7.21.2016

May the Foth be with you: The Derby Camera

In the digital photography era, a photographer who still collects and shoots film cameras can often feel like a kid in a candy store.  It is this feeling that tends to lead to an air of irresponsibility, particularly in the digital marketplace of online auctions.

The ease of finding interesting film cameras combined with a cheap outlay cost for acquisistion often results in the film camera collector finding themselves an owner of cameras which they may not have known about just an hour previously, leaving them the task to figure out a use, if any, for their newly found goods.

While I had heard about, and even read a bit about the Foth Derby, it was never a camera that struck me as a "must-have."  Yet, in my recently discovered interest in the 127 format, as well as my desire to shoot 127 film and come away with more shots per roll than the Agfa Billy 0 would provide, I'd given it enough consideration to place what I considered a lowball bid upon a reasonably decent example of this camera model.  When the last of the sands of the auction's hourglass had fallen down, I was the new owner of a Foth Derby, and no particular plan for it.


A camera design that has its share of genius and not-so-smart.

Despite a name that makes me think of a conversation taking place in 1930's Great Britain ("I beg your pardon Good Sir, but is that a Foth Derrrrby!?!?"), this rather unusual camera is a product of pre-war Germany. Ach Himmel! And like many German cameras of this era, it comes equipped with its share of quirks, not all of which are endearing. 

Among the assets of this 1930's vintage camera are a compact and sturdy bellowed strut design, a fast (for the era) f/3.5 lens, and a nice range of shutter speeds ranging up to nimble 1/500 of a second.  In many ways, the camera greatly resembles the Kodak Bantam f/4.5 models that would debut later in that decade, but with features more sophisticated than found on the Bantam.


Methinks someone at Kodak had a Foth Derby in their hands when they designed the Kodak Flash Bantam.  

Despite this resemblance and the more robust feature set, the Foth tends to lack some of the simple charm and ease of use that I find so likable about the Bantam.  It seems the whole premise of "farfegnugen" wasn't quite a driving force behind the Derby.  That's not to say it is a miserable experience, but rather one that may require the user to slow down considerably in the photo taking experience in order to get usable images. 

So what is so different that makes the Foth so much more challenging to use than the Bantam.  Where do I begin?!?  For starters there's the aspect ratio.  The Bantam's format tends naturally towards a landscape orientation, as most cameras do, but the Foth, being technically a "half frame" 127 camera, leans toward portrait orientation.  Thus, if you shoot a lot of landscapes, you will have to invert the camera and shoot sideways.  On most cameras, this is never an issue to me, but this Foth has a perfect storm in a rather awkward layout that makes this usually simple task particularly challenging.  The shutter release is obscured beneath the lens board.  This would seem to be a good design that prevents accidental exposures when folded, but given that the Foth is a design in which you tension the shutter by winding the dial before exposure, it isn't really necessary.  


And on my version, the viewfinder seems to have been hastily placed on the far corner of the camera, really pretty offset from the lens.  As this does affect accurate framing for most subjects, it alone does not really bother me, but this location combined with the location of the shutter release does.  When I turn the camera to the side which results in the easiest use of the shutter release, invariably, I obscure the viewfinder with my hand, and have to rotate to a position that doesn't naturally block the viewfinder, but which makes reaching the shutter release a trickier proposition.  Had the Engineers done a bit of tweaking prior to releasing my design, many of these challenges could have been minimized.


Taking a landscape oriented shot on the Foth is an often challenging endeavor due to its placement of certain key elements. 


While the above constitutes the majority of my issues with this camera, there are a couple of other items that make this trickier to use than the Bantam.  Since the Foth uses a focal plane cloth shutter, the shutter mechanism is in the body of the camera rather than the lens. Meanwhile, the lens is a completely separate mechanism.  Thus, to set all of your settings requires going back and forth between the body and the lens assembly.  On the Bantam, all of the user settings are in one spot, making them easy to set quickly before moving inward to cock the shutter, and fire on the top mounted shutter release.  With the Foth, you'll set the focusing distance and aperture on the front, move to the top to set the shutter speed (by lifting the outer ring and "dropping" it so that the dot on the inner ring is aligned with the desired speed) that you will then cock by winding the dial clockwise, and then move to the tiny shutter release button in its odd location.   


A 1933 advertisement for the Foth demonstrates the value and features of the Foth Derby.  Interestingly, all that is written here is essentially true, and in the model pictured, the viewfinder seems to be in a better position in relation to the shutter release. 

Of the cameras many settings in the variety of locations, the aperture is the easiest to mess up, mainly because it is indicated by little more than a painted tick in the innermost ring on the bezel.  Sure it doesn't help that my example exhibits wear and brassing that has made the contrast between the mark and the ring difficult to notice, but in that note, it seems little thought was given to the potential for wear in the future.  However, add in that the aperture scale is the same "what the heck are they thinking" scale that is used by my Rodenstock Citonette, and that the settings for f/12.5 and f/18 (which looks like a "48") are extremely close, the ability to get an accurate f/16 setting is a bit of a challenge.

Between the unconventional scale and the indistinct marking, setting the aperture on a slightly worn Foth may be a challenge.  It literally took me days of putzing with this camera to finally notice that mark, and to figure how to change it. 

Meanwhile, the "throw" in the focusing distance ring is enormous, and is marked by some of the oddest intervals I've ever seen, an obvious quick conversion from evenly incremented metric values.  Need to focus at 3 1/3 feet or 13 feet?  The Foth has you covered!

Setting the shutter speed is slightly less quizzical, and involves lifting a speed dial and dropping it align with the dot in the center prior to winding.  The only oddity is that the dot is a bit more discreet than the vertical line of the screw head on which the center dial is mounted.  As such, it is possible to think you are dialing in a different value if you are not careful.  

After trying to scale focus to odd distances, trying to find mid-points to adapt the aperture scale, and then doing odd gyrations to actually use the viewfinder for landscape aspect photos, using the Foth can get a bit tiring.  It's a given that it is a camera that you do not want to use at the same time you are shooting with another scale focus camera due to the brain power you will consume. 

The shooting experience isn't entirely disappointing through, as I did notice in my first roll that I was not accidentally double exposing any frames.  A good part of this may be due to the photo taking experience being so protracted so as to encourage the user to get the roll of film finished and out the door for processing.  One other neat feature that I've only seen in this camera are a pair of sliding windows to safely allow you to use either ortho or panchro film.  



A sweet feature of the Foth allows you to switch the sight windows between green and red depending upon the type of film in the camera. 

Shooting with this camera was also something of a wild-card experience because I didn't feel entirely confident about the light tight nature of the shutter.  This is one of the older cloth plane shutter cameras, and after 80 years, it is only natural that there will be some degradation.  On picking up the Foth and holding the shutter cloth to my eyes, I did quickly notice a number of pin prick holes that needed remediation.  Thanks to a small bottle of fabric paint, I was able to patch the shutter to my satisfaction, but I did worry if I didn't catch all the holes. 

The results that came back from my initial roll of Verichrome Pan were quite a treat for the most part. There were some hints of lingering holes in the shutter, but they were pretty subdued.  And it turns out that the Foth Anistigmat lens is particularly sharp in most situations.  Below are some samples taken with the Foth Derby to see for yourself. 




At the same time I captured an image of this statue with the Cardinal Cinex 127 camera, I snapped this image as well on the Foth.  The difference is night and day with regards to sharpness and clarity with the Foth delivering a sharp and well toned image, even on long expired film. 


Shot at the close focusing distance of "3 1/3 Feet" (or 1 meter), the Cinex delivers a sharp result, abeit with somewhat less contrast.  Note the few pinholes evident in the cloth shutter. 


One of my favorite lunch time photo subjects, this Lincoln statue is rendered nicely by the Foth. 


Even under dark shadowy surroundings shot wide open, the Foth delivers an acceptable image. I think I focused this for 23 feet. 


One thing I increasingly notice as I pan through the resulting images is the tendency to list the camera in shooting images taken horizontally, due in large part to the awkward finder. 


Another close shot (with that same drunken list) reveals a really pretty decent image, though with the odd focusing scale, I can't say for certain WHICH flower I was trying to focus upon.




The cloth shutter has some inherent weaknesses compared to a leaf shutter as this pair of images illustrates.  On the top, the exposure is mostly even across the frame, while the bottom image shows a troubling darkness across one side of the frame.  






A vertical and horizontal shot of nearby cows shows that once you get in the feel of the unusual distances on the scale, guess focusing the Foth really is not that tough. 




As the roll progressed, I began to notice a usually detracting feature that is pretty nice on the Foth - vignetting.  The result really lends a lot to vintage subjects such as this. 


And for not so vintage subjects, the result of the vignetting actually puts for a good bit of vintage aura regardless. 


I had no idea that this camera would put forth such a pronounced vignetting effect, so on shots like this, it looks like it was known and deliberate. 


Shutter speeds ranging up to 1/500 of a second are adequate for most action shots, provided you can pre-estimate a focusing distance. 


Springtime in Baker Park renders nicely upon the Verichrome Pan in the Foth, resulting in a very nostalgic feel to the resulting image.


One more shot portrays just as one would hope, and better than one would expect, for an 80 year old camera with a cloth shutter! 

While the ease of use of the Foth was certainly the biggest impediment to enjoying the photographic experience, the results were actually quite encouraging.  I love the sharpness of the images combined with the nostalgic vignetting, and can pretty easily see some situations where I would readily turn to this camera, provided I'm ready to accept its quips and use it alone, or in tandem with a very easy to shoot camera.

Additionally, despite its oddities, I can't help but to have reverence for the Foth.  It is a remarkably compact and capable camera when one considers the era in which it was produced, and is extremely well made given both its initial price tag as well as the price for which I acquired mine.  I can certainly recommend it as more than simply a shelf dweller for any user who seeks a nostalgic image quality and who doesn't mind having a slow down to take a photo.  May the Foth be with you!