Durst Automatica – Overcoming Scale Focus Fears with an Italian Beauty

My photographic journey took a new route recently. I had been scared of scale focus and viewfinder cameras for years – I mean how would one shoot people and portraits with a shallow depth of field without being able to critically adjust the focus on their eyes? Guessing exact distance isn’t something I’ve ever been confident with. And zone focusing isn’t anything I had ever tried before in anger though I knew how to set distance on a lens it seemed far easier to use something like a manual rangefinder or SLR for what I like to photograph – especially as my main interest is travel and with travel there’s people.

For years I’ve been tempted to get myself a little Rollei 35 with a lovely bright Zeiss Sonnar lens but I couldn’t see the point of shooting wide open when I wasn’t able to determine exact distance. But I guess I didn’t understand what it was for at the time, I also fell into the shooting wide open trap when for years I’ve photographed people, candids, reportage etc when traveling mainly at f8 and especially for candies and such – I wasn’t thinking properly and just thinking about portraits of individuals. one thing lead to another and my mind focussed on other things.

Fast forward to several years later and looking at old cameras lead me from Range Finders to old Half Frames – I saw a really interesting video on Youtube from Kyle McDougall where the photographer really enjoyed using an Olympus Pen EES-2 – it has  a auto exposure and selective Zone focus rather than a true scale but it inspired me and I thought, why not? Bare bones photography – no meter, fully manual and no ability to see focus! I like the idea! To be able to set a focus range, set the meter with an incident light meter and then simply concentrate on composition sounded really appealing! The auto exposure of the Pen EES-2 does take some hard work away but working with B&W film rather than colour negative film I think made things slightly more complicated. I often meter for the shadows of highlights depending on what I’m shooting so I don’t think an auto exposure camera would suit more careful B&W snapping.

So I began a search! I dismissed the Rollei 35’s for being too fiddly with the placement of the dials and also the price of the better ones which was beyond me. I then looked at everything from Minox to Olympus and had a few cameras in mind. I thought I’d wait a while before choosing and buying one with my meagre budget and left the idea on the back burner for a while until one day in early March 2023 I was browsing 35mmc and clicked on Friends of35mmc https://www.35mmc.com/friends-of-35mmc/ a short way down the list you’ll find https://retrofilmcamera.com/ a really interesting and informative site about landmark cameras over the years – on the main homepage my eye immediately saw this gorgeous camera – beautiful flawless lines, so pleasing to look at that I clicked on the link – retrofilmcamera.com/durst-automatica  – it was a Durst Automatica; a landmark cameras as it had:

1: The world’s first aperture priority automatic exposure 35mm camera.
2: The only 35mm camera to use pneumatics as part of the shutter firing mechanism

I didn’t really care much about these, I was blown away with how perfect it looked! Wow! It also helped that the review was favourable and the author detailed how not only was it beautiful but it was also wonderfully built with so much class and thought gone into it. Durst make enlargers but once upon a time they did make a handful of camera models with this being the very last!  Made in Italy and it was a Viewfinder Camera with Scale focus!

Well, I then immediately went onto ebay and saw one on sale – it looked almost mint, with original Durst leather halfcase and cover, plus Original Durst pouch with the lens hood and protective lens filter and original instructions on how to use the Aperture Priority. I put in an offer for £30 after asking the seller a few questions and he accepted. Two days later the Postman knocked on the door and I had the camera in my hands.

Durst Automatica

Just look at it! I mean it’s probably the finest camera I’ve ever seen! The same size and weight as a Leica M3 with the same amount of quality but much better looking. It oozes class. The whole body sounds solid when tapped with your finger nails, wonderful attention to detail in finishing, materials and construction; open the film back by releasing the latch, close it satisfyingly, press the button underneath and the beautifully machined film rewind knob raises  precisely with a metallic ‘ping’ noise then pushes securely back in with a satisfying damped click. Wind it on slowly – the lever raises then with a ratcheting clicking noise covers the distance and then release it for some more quality feel. Everything is precise and just feels so nice, like a precision instrument.

The Lens is a coated Schneider-Kreuznach 45mm f/2.8 – and has the added benefit of being a Cooke Triplet which I haven’t used before! I assumed it would be a Tessar design but it’s a 3 Element Radionar! The lens has dials for ASA, Aperture and focus with a distance scale in feet and a corresponding scale in metres if you look underneath the lens barrel plus some other bits. It’s all rather well designed and beautifully precise in use. The shutter emits a quiet metallic airy clunk – being pneumatic.

The Selenium meter is behind a window and mine works – but it is really to be used for the Aperture priority mode – I haven’t exposed any film with it but it’s straight forward to use; Set the mode lever to A, set the ASA on the lens barrel and the shutter speed to 300 Automat on the lens, the camera will then select the correct shutter speed which you’ll know from the needle on the meter display. It’s limited as the Aperture is fixed to a given ASA as shown on the review I liked above from https://retrofilmcamera.com/durst-automatica/ – I didn’t bother using this feature. I usually shoot B&W with a yellow filter on at all times, I’ve bought one from eBay (32mm) but awaiting it, so this time I was filterless!

Anyway, I put in a roll of Rollei Retro 80s (loaded easily) and cycled down to Alresford Creek just in between the villages of Alresford and Wivenhoe by the River Colne Estuary in East Anglia coast of Essex. It doesn’t have any strap lugs but not an issue as I was using the Durst leather Half Case which has strap and adjustable buckle.

I enjoyed it so much I must say! The light wasn’t great but the Viewfinder is large and bright enough with a Bright Line finder.

The lens markings are basic feet with nothing else to determine hyperfocal or a zone – but the  focus ring slots securely at 10 feet which is marked in red. I took a light reading using an incident meter (Minolta Autometer III) I also had a iPhone with light meter app if I wanted to spot meter. But this being a practise run and the light being pretty even, I set the camera to f11 1/60 and focus at 10ft. I did adjust aperture on occasions as I got more confident shooting and judging distance so turning the focus dial depending on how far away I thought the subject was. After several frames I must admit it became second nature – my bike was approx 6 feet away – the boat was approx 20ft etc changing aperture as I saw fit but generally ranging from f8-f16 with the odd foray into f2.8 and f4.

Raleigh Clubman 1983 – Colne Estuary Essex @f4
Raleigh Clubman 1983 – Colne Estuary Essex @f2.8
Colne Estuary Essex @ f8

Everything went well, to rewind the Film you have to a) Make sure when you insert it that the prongs are firmly in the top of the film – so when winding on the pop out  knob will turn. So when finished you need to keep the button at the bottom of the camera which releases the rewind knob depressed! Otherwise it wont wind and you’ll likely damage the film or screw up (I did a practise run at home with an old film I use for this).

Colne Estuary Essex @f8
Colne Estuary Essex @f11
Colne Estuary Essex @f11

The disaster when it struck had nothing to do with the camera, it occurred as I don’t have a changing bag and at my old house (my Mum and Dad’s house) I just used the cellar. I had been using a sleeping bag and gym bag when putting film into the developing tank, but my wife seems to have put these somewhere so I had to get under the duvet on the bed – I ended up screwing the reel so it opened when the film was part way in – I then panicked and had to grab another reel and then reeled the film onto it and inserted it into the tank – I found out afterwards that half of the previous film reel was already in the tank – so to cut a long story short the Film wasn’t inserted properly and thus wasn’t developed properly with many frames ruined. I did manage to save some but the results as you can see from the selection here are quite muddy with uneven development and marks where the Film touched itself (?) I wasn’t pleased with the development. Live and learn as they say! Next time I wont try and get into bed with my developing tank!!

Colne Estuary Essex @f8

Then a couple of weeks later I took it out again. No yellow filter, as the one sent was press-on and didn’t fit. I did however have a roll of Fomapan Creative 200 film so I thought let me give it a go again, so round 2 with the Automatica was beckoning.

It was an overcast day again but luckily I was going with my family to a place near by called Mersea Island – it’s a small islet off of East Anglia in England, on the North Sea coast. West Mersea has some very interesting boats and coast line which I thought would be interesting to photograph with the Durst. By now using it was second nature – very confident with judging the lens ability in terms of distance and focus – my only hope was that I didn’t mess up developing. The incident meter showed f11@1/60 (ISO 200)and I stayed around f8-f11. Light was relatively flat and diffused but constant.

Mrs Ibbz provided a good subject enabling me to get some really nice compositions. Here are a few examples (the whole roll was of keepers).

North Sea Coast at West Mersea. Essex

Getting home, I, now having mastered the art of loading a tank under the quilt, promptly developed the roll – paying very close attention, in Rolle Supergrain at box speed. I was again disappointed with my results – the negatives were dense, the Foma text on the negatives was sharp, but all seemed over exposed by at least 4 stops. I find that odd as my Minolta Autometer III I used hasn’t ever let me down before and the Durst’s shutter speeds seemed fine – but there was obviously an issue somewhere – or I’m making some mistakes. Upon testing compared to the meter app on the phone it was indeed 4 stops difference. A quick Brave search revealed that the Minolta meter was faulty – removing the done gave a correct reading but with the done about 2-4 stops over exposure! I need to clean this somehow for next time.

Anyway the Durst Automatica is such a lovely piece of art of a camera – such a pleasure to hold and use, I can’t wait to go out and shoot with it again, the weather had been horrible and light has been boring and diffused with boring overcast skies but Spring is here and the weather has changed at last!

And using a Scale Focus camera? So enjoyable, Liberating, easy and virtually effortless!

I Haven’t enjoyed photography this much for years! Just concentrating on composition have given me a lot of inspiration and the compositions have been the most pleasing for me yet.

I’m confident enough to start photographing individual people portraits with it and I think with some precise distance measurement  I could shoot portraits wide open – though it was easy enough to guess distance and shoot with the lens opened up.

All Photos: Colne Estuary Essex. Rollei Retro 80s. Rollei Supergrain developer at 1+9. West Mersea, Essex. Fomapan Creative 200. Rollei Supergrain Scanned on an ancient Epson 4990 using basic Epson software. Photos of the camera shot with a Konica Minolta Maxxum 7D Minolta 50mm f1.4 @ISO400.


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12 thoughts on “Durst Automatica – Overcoming Scale Focus Fears with an Italian Beauty”

  1. Hello Ibraar. I am pleased you found the Durst Automatica on my site retrofilmcamera.com and bought one. It is indeed a beautiful object and your atmospheric photographs taken with the camera are excellent. It looks like a great location to explore with a camera.

    1. Hi Chris
      Thanks so much for your kind and encouraging comment and thank YOU for your excellent site which is full of inspiration.
      This camera especially deserves to be known, used and cherished rather than virtually being given away for $30.
      Thanks again

  2. I have one of these. Unfortunately, the shutter doesn’t work so it just sits on my display shelf. Pity really as it looks an interesting camera. Anyone know where I can get it repaired. Alternatively, for sale as spares or repair. Make an offer.

  3. Your delight in using this camera shines through. I especially liked the tones in your Colne Estuary shots.

  4. David Dutchison

    The Italians sure have a knack for making beautiful machines and I really like the soft-but-sharp rendering of the triplet too.

    I’m also a novice shooter with a scale focusing camera and find it to be surprisingly quick and super discreet to use. By the time the viewfinder reaches your eye you’ve already set the focus, aperture, speed and considered the framing. It’s “click” and the pictures taken, no standing there with a camera glued to your eye turning dials and rings. Being forced to consider the whole picture with my own eyes before committing to shoot is changing how and what I photograph.

    About the Rollei, their ergonomics are actually really good for shooting (not so great for other things like reloading however). If you’re tempted, consider the less expensive Tessar models. You’ll usually want to be stopped down a bit anyway with a scale focused camera, and a Zeiss-made Tessar produces quite a different level of quality than the average 4 element Tessar clone (only Rodenstock’s Xenar and Leitz’s Elmar are in the same class).

    Really good article, great pictures, and that’s a pretty sweet Clubman you’ve got there.

    1. Thanks so much for the comments David
      You summed it up quite nicely “.. Being forced to consider the whole picture with my own eyes before committing to shoot is changing how and what I photograph…” and that also has changed the way I use other cameras.

      And thanks for the Rollei recommendation – I used to have a 45mm Tessar with army Contax RTS II and really likes the rendering – I think I’ll look out for one!!
      Thanks again

  5. This camera looks beautiful, and the landscape shots are everything I imagine England to be, but the portraits of your wife are absolutely stunning. I really enjoyed your article and photos. Thank you!

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