member since: 4/24/2003
out of 5
It's somewhat difficult to review a classic 8X10 studio portrait camera, much less assign a numerical rating.
The Century Camera Company has a bit of an interesting history. Founded sometime around 1900 (hence the name), Century was at various times owned by Eastman Kodak, Folmer & Schwing, and finally in 1928 by the Folmer Graflex Corporation. It was during the Folmer Graflex period that the 4a cameras were built.
The Century 4a is a "classic" studio camera, capable of working in all formats up to 8X10 inch. As studio portrait cameras go, the 4a has a somewhat limited bellows draw (about eighteen inches). This limitation is one reason these cameras are often found only with a 4X5 or 5X7 inch back assembly. With a minimum of ingenuity, it's quite possible to use longer focal length lenses on these cameras than the eighteen inches of bellows draw would seem to indicate, without resorting to telephoto design lenses. The nine inch square lens board size allows for some interesting possibilities. As an example, I have constructed a deeply extended lens board (nine inches!) to allow my 17" f/10 Kodak Ektanon lens to focus at a reproduction ratio better than 1:2, more than enough for head and shoulder portraits on 8X10 inch film.
As for the operation of the camera, all controls are conventional. The rather massive front standard is fixed so there are no rise, swing, or shift movements. The rack and pinion focusing is via a large wood knob on the right rear of the camera, focus lock being a knob on the center track of the three-track camera base. Rear standard swings are controlled by a knob attached to a worm gear mechanism at the rear of the camera. Rear standard tilts are also worm driven via a brass knob directly above the focus lock knob.
This is a good time to mention tripod mounting, there isn't one! Cameras such as the 4a are designed to be used on heavy studio stands with gravity being the force to hold it in place (the camera with 8X10 back but without lens or film holder weighs 20.5 pounds). Unfortunately, many of these fine cameras were separated from their stands over the years. Since my camera was one of those whose stand was most likely converted to a plant holder many years ago, I solved the lack of tripod mounting by building a 1/2" thick plywood platform with a 3/4" square rail on the front and sides. That platform is bolted to a very substantial Davis and Sanford tripod head which is secured to a D&S Model C tripod. It's not a "pretty" solution, but it's quite serviceable and will suffice until I can find a proper Century 4a stand.
One of the great features of the 4a (and most other Century studio cameras) is the sliding back assembly. By placing a mask in the back of the camera, it is possible to shoot multiple images on a single sheet of 5X7 or 8X10 inch film (most common is two 3.5X5 images on a single 5X7 sheet). The sliding back allows for rather rapid shooting, especially when the photographer has an assistant whose job is to change film holders and back positions.
When discussing image quality and large format cameras, the camera used is irrelevant; the choice of lens is the primary concern. Besides the aforementioned 17" f/10 Ektanon (an apochromatic process lens designed for the graphic arts industry), I use an older Bausch & Lomb Symmetrical (a Rapid Rectilinear design) with a focal length of about 12 inches. It's a perfect lens for portraiture as it's not razor sharp, but rather it imparts a beautiful glow to skin tones. It’s maximum aperture of US4 (equal to f/8) makes focusing in dim light a bit of a challenge. To counter the slow speed of the lenses, I’ve installed a replacement ground glass made by Dave Parker called SatinSnow. The SatinSnow glass gives a much brighter image without resorting to the use of a fresnel lens behind the focusing surface.
As for shutters, the B&L Symmetrical is mounted in a pneumatically regulated Century shutter, made by Wollensak. The lens and shutter date back to around 1900 to 1910, so there is no flash synchronization. I get around that problem by using a synched Packard-Ideal #6 shutter behind the lens board and locking the Century shutter open on “T” when I need to use studio strobes. Likewise, the 17” Ektanon is not mounted in a shutter (yet), so it too resides in front of a Packard.
All in all, I enjoy my Century 4a immensely. The slower pace of working with a fine classic studio camera makes the portrait session a pleasant and memorable experience for the subject, and ALSO keeps this photographer very, very happy.
4/29/2005 3:47:37 PM