5.23.2017

Franka's Tower of Portable Power: The Tower 60

It was a purchase decision that took the better part of 2 minutes.  Spotted in a nearby antique mall was what seemed to be THE perfect camera to add to my collection.  A medium format folder with a fast and rather reputable f/2.9 lens AND a rangefinder.  Priced at $40 with a 20% discount, I gleefully raced up to the front desk to ask to see this camera to check its operability.

Shutter: check.  Rangefinder: check.  Folding and unfolding: check.  There was nothing whatsoever that I could detect as being of serious issue with this camera.  It was oddly parallel to several others in my collection, but having the working rangefinder was the perfect incentive to add the Tower 60 to my camera collection.

Franka made models seem to come past me with surprising regularity.  This one was was a very pleasant surprise. 

Though sold by Sears Roebuck, the Tower 60 was a product of Franka, the very same maker who made the Solida camera that is a beloved favorite of mine.  In fact, the Tower 60 is more or less a Solida Variant with different markings.  It is for all intents and purposes identical to the Franka Solida IIIE.  Equipped with the same Schnieder Radionar 80mm f/2.9 lens as my previous Solida cameras that I loved using wide open wherever possible, I wholeheartedly welcomed the ability to add a version with a rangefinder to ensure accurate distance measurement.  I was $32 poorer, but vastly enriched culturally.  


I wasted precious little time in putting the Tower 60 into service, first with a roll of color film and then following up with some black and white.  The inaugural roll was a roll of Portra 160 that I planned to deliberately overexpose at ISO 40, in hopes of improving grain and boosting saturation. As Springtime colors emerged, I'd hoped to have the chance to get a few images that provided some colorful images as well as a few "bokeh busters" through the lens wide open.  I'd taken the dangerous liberty of doing little more than a quick check of focus collimation as well as a shutter function prior to loading it up and leaving the rest to chance.

My first results were encouraging, leading me eager to set out with a roll of black and while film that was more or less exclusively going to be geared to some shallow depth of field images through the Schneider Radionar lens.  Given that this was 125 speed film, and the Tower's top shutter speed is 1/250 of a second, I was going to have to await a rainy day - literally. After mustering a few shots with the camera here and there, I was fortunate enough to be greeted with a cloudy day a few weeks later, and just enough free time to explore about North Baltimore to snap up the rest of the roll.  


Unlike my first Solida which had only an "FW" logo to pinpoint its make, this "Tower" camera leaves no mystery as to its origins.

Usage of the Tower 60 is more or less quite similar to most medium format cameras of the era, consisting of setting the aperture, shutter speed, and focusing distance prior to cocking the shutter, framing, and releasing.  The Tower 60 has a couple of extra niceties in a double exposure prevention (that didn't always work) as well as a nicely appointed sliding cover to the red window on the rear of the camera, but is more or less a typical folder, aside from its greatest little nicety in the form of the rangefinder.

Having a rangefinder makes a medium format folder significantly more usable at wider apertures for subjects at intermediate distances.  While it is not a huge hindrance to carry along a spare camera like an SLR to measure subject distance separately, the portability of the folding camera is ideally complemented by the in-unit rangefinder.  This leaves only exposure to be computed, as the camera lacks any metering.

The only minor catch to this rangefinder is that is an uncoupled version.  Thus, once you have determined the focusing distance using the rangefinder unit atop the camera, that focusing distance will have to be dialed in on the lens itself.  This makes the process a bit more cumbersome than a linked rangefinder such as on the Super Ikonta, but the Tower's Rangefinder does not require any setting up of arms and dials to work properly.  It can also be used at any time, even when the camera itself is folded up, on the chance that you're carrying along a companion zone-focusing camera and want to get an accurate measure of the focusing distance of your subject.



Above: The rangefinder of the Tower is adjusted using the dial below the logo.  The user must then transcribe the distance reading to the lens ring on the front of the camera.  Note the red dot seen near the film advance to show that film has been wound and to permit the next exposure.  Below: Despite being a rather large camera compared to a 35mm rangefinder, the patch of the Tower isn't vastly more readable than your typical rangefinder, but it does the job. 



Generally, the readout wheel of the rangefinder aligns spatially with the distance markings on the lens housing.  Thus, if the rangefinder determines that your distance is about 2/3 of the way between 6 and 8 feet, it is pretty easy to emulate this on the focusing ring of the lens. Of course, it's a bit easier to feel confident if your subject is EXACTLY 6 or 8 feet away, and in situations where you have a little bit of compositional "say-so," you can always set the distances on both the lens and rangefinder to the same estimated distance to your subject and merely move back and/or forth until you get perfect registration in the rangefinder.   Regardless, the camera works either way.

At the same time, one can simply ignore the rangefinder if one chooses and simply shoot for zone or hyperfocal focusing distances if stopping down the lens a bit.  It's all in how one chooses to utilize this camera that makes it a versatile tool.

Just as with the Solida, the Tower 60 is a true square shooter, snapping 12 6cm by 6cm images on a roll of 120 film.  It has enough range of apertures and shutter speeds to handily allow the use of 400 speed film in full sun, but seems to be ideal for shooting film with speeds of 100 and below, given its nice bright triplet lens and deliciously narrow depth of field from its medium format nature.

My processing of my roll of Portra 160 was particularly bad in spots, but this was a tester roll to see the camera's traits.  Here, the focus was OK, but not stellar in this scene. 


Stopped down, the Radionar is a competent performer.  A scene in Beaver Creek shows sharp rendering of this landscape scene. 


But when it synced up properly, the Radionar lens offered some exceptional results.  A wet abandoned railroad track contrasted with drops on the adjacent grass offers a great look at both the focus and bokeh of this excellent lens at its best. 


The one challenge with shooting wide open was that it often required dreary days, which led to some flat contrast in spots.  Still, this shot came out quite nicely. 


Even at moderate distances, both foreground and backdrop are nicely softened, but the focal point remains nicely sharp.  An exceptional example of what even a fairly basic 120 camera can do.


Dreary days had me out and pointing towards the flowering buds in Baker Park.  The background swirls are there, but sometimes impede in the proper isolation of the in-focus branches in the foreground of the image. 


A far nicer result would follow once I didn't try so much to integrate the landmark tower into the backdrop of the scene. 


This is looking across the other side of a "romantic shelter" featured over 2 years ago.I couldn't quite get the view I wanted here due to some very precarious footing. 


A gas lamp provides all the context I need for this image taken wide open.  Though the backdrop doesn't quite swirl due to its nature,  it does nicely fall into being indistinct. 


I realize my subject matter here is a bit of a stretch, being the rocks on the road in near foreground.  Perhaps I was a bit too anxious to get some limited depth of field shots. 


I did mention that the Tower 60 has double exposure prevention, but I neglected to mention that it doesn't always work. This vignette of Dickeyville was completely accidental. 


One of my favorite post apocalyptic type settings is aided a bit more by a recent rain storm, allowing for me to pause for some reflection. 



Though I was pleased with my results on the Portra, I really wanted to see how the Tower would respond to Ilford FP4 Plus.  A pair of shots of the same scene with both distant (above) and close (below) focus shows a bit more promise in the lower version to me, though the sharpness of the in-focus subject is a bit lacking.




I began with a subject at moderate distance for my first shot during my Baltimore rambles with the Tower, but greatly overexposed the image, resulting in some contrast inducing methods to recover an image.


But when I shot in appropriate light, the camera began to reward me quite a bit more. On review, I was trying to best spotlight the trees in backdrop, and wound up making a slightly stilted looking foreground image composition in the process. 


This is precisely what I wanted to see if this camera was capable of, and in this image, the Tower responded with a resounding YES.  Good crisp focus on the subject, excellent isolation from the backdrop, and a wicked swirl to the bokeh. 


Stopped down to f/4 for shot, the center of the image looks nice, but note the softness at left and in the foreground.  Still, a neat effect. 


Another good bokeh inducing composition with pleasant tonality and a hint of nice classic vignetting in the corners. 


Once again, the Tower focused perfectly upon the intended subject for this image.  Note the ghosting evident in both foreground and background elements out of focus. 


I focused on the nearest distance of 3.5 feet for this image, set the camera to f/2.9 at 1/300 and moved inward until the RF indicated the eyes of this statue were focused.  The image did OK, but suffers from some over-exposure.  Perhaps 3.5 feet is a bit close for an image with a more or less known subject for focusing. 


The Tower 60 even worked well in situations where my focal point tended to play through the frame, leaving the center portion out of focus..  Shots like this make me want to load up more film and get out there and go.

Admittedly, my folding camera collection hadn't seen a tremendous amount of use lately, and few additions to collection.  Save for a replacement Solida and the cheap Ansco Speedex, I wasn't quite the folder freak that I was 2 years or so ago.  But then a camera like this comes along that takes away much of the guesswork of distance estimation, and the innumerable advantages of folding cameras again shine once their biggest challenge is all but taken away.  
The Tower 60 is one camera I can't wait to use again soon.  It not only is a joy to use, but puts forth results that are worth the modest effort to acquire.  In fact, I'm looking forward to putting a certain 25 speed film into this camera quite soon to really make the most of a bokeh laden adventure!