Like many who make the choice to return to film from digital, I soon decided to switch from 35mm to medium format. Many others have made this switch as well, pushing the price of quality medium format cameras such as the Plaubel Makina 67, Mamiya 7 and Voigtlander Bessa III into the stratosphere. For this reason I’ve sought alternatives to those most popular cameras. And I’ve found the answer in folding medium format cameras from the golden era of film photography. And one in particular, the Franka Solida II-R, has made an impression.
The Franka Solida II-R is a gorgeously styled 120 folding camera, very typical of the mass-market cameras produced in Germany in the 1950s. Despite the advanced age, these cameras are still perfectly operational and capable of producing scanned images well over 100MB in size. Best of all, this powerful image-making tool folds up to a fraction of the size of a DSLR (130 x 103 x 40mm or 5½ x 3¾ x 1¾ inches) easily fitting in a small bag or large coat pocket. It also weighs just 538 grams (19 ounces).
It’s not a famous camera, nor one which is sought after by new or old film shooters alike. It lacks the name recognition of more popular similar cameras, like the Zeiss Ikonta or Voigtlander Bessa, but it’s just as good, just as well made, and with fine lenses. The Franka Solida II-R is a very capable camera that can be bought for relatively cheap, and it’s a great camera for those thinking of making the move to shooting 120 film.
This article is the first in a series I will be publishing outlining 120 folding cameras from the 1950s that I own, in which I will give detailed tips on shooting them, information that is often difficult to find. Hopefully, these articles will provide inspiration and useful advice about shooting these gorgeous instruments from the Machine Age.
Franka-Werk Solida Cameras
The genesis of the Franka Solida camera story begins in 1909 when Franz “Frank” Vyskocil and his wife moved their business from Stuttgart to the town of Bayreuth in the Black Forest region of Bavaria. During the 1950s the factory was doubled in size, and two thirds of the cameras produced were exported all over the world. From 1957 to 1961 a total of 96,000 35mm cameras were produced. In 1958 the company achieved its highest numbers with 154 employees and 650,000 cameras manufactured per year, making it the biggest camera factory in the Bavarian region of Oberfranken (Upper Frankonia).
Many of the cameras produced by the company were OEM, meaning they were rebranded for mail order companies such as Wenz and Klingel, Kaufhof and Sears, or photo retailers such as Birnbaum and Porst. Franka and Balda were probably the top two OEM manufacturers in Germany during the 1950s. Montgomery Wards and Sears were the main importers of Franka cameras in the United States and featured them in their catalogues.
Franka first released the Solida, a 6×6 folding camera using 120 film in 1936. This camera continued to be produced until 1962. The Franka Solida in its various models epitomised the type of consumer-grade 120 folding cameras that were popular during the 1950s. The majority of Franka’s cameras were mid-range cameras, but contrary to their consumer-level status, they were well-designed, featured good quality lenses and shutters, and were manufactured with German attention to detail. Franka’s competitors were Voigtlander’s Perkeo, Agfa’s Isolette and of course the famed Zeiss Ikonta series.
During the height of their production in the 1950s the Franka Solida came in a dizzying array of models, with a variety of lens, shutter, rangefinder and light meter options including the Solida I, Solida II, Solida III, Solida Junior and Solida Record. The Solida Models were designated E or R for Rangefinder/Entfernungsmesser, and L for BeLichtungsmesser (German for Lightmeter). Only two models had rangefinders, Solida IIIe with a coupled rangefinder, and the Solida II-R (II-E) with an uncoupled rangefinder. The Solida III is a vertical folding camera, the other Solida versions are horizontal folders. The Solida IIIe is a sought-after camera nowadays; but the very pinnacle of Franka’s cameras was the Solida II EL (RL) which is extremely rare, being produced for less than one year.
The cheaper lenses were Frankar, Westar and Cassar (made by Steiner-Optik GmbH, which for a time operating within the same building as Franka), Isconar (made by Isco Göttingen, a division of Schneider-Kreuznach), and Ennagon (made by Enna-Werk). The best quality lenses were the Trinar (a triplet made by Rodenstock), Radionar (a superb triplet made by Schneider-Kreuznach), and the lens mounted in my camera, the Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar, a four-elements in three-groups Tessar design lens.
Specifications of the Franka Solida II-R (II-E) *1959
- Manufacturer – Franka-Kamerawerk Bayreuth, Germany
- Release Year – 1955 – 1959
- Film – 120 rollfilm
- Exposures – 12 shots 6×6; 16 shots 4×4
- Format – 60x60mm (6×6) and 40x40mm (4×4)
- Film advance – Rewind knob and red window, double exposure prevention
- Material – Aluminum and steel body, leather coated
- Shutter – Eight speed Prontor SVS (VXM) by Alfred Gauthier G.M.B.H.
- Speeds – B, 1, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/300
- Aperture – f/3.5 – f/22 with 10 aperture blades
- Lens – Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar 80mm f/3.5 № 5593127 (April 1959)
- Lens Coating – Single Coated
- Filter and Hood – 32mm push on
- Focus Range – 1.06m (3.5 feet) to infinity
- Focusing Method – Uncoupled rangefinder, front focusing
- Light Meter – Auxiliary hot-shoe mounted light meter
- Viewfinder – Galilean 6×6 with 4×4 mask
- Self-timer – 8 Seconds (Use V on the VXM shutter setting *)
- Frame Counter – Manual, set sequential formula and red window
- Tripod Socket – UK/USA standard
- Film Advance – Manual knob winder
- ASA – 25 to 500
- Battery – Not applicable
- Size L x H x W – 130 x 103 x 40mm (5½ x 3¾ x 1¾ inches)
- Weight – 538 grams (19 ounces)
- Original Price – 118 DM ; $24.95 USD ; £30.12.6
* Care should be taken to avoid using the V setting on the shutter as a Self-Timer
My camera is the Solida II-R with the Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar lens. This is not the top of the range in the Franka series, the most commonly available being the Solida IIIe which has the superb Schneider-Kreuznach Radionar lens; so why did I choose it?
Three features really set my camera apart from the Solida IIIe. First, it’s a horizontal folder, a camera type which is easier to shoot because it provides a better grip than vertical folders. Second, it is the dual-format variant which has the option of shooting sixteen 4×4 shots on 120 film. Most people nowadays have no idea what that is, but in the late 1950s the 4×4 format was popular because it was the height of the Super-Slide craze. Super-Slides fit in a normal 35mm slide mount but offer an 85% larger image size and produce drastically better images when projected. I have a project which I plan to shoot Super-Slides and mount them for projection. Finally, this camera came with my favourite lens, the Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar, a four-element Tessar style lens which I have in 50mm. You can read my detailed review of that lens here.
Shooting the Franka Solida II-R
As already mentioned, a whole new generation of photographers are getting into medium format photography, and as high-end cameras grow increasingly expensive vintage 120 folders offer a cheaper way to get started. If you’re looking to enter the world of medium format photography for just a little money, this next section may be of use. Purists and camera collectors can skip past this, but here’s my guide to shooting older 120 folding cameras for those who have never done so. This relates specifically to the Franka Solida II-R, but the tips and techniques apply generally to all 120 folders.
Firstly, the technology and a lot of the design of 1950s 120 folders predates WWII, that is because camera production in Germany didn’t really get back into production until 1948 and it was cheaper for German camera manufacturers to use existing designs and parts. Anyone born after 1980 grew up in a world of auto-focus cameras, and to shoot a 120 folder you need to learn skills that were second nature to generations of photographers, but nowadays may seem arcane. However, with a little practice these skills can quickly be picked up, and this combined with the slower and more measured pace of shooting with a fully mechanical camera will actually help improve your photography.
The larger medium format negatives and classic vintage lenses provide a greater depth of field and display more character than 35mm film photography. A serviced vintage 120 folder and modern film can make images as large in megapixel equivalent as modern digital cameras, which also results in stunning prints. Best of all, shooting a vintage camera is great for street photography – people are fascinated by them and find them non-threatening.
Loading the Film – Load film in subdued light. This is best done at home, but when out and about do it in a shaded spot. First, open the rear film back by pushing the film latch on the left upwards. Have the empty film spool loaded on the right, and the new film roll on the left. The film spool and take up spool are mounted in ingenious hinged housings which pop out to make loading easier. The empty film spool housing on the right is opened by lifting the film winding dial upwards.
Once the new film is loaded keep a finger on it to stop the film from unrolling, which can cause the edges of the film to be exposed. Transfer the film leader into the takeup spool and gently wind on until you see the start arrow on the film’s backing paper. A nice feature of the Solida is that the film pressure plate is 80×80 mm, significantly larger than the 60×60 frame size, which helps keep the film nicely flat.
Once the film is loaded onto the take-up spool, close the back and then open the red window on the rear of the camera, advancing the film counter clockwise until the number 1 appears in the red window. My model has two red windows, one for 6×6 shots, and one for 4×4 shots. If shooting 6×6, the 4×4 internal mask must be removed. Close the red window as quickly as possible as the open red windows can fog modern fast films.
Opening & Closing the Lens – The camera has a downwards-folding horizontal panel on the front which is unlocked by depressing a small button at top left side (from photographer’s perspective). When pressed, this button will cause the lens to pop out quite vigorously, and care must be taken to ensure that you hold the lens panel and open it gently. Once you have taken your shot the lens panel can be folded back by depressing the small bar located under the front of the lens. Beware that with the majority of 120 folders it is imperative that you set the focus to infinity before closing or you will damage the lens panel mechanism.
Controls -The “controls” as there are called on a modern digital camera are all manual here, and this is where some skill will come in, learning the techniques that control light and exposure. All of the controls are on the front of the lens, apart from distance, which is established by the rangefinder and then set on the lens.
- Focus is set by rotating the front of the lens, after establishing distance by using the rangefinder
- Shutter speed is adjusted by rotated the large silver dial with the knurled edge
- Aperture is set by moving the small silver lever on the top of the lens mount
- Shutter is cocked by moving the small button on the top of the camera to the right
Prontor SVS Shutter – The lens is mounted on a Prontor SVS shutter with speeds from 1 second to 1/300th of a second using the old shutter speeds ranging from B (Bulb) 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, and 300. The shutter needs to be cocked before exposure and changing to the highest speed. The Prontor SVS was a very good shutter, just below the Synchro-Compur in capability and has the capacity for flash synchronisation with either flash bulbs or electronic flash. There is also a PC-sync terminal on the lens. There is a secondary cable release socket on the right hand side of the lens which can be used for a shutter release cable or auxiliary self-timer.
Coupled EV/LV System – The coupled EV (Exposure Value) LVS (Light Value Scale) system is probably the function of vintage 120 folders that younger people may struggle with, but in actuality it’s a clever and easy-to-use system. During the 1950s, several camera manufacturers adopted this system, which cross coupled aperture and shutter speeds into a single number. The beauty of the system is that a number of combinations can be selected to give the same effective LV exposure. However, since its introduction the system has polarised photographers, who either love or despise it.
With an EV shutter, the shutter speed and aperture rings are linked together. You take a light meter reading, set that on the EV dial on the shutter, then because the shutter speeds and aperture are interlinked movement of either corresponds in a movement of both. This is to allow you to adjust the shutter speed or aperture without worrying about maintaining the set exposure. There are a total of 16 EV settings from 2 to 18. This is a really useful function and I like it, as it operates like a primitive aperture priority mechanism which is the way I prefer to shoot. However, this feature is not for everyone because it limits the independent movements of both the aperture and shutter dials.
Shutter VXM setting – X/M are flash sync modes, with X being for electronic flashes and M for flash bulbs. The V position stands for Vorlaufwerk which is German for “delay mechanism”. This is a primitive “selfie” setting which allowed a photographer in the 1950s to be included in family photos. After the camera was set on a tripod or tabletop and EV exposure and focus set, the shutter was cocked, the lever set to V, and the shutter button pressed. This gave the photographer eight seconds to get into the shot. However, I wouldn’t use “V” (self-timer) as the mechanism is delicate and prone to failure, and repairing a shutter means paying an expert. If you do want to take selfies the easiest method is to buy an auxiliary self-timer which screws into a socket on the front of the lens, or the shutter release button of most 120 folders.
Rangefinder – The only minor inferiority of my camera versus the Solida IIIe is that the rangefinder is uncoupled, which means that when you use the rangefinder it gives a distance reading on the round dial on top, which must then be used to set the distance on the front of the lens manually. I have had many 120 folders with no rangefinder, and I have two auxiliary meters (Super-Watameter in meters, Pullin Optics in feet) so I don’t find this to be a major drawback.
Snapshot Shooting method – The Franka Solida, like most cameras of this era, has a Snapshot setting which allows us to quickly zone focus the camera. Selecting the red “8” on the focus dial will give you adequate depth of field at f/11 from about 6 to 10 feet (2.5m), ideal for portraits. The red dot before 25 feet and f/11 will put everything from 12 feet (3.65m) to infinity in focus.
Sunny 16 Exposure – To effectively shoot the Franka Solida (or any manual camera) you will need an auxiliary light meter or learn to master the Sunny 16 Rule. Sunny 16 was second nature to photographers until the 1970s when internal light meters became a common in-camera feature. Even after this technological advancement most film continued to be sold with a Sunny 16 guide inside the box.
The rule is simple; for a 100 ASA film you set your camera shutter to 1/100, and for a bright sunny day the aperture setting is f/16, thus Sunny 16. For light clouds the setting is f/11, overcast skies f/8 and in shade f/5.6. This works with any film, just set your shutter speed to match the film, and then use the same Sunny 16 Rule.
The rule is easy to understand, simple and effective to use, and with experience can be quite accurate as human beings come installed with a light meter (our eyes). Modern films have much more exposure latitude as well, especially colour negative films, which makes the somewhat imprecise Sunny 16 rule even more useful than in the past.
By combining Sunny 16 and the Snapshot setting you can have the camera ready to grab a photo in just a few seconds. If you are carrying the camera around and intending to take photos, have the exposure pre-set to an EV setting that matches the light levels where you are. Shooting scenery? Then set to infinity. Shooting street photography? Then use the Red Dot and f/11 and everything from 12 feet (3.65m) to infinity will be in focus.
Shutter Button – Unlike many 120 folders, all of the Franka cameras had the shutter release button on the right-hand side, which gives you the ergonomics of a 35mm camera, but in medium format. The shutter has a screw for a soft release button and can also be used with a shutter release cable.
Double-exposure prevention – My version of the Solida has a double exposure prevention mechanism. To take a shot the small indicator dot beside the film winding dial must be red to indicate “Ready’. Once you have taken a shot this will change to white indicating the prevention is in place, and the shutter cannot be fired until the next exposure is wound on. In practice this mechanism can often be faulty, and many people remove it from the camera and rely solely on the red window.
Finishing the roll – Once you have taken your last shot then just keep advancing the film with the film winding dial until you see the end of the film in the red window. Again, open the film door in subdued light, keep a finger on the exposed film roll to stop it coming loose, roll the film up tightly and stick on the “exposed” film tag. When I go out shooting I have a couple of vintage metal film roll holders which I place exposed rolls in. When I get home as an extra prevention I roll my exposed rolls up in a small piece of tinfoil before sending off to be processed. Go back to Step 1 and repeat, as many times as necessary.
Ten Old School Photographer’s Tricks
1: Master the Sunny 16 rule
2: A lens hoods is your best friend. The lenses on vintage folders were usually single-coated and prone to flaring. If you don’t have a hood, avoid direct light hitting the front of the lens and use a hat, your hand, or the shadow of a building or tree to shade the lens. A great old-fashioned trick is to use the lens folding door to block the light by turning the camera upside down.
3: Only advance the film (via red window) after you have opened the lens panel. A quick and forceful opening of the lens panel causes the bellows to expand to rapidly, sucking air from inside the camera and deteriorating the flatness of the film plane which will affect the accuracy of focusing the image on the film. This process of gentle opening should be followed when using all folding cameras.
4: Using faster apertures such as f/3.5 – f/2.9 creates a very shallow Depth of Field and is harder to focus accurately. The sweet spot for 120 folders is f/8 to f/11. Only use f/16 – f/22 when you need the deepest Depth of Field possible, as this also impacts optical resolution because of diffraction.
5: Only change the shutter speed to the highest setting AFTER cocking the shutter.
6: Avoid leaving the shutter cocked for extended periods of time as this can weaken the shutter spring.
7: For best shots follow the 1930s photographer’s rule of avoiding backlit compositions. The goal back then was to always aim for Rembrandt style lighting, light off to one side, above and behind. In the old days this was termed “keeping the sun over your shoulder”.
8: 100 to 200 ASA films are best for 120 folders; because you are shooting at slower speeds, learn the old-fashioned methods of holding a camera steady to reduce any movement.
9: String Tripod – this is a great trick that photographers used in the 1930s.
10: In low light always try to use a tripod, cable release or a self-timer these will minimise camera shake and produce sharper images.
Buying a Franka Solida
I own several 120 folders, including rare and expensive ones such as the Voigtlander 466, Konishiroku Pearl IV, and Exona, and feel really happy that I bought the Franka Solida II-R. No it’s not a Zeiss Ikonta IV, but then it has features that its more expensive cousins don’t, such as the capacity to shoot 4×4 Super-Slides. All in all it’s a lovely, solid camera with a very capable lens, and if you can find a good one, buy it and spend a bit getting it serviced.
Despite my love of 120 folders I have to be objective and point out that they aren’t a camera for everyone. As I have pointed out in my previous articles, if you intend to shoot vintage cameras, I strongly advise you get them serviced before use. However, with cheaper models of the Franka that isn’t really worthwhile, so I would advise trying to buy one of the better models like mine, or the top of the range Solida IIIe.
The two biggest problems in old folding cameras is that the grease in the shutters seizes up over time, and the bellows crack and often have pinholes. As far as the shutters, Franka used good quality shutters that are relatively simple to service. Fortunately, Franka used leather bellows from the Kreher company, who were based in Dresden prior to WWII and in Bayreuth after the war. Kreher also supplied the bellows for Voigtländer and Zeiss Oberkochen after the war, and you can spot them by the double strips which run against the folding direction of the bellows. This is a big plus on any vintage folding camera as Kreher’s bellows were the highest quality and are often in serviceable condition decades after their manufacture. If the bellows have deteriorated they must be replaced, and unless you have the skills to do this yourself it can be expensive. Having the superb Kreher bellows on a camera generally means this is less likely to be a problem.