5 frames with...

5 Frames with a Ross Ensign Selfix 16-20 on Kodak Portra 160 – by Graham Spinks

July 29, 2021

I saw this Ross Ensign folding camera on eBay with a message from the seller saying that he was not a camera expert and had no idea whether or not it was in working condition. I studied the pictures, asked a couple of questions and after a bit of haggling a deal was struck – £30 including delivery. But definitely no guarantee.

A week later the postman dropped my purchase through the letterbox wrapped in a thin shroud of bubble wrap — a well established method for testing the resilience of classic cameras and lenses. And guess what? On the outside at least, it looked fine.

Furthermore, when I opened the back to check the lens and bellows I discovered an ancient colour film. The Selfix 16-20 dates from around 1950 so I was intrigued to discover if it might be possible to find any images and if so whether we could work out where and when they might have been taken.

Here’s one of the images. Or rather two of the images – as it’s an accidental double exposure. And you don’t need to be Hank Shrader or Saga Noren to deduce that they were taken at Lands End, the most westerly point of Cornwall, England on Sunday, 20 August 1978.

So the camera was working 43 years ago after nearly 30 years of service. Would it work for me now that it was over 70 years old and had clearly been untouched and unloved since John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John were topping the charts with You’re the one that I want?

Well, I loaded it with a roll of Kodak Portra 160 and took it for a walk along the river Cam from my home in Cambridge, England on a sultry July afternoon. And here are four of the frames I took exactly as they came out of the camera.

I love the size and shape of the negatives which are ~45 x 60mm or just over three times the area of a standard 24mm x 35mm negative. You get 16 frames on a standard roll of medium format film.

And the quality of the lens seems excellent. Here’s a detail from the image above.

The camera is a bit fiddly to handle and certainly doesn’t have the robust build quality of my Zeiss Ikon Nettar which I guess would have been a competitor. The most ridiculous design flaw is that the lever for setting the aperture catches on the body of the camera when you open the bellows. Another quirk is that owing to the direction the film is wound, images are portrait-orientated when you hold the camera horizontally.

Sadly, I read that Ross Ensign stopped manufacturing in 1961 having devoted their research budget to medium-format folding cameras as they had underestimated the consumer swing towards 35mm. A rather English story…

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10 Comments

  • Reply
    Kurt Ingham
    July 29, 2021 at 4:20 pm

    Great results-not the easiest camera to use well

    • Reply
      Graham Spinks
      July 29, 2021 at 4:59 pm

      Thank you Kurt. I’ve enjoyed playing with this camera. Do you have any ideas for other ways of exploring 645 format that don’t involve taking out a new mortgage?

  • Reply
    Charles Higham
    July 29, 2021 at 7:43 pm

    Thanks for this enjoyable post Graham, and the lens quality is quite respectable. I love the 1978 Lands End shot too!

    • Reply
      Graham Spinks
      July 29, 2021 at 8:14 pm

      Thank you for reading. My wife has been trying to persuade me that I have a moral responsibility to return the original negatives from the Lands End film to the original owners. So do let me know if you recognise anybody ….

      • Reply
        David Hume
        July 30, 2021 at 12:33 am

        I had a similar experience of buying a camera from an op-shop with a roll in it that I then had processed. It contained a Christmas and a wedding from about 10 yrs prior. It was pretty clear that some of the people featured would be dead, and by sleuthing I determined the shots were from a town about 100km from where I lived. What to do? I decided against posting them on fb “do you know these people?” etc. as it could be upsetting for someone. Yet these things have been put into the public domain… Think of Vivian Meyers for instance. It’s an interesting question; I don’t think there’s a clearcut answer.

        BTW – like you I also have a Nettar folder (I also have an Isolette III that has usurped it) I agree totally about the Portrait orientation of 645 – I have a Fuji GA 645i that I just don’t get along with. On thing I thought of was masking out the film plane so it’s square 45 x 45 which of course just wastes film, but it would make it like the old 127 stock (I think that’s what it is – it was a bit over 40mm wide.) I’m a big fan of square. Cheers

        • Reply
          Graham Spinks
          July 30, 2021 at 10:30 am

          Thank you for your comment David. I’ll read up about the Isolette III.

  • Reply
    Terry B
    July 29, 2021 at 8:47 pm

    Graham, I believe you did well at £30, inc. postage. Firstly, no evidence of light leaks from the bellows, and no one has messed with the original focus setting of the lens. The Rosstar is a very decent lens (not an Xpress to be sure) as your images show clearly. And I note that you have the Epsilon shutter with the widest range of speeds offered. Very useful to have if they work, or can be coaxed into working by playing with them.

    Regarding your question to Kurt, you will find that the vast majority of cameras providing 6×45 images will be folders, and thus you will be faced with portrait framing if you handle the cameral with the v/f on the top. This, of course, is the compromise with roll film in a folding camera. And to move on from this, is where you will hit the budget barrier, as the cameras that shoot 6×45 in landscape orientation won’t exactly be budget. These will be slr’s, such as Bronica or Mamiya, for example, or a TLR that can take a 16-on conversion kit, such as a Rollei. Both my Bronica ETRS-i and my converted RolleiMagic II shoot in landscape orientation as normal, but are a real pain should I ever want to try portraiture, the Rollei in particular, even though both have prisms. And try taking a portrait without a prism! You will look like a photographer that doesn’t know what he’s doing.😊

    Going by your results, I’d be very tempted to stay with this camera and get used to what is, for you, its “unconventional” portrait mode. Then if the format really appeals to you, it will beat 35mm any day, then consider if taking out a mortgage for something better, would be worth it. In the meantime, what I was going to suggest was get a decent pocket rangefinder to reduce the chance of out of focus images through poor guesswork. Then I noticed that the cameras doesn’t have an accessory shoe, although you could superglue one atop the v/f housing.

    • Reply
      Graham Spinks
      July 29, 2021 at 9:11 pm

      Many thanks for your helpful comments Terry. I have two folding cameras: this one and a Zeiss Ikon Nettar and I love the results I get from both of them. But folders are a bit of a faff to handle so I will look for something which is both quicker to set up and feels a bit more robust. Probably shouldn’t admit to this but, while I have a couple of pocket rangefinders, I generally prefer to pace out distances which I find gives reasonable results as long as the aperture isn’t wide open. This might explain why I prefer to take photos in isolated areas where there’s little chance of an audience!
      Thanks again, G

  • Reply
    steve phillips
    August 18, 2021 at 7:05 pm

    Looks like you found a good value camera, and getting 16 frames on a roll makes it even better. I paid about the same for my Ensign 1620, and like it so much that I recently clicked “Buy” on one of their 820 models, which can do 8 or 12. Shapes and sizes for all occasions!

  • Reply
    Graham Spinks
    August 18, 2021 at 7:59 pm

    Every size available as long as its large!

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