6.03.2016

Univexed! A Camera Named Iris

I have come to realize that I am a stubborn King of Forgotten Formats.  Either that or I am a Clown Prince of the Arcane.  Either way, I'm happy, so it is what it is.

And just when I thought that my foray to finally delve into the world of 127 film would constitute my final quirky deviation from the safe place of 120 and 135, I find yet another slice of obsolescence to try out my hand in.  This one constitutes not just one but TWO goose eggs: namely, the fabled "00" format. It's entry into my photographic world would oddly prove to be a perfectly timed and profound blessing to move me into new but necessary territory.  Read on!

My super-length roll of 127 that proved to be too much an undertaking for the photo lab, and which proved to be the push I needed to get into the world of black and white film development, was only part of that impetus.  Just as I got the news that this odd roll of film wouldn't load into the reels, I was finishing up my first roll of 00 sized film, an oddly sized film that is about 2-3 millimeters narrower than 35mm stock.  If my lean roll of 127 wasn't fitting the lab's spools, certainly a roll of film that is deliberately narrower than 35/828 was not going to fare any better in a commercial lab. Thus, my entry into the 00 format only validated the need to develop film myself.

The oddest aspect to my entry into the world of "00" film is that I can't even recall the reason WHY I elected to adopt this camera and its flaky format into my cadre of equipment. Perhaps it was a flaky outburst of "GAS" or perhaps I was just enchanted with the retro look of the camera I was picking up.  Either way, the camera was quite cheap, so I had no real regrets about picking it up.


The Univex Iris gleams with a rich elegant black body, a shiny metallic faceplate, and just enough embellishments of art deco striping to present a stylish look indicative of the era.



However, I admit that I snapped it up on the assumption that the film format was the same width as 35mm if not a little bit wider.  Wrong.  In my first check of the width of the film compared to the gauge of the spool, it quickly became obvious that I couldn't use my 828 template to cut down film to fit, nor could I simply "spool" 35mm stock onto the custom spool types used by the Univex cameras. And in almost a frustrating conclusion, it seems as though "00" is just a few millimeters wider than half the width of a 120 roll.  So while you can theoretically split a 120 roll down the middle and get stock for 4 rolls of 00 film, you will lose some of the image size in the process.  While I may consider that in the future, for now, I wanted to try to keep this experiment accurate as accurate as possible. 

The 1938 vintage Iris was the first response of Universal to create a camera with a greater level of exposure controls than its previous AF models.   Some of this may have been spurred by Kodak's introduction of the 828 format just a couple years earlier, a format which, as coincidence would have it, has about the same image size as 00, and was geared towards pocketability.

Unlike the AF line, the Iris was a rigid bodied collapsible lens camera, that, while not nearly as portable as the AF, was seemingly superior in build quality and durability.  At first, the Iris's selling points were a faster f7.9 lens as well as adjustable apertures. Additionally, the camera had a provision for mounting to a tripod for long exposures, as well as storage for a spare roll of film inside the camera, something that might well be needed given the film came with just 6 exposures per roll.  Focus was fixed and the only instant shutter speed was around 1/50 of a second. 


Extended, the Iris doesn't look drastically different from the "folded" configuration, which may help explain why I totally messed up my first roll shot through this simple, yet elegant little metal camera.

The Iris would later be complemented by a scale focusing "deluxe" model with a shiny metallic top and the more fully featured "Zenith" model with an f/4.5 lens as well as 5 shutter speeds.  The folks in Rochester had some interesting competition with the lineup. But as it turned out, Kodak had a major advantage to their business model that was exploited by the globalization of World War II.   Kodak made film, but Universal didn't, and had to contract out to Gevaert in Belgium to supply their 00 film.  Supply lines to facilitate the flow of film from Belgium to the U.S. were cut off and the result was a number of Universal customers who were unable to get film for their cameras, a disruption that wasn't countered until at least 1940.  

The war was disruptive for Kodak as well due to scarcity of supplies, and for photography overall.  Even on the homestead with the war abroad, the focus was on the war effort, leaving less time for photography, particularly for the casual snapshooter to whom the Iris and its siblings were marketed.  By the end of the War in 1945, things gradually began to return to normal, albeit with the passing of over half a decade, during which, photographically, things were beginning to change.  The emerging "miniature" format of the postwar era was neither Univex's "00" nor Kodak's 828, but a more globally adopted format of 135.  This change would not occur overnight, but rather over several decades.  And while there continued to be a market in the United States for a simpler alternative to 35mm, Kodak would prevail as the marketer of those alternatives, be they 828 format or later introductions like 126 format.

This left Universal's 00 format as a largely orphaned vestige of the pre-war era.  The company placed its remaining limited resources into more mainstream formats, hobbling along almost in spite of itself until finally dissolving into history in 1964.   

Handling a Universal Iris is to some degree an unexpected treat in that, unlike the emerging ilk of Bakelite cameras of the era, the Iris is cast from solid metal.  But in order to get to the stage of truly "handling" it in a film shooting situation, one must have film for it, as well as spools that will accommodate said film.  And it is this that is the tricky part.

I was fortunate in that the Iris I picked up had not just one but two spools for use, and I managed to acquire a couple of rolls of Univex film from the late 1940's just in case I really needed them.  Still, my thought was that I would simply cut down a roll of 120 to the 00 width, spool what I could on one of the spools, and then load the film in the dark just as I do with 120.   But here is where the challenges really started.

Using a piece of 120 backing paper, I was able to get a good gauge on the width of the film stock needed, and cut a slit in the other side of the card I initially used to cut down 120 to 828 that would slit film to the width of the 120 spools. Once this was done, the actual slitting of my first roll of 00 film from 120 was no different than my improvised 828 film from 120. However, the spools on 00 are directional, with a triangular "seat" cut from the top of the spool that acts as the "keyhole" for the advance knob.  The result was that I had to be mindful of the orientation of film, backing, and spool prior to winding.  

And while an 828 spool, with some leader trimming, can squeeze the full length of a roll of 120 film and still barely fit into a camera, a 00 spool offers no such latitude.  Even with trimming the leaders quite a bit for dark loading, I ran out of space to spool the film, requiring me to cut off the excess and store it for later use (which turned out to be a good thing) and then try to tape the film/leader to the take up spool to dark load the camera. Taping the film wasn't an issue, but after all these steps, loading the film turned out to be an exercise in sheer frustration.

Having grown so used to roll film formats which aren't so particular about how they are loaded, and seem to snap into place with minimal effort, I found the triangular tops to the 00 rolls a particularly frustrating challenge to load into the camera properly in the dark, and only grew more flustered with continued effort. Each time I thought I had it figured out, I would snap the door shut and wind the knob expecting to see the "1" of the 645 numbers work its way into view in the rubylith window, only to realize that the film was not advancing.  I actually got so perturbed with it all that I had to take a break and try again the next evening.


Film chamber area of the Univex Iris.  Note the extra area at far left to hold a spare roll.  The tricky triangular key can be seen abutting the bottom of the take up winding spool.

As it turns out, it isn't so tough if you feel the take up knob for the outwardly pointed end of the triangular key, and then rotate the film so that it can chock right up with this key.  After considerable effort on my part, I finally had a roll of Ilford Pan F 50 cut down and loaded up to reveal exposure 1 ready for shooting, and carried the Iris with me over the next several days.

Now you would think that given all the effort I had to undertake to load this obsolete format of film into this camera, that I would take great care to ensure that I was using the camera properly so that I would not have to hurry back and repeat this process a second time. Nope, not me.  I completely ignored the FIRST rule of shooting with a Univex Iris.  EXTEND THE LENS BARREL! And I had no excuses.  I knew that it extended, and had even laughed when I read one of the few pages I found of someone else trying to use their Iris, in which their first roll of film through the Iris resulted in a mess of circular images that were out of focus from not extending the lens.  I totally made the same mistake.  I realized this as I took my last shot on the roll, and hoped I hadn't done the same oversight days earlier as I shot the roll.  

It turns out that I flubbed every shot from not extending the lens.  

At least Marcy had someone else to blame.  I could only blame myself for my haste.  


Scene One, Act One, Take One.... And...failure! The Iris will happily let you shoot an entire roll without the lens extended, which I happily did.  On realizing this, that happiness quickly diminished.

Fortunately, I had saved the remnants of the roll, and had seemingly conquered the challenges of loading this film in the dark.  I carefully went back into the darkened room and loaded up the rest of this roll of Pan F 50 to try again, taking great care to ensure I extended the lens this time.

The results, needless to say, were quite a bit better than the first time, but even still, there were some additional lessons learned, both of which dealt yet again with haste. The first of these lessons was to realize that even with the "I" setting, I still have to take great care to hold the camera very steady when taking a photo.  I can't simply pause briefly while walking and line up a quick snap with one hand as I might with a digital camera set to ISO 800. After all, this is a camera made nearly 80 years ago.

The more painful lesson was that I was too hasty in trying to get the template cut for slitting the film. I should have carefully cleaned and even covered the surface of the rig.  The result of this impatience was that tiny card fibers from my roughly cut template were still laying on the template, ready to willingly attach themselves to the film as it was wound across it.  As such, the second roll (as well as the first  though I scanned only one of the botched images of that roll) suffers from a serious impregnation of dust particles evident in most of the resulting images.  My failure to take one small step would result in far more time spent trying to digitally retouch images - thankfully, this was more of an experiment, and one that I could remedy for future rolls.

When I have a bulb setting, I will do my best to use it, and the still of early morning Frederick provides me with just such an opportunity to do so.  Very good results, in spite of a lot of dust on the image.

Even with the lens extended, quick grab shots are not the foray of the Iris.  This is definitely a "stop, situate yourself, secure the camera, shoot" kind of device.


And gradually, things started to improve.  The viewfinder tends to have a somewhat narrow field of view while the lens takes in a bit more.  I recall the viewfinder taking in this scene only over to the pedestrian at right, and a hint of the walkway at left.


Again with the haste.  My main reason for taking this image was curiosity of how it would handle a very contrasty scene full of shadow but with a blaze of sunlight peering through.  As it turns out, it did pretty well, but I didn't hold the camera steady. 


Another contrasty scene renders quite well with the lens on f/16, and it helps that I was more stable with the camera on this attempt. 


A mostly sunlit scene with a shadowy area came our pretty well rendered, with some sharpness loss around the sides.


Egads, the dust.  In many ways I am glad this was a poor shot.  The retouching of something like this would have been thoroughly tiring. 

In strong afternoon light, I elected to try a shot at f/22, and found that the Iris renders a pretty sharp image when stopped all the way down.  Armed with this, I elected to try a slightly faster film for the next roll.  Note the blur in the moving car in the foreground, indicative of a slow shutter speed. 

While I had some serious misgivings about the haste I employed in preparing and shooting the second roll, I did see some signs of promise.  With this in mind, I hit the "labratory" again to create another roll of cut down "00" film once again, this time using Fuji Acros stock as my base.  By this time, I had cleaned and re-covered the card stock base of the slitting template to address the dust issues, and I had taken my lessons learned in loading the film to make this process quite a bit easier.

My results were still not perfect, but I did notice a significant improvement, both in what I was doing with the camera, as well as a vast reduction in surface dust on the film as a result of improving the rig on which the film was slit.  I was also able to use a creative method to obtain the best possible image on one of my attempts.  

Armed with faster film, I was only met with a drabber day.  Still, the film allowed me to shoot at f/8 on the Iris with no issues.  Results are certainly pretty good.

With overcast above and slick streets below, the Iris' Vitar lens puts forth a nice image with slight, but pleasingly nostalgic softness around the edges.

An attempt at a short time exposure at f/22 only met with failure here on account that I lacked my tripod.  Still I liked the tonal range of the image.

Best of my experiments was this one - eight back to back instant exposures with the Iris mounted on my tripod with aperture set at f/22.  Great sharpness and a really nice rendition.

I wanted to do a comparison shot of the above image as a single shot at f/8.  However, the film ran out right at the edge of the exposure, leading to a curve in the plane, causing distortion evident along the left side of this image.

Thoughts: I had no idea what to expect from the Iris, neither for the shooting experience nor for the results.  At the end, despite some significant learning experiences and pain points, I still consider that this was a particularly fun experiment, and one that helped push me into a meaningful change by developing my own black and white film.  I can definitely see where I will use this camera on occasion again, but first, I have an experiment with one of its cousins that I look forward to trying out, and documenting.