Purma Special – Guest Review by Mike Eckman

Purma Special – Guest Review by Mike Eckman

2560 1440 Mike Eckman

This is a Purma Special, an all Bakelite snapshot camera produced by Purma Camera, Ltd., England starting in 1937. The Purma Special shoots sixteen 32mm x 32mm images on 127 roll film. It is a simple fixed focus camera with an extremely unique gravity controlled metal blade focal plane three speed shutter that changes speeds depending on the orientation of the camera. The Purma Special was a capable and inexpensive camera, allowing it to remain in production until around 1951, making it one of the longest produced cameras built in England.

The Purma Camera company was founded in 1935 by British painter and commercial poster artist, Tom Purvis, and inventor, Alfred Croger Mayo with funding provided by David Brock of Brock Fireworks. The company was formed in London with the intent to build a camera around a unique focal plane shutter concept designed by Mayo in 1933. The name “Purma” is an amalgam of the last names of both Purvis and Mayo.

Tom Purvis was a renowned artist and the “Pur” in “Purma”. Image courtesy https://www.npg.org.uk.

At the time of Mayo’s first shutter patent, there were no inexpensive options for focal plane shutters. The few cameras that had them such as the Leica, Contax, or Graflex Speed Graphic used complicated cloth, or in the case of the Contax, metal drum systems in which a spring tensioned curtain would open and close a specific amount of time before a second curtain which set the shutter speed. Although these shutters worked well, they required a high level of precision and were expensive to build and sell.

Mayo came up with the idea of a focal plane shutter that used two curved metal curtains both with rectangular openings which allowed light to pass through them. The inner curtain was connected to a rotating brass weight, that depending on its orientation, would change the inner curtain’s position, creating a slit between it and the outer curtain. This allowed for three different sized openings that would allow an increasing amount of light through, depending on the orientation of the camera. At the fastest speed, the slit was about 1/16″ wide, 1/8″ at the medium speed, and 1/2″ at the slowest speed. The wider the slit, the more light came through.

The brass weight served a second purpose as its weight also affected the speed at which the curtains would move. With the camera held sideways in the slow speed position, the weight was nearest the ground. When firing the shutter, it would have to move up against the force of gravity. This motion would slow down the movement of the shutter curtains, resulting in a shutter speed of approximately 1/25. With the camera held sideways in the fast speed position, the weight was nearest the top so that firing the shutter would cause it to fall with the force of gravity, speeding up the movement of the shutter curtains, resulting in a shutter speed of approximately 1/450. Finally, an in between speed could be obtained with the camera held horizontally where the brass weight neither had to overcome gravity or being assisted by it, resulting in a shutter speed of approximately 1/150.

US Patent number 2134309 shows the design of what would become the Purma Special.

Despite its unorthodox design, Mayo’s shutter worked really well and because of its simplicity, was very reliable. Barring physical damage, the shutters found on these cameras rarely failed. Another benefit to the simple design was that it could be produced cheaply. Most of the parts were made of stamped metal, not requiring any precision machining like in more complex focal plane shutters. The number of individual parts was kept to a minimum requiring less raw materials. Finally, since speeds were changed automatically based on the orientation of the camera, no additional parts like a shutter speed dial were required, further keeping costs low.

The first camera to use Mayo’s shutter was the Purma Speed, which had an all metal body with a two-element lens and a flip-up viewfinder. It used the same three speed shutter explained above, but added a knob on the top plate of the camera that altered the width of the slit at each of the three positions, adding three extra speeds, bringing the total to six speeds. The Purma Speed was inexpensively priced at 35 shilling, and used 127 “Vest Pocket” roll film which allowed for 16 square exposures at a cost of 1 shilling per roll. The decision to shoot square exposures was to prevent changing the aspect ratio of each image as you rotated the camera to select different speeds. No matter how you oriented the camera, you would always get a square exposure.

The first Purma camera was the Speed, which had an all metal body and used Mayo’s unique gravity shutter. Image courtesy https://twitter.com/soperfectimages.

A year after its release, a second camera called the Purma Special made its debut. The Purma Special used the same three speed shutter as the Purma Speed, but lost the two range dial on the top, limiting it to only three speeds. The lens was now a three-element f/6.3 Beck anastigmat. The inner lens elements were said to be “bloomed” which I interpret to mean some form of early lens coating, to reduce flare. The flip-up viewfinder was replaced by a through-the-body direct vision viewfinder.

The most significant change was a new body, entirely made of Bakelite, and with a distinct shape that was wider in the center than the edges. Many sources online credit the design of the body to famous French-American industrial designer Raymond Loewy, but according to Richard Jemmett’s The Purma Camera Book, no evidence exists that Lowey ever had anything to do with the camera, at least not directly. Lowey did have a London office at the time the Purma Special was being built, so it’s plausible that credit was given to them to help make the camera more fashionable, but a better explanation was that company founder Tom Purvis had a hand in its design. Purvis was already a well respected artist, having created posters used by the London and North Eastern Railways, and competing in art competitions at both the 1928 and 1932 Summer Olympics, so it stands to reason that he had a lot to say in its art deco design.

The Purma Special was exported to the United States and sold for the modest price of $14.75.

The Purma Special proved to be very popular, both in England and in other countries. The camera was exported to the United States and sold in January 1939 for $14.75 which when adjusted for inflation, compares to about $275 today.

Today, opinions are strongly divided among collectors in regards to the Purma Special. Some fondly remember it as the first camera owned by their parents or grandparents growing up, but others chastise it for it’s strange appearance and operation. Although the Purma shutter is simple enough that it rarely fails, Bakelite is fragile and there’s more than a few Purma Specials out there with cracked bodies.

Whichever your opinion, this is a very unique camera with a fascinating design, that similarly to the rotating focal plane shutter in the Univex Mercury CC, showed that some camera designers were willing to think outside of the box to create something new that worked well, and could be made cheaply.

Shooting the Purma Special Today

I had wanted to try a Purma Special for quite some time, but it was never a priority for me until one day while talking to James, he asked if I would be interested in reviewing the camera. He sent me this camera with a couple filters and told me to keep it when I was done.

When the camera arrived, it was both bigger and lighter than I had expected. Weighing a total of 340 grams, the camera is lightweight but not small enough to fit into a shirt pocket. With the body’s angled edges and lens collapsed, it slides nicely in and out of a camera bag or small purse, but don’t drop it as the Bakelite body is fragile and will likely crack.

The Purma Special is about as simple as it gets. In fact, the top plate is where you’ll find everything you need to control the camera. The button inside of the tear drop recess is the shutter release, in the middle is the shutter cocking lever, and finally, the film advance knob. The Purma Special uses 127 roll film, so there’s no need to rewind film, it has a focus free lens, a single aperture, and shutter speeds are controlled by rotating the camera.

A word of caution about the cocking lever is that when it is time to make an exposure, pressing the shutter release causes this lever to quickly fly back to its uncocked position. It is critical that nothing obstructs the motion of this lever, as any contact with your hand will throw off the shutter’s motion which will mess up your exposure.

The bottom of the camera has absolutely nothing on it, not even a tripod socket. Without a Bulb or Time shutter mode and no real slow speeds, there really wouldn’t be a good reason to put the Purma Special on a tripod, but it’s worth noting. A tripod socket was added to the later Purma Plus, despite it offering the same three speeds as the Special.

The back of the camera has two round red windows which are both used for exposure numbers on the film’s paper backing. The Purma Special produces sixteen images that are 32mm wide which no 127 film has numbers for, so you must use the numbers one through eight twice, once in each window. Your first exposure is made with the number one in the left window. For the second, turn the advance knob until the number one is in the right window and make your second exposure. For your third, the number two is in the left window, and your fourth is when the number two is in the right window. Keep doing this until after the 16th exposure, which is made with the number eight in the right window.

The eye piece is square and has the words “Fast” and “Slow” written on the sides, which is there as a reminder of how to orient the camera for it’s different speeds. Fast is 1/450 second and slow is 1/25 second. Although it is not indicated, holding the camera normally, results in a medium 1/150 speed. Each of these three speeds are rough estimates, but are likely good enough for the latitude of most film that would have been used in the camera.

View through the Purma Special’s viewfinder.

The film door is not hinged and is held on by two clips on either side. Removing it is just a matter of pulling it off. The Purma has no light seals, but this doesn’t seem to be a problem as I didn’t encounter any light leaks while shooting it. Film travels from left to right onto standard 127 spools across a curved film plane.

Inside the film door is a small pressure plate that doesn’t quite cover the entire film gate, but obviously did a good enough job that the designers of the camera didn’t need to make it any bigger. You’ll also notice the word “Top” etched into the metal indicating how the door must be put back on the camera.

An interesting feature about the Purma Special that’s not obvious is that the two red windows are removable. When this camera was sold new, it would have come with these two red windows, and a second set of green windows which were to be used with certain panchromatic films. These additional windows are rarely found with Purma Specials as they were very easily misplaced.

Another easily lost accessory for the Purma Special was its threaded lens cap. In normal use, the camera’s lens is spring loaded and sticks out of the body of the camera by about an inch, but when not in use, the cap was designed to keep the lens retracted into the body. This not only helped make the camera more compact, but with the lens cap on, the shutter release would also become locked, protecting the camera from accidental exposures.

The viewfinder is two simple pieces of plastic that provide a square image which is useful as rotating the camera between “portrait” and “landscape” orientations doesn’t actually change the aspect ratio of the square image. According to R.W. Jemmett’s book, the Purma Special was the first camera to ever use plastic optics in the viewfinder.

The Purma Special is clearly a simple camera, designed to strip photography down to it’s barest form, making it accessible to as many people as possible. Handling the camera, the camera definitely is simple, and knowing for how long these cameras were produced, they clearly found a customer base, but what are they like to use? Fans of the Argus C3 will tell you the camera produces much better images than its appearance suggests, but can the same be said about the Purma Special?

As I normally do when it comes time to test a 127 camera, I tap into my limited supply of a German film called Supre-Tone that as best as I can tell was made in the 1960s. I am convinced that this orange wrapped 127 film has traveled through time as the every roll of it I’ve shot seems to have defied aging. Although originally rated at ASA 50, I’ve shot it at box speed and at 25 and it seems to come out at both speeds.

When shooting old cameras, you can never be too sure of what kinds of results you’ll get before you actually shoot it. Sometimes highly regarded cameras can disappoint you, and other times extremely basic cameras can pleasantly surprise you. The Purma Special falls in the latter category. While I had an inkling that the results from this strange camera would be decent, I was pleasantly surprised to see a whole roll of properly exposed and reasonably sharp negatives as I pulled the roll of Supre-Tone film from my Paterson tank.

As it turned out, a film speed of 50 was a perfect match for this camera. The camera’s three shutter speeds allowed me to capture both a sunlit lake, and the inside of a covered bridge with enough latitude so as not to blow out the highlights or reduce shadow detail into a murky mess. I would be willing to bet I could have pushed it to 100, but I wouldn’t wanted to go much beyond that without having to make adjustments in developing.

Closing Thoughts

I really enjoyed my time with the Purma and found the simplicity of its controls refreshing. It is a lot faster to rotate the body of a camera to change its shutter speed than fiddle with a small dial or ring around a lens. Its focus free operation meant that as long as I stayed at least ten feet away from my subject, I did not need to be concerned with focus.

I had only two nitpicks with the camera. The first is that the shutter is quite loud when it fires. The internal mechanism makes a loud clang at the end of each exposure. This is not a camera that you’d want to try and shoot where you need to be discreet. The second is that the cocking lever flies back to its original position upon firing the shutter, so you must take care to keep your fingers away from it as the shutter is released. If anything obstructs this lever, it will throw off your exposure.

For amateur photographers in the UK during the twenty some odd years Purma cameras were made, Alfred Croger Mayo’s design proved to be a great success. Although strange in design, Purma cameras were extremely simple to use and did an above average job of producing quality images, worthy of enlargement. For the collector today, their simplicity means most should still be in good working order, and the good sharpness with strong vignetting of the Beck Anastigmat lens produces wonderfully vintage looking prints.

I liked the Purma Special more than I thought I would. My biggest wish is that 127 film was easier to come by, as I think that if I had more film options, I would shoot this camera more. Purma Specials are not common in the United States, but they do show up on occasion. Regardless of where you live, it should not cost a lot to add one to your collection, so if you have the chance, I highly recommend it!

Get your own Purma Special here

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  • Hiiii Mike! Great! Wonderful!
    Made in Western, here made in England 😉 still work ….. nice pictures.
    Such a fresh air to see that this made in Western, which was not cheap, but normal, still work now … 😉 and make very good image.
    By the way I did not kno about this brand, I learn with you, so, thank again.

  • Great review, Mike

    I’ve shot my Purma Plus (all metal model) quite a bit. With a changing bag and film splitter, I can make 127 film out of any 120 film available, and also have a roll of 16mm left over from the split for my 3 16mm cameras.

    The Purma is lots of fun and now I want to get it out again.

  • All three Purma cameras are great fun to use and I think you captured the essence of these wonderful cameras in this post. I have bought several and they have all been working models as the mechanics appear to be quite robust.

    I have created a resource page for Purma Cameras that will help users with sourcing (new) 127 film, etc.

    The Special and Plus are available here in the UK but the Speed is much harder to find – I picked one up in an auction job lot.

    the close-up lenses are also worth looking for and you should always try to buy one with a lens cap as it locks the shutter and allow the camera to easily fit in the case.

    Many thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • The metal version was made in South Wales and a friend worked at the factory Perma Precision Products Hirwaun Aberdare South Wales I still have one that made there.

    • Have you used the Purma Plus? I got some quite good results for my one. Has it got the red labels? – think they were on the later models. Such a shame that the Purma company had to stop making their innovative cameras.

  • Great review of an intriguing camera! I’ve got half a mind to reverse-engineer the shutter mechanism, source some cheap tessar lenses, 3D-print some bodies adapted to accept 120 film, and put a kickstarter together. Purma 2021, who’s with me?!?

    • That is very interesting Andy. My hypothesis is that they could not adapt the Purma to 35mm film as it needed a square image and not many people could then process it. I guess with120 this is less of an issue? The Special (first model) had more speed options than the special or plus, but they are expensive and hard to come by.

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