I founded Casual Photophile as a place to write about interesting cameras. Cameras with history or cameras which were used in notable ways, or cameras with unique features and unusually fine lenses or cameras of uncommon design or rare value. But it’s been a while since I last shot a camera which felt like a perfect fit for the pages of this site. Today’s camera, the Graflex Graphic 35, feels like a return to form.
It’s a seventy-year-old work of mechanical art from an historic photography brand. It’s solidly made, with a capable lens and interesting features. Its methodology is at first strange and obtuse, yet extended use reveals its charm. And it also provides that most elusive of all qualities in today’s world of classic camera appreciation – it’s affordable! Yes, the Graphic 35 was made for these pages.
Brief History of Graflex
For fifty years prior to the release of the Graphic 35, Graflex had been known for their medium format and large format cameras, specifically their famous press cameras, which were the standard for much of the world’s press throughout the first half of the 20th century. By 1955, when the Graphic 35 debuted, the brand had lost many of its customers to smaller, easier-to-use photographic tools. Despite this decline, Graflex was an important name in photography for some of the craft’s most formative decades and their history deserves a look.
Founded in New York City in 1887 by William Folmer and William Schwing as the Folmer and Schwing Manufacturing Company, the company that would be called Graflex produced metalworks including gas light fixtures and chandeliers. As the market for gas lighting declined, the company ramped up manufacturing of bicycles, and in 1899 they released their first Graflex camera. As the camera achieved success, the company dropped its non-photographic manufacturing lines to focus on cameras.
In 1905 the Folmer and Schwing manufacturing Company was acquired by George Eastman, founder of Kodak, and in 1907 it became the Folmer Graflex Division of Eastman Kodak and the works were transferred to Kodak’s hometown of Rochester, New York. There Kodak would continue to produce Graflex press cameras for a number of years.
In 1926, violations by Kodak of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 meant that Kodak was forced to divest itself of a number of business concerns, one of which was Graflex. Graflex, Inc. was subsequently operated under independent ownership until 1968, when it was sold to Singer Corporation (of sewing machine fame), who continued Graflex, Inc. operations until 1973, when the brand was finally wound down and all tooling sold to the Japanese view-camera manufacturer Toyo Corporation.
Throughout this period, Graflex created some amazing press cameras. The Graflex and Graphic range of machines were used by some of the greatest press photographers, who created many of the most iconic press images of the first half of the 20th century with Graflex cameras. In fact, no other camera manufacturer can claim as many Pulitzer Prizes as Graflex.
Notable users of the Graflex and Graphic press cameras include Dorothea Lang, Arthur Fellig (more popularly known as Weegee), Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke-White, and Louis Mendes (among countless others).
The Graphic 35 in Its Own Time
The Graphic 35 is very different from the cameras that Graflex is most known for producing. Where their press cameras were large and serious and required attention and expertise to use effectively, the Graphic 35 was comparatively small and streamlined, and intended for use by amateur or enthusiast photographers.
When the Graphic 35 was conceived in 1955, photography was rapidly shifting from a complicated art form into a hobby for everyone. Cameras were becoming easier to use and less specialized, and photography was suddenly a way for people to easily and beautifully document their lives in an optimistic, forward-facing, post-war recovering, baby-booming 1950s America. Camera companies were rounding the edges off of their machines (figuratively speaking) and creating cameras that the average mom or dad could point at their kids, set a few dials (usually color-coded or marked with fool-proof indicators) and snap a shot for the family photo album.
The Graphic 35 was this sort of camera. Except, unlike some competition from Kodak or West-German companies, the Graphic 35 balanced its functionality more evenly. It wasn’t so simple as to be limiting as some of the consumer-level Kodaks were, and it wasn’t too complicated to scare buyers away.
The Graphic 35 was a camera which took elements of successful past cameras and combined them with attention-grabbing innovations (I won’t call them gimmicks). In some ways, it was a traditional camera with cost-saving compromises such as the rangefinder focusing viewer remaining unintegrated within the main finder, as found on many older cameras. But it also included innovative features like its push-button focusing mechanism and fool-proof Spectramatic Flash System, and front-mounted shutter release lever. These innovative features were heavily promoted by the Graflex marketing team as ergonomic godsends.
In addition to this excellent balance of usability and capability, the Graphic 35 was one of the best values in photography at the time of its release. Costing just $77 for the version equipped with the 50mm F/3.5 lens and $98 for the faster F/2.8 lens, it was one of the most affordable full-featured 35mm film rangefinder-focusing cameras in production at that time.
The result of the camera’s combination of respectable performance, eye-catching new features and reasonable price was as we’d expect; it was popular. In just tree years of production, the Graphic 35 sold approximately 68,000 units.
Graflex Graphic 35 Specifications
- Film Type : 35mm film
- Shutter : Prontor SVS leaf shutter, speeds B, 1, 1/2, 1/5, 1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, 1/300
- Lens : Two fixed lenses available – 50mm F/3.5 Graflar; 50mm F/2.8 Graflar; both lenses color-corrected and coated
- Filters : 31.5mm diameter screw on filters
- Focusing : Coupled split image rangefinder with push button focusing (patented Visi-ready Footage Scale)
- Viewfinder : Two finders – one for focusing and one for composing
- Flash Capability : X Sync at all shutter speeds; M bulbs at all speeds; M2 bulbs up to 1/50th
- Self Timer : Yes
- Cable Release Socket : Yes
- Tripod Mount : Yes
- Frame Counter : Yes
Notes on the Innovators
The Graflex marketing team honed in on two innovative control mechanisms found in the Graphic 35 and featured those innovations prominently in their marketing material. These were the push-button focusing system and the Spectramatic Flash System.
The focusing mechanism is particularly interesting. Many traditional focusing methods involve spinning the camera’s lens, which turns on a helicoid and moves the optical group closer to or further from the film plane. But the Graflex Graphic 35 replaces this system with a pair of sympathetic levers to the left and right of the lens. By pushing one or the other inward, the lens extends from or retracts into the camera body. The system has a corresponding dial atop the lens mount which shows the focusing range precisely. This allows the user to either scale focus at a glance, or for more precision, to look through the rangefinder window to the coupled split-image rangefinder patch. When the images within the rangefinder window align, the subject is in focus.
This focusing system was invented by a Graflex employee participating in a development program which Graflex created in an effort to drive innovation within the company. Graflex employees could submit an idea, and if it proved useful or valuable, the company would pay a bonus to the inventor and officially submit the patent.
The push-button focusing method was created by a man named Louis Traino, who worked as an instrument maker in Graflex’s experimental shop. He developed the focusing system during his off-hours at his family home, presented it to the company, and was awarded a $4,000 prize when his invention was integrated into Graflex cameras. For reference, that $4,000 is approximately $40,000 today. In a newspaper clipping from the time, the Traino family said that they intended to use the award money to buy a house. Mr. Traino’s wife was reported to insist that their new house should have a dedicated workshop for her husband. (This is so cute.)
I’ve included the patent documents for Mr. Traino’s invention below.
The Spectramatic Flash System was another new innovation found in the Graphic 35. Graflex’s Director of Engineering, Vernon Whitman, came up with an idea for simplifying flash photography by using color coded bands which would tell the photographer which aperture to use depending on distance to subject and flash guide number.
After setting the guide number for the flash being used, the photographer focuses on his or her subject and observes the color represented on the focusing scale. After that, the photographer simply selects the aperture with the matching color.
It’s a very simple system, when explained, but it was still confusing to many users and dealers at the time of the Graphic’s release. For this reason, push-button focusing remained the camera’s most emphasized feature.
I’ve included the patent documents for the flash system below.
The Graphic 35 Today
I used my Graflex Graphic 35 in 2021; that’s 66 years after someone in Rochester tightened the final screw and packed it in a box to be shipped to a camera shop. Cameras have come a long way in those 66 years, and yet the Graphic 35 remains a lot of great things, things that we still value in a camera today.
It’s compact. It’s dense. It’s beautiful. It’s well-made and works like magic. Its knobs and dials and switches and levers actuate with precision, emitting the whirrs and clicks and thwicks that mechanical-thing-likers live for. In an earlier article, I called the Zeiss Contina a “clockwork camera” (a term that other bloggers and YouTubers have adopted despite a conspicuous absence of royalty checks). The Graphic 35 is similarly clock-like.
Its die-cast body is elegant and concise, and its satin-finished metal is smooth and pretty. The removable back is thick and weighty, and its scratch-free pressure plate is lovely. Knurling on its controls is precise and fine. The leatherette is a gorgeous grey-tone covering which perfectly complements the satin-finish metal. The tiny, blue Graflex logo is mesmerizing for idiots, like me, who love three-dimensional decorative embellishments. (Have you seen the Linhoff crest?)
The film advance is controlled via a knob, which was already old fashioned in the Graphic 35’s own time, and slower than a wind lever. In addition, film advance is not coupled to the shutter, so cocking the shutter must be done independent of film advance. This, more than any other unusual feature (push-button focus, front-mounted shutter release lever) slowed me down. I simply wasn’t used to this intermediate step between film advance and firing a shot. On the plus side, I got used to it within a couple of rolls and the problem evaporated. Another angle – this methodology means that multiple exposures are possible at any time – simply re-cock and fire the shutter without winding the film.
The push-button focusing system, new and strange when it debuted 66 years ago, is still new and strange. Throughout my first roll of film, focusing was slower than with a traditional focusing helicoid as I adapted to the methodology. By my second roll of film, focusing felt natural and I no longer found myself thinking about the process. By my third roll, focusing was (perhaps) very slightly quicker than when spinning a lens.
Scale focusing works great, but in instances in which I needed more precision, a quick glance through the separate rangefinder focusing window allowed near instant focus lock. Like any other rangefinder camera, focus is achieved when the image in the split image viewfinder lines up. It’s easy and fast, despite the requirement to focus in one finder and compose in another.
Do I wish the rangefinder patch was integrated into the main viewfinder? Of course! Many cameras of the Graphic 35’s era were doing just that (the Konica fixed lens rangefinders of this period are a personal favorite). But the Graphic’s disposition toward the older two-finder system isn’t a deal breaker. It works fine and becomes second nature in time (that said, second nature is still not first…).
The most useful practical takeaway on the focusing system would be the observation that when my film was developed I hadn’t missed focus on more photos in a roll than I would have with a traditional focusing system. I missed a few shots, but that wasn’t the system’s fault – I would’ve missed them on any other camera as well due to subject movement, or my bad eyesight, or because a mosquito buzzed my ear just before snapping the shot, or because of any other of a number of factors which make us human.
I’ve heard it said that for a new technology or a new way of doing something that has long been done through other established methods to gain widespread adoption and success, that new technology or way of doing things cannot be only as good as the old technology or old way. It must be unquestionably better. It must be cheaper to manufacture, or provide a far improved user experience or yield measurably better results. This focusing system isn’t better than other focusing systems. It’s as good, when we get used to it, sure. But it’s not better.
And it’s because of this, perhaps, that push-button focusing is found on very few cameras (literally, about four in the history of photography). Whether this reticence for adoption or replication by other brands is simply because it was a patented system and companies didn’t want to pay the patent holders to use it on their own cameras, or because it’s simply not good enough I won’t venture to guess. But I think I know.
If you’re looking for my final judgement regarding push-button focusing on the Graphic 35, I’ve got you.
It works fine. Don’t be scared of it.
The Spectramatic Flash system, ignored by the casual photographer in its own time, will be similarly ignored today (likely more so). I rarely use a flash, and most vintage camera shooters are similarly flash-averse. I so completely doubt that anyone reading this review will actually use their Graphic 35’s flash system that I’m done typing about it.
My version is equipped with the 50mm F/2.8 Graflar prime lens. It’s the faster of the two available lenses, and its coated to resist flares and punch up clarity. The lenses of the Graphic 35 were manufactured by one of two German firms, Rodenstock or Enna Werk (the exact manufacturing details are lost, but both of these suppliers were contracted by Graflex to produce their lenses). Mine is marked with an “R” to signify Rodenstock manufacture. Whichever version comes attached to your Graphic is fine. There will be no appreciable difference in images made by one compared to the other. If you need the extra stop of light gathering (if, say, you love shooting at night), get the F/2.8.
Shots through this lens and the German Prontor SVS leaf shutter, are sharp and contrasty. Edge image quality is naturally softer than it is in the center, but as we stop the aperture down the image sharpens up beautifully. Shot wide open and focused on a close subject, we can get some decent bokeh that, while not being creamy smooth, does have some nice character. Focus fall-off is gradual and fluid.
Simply put, this lens produces beautiful, vintage-styled photographs. Those who enjoy classic lenses will find nothing about which to complain.
The Graflex Graphic 35, as mentioned in my opening, is the kind of camera for which I created Casual Photophile. It costs almost nothing today, and it’s worth every penny (it would be worth twice the pennies, actually). It’s an unusual camera. It’s a nice looking camera. It feels great in the hands and makes all the right sounds. It’s unlike anything else that you could’ve bought new in the past sixty years.
On top of all of the tactile and cerebral stimulation that the Graphic 35 provides, it’s also quite simply a capable camera. Capable of taking great photos. Capable of keeping me interested. Capable of making me smile. I really like it, and if you’re like me you’ll like it, too.
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