Meet my Zeiss Ikon Ercona 1. This is a 6×9 folding medium format camera built by the Zeiss Ikon camera factory in Dresden, East Germany, sometime in the 1950s. It is a very basic camera. Everything has to be set by hand before taking your picture. It is entirely mechanical. No batteries are involved whatsoever. Just a roll of 120 roll film and the photographer. The camera came in a very nice, dark brown, leather case complete with strap. When folded up the camera is approximately 6 inches long, 3 3/4 inches high and 2 inches deep. When the lens and bellows are deployed for taking pictures the depth increases to about 5 1/8 inch. It is small but very solid and weighs 1 pound, 10 ounces. The camera is built primarily from metal with a leatherette covering. The bellows also appears to be some type of leather material. Aesthetically it is a very good looking camera when it is expanded. Although it is about 60 years old it is in pretty good condition. The black paint on the metal borders has been chipped a bit, particularly along the back where you would lay the camera down, and some of the leatherette is peeling, but it certainly isn’t bad considering the age of this camera.
Almost all the main photography business on the Zeiss Ikon Ercona 1 camera takes place at the lens mounted out on the end of the bellows. On the top of the camera there is a film advance knob, a threaded shutter release button, a viewfinder (without a range finder)and the button that unlocks the front to open the bellows. At the lens is the aperture settings, the shutter speed settings, and the lens focusing. The lens is a 110mm f/4.5 Novar Anistigmat. Aperture settings range from the maximum of f/4.5 to a minimum of f/22. The shutter type is not identified on the camera but it appears to be a self-setting, 3-speed, Vario shutter, or an East German copy of one since the Vario was manufactured in West Germany. The shutter speeds are 1/25s, 1/50s, 1/100s, and Bulb. With only six aperture settings and three shutter speeds this camera has a limited range of possible exposure values that will work. But, it actually makes working with the camera a bit more interesting, challenging you to think through your exposure. It also makes using a tripod or monopod more important because the fastest shutter speed available is below the reciprocal of the lens. In reality, a 1/50s or slower shutter speed is best done with a tripod or monopod anyway to ensure the sharpest possible pictures. Fortunately with this camera the tripod does not have to be a heavy duty, top of the line, model since the camera itself is pretty small and light and this shutter will not create any vibration to speak of.
When I first received this camera I knew almost nothing about these old medium format film cameras. The very first thing I had to learn was how to actually load film into the camera. Now, I’m not talking about opening the back of the camera and getting the film started. That was child’s play and I suspect most people will figure that out real quickly. No, I’m talking about exactly how far you should advance the film to be ready to take your first shot, and then your next one. Just so everyone understands, there is no automatic film advance on these cameras. Unlike your favorite little 35mm film camera the film does not advance automatically when you close the back, or advance when you flip the lever. There is no film advance motor or a film advance lever. Nor is there any frame counter to be found anywhere on this camera. With this camera you load the film and then manually advance it by turning a knob on top. You slide open a small cover over a little red window located on the back of the camera and wind the knob until you see a frame number appear. In theory that sounds as if it could not be simpler, but reality is a bit different, especially when you have never done anything like this in your life. And on this camera there are two small windows in the back, not just one. Which one should I use? One window is located in the center of the back. The other window is located in the bottom right quadrant of the back. So, which window should the frame number appear in? I went ahead and loaded my first roll of film and watched for the frame number. I advanced the film until the number 1 showed up in the center window. But I wasn’t absolutely certain that was correct. I knew that several different film formats are supported by 120 film. You can shoot fifteen or sixteen 6×4.5 images, twelve 6×6 images, and eight 6×9 images on a roll of 120 film, depending on how the camera sets the framing. My Pentax 645Nii automatically advances the film with a motor. My Mamiya 645 1000S manually advances via a crank and stops when the first frame is reached. So how exactly did you know where to stop the film on this camera? Like I said, there is nothing automatic about this camera at all. There had to be numbers on the back of the film to correspond with the different formats.
Now I don’t have a manual for this camera. I have looked but haven’t found one yet. But I know that this camera is a dead ringer for the Zeiss Ikon Ikonta, since both cameras are made by the same company, just in different factories on different sides of a border. So I looked up the manual for the 6×9 Zeiss Super Ikonta. Now these cameras are not identical but they are pretty close. And the instructions for the Super Ikonta indicated that the window in the bottom right quadrant was actually the correct window to use for 6×9 exposures. The second window was only used when an optional mask was used to reduce the image size to 6×6. Then I went online and verified that 120 film does indeed have numbers printed on the paper backing in different spots that correlate with the film format being used. Those numbers have been there since Kodak invented 120 roll film so many years ago. So I finally got my courage up and continued advancing the film moving the number 1 in the center window along. Sure enough, after just a bit of turning, another number 1 showed up in the lower window. I was pretty confident now that I was ready to go so I took the camera out onto the back porch to try and take a picture. When I got into the sunlight I was able to see that the numbers “6×9” were embossed into the leatherette next to the window in the bottom right quadrant. Next to the center window were the numbers “6×6”. If I would have seen that embossing in the first place it would not have caused me so much trauma. These are the little things that are waiting to trip up newcomers. People recommend these cameras as beginner cameras for medium format but I feel that is a mistake. Medium format has a learning curve all its own. Don’t complicate things by adding the difficulty of learning to use an entirely new type of camera.
This whole thing is actually very exciting for me. I have owned and have used, some very advanced cameras. But they do not interest me anywhere near as much as these 60 year old folding cameras do. I have read a couple of articles that indicate that the 6×9 format is very difficult to work with and takes much care to get really sharp photos. This is because of the size of the negative. There is so much film area to be exposed by the lens that it can be quite difficult to ensure that the film is flat enough and the lens is still enough to resolve sufficient detail to make the negatives worth enlarging. This means that, while working with all my folders will be fun, this particular one will be very challenging indeed.
Although the Zeiss Ikon Ercona 1 is certainly not a sexy camera, it is a very solid and reliable one, and a great teacher. Over the past several months I have learned a lot about photography, things I had never thought about before. Although the Ercona 1 only has three shutter speeds and 6 aperture settings, I have managed to capture some pretty decent shots with it. On initial inspection most people would probably dismiss this camera as being totally unsuitable for serious photography. But I know that this simple little camera has a great deal of magic in its lens, and can produce some truly excellent images if used correctly.
I see these simple little folding cameras come available on E-Bay frequently, or similar ones, and lots of people let them pass by. Unlike others I absolutely do not recommend a folding camera as a simple, inexpensive way to get into medium format. But I do think that people are missing out on a great opportunity, a huge amount of fun, and some truly awesome images. I see people clutter the on-line forums with battles about which digital SLR will take the best images. What they fail to understand is that the truth is actually far different than what they post. The reality is, with very rare, and hugely expensive, exceptions, if used properly this extremely simple folding camera will always have better image quality than any digital contender they care to present as a contender. A scanned medium format image holds a huge amount of information. A 6 centimeter by 9 centimeter image equals 2 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches. If you scan one of these images on my inexpensive little Epson V500 flatbed scanner at 1600 spi you will end up with 2.56 megapixels per square inch. Since that 6×9 image has 8 3/4 square inches the resulting scanned image is 22.5 megapixels. Hmm, there are not a lot of digital cameras that can boast that level of resolution and they all cost over $2,000 dollars, most of them considerably more, without a lens. I think that you can immediately see the benefit of these little folding cameras. Let’s take a look and see what we have here and what makes this camera capable of such stunning quality.
This was my very first medium format folding camera. I picked it up from Jurgen Kreckel, also know as certo6 on E-Bay. It has been used primarily for black and white ever since I bought it and it has provided some great shots. Not only did this camera get me started on folders, this is also the camera that really got me intrigued with black and white film again. Although I am not a great photographer, I have accidentally taken some very good shots with this camera and realize that I could have some real stunning images if I only knew what I was doing. Of course, that huge 6×9 negative, and its amazing tonality, certainly does not hurt. But for some reason every roll of black and white film I have shot with this camera has come back with at least one gorgeous shot that keeps me pushing to get even better ones.
The controls on the Ercona 1 are very, very simple. I think that is part of why I am so attracted to it. The Ercona 1 uses 120 roll film to capture 6×9 images. It comes equipped with a quality f/4.5 110mm Novar Anistigmatic lens set in a very simple, Vario style, 3 speed shutter. The available shutter speeds are 1/25 seconds, 1/50 seconds, and 1/100 seconds. There is also a bulb setting so you can hold the shutter open for as long as you are pressing the shutter. There is no “T” setting and there is no self timer. The shutter is not synched for flash at all so flash pictures are not possible. Finally, unlike almost every other folding camera I have used, this shutter does not have to be manually cocked before it can be used. This is a self-setting shutter so it is always cocked. There is a double exposure prevention system which requires that you advance the film before the shutter will fire again. There is a small, circular hole in the top plate next to the film advance knob. When the film is advanced this small indicator turns red. When the picture is taken this turns to a silver, aluminum color like the top plate. The shutter mechanism itself is quite rudimentary so it is easy to defeat the double exposure prevention if you do actually want to take a double exposure. Along with the shutter the Ercona’s lens assembly is also provided with aperture blades to open and close the lens opening. On the Ercona 1 there are 6 different aperture settings. The aperture blades can be adjusted to any point between the settings printed on the outside edge of the lens assembly so in real use there are almost an infinite number of settings between the maximum opening of f4.5 and the minimum opening of f22. Based on my results the shutter speeds and aperture settings appear to be pretty accurate so film exposure is pretty reliable.
The Ercona 1 does not have a rangefinder either, so focusing is basically done in 3 ways. First, it is done by measuring the actual distance between the film plane and the object being photographed, and then adjusting the lens to that setting. Second, you can estimate the distance to the object you want to focus. Finally you can use the time honored zone, or hyperfocal, system of focusing. In fact, when this camera was built the manufacturer anticipated that a lot of people would use the hyperfocal system of focusing and provided some aids on the camera to help do this. A red dot is located between f/11 and f/16 on the aperture ring, and another red dot is located between 5 and 8 meters on the lens focus ring. By setting the camera on both red dots you can expect images of acceptable sharpness between 13 feet and infinity. In this case the focus sharpness is only acceptable for snapshots, which are rarely enlarged beyond the standard 4×6 image size. You are almost certainly better off calculating depth of field a little more conservatively if you believe that you may be enlarging the results further than snapshot size. As for focus accuracy, the lens is focused using a cell focus method where only the front lens element is adjusted. This is not considered to be highly precise, and there are certainly more accurate focus methods. My results, so far, have been fairly decent but I haven’t really tried to enlarge any of the images I have captured with this camera to far yet . My digital scans from this camera are good for about 22.5 megapixels so I should be able to enlarge and print them on an inkjet to 16×20 pretty easily. Of course the focus will need to be pretty precise to allow that much enlargement. Never having tried before I really don’t know how precise the focus is on these images.
I am currently using a 37mm slip on Series VI Adaptor ring to attach various Series VI filters and a lens shade. I have a lot of Series VI filters available to use with this camera. A Series filter (there are Series IV, Series V and Series VI filters, and maybe others) does not thread onto the lens. An adapter for Series VI filters is purchased that fits your lens. From that point forward any Series VI filter will work with that adapter. Although this system is no longer in full use it is still possible to purchase new Series filters. Of course, if I scan the images I can use Photoshop to manipulate the results so filters certainly are not as critical as they once were. But it is still very handy to be able to use neutral density filters as part of your exposure setting kit, particularly with this camera.
Based on the research I have done the lens used on this camera is a good quality, 3 element, Cooke Triplet design lens. The lens is coated so it will work with color film as in addition to black and white film. A lot of old folding cameras do not have coated lenses since there was no need when they were manufactured. Before color film became available coatings were not commonly applied. The coatings applied to this lens will be fairly rudimentary and I suspect them to be single, not multi, coatings. But, because there are very few lens to air surfaces on these simple Cooke Triplet lenses single layer coatings were pretty effective. So far I have shot 6 rolls of Black & White film and 6 rolls of color film in the Ercona 1 and it seems to handle color quite well. However, I have found it is not very hard to get flare if I get too close to the sun while capturing images in color. The coatings work only so well, after that they lose effectiveness. The image below is an example of what the lens is capable of while aiming into the sun. This one turned out well but I have a couple of other examples with serious flare artifacts in the image. Even this one shows the image deterioration that comes from flare. The sun is above the upper left corner and you can see that the contrast is greatly reduced in that corner of the image.
I will be experimenting more with using my lens shade, as well as some different filters, in the near future to establish how much effect that will have as well. Although I have not done any qualitative evaluations my subjective opinion is that the photos from this very, very simple camera are turning out excellent, and seem to be the equal to any of the images I have taken so far with any of my other medium format gear. When enlarged you can see a huge amount of detail in these images. Here is another image taken a day or two earlier on color film that was over 10 years out of date. Not bad at all for a camera built about 60 years ago. The images this camera can capture absolutely amaze me!
I have used black & white film, color negative film and slide film in the Ercona 1 and it seems to work well with either type. The film is 120 roll film. It will not use 220 film because it has no paper backing to show the frame number. When this camera was manufactured 220 film did not exist, it was an attempt by the film manufacturers to provide more pictures on a roll of film for wedding photographers. They were able to do it by removing the paper backing from the film. So far my favorite film has been Ilford Pan F Plus 50, but I like the results I get from the color film I have used as well. I have only shot two rolls of slide film. One was a very expired roll of Fuji Velvia; very expired. The colors did not turn out as well as I had hoped but the canyon stream view shown in this post came from that roll, so it wasn’t completely unsalvageable. The other was a roll of Provia 100 and I am very pleased with how it turned out. Unfortunately I didn’t have it scanned at the time so I will have to scan the slides myself. When I do get that done I will try to remember to update that post with a sample.
Since there is no rangefinder you are forced to be creative when focusing this camera. If the subject being photographed is close enough I have been known to actually pull out a tape measure and measure. I did this with the flower picture above, which I think turned out great! That image was captured on Ilford Pan F Plus 50 black and white film and I not only measured the distance with a tape measure to set my focus, this was also the first time I used the Bulb shutter and counted off my exposure manually. I have also measured things a bit more roughly by pacing things out to get a basic measurement. Finally, of course, I have made considerable use of zone focusing which is actually pretty effective, particularly if you close down the aperture to f/16 or f/22. This lens actually likes being stopped down but obviously f22 is probably a bit tight and the image will deteriorate due to diffraction. I suspect that f11 is pretty close to ideal as this is where Zeiss decided to set their hyperfocal indicator. This is one thing I really need to play around with. I am going to start working with some current film and do some experimentation to get a better sense of which aperture setting is the best for this camera.
Advancing the film is done by using the knob on the top left side of the camera. Lever film advances were not used until sometime in the mid to late 50s, and then almost always on 35mm cameras. These medium format folding cameras use knobs to advance the film. Some folders have automatic film indexing where the knob will stop advancing the film when it has been advanced to the next frame but that is not the case with this camera. There are two red windows on the back and you watch through the right hand, lower, window to see your frame number come up. These cameras were provided with a special film mask that was inserted over the film window and reduced the frame width from 6×9 to 6×6. The middle window shows the frame numbers you need to use when the 6×6 film mask is in place. The mask that came with this camera was misplaced by someone a long time ago so I don’t worry about it. There is no need to cock the shutter on this camera. It is always cocked and ready to shoot. Just press the shutter button on the top of the camera next to the film winding knob. The shutter button is threaded to accept a shutter release cable and this is actually one camera where it is a good idea to use one of these all the time. The shutter speeds are 1/25s, 1/50s and 1/100s. None of these shutter speeds are particularly fast so camera shake is always a possibility with this camera, but for reasons different then might be assumed. This camera lens uses a leaf shutter so the shutter itself is very unlikely to cause any vibration. However, it is so quiet, and there is no click, so you will frequently be uncertain that the shutter has actually fired. Because of this it is actually a real possibility to press so firmly on the shutter button that you cause your own camera shake. I strongly recommend the use of a shutter release cable. On this particular camera there is no self timer so the shutter release cable and a tripod are really the only ways of guarding against this. I actually like carrying my monopod since it is so nice to use with this camera. It seems to provide just the right amount of stability.
There are a some rather unique differences with this camera that are worth discussing if you have never used a camera built in Europe in the 50s. First, the tripod sockets are of the European thread. This means you will need to pick up some adaptors to convert the tripod socket and allow you to use the standard US 1/4 inch threaded tripod screws. And, since all your shutter speed options are so slow, a tripod or monopod is always a good idea with this camera. Next, since you have so few exposure settings, it is very important to give your exposure some real thought. This is one of the few cameras where the use of neutral density filters are more than just a nice option. They are sometimes necessary to adjust your available exposure settings as much as to enhance your picture.
Perhaps even more than my Pentax K1000, this Ercona 1 is the best student camera I own. There are so few exposure options with this camera that you really have to think when you are using it, especially if you would like to reduce your depth of field at all. You cannot just rely on aperture settings and shutter speeds, you have to really consider the light you are shooting in, your film speed, and sometimes which filter you may want to use to change your exposure options. As an example; let’s say you wanted to use this camera for indoor portraits, and you wanted to reduce the depth of field as much as possible to eliminate any background distraction so you could focus the most attention possible on your model. When using this camera one of the first things you will need to consider is your distance to the subject. The minimum focus distance with this camera is about 1.5m. That is a bit over 59 inches, very close to 5 foot. So to get the focus right you will have to be very careful where and how you pose your subject in relation to the camera. Kodak T-Max 100 film is a wonderful black & white film for portraits with its’ tight grain and beautiful tones, but you will be working with indoors with this film. Look at your exposure charts and determine that, unless you add light, you are not going to be able to pull this off without using bulb shutter settings and manual timing the shutter speed. Since this dramatically increases the odds of motion blur from your subject, even if you are using a tripod, you probably need to consider other options. You can add some light or you can increase the ISO of the film. Since you can’t synchronize flash with this shutter, to add light you will be using lamps or floods. This can make things a little easier since you can use a spot meter to tell if the added light has improved things to the point where you can use your ISO 100 film. You can also increase your film speed. By moving to Kodak T-Max 400 you will get a great improvement in your shutter speed and you are a lot closer to a usable film speed for this portrait. Now you can open up the aperture to f/4.5 and use a 1/25s shutter speed assuming an exposure value of EV 7. If not then you will have to add light anyway. Actually, Kodak Tmax 400 is flexible enough that you can actually push it to ISO 1600, and now your options are great. At ISO 1600 you can almost certainly use a 1/100 second, and even 1/50 second shutter speed and capture a very good image. Of course increasing film speed does increase film grain as well so you will need to consider how that will effect your final image. At least you have a plan now. As you can see, thinking ahead and working out a plan is absolutely critical when you are using this camera. In fact, because it forces you to consider all your options, you probably have a better chance of coming out with a really good image than you would if you just started shooting randomly.
As I said before, at first glance it would appear that this camera is best left behind if you want high quality images. But when you really begin working with it, and exploring its capabilities, you begin to realize that this Ercona 1 has an awful lot to give. I am not losing sight of the fact that I have a number of really good cameras, but this one has the potential to provide me with some absolutely awesome images if I can master it. Images that will compete head to head with any other camera out there.
It is quite amazing when you think about it!