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Arguably the most influential camera of the century, the Graflex Speed Graphic
was the quintessential "professional" camera from the 1930's through the early
1960's. Hundreds of thousands of these workhorses were manufactured, sold and
used. This makes them one of the most popular and least expensive 4x5" camera
systems available to today's photographer. As a result, the Speed Graphic is
often recommended as the ideal camera for the beginning large format
photographer. Is it a great camera? Yes. Is it the "best" inexpensive view
The Speed Graphic was the most common of all "press" cameras. While any camera
that can take a photograph of a newsworthy event could be considered a press
camera, the term describes a unique beast. In general, a press camera has the
folds into a strong, compact box
lenses can be easily interchanged
accepts sheet film
ground glass focusing screen
can be used handheld
comes equipped with an optical viewfinder
The most common size film for press cameras is 4x5". Although Graflexes were
made in such unusual sizes as 2-1/4x3-1/4", 3-1/4x4-1/4", 3-1/2x5-1/2" and 5x7",
the 4x5" Speed Graphic was the most common, and remains the most usable size. The
Speed Graphic was produced in several design revisions from 1917 through 1973.
This review describes an early production Pacemaker Speed Graphic, a model
manufactured between 1947 and 1970.
The Speed Graphic is a remarkably rugged and versatile photographic tool. It
has a composite wood, steel and aluminum chassis which is both light and strong.
The complete camera weighs in at around five pounds, not that much heavier than a
Nikon F4 considering that the film is 16X the size. It can be bewilderingly
complex, with a Rube Goldberg-esque assortment of features. For each exposure,
the Speed Graphic photographer has the choice of using one of three viewfinders
(ground glass, wire frame, optical), three focusing aids (ground glass, scale,
rangefinder) and one of two shutters (front leaf shutter or rear focal plane
There is precious little automation. On the bright side, that means you don't
have to worry about batteries. However, there are no interlocks either; you can
fog film, shoot blanks or double expose to your heart's content. Yet one learns
quickly with this straightforward device; I rarely shoot blanks and have never
double exposed a negative. Instead, I have grown to appreciate the flexibility
that the modular Graflex design offers.
In essence, any camera is a
light tight box which holds film at one end and a lens at the other. The Speed
Graphic bellows extends 12-3/4", which is sufficient for 1:1 reproduction using a
150mm lens and for portraiture using the 380/5.6 Graflex Tele-Optar. The camera
also can be used with relatively wide angle lenses, a 90mm being the widest
practical (this gives a similar perspective to that of a 24mm lens on a 35mm
camera). Barrel lenses are easily adapted for use; the supplemental rear
focal-plane shutter has usable speeds from 1/30 second to 1/1000 second.
The key to successful Graflex photography is to realize that the camera is a
large-format approximation of a Nikon F4 and was never intended to replace a view
camera. The Speed Graphic has a fixed, non-rotating back, and only modest
Scheimpflug potential. The bed can drop 15 degrees and the front lens standard
can be tilted back a commensurate amount. There is a little over one-inch of
lateral shift, and less than two inches of rise available. While this is
insufficient "view camera" action for some, it remains, nonetheless, extremely
useful for perspective correction and depth of field enhancement. I use my 4x5"
Speed Graphic as my primary camera, and have rarely found a time where the
availability of front standard movements was limiting.
The metier of the
Speed Graphic is speed; its handheld potential, the action photograph. The rear
focal plane shutter is unique among press cameras; the 1/1000 second speed is
especially useful with long lenses. A selector switch on the side of the camera
marked "FRONT", "BACK", and "TRIP" allows the user to select which shutter will
be coupled to the pushbutton shutter release. To some the concept of dual
shutters is bewildering, but it makes complete operational sense to me. I use the
front shutter for all flash photography, and for all general photography up to
the lens-in-shutter's top speed; when 1/1000 second exposures are required I use
the focal plane shutter. Of course, the focal plane shutter is used exclusively
with barrel mount lenses such as my 380/5.6.
The wire-frame viewfinder is an ergonomic delight; it naturally adjusts to
compensate to the focal lengths of most normal lenses. It has click-stop
adjustable parallax correction. It allows viewing the subject with both eyes
open, and without the typical SLR image blackout. I have a much lower opinion of
the optical reverse-Galilean finder. It is squinty with normal lenses and
uselessly squinty when masked for use with telephoto lenses.
One problem with early Pacemaker Graphics is that the split-image rangefinder
can be synchronized for use with only a single lens. This relegates all accessory
lenses to either scale or ground glass focusing. Later model cameras have a
revised rangefinder that uses interchangeable cams. In my camera, the 152/4.5
Ektar is my primary lens; and for handheld use, the 127/4.7 Ektar is scale
focused. My other lenses, the 90/6.8 wide angle and the 380/5.6 telephoto are
relegated to tripod/ground glass use. [Note: the Anniversary-model Speed Graphic,
used by Joe Rosenthal to make the famous photograph of the American flag being
raised over Iwo Jima, currently resides at the George Eastman House in Rochester,
NY. This camera has a 10" telephoto lens fitted, the optical viewfinder
appropriately masked, and the rangefinder adjusted to synchronize with the
table if you want to know the 35mm equivalents of lens focal lengths for a
There are three backs
offered on Pacemaker series Graphics: the Graphic "spring" back, the Graflex back
and the Graflock back. The Graflex back uses obsolete film and plate holders and
is best avoided. The choice between Graphic and Graflock back is one of
flexibility. The "spring" type back accepts all conventional sheet film holders,
Grafmatic holders, sheet film Polaroid holders and some slip-in type roll film
holders. The "Graflock" back features a removable metal frame. With the ground
glass removed, a variety of pack film Polaroid backs and bulky roll-film holders
may be installed. The Graflock is a luxury, in my opinion.
Front-shutter type lenses supply the necessary synchronization for modern
electronic flash. An advantage of leaf-shutters is that they can synchronize with
the flash tube at all speeds. Since most lens shutters have a relatively high top
speed (1/400 or 1/500), the opportunities for fill-in-flash are extended. A
typical press camera operator in the 1940's would have his or her Graphic loaded
with Super Panchro Press (an ASA 250 film), the lens (a 127mm Ektar) focused to
10 feet, the shutter set to 1/200 second @ f/16 and a "#5" flashbulb mounted in
the flashgun. Depth of field was substantial; anything from 6 to 20 feet would be
passably sharp. The fill-in flash would ensure tame lighting ratios, enhancing
the look of the finished news photo.
My Graphic is equipped exclusively with "last-generation" lenses. My primary
lens is a 152/4.5 Kodak Ektar, rangefinder coupled. I also use the 380/5.6
Graflex Tele-Optar in barrel, a 90/6.8 Schneider Angulon and a 127/4.7 Kodak
Ektar. My personal aesthetic eschews the ultra-vivid Velvia look so popular
today; the ultimate in contrast is neither necessary nor desired. Operationally,
the 4x5" Speed Graphic produces results with excellent image quality, certainly
of "Hasselblad-quality" and perhaps a bit sharper and richer due to the larger
negative. Both 127/4.7 and 152/4.5 Ektars are sharp, reasonably contrasty and
free from objectionable distortion or flare-spots. The 90/6.8 Angulon is less
sharp, but acceptable. The 380/5.6 Tele-Optar has lower contrast than the others,
but is acceptable.
The 4x5" aesthetic is seductive; grain is essentially non-existant. I tend to
use relatively fast black-and-white emulsions and develop in speed enhancing
developers; Kodak Tri-X-Professional exposed at EI-1000 and souped in Acufine is
a favorite. Grain is invisible in all prints 11x14" and smaller. I find it
difficult to print from emulsions such as Kodak TMAX-100 used in handheld
situations. If there is any handheld blur, it is impossible to focus the enlarger
on details in the negative. And for smaller prints, the film grain is not visible
under my focusing microscope.
The Speed Graphic is a competent general-purpose photographic tool. For the
user seeking a camera with the flexibility of sheet film, the quality of
20-square inches of film per image, limited perspective control and legendary
rugged portability, the Speed Graphic is an excellent value. At the same time,
design concessions made to ensure the portability and durability of the camera
restrict its use as a true view camera.
Many of the most famous images of the twentieth century were made using the
Speed Graphic : two examples are the Hindenburg Explosion of 1937 and the flag
raising at Iwo Jima, 1945. For that matter, the ubiquitous Speed Graphic probably
made some of your own treasured family photographs. Whether it was brides, babies
or battles, the Speed Graphic was there.
Even with rising status as a collectable, the Speed Graphic is primarily a
user camera. It is an alternative to a Hasselblad rather than a bargain Sinar. A
close relative of the Speed Graphic is the Crown Graphic, essentially the same
camera but without the rear focal-plane shutter. Either camera, used within its
design parameters, is wholeheartedly recommended.
Governor Mario Cuomo at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics University of
Rochester, Rochester, NY, 1993. (Graflex Speed Graphic, 152/4.5 Ektar, f/16 @
1/200, #5 flashbulb, Tri-x Professional @ EI-320, Microdol-X)
Grand Canyon from the air, Grand Canyon, AZ, 1996. (Graflex Speed Graphic,
152/4.5 Ektar, f/11 @ 1/1000, Ilford HP5 @ EI-1000, Acufine)
Bridal-Veil Falls from the Rainbow Bridge, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada,
1993. (Graflex Speed Graphic, 380/5.6 Optar, f/9.5 @ 1/500, Kodak Ektachrome
Niagara at Dusk - 90mm/6.8 Angulon - Kodak Ektachrome 200 f/16 - time