Bell & Howell "Foton" Camera

Discussion in 'Classic Manual Cameras' started by beau_wright, Jul 5, 2007.

  1. Hello!

    This is my first post here on the forum and I'm a novice in photography, so please excuse my ignorance.
    I'm recently came into the possession of this original Bell&Howell Foton in fanastic condition! As I
    understand it, this was one of the finest 35mm cameras ever made in the United States. This camera
    belonged to a relative of mine, who purchased it new back in the late 40s (I believe the Foton originally
    came out in 1948). He was a commercial artist, so no doubt he felt he needed the best money could buy.
    Also with the camera is the original case; however, the case does show some wear. Any comments would
    be appreciated as well as any remarks as to value.

  2. You got my interest up, did a search and found this -

    $700 list price in 1948!! That was when a Dollar was worth a Dollar!

    I need to check what that is in today's money!
  3. Lots of effort in a high end American camera at that time. Kodak Ektra also in same price range. I don't think either sold very well.
  4. It's hard to place a value on something like that, but it's worth more than I could afford. They do come up on the Bay every once in a while, so you might watch there and see what they sell for. There's one just starting out now with a starting bid level of $350. My guess is that it will run on the order of $1000, but I haven't been watching them.

    one of the things that distinguishes the Foton from the Kodak Ektra, the other impossibly-expensive American 35mm of the era, is that the Foton tends to actually WORK.
  5. The camera didn't sell very well, and by 1950 the price had been substantially reduced. It may well have been one of the best American-made cameras ever. As for current-day value, I have found though investigation of catalogue prices, etc., that the Post Office standard for inflation is pretty close to right. A 1st class letter cost 3 cents in the late 40s and early 50s. Today the same envelope would cost 41 cents to mail. This translates into a converter factor of roughly 13X. A more conservative 10X can be used, but if you do broad-based comparison of comparable goods, I'd go with the 13-14X. By this measure, the $700 Foton would be comparable to a modern $7000 to $9800 camera today. At its discounted price, it would still have been equivalent to a $5000 to $7000. In short, about the same as a top-of-the-line Canon EOS 1DS or at slightly lower prices a Leica M8 or Nikon D2Xs. Recall that a modern Hasselblad digital camera can cost up to $32,000 2007 dollars.
  6. Oh, and I should mention that there was a 25% Federal Excise tax still in place from WWII. I don't know if that was included in the prices or tacked on. I think the former. I personally suspect that this was a contributing factor in the demise of the domestic camera industry. Post war advertisements show a huge business in used cameras, however.
  7. Thanks for the input! Due to the need of a new computer, the camera is going to have to go.
    Would you say that eBay would be best option?
  8. yes, that's where the collectors are looking. describe it well and clearly, include as good photos as you can; the rest should take care of itself.
  9. It would also help to run a couple of rolls of film through the camera and include a scan of a print or two in the ebay auction to show all is working. Given your inexperience with this type of camera, I'd take it to a camera store, purchase some rolls of film and ask one of the knowledgeable people there to help with loading the film and checking the aperture, shutter and film advance mechanism. Also ask them to inspect the lens for scratches, dust, fungus, etc. They'll probably jump at the chance to try out such an exotic camera (wouldn't hurt to print out the linked pages provided in Arlen's post above and take that with you so they will have a better idea what they are looking at.)

    Then include in the auction some good photos of the camera from all angles, a photo or two taken with the camera, the fact that it was checked by camera store staff (and their conclusions), and the link provided by Arlen. Good luck ... you've got a really interesting camera there.
  10. GOOD LUCK at any camera store finding someone knowledgeable at loading and operating a Foton. Don't hand it to anyone less than 50 years old in that environment.
  11. Richard and Jim, thanks so much for all the suggestions and help! I will absolutely go down to
    the camera store today and make sure it works. Thanks again!
  12. I've never seen a Foton, but do occasionally use a 2" TTH Cooke Amotal in LTM. I think the
    story goes that the "left over" lenses, from the lack of sales, were converted to Leica screw
    mount and then sold. In any case, it is a fine lens on your camera. Give it a try.
  13. Beau: I agree w/Mr. Oleson that you are highly unlikely to find anyone @ a modern camera store who will know how it works. I have 2 Fotons (1 is w/me today & the other w/Ken Ruth getting a CLA), so if you have any questions on how to use it, send me an email.

    You are very lucky to have been gifted w/such rare camera. In my experience, a body w/2" lens & case will typically sell in the $800-1000 range on eBay, depending on condition, of course. FYI, the very rare 4" telephoto lens alone sells for a similar amount of money (& the accompanying super-rare accessory finder for that lens will be over $500 by itself), so if your relative has other Foton stuff in their closet/attic, it may be worth another look. ;-)!
  14. Oh & here's a fun quote from the October 4, 1948 issue of Time Magazine which gives you an idea of how delusional Bell & Howell's marketing team must have been:

    "Five a Second. Chicago's Bell & Howell Co. (cameras) announced that it would put on sale this fall the world's most expensive still camera. Its "Foton" will take five 35-mm. pictures a second, sell for $700. Bell & Howell, which has found that 'families of both low and high incomes now spend over $550' for movie equipment, hopes to sell 20,000 Fotons a year.",9171,799283,00.html
  15. Christopher, you are absolutely right, I went to a camera shop and the gentlemen in there
    (who have been in the business for over 25 years) said they had never seen a Foton before.
    He said there was no way he could figure out if it worked. So I imagine I'm up a creek, I
    simply don't know how to operate this gizmo.
  16. Beau, it's unusually but actually very easy. As I wrote earlier, I can explain via email or send you a photocopy of the instruction manual via snail mail.
  17. I sure appreciate the offer Christopher. Finances are rather tight right now so need to get
    this camera moving. Here is the link to the auction:

    Thought you folks might want to see this much-talked about camera. Thanks again for all
    the discussion and information!

  18. Actually Christoper, I would be interested in seeing how this thing works. If you could send a
    copy of the instruction manual, I don't mind reimbursing you for postage.
  19. Beautiful example. No chance of my buying it, but i'm going to put a token bid in on it just to be able to say i bid on one once....
  20. Beau, no reimbursement is necessary, but you would need to email me your mailing address.
  21. Like richard, I wouldn't or couldn't get it for what it should go for, but I did put a watch on it on eBay. It's a long way from my collecting interests, but what a sweetie.

    You know, I'm not quite sure that the website referred to has it on the mark when it identifies the Robot as the main competitor. Thats true only so far as the advance is concerned, but what is so remarkable about this camera is that it's something on its own terms. Bell and Howell seem really have tried to come up with the best that they could do. At the time it was made, the rights for all the German camera designs were free for the taking as war reparations, so nearly everyone else was making Leica or Contax copies (Canon, Nikon, and many obscure American and British cameras too). There are some superficial design similarities to other cameras, but this was and is a 'oner.'
  22. I agree w/Stephen Gandy's article on the Foton ( that its main flaw from a user perspective is the RF, which is tiny & dim (VF is fine). Given the price it probably wouldn't have made a difference in the marketplace, but I wish Bell & Howell had spent as much effort into putting a decent combined VF/RF (like a Contax RF) or even a better separate VF/RF (like a screw mount Leica or Kodak Ektra) into the Foton as they did w/the motor drive mechanism.
  23. BTW, the Foton's internal mount (for the 2" lens) is a screw mount, like a Leica & the external bayonet mount (for the 4" lens) is very similar to that of the Contax RF, so Bell & Howell wasn't above borrowing some ideas from contemporary German RF systems.
  24. I had been watching this one, wishing I could get it, so saw that it brought $876.00 on eBay. Congratulations Beau.
  25. Ditto, congratulations - very respectable price for a beautiful camera.
  26. You did well. There's another up for sale that ends in less than a day but isn't even at half your winning bid. We all know how eBay works though. I'd like to get a Foton myself one day but I'm afraid they're too rich for my blood.

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