Bantam Bridgade: The Prince (Bantam RF) and the Pauper (Bantam f/8)

Every once in a while, good deeds are met with unexpected and unsolicited rewards.

I'd been collaborating with fellow collector/shooter/web documenter Mike Eckman to whom I'd sent some surplus and cut down 828 film, and who knew me as quite the 828 format enthusiast. I'd raved in great length about how much I had come to love my Bantam and similar Bantam Flash camera, mostly with the interest of encouraging him to make use of an 828 camera he had picked up a while back, and secondarily, encouraging him when he considered adding a very affordable addition to his 828 collection.

Still, imagine my surprise when he told me "Keep an eye out, as I have a package I'm mailing to you."  I didn't know what to expect, and thought maybe he'd stumbled upon a stock pile of 828 spools to enable more cut downs.  Well, indeed he had stumbled upon some spools that he was sending to me.  And to keep those spools safe, he enclosed them within A PAIR of Bantam cameras he had recently acquired, both for about a dollar.  He simply asked me to hang onto the spools in case he wanted more created 828 film sent to him, but that the cameras were mine.  And with that, I now had a Bantam Brigade at my disposal.

Both of these cameras were markedly different from the zone focused Bantam f/4.5 and Bantam Flash that I already had used, and as such, they quickly rounded out my Bantam collection to encompass much more of the range of this Kodak lineup, and while the more capable of the cameras was certainly the more enticing of the two to use, I gladly welcomed both and looked forward to seeing what I could manage with both of these Kodak made beauties.

At the basic end of the spectrum was the 1938 vintage Bantam f/8, comparatively the pauper of the two cameras.  It featured a particularly wide Kodalinear 40mm f/8 lens, a curved film plane, and a simple trigger shutter with a single shutter speed, presumably on the slowish side of 1/50 of a second. Focus was fixed at a distance presumed to around 10 feet with depth of field of the slow lens covering from about 6 feet to infinity.  The camera was the true point and shoot of its era, with its only controls being a lens release (releasing a pretty forceful spring), a shutter release near the lens, film winding wheel, and rear cover release. Despite its seemingly show shutter, the bakelite camera did not even have a screw mount for a tripod in the bottom.  

Light in weight, size, and features, the basic Bantam f/8 provided users of the 828 format an affordable gateway into roll film beginning in the late 1930's.

Contrasting to the f/8 version was the 1954 vintage Bantam RF, one of only two rangefinder equipped 828 cameras ever made by Kodak (or likely anyone).  This really could be considered to be the Prince of the lineup, given that the King and his crown jewels would be considered to be the collector cherished Art Deco emblazoned 1938 Bantam Special with its Ektar f/2 lens and Compur shutter. The Bantam RF hardly has the credentials of its snazzy predecessor, but it is no slouch in its capabilities either.  Equipped with a 4 speed shutter, a respectable Ektanon f/3.9 lens, and (of course) a rangefinder that focuses down to 2.5 feet, the camera, much like the Bantam f/4.5, has specs that equip it quite well for most common shooting situations, while adding just the right features over the f/4.5 version to make it a more versatile companion.  

Decidedly more full featured, the Bantam RF was among the most robust of the Bantam camera lineup. 

As a fan of the 828 format as well as its history, I had a great deal of interest in these two "new" cameras.  Obviously, I was particularly intrigued by the nicely appointed RF version, and, lacking more than 3 spools in my supply to be able to use in cutting down 120 for supply and serving as a take up spools, I elected to put the more basic Bantam f/8 in service first.  Knowing that I had the RF waiting a spare spool gave me all the right impetus to work through the roll of film in the Bantam f/8 at a snappy pace, though not being overly wasteful in the process. My film of choice for the f/8 was a $4 roll of Ilford's FP4 that expired in 1980. I figured that the 125 speed film would have lost a bit of speed to the point where it more closely matched the 25 or so speed equivalents of its era, for which this camera was designed.  

Given that the feature set of the Bantam f/8 is so limited, there is really little that can be said about its operation.  The collapsible lens worked quite well in practice, making a very portable take along, while the location of the shutter release was admittedly awkward. Unfortunately, I found myself "leaning" just a bit to trip it, and as a result, I had some concerns about blur in my images given the seemingly slow shutter speed.  Otherwise, I had little idea what to expect from the results, but I could at least say that I tried to use my best efforts to make some classically styled images on the old from what had been a 120 size roll of Margaret Thatcher era FP4 that would have never expected this fate when it was created. 

With the lens retracted and the folding viewfinder collapsed, the Bantam f/8 readily fits in a shirt or jacket pocket for easy toting. 

When I got the results back, I was actually quite pleased at some of what I was seeing. Sure I had botched more than a few of these shots, and admittedly, a few of them seemed like uninspired compositions designed to simply burn the film, but amid these were some really nice treasures given the basic set up of the little black box in which they were exposed.  

One of my favorite nearby photo subjects elicits an ethereal glow through the Kodalinear lens of the Bantam f/8.  So far, so good! 

Results from the "Pauper" Bantam were hit and miss though.  Even in good light, the positioning of the shutter release made it easy to accidentally introduce blur into the photos. 

The camera and film combination handled mixed lighting situations surprisingly well, and gave results that were of decent sharpness for its specs. 

Vignetting was often evident in the results, but given some of my subjects, I was actually quite pleased at the effect.  Were it not for the modern buildings in the backdrop, this photo of the Farragut Monument in Washington DC would seem to have been taken long ago based on the rendering.

The Bantam f/8 made a surprisingly decent street shooter, even with the long expired film.  Framing was generally not an issue, and once I got used to the location of the shutter release, it was pretty easy to take some quick candids. 

The big surprise for me was how adept the Bantam f/8 and its 35 year old film handled situations of dim lighting.  This street, immersed in a canyon of shadow rendered pretty much just fine on the slow lens of this old camera. 

A polarizer might have really helped this window shot at the camera store.  Despite this, the tonality is pretty nice. 

About the best shot in the batch to indicate just how slow the shutter is on this camera, as evidenced in the blur in the woman walking in the distance.  Were it not for the modern vehicles, it might be tough to pinpoint an era for this photo.

Some of the more brightly lit scenes actually required some work in curves in post processing to make barely acceptable.  

I saved this shot of the Black Aggie for last, wondering if she would curse my roll of 828 as she had done with my 116 camera.  As it was, her dimly lit scene came out fine, as well as most of the rest of the roll.  

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With the roll of film in the f/8 Bantam finished up, I now had a spare spool to shoot the Bantam RF. Though I had some more of the expired FP4 that I could cut down to 828, I elected to instead cut down a roll of Ilford Delta 100. My reason for this was largely due to noticing that the shutter sounded a little bit off on some speeds, but the 100 speed sounded fine, so I would try to use that on most shots. Since the camera lacks a meter, I would be using the Sunny 16 rule for my photos, so having a film speed that matched the best working shutter speed seemed to be the most pragmatic way to do this.

Typically, when I cut down 828 film from 120, I greatly shorten the leaders and load it at the time of cutting in the dark to get more shots from a roll than the usual 8 shots from a true 828 roll. The one minor hiccup to this with the Bantam RF as well as the f/8 version is that the backs completely remove from the camera, leaving me to fish around in a darkened room to find and reset the back onto the body.

The Bantam RF is a somewhat more crude version of a rangefinder camera than those made in 35mm format by the German and Japanese manufacturers of the era. The feel of the focusing ring when it is rotated tends to feel a bit imprecise but as it turns out, this is more perception than reality. Despite said feel, the rangefinder patch, an unusual square shape with outward notches on all sides, is clearly seen when focusing and aligns perfectly with the measurement settings on the focusing ring.  In addition, the 2.5 foot minimum focusing distance, a clear symbol of this cameras relation to the similar Signet 35, is about a foot shorter than most common rangefinders of any era.

Controls on the Bantam RF are generally pretty logical.  Note that the apetures and shutter speeds line up in complementary ways for reasonably easy changes of values across similarly lit scenes. 

Other features of the camera also seem to be dated for the period in which this camera was produced. The manually cocked shutter and the the dual action film winding knob are features that were long overcome in Kodak's Retina lineup of cameras, yet the American made Bantam RF still relies on both, likely as a means of reducing costs. In my example, both such features work properly and are only minor quibbles of the camera rather than deal breakers. One added plus of the RF is a semi-automatic film winding feature that automatically stops the film when it is properly wound, even on cut down 120 film! As a result, I am able to get at least two more shots out of my 120 film conversions over using the 645 numbers in the window as my guide!

An interesting design symmetry across the top of the Bantam RF shows two controls that look identical but function in very different ways.  In the foreground is the winder which is lifted and turned between exposures.  On the opposite end is the shutter release that is depressed for exposing each photo. 

Using the Bantam RF is a pretty straight forward exercise. The rangefinder is easy to use and works well, and once you adapt to setting the aperture and shutter and cocking the shutter to take a photo, it all goes along remarkably smoothly. Despite the dated features, it is actually quite a pleasant camera to use.

Is there a name for the shape of this rangefinder patch? In any event, the contrast of the patch is readily seen and makes for easy focusing. 

Results from the Bantam RF were, as expected, remarkably better than those of the f/8 version, due large to the better lens, but also the result of a more versatile feature set.  All told, provided it works as designed, a user can use the Bantam RF in a wide range of situations. Unlike the f/8, the RF does have provision for a now dated flash configuration, but as usual, I skipped any such usage and worked only in existing light.

Though still evident, vignetting in the Bantam RF is significantly less than the f/8 version.  A shot of a farm in the distance in winder renders with nice contrast and tonality. 

A shot that is nearly impossible in the f/8 unless one flicks the shutter about a hundred or so times while holding the camera completely still.  A bulb exposure on the Delta 100 produces a lovely low light shot. 

Another time exposure at Frederick Station shows good handling of light, albeit some loss of details in shadow. 

Testing the rangefinder at a close focusing distance, it nailed focus upon this sign, and nicely muted the backdrop in the process. 

A shallow depth of field shot shows excellent sharpness on the Ektanon lens in the near lantern and great muting of the background details. 

Another tricky shallow d-o-f shot is nicely handled by the RF.  

Highlights were blown in this view, but the result is still pretty acceptable.  

A pair of rainy day photos with limited depth of field show exceptional sharpness on the desired focal points, good out of focus rendering, and a nice moody tonality to the overall scene. 

Hoping for good focus on the stone work in the foreground, an an out of focus backdrop, I got exactly what I had hoped for in this shot. 

Vignetting is very evident here, but the rendering is still quite nice. 

I'd hoped for shallower depth of field focusing on the ring in the foreground, but I still like the way this came out.  

One more late night shot shows a good rendering though a bit of excessive contrast between light and dark areas. 

Stopping down the lens, I also was quite impressed with the overall results.  Sharpness is really quite good on this 60 year old lens. 

And when taking a scene of an ornate setting on BW film, the Bantam can still manage to give a rendering that appears vintage in nature. 

Overall, I liked BOTH of these cameras more than expected.  I expected good results from the RF, and low and behold it delivered in every aspect, and was very fun to find scenes with which to exploit some shallow depth of field renderings in ways my other 828 cameras can't really do.  And the seemingly lowly Bantam f/8 put forth some really surprising results that were better than expected, and it was a real nice twist to simply point and shoot in a wide variety of situations and get usable results. 

Both cameras will certainly see usage again.  The RF camera is loaded with some expired color print film for an interesting experiment, while I also await an order for a few rolls of a truly SLOW black and white film in 120 that I can cut down to provide a more suitable medium for the Bantam f/8 that will put its unique rendering to good use in sunny day situations as intended.  I really do enjoy having this Bantam Brigade at my disposal.