Golden Light – Visions of the Palouse

Palouse Falls and Canyon (iPhone panorama)

Nestled in southeastern Washington is an area virtually unknown to tourists, but known and cherished by photographers across North America: the Palouse. Covering 3-4,000 square miles, predominately in southeastern Washington, but including parts of northern Idaho, and (according to some definitions) northeastern Oregon, the Palouse includes some of America’s most unique and picturesque farmland. Also the site of one of North America’s greatest cataclysmic events, it presents ever-changing contrasts, with rolling croplands, historic weathered farms, sculpted badlands, and golden afternoon light.


Panoramic View of the Palouse from Steptoe Butte. Courtesy L. Suckow, 2006

Palouse vistas are of two types: farmland and badlands. Highways through farming regions pass seemingly endless dome-shaped, rolling hills, contoured with bands of golden, green, or yellow crops, with weathered farmhouses, silos, and barns peeking over their crests, and arcs of wheat rows or stubble. This area, beautiful in its unique colours and lines, is immensely photogenic, with a new image appearing over the crest of every hill. Inns and motels here are crowded every June when the crop colours are at their best. Fifty miles or a hundred miles later, the character of the land changes: the rounded hills become teardrop-shaped as if pulled like giant taffy; at the next turn of the road, enormous arc-shaped slices have been removed from these symmetrical domes, as if a giant sampled a box of chocolates. Driving farther, ragged coulees, canyons, and potholes appear, and the land looks as if it was scoured to the bedrock by a giant claw. These are Washington’s badlands, known as the Channeled Scablands, testament to a cataclysm of Biblical proportions.

Canola Field and Farmhouse near Colfax. Voigtlander Avus, Kodak VC-160

In either area, one of the most striking characteristics of the Palouse is its ever-changing nature. Return monthly or even hourly to the same hilltop, and you will find a different image with every visit. In early summer, the Palouse is a vibrant patchwork of rolling hills, covered by multicolored fields of green spring wheat and brilliant yellow canola; classic farms, silos, and barns dot the landscape as you can see a Trailside Horse Barn or a huge silo every couple of miles and narrow roads snake through the valleys.

Palouse Farm 01 CE Incr Vibrance

Palouse Farm. Voigtlander Avus, 105mm Skopar Lens, approximately f/16, Kodak VC-160.

Later in the year as fields ripen, greens yield to a palette of rich yellows, multiple hues of gold, and the full spectrum of earth tones . All colours and contours change as the light shades from the harsh spotlight of noon to the warm hues and elongate shadows of the evening sunset.

Palouse Fields Near Colfax, Voigtlander Avus

Weathered farms and silos dot the hills and valleys, and harvesters trace dusty lines of stubble across the golden fields. Fence lines, tractors, telephone poles, solitary gnarled trees, and windmills make dramatic silhouettes against hillsides and sky.

Palouse Windmill. Digital image.

When winter comes, vibrant greens and yellows yield to browns, greys, and blacks. Lines of stubble and tractor tracks meander across hills in curves just made for dramatic black and white images. In any season, zooming into one of these vistas reveals abstract images from converging lines of sky, field, furrows, and earth.

Palouse Fields 01 B&W

Palouse Fields and Sky, Voigtlander Avus, Kodak VC-160, B&W conversion from colour image


The pastoral hills and croplands of the Palouse hide a geological mystery, and the badlands, gnawed and scoured as if by the death throes of some ancient beast, are a testament to Nature’s capacity for savagery. This story, which unfolded unfolded over a half-century of academic infighting and dogged persistence by one tenacious geologist, dramatically changed the science of geology.

The Palouse hills themselves, dome-shaped and separate, are unique and very different from the ridges and weathered formations found elsewhere in the state. Formed over millions of years, they are in reality giant dunes, formed from wind-blown silt, or loess, probably blown in from flood plains to the southwest or originating from volcanic eruptions in the Cascades in prehistoric times:

Dust Storm in Eastern Washington (NASA Satellite Image). Courtesy NASA and Hidden Journeys.

Channeled Scablands, courtesty Tom Foster’s site,

Yet covering hundreds of square miles north, west and south of the fertile hill country, large areas of central and southeastern Washington resemble a moonscape. The first signs are hills that are gouged, molded or contoured. Deeper into the badlands, the rolling contours are pocked with deep coulees, potholes, canyons and valleys. Soon the farmlands become a barren wasteland of rocky outcrops and canyons. This territory is a vast (estimated 1,500-2,000 square miles) region, gouged, eroded, and largely denuded of soil, known as the Channeled Scablands. Characterized by steep-sided, square canyons and flat-topped buttes or mesas, this unique region includes mysterious ancient rock walls such as Dry Falls, that are reminiscent of waterless cataracts dwarfing present-day Niagara.

Dry Falls (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The landscape is littered with boulders called erratics, some very large, and most structurally dissimilar to any nearby geological structures. Other dry features include plunge pools, eroded bowls at the base of dry cataracts, that are suggestive of ancient cataracts.

missoula1For years, these structures were considered to be the result of slow changes wrought by wind and water – at least until 1922, when the persistent, creative, and irascible geologist J. Harlen Bretz drove a borrowed Model T Ford into the area he was to christen the “Channeled Scablands.” An original thinker, Bretz quickly realized that these unique features, with areas scoured free of soil down to the basaltic bedrock, could only have been created by a flood of cataclysmic proportions. Publication of these ideas, described by one contemporary as an “outrageous hypothesis”, in 1923, sparked an acrimonious academic dogfight that was to leave Bretz embattled for the next 40 years. This story has become one of the classics of modern geology and has been expertly related in a number of sources (see HistoryLink and Soennichsen). Interestingly, Bretz never seemed that concerned that the source for this mass of water had not been determined.

J. Harlen Bretz (NPS Image)

The answer to this last part of the puzzle came in 1940 from the patient work of U.S. Geological Survey geologist J. T. Pardee. As quiet as Bretz was outspoken, Pardee spent most of his career studying the deep valleys of northwestern Montana, and in 1910, based on traces of ancient shorelines on the mountains of western Montana, postulated the existence of glacial Lake Missoula, with a surface area of 3,000 square miles and containing up to 600 cubic miles of water. At the dramatic conclusion of a 1940 meeting designed to debunk Bretz’s flood theory, he quietly confounded Bretz’s critics with his presentation on giant ripple marks, particularly in the Camas Prairie region, that could only be consistent with a cataclysmic prehistoric flood. Combining Pardee’s work on Lake Missoula with Bretz’s observations led inescapably to the conclusion that this lake had flooded the northwestern states, probably as a result of the failure of an ice dam. Aerial photographs and later satellite imagery silenced the critics, confirmed Bretz’s theory, and provided the basis for interpreting similar enormous flood channels on Mars.

The wall of water that raced across northern Idaho and eastern Washington is estimated to have been 2,000 feet high and to have contained more water than the combined flow of all of the present waters of the world. It smashed its way to the Pacific Coast, covering Oregon’s Willamette Valley and inundating present day Portland under 400 feet of water. Present theories suggest that this flooding process may, in fact, have happened many times.

Even more profound than the waters’ ravage of the northwestern United States, Bretz’s flood changed forever our understanding of geological processes. At the time that Bretz proposed his theory of a catastrophic flood, geology had for two centuries been firmly rooted in Charles Lyell’s theory of uniformitarianism, which postulated that all geological processes occurred gradually over time. Acceptance of Bretz’s flood introduced the concept of intermittent catastrophic events punctuating the slow progression of geological changes.


A Palouse experience should really start with camping at Palouse Falls State Park. Pitching a tent under the shade of a tree on this grassy bluff at the lip of Palouse Canyon,

Palouse Falls Campground (Courtesy LugNutLife)

one is in the heart of land once carved and gnawed by massive walls of water, yet today one is lulled to sleep by the gentle sussuration of insects and the subdued the roar of the falls. There are excellent photographic opportunities available from the viewpoint, as well as a number of hiking trails toward the head of the falls and nearby rapids on the Palouse

Palouse Falls, 6×9 cm 1950 Baby Crown Graphic with 65 mm Schneider Angulon, XP-2 at f/16. View from visitor’s center outlook.

River. The breadth of the canyon and falls lends itself perfectly to modern panoramic digital photography (see iPhone panorama above) or ultrawide angle lenses, but less expansive yet impressive images can be obtained with modest wide-angle or “normal” lenses on classic cameras:

Palouse Canyon Looking Southward, Voigtlander Avus with 105 mm Skopar Lens, Kodak VC-160

The canyon south of the falls is bounded by private land, and requires special permission to explore (see Foster, T.). One half mile northwest of the campsite, reachable by small dirt tracks running west from the camp access road approximately one-half mile north of the park, is a miniature badlands. Time your trip to coincide with the full moon; a moonlit hike through this area is an eerie and unforgettable experience.

The canyon and falls are by spectacular by themselves, but the surrounding landscape offers a palette of flood-altered contours, from rolling virgin grassland dotted with wildflowers to teardrop-shaped, flow-contoured hills, and multiple nearby coulees and canyons. One of the closest of these is HU Ranch Coulee, formed when the wall of water rushing down Washtucna Coulee to the north overwhelmed its banks, turning south and ripping HU Ranch Coulee and Palouse Canyon out of faults in the underlying basalt. The ranch was stunning and while we were there, we found some Ranch land for sale. After all, who wouldn’t want to own a ranch in the USA? It’s always been a dream of mine!

Afternoon light, HU Ranch Coulee, just north of Palouse Falls (Digital Image)

The rolling farmlands, colours, and wonderful light of the Palouse lie just north of Palouse Falls. From the park entrance, turn right and head northwest up the narrow, twisty contours of Highway 261. In a few miles, turn right onto highway 260/261 toward Washtucna after you stop and snap a picture of the grain elevator at the junction:

Grain Elevators, Highway 261. Ensign 820, Ilford XP-2.

From Washtucna, start your exploration of the Palouse by heading east along Highway 26 toward Colfax. From Colfax, turning northward on Highway 195 leads to Steptoe Butte, an ancient quartzite island jutting out of the Columbia lava flows, and one of the main Palouse_mapattractions of the Palouse. One of the few significant elevations in this area, Steptoe Butte is the site from which the most striking panoramas of this area are taken. Turning south on Highway 195 leads to the college town of Pullman, home of Washington State University.


Steptoe Butte (courtesy

The country south of the Palouse farmlands also yields valuable images. Rather than heading north to Washtucna, from the Palouse Falls park access drive south on route 261 toward the little town of Starbuck. The highway winds down through eroded hills into the Snake River canyon, with its spectacular Lyons Ferry railroad bridge (also known as the

Lyons Ferry Railroad Bridge (wide angle digital image, black and white conversion from colour original, Canon 18-55mm, equivalent to ~28mm on 35mm camera)

Joso Trestle). The bridge, built in 1912, was at its completion the longest and tallest railway bridge in the world and is worth more than a casual snapshot. Although the views of its 240 foot pillars and 3920 foot span leaping the river’s valley cry out for a wide angle lens, dramatic views can be taken even with the more limited angle of a “normal” classic camera lens.

Lyons Ferry railroad bridge, Voigtlander Bessa, Skopar lens

Returning to the campsite, the Rawhide Grill’s sign was the only sign of humanity in miles of rugged, flood-ravaged hills and gullies:

Rawhide Grill Digital

For an exceptional view of the Palouse and the canyons, watch this video taken from an ultralight trike as it soars down the Palouse River (be sure to watch in Full Screen mode):


Most importantly, remember that the key to fully experiencing the Palouse (and finding unique images) is that destinations are not important. On two expeditions to the Palouse, I have set out for Steptoe Butte three times. I have never reached Steptoe Butte, and I do not have not a single image taken from this spectacular viewpoint. On each day’s outing, I have been seduced by the line of a furrow, distracted by a shadow sliding down a valley, lured by a glimpse of a barn, or sidetracked by one of the dozens of little roads winding off Highway 26. Experience the Palouse by getting lost. Wander. Pick a road at random and explore it. Wandering this way has led me to afternoon shadows, abandoned farms, field lines arcing up rolling hills, and fascinating shadows. There are images over every rise, and undiscovered pictures around every bend:ABANDONED FARM Digital 06Fields Digital 02 CEPALOUSE FIELDS DigitalPALOUSE EVENING 01IMG_2168SUNSET ON THE LINE - RAND COLLINS 300 DPI



(All digital images)


The majority of published Palouse images focus on broad vistas of magnificent scenery, yet this area is rich with rustic small details. Pause in small towns like Washtucna, a small farming hamlet with a pub, a modest number of houses, and an air of neglect. Do not hurry through these small, 1960s-style towns in your hurry to find the real “photo opportunities.” Stop. Look in back streets, examine abandoned stores and gas stations, muse over doors and knockers and peeling paint. Stand in the middle of Main Street and look at the view down the white line.

Wandering the sidewalks of Washtucna revealed this abandoned store, with peeling paint and a back room filled with shadowy objects dimly visible through the dusty windows:

“Sidewalk Closed”, Washtucna. Voigtlander Bessa, VC-160

Farther down the street, an old Ford truck partnered a weathered gas station:


Exploring farther afield turned up an abandoned barn on Highway 26. Wandering around brought me next to the side door, held closed with chains and a bar:


Looking closer at barns, I found this hinge against faded red paint on weathered wood:


Throughout the Palouse, there are thousands of details like this, just waiting for someone with a careful eye to discover them. Remember also the the Palouse is not just about fields and farmhouses. There are miles upon miles of prairie and grassland that abound with flowers in the spring and early summer:


Silky Lupine


And remember always that the key to photography is seeing. Learn to look, and when you look, try to see. Sometimes you need to come back to the same site several times before you really see it. Enjoy the vistas, but look at your feet. See the flowers and the grasses. Follow an ant. If you climb over a rock, look at the rock. I did, and discovered a palette of colourful lichen:IMG_2100


At the risk of sounding like a travel brochure, it is only fair to include the Palouse’s cultural life – this area is more than barns and fields and canyons. With three nearby major universities (Washington State University, the University of Idaho, and Gonzaga University) plus a wealth of local and regional artists, art, music, theater, and dance flourish. The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Moscow is the largest educational jazz festival in the world. The Dahmen Barn in Uniontown provides studio space for artists and is a major teaching center as well as a prime photographic subject. Visit the web site of Alison Meyer, one of the area’s best-known photographers, for tips on photographing the Palouse. The first Palouse Fiber Arts Festival was held in 2014. Farmer’s markets, renaissance fairs, concerts, and even a Lentil Festival fill the spring to autumn months.


I would recommend the Palouse to anyone with an eye for images. Rarely have I found a region with this degree of photographic abundance. The dry climate preserves old wooden structures, and encourages vistas populated only by grassland and sagebrush. The builders of the California megahouses and overpriced ski retreats that dot previously-remote areas have not yet discovered this quiet corner of the continent. Virtually unknown to the general public, this unspoiled area is almost tourist-free.


Rand at Palouse Falls, June, 2013


Baker, V. “Joseph Thomas Pardee and the Spokane Flood Controversy.” GSA Today v.5. no. 9, September 1995.

Barlow, C. Lake Missoula/Scablands/Columbia Flood.

Bjornstad, B. “Erratic Behavior.”!erratic-behavior/c66t

Bretz, J Harlen. “The Channeled Scabland of the Columbia Plateau”. Journal of Geology 31: 617–649 (1923)

Foster, T. “Discover the Ice Age Floods.”

Foster, T. Palouse Falls and Palouse River Canyon – Whitman County Side.’

Glaciers of the American West Web Site. “J. Harlen Bretz.”

History “Bretz, J. Harlen (1882-1981), Geologist.

Idaho Public Television. “A Palouse Paradise.”

Lee, Keenan. “Catastrophic Flood Features at Camas Prairie, Montana.” Inside Mines Web Site.

Museum of the City. “Great Missoula Floods.”

Northwest Geological Society. “Ice Age Floods Through the Western Channeled Scablands.”

Royal Geographical Society. “Hidden Journeys. DENVER TO SEATTLE – The Palouse at 13,000m:A Patchwork Sea.”

Soennichsen, J. Bretz’s Flood: The Remarkable Story of a Rebel Geologist and the World’s Greatest Flood. Sasquatch Books, seattle, 2008

Soennichsen, J. Washington’s Channeled Scablands Guide: Explore and Recreate Along the ice Age Floods National Geologic Trail. Mountaineers Books, Seattle. 2012.

Soennichsen, J. “Legacy: J. Harlan Bretz (1882-1981). A Scablands Geologist Whose Theory Finally Won Out.” University of Chicago magazine, Nov-Dec, 2009.

Suckow, L. “Hills, Grain Elevator, and Little Yellow Plane.”

U. S. Geological Survey. “The Carving of the Scablands.”

Washington Trails Association. “Palouse Falls.”

Weis, Paul L.; Newman, William L. (1976). The Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington: The Geologic Story of the Spokane Flood.

U.S. Geological Survey. “The Channeled Scablands of Eastern Washington” Articles. “The Carving of the Channeled Scablands.”

Wikipedia. “Channeled Scablands.”

Wikipedia. “Dry Falls.”

Wikipedia. “J. Harlen Bretz.”

Wikipedia. “Loess.”

Wikipedia. Missoula Floods.”

Witmer, S. “Palouse Loess.”

The Moldering Ford

I found this old Ford decaying beside another wreck near Victoria, B.C., both in the tall grass in a vacant field next to a gravel pit.  The adjoining wreck, which was ratty, modern, and distinctly un-photogenic, was so close that I could not keep it entirely out of the picture.  I finally made the best image possible by cropping the radiator tightly, eliminating the bits of the second car, and bringing together the decaying front of the Ford in contrast with the the tall grass around it, as the plants of the field exuberantly attempt to return it to the earth.  In the end, I came to prefer this closely focused view of the contrasting grasses and wrecked car.

Camera:  Ensign 820 medium format camera with Ross Xpres 105mm lens and Epsilon shutter, around f/22.

Film:  XP-2


Vintage Filter Systems: The “Series” Filters

Series V Yellow Filter on 1950 Ross Lens, Ensign 820 Folding Camera.

While there is a plethora of information available in books and on the Web about vintage camera and lens systems, almost nothing is written today about the design and use of photographic filter systems between 1915 and 1950. To some extent, this is understandable, since digital image manipulation in Photoshop has largely replaced the effects of colored pieces of glass placed between the image and the film. Yet the lack of attention to vintage filters is unfortunate, as this era covers the development of an entire science of photographic filtration, and the growth of an aspect of photographic art that allowed creative effects never dreamed of in the earliest days of exposing silver salts to light.

The pre-digital film photographer might cope with film balanced for indoor tungsten light, daylight print film, daylight slide film, or any one of a number of black-and-white films. Velvia slide film, beloved of nature photographers, was very sensitive to greens and made pimples and blemishes glaringly obvious if used to photograph skin tones, while Kodak Gold, meant to lend a pleasing glow to family snapshots, tended toward warm tones, and was less optimal for nature shots. A professional photographer might carry an entire menagerie of filters tailored to manipulating images from a variety of films and lighting conditions. Each of these filters absorbed a certain percentage of the light from the image, in an amount expressed by a filter factor. When using a single lens reflex 35 mm camera with through the lens metering, this light loss was automatically taken into account by the exposure meter. With a rangefinder camera or vintage folder, the photographer was constantly consulting filter tables or doing mental calculations, juggling f-stops or shutter speeds to compensate for this light loss.

The complexity of photographic light filtration in the age of film can be appreciated from the table of Wratten filter numbers in the Appendix to this article. The digital age has enormously simplified this complex science. The decline of the photographic filter is attested to by the difficulty of finding this information today; where tables of this sort were plentiful on the World Wide Web twenty or thirty years ago, this is one of the few that can still be found anywhere on the internet. With the advent of digital photography, most of these filters have become redundant, as the majority of these effects can be achieved readily in Photoshop.

For those who are not familiar with the numerous filters employed in film photography, excellent general references on filters in the age of film can be found on either Ira Tiffen’s web site, or on the Ridgewood Camera Club‘s site, while the Portrait Professional web site has a good reference on filters for beginners. Given the availability of these excellent reviews, I will not attempt to enumerate the many subtleties possible with colored filers and film.


One of the most complex and cumbersome concepts involved in photgraphic light filtration was (and still is) the aforementioned filter factor. This number expresses the amount by which an exposure must be multiplied to compensate for the light lost through the filter. In practical terms, knowing that the filter factor is 2.7 is essentially useless when one is faced with adjusting the f-stop scale. Consequently, numerous tables were devised to convert filter factors to f-stops, a typical example being:

Converting Filter Factors
to f/stops
Filter Factor f/stops Filter Factor f/stops
1x 4x +2
1.2x +1/4 4.8x +2 1/4
1.25x +1/3 5x +2 1/3
1.4x +1/2 5.7x +2 1/2
1.6x +2/3 6.4x +2 2/3
1.7x +3/4 6.8x +2 3/4
2x +1 8x +3
2.4x +1 1/4 9.5x +3 1/4
2.5x +1 1/3 10x +3 1/3
2.8x +1 1/2 11.4x +3 1/2
3.2x +1 2/3 13.5x +3 3/4
3.4x +1 3/4 16x +4

(From Joe Miller’s “Filters in Black and White Photography” site.)

While applying a filter factor is a relatively simple maneuver for the few well-known filters that one carries and uses every day, the overall topic of filter factors can be complicated. A straightforward discussion distilled from the Ridgewood Camera Club site is given in Appendix 1.


For the two film types and hybrid processing approach that I employ (images taken on film, then scanned and processed in Photoshop), I use only three filters: polarizing, red, and yellow. In addition, I employ three close-up lenses with my two cameras (Graphic and Voigtlander Avus) that have ground-glass focusing. Realistically, I can probably easily duplicate in Photoshop the effects of the red and yellow filters on black and white images, but these were the classic filters used to enhance contrast and cloud effects, and I enjoy starting of with negatives having this classic look, then touching up the image in Photoshop.

The one essential filter whose effects cannot be duplicated in Photoshop is the polarizing filter; this kind of camera equipment can be purchased from Edmund Optics. Light waves typically vibrate in all directions – in technical terms, this means that the “electric vector” of the light wave is oriented in random directions perpendicular to the direction of travel of the ray of light. Most scenes, even on dull days, contain some quantity of reflected light from leaves, water, road surfaces, etc., and the amount or reflected light under bright conditions can be considerable. Reflected light causes glare and makes colours look muddy.

Natural, Randomly Polarized Light and the Effect of a Polarizing Filter (From Nikon Photography site)

Enter the polarizing filter. When light is reflected from a surface, the reflected light vibrates on only one direction. Similarly, light coming from the sky is partially polarized in certain directions, i.e., at right angles to the sun. A polarizing filter in front of the lens will remove these interfering sources of reflected light, brightening colors and increasing contrast. Similarly, polarizing filters used with pictures taken at right angles to the sun result in dramatic darkening of the sky. These effects are well known and are discussed in all of the references. There is no known application or Photoshop plugin that can mimic these effects. Consequently, one needs, and will repeatedly use, a functioning polarizing filter.

Unfortunately, finding a functioning classic polarizing filter is almost impossible. Polaroid film, invented in 1929 and further developed in 1932 by Edwin Land, consists of a thin film of polyvinyl alcohol stretched and impregnated with iodine. The stretched PVA polymer chains form an array of aligned, linear molecules within in the film. The iodine dopant attaches to the PVA molecules, making them conducting along the length of the chains. Light polarized parallel to the chains is absorbed, while light polarized perpendicular to the chains is transmitted.

Kodak Series V Polarizing Filter. Note degenerative changes to the Polaroid film layer (from eBay advertisement).

Polaroid filters consists of a layer of PVA film sandwiched between two pieces of optical glass. Over the course of fifty years, the PVA film deteriorates, and only rare polarizing filters from the 1950s or 1960s are still usable. Furthermore, the polarizing power of filters of this vintage seems less than that of modern filters. Consequently, this is one area where one should “cheat” on using truly vintage equipment and employ a modern polarizing filter in a classic holder. I have one intact and functioning Series polarizing filter, and I treat it like the irreplacable jewel that it is.

Note that there are two kinds of polarizing filter: the linear polarizer, a staple of photographic light filtration for many decades, and the newer circular polarizer, required when cameras developed autofocus capability. The beam splitting mechanism in an autofocus camera has a built in polarizing element, and these mechanisms will not operate properly when dealing with linearly polarized light. A circular polarizer includes a quarter-wave plate that causes the electric vector of the light passing through the filter to rotate. Autofocus mechanisms perceive circularly polarized light as indistinuishable from unpolarized light, and consequently work quite happily with a circular polarizer in place.

Circularly Polarized Light (with thanks to Wikipedia)

Linearly and circularly polarized light are indistinguishable to the eye or to film, and both types of polarizers decrease reflection and deepen colors to the same extent. Since classic cameras almost universally lack anything resembling an autofocus mechanism, they can use either kind of polarizer. The older linear polarizers are usually cheaper, and one can afford to buy a better quality filter.

The majority of colored filters seem to be more long-lasting than polarizing filters, and it is easier to find usable vintage colored filters in classic holders. Colored filters are of two types: plastic layers sandwiched between layers of optical-quality glass, then mounted in an aluminum or brass ring, and solid filters made from a single piece of tinted glass. Some of the former deteriorate and show central fading or other forms of breakdown of the plastic layer, especially if they have been exposed to heat or sunlight, but many are in excellent condition. Solid filters are less common, as their manufacture required uniformly dyeing a complete sheet of optical-quality glass. They tend to chip on the edge and need to be handled carefully, but if they have not been scratched, are frequently very durable and may be cleaned to near-new condition.


Modern photographers accustomed to the screw-on filters used since the 1950s will immediately note that classic cameras used a completely different system, often referred to as “Series” filters. Classic cameras from the 1900s through the 1950s had no threads on the lens, and all filters (and close-up lenses) consisted of

Classic Filter with Filter Holder and Retaining Ring

nonthreaded disks that dropped into a system of push-on filter holders with retaining rings. All filters came in a series of of defined sizes designated by their “Series” numbers, and fitting to the lens came from choosing the correct size of the push-on

Adapter Ring Assembly. Note that this is a Series V filter holder.

ring of the filter holder. This was actually a very functional and efficient system, and was especially convenient for those who owned cameras from different manufacturers. One simply chose a set of filters to fit the largest-diameter lens, then

Filter (Sandwich Type with Aluminum Ring) with Filter Adapter and Retaining Ring

bought a filter holder sized for each lens. This was, in some respects, easier than using today’s system of screw-on filters and adapter rings.

Assembling the Filter and Holder (Adapter)

Completed Filter Assembly Waiting to be Mounted onto the Lens

If a lens hood was needed, the hood became part of the filter assembly, and was screwed into the filter assembly in place of the retaining ring, holding the filter in place and shading the lens:

Filter Assembly with Lens Hood in Place of Retaining Ring

Alternatively, if only a hood is needed, the lens hood could be screwed into the adapter without a filter, and the hood assembly could be pushed into place over the lens:

1928 Kodak and Lens Hood with Adapter

Lens Hood in Place on 1928 Kodak Anastigmat Lens

Finding and mounting a modern polarizing filter into a Series-type filter adapter is challenging and may require extensive shopping and experimentation with available materials. The main challenge lies in finding a modern filter of appropriate size. Most modern polarizing filters with threaded rings are too thick to fit a Series adapter with the ring in place, and the ring will, in most cases, need to be removed. Selecting a possible candidate for modification therefore involves taking one’s Series filter adapters to a camera store with a good selection of used polarizing filters, selecting a filter that looks as if it will fit the holder after the threaded ring has been removed, then carefully cutting and removing the ring without damaging the filter. If the filter is slightly large, it may be carefully ground to size by hand, preferably under dry conditions without lubricant, on carborundum paper or a sharpening stone. This is a tedious process, and should not be attempted if significant resizing is required. It is difficult to avoid damaging the Polaroid layer or getting paricles or lubricant between the layers of glass, and using powered grinders most frequently results in chipping of the edge of the filter and melting the Polaroid layer.

The Series system included specific polarizing filter holders with attached handles. These typically did not include the rotating-ring stsem used in modern screw-in filters, and depended on rotating the threads for alignment of the polarizer. If one of these can be found, the old polarizer can be removed and the new one cemented in place with a minimal amount of silicone sealant.

The following table, adapted from the APOTELYT site, shows the filter disk and retaining rings sizes, as well as the range of lens sizes accomodated, for each of the Series numbers. Included are designations for the rarely-found half-size Series filters as well as some specialized larger filters:

Filter Designation

Filter Diameter

Retaining Ring Size

Lens Diameter





Series IV 13/16 20.6 15/16 23.5 16-18
Series 4.5 1 25.5
Series V 1 3/16 30.2 1 1/4 33.5 19-30
Series 5.5 1 19/32 35.9
Series VI 1 5/8 41.3 1 3/4 44.0 30.5-42
Series 6.5 1 7/8 48.0
Series VII 2 50.8 2 1/8 54.3 42.5-50.5
Series 7.5 2 1/4 57.0
Series VIII 2 1/2 63.5 2 5/8 66.7 51-67
Series 8.5 2 15/16 74.8
Series IX 3 1/4 82.6 3 7/16 87.5 67-85
Series 93 3 21/32 93.0
Series 103 4 1/16 103
Series 107 4 7/32 107
Series X 4 1/2 114
Series 119 4 11/16 119
Series 125 4 15/16 125

The push-on section of the filter holder consists of a ring of short aluminum fingers that can be bent in or out to adjust the size of the ring by about 1 mm. The aluminum is soft and should not score the lens’ outer ring, but it is advisable to ensure that all of the edges of the adapter fingers are parallel and the inside of the ring is gently sanded with fine carborundum paper to minimize the risk of scratching the camera’s lens ring.

One of the more charming and interesting aspects of classic filter systems was the many boxes, bags, and cases designed to hold the multiplicity of filters needed by the pre-digital photographer. Of these, the most striking were Kodak’s little yellow and black cases. Sturdy and extremely durable, they consisted of a black base filled with two layers of a soft fiber mat, covered with a distinctive yellow screw-on cap:

Yellow filter and Kodak Filter Cases. Note original paper padding in case.

Kodak Filter Cases (from eBay advertisement).


APOTELYT. “Series Filters – A modular drop-in system.”

Dancy, M and Christian, W. “Polarization Exploration.”

Fokkelman, J. W. “Filters, Portrait Lenses and Lenshoods.” Camera Shopper 238:11, August-September 2013.

Hannavy, J. “Wratten, Frederick Charles Luther.” Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Centeruy Photography. Taylor and Francis, 2007, p. 1514.

HyperPhysics. “Classification of Polarization.”

Miller, J. “Filters in Black and White Photography.”

Nikon Microscopy. “Introduction to Polarized Light.”

Peed, Allie C. “Transmission of Wratten Filters.”

Portrait Professional. “Camera Lens Filters Explained.”

Ridgewood Camera Club. “Filters.”

Rockwell, Ken. “Filters.” “What Are ‘Series’ Filters?”

SongofSnow. “What Are ‘Series’ Accessories?”

Tiffen, I. “Camera Filters.”

Wikipedia. “Circular Polarization.”

Wikipedia. “Filter Factor.”

Wikipedia. “Frederick Wratten.”

Wikipedia. “Polaroid.”

Wikipedia. “Wratten Number.”

Appendix 1: Using Filter Factors (adapted from the Ridgewood Camera Club site):


Most filters absorb some light. Since less light strikes the film, exposure must be increased to compensate for this loss by opening the aperture wider or by increasing the time that the shutter is open. This is known as “exposure compensation,” because you are compensating for the filter’s effect on exposure. The additional exposure varies with the particular filter in use: some filters, like the Wratten No. 25 deep red filter for use with black and white film, are so dense that they require exposure compensation of four stops, while others like the UV filter are transparent and completely neutral with respect to visible light, requiring no compensation at all.


The amount of exposure compensation has been predetermined for every filter, and is expressed as a “filter factor” (sometimes also called an exposure factor, and also referred to as Exposure Magnification or EM values). A filter factor is a number that indicates to what extent you must increase exposure when you use a particular filter by multiplying the unfiltered exposure by the filter factor number. A filter factor of 2, for example, means you will need twice as much exposure, and a filter factor of 3 means you will three times as much exposure.


First obtain a meter reading of the scene you wish to photograph without the filter. With a hand-held meter, this is easily done. If you are using a through-the-lens meter, take your reading with no filter attached. If your filter has a filter factor of, say 2, which you know requires twice as much exposure, you must increase exposure by one stop, allowing twice as much light to reach the film. If your meter reading without the filter was 1/250 sec. at ƒ11, you must either decrease the shutter speed by one stop to 1/125 sec, or increase the aperture by one stop to ƒ8. If you take your picture at the new exposure setting with the filter attached, the film will be properly exposed.

A filter factor of 4 means the film requires four times as much light to be properly exposed. You must therefore increase exposure by two stops, since each stop doubles the amount of light that gets through to the film. Using the example from the paragraph above, if your meter reading without the filter was 1/250 at ƒ11, you must either decrease the shutter speed by two stops to 1/60 sec or increase the aperture by two stops to ƒ5.6.

But what if the filter factor is 3? How many stops is that? A filter factor of 3 requires three times more exposure. Since a one-stop increase doubles the amount of light reaching the film, and a two-stop increase quadruples the amount of light reaching the film, your exposure increase for a filter with a factor of 3 will be between one and two stops. It is, in fact, 1 2/3 stops. In this case, one must use one of the conversion tables to change the filter factor into an f-stop adjustment.


There is an easy way to compensate for filter factor. Take a normal exposure reading as if you were shooting without a filter, and adjust your camera settings accordingly. Now, multiply the filter factor by the shutter speed. For example, if the filter factor is 4 and your shutter speed is 1/500 sec, multiply 4 X 1/500 = 4/500 or 1/125. You can now use that filter by changing your shutter speed to 1/125 sec while keeping your aperture setting the same.


A fast, efficient way to compensate for the use of a filter is to divide the factor into the film speed. ISO 100 film divided by a filter factor of 2 equals 50. Set your camera’s light meter or your hand-held meter at this new ISO rating when using the filter (unless your camera is an SLR with TTL metering, in which case, the camera’s meter will automatically compensate for the filter, and provide you with a proper exposure reading).


Using two or three filters at the same time will require an increase in exposure based on the factors of each filter, calculated by multiplying the factors together. For example, the combined factor when stacking three filters that each have a filter factor of 2 is 2 X 2 X 2 = 8, which requires an increase in exposure of three additional stops.


If you have no indication what the factor is for a particular filter and you aren’t using TTL metering, you can use a hand-held meter, preferably with the translucent dome removed (or ideally the meter will have a flat diffuser). Take a normal exposure reading of the sky or another unchanging light source, then take another reading with the filter over the meter’s sensor, making sure no light is getting in at the sides. The difference in the readings will give you the increase in the number of ƒ-stops necessary for you to use the filter, and you can easily convert this to a filter factor number for future reference.


Filter factors are applicable under average lighting conditions, and therefore should be considered as a reliable guideline, but should not necessarily be treated as definitive. You may find that applying a particular filter factor results in over or under-exposure most times you use a given filter, which means that the filter factor is inaccurate for much of your photography. You will need to further adjust your exposure one way or the other when using that filter. Once you know how much of an adjustment is needed, then you can assign your own factor to that particular filter for future reference.

The other thing about filter factors is that you can use some leeway in applying them. Intentional underexposure by half a stop or so will often improve a scene by adding more contrast when using certain filters. Experimentation will let you know how far you can veer away from the recommended filter factor, and what the effects are on your pictures when you do. Keep in mind, too, that a filter factor of 2 can even be ignored completely with the wide exposure latitude of most black and white films without affecting the image too much.

Appendix 2: The Wratten Filter System

The modern system of colored filters immortalizes the name of Frederick Charles Luther Wratten, British photographic inventor and founder of the first photographic supply company. In addition to introducing improvements in the manufacture of gelatin emulsions, Wratten partnered in 1877 with Henry Wainright to form Wratten and Wainwright, the first British firm to manufacture and sell dry photographic plates commercially. C.E. Kenneth Mees soon joined the company as head of product development, and was responsible for developing the panchromatic photographic plate sensitive to longer wavelengths. Mees next developed colored gelatin filters, allowing photographers to take advantage of this broadened color sensitivity, and make possible photgraphy using different wavelengths of light. Beginning with yellow and soon incorporating a variety of colours, these gelatin filters eventually became known as Wratten Filters (See Wikipedia references to Frederick Wratten and Wratten Number).

Wratten and Wainwright, like so many of the early photographic companies, was purchased by Eastman Kodak in 1912, and merged with Kodak’s British division at Harrow. Wratten and his son began working at Harrow, while Mees moved to Rochester, New York to found Eastman Kodak’s research laboratories.

The Wratten numbering system generally consists of a number followed by a letter. Although the letters denote increasing density of the filter, the numbers are generally arbitrary and do not follow much of a logical sequence with respect to the colour or spectral transmission curve. Of this system, Hannavy’s Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-century Photography says:

“The rationale behind the numbering of his filter system seems somewhat arbitrary, but does have a basic structure to it. He started with low numbers applied to yellow filters, higher numbers applied to oranges, red and magenta, and higher numbers yet for greens and blues. Numbered between 80 and 85, he listed filters that adjusted the color temperature of the light reaching the film, with a range of miscellaneous filters occupying the range from 87 upwards. of course, with the introduction of color films, the Wratten filter system has been updated and expanded but, almost a century after their introduction, Wratten numbers are still the most commonly used to denote a filter’s color and character…”

Appendix 3: Charts for Using the Wratten Filter system

(From the Camera Craft web site, based on data from Tiffen Manufacturing Corporation)

Filters Primarily for Black & White Films


Filter Description f-stop Increase
Ortho Film – Daylight
f-stop Increase
Ortho Film – Tungsten
f-stop Increase
Pan Film – Daylight
f-stop Increase
Pan Film – Tungsten
Yellow 6 Absorbs excess blue, slightly darkening sky, emphasizing clouds 1 2/3 2/3 2/3
Yellow 8 Tonal correction outdoors with panchromatic films, increases contrast within clouds against blue sky 1-1/3 1 1 2/3
Yellow 9 Strong cloud contrast 1-1/3 1 1 2/3
Green 11 For pan films outdoors, more pleasing flesh tones, black and whites of landscapes, flowers, blossoms, and natural skys 2 1-2/3
Yellow 12 Cuts haze in aerial photos, for use with aerial Ektachrome Infrared 1-2/3 1-1/3 1 2/3
Green 13 Portraits in tungsten light, renders deep flesh tones, lightens foliage, with pan films only 2-1/3 2
Yellow 15 Dramatic dark skys, marine scenes, aerial photos, contrast in copies 2-1/3 1-2/3 1-2/3 1
Orange 16 Deeper than yellow 15, for pan films only 1-2/3 1-2/3
Orange 21 Absorbs blue and blue-green, renders blues darker, pan films only 2-1/3 2
Light Red 23A Contrast effects, darkens sky and water, architectural photos, pan film only 2-2/3 1-2/3
Red 25 Pan films: dramatic sky effects, simulated moonglow, copies of blueprints. infrared films: extreme contrast, turns foliage white, cuts fog, haze and mist. 3 2-2/3
Dark Red 29 Strong contrasts, copies of blueprints 4-1/3 2
Dark Blue 47 Accentuates fog and haze 2-1/3 3
Dark Blue 47B Lightens same color for detail 2-2/3 3 3 4
Light Green 56 Darkens sky, good flesh tones, pan films only 2-2/3 2-2/3
Dark Green 58 Contrast effects in microscopy, produces very light foliage 3 2-1/3 3 3
Dark Green 61 Extreme lightening of foliage 3-1/3 3-1/3
87 For infrared film only, no visual transmission test test test test
87C For infrared film only, no visual transmission test test test test









































































Filters Primarily for Color Films


Filter Film Type Lighting Description f-stop increase
Clear All Films All Optical glass for protection, no color shift
Sky 1A Daylight Daylight Used outdoors to reduce blue shift, add warmth
Haze 1 Daylight Daylight Reduce ultra-violet and blues caused by haze, aerial and marine scenes, transmits 29% @ 400mm
Haze 2A Daylight Daylight Greater ultra-violet correction than Haze 1, adds warmth, transmits 0% @ 400mm
UV15 Daylight Daylight Haze correction, transmits 19% @ 400mm
UV18 Daylight Daylight / Electronic Flash Reduces blue with electronic flash, haze correction, transmits 13.5% @ 400mm
UV17 Daylight Daylight reduces blue in shade, haze correction, transmits 3% @ 400mm
80A Daylight 3200 deg K Corrects daylight film to use with 3200 deg K floods 2
80B Daylight 3400 deg K Corrects daylight film to use with 3400 deg K floods 1-2/3
80C Daylight Clear Flash Clear flash with daylight color film 1
81 Daylight M2 Flash Warming filter 1/3
81A Daylight
Type B
Electronic Flash
3400 deg K Flood
Daylight color films with electronic flash, type B films with 3400 deg K floods 1/3
81B Daylight
Type B
Electronic Flash
3400 deg K Flood
Warmer results than 81A 1/3
81C Type A, B Clear Flash When using clear flash 1/3
81EF Type A (3400 deg K) M2 Flash 650 deg K drop 2/3
812 All Color Films Match to Film Improves flesh tones, reduces blue 1/3
82 Daylight Daylight 100 deg K increase 1/3
82A Type A
3200 deg K Flood
Early am Late pm
3400 deg K Flood
Daylight films to reduce warm of early/late day, type A films to 3400 deg K 1/3
82B Type B 3200 deg K Flood Cooler than 82A 2/3
82C Type A 3400 deg K Flood Cooler than 82B 2/3
85 Type A Daylight Converts type A films to daylight 2/3
85N3 Type A Daylight Same as 85 plus ND 0.3 1-2/3
85N6 Type A Daylight Same as 85 plus ND 0.6 2-2/3
85N9 Type A Daylight Same as 85 plus ND 0.9 3-1/3
85N1.0 Type A Daylight Same as 85 plus ND 1.0 3-2/3
85POL Type A Daylight Same as 85 plus polarizer 2-1/3
85B Type A,B Daylight Converts type B film to daylight 2/3
85BN3 Type B Daylight Same as 85B plus ND 0.3 1-2/3
85BN6 Type B Daylight Same as 85B plus ND 0.6 2-2/3
85BN9 Type B Daylight Same as 85B plus ND 0.9 3-1/3
85BN1.0 Type B Daylight Same as 85B plus ND 1.0 3-2/3
85BPOL Type B Daylight Same as 85B plus polarizer 2-1/3
85C Daylight
Daylight Minimizes overexposure of blue layer 1/3
CC30R Daylight Daylight Helps correct blue in underwater photos 2/3
FLB Type B Fluorescent Reduces green/blue when shooting under fluorescent lights 1
FLD Daylight Fluorescent Reduces green/blue when shooting under fluorescent lights 1









































































Filters Commonly Used for both Black & White and Color Films


Filter Film Type Lighting Description f-stop Increase
Neutral Density All Film Types All Light Sources For uniform reduction of light, neutral color varies by filter value
Polarizer All Film Types All Light Sources Eliminates surface reflections, glare, and hot spots, darkens sky and increases color saturation about 2, but varies by situation





































































The Old Make and Break

The Old Make and Break Engine, St. Brendan’s Island, Newfoundland

Once the bays of Newfoundland and Labrador echoed with the chug-chug of these trusty little engines as they patiently pushed dories out to the fishing grounds each morning.  Now they are largely silent, consigned to the garages of engine enthusiasts  and the flower plots of retired fishermen.

Built in the 1920s and 1930s, these simple “one-lungers” worked without spark plugs or high voltage, and could stand a soaking on a stormy day without stalling.  Firing at the top of the piston travel, they were the only gasoline engines that could run equally well forward or in reverse, and needed no fancy transmissions or gear systems.

This little engine carried a boat from Maine to St. Brendan’s Island, and came to rest on this bluff within sight of the Gooseberry Islands.  Perhaps it even carried some islanders to and from the tickle between the islands – we know nothing else of its story.

If you would like to see these engines in action, see these YouTube videos:

or listen to “Make and Break Harbour” by Stan Rogers:

“Make and Break Harbour”

How still lies the bay in the light western airs,
Which blow from the crimson horizon;
Once more we tack home with a dry empty hold,
Saving gas with the breezes so fair.
She’s a kindly Cape Islander, old but still sound,
But so lost in the longliner’s shadow;
Make and break and make do, but the fish are so few,
That she won’t be replaced should she flounder.

Now it’s so hard to not think of before the big war,
When the cod went so cheap, but so plenty;
Foreign trawlers go by now with long seeking eyes,
Taking all where we seldom take any.
And the young folk don’t stay with the fisherman’s ways,
Long ago they all moved to the cities;
And the ones left behind, old and tired and blind,
Won’t work for a pound, for a penny.

In Make And Break Harbour the boats are so few,
Too many are pulled up and rotten;
Most houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry
Are blown away, lost and forgotten.

Now I can see the big draggers have stirred up the bay,
Leaving lobster traps smashed on the bottom;
Can they think it don’t pay to respect the old ways,
That Make And Break men have not forgotten.
For we still keep our time to the turn of the tide,
In this boat that I built with my father;
Still lifts to the sky, the one-lunger and I,
Still talk like old friends on the water.

In Make And Break Harbour the boats are so few,
Too many are pulled up and rotten;
Most houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry
Are blown away, lost and forgotten.

In Make And Break Harbour the boats are so few,
Too many are pulled up and rotten;
Most houses stand empty, old nets hung to dry
Are blown away, lost and forgotten.

Taken on Ilford XP-2 with a 1950 British Ensign820 folding camera using its superb Ross Xpres lens.

This photo is an excellent example of rescuing a quality image from an otherwise uninspiring shot by means of creative, and sometimes drastic, cropping.  The original image, which included a busy upper background, perplexed me, and this picture sat in my files for two years until I re-discovered it and attempted to emphasize the critical elements.  The resulting image represents only a small portion of the original scene, and is thus of relatively small file size, but it captures the relationship of the engine to the nearby rocks and field in an interesting composition.

Vintage Viewfinders

E & T Underwood 1886 “Instanto” Camera

Note:  Excellent optical diagrams of the viewfinders described here are available on the Early Photography site and in Camerapedia.  See reference list.

Ever since the invention of the camera, designers have grappled with the problem of accurately viewing the image before the film is exposed.  Early cameras, such as the  above 1886 Instanto tailboard camera, lacked any form of independent viewfinder, employing the rear ground glass focusing screen as the only means of composing the image.  This arrangement worked in the days when cameras were large, heavy, bulky, and largely restricted to studio work.

Once dry plates and roll film became available, the camera moved out of the studio, and a quicker and more convenient method of previewing the image was required.  In the early 1900s, this was typically done using a small reflecting Watson-type viewfinder with a ground glass screen, as seen on this 4×5 Rochester Optical Pony Premo:

Watson-Type Ground Glass Reflective Finder on Rochester Optical 4×5 Pony Premo

The Watson finder consisted of a positive front lens, projecting  onto the top ground glass screen via a 45 degree mirror, an image that was upright but reversed left to right.  Unfortunately, the image thus obtained was dim and difficult to see under even moderately bright conditions.  This brightly-colored hydrangea on a table is very difficult to see when viewed through the Premo’s Watson viewfinder even though the finder was protected from direct sunlight:

Watson Finder Image

The dim Watson finder was rapidly disappearing by 1910, to be replaced by the two-lens “Brilliant” finder; the latter was standard equipment in the consumer-level camera market until the late 1930s.  Similar to the Watson finder, the brilliant finder possesses a second and larger positive lens in place of the ground glass screen.  The resulting images, like those from the Watson, were upright but reversed left to right

Some of the larger brilliant finders were quite good, with a flip-up hood to shield the lens from stray light, and gearing to rotate the frame mask when the camera was rotated.  Unfortunately, these are typically found on larger cameras requiring film sizes that

915 Kodak Brilliant Finder with Popup Hood

are no longer available.  Those found on cameras using 120 film, including my favourite 1928 No. 1 Kodak, tend to be quite small and difficult to use in dim light or darkness.  Using one today requires careful head placement, and many of the

Brilliant Finder, 1928 No. 1 Kodak

mirrored coatings have suffered with age.  Although much quality work, including night and low light photography, can be done with these cameras, such small brilliant finders are slow to use, and and are virtually useless for moving objects.

Small 1928 Kodak Brilliant Finder: Much Careful Head Movement Needed to Center Image

One solution to this problem before the 1930s was the wire frame finder, present on the majority of small 6×9 and 9×12 cm plate cameras, but relatively uncommon on roll film cameras.  This typically consisted of a small viewing window, serving as the eyepiece, that unfolded from the back of the camera, and a large, flip-out wire frame attached to the front standard.  Although lacking parralax correction, these were quick to deploy and easy to use for moving objects.  On the plate cameras, the wire frame finder was typically accompanied by a small brilliant finder.  For closeup work and exact framing of stationary objects, focusing could be accomplished on the ground glass, making the small plate camera an extremely compact and portable package capable of precision work and considerable flexibility.

Wire frame finders were found  on only a few of the classic roll film cameras.  Models with a wire finder include the earliest Voigtlander Bessa, and some Certo cameras:

Original Model Voigtlander Bessa with Wire Frame Finder

With the advent of faster emulsions, action photography – race cars, baseball players, or rapidly-moving grandchildren – for the nonprofessional photographer became possible.  Consequently, the need arose for a viewfinder that could be used more quickly and conveniently for mobile subjects: the eye level finder.

The majority of eye level finders from the 1930s to the 1960s represent variants of one of three types:  the simple frame finder, the telescopic finder, and the Albada finder.  During the early part of this period (1930s and early 1940s) these finders were mounted on top of the camera, typically consisting of flip-up front and rear elements.

The simplest of these finders was the rudimentary, direct vision metal frame finder.  This consisted of two pop-up metal masks, the  larger in front and and the smaller in the rear, with no lens elements in either.  As seen on this Zeiss Ikonta, this arrangement was simple, cheap, and moderately accurate:

Zeiss Ikon 520-15 with Top-Mounted Simple Frame Finder

The main disadvantage of the simple frame finder is the fact that the rear (ocular) element is out of focus and difficult to visualize when the eye is adjusted for distant subjects.  With roll film cameras, where the distance between the front and rear frames is limited to the width of the camera body, the out-of-focus rear frame significantly limits the accuracy of the finder.  With the larger front-to-back frame distances found with the Graphic or small plate camera, the metal and wire frame finders can be very accurate.

Telescopic finders, initially appearing as top-mounted pop-up finders with lenses in the front and rear frames, consist of a negative (plano-concave) lens at the front, accompanied by a positive rear eyepiece lens.  Galileo designed a telescope using the reverse of this optical arrangement; consequently these are frequently referred to as Reversed Galilean Finders.  They are simple to use and produce an unreversed image of moderate brightness.

Flip-up Reversed Galilean Telescopic Finder, Kodak 620 Camera, mid-1930s

A major advance in viewfinder technology came with the introduction in 1932 of van Albada’s reflecting frame finder, or Albada Finder, which addressed the problems of eye position effects and out-of-focus frames.  Consisting of a reversed Galilean finder with a field of view greater than that of the lens, the Albada Finder has the rear surface of the concave  front objective partially silvered, reflecting the image of a framing line engraved around the eyepiece lens.  As seen through the eyepiece, this reflected frame line is visible at any level of focus, and appears superimposed on the subject, representing the true field of view of the lens.  Having the viewfinder frame larger than the len’s field of view allows visualization of moving objects coming into the image field, thus facilitating action photography.  The Albada concept provided the basis for later finders displaying frames for multiple focal length lenses as well as exposure data.  The best and most functional example of the traditional, Albada-type, top-mounted folding finder is found on the British Ensign 820 and 16-20 cameras

Ensign 16-20 with Albada Finder. Note the engraved finder outline on the inside of the eyepiece.

Beginning in the late 1940s, the viewfinder began to be incorporated into the top plate assembly of the camera.  Initially, this took the form of a small, enclosed telescopic finder attached to the top plate, as with this Retina I:

Kodak Retina Type I, circa 1935-50. Note attached telescopic finder.

Later, the telescopic finder became integrated into the upper housing, which came to extend over the entire upper body, incorporating a combined telescopic finder and rangefinder, as seen in this Voigtlander Bessa II from the 1950s:

Voigtlander Bessa II. Note viewfinder and rangefinder windows incorporated into the top plate.

Incorporating the finder into the top plate of the camera streamlined the mechanism and allowed for integration with a coupled rangefinder, both significant advances.  Unfortunately, this arrangement, which works well with the short lenses of folding 35mm cameras, is less satisfactory with the longer bellowsof medium format roll film cameras using 120 film in the 6×9 cm format.  While the top-mounted, flip-up finders of the earlier generation of roll film cameras provided an unrestricted view of the subject, cameras with body-incorporated finders such as the Bessas have the lower quarter of the field of view obscured by the lens and bellows due to the lower position of the finder.  This results from the longer bellows required by the 100-105 mm focal length lens used by the 6×9 cm  format.  Despite the sleeker appearance of the camera, this is annoying and can at times hamper composition.

Overall, my experience suggests that the most functional and accurate of the finders in 6×9 cm vintage roll film cameras are the Albada finders on the Ensign cameras, and the large, wire frame finders on compact plate cameras and the 6×9 cm Baby Graphic.  The flip-up, top-mounted telescopic finders on roll film cameras from the 1930s are capable of quick and accurate work, as are the body-mounted finders from the 1940s and 1950s – as long as the lens and bellows do not obscure part of the field.  As noted above, waist level brilliant finders on cameras from 1915 to 1940 are slow to use and significantly less accurate – yet they are part of the charm and challenge of using a truly old camera!


Camerapedia.  “Viewfinders.”

Early Photography web site, “View-finders,View-meters.”

Ray, S.   Applied Photographic Optics: Lenses and Photographic Systems for Photography.  Focal Press, Oxford, 3rd edition, 2002.


APPENDIX:  Original patent application for Van Albada finder, 1923