Purma Special camera
5 frames with...

5 Frames around Norwich with a Purma Special and Rera Pan 100 – By Stuart Jenkins

May 15, 2021

Throughout lockdown, I’ve looked at my camera display cupboard every day. The fact that I can see my collection easily from my home desk is one of the perks of WFH. The Purma Special looks particularly pretty sitting there, and I’ve often wondered if it can be a serious picture-taking machine in 2021. As the government restrictions began to ease, I planned to find out.

When the Purma Special was introduced in 1937 it cost 50 shillings, which equates to about £170 in 2021. I’m guessing that was mid-range in the market — about five times the price of a box brownie but a tenth of the price of a Leica. For a point & shoot with no external controls, the premium had to be justified with the sleek art deco styling. It’s made almost entirely out of Bakelite, including the snap-on back and the sprung retractable lens tube.

127 film is quite easy to obtain, in the form of Rera Pan 100. You just have to be a bit careful with the spools. The central shaft is metal but the flanges are made of thin brittle plastic. They can snap easily, and one time a flange simply fell off while I was loading the camera, causing some ‘light piping’ along the whole length of the film. The Purma Special shoots sixteen 31mm square images on a film that’s 46mm wide, so there’s a substantial border either side.

The Weirdest Shutter of any Camera

The square format enables the camera’s USP, which is three different shutter speeds selected by holding the camera at a different orientation. ‘SLOW’ and ‘FAST’ markings either side of the viewfinder are a useful reminder of which way to hold it. The weighted sliding shutter hits its end stop with a mighty “Thunk!” noise, particularly on the ‘FAST’ speed where the travel is assisted by gravity. It shakes the camera enough for you to easily see the ‘kick’ through the viewfinder. Thankfully that bit happens after the image is captured, so it doesn’t cause any blurring.

The retractable 57mm lens is an anastigmat with three elements in three groups. The aperture is fixed — actually it’s just a brass washer between the lens elements. At f6.3 it’s quite open, so the depth of acceptably sharp focus isn’t going to be huge. I disassembled the lens for cleaning, and when I put it back together I set the sharpest focus to about 20 feet away. Unsurprisingly, objects at infinity are noticeably out of focus. This is not an all-purpose camera.

Having three shutter speeds to choose from is better than just having the one, but they are strangely spaced. Slow is 1/25s, medium 1/125s, and fast is 1/450s. The 2-and-a-bit stops between slow and medium can feel like a yawning chasm, leading you to re-compose to try and get an achievable exposure. With no tripod socket, you’d better hold your breath and wish you could turn to stone on the slow setting.

Into the city

I finally got the chance to take the camera for a wander around the almost-deserted centre of Norwich just after sunrise on a sunny April morning. I found what I was looking for — bright low sun that made for interesting shadows and reflections on the mixture of modern and medieval buildings in the city centre.

Developed in ID-11 at box speed, the film gives pleasing results, although the contrast is fairly low. Some work in Photoshop is necessary to make the scene look as you remembered it through the viewfinder. Grain is noticeable, but remember that in spite of technically being medium format, the image area is barely any larger than 35mm full-frame. The orientation of the image on the negative gives away the shutter speed used, so it’s a form of analogue metadata.

Will I use it again? Certainly. Its alluring mixture of beauty and technical weirdness means it’s too good to leave on the shelf.

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28 Comments

  • Reply
    Paul Brant
    May 15, 2021 at 10:24 am

    Many thanks for this post . I’ve come across quite a few Purma’s but always put them in the ‘rubbish’ corner!
    After seeing your results I feel a little guilty and now determined to give one a try.
    Thanks again

    • Reply
      Stuart Jenkins
      May 15, 2021 at 10:26 am

      Thanks Paul, you won’t be disappointed!

  • Reply
    John Fontana
    May 15, 2021 at 10:31 am

    Great shots, Stuart, with lovely light and bags of atmosphere. The grain is additive to the effect. That camera is too good to leave on the shelf!

    • Reply
      Stuart Jenkins
      May 15, 2021 at 10:34 am

      Thanks John. It’s great fun to use.

    • Reply
      David KOPYTKO
      May 18, 2021 at 2:19 am

      Love it! Especially the first three shots. I have come across this stylish camera in a Paris flea market a long time ago and was really intrigued by the weird tank shape and by the use of bakelite (mmhhh, yummy bakelite…!). Your gorgeous pictures are an ode to this camera!

      • Reply
        Stuart Jenkins
        May 18, 2021 at 6:50 am

        Thank you David!

  • Reply
    Dave
    May 15, 2021 at 12:15 pm

    Shockingly fine results. I’m stunned.

    • Reply
      Stuart Jenkins
      May 15, 2021 at 12:16 pm

      Thanks Dave, much appreciated.

    • Reply
      Kodachromeguy
      May 16, 2021 at 3:17 pm

      Yes, I agree. These are amazing results from this odd camera. It shows what a skilled user can achieve. Later, I hope you can show us more examples.

      • Reply
        Stuart Jenkins
        May 16, 2021 at 4:12 pm

        Thanks Andrew. I’m sure I’ll be putting these and more on my Instagram soon.

  • Reply
    E. Scherer
    May 15, 2021 at 1:22 pm

    Surprisingly good, I wouldn’t expect that from a bakelite camera.

    • Reply
      Stuart Jenkins
      May 15, 2021 at 1:24 pm

      Thanks Eliverto!

  • Reply
    Brian Nicholls
    May 15, 2021 at 2:09 pm

    Well Stuart, I’m absolutely stunned!! Given that most people who bought this camera back in the day and saw their snaps arrive at the Chemist’s in just a pocket sized wallet would never have dreamt of its potential to deliver such beautiful enlargements. Anyway, most snappers would never have been able to have afforded the camera let alone the enlargements. I bought a Purma many years ago for 50p – looking up at me from a jumble box in a charity shop – I felt compelled to ‘save’ it, but it’s spent it’s retirement in a cabinet. Thanks for the many tips in your article.

    • Reply
      Stuart Jenkins
      May 15, 2021 at 2:16 pm

      Thank you Brian! It’s simplicity means there is little to go wrong, and it’s very easy to strip & repair. Definitely worthwhile, if only for the weirdness of taking pictures with such an unorthodox camera.

  • Reply
    Kurt Ingham
    May 15, 2021 at 2:42 pm

    Great results from a very original design!

    • Reply
      Stuart Jenkins
      May 15, 2021 at 2:43 pm

      Thank you Kurt!

  • Reply
    Peggy Marsh
    May 15, 2021 at 3:15 pm

    Ooh I just got one of these, your photos make me excited to try it.

    • Reply
      Stuart Jenkins
      May 15, 2021 at 3:18 pm

      Give it a go Peggy — you won’t regret it.

  • Reply
    Bud Sisti
    May 15, 2021 at 5:41 pm

    Stuart, an absolutely wonderful set of photos, particularly the first. Impressive, and even more so considering what you were using! I like quirky cameras, but I think the Purma would be just too over-the-top for me to use. Wrestling a beast like that into submission is an accomplishment!

    • Reply
      Stuart Jenkins
      May 15, 2021 at 5:45 pm

      Thanks Bud, kind of you to say so!

  • Reply
    Emma
    May 15, 2021 at 8:55 pm

    Wow, I am seriously impressed with your results, well done and thanks for a great article!

    • Reply
      Stuart Jenkins
      May 15, 2021 at 9:16 pm

      Thanks Emma, glad you liked it!

  • Reply
    Holly Gilman
    May 16, 2021 at 4:46 pm

    Wow, I’ve never seen Norwich look quite like that! But then I’ve never been there at sunrise! Perhaps one day I’ll be in a position to see it in that light! Amazing images!

    • Reply
      Stuart Jenkins
      May 16, 2021 at 4:54 pm

      Thank you Holly! I’m rubbish at photographing people, so I like to be out at sunrise when the light is interesting and (more importantly) there’s no-one about.

  • Reply
    Scott Gitlin
    May 16, 2021 at 10:33 pm

    Well, you can see from the number of responses – the combination of a very unusual camera yielding excellent results. Congratulations!

    • Reply
      Stuart Jenkins
      May 16, 2021 at 10:41 pm

      Thank you Scott, I appreciate it.

  • Reply
    Alex Vye
    May 16, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    Fantastic photos, I can’t imagine being able to get the quality images shown with the quirky camera you have described

    • Reply
      Stuart Jenkins
      May 16, 2021 at 11:36 pm

      Thanks Alex! I love trying unusual cameras, and this one is pretty easy to use (with off-the-shelf film) so I’m sure I’ll use it again soon.

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