Welcome to the third installation of the The Rewind, a blog series in which I field test some of the most interesting film cameras that come across my desk at Camera West. You can find the first two editions of this series here. This week, I had the opportunity to shoot with the Graflex Century 2x3. Many of us are familiar with this camera’s larger siblings, the classic Graflex Crown and Speed Graphic “press” cameras synonymous with reportage photography to this day. For this review, I tested the Century in a variety of shooting situations to determine if this “baby” Graflex lives up to the family name.
Graflex manufactured the Century Graphic from 1949 to 1970, a 21-year lifespan unfathomable in today’s culture of relatively disposable digital systems. The Century Graphic comes from an era in which cameras were expected to perform for decades. Graflex’s reputation for exceptional build quality, combined with its supreme adaptability, made 4x5 Speed Graphics the first choice for the reporters and photojournalists of the day. Perhaps the ultimate testament to the dependability of these cameras is that the US military chose Graflex to build the cameras used by the Signal Corps in WWII and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
This 2x3 Century Graphic shares many of the features that made the larger Graflex models the tools of choice for photographers working under the most demanding conditions. It is essentially a miniature view camera housed within a sturdy folding box. The front “standard,” the upright panel that holds the lens, extends along focusing rails built into the inside of the front of the box. It is connected to the rear standard, the back of the box that holds the film, by bellows that keep the camera light-tight. Like other view cameras, it has a ground glass back allowing for precision focusing and framing. It also has a removable viewfinder (made of magnesium!) and a “sports” frame finder that extends from the front standard.
Both of these viewfinders are used in conjunction with the side-mounted Kalart rangefinder, which can be calibrated to accurately focus a wide range of lenses. The front standard has rise and tilt movements for controlling the plane of focus, and the front bed can “drop” for further image control. Originally designed for use with 2 ¼ x 3 ¼ inch sheet film, this camera’s Graflok back can also accept a variety of roll film backs -- even Mamiya RB67 backs can be used! This incredible versatility is the secret to Graflex’s success. Few cameras can offer the technical image control capabilities of a view camera while also providing the option of quick and accurate rangefinder focusing, especially in such a compact package.
All of the features that I described above apply to the 4x5 Graflex models as well. So why choose to shoot with a 2x3 Graflex, especially given that 2 ¼ x 3 ¼ sheet film is virtually extinct? In fact, this baby Graflex has a number of advantages over its larger and more famous siblings. The most essential of these is the 2x3’s size and weight. When folded and equipped with the ground glass back, the Century is easily packable. The lens is safely protected within the body, and the camera is only about 3 inches deep, making it more readily portable than many SLR setups with large lenses. One can carry this camera comfortably with one hand, which is not easily said for the 4x5 models. Most importantly, the Century 2x3 is the ideal size for 6x7 and 6x9 roll film backs. If you plan to shoot roll film -- and I suggest that you do, as it is the best way to make use of the Graflex’s versatility -- the Century 2x3 is the perfect fit.
In its day, the Century was the most basic Graflex model available. Unlike the “Speed” models with focal plane shutters, it relies on a leaf shutter mounted in the lens. And whereas most Graflex cameras were built with mahogany frames and covered with leather, the Century is made from a durable ¼” thick plastic material Graflex called “mahoganite.” Graflex marketed this material as an all-weather, go-anywhere construction that was “virtually indestructible.” Handling the camera does gives you the impression that it was built to withstand hard use.
The mahoganite on this example has held up beautifully, making the camera look newer than many of the wood-and-leather Graflex cameras that I have handled from the same period. Overall, the fit and finish is excellent.The engineering tolerances are tight and the metal fittings, made from brass and aluminum, seem as solid as the day they left the factory. The lensboard and front standard have brushed satin finish that contrasts nicely with the chrome fittings. It’s a handsome camera, especially when paired with this beautifully coated Zeiss Tessar 100mm f3.5.
It was the Zeiss lens that really drew me to shooting with the Century 2x3. Having shot hundreds of rolls through Rolleiflex cameras equipped with 75mm Zeiss Tessar lenses, I was curious to see if this lens would deliver the same stunning contrast and sharpness. I paired this setup with a Singer Graflex RH10 6x7 roll film back, which fits 10 frames on a roll of 120 film. The Century’s Graflok back allows you to quickly remove the ground glass and replace it with the roll back. Loading the RH10 is similar to most other medium format backs -- simply align the start mark on the film with the mark on the back -- and wind. Winding is achieved with a single quick stroke. There is no lock to prevent one from removing the back with the dark slide removed, or from accidentally shooting with the dark slide in. Minor inconveniences aside, the RH10 allowed me to shoot with this camera in a familiar and comfortable way.
To test how the Century 2x3 would handle and perform in each of its two roles -- view camera and press camera -- I shot two rolls of film for this review. For the first, I shot the Graflex handheld, using the rangefinder to focus. For the second, I used the camera on a tripod, focusing and composing on the ground glass. I wanted to know -- which shooting style would make the most of the little Graflex?
Shooting the first roll, I quickly found that the Century is well suited to handheld use. I carried it folded with the roll back mounted to it in a small shoulder bag while wandering the property of an old almond orchard. The camera opens with a single touch of a small button under the leather on the top panel, and the lens is pulled into position along the rails easily. The rangefinder, mounted somewhat awkwardly on the side of the camera, is small and highly magnified, but the patch is easy to see. The focus knob, while small, has a pleasing travel, affording relatively snappy focusing with a high degree of accuracy. Compared with the rangefinder on the Voigtlander Bessa II reviewed in the second edition of this series, the Graflex easily wins for both accuracy and readability.
While I appreciate the tube viewfinder’s magnesium construction, I didn’t find the view through it to be very appealing. The dial on the eyepiece used to mitigate parallax error at different distances is clunky and didn’t appear to actually affect the angle of view. On the other hand, the wire “sports” frame finder is a joy to use and is perfectly suited to “press” style shooting with the Graflex. Using the frame finder allows you to focus on being in the right place at the right time instead of fretting about the exact edges of a composition, while still obtaining accurate focus with the rangefinder. The image above shows roughly what the view through the frame finder looks like. The heat from this fire was intense, even at 10-15 feet back from it, and the wind changed direction frequently, flinging burning ash in my direction. These conditions allowed me to simulate what it might be like to use the Graflex as a reporter, and I found that the camera performed well as a quick shooter.
The sports finder + rangefinder combination also worked quite well under less dynamic conditions. In the image below, the plate was only about two feet from the lens. Clearly, the rangefinder delivers accurate focus even at close distances. The cropped image shows that the Zeiss lens delivers exceptional sharpness and detail.
The Century 2x3’s small size and relatively light weight also allow for easily handheld vertical shots. I was particularly impressed with the Tessar’s smooth rendering of tones in the image below. The edges between the tubes allowed me to focus this image with the rangefinder quickly.
I finished my first roll using the Graflex Century 2x3 as a handheld rangefinder camera convinced of its abilities. The camera handles well -- I would rather shoot this camera handheld than a Mamiya RB67, for example. Moreover, I found that using the frame finder helped me to imagine different compositions than I would with other cameras.
Next, I tested the capabilities of the Century as a miniature view camera. One of the first things that struck me about this Graflex was the even brightness of the ground glass. I believe that the screen installed in this camera may be one of Graflex’s “Ektalite” focusing screens. The f3.5 maximum aperture of the Zeiss lens, which is quite fast in the view camera world, also contributes to the brilliant view. In any case, the brightness of the screen allows for quick and accurate focusing. The ground glass cover is a small technical marvel in itself, rapidly extending with a single touch of the silver tab on the bottom.
In the photographs below, I have included images that show what the image on the ground glass looked like as I was composing. Those new to view cameras will be struck by the vertical and lateral inversion of the image. This method of seeing is the polar opposite of using the frame finder -- slow, methodical, with careful attention to the way each part of the subject interacts with the edges of the frame.
This image of some of the season’s first daffodils shows the benefits of having bellows extension for macro shots: the lens was less than 8 inches away from the flowers. Playing with the front standard’s tilt allowed me to catch the two main flowers in focus while throwing the background pleasingly out of focus. The bokeh that this Tessar produces is beautifully smooth at close distances like this.
Another advantage of focusing on the ground glass is precise visual control of depth of field. In this image, I really wanted to isolate the texture on the the ring nearest to the camera, and spent some time playing with different apertures to find the right balance. I ended up settling on f4.
Ultimately, the Century proved to be a capable technical camera. While it lacks the rear movements that allow view cameras to alter perspective, its front movements are adequate to satisfactorily alter the plane of focus in most scenes. More importantly, its small size allows it to be thrown into a bag with a lightweight tripod and brought on shoots that otherwise wouldn’t be well suited for this type of photography. I simply wouldn’t have bothered to bring a 4x5 to take any of the images above, but having the flexibility to choose ground glass focusing when it suited me inspired me to make images that I would not have explored otherwise. Furthermore, the ability to make view-camera-style photographs on roll film is very appealing. Using roll film backs on the Century 2x3 allowed me to slow down my compositional process while avoiding the hassle of developing individual sheets later. And while it is true that you could mount a roll film back on a lightweight 4x5 field camera and have a setup with similar size and weight with a full complement of movements, try using that field camera to capture action scenes!
The Graflex Century 2x3 is truly unique in its ability to offer the most essential aspects of the view camera experience while simultaneously providing an outstanding platform for “press” style shooting. The relatively low price of these cameras -- you can pick up an excellent example, such as this one, for a few hundred dollars with a lens -- makes them even more appealing. If you are looking for a way to get started in medium format, or are ready to mix up your shooting style, I can’t recommend this baby Graflex enough. Get one before the prices go up!
Thank you for reading The Rewind. I’m hard at work on the next edition, which focuses on a modern version of a classic camera system. I can’t wait to share it with you all.
Until then, as always -- good light, and happy shooting.