Graflex SLR: Handling? Price range? Pitfalls?

Discussion in 'Beginner Questions' started by Jochen, Feb 22, 2018.

  1. I like the look of those beasts and guess mastering one would get me eye-level portraits of significantly shorter ladies.
    I have 270mm Tele Arton in Technica board a 355mm G Claron and some Imagon to try on SLR.
    I never had a chance to handle a Graflex how is it done?
    • Single button to get the mirror up and FP shutter going like on smaller SLRs? Or is there a lever to slowly move the mirror up?
    • Can I sync strobes? At which speed? - Do I have to look for a special model to get flash sync?
    Are there Graflex specific pitfalls or is the tech sufficiently primitive to get repaired or refurbished by independent contemporary repair shops?
    How heavy and expensive are they?
    Thanks in advance, even for warnings and "Don't do it!"s.
    Maybe getting a camping chair instead is really the better idea, but my GAS is running high.
  2. I've never seen one, much less held one, but if you do an advanced search on eBay, checking the box for completed listings, and only looking at the green results, it doesn't sound like a huge risk to play with one. I was surprised at how many come up for sale. IMO, they're really from a different era and a good Speed Graphic might be a more flexible and better performer.
  3. Thanks Conrad. - I agreed with you on the versatility issue when I scooped up Linhofs. OTOH I am hoping for SLR benefits in portraiture, like not having to "freeze" my subject in position while I am getting a view camera ready with film or no framing guess work with finder and rangemeter in use.
    To ad another question:
    • How dim is that ground glass? - Will I have to bring serious amounts of hot lights for focusing?
  4. Yep, they'll be pretty dim.
  5. I will admit to never having seen a Graflex in person, much less handled or operated one. I am an avid user of my Pacemaker Speed Graphic, though.

    The folks at are very helpful when it comes to all Graflex products, however, and I'd encourage asking them.
  6. OK. Big Graflex SLR fan here. I have been using a Super D Graflex for portraits for over 40 years. Mine came from a portrait studio. You are right in thinking that it would be a perfect portrait camera. Here's what you need to know.

    First, shutter speeds. The Super D is the only one with factory flash sych. It has speeds from 1/30 to 1/1000, with a special additional speed of around 1/5 which is used for electronic flash. That works by putting the mirror down with the shutter open. The mirror comes up, and that fires the flash and closes the shutter. It's also useable without flash, obviously. Lower than that, you can only do what would be the equivalent of T exposure. The other models all go down to 1/10, but none come with factory sych, though some people have rigged up Rube Godberg contraptions to provide flash synch. Other models also have the special 1/5 drop shutter speed.

    Most models came with Graflex backs, which require special film holders, hard to get. Only the Super D came with the normal Graflok back for modern holders as optional but not inevitable. 4x5 Super Ds with Graflok backs are $$$-$$$$! Very pricey! Graflex back roll holders aren't too hard to find if you wait long enough. The Graflex version of Grafmatic (aside from the extremely rare Graflex version) are bag-mags, a magazine with a leather pouch on one end where you manually pull the film into and shuffle it to the back of the deck. They work extremely well, but you have to find one with good leather.

    Bellows provide limited range. The Auto Graflex has a drop bed and long bellows. All of the rest are intended for the lenses they came with, only. It is easy to make extension boxes for longer lenses if you are handy. B and C models came with screw in lenses, no board, and will not take other lenses. The Super D, only, came with a semi-automatic lens. Cock the aperture for focusing, then firing would close it down; recock the lens, pull the mirror back down, rewind the shutter, change the film, and you're ready for the next shot.

    That leaves you with, essentially, Auto Graflex, Series D, and Super D as the viable models. If the auto had synch it would be the perfect camera. For my Super D I use the original lens, and have used 250mm and 300mm lenses with extension boxes; I also have a 3-1/4 x 4-1/4 Auto, with backs and some lenses. It's great, and a wonderful carry-around size, which the 4x5 is not. But no synch :-( The Series D is basically a Super D without the synch and auto lens, and a Graflex back. Those are the two most recent models. Of the Auto models, the one with a big notch in the case above the bellows instead of a perfectly rectangular box are the latest ones. All of the more recent models have rotating backs, but the earliest do not.

    There is a 5x7 model with slow shutter speeds and a rotating back, the Home Portrait model. I have always wanted one, but they are very rare and expensive when they show up, and then you have to find holders. That one is definitely a tripod camera.

    The main issue with any Graflex is the shutter. Sometimes people mess them up just by playing with them not knowing how they work, but even more common is bad curtains. Over time the curtain shrinks irregularly and puckers. When that happens, it can't move smoothly, and slow speeds hang up. The other thing that happens is that the very thin ribbons of fabric outside the curtain apertures break, and then the whole shutter is bad. If you're clever, you can glue on nylon tape to fix this, but by the time that happens the shutter is usually rumpled toast, anyway. I have maybe five Graflexes of different models, and only the most recent two, post 1942, both, have fully functional shutters (curtain deterioration is about age). Replacement curtains are unavailable, though there are one or two people who will make you a new one for $$$--better buy a good one!

    Functionally you are right, it's a great portrait camera. Difficult to focus in dark light, but possible. The modeling lamps in my strobes are just barely sufficient. Hot lights should be fine.

    My favorite use of my cameras was for available light portraits with an f/4.5 lens and Polaroid 3000 film. That was a combo that worked! Ah, the good old days.

    Here are two pictures shot with my 4x5 Super D and the stock 190mm lens, handheld and studio strobe:

    Alex Hersh
    by Michael Darnton, on Flickr

    Alex Hersh
    by Michael Darnton, on Flickr
    Last edited: Feb 23, 2018
    Jochen likes this.
  7. James G. Dainis

    James G. Dainis Moderator

    "I like the look of those beasts and guess mastering one would get me eye-level portraits of significantly shorter ladies."

    Thank you for my first laugh of the day. It is funny because it is true.
  8. By the way, on all models pressing the shutter release releases the mirror, which when it gets to the top fires the shutter. Then you pull the mirror back down and wind the shutter, in that order. You also have the option of firing the mirror and it not triggering the shutter, then firing the shutter separately.This woud mostly be for vibration-free time exposures.
  9. I have a 4x5 RB Series B. I'm 6'5" so the camera is not that big. Big reflex mirror with clear view. Hand held can be a problem with shake.The film backs are a challenge due to age, I like the "Bag Magazine" back for 12 sheets and the leather bag can be brittle or have holes from age/use. In the field the double Graflex holder is a pain.
    Some cameras had the ground glass replaced with brighter plastic screen by a repair shop, these are much brighter. Many had flash added by a repair shop but for flash bulbs. Repair is a real problem. Last Graflex SLR's produced c.1950. The roller blind shutter is something most repair people have never seen. I have a Series B 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 with shutter curtain torn loose from spool and no idea where to send it for repair. Check out, lots of articles and user info.
  10. Another thought: If you are going to get into this, you need to recognize what you need from the smallest details of photos. I have never seen any category of photography item that is more infested with misidentification by sellers than Graflex company items. They can't even get the format right. Just because someone says "4x5" that doesn't mean it's not 2-1/4x3-1/4.

    This comment is prompted by my browsing of Graflex on Ebay right now and finding an item thus labeled that's not getting bids because the people who would want that 4x5 item and will look at the listing know when they do that the item is something else, where people looking for that item in 2x3 can't find it because it's misdescribed. In a funny sort of way, that's how to buy cheap on Ebay. See: GRAFLEX GRAPHIC 23 4x5 120 ROLL FILM HOLDER FROM 1950 | eBay

    Looking, you can't believe descriptions, you can't believe condition, and most listers don't know the differences among Graflex, Graphic, or Graflok backs and their attachments., nor whether either small parts or entire assemblies are completely missing. There are plenty of cameras out there listed as missing a film holder when what is missing is the entire back section of the camera.
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2018
  11. Something like a Gowlandflex would get you similar results (short women), and use more modern lenses, shutters, etc.
  12. Or a Cambo TRW with the 45 degree finder. I'd love to have one of those or the Gowlandflex.
    Cambo TWR 54 - 4x5 Twin Lens Reflex (like Gowlandflex) Question...

    I have two Cambos I don't use much, and have often thought that I could just get longer posts and stack one on top of the other, one for film, one for my eye, and put marks on the posts for parallax compensation. But with any of these choices the viewing eye will be maybe too far from the lens eye to make for subtle viewpoint positioning.\

    Here's a new one to me:
    Yum. There's one on Ebay right now, and it looks like it takes big rolls of film. That's a negative, so to speak.

    Yum to um: 3" roll film, not so 5x7 in spite of the description. :-(
    VERY RARE Vintage Mac Van 2 MACVAN TLR 5x7 Reflex Mega Camera STUDIO | #503440242
    Last edited: Feb 24, 2018
  13. Continuing with the ridiculous, if you like 70mm, I see that a Beattie Coleman Portratronic goes for $75 on Ebay, ready to go. You can't get much cheaper than that. I have run a few thousands of frames through those, back when.
  14. @James G. Dainis : A pleasure to serve. - I felt a need to mention my triggering motivation to look not entirely insane.
    @wogears : Sorry if I phrased my questions / intro misleadingly. - I hoped for a user like @michael_darnton|2 to jump in and give a report through contemporary eyes. There will be a time to RTFM, but purchase decisions are hard to base on that. Few manufacturers had clear enough crystal balls to predict product related issues half a century after they'd go out of business...
    A big TY at Michael! - Just shutter curtain material seems to be $80 on eBay, with shipping and might need a more skilled guy than me to get cut into shape and cobbled in.
    Thanks for the reminder about average repair folks, Chris. - I should probably poke my local guys during some other deals.

    I'll look and see what I can get sets wise. - Holders for half a dozen sheets and 1 roll should be fine. I doubt I 'll be able to afford going wilder on sheet film and will need some changing tent anyhow.
    Not sure what to think about the mentioned alternatives.
    - I never handled 70mm film before and understand it is more expensive than 120? I don't have a real need for a school portrait long roll camera and also wouldn't know how to soak such film on a Jobo. Considering my logistics challenges I'm most likely better off carting Mamiya TLRs out into the field. - I have them, they used to take pictures and who knows which subject will be patient enough to endure a 3rd roll of 12 frames?

    To my understanding Gowlands must be pretty expensive? According to a quick search they seem at least rare, with one showing up every 5 years.

    I'm grateful for all the info that poured in and will have some thinking to do. - At least I now understand what I shall be looking for and which issues I'll face. The format confusion among Graflex sellers is surely something to remember. The general joy of dealing with the "I was told this was grandpa's camera and know nothing" kind of seller will matter too.

    I'm not entirely scared now but home made extension boxes and 1/5sec synch speed are things to chew on. - I'll watch out and see what I'll stumble across.
    Thanks again for all the insight!
  15. In my younger days I spent a few years pushing cameras like that around - plenty of 50 hour weeks with people lined up all day, and I'm not talking about school portraits. Nothing else came close to cameras like the Portronics or Camerz for this sort of thing. They were almost part of a factory production system for this sort of thing. If you tried to shoot high volume side-by-side against one of these setups by using some sort of 120 roll-film camera, you'd be doing something like 15 film changes per hour. The guy with the long-roll camera might make two magazine swaps during the entire day, at about 15 seconds per swap; add another minute to shoot a slate that identifies the roll.

    The camera would ID each negative, linked to a sitting card with customer information, and this would follow the film all through the printing, inspection, and packaging operations. The film was never cut; it was processed in a continuous cine machine and printed on printers that could wind through 100 ft rolls.

    Today these cameras make almost no sense. The shooting volume is long gone, the lab infrastructure doesn't exist anymore, and such film is scarce, if even available.

    But I gotta say, I have a small Graflex, and the only way I'd consider using it seriously for portraits is if someone said it couldn't be done. Or maybe just to try it if I'd never done it I doubt that I could make a living that way, though.
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2018
  16. Since you mention the cost of film, I assume this project is for fun. So is mine, and that's why I use xray film, which costs ten cents per 4x5. It has many quirks, but it's a budget path to large format. All of the portraits on that Flickr site were shot with xray film. These days, when I'm shooting a portrait for someone else, I'll use digital, then throw in a couple of shots for me, too, on big film, just two shots per person (usually on 8x10 or 5x7.)

    The lens that comes with the camera isn't bad for portraits. Because of the mirror, Graflex SLRs came with a lens that was the next format up, so it's almost theoretically long enough. Also, not on my 4x5, which is special to me, but on my smaller ones, I fitted guitar strap lugs and a leather guitar strap, and they're quite reasonable to carry around, definitely hand cameras.
  17. I can remember school pictures when I was young where we were each given a card with our names on it that we handed the photographer when our turn came up. He(always he) would stick it in the camera and I guess it would put some sort of stamp or mark-he'd keep it and we'd go on our merry way.

    A few weeks later, we'd get two color 3x5s or so attached to that same card with "PROOF" printed in big letters across the front. I seem to recall that the card had an order form on the back, and an admonition that my parents would be charged $xx if the card wasn't returned.

    BTW, this would have been through most of the 90s.
  18. Yes, they called it the "numbering device." Every time a shot is taken, a small light inside momentarily illuminates the corner of the sitting card inside; via a lens and a small periscope the number is exposed onto the film, typically in the small gap between frames. Then the magazine automatically advances the film and the camera is ready for another shot.

    The key is that the sitting cards were preprinted with sequential numbering. You had to shoot them in order to keep any order in the system.

    I didn't do school pictures; we took all comers who waited in line; anything from infants to family groups, sometimes staff portraits in the host store or real estate agents needing photos. We'd take the photos first, with sitting card in the camera - thus all negs have the sitting number. After successful photography, customer would fill out name and address on the multipart card. I would tear off a perfed section with sitting # as customer's receipt. At the lab, the stack of sitting cards traveled with the film can. The cards also included a 2-part self-carbon piece, so when the customer filled out their name and address this also went onto a tear-off postcard that would be mailed, telling them when to get their photos. The rest of the sitting card went into a pocket in the envelope holding their prints.

    I did this in the early 1970s, when affordable color photos had just recently become widely available, so we always had people waiting in line. I shot roughly 40 to 50 thousand individuals like this - hardest work I've ever done. But it would've just about killed you with any other sort of camera. Actually, it would probably have just turned the shooting part into a 2 person operation, and maybe doubled the lab production costs.

    Anyway, they were specialized cameras, now part of a bygone era, and of little practical use today.
  19. Just for fun, here is the large format SLR that professional photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) used for the auto race in which his leg was broken (Hitchcock's Rear Window).
    If you search on eBay, you may be able to find one in better condition ;)

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