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…