The Anonymous Franka

Sometimes there are plenty of reasons why you shouldn't make a certain purchase, but inevitably, one key feature leads you to pull the trigger. 

Consider this.  I had begun to feel like I was hitting a saturation point as far as medium format folding cameras are concerned.  I had a few 6x9 folders that I liked as well as a very capable pocket 6x4.5 folder for which I invested in servicing to make it fully functional again.  I never really considered myself interested in getting a 6x6 folder since I already had a pair of TLR cameras for that format, and I wasn't the biggest fan of the 6x6 square format in the first place.

Then I spotted it: a fairly pedestrian looking folding camera with one very appealing feature, a comparatively fast Schneider f/2.9 lens.  Add to this that it was willing to come home with me for only $25.  I chided myself for being such easy click bait for a bit, but ultimately elected to take the chance on this one.  It wasn't the prettiest camera I'd seen, but I knew too well that my adoration of the look of the Hapo 10 had led me down a road of disappointment.

After pulling the trigger, the question then became "just what did I buy?" 

The mysterious camera with markings but no name.

I stumbled across the listing on a search on "Prontor" and the auction listing was titled "Nice Vintage / Antique Prontor II Folding Bellow Camera German Gauthier Calmbach."  Clearly the seller was trying to use the marked clues on the camera to create a listing, but most of these clues had to do with the shutter rather than the lens or camera make, the latter of which was conspicuously absent from the camera body, save for one main clue, barely visible on the listing.  

When opened, there was one small metal plate beneath the lens with an interlocked "FW" in a diamond.  I had seen this emblem in previous hunts, and recalled it as being that for "Franka Werke," a German camera maker who produced a number of cameras around the same time as Zeiss, Balda, and Voigtlander. 

The only moniker to give a clue to the manufacturer of this camera. 

Further investigation would reveal this camera to be an "unbadged" postwar variant of the Franka Solida III.  The placement of the take up spool on the right side of the camera as well as having an enclosed viewfinder instead of a flip up viewfinder seemed to date the camera to somewhere between 1949 and 1951, as seemingly further validated by the serial number on the Schneider lens.  The few resources available online seemed to indicate that this Franka and its lens were pretty capable, of course, provided that this camera worked.

Upon the camera's arrival however, I began to have some doubts.  It took some doing to get the shutter to operate, requiring me to re-bend an already bent metal shutter release rod to a straighter position.  Even then, only the 4 fastest speeds of the Prontor shutter would operate without hanging, and I worried of the accuracy of those.  To complicate things further, that shutter release rod would ALWAYS fall out of alignment with the body shutter release upon opening, requiring my forgetful self to carefully align the two, usually after I'd already cocked the shutter.

The Franka Solida is equipped with an unusually fast f/2.9 Schneider lens, the likes of which are usually only found in higher end folding cameras.  To date, it is my only folder with a lens this fast.

Cosmetically, the camera looked in decent shape, and after a gentle swabbing in soapy water, it was ready to get its test roll.  The one part I couldn't clean to my satisfaction was the viewfinder, as it had collected more than half a century of dust that not only made framing a bit of challenge but also took away from the enjoyment of the camera.  After this, call me a definite fan of the flip up viewfinders all the way.

Despite my worries about the accuracy of the speeds of the viewfinder, I threw a little caution to the wind and elected to load the camera with not only slide film for its test roll, but an endangered species at that, discontinued Fuji Film Provia 400X, of which I had but 5 rolls to play with.

A depth of field scale comes on the top/side of the camera to assist with composition and focusing ranges.  I've yet to really utilize it.

In the field, the biggest issues I had with the camera were the foggy viewfinder and misaligned shutter trip mechanism, the latter of which wound up costing me a few of my 12 shots along the way, as it seemed the shutter would then not want to trip, and require some intervention.  As a result, I expected that ANY salvageable shots from this test roll would be better than expectations.  My confidence in producing anything  of note began to deteriorate as I worked my way through the roll, bungling at least 3 or 4 shots along the way. I hoped for the best, but expected the odds to be against me as far as composing a decent shot.

When the results returned from Dwayne's, sure enough I saw some of the expected and unfortunate results of my failed attempts, but within these photos were actually a number of downright decent images!  The Schneider lens, despite having a bit of a pinkish cast to the outer surface, was able to pick up some really nice color on the Provia stock, and the lens itself is actually pretty sharp!

Below are the winners of the batch, a nice handful of shots that give me a little bit more confidence that I can take this imperfect, but highly portable 6x6 camera out and take some good images, provided I work within its limitations, most notably, the shutter speeds.  At the moment, I doubt I will be sending this camera out for an overhaul, but I will definitely be giving it another go to see more of what it can do.

I usually don't like shooting color film on overcast days to a great degree, but I was a bit antsy to put the old Franka to use.  The first thing I began to realize was that the lens (at least as the viewfinder potrayed it) was not as wide as I'd hoped.  It seems I got more than I saw in the dusky viewfinder in this shot, and the contrast is pretty decent for the drab light.

I wanted to shoot at least one shot wide open at f/2.9 on a near subject and this seemed like as good an opportunity as any.  Bokeh is pretty good and the focus is actually rather accurate in my best guess method. 

Color rendition is pretty good from the Franka, with this hand held shot displaying a nice range of tones on Provia 400X.  There is some softness around the edges, but they render pretty nicely.

An "action" shot taken moments after the last image shocked me to no end when I discovered a usable, if slightly soft image as a result.  Interestingly, I like the muting of the background that gives a nice miniaturization effect.

In very modest light, the Franka pulled out a nice image with good detail and contrast, though there is some moisture ghosting on the surface of the lens in this rainy evening shot. 

On a sunnier day, the Franka produced a clean, sharp, and colorful image when stopped down.  I can definitely see this camera as a pretty capable sunny day shooter. 

The ghost in the lower right hand corner seems to be a byproduct of flare rather than leaky bellows as evidenced by the frame not being affected.  Despite this spot of glare, the rest of the image is pretty much sound, and sharp!