12.05.2014

Deja Vu: A Prewar Photographic Pair of Balda Folders

They say fortune comes in three's, but it seems to really come in two's for me, at least photographically.

This trend started in February when I got an Olympus PEN E-PL2 off of Craigslist, and not too long afterwards realized that the the Line Art mode offered on the E-PM2 would be much easier for the focusing of old adapted manual focus adapted lenses, so I took the hit to add a companion.  As I've gotten into film however, this has gotten much worse, as my reactivation of my Seagull 4A-103 prompted me to add a second TLR to my repository with the Yashica 12.  When I first got into folding cameras, I bid on two different Agfa Billy cameras, and wound up winning both.  And when I snagged a good deal on a Zeiss Ikonta 521/2, I couldn't help but to be tempted to pick up an attractively priced 645 version as well just days later.  Yikes. 

And that was supposed to be it, as I now had at my disposal a collection of medium format film cameras that could shoot 6x9, 6x6, and 6x4.5.  I had both folders and TLR's, cameras that had coated lenses and non, cameras with triplets lenses and sharper 4 element lenses opening up as far as f/3.5, as well as cameras capable of shutter speeds as short as 1/500 of a second.  I now had six film cameras that I could load simultaneously with films ranging from slow to fast, color and black and white, and both positive and negative films.  I really had no reason in the world to be looking about.

And then I was bitten with a little bit of capriciousness.

Still, ever eager to learn more about the cameras made decades ago, and using the dangerous tool of ebay as my learning tool, I spotted a terribly attractive deal.  Unlike my last two Zeiss acquisitions, whose "Ikonta" names sound surprisingly "attractive" for German, this camera sported a name that was not nearly as appealing: "The Balda Hapo 10."



Clunky name aside, the camera had a "Buy It Now" price of $29.99, and had enough going for it to make it an attractive deal.  The shutter was reported as working, and it was a "Compur Rapid" style, capable of speeds up to 1/400.  The Steinheil Munchen Cassar lens had a quite capable f/3.8 maximum aperture, and this 6x9 camera could also be used as a 6x4.5 camera using an optional mask that was unfortunately missing from this specimen. Still, the camera looked almost pristine, and at the price point, made it a quick deliberation. I'd snap it up, and hopefully be able to find (or create) the mask to be able to use the camera as a 6x4.5 at some point soon.

I began to try to research a bit more on my new acquisition, and while I could never determine the origin of the name "Balda," I was able to find that the marketing name "Hapo" was not so much a model name, but rather a brand name amalgamation of "Hans Porst," a distributor of cameras in Germany, who often rebadged other cameras in the way that grocery stores distribute private label merchandise.  There was not a great deal written about the "Hapo" brand, but the few things I discovered referred to it as a brand on the budget end of the spectrum - rather odd to hear given that this camera had some of the most impressive specifications I had yet spotted for one made in 1938.

The camera that arrived completely belied any semblance of the term "budget" to me, so it seems the reputation as a budget build is not applicable to the pre-war products. Instead I was greeted with an attractive device of particularly tasteful and sensible build that is rivaled only by my Agfa Billy Compur in regards to aesthetics.  The Hapo lacked the black painted metal trim used on the Ikonta cameras that eventually chips off over the decades, instead using nickel trim similar to the chrome of the Billy Compur.  This had left it looking quite stunning for being over 75 years old, and while it didn't seem quite as tank-like "solid" as the Ikonta cameras, it is not at all the light weight camera that is the Agfa Billy 1. Interestingly, the 120 film spool that was inside was made of METAL, leading me to realize it had not been used since at least the 1970's.


The Hapo 10 provides an attractive mashup of typefaces throughout its design, from the "Balda" logo in script reminiscent of a 1920's Automobile, the decoratively engraved Cassar lens, and the art-deco "Compur-Rapid" lettering, as well as the basic wording for the camera itself.  

The mechanics of the camera, from winding to shutter to folding and unfolding, are noticeably simpler than the Zeiss Ikonta 521/2 and Billy Compur, but given my nightmare "jam" folding up the Ikonta, this was admittedly refreshing.  Also comforting was that unlike the Ikonta, the body mounted shutter release falls on the right side of the camera top instead of the left.  Cocking and releasing the shutter both feel fluid, though there is a noticeable lag at speeds slower than 1/25.  Still quite a bit better off the bat than the Ikonta 521A, which only fired at 1/500.

Unlike all but the Billy I however, this camera does lack multiple exposure prevention.   This may be in part because when folded down, the lever to release the shutter sits best when the shutter release is in a down position.  However, it may also be as a result of this camera being able to shoot two formats, one of the very things that made this camera of interest to me.  Unlike my other 6x9 cameras, this camera has TWO little red windows in the back. When using a 645 mask, one advances the film only half as much, and in the process, gets 16 exposures from a roll of 120 film instead of a mere 8.

Just one little problem.  The camera I bought did NOT include the mask, and from most of what I can read, old medium format cameras for sale that once had masks have almost always lost these accessories, with replacements being very involved to try to fashion. Regardless, I am very pleased with the look and feel of this camera, and I waste no time in feeding it a roll of Provia 100F to try it out, electing to work out the mask issue in due time.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Due time turns out to be less than a week, as I actually locate a Balda 645 mask on an ebay auction.  The only problem: it is part of an auction for another Balda camera selling for twice the price of the HaPo.  I deliberate for a while before talking myself into the purchase.  I hadn't really intended on picking up another camera just two weeks earlier, and now I've bought two.


Look familiar?  No I did not simply post the first image again here by mistake.  

This camera is advertised as functioning but "imperfect" with a lens board that does not fully position itself on its own and requires some intervention to properly set.  With regards to specifications, this camera seems a downgrade from the HaPo, with the standard Compur shutter instead of the Compur Rapid, and a slower f/4.5 Meyer Görlitz Trioplan lens.  I debate the worthiness of even running a roll of film through this camera, but my searches for information on the lens reveal some strong love for its quality expressed on a couple of threads, so I rather quickly dismiss this notion, and elect to give the camera a try.

Much unlike the pair of Billy cameras that share the same name and essentially nothing else, I fully realize on the arrival of the Pontina that despite a different lens and shutter, it is altogether a near twin of the Hapo. Aside from this and the badging, the only other difference is that the Pontina comes equipped with a nice surprise, a novel pivoting viewfinder with a lever to adjust for parallax.  Given some of my poor framing on previous outings with folding cameras, this unexpected little feature has suddenly earned this camera some instant brownie points in my book.

Opening the camera up, I'm a bit dismayed to discover a camera not nearly as "fresh" as the Hapo, as this specimen exhibits some dust or mildew on the bellows, but this is quickly remedied with some cotton swabs and soapy water.  As advertised, the front of the camera doesn't fully snap into place when opened, but this is pretty easily remedied with a gentle pull of the lens board to snap into place.  After a quick little "spa trip" for this venerable relic, I test out the shutter and am quite surprised to find that all the shutter speeds are pretty much accurate, lining up almost perfectly in sync with the speeds on the not too long ago serviced Agfa Billy Compur.  Neither my Ikonta 521/2 or the Hapo seem terribly accurate at speeds below 1/25, but this moldy oldie has one snappy shutter.  More brownie points.

Another little plus is that the focusing scale is in feet.  While I can fairly readily multiply distance in meters times 3 to get an approximate distance in feet, I'll admit that driving a 40 foot long bus a decade ago has made me partial to English measurements.  This camera is one of only two folders I own to oblige me in this regard.  One more brownie point.


The main differences between the Pontina and the Hapo 10 fall between the lens and the shutter, with this Pontina having Meyer Görlitz f/4.5 Trioplan, and a standard Compur shutter instead of the rapid variety.  


Other more subtle differences between the two cameras include the size of the tripod mountings, the presence of a parallax adjusting viewfinder on the Pontina, and a slight difference in the knurling on the face of the shutter release button.  



The coveted mask, the main reason for me buying the Pontina, can be seen here in this view.  It cleverly fits over the "dashed" tabs in the film chamber of the camera to reduce the exposure area from 6x9 to 6x4.5.



Just as clever is this pop up, viewfinder mask to assist with framing when using the mask, cutting out roughly half of the viewfinder area.


Both cameras include a pair of red windows in the back to assist in advancing film properly both with and without the mask.  If shooting 6x9, following this exposure, the film would be advanced so that "2" showed up in the right side window here.  If shooting 6x4.5, the film would be advanced so that the "1" shows up in the left side window for the next shot, then wound to put the "2" in the right side window after that shot.  

Regardless of how attractive they are, my main interest in acquiring these old gems is to have something with which I can make a good image on film,  With the Hapo 10, I fed it a roll of Provia 100F to shoot a series of 6x9 color images, as well as a roll of Fuji Neopan Acros 100 to shoot a series of 6x4.5 black and white images using the mask.  Given the fiddly lens board, I did not have a great amount of confidence in the Pontina, but fed it a roll of Provia 100F as well to give it 8 chances to impress me with its results.  How did they do? The full results are below: good, bad, and ugly.


Hapo 10:

I threw caution to the wind for my first image taken with the Hapo 10, opening it up all the way to f/3.8 for this image, and attempting to guess the focus on the batch of leaves in the foreground.  The result is OK, though nothing appears to be particularly sharp in the image.


Another image taken the same day also tries to shorten the focus on the nearby trees and blur the backdrop, and it generally succeeds, giving what is definitely a film look.


One thing I begin to realize however with the Hapo 10 in looking at my results is that ALL the shutter speeds are slower than advertised, not just those below 1/25.  As a result, I had to do some coercion with the curves tools in both the Epson Software and Photoshop to compensate for the overexposed images I was getting.  This image disappoints in that, despite using an aperture around f/11 and focusing point that should have the distant details in sharp focus, they appear indistinct, particularly along the left side of the frame.


The nicest color shot I could muster from the Hapo 10 was this one, which despite the outcome seen here, was overexposed as well.  The image does at least manage to look very much like one taken decades ago, and that is often a goal of mine.

The slow shutter speeds are evident in the vehicle passing under the walkway in this image. Again, a fairly small aperture did not really deliver a particularly sharp result.


Another shot similar to the one of the rolling farm hills with similar outcome.  Details are fairly mushy and indistinct.


Another image that shows where this camera could be useful.  The sign is not in perfect focus, but does draw in as the subject of the image, while the background details are muted pretty well to where they are not distracting. 


One other image taken in a largely forgotten coal town in Western Maryland definitely captures a bleak feel despite the use of color.  As can be seen here, the image area of the Hapo pushes into the film marking area.  

One might think shooting with the mask might improve the results, since the image is based more upon the light in the center of the lens area.  As well, there is also the thought that a smaller image size might magnify imperfections and the mask itself might affect the proper distance of the film plane.  My first results using the mask point more towards the latter, as an image shot at f/8 fails to appear particularly crisp.

An improvement over the last image however points to some constructive uses for this camera, as the railroad station looks pretty sharp, while the train cars in the backdrop actually have a desirable fuzziness to them.  

I deliberately shot this into the sun to test glare.  The results, while not great, are not nearly as bad as what I've seen from my Agfa Billy I, though sharpness is definitely lacking from this photo.

Did I just forget to focus this one?  Not terribly impressive to say the least. 

Alas, a winner for me! I finally take a shot that finds a strength in the Hapo 10 that I've not yet encountered in my other folders, namely, some great bokeh in the backdrop of this image of my Yashica 12 at Leakin Park in Baltimore.  

In rustic settings, I find there is actually a niche for this camera, as it definitely portrays a look on black and white film of an image taken ages ago.  

Again, I like the results of this photo, and find the spokes of the water wheel to be of at least acceptable sharpness.  

I do find when scanning that getting suitable contrast from the Cassar, particularly with overexposed images, takes a bit of effort.  The sunlight on the leaves at left makes them look particularly washed out. 

This image shows some degree of potential, with overall nice toning and texture.  

I was looking to get my best focus on the people in the backdrop, but it seems the leaves in the foreground are the sharpest aspects to this image.  I wonder if this camera focuses a bit short.

My focusing point in this image was supposed to be the two shoots in the center.  The camera managed a fairly decent image from this shot on Fuji Acros 100.  

Stopped all the way down for a night time bulb exposure, the sharpness of the Cassar is good, but not anything spectacular.  The elegantly engraved triplet seems to have its limitations.

Balda Pontina:

While the Cassar lens on the Hapo 10 was overall disappointing, the Meyer Görlitz Trioplan on the Pontina is a stunning surprise!  Combined with the remarkably accurate shutter speeds on the camera, the camera yields some gorgeous results across the entire frame.  This was my first image of the roll, and I initially thought it was from the capable Zeiss camera since I'd sent off some film shot on that camera as well!

Nothing disappointing to me about this shot here.  Good sharpness and image detail across the image and some exceptional color rendition from a lens made before color film was common.

This is the first image to show a little bit of issue, particularly with the sharpness of the letters in the stop sign.  Still a good exposure with great color rendition.

I find that I like the contrast of the lens as well.  It has a decent amount of punch without being so filled with contrast that anything in shadow lacks any detail.  

It is tough to pick a favorite of the batch of the photos taken on the Pontina, but I absolutely LOVE the way the camera portrayed what I recalled as being a scene with fairly ordinary lighting in a way that looks smooth, creamy, and almost magical.  The color rendition is superb for being 75 years old!  

As mentioned earlier, the flaw of the Pontina is that the lensboard does not slot in place properly when the camera is unfolded, requiring me to give it a gentle nudge into place.  For the shot above, I forgot to seat the lensboard properly after unfolding it until after I'd already taken this shot.  Low and behold, the result is actually pretty amazing, obscuring the sides of the frame while keeping the center sharp!  Used carefully, this "flaw" could actually be great for a special effect!   

Above, a similar version of the preceding shot with the lensboard properly set.  This was shot wide open at f/4.5, and the sharpness in the center on the twigs in the foreground is pretty incredible!  


A color version of the water wheel that I also shot on the Hapo 10.  Aside from the color lending something extra to the image, I find that I also find this image to be sharper than that of it's Hapo sibling.

Crops:


Edges on the Cassar look a bit indistinct, though this swatch is a bit busy.  Speaking of busy however, the grass detail looks really pretty noisy in this blow up.  


The Meyer Görlitz of the Pontina isn't razor sharp to the standards of today's cameras, but it does seem to handle both edge detail and textures in a much smoother way than the Cassar.  


Conclusions:


The Hapo 10 was obviously the disappointment of the pair, giving shots that are none too impressive with their sharpness, particularly distant horizon details away from the center of the frame.  This combined with a laggy shutter make the usefulness of the Hapo 10 rather limited for me.  Rest assured though that it will find use.  In spite of its flaws, I can see where this camera, once adjusted for its shutter speeds, could make a workable black and white shooter for non-distant subject scenes that I want to make appear to be taken in the 1940's or thereabouts.  Even though the bokeh from this camera is perhaps the best I've seen from my folders, I'm just not sure I have confidence however in the focus areas to use it for shallow depth of field shots.  At some point, I'll load another roll of black and white in this and give it another go. 

The Pontina left me speechless with some of its results, and I realize that it is actually the most capable medium format camera that I own, given that it shoots some really beautiful results and also has the versatility to shoot 6 x 4.5 format.  Ironically, when acquiring it for the purposes of obtaining the mask, I had the passing thought of reselling it without the mask, but that has completely changed.  If I ever had to sell off bits of my folding camera collection, this one could very well be the one that would stay.  It is easy and intuitive to use, and makes me want to shoot more film in anticipation of the results it provides.  I've shot another roll already using the mask and have another one in it awaiting the chance for me to finish it.  And while I think I could fix its unfolding flaw with a slight pivoting of a pair of latch pins, I actually don't want to.  I LIKE having the option of putting some interesting distortion away from the center of the images.