Sunday, November 20, 2011

The old lady - Zeiss Ikon Ideal 250/3

The principle behind photography is fairly simple: you just need a dark space where light can enter through a hole in a controlled way and some kind of light-sensitive receptor material (silver halide salts or CMOS semiconductors). This dark space (or camera obscura) is, of course, the photographic camera. Every photographic device in the world, no matter how fancy, no matter how hi-tech, relies on this principle. My oldest camera (for now) is a Zeiss Ikon Ideal 250/3 UU and its design, operation and engineering bring my thoughts back to this principle every single time I hold it in my hands.

the old lady - zeiss ikon ideal 250/3 (+3)
(EOS 40D, Sigma EX DG 50mm f/2.8 macro, 0.8s, f/10, ISO 100)

The Ideal 250/3 is a folding bed plate camera that takes pictures on 6.5x9 sheet film. It sports an uncoated Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 120mm f/4.5 lens in a rim-set Compur shutter with a maximum speed of 1/250. It was made by Zeiss Ikon in Dresden, Germany some time around 1930, making it actually a proud more-than-80-year-old camera that still works and is able to take great pictures.

(EOS 40D, Sigma EX DG 50mm f/2.8 macro, 3.2s, f/11, ISO 100)

When closed, the Ideal is no bigger than a pocket book. It is first when you open it and the front standard (lens and shutter mount) snaps into place at the infinity stop that you realize that this is a camera built for a lifetime, and even longer.

Operating a plate camera is quite different than using other types of cameras, or at least it looks so. In fact, with a plate camera you have to take care of many operations that other cameras are able to do for you. To take a picture with the Ideal, you first open the shutter in the T setting to project the image going through the lens onto a ground glass screen that is attached to the camera back. This screen is used to adjust focus and framing. The projected image is quite dim and difficult to figure out, especially in broad daylight. That's why you need to block as much ambient light as you can for example with a dark cloth, the same dark cloth that the photographer uses to cover his head that is still a universally recognizable symbol for a photographer. In the Ideal, a black hood unfolds and allows to see the screen in its shade.

ground glass (+6)
(EOS 40D, Sigma EX DG 50mm f/2.8 macro, 1.3s, f/9, ISO 100)

The image projected onto the ground glass, like all images going through a photographic lens, is reversed upside-down and right-to-left. This makes framing and composing a picture a hard task, although I also think that precisely this reversed image puts enough distance between the reality that you are photographing and the reality that you see through the camera, making the casual snapshot virtually impossible but allowing for much more thoughtful and elaborated compositions. Reversed images and, in general, cameras that are hard to use, make you, I believe, a better photographer.

double extension bellows
(EOS 40D, Sigma EX DG 50mm f/2.8 macro, 1.3s, f/9, ISO 100)

The focus is adjusted by turning a knob that moves the front standard (that is, the plane where the lens and shutter stand) closer or farther away from the rear standard (the plane where the film or the ground glass focusing screen stands). A magnifying glass is of great help to accurately judge focus on the screen. The bellows can extend to double the length of the camera, allowing for really amazing close-up focusing. Another nice feature of the Ideal is that the front standard has the possibility to have shift and rise/fall movements, which are very useful to correct perspective. The bigger version of the Ideal (the 250/7 for 9x12 plates) can also tilt the rear standard to take full advantage of the Scheimpflug principle, but with my little 6.5x9 camera I can only make a "quasi-Scheimpflug" effect by partially folding the camera back.

(EOS 40D, Sigma EX DG 50mm f/2.8 macro, 1s, f/9, ISO 100)

Suppose we have found a pleasant framing, that focus is adjusted and that we like what we see on the screen. Without moving the camera, the ground glass screen must now be removed from the camera back and replaced by the film, in order to capture exactly the desired image on it. For that, a film holder is attached to the camera back, exactly in the same position where the ground glass screen was. This film holder is a light-tight cartridge containing one sheet of film, with a removable dark slide that must be taken off to take the picture. Of course, loading the film into the holder is something that must be done in absolute darkness. For that matter, I had to get myself a changing bag, which is basically a big light-tight black bag with holes for your arms, where you can load and unload film sheets even if you don't have a darkroom. After a little practice, your hands quickly learn to operate without the aid of your eyes.

Now the film holder is in place and it is time to evaluate and set exposure: shutter speed and aperture. Then, after double-checking that the holder is firmly attached to the camera back, carefully remove the dark slide, cock the shutter and take your picture. Then put the dark slide carefully back into place and you can remove the film holder from the camera. If you want to take more pictures, you need additional film holders loaded with unexposed film sheets. I got four film holders with my Ideal. That is the maximum number of pictures that I am able to take on sheet film on a photo walk with my Ideal... ;)

The format of sheet film that the Ideal takes, 6.5x9cm, was fairly common in 1930 but now there are no new cameras made to use it. Fortunately, some film manufacturers like Efke in Croatia and Spürsinn and Fotoimpex in Germany still cut film in this format. Only black and white, though. As I got the Ideal I also bought a package of 50 sheets of ADOX CHS 100. But I have only used 2 sheets so far, because at a proud 6€ lab development cost per sheet, this is something that clearly calls for home development. Some day...

roll film adapter 02
(EOS 40D, Sigma EX DG 50mm f/2.8 macro, 2s, f/11, ISO 100)

Fortunately, there is something called a roll film adapter, which is attached to the camera back like the film holders, but is designed to contain a standard roll of 120 film, the same medium format film that I use with other cameras. This roll film adapter allows taking pictures in 6x9 format, which is almost as big as the original sheet film. Roll film adapters were very common in the golden age of plate cameras (between the beginning of the 20th century and World War II) and there were adapters made for every camera in the market. Because the way holders attach to the camera back was by no means standardized: each camera maker, and even each camera model, had its own system and compatibility was rare, meaning that you have to use the film holders and roll film backs designed specifically for your camera model. I was lucky enough to get film holders that fit the Ideal when I got the camera, but the roll film adapter was a whole other story. Because the Ideal, to make things funnier, uses a very comfortable but at the same time extremely unusual snap-in system for attaching the film holders.

(EOS 40D, Sigma EX DG 50mm f/2.8 macro, 1/50, f/2.8, ISO 500)

On my last visit to Vienna, I asked the man in the Leica vintage shop if they would have a compatible roll film adapter and handed him the camera. He went inside and, after almost twenty minutes, he came out again with a couple of adapters that would more or less fit. The one that I eventually got was the only one that attached really firmly to the camera back, but it was not conceived for an Ideal back. It lacked a light trap on top, but unfortunately I had to ruin two rolls of film almost completely before noticing the light leak (*). A small felt strip wrapped in gaffer tape, attached at the right place on the roll film adapter with some more gaffer tape does the trick and makes the camera pretty much light-tight. This means that I am able to use any kind of 120 film I want with the Ideal. Even my beloved Velvia color slides!

To use the Ideal is really a joy. Its small size makes it easy to carry around and, once unfolded, it is for sure going to attract curious looks. This is not a camera for casual snapshots, and even less for quick action: other camera types are much more suited for such purposes. The Ideal is the perfect camera for slow photography, quite often using tripod, for taking your time to think about what you are doing before shooting. Because the process is complex and the steps must be done in the right order.

(EOS 40D, Sigma EX DG 50mm f/2.8 macro, 1/40, f/5.6, ISO 100)

Using the Ideal makes me strangely happy. I guess it is not only because of some masochistic fun in needing longer than one minute to take a picture, but because it conveys a sense of being doing real photography, focusing on the ground glass and then changing to the film back makes me feel that I am playing with the big boys now, it is almost large format photography with a view camera. It brings me close to the origins, it makes me feel like a photographic pioneer. But the main reason of this strange happiness is, I guess, being able to take pictures with a camera that is still working after more than 80 years. That's more than twice my age. None of my still living grandparents was even born as my Ideal left the Zeiss Ikon factory. Kind of the ultimate dream of every vintage camera lover.

Zeiss Ikon Ideal 250/3
My Ideal 250/3 flickr set

Maker Zeiss Ikon
Model Ideal 250/3 UU
Type folding bed plate camera
Lens Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 120mm f/4.5 (No. 1038494, 1930)
Shutter Compur, rim set, 1 - 1/250 + B + T (No. 1070662, 1930)
Film type sheet film 6.5x9
Year ~1930
Country Germany

(*) some of the pictures, though, look kind of dreamy, light leaks are not always bad!


  1. I own an earlier version of your camera. An Ideal 111. I've been looking for a roll film back designed to fit the snap-back mount of the Ideal. Could you please tell me who made your roll film holder?

    1. Unfortunately no manufacturer name whatsoever. I hope the 111 and the later 250/3 are similar enough for the adapter to fit. I'll keep my fingers crossed :)

    2. I'm picking up the first roll shot through your film adapter today. I'll send you anything good from the test roll.