Ensign Selfix 820

Ensign Selfix 820 with One Roll of Fomapan 100 – by Steve Phillips

A year ago, on holiday in Cornwall, I took a box camera with me on a coastal walk, and published the results here. One year on, and a camera or two later, here we go again.

This time it was a bit more of a leap into the unknown. The camera in question is an Ensign Selfix 820, from the early 1950s, which I had bought a few weeks before and not had a chance to test. I already owned a Selfix 1620, which had produced some decent images, (sixteen on a roll of 120 film) so I gambled on its big brother. This one gives eight 9cmx6cm shots, which certainly concentrates the mind on getting it right first time. It does come with optional folding frames, to reduce the size to 6×6, but for this trial I went big. It comes with a Ross Xpres 105mm f/3.8 lens, which has a good reputation.

It came from the usual auction site, with only the usual “all seems to be working” assurance. When it arrived, I was pleased to see that it did indeed appear to be OK. I could see through everything I was supposed to, and nothing that I wasn’t. I used a light-to-sound probe to test the shutter speeds, and not surprisingly found them to be slower than they were seventy years ago. The fastest speed of 1/250 was more like 1/100. So, not wanting to risk wasting anything expensive, in went a roll of Fomapan 100, and I hoped for bright weather. When was this camera last used? Who knows. When was it last serviced? Probably never. Could I get eight half-decent shots out of it? Maybe, maybe not, but I’ll give it a go.

The walk was from our campsite near St.Just-in-Roseland, along the banks of the River Fal, to St.Mawes, a place where we have spent many holidays over the years. After crossing a few fields we reached the peaceful creek at St.Just, and what better place for the first shot with a new camera than the beautiful church.

St Just church
The church at St Just-in-Roseland

The Ensign was easy enough to use, if a little on the heavy side. The focus was a bit squeaky, but moved freely enough, the aperture behaved perfectly, and that’s about all there is to worry about. Of the films I have tried, I find that Fomapan has the clearest numbers for seeing through the little red window, so no problems there either. All of the exposures were guesstimated using Sunny 16.

St Just creek
St Just creek

Along the way another walker spotted the ancient leather case over my shoulder and correctly guessed what was in there. He had grown up using folding cameras and was amazed to hear that films were still available. My film evangelism over, on we walked.

A few more fields later and we arrived in St.Mawes, with its castle and endless comings and goings of yachts and ferries.

St Mawes castle
St Mawes castle

St Mawes cottages
The compulsory shot of a cottage we spent so many holidays in, meant that the film was half finished already. As it happened, due to a tired dog, we didn’t get much further than a bench overlooking the beach, so a few more shots were done from there.

St Mawes

St Mawes

St Mawes

St Mawes
A couple of weeks later, I have the souvenirs of a good day out. I am pretty pleased with the results that the old Ensign has produced, and might even trust it with a more expensive roll of film at some point.

Steve Phillips


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23 thoughts on “Ensign Selfix 820 with One Roll of Fomapan 100 – by Steve Phillips”

  1. Steve, what lovely images reminiscent of “old England” and holidays spent at the seaside. Viewing your images after they’ve suffered degradation via being scanned and significantly resized for the internet shows that the reputation of the Ross Xpress f3.8/105 is well justified. Also, your results with Fomopan have surprised me, going on what other results I’ve seen published. Low grain and with a good gradation. I just know that these negs would make excellent photograpic prints. By the way, what film developer did you use?
    I have an 820 Special, but although it looks the same as your 820, same Epsilon shutter and lens, Albada finder, I don’t really know what “Special” adds to the spec. I’ve also an Ensign Ranger that uses the same body shell but with a simplified v/f and shutter, but is the rarer model with the Xpress f3.8/105.
    I’ve never used either of them, and the shutter blades of the 820 have an unusual “bounce” at the fastest 1/250 setting, in that when they have fully closed they bounce open a fraction to reveal a very tiny “hotspot” before they finally come to rest.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure what developer was used, as I didn’t do them – I send them to SouthSun, who seem to do a good job.
      Your 820 Special has me puzzled, as I thought the “Special” model had a rangefinder and a different top to the camera to house it.
      Hope you get to use one or both of your Ensigns soon.

      1. That’s interesting about the Special. I recall the rangefinder model as also listed as an “autorange”.
        Its been decades since I last handled them, but I think I have the answer, having just done a quick search. I actually have the Ranger Special, not an 820, for obvious reasons as mine is sans rangefinder. I’ve confused which model was which.

  2. Some great shots there, Steve.

    I also have an Ensign 820, although with the Ensar 105mm/f4.5 lens but it needs me to give it some TLC when I’ve got some time.

    However my Ensign 820 Special with its un-coupled rangefinder and Xpres 105mm/f3.8 is in fine form and your article has encouraged me to take it out next week when we have a few days away.

    Too many cameras…too little time.

    1. I know the feeling – which camera deserves to be used next….?
      Thanks for your comments, and I hope your Ensign continues to behave for a long time.

  3. Great stuff!
    I bought one of these from a certain auction site recently. In very good condition cosmetically, it also seemed to function reasonably, though the Xpres lens was a little grubby from what I could tell. I decided to take the plunge and have the camera serviced. It now functions consistently and well (though the slower speeds are actually running a little fast, eg 1/10th is nearer 1/15th – I can easily live with this). Decent, sharp results, though there does seem to be a little field curvature. The point of focus seems to draw nearer the camera as you get closer to the edge of the frame. Not sure if this is just my copy or if it’s a characteristic of that lens. Still, with care it is quite capable. I look forward to putting more film through it ????

    1. Thanks for your comment. Interesting to hear about your focus issue. As you can see, all of my first film were distant shots, but next time I will try some closer ones to check my lens.

    2. I have one of these. It was my dad’s. He received it as a graduation present in 1952. I remember him still using it in the early/mid 1960s (I was a mere nipper), but by 1970 he’d moved on to another camera. I haven’t tried to use it as I thought of it as a rollfilm snapshot camera rather than ‘medium format’. However, it’s in excellent condition and the only problem seems to be that the shutter is sticky at 1/5 sec and longer. Faster speeds are certainly snappy, but I’m doubtful they’re even remotely accurate. ‘Exercising’ it improved things a bit at first, but it seems to be as good as it’s going to get on it’s own now. I’d be interested to know who you got to service yours or if anyone reading this can recommend a service technician who knows what they’re doing with cameras like this.

  4. I just generally enjoy using these folding cameras and the shooting experience they provide. I have a very similar 6×9 camera, with 105mm f/3.5 lens, though not an Ensign, but it’s also from the early 1950s, lacks a rangefinder, and has 1/250 max shutter speed. This was the most affordable way for me to get into shooting medium format in 6×9 frame size. I use my folding camera very deliberately, nearly always mounted on a tripod, using a cable release. I have a vintage accessory rangefinder that I can mount on the cold shoe to gauge focusing distance and I typically use a Minolta Spotmeter F to determine the exposure of my scenes. At least for me, this is not a fast camera to use, but I like to get the most out of all 8 frames of each roll of film. I think it’s good fun to use and have been quite happy with the large and reasonably sharp images my camera can produce. Using it is like going back in time and it’s usually quite the conversation starter if I’m out shooting where there are other people around. Most recently, I shot a roll at a car show using this camera and had a bunch of people wonder what the heck I was doing.

    1. I think if you take any old camera for a walk, somebody will stop you and ask if you can still buy film. Last week I was out with a Rolleicord, and somebody asked me if it was a Box Brownie. I did my best to explain the difference.

  5. I love these cameras — I have the 16-20 and wrote about it on this site earlier in the year. And you have chosen the perfect subject matter to show off that lens. Great shots. I’d be off to get hold of one myself but only eight frames per roll does make this rather a hungry collaborator!

  6. I great article and images of a beautiful part of Cornwall. I too am a proud owner of a Ensign 820 along with other vintage 120 cameras and the images it produces are as good as any including my Rolleiflex 3.5c with planar lens.

  7. I thought I had grown out of the Fomapan stage of slightly sketchy cameras, before you either establish that they work/ tidy them up or realise they’re not worth the bother- great fun though. Enter large-format and the realisation that Fomapan is so much cheaper than anything else in 4″x5″ so you have to make friends with it again! It’s not such bad stuff and comes up nice in PMK Pyro. And I’m sure I’ll adopt another cute folder sooner rather than later, never shot an Ensign but have a thing for 1950s Voigtlander. Looking forward to whatever you find to take for a walk next year…

    1. I often find myself loading Fomapan 100 into my folding 6×9 camera too. I like using slower film in this camera because mine tops out at 1/250 max shutter speed, and which I’m sure is probably a little bit slower than advertised. I like the look I get with Fomapan 100 when developed in 1:50 Rodinal.

  8. I’ve been to all those spots Steve and I have to say that both you and the kit have turned in a body of nostalgic work to be proud of. For me it’s the atmosphere. It’s just like flicking through a 1950’s edition of the weekly mag, Amateur Photographer. What else could a retro snapper ask for?
    Well done!

  9. Love the pics, Steve. Next time you get to Kernow, try and get to St. Winnow, just outside Lostwithiel. You will love the scenery. I have two 820’s and have taken several rolls of film with them but need to get them processed! Will let you know the results….hopefully!

  10. There’s something really special about using these 1920s to 1950s folding rollfilm cameras. So incredibly different than using the electronic film or digital cameras. I’ve three Zeiss folders, a 6 X 6 model made 1938 (can never remember the model number) , an Ikon Ikonta 520/2 6 X 9cm dated to 1931 and a larger Ideal 225 9 X 12cm plate camera I converted with a rollfilm back to 6 X 9cm, thats circa 1926. I use the 6 X 6cm for E6 as I like the big slides. The 520/2 is used with Ilford FP4 for landscape photography. The 150mm lens of the Ideal 225 model increases by some third because of the reduction in the film size, rather like the increase in focal length we see with smaller digital cameras sensor sizes. Thus this camera has become an ideal portrait camera (no pun intended.). The possibility of reducing the negative size by inserts in these cameras enhances their appeal as much now as many decades ago. That 120 size roll films are widely available in various types in 2022 as is processing is something that we should be grateful for. It makes these wonderful old cameras very usable.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I had a Zeiss Ikonta 521 for a while, but let it go when I decided I just had too many old cameras!

  11. I forgot To comment on your shutter speeds. It may very well be that with regular use your speeds improve their accuracy. You mention using a better film than fomopan next time? Nothing wrong with your published photographs. The church is superb.

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