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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Shooting the Foth Derby

(Much of the following article originally appeared on my web site.)

The Foth Derby appeared shortly after the original Leica and shares some features with it including its rounded, compact form, the helical focus lens mount and a cloth-curtained focal plane shutter with speeds to 1/500. The camera uses small 127 roll film cartridges which provide 16 exposures with a 4x3 negative size. The Foth 50mm Anastigmat f3.5 lens is uncoated, but well-corrected and capable of good resolution. Later versions of the camera had a rangefinder added, and during WWII an updated design with a silver metal exterior was produced in the French Gallus factory.


The shutter is unconnected to the film advance in the Foth Derby, so one must remember to both advance the film and then to rotate the shutter dial to cock it before pressing the shutter release. The shutter speed must also be set prior to cocking the shutter. The camera produces a 127 4x3 half-frame format which makes use of the 4x6cm frame numbering on the roll film. That means that the user initially advances the number one frame to the first window to make the first exposure, and then the film is advanced to show the same number one in the second window for the second exposure.

The camera is actually equipped with four windows on the back, one pair in red for orthochromatic film and one pair in green for panchromatic. Those distinctions are no longer of importance in using modern films, and because they are considerably more sensitive than the emulsions available in the 1930's it is prudent to keep the windows covered except when advancing the film.


The Foth Derby, in spite of its classic design and construction, can often be found on ebay selling for as little as ten dollars. The reason for this is that the cloth shutter curtains in the camera are always severely deteriorated. This can be verified by holding the open back of the camera up to a bright light and looking in through the lens. What is revealed is a field of tiny pinholes where the rubberized covering has worn away from the cloth base of the shutter curtains. Fortunately, the deterioration can often be corrected by recoating the curtains with a layer of opaque ebony matte fabric paint, obtained in the U.S. in craft stores under the brand name, Tulip.


There are, however, some other things that go wrong with these old shutters. The tension on the curtains may become uneaven so that they do not travel at the same speed to maintain the proper gap during exposure at each setting. The ribbons holding the curtains in place can come loose and do not hold the two curtains in proper alignment, thus permitting a fatal gap to appear during film advance. If you are an adventurous repairman, some directions are available on line from RaulM for shutter restoration in the worst-case scenario.

The Foth Derby was imported to the U.S. prior to WWII by Burleigh Brooks.  I acquired my camera from ebay in February of 2011.  It was in pretty good shape except for the pinholed shutter curtains which were easily repaired.  My first pictures from the Foth Derby were made on a strip of 35mm film rolled into some Efke 127 backing paper which I had previously used in a Kodak Brownie Reflex.  After that I shot a couple of fresh rolls of Efke in the Foth Derby, but the company ceased film production soon afterward.

A web search on 127 film will still turn up a few remaining retail sources; the prices run the gamut from exorbitant to ridiculous.  Similarly, one can find a vast number of strategies for rolling your own 127, but all  are at least somewhat labor intensive.  Many will ask, "why bother".  One answer is that classic camera manufacturers produced a great quantity of exquisitely designed 127-format cameras, of which the Foth Derby is but one example.

The Foth Derby Manual is at the Butkus site.

More pictures made with my Foth Derby may be viewed in a folder at Flicker.

4 comments:

JR Smith said...

The 127 film format brings back memories for me of the "camera club" I was a member of in junior high school (1970s). All of us were shooting borrowed or hand-me-down cameras. One of the members was shooting his Dad's Yashica 44 twin lens reflex which used 127 film. It was the first TLR I had ever seen in person and it was a magnificent machine. The rest of us were shooting 35mm and Instamatic cameras, so the Yashica sure seemed exotic. His negatives were always so much nicer than ours too!

School and home darkrooms were still pretty commonplace through the end of the 1970s. Our junior high darkroom had a cool revolving light trap door so students could come and go without disturbing photographic processes going on inside. We had Omega B22 enlargers plus an old Federal for 120 and 127 negatives.

Sometimes when I read your posts here, I think I smell the faint odor of stop bath...

Mike said...

I was always interested in photography, but I was clueless about how to get started with it as a kid. I finally took a little intro course that included basic darkroom skills when I was in my twenties. I'm glad now that I did get started during the film era. Digital certainly produces good images, but the process seems very sterile in some ways compared to film techniques with their additional tactile and olfactory dimensions.

I think it is likely that more 127 pictures were made with the little Yashica 44 than any other camera in that format. They were really popular cameras when 127 film was still easily available. The bigger negs gave quite an advantage to the 127 cameras over even the best 35mm.

JR Smith said...

Even today, understanding the science of it all, there is still something quite magical and very exciting about watching your image appear on a blank, white sheet of paper in a tray of developer under the red glow of a safelight.

Or, maybe I'm just old.

Mike said...

I picked up and old copy of Aperture recently which was devoted to Talbot's invention of the process of producing negative images which allowed unlimited reproduction. People, including the great scientific minds, then very much saw the whole thing as having magical qualities. The ability to capture and reproduce such images really was one of the most revolutionary events in human history. I'm sure anyone who has had the opportunity to make their own darkroom prints has experienced some of that same sense of awe as Talbot. There is some magic in the digital process too, but it is one in which the photographer has little influence or control over the underlying technology.