The Packard Shutter

Zeiss Jena 150mm Barrel Lens Mounted on Noba Camera’s Lens Board. Note air hose and bulb for Packard shutter.

4″ Packard Shutter mounted on rear of Noba lensboard. Note air hose connection at bottom of piston.

Completing our discussion of shutters requires mention of a famous shutter that, although most commonly found on large format (4×5 in and larger) cameras, nevertheless holds a firm place in photographic history: the Packard shutter.

Throughout the late 19th and early to mid 20th century, many fine lenses were produced without shutters; in modern terminology, these are referred to as “barrel” lenses. They were often designed for aerial photography (e.g. the Kodak 7″ f/2.5 Aero-Ektar), as industrial process lenses, or for use on cameras with alternate shutter types. Some, such as the lovely East German f/4.5 Tessars (see above), the Cooke Anastigmats, and the Zeiss Jena Symmars and Planars, have excellent optical qualities. Many of these classic lenses are of considerable size and can be lethal if dropped from a high place. Fitting a conventional shutter to many of these behemoths is a daunting and expensive undertaking.

Enter the Packard shutter. There are some inventions that are so basic, functional, and foolproof that they remain essentially unchanged for decades. One is the humble mousetrap; in its familiar form – pine board, pieces of wire, and a spring – it has been decimating those little furry pests, essentially unchanged since James Henry Atkinson patented the original “Little Nipper” in 1897. However, nowadays, the use of pest control spokane services, as well as a myriad of others, makes it easier for pests to be caught and eradicated in modern homes.

Mousetrap Patent, 1920, similar to “Little Nipper”

The other is the Packard Shutter. The origins of this humble device are obscure. A product of Yankee ingenuity, it is variously described as dating from the Civil War or originating “…in the late 1800s…” Consisting of a thin, flat metal case with a central opening and three blades driven by a simple air-powered piston, it is still manufactured by the Packard Shutter Company of Fiddletown, California. Its virtues are twofold: it is indestructible and virtually foolproof, and is almost the only way to use many fine vintage lenses that lack shutters. The only other alternative would be to use a focal plane shutter-equipped camera such as a Speed Graphic, but the lens boards on Graphics are frequently too small to accommodate these large lenses. Though typically found on large format cameras and thus technically outside the scope of this site, the Packard’s place in photographic history is so well established that no discussion of shutters is incomplete without it.

The shutter consists of a thin (1/4 inch), flat metal case with a central circular opening, containing three coupled blades of black fibrous plastic approximately 0.020 inches thick. The mechanism is activated by a simple non-lubricated, air-driven piston connected to a flexible air hose and bulb. Shutters are available with central openings ranging from 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches; larger sizes, which can be custom ordered, find application in astronomy and scientific work.

The blade mechanism consists of two leaves, separately pivoted near the bottom of the case. These overlap slightly at the center of the opening, but do not quite cover the top of the opening. Simultaneously, a “guillotine” blade moves down to cover the remaining area. The air-activated piston moves the guillotine blade (sometimes called the “master blade”), which is coupled to one of the vertical leaves by a small rivet: this first vertical leaf is then coupled to the other vertical leaf by a second rivet. In this manner, movement of the guillotine blade opens or closes all three blades.

The Packard Shutter comes in two versions: the Packard Ideal No. 5 for time exposures, and the Packard Ideal No. 6, which has an “Instantaneous” mode with a single shutter speed of 1/15-1/25 second. The No. 6 is shifted from time to “Instantaneous” by means of a small brass pin that can be pushed in to engage the instantaneous mechanism.

The operation of the Packard Shutter has been described in exquisite detail by Gordon Coale:

“…This is my Packard shutter with the rear cover off. I’ve colorized two of the leaves to make it clearer.


On the left image, the upper red arrow shows the inserted pin. The lower red arrow is where the air piston pushes up. This works because all the pieces are pinned together. The upper yellow arrow attaches the piece being moved by the piston to the aluminum piece underneath and the black piece in between. The black piece is attached to the yellow piece at the lower right yellow arrow and the yellow piece is attached to the red piece at the lower left yellow arrow. As the pieces move they pivot around pivot points which are identified by the lower green arrows. The upper green arrow as a post that acts as a constraint to the black piece to keep it from moving to the left. The second picture shows where the aluminum piece is hitting the pin as the air piston moves it up. If the pin wasn’t there it would just continue straight up to open the leaves. This is where it gets interesting.


As the piston continues to move up the aluminum piece is slid right as it moves up the pin. This slides the pin that has been moving the black piece up out of the black piece. The pin inserted from the back is now in the notch of the aluminum piece and the leaves are open. As the piston continues up the aluminum piece starts to rotate around the pin and the left end of the aluminum piece is now pushing the black piece down which causes the other two pieces to close.


The air piston has moved to its highest position and the leaves are closed. Releasing the bulb causes the piston to go down and the aluminum pieces moves down and the spring pulls it back into the indent on the black piece ready to be opened again…”

The Packard Shutter is typically mounted behind the lens, but can be front-mounted on the larger lenses such as this Zeiss lens:

Packard Shutter Front Mounted on Zeiss Lens. Photo courtesy of S. Grimes.

In the intermittent mode, the shutter speed of the Packard is usually considered to be 1/15 – 1/25 second with a determined squeeze of the bulb. There are references that suggest techniques for controlling the air flow for a variety of other settings. For timed exposures, the Packard company recommends the following procedure:

“The usual operation is to hold your thumb over the hole in the end of the bulb, squeeze it, count off the time open then allow the bulb, with your thumb still over the hole to “suck” back and close the blades. Releasing your thumb from the hole will allow the blades to remain open indefinitely; they can be closed by squeezing the bulb, covering the hole and allowing the bulb to open causing the piston to be drawn back, closing the blades.”

Were the Packard to be used on a roll film camera, the limited range of shutter speeds would be a significant limitation. However, in large format work where images are typically taken at small apertures and exposure times are longer, being limited to 1/25 second or longer is a restriction that one can usually live with, particularly if the Packard allows the use of an unusually fine lens.


Bellis, M. “History of the Mousetrap.”

Coale, Gordon. “Of Packard Shutters and Barrel Lenses.” Electric Edge web log entry, June 5, 2005.

Holmes, G.S. “Mousetrap.”

Kerr, D.A. “The Packard ideal Shutter.”


Leaf Shutters


The Shutter Blade Blues

The Klio, the Kolios, the Synchro, My God!

An Alphax, a Betax, my head’s feeling odd!

A Compound, a Graphex, the list just goes on,

The Rapax, the Ilex – I’m awake until dawn!

The Ibsor, the Deckel – such fine German parts,

A dirty old Victor whose pistons won’t start.


The Vario snickers,

“What speeds do I have?”

I bet it’s a fiver –

Or is it just three?


The Packard it clatters, the Acme it whirs,

And – yes, oh, so  German – the Compur  just purrs.

The Kodex, the Rulex, my nerves won’t unwind,

The Kodak’s Ball Bearing, the Thornton’s a blind!

A ring ‘round the edge, a dial at the top,

It’s so complicated, oh, when will it stop?

I can’t organize them, the list is too fat,

I don’t want to choose one – I’ll just use my hat!

Wollensak Lenses and Shutters Catalog 1916

Back in 1913, life was simple.  Oh, you died if you got tuberculosis, they gave you arsenic for syphilis, women couldn’t vote, and you starved when you lost your job, but you never had to sort through the hordes of clockwork shutters that proliferated later in the twentieth century.  There was one really good shutter – the Compur – and a few simple ones with no slow speeds.  You never had to sort out a Copal from a Bolsey from a Prontor – or maybe you don’t care, but then you wouldn’t be reading this!.

The list of twentieth century leaf shutters with clockwork, Ilex-type delay escapements really is daunting and confusing.  Furthermore, most of us really do not understand how shutters work.  The article will give examples of the workings of two shutter types – one simple, one expensive and complex, then attempt to organize and make sense of the many names that float around when between-the-lens shutters are discussed.


My focus here is on the operation of clockwork shutters, about which amazingly little is written in the contemporary literature. In the early part of the twentieth century, this would have been a common topic in books on camera repair; unfortunately, most of these publications are moldering away in basements and not readily available.

A Simple Shutter: The Kodak Ball Bearing Shutter

Let us start by examining one of  the most classic shutters of the early 20th century: the Kodak Ball Bearing Shutter.  Two excellent articles describe in detail the disassembly and cleaning of Ball Bearing Shutters (see Infotech and P. Huego references).

The Ball Bearing Shutter used here, a three-speed model from a No. 1A Kodak, depends entirely

Kodak Ball Bearing Shutter with f/7.7 Anastigmat Lens

on spring tension to vary shutter speeds.  Like many of the early BB shutters, the “T” and “B” settings are located between the shutter speed settings on the top speed selector dial.

Before working on the shutter, carefully unscrew and clean the front and rear lens elements,

Removing the Front and Rear Lens Elements

checking for scratches and fungus.  There are then two options for disassembling the shutter: removing the front plate piecemeal and cleaning the aperture and shutter speed scales or, for quicker access to the internal mechanism, removing the entire front plate as a unit.  This is not possible with more complex shutters, but with the Ball Bearing Shutter, the entire front plate can be removed and replaced as one piece.  Turn the shutter over and remove the five peripheral

Removing Screws Holding the Front Plate. Five Shutter Blades Visible from the Back.

rear screws that traverse the shutter from front to back; the whole front assembly can then be lifted off intact.  If you elect this route, be careful to  keep both scales at their original settings

Removing the Front Plate

so that they can be reassembled onto the underlying pins in the shutter mechanism.  Note that the five shutter blades are visible once the rear element is removed.  Be careful not to get fingerprints on the blades, as the oils from your skin can be corrosive over time.

The back plate into which the rear element is screwed covers the shutter ring ball bearing assembly for which this shutter was named; removing the screws attaching this plate reveals the underlying ball bearing race:

Back Plate Removed, Showing Ball Bearing Race for Shutter Ring

The mechanism of the Ball Bearing Shutter is simple yet ingenious.  The shutter release lever (left) both cocks and releases the

Kodak Ball Bearing Shutter Mechanism

shutter via the C-shaped shutter activating lever that curves around the periphery of the mechanism.  The shutter blades are activated by a shutter ring that lies between the blades and the aperture assembly (lying beneath the aperture mechanism, it is not visible in this image, ).  Each blade has a fixed pivot together with a small post that fits into a slot on the shutter ring.  Opening the shutter is accomplished by rotating the ring; each blade then swings around on its pivot, dragged by the movement of the post as it slides within its slot on the ring.

Shutter Blades with Aperture Mechanism Removed

A small metal tab on the shutter ring (the Shutter Ring Connector – barely visible in the image) protrudes upward into the interior of the shutter body.  When the shutter is released, the shutter activating lever moves forward, rides up over this tab and then falls down and hooks the tab, pulling it forward and rotating the shutter ring, thus opening the blades. The shutter return spring then rotates the ring back to its original position, closing the blades.  The shutter ring connector post and return spring can be better seen at higher magnification:

Shutter Ring Connector and Return Spring

The overall operation of the shutter can best be appreciated by watching it in action:

Kodak Ball Bearing Shutter Overall Operation from RAND COLLINS on Vimeo.

The interaction of the shutter release lever and the shutter ring activating post can best be appreciated in this close-up video showing the lever riding up over the post, with shutter blades visible in the lower left. After the release lever grabs the post, its action rotates the underlying shutter ring, pulling the blades open.   The return spring the forces the post back, reversing the rotation of the underlying shutter ring, and the blades snap closed:

Kodak Ball Bearing Shutter Overall Operation from RAND COLLINS on Vimeo.

The manner in which the shutter ring connector post controls the opening of the blades can best be appreciated by manually moving it with a small screwdriver:

Activating the Shutter Blades with the Shutter Ring Connector Post from RAND COLLINS on Vimeo.

Note that this simple shutter lacks any clockwork escapement or other delay mechanism (such as an air brake), relying entirely on the balance between shutter spring tension and the combined inertia of the shutter activating lever, shutter blades, and shutter blade ring to control the speed.  Shutter speed is varied by changing the tension on the main shutter tension spring; note how the tension on this spring increases as the shutter  speed lever is moved from the 1/25 sec to the 1/100 sec position:

Shutter Spring Tension 1/25 Sec


Shutter Spring Tension 1/100 Sec.

The shutter speed selector lever also controls shutter speed and function by changing its interaction with the two overlapping speed control levers, whose upper ends possess several cleverly-designed slots and steps.  On any shutter speed (1/25, 1/50, or 1/100 sec.), pressing on the shutter release lever opens and closes the blades through the combined actions of the shutter activation lever and the return spring, as the activation lever forces the blades open and snaps back freely under pressure from the spring. At this setting, the configuration of the shutter speed control levers allows the activation lever to cycle freely:

Shutter Control Levers at 1/25 sec. from RAND COLLINS on Vimeo.

When the shutter is on the “B” setting, a step in one of the two speed control levers catches the proximal end of the shutter activation lever before it can return, just as it has pulled the shutter blades to the fully open position:

Kodak BB Shutter: Detail of Function of Speed Control Levers on “B” Setting from RAND COLLINS on Vimeo.

Caught in this intermediate position, the distal end of the shutter activation lever impedes the return of the shutter ring connector post and its attached shutter ring, freezing the blades in the open position:

Kodak BB Shutter: Close-up of Shutter Ring Held Open in T and B Positions from RAND COLLINS on Vimeo.

Releasing the shutter lever frees the shutter activation lever to return to its resting position, allowing the blades to snap shut.

On the “T” setting, slots on the two speed control levers form a pocket that similarly catches the shutter ring activation lever in mid-travel; in this case, the end of the shutter speed control holds this pocket in place this even as the shutter lever is released, leaving the shutter  blades open until the shutter is fired a second time:

Function of Shutter Control Levers on “T” Setting from RAND COLLINS on Vimeo.

The action of the distal end of the shutter control lever is the same as on the “B” setting, with the shutter ring post caught at the end of its travel with the blades open (see above).

A Simple Clockwork Delay Mechanism: The Wollensak Gammax No.2 Shutter:

This shutter, from another 3A Folding Ansco, is a contemporary of the Kodak Ball Bearing Shutter, appearing as early as 1913 in the Sears catalog on a No 2 Conley Junior.  Representing the next

Gammax No. 2 Shutter

step upward in function and complexity, it has four speeds (1/100, 1/50, 1/25, and 1/10 sec.) and employs a very simple clockwork delay mechanism.  It is fascinating to see how the Gammax builds on Kodak’s design, using two interacting speed control levers and a semicircular shutter activation lever, coupled with a more sophisticated shutter ring control system that can interact with the clockwork delay:


To Be Continued…


Huego, P.  Kodak Ball Bearing Shutter.

Infotech posting.  “Kodak Ball Bearing Shutter.”  http://www.Infotech posting.  “Kodak Ball Bearing Shutter.”





Shutters – A Landmark Patent!

In 1910, an event occurred that revolutionized photography:  two Bausch and Lomb shutter designers, Rudolph Klein and Theodor Brueck (the latter had designed the “Volute” shutter in 1902) filed U.S. Pat. 1,092,110 for a shutter delay mechanism involving a rotating gear and a rocking pallet.  This was the basis for the slow speed escapement that was to make possible the very best leaf shutters of the twentieth century – the Compur, the Copal, the Prontor, and the many, many other fine clockwork shutters that made possible the greatest images of the last century.

Consequently, this patent is reproduced here in its entirety:


Compur Leaf Shutter Mechanism

This article introduces the topic of classic camera shutters.  Subsequent postings will explore in more detail the protean topic of clockwork leaf shutters, followed by discussions of pneumatic shutters and the various types of classic curtain shutters.

Lens With Guillotine Shutter

There are two ways of controlling the amount light used in exposing a glass plate or sheet of photographic film: the area of the lens opening, known as the aperture or f-stop, and the length of the exposure.  In the early days, when plates were wet and emulsions were deadly slow, life was simple – the photographer merely removed his hat, placed it over the lens, removed the dark slide, and then uncovered the lens for the desired number of seconds.

As emulsions increased in speed, life became more complicated, and the need arose for a mechanical device to control short exposures.  The first known shutter, a “drop” or “guillotine” shutter consisting of a board with a hole in it moving past the lens opening, was used in1845 by the French physicists Fizeau and Foucault for photographing the sun.  A similar shutter was used by Matthew Brady, the great civil war photographer, in 1850.

Shutters became more common between 1850 and 1880, but slow emulsions made them more of a handy accessory than a necessity.  Many shutters consisted of pivoted lens covers or

Guerry Flap Shutter, c. 1881

Early Pivot Shutter (EP)

variations on the simple flap.  After 1880, the advent of hand-held cameras and the development of faster films increased the need for a way of controlling short exposure times and led to a period of rapid technological advancement.  By 1890, the early forms of all of the common shutters used in the 20th century had been developed.

Overall, shutters fall into three main categories:  Rotary or “sector” shutters, leaf shutters, and curtain-type shutters.  In their simplest form, sector shutters may be considered to represent a rotary version of the  guillotine or drop shutter, consisting of a pivoting metal plate with a round or kidney-shaped opening exposing the lens as it rotates.  Leaf shutters, also now frequently called “between the lens shutters”, consist of a set of blades that rotate to uncover the lens opening.

Five-Bladed Prontor SVS Leaf Shutter

Early versions were air-driven, while the majority of later models were spring-driven with a pneumatic or clockwork timing mechanism.  Curtain-type shutters may be divided into focal plane shutters, situated next to the film plane and used until the 1990s on millions of 35mm cameras and the famous Speed Graphic large format cameras, and “Rouleau” or roller blind shutters, situated behind or in front of the lens and represented by the highly successful Thorton-Pickard shutters common before 1915.

Thornton-Pickard Royal Ruby Triple Extension Camera with Roller Blind Shutter

Common to all three types is the need for an accurate and reproducible timing mechanism. Until the 1880s, shutter timing was very crude, depending on the tension of a spring or rubber band or the retarding effect of a leather brake.  The rubber band-powered Lancaster Rotary shutter from 1885, frequently found on Instantograph cameras, is an

Lancaster Rotary Shutter (EP)

example of this type of shutter. The first major advance in shutter timing occurred in 1886, when Arthur S. Newman developed a shutter with a pneumatic cylinder retarding mechanism,  thus introducing a new era in shutter accuracy and setting the stage for the dominance of pneumatic shutter timing for the next quarter century.  This was followed in the early twentieth century by clockwork time delay systems, and finally, in the late twentieth century, by electronic timers.

In the late 1800s, a variety of sector shutters were in use.  While many, like the Lancaster shutter, were of simple design, some, like the Newman and Guardia of 1895, were complex

Newman and Guardia Sector Shutter (EP)

devices with pneumatic timing that were capable of a number of speeds from 1/2 to 1/100 second.  Unfortunately, these sophisticated models were abandoned in favor of leaf and curtain shutters, and the sector shutter was relegated to the cheapest form of photographic technology, the box camera.  However, in this role, the sector shutter found its true home, and millions of

Kodak Rotary Sector Shutter, 1896 Pocket Kodak (EP)

these cheap and durable devices were produced for the consumer market by Eastman Kodak and other manufacturers well into the 1960s.

The first leaf shutter was probably constructed by Mann in 1862.  Another early model with only two blades, the Sands’ Patent Shutter,  was designed by C. Sands of Sands, Hunter and Company

American Optical Acme Tailboard Camera with Sands and Hunter Shutter, 1885 (EP)

in 1881.  A major milestone in shutter development and manufacture occurred in 1890 when Bausch & Lomb, one of the most famous of the early Rochester optical and camera companies,

Bausch and Lomb Iris Diaphragm Shutter

entered the shutter business in 1890 with their pneumatic “Iris Diaphragm” shutter.  This was a “self-diaphragming” shutter, a precursor to the modern shutter with its separate aperture and shutter blades, in which one set of blades opened to a preset aperture, then closed at the the end of the exposure.  Later B&L pneumatic shutters such as the Victor had both shutter blades and an iris diaphragm.

1904 Bausch and Lomb Catalog

Like many technological advances, the concept of the pneumatically-timed shutter sprouted in more than one site; in the same year, Voigtlander independently introduced in Germany  the four-bladed “Verschluss” pneumatic shutter (see Reiss’ site on Compur shutters).

Bausch and Lomb was, and still is, one of the main pillars of the American optical industry. Yet in the story of the pneumatic shutter, it was as important for those who left the company as it was for its own accomplishments.  In 1878, Ernst  Gundlach, reputed to be a difficult individual, left the company and eventually founded the Gundlach Optical Company.  In its several manifestations with and without Ernst Gundlach this company manufactured the well-known Gundlach cameras, together with  shutters, and other optical equipment until 1972.  In 1899, Andrew Wollensak, who designed the Iris Diaphragm and other shutters,  left Bausch and Lomb and founded the Wollensak Optical Company, manufacturing a line of high quality, reasonably-priced shutters.

Optimo Pneumatic Shutter

The famous pneumatic “Optimo” shutter was designed by Wollensak in 1909 and was sold extensively until 1930.  It was joined by the popular Betax, Alphax, and Rapax shutters.  Production of lenses began in 1902, with production in subsequent years of shutters and lenses for all of the major camera manufacturers.  The  Wollensak lens and shutter catalog from 1919 is worth reviewing both as art in its own sake and as a piece of

Wollensak Lenses and Shutters Catalog 1919

history with fascinating images of the time.  The company existed in various forms through the war years, manufacturing such well-known items as the Optar lenses and Graphex shutters for the Graphic press cameras, until it finally closed its doors in 1972.

One fascinating historical tidbit is that the Wollensak factory stood abandoned and essentially undisturbed, an undiscovered time

Equipment in the Abandoned Wollensak Factory

capsule, until 2007, when the building was put up for sale.  At that time, an explorer from the Urban Landscape entered the building, found it virtually untouched since the day the last employee left,

Wollensak Factory Stairs

photographed its interior, and posted his photographs on the Internet.  They can be viewed at The Urban Exploration Forum site.  The entire building and its contents finally sold for $85,000.

Unfortunately, the maximum accurate speed of a purely pneumatic shutter is limited to 1/100 sec or less.   Later models, such as the Optimo and Koilos, achieved a greater range with a combination of pneumatic regulation for slow speeds and spring-driven timing for faster speeds.  However, the advent of faster films with their requirement for very fast shutter speeds, together with the development of a simpler alternative, doomed the pneumatically braked shutter.

This advance was to come from a third offshoot of Bausch and Lomb: Ilex.  In 1910, two Bausch and Lomb shutter designers, Rudolph Klein and Theodor Brueck (Brueck had designed the “Volute” shutter in 1902), invented a revolutionary shutter delay mechanism, involving a rotating gear and a rocking pallet (U.S. Pat. 1,092,110). This mechanism, similar to that used for regulating clocks, made possible a compact mechanism allowing a shutter’s slow speeds to be accurate independent of temperature and atmospheric conditions.  The original patent is reproduced in its entirety in the post “Shutters – A Landmark Patent!”.

Klein and Brueck left Bausch and Lomb and set up their own business, initially called the “XL Manufacturing Company”, to manufacture the new shutter.  However, they soon discovered that C. P. Goerz was also making a line named the “X excel L” shutters, so to avoid confusion they renamed their shutter the “Ilex,” and in 1911 renamed their firm the “Ilex Manufacturing Company” and later the “Ilex Optical Company”.  Shortly thereafter, Friedrich Deckel of Munich bought the rights to use their delay mechanism on a royalty basis in his famous line of Compur shutters.  Ilex had one other major contribution to twentieth-century photography:  the invention of the self-contained internal flash synchronization mechanism during World War II.

Ilex Paragon 215/355 mm f/4.8 Convertible Lens in Ilex Shutter

In addition to shutters, Ilex produced many quality lenses under the Paragon name.   Ilex lenses and shutters were sold and used in large numbers until well after World War II, and are readily available on the used market today.

The invention of a slow-speed braking system that was compact, durable, and accurate under all conditions was a springboard for shutter development for the next half century.  Prior to Klein and Brueck’s invention of the clockwork slow-speed escapement, non-pneumatic, variable-speed shutters for handheld cameras had been around for a number of years, the most notable being the indestructible Kodak Ball-Bearing Shutter.  However, these either lacked slow speeds, depending on varying spring tension to vary shutter speeds and, like the Kodak, being restricted to speeds faster than 1/25 second, or depending on a variety of exotic braking systems to regulate slow speed exposures.  Valentin

Linhof Shutter, Early 1900s (EP)

Linhof, manufacturer of the famed Linhof technical cameras, actually launched his career as a shutter manufacturer, with his first models of 1887 using a leather brake to control slow speeds.  Later, Kenngott used a similar mechanism in the first Koilos shutters.  In fact, a leather brake was in use as late as 1902 in Steinheil’s “Universal Automatic Shutter Model C”, designed by Christian Bruns.  Klein and Brueck’s compact device changed the direction of photographic innovation.

After Ilex sold the rights to the clockwork slow-speed escapement, the spotlight on shutter development shifted to Germany.  One of the giants of the German optical industry in the late 19th century was the firm of C. A. Steinheil, a major manufacturer of astronomical and optical equipment as well as photographic lenses and shutters.  Both Friedrich Deckel and Christian Bruns were employed by Steinheil.  Deckel left to found his own establishment in 1898, and was joined by Bruns in 1903; the resulting company was eventually named F. Deckel.  Their cooperation produced in 1905 the famous Compound pneumatic shutter.  This was the longest-lived of the pneumatic shutters, being

Compound Shutter with Zeiss Protar

produced continuously until 1970.  It longevity can be attributed to its large size and dependability; some of the these shutters are still in use today, being the best choice for the largest of classic large format lenses.

After receiving rights to Ilex’s design, Friedrich Deckel wasted no time in putting the slow-speed delay escapement into production, and the first of the famous Compur shutters appeared in 1912.  It is interesting to note that the Compur was not actually a new shutter, but rather a modification of  the Compound.  In designing the Compur shutter, Deckel apparently took the Compound shutter and replaced the pneumatic cylinder with Klein and Brueck’s clockwork slow speed escapement, thus simplifying and expediting the new design.  The name “Compur” reflects this genesis from the Compound shutter, being a fusion of  “Compound” and “Uhrwerk”, the German word for “clockwork” (see Reiss).  Consequently, the Compur is actually a “Clockwork Compound” shutter.

It should be noted that the actual relationship between Deckel, Bruns and the development of the Compur shutter is somewhat murky;  Bruns stayed with Deckel for only a short time, but continued to work on shutter design after severing his legal relationship with him.  The majority of the design work was done not by Deckel, but by Bruns.  Carl Zeiss owned a portion of F. Deckel and may have obtained the Compur patent from Bruns in order to share it with Deckel.  Zeiss also quietly owned stock in the German Gauthier shutter factory and in Bausch and Lomb, and may have facilitated use of this design by both companies (see Reiss).  Zeiss was in turn obligated to use Compur shutters in the majority of their cameras.

The original Compur shutters were set by a dial at the top of the

Compur "Dial-Set" Shutter (Note resemblance to Compound shutter)

shutter and have become known as “Dial-Set Compurs”, as opposed to the more familiar “Rim-Set Compurs”, introduced in 1927, with their speeds set by rotating an outer ring.

Compur Shutter, Rim-Set Type

Independent of Deckel and the Compound/Compur branch of the evolutionary tree, the brothers Alfred and Gustav Gauthier established a shutter factory at Calmbach in the Black Forest region of southwestern Germany in 1902  This produced the the well-known pneumatic Koilos shutter, followed by a long line of less expensive leaf shutters that were, by agreement with Zeiss, mostly equipped with fewer speeds and destined for cheaper cameras.  However, the Gauthier factory did produce one professional-quality shutter, the Prontor, in 1935.  This became Gauthier’s star product, with a daily production of 10,000 Prontor shutters by 1960.

Until the patents on the Compur and the clockwork slow speed escapement expired, Germany largely controlled shutter production. Part of the impetus for the development of American shutters such as the the Kodak Supermatic was an effort to find an alternative to the monopoly held by German manufacturers such as Deckel, and Gauthier.

By the late 1950s, the majority of photography was done with 35mm cameras, and Zeiss and other German camera manufacturers were riding a tide of success based on the concept of a small, eye level camera with an interlens leaf shutter and interchangeable front lens elements.  These were of excellent quality, but expensive to produce and  mechanically complicated.   Because of the leaf shutter mechanism surrounding the lens opening, the maximum aperture of the lens was limited.  Starting in 1953 with Zeiss’ Contaflex, a number of single lens reflex cameras with leaf

Zeiss Contaflex S

shutters were developed, including the Retina Reflex, the Voigtlander Bessamatic, and the Wirgen Edixa (1962). However, these required coordination of a flip-up mirror, the leaf shutter, and a focal-plane baffle plate, making the mechanism complex.

Caught up in their success, German manufacturers ignored the growing popularity of the simpler and less expensive Japanese designs based on interchangeable, high quality lenses of large aperture combined with focal plane shutters.  The collapse of the German camera industry was inevitable, and during the 1960s and 1970s, Zeiss and the majority of the other German manufacturers ceased production.  The effect on the leaf shutter industry was predictable, and by the the mid 1970s, production at Deckel and Gauthier was a mere trickle, primarily devoted to Hasselblad and large format lenses.  Ironically, the East German camera manufacturers, based in Dresden, embraced the Japanese concept and achieved excellent success with the  Exakta and Practika lines based on focal plane shutters and interchangeable lenses.  The East German camera industry collapsed not because of lack of vision, but because of the collapse of the Soviet-type German Democratic Republic in 1989.

The best known of the curtain shutters is the focal plane shutter, consisting of a moving curtain with a transverse slit that moves across immediately in front of the film, exposing it in a sequential fashion.  The first known use of a focal plane shutter is thought to be by the famous English photographer William England in 1861, whose camera employed a drop shutter with adjustable slit width located at the focal plane.  He is therefore credited with the invention of this type of shutter.

There are two ways of controlling the exposure using a focal plane shutter:  curtain speed and slit width.  Early curtain shutters, both behind the lens and focal plane, used a combination of both methods.  The typical early focal plane shutter consisted of a rubberized fabric curtain driven by a clockwork mechanism.  Increasing the tension in the driving spring drove the curtain faster, thus effectively increasing shutter speed; however, top speeds were limited by the strength of the curtain material.  Slit width was adjusted by using two half-curtains linked by chains or tapes that allowed the spacing between the curtains to be adjusted.  In early shutters, changing the curtain spacing meant opening the camera to manually adjust the shutter mechanism; later models used tapes that could be adjusted from outside the camera.

Functional focal plane shutters reminiscent of those used on modern film cameras came on the market around 1890.   Thornton-Pickard marketed a focal plane shutter in 1891 in addition

Thornton-Pickard Focal Plane Shutters (EP)

to their behind-the-lens shutters; this was produced in improved versions into the early part of the 20th century.  As early as 1902,

Newman and Guardia Focal plane Shutter 1902 (EP)

Newman and Guardia created a two-blind focal plane shutter whose shutter speed varied by controlling slit width and which achieved speeds of 1/10 – 1/800 second.

In 1925, Leitz, manufacturer of the Leica, introduced the dual-curtain focal plane shutter.  This was a major technological breakthrough, eliminating precut slits and the need for adjustable spring tension. The slit is formed by opening the first curtain; as it opens, it is followed by the second curtain after a delay timed by a clockwork escapement mechanism.  The curtains move at a single, predetermined speed across the film. Faster shutter speeds are provided by changing the delay between the opening of the first curtain and the closing of the second, thus effectively varying the slit width   Dual curtain focal plane shutters are also self-capping, as the curtains are designed to overlap as the shutter is cocked to prevent double exposure.  This mechanism formed the basis for the focal plane shutters in most 35mm single lens reflex cameras until the advent of lightweight metal vertical blinds in the 1980s.

The evolution and mechanism of focal plane shutters has been carefully and extensively described on the Early Photography web site at

Each shutter type has its advantages and disadvantages.  Leaf shutters can synchronize with most flashes at any speed, and tend to be quieter and more compact than focal plane shutters.  However, unlike focal plane shutters, their mechanical complexity typically limits them to speeds of 1/500 sec. or less.  Having interchangeable lenses necessitates a shutter in each lens, like the Hasselblad 500, a behind the lens shutter, like the Paxette, or lens arrangements where only the front half of the lens can be exchanged, like the many German rangefinder cameras of the 1960s.  Today, between-lens leaf shutters’ one remaining stronghold is in large format photography.

Focal plane shutters, mounted immediately in front of the film plane, readily allow for interchangeable lenses and are capable of very fast shutter speeds.  However, they are noisy, less durable than well-crafted leaf shutters, and, when combined with the bounce of a reflex mirror flipping upward, cause a significant degree of camera shake.  In addition, the progressive movement of the curtain slit across the film results in distortion of the shape of a fast-moving object, which is actually in a different position as the curtain exposes different parts of the film.  Modern designs, with vertically-traveling lightweight shutter blades, have partially remedied these problems.  Finally, care must be taken not to leave cameras with focal plane shutters uncovered in the sun, as the sun’s image focused on the curtain can actually burn holes in the curtain.


Some of the historical data on shutter development is covered in more detail in Rudolf Kingslake’s excellent article on the Rochester, NY camera companies.  Many superb photographs of early shutters and vintage cameras can be viewed on the “Early Photography” web site and on Wagner Lungov’s site. The Early Photography site is one of the best on the internet and has excellent discussions of shutter mechanics and function.   Images from this site are designated (EP).  Special thanks are in order to both of these authors for use of images of antique shutters.  Klaus-Eckhard Reiss’ web site is a rich and insightful analysis on the development of the Compur shutter and the demise of the German camera industry.

For aficionados of vintage cameras, one site that must not be missed is David Tristram Ludwig’s “Antique Cameras” collection ( David’s collection is one of the finest in the world, and his photographic images are excellent. David was kind enough to allow me to use his images of the American Optical camera with the Sands Hunter Shutter and the Bausch and Lomb 1891 Diaphragm Shutter (after he had reminded me tartly that I forgotten to cite him – I do get it right most of the time!).

This article provides a survey of the development of the photographic shutter.  Pneumatic shutters, clockwork leaf shutters, and curtain shutters will be described in more detail in subsequent postings.


Cosens, Robert.  “Photographers of Great Britain and Ireland 1840 – 1940:  William England.”

“Diaphragm or Leaf Shutter.”  Living Image Camera Museum article.

“Early Photography.”

“Exposure.”  Wikipedia Article.

Kingslake, Rudolf.  “A History of the Rochester, NY Camera and Lens Companies.”

“Leaf Shutter.”  Camerapedia article.

Ludwig, David Tristram. “Antique Cameras.”

Lungov, Wagner.  “Photographs of my Family and Other Adventures.”

Purdum, Ernest. Online posting for Large Format Photography Forum. 2006.

Reiss, Klaus-Eckhard.  “Up and Down with Compur:  The Development and Photo-Historical Meaning of Leaf Shutters.”

“Reprinted Company Catalogs.” Craig Camera Web Page.

Urban Exploration Forum.  “Wollensak, the Time capsule.”

Wikipedia article.  “Focal Plane Shutters.”

“Wollensak Lenses and Shutter Catalog, 1919.”