talking about the latest digital. Strangely, the Press Camera filled exactly the same niche in its day as the Digital camera does today.

We tend to be very precise with our photography today. That is a legacy of 50 years of 35mm work, and the fine art movement of the 1970's. Fill the frame. Crop in the camera. Previsualize. Get the exposure exactly right. Focus must be dead on. Use a tripod. Zone system. Spotmeter. Temperature control to 1/4 a degree. Comb your hair, stand up straight. Rules, rules, and more rules. Nonsense!

Come with me back to the old days. Load some film (unfortunately film packs are no longer available, fortunately we can do without). Put some flashbulbs in your pocket. Open the camera. Set it as in the first paragraph above. Let's go take some photos. Put in a film holder, pull the dark slide (You can put it in your pocket, or use the handy clips on the ground glass hood. Don't set it down somewhere, you will surely forget where). Cock the shutter. Bring the camera to your eye. When the subject is inside the frame, shoot. Put the dark slide back in. Usually, we will take a second shot on the other film in the holder as an insurance policy. Back in the darkroom we unload one side of the holder, develop the sheet of film in the tray of paper developer. Rinse. Squeegee. Put in the enlarger (yes, wet). Make a print. Is something wrong? Maybe the subject closed her eyes just as you shot? Then develop and print the insurance shot, otherwise discard it.

Was that all that hard? What we want is a printable negative (not the best possible negative you can make, just printable). We want a print that is good enough to run a couple of columns wide in the newspaper. We are not an Ansel Adams clone. We are using a semi-wideangle lens, with a big negative, as long as we get a decent shot of the subject we can crop it for the exact composition we need. I remember when talking about cropping a photo meant using a paper cutter on it, not selecting the zoom factor to use.

That is how the Press Camera was meant to be used. Of course sometimes you had the time to do it slow and get the best possible image. Sometimes if you were doing commercial work you had to do it that way. The thing is these cameras were meant to be used to get the picture. Excuses were not acceptable. Bring back a usable photo or get a different job. That is the Press Camera.