The Compact Graflex
1915 Vintage 3x5 Postcard Camera
By Folmer & Schwing




Focal Capacity 10 "
Curtain Aperture
Automatic Safety Curtain
Postcard Format

Flash back to the begin of the 20th century

In the year 1916 the Graflex Compact cost US $ 70,00 without lens and $120,00 including a Bausch & Lomb  Tessar
1-C lens.

The Tessar lens was manufactured by Bausch and Lomb under licence from Zeiss Germany
However these prices doesn't mean anything until you are aware about the average earning USA back in 1915.
In 1913 income tax came on the scene. You were doing about average if you were making $ 687 a year, according to the Census*
 Public school teacher $  507.00
City Ministers $ 1092,00

*) official survey of the population of a country in order to find out how many people live there and to obtain their age and job.

As cameras were expensive and not widely available in the early part of the last century, families would often visit a local photographer studio to have their photo taken.
These shots were turned into postcards so they could be sent to family and friends.

The above photograph shows the Graflex 3 1/4 x5 1/2  inch Compact camera manufactured in the early decades of the last century by W. Former and Swing.
This particular camera has been equipped with new made bellows to replace the old worn one.

Why is it named Compact?
The Graflex Compact Camera is a reflex camera designed to take postcard format film or plate and was reduced in weight and size compared to the 4x5 or 5x7 inch Graflex reflex cameras.
Unlike the square construction of the mirror house of the bigger Graflex cameras at that time, the Graflex Compact Reflex was designed with a slant position of the bellows frame.
The smaller size of the mirror enabled to reduce the size of the mirror house and thus a more compact size of the camera.

This slant position allowed the mirror to move freely in the mirror house and thus saving about 2 inches of space comparing to a regular straight up position like the regular reflex cameras at that time.
The W.F. Folmer's patent here below shows this clever and ingenious design in all its facilities. The Compact Graflex is all that the name implies. It is not only relatively small in size,
but built with the accuracy and rigidity necessary in a 3 1/4 x 5 1/2 reflex camera.

Directions for Operating
Open camera and focusing.

1) Release catch near centre of camera to open the top cover.
2) Raise the cover which automatically extends the focussing hood.
3) Press down the two side arms which will draw the focussing hood taut and hold it rigidly in position.
4) Open front of the camera by pressing the release lever R.
5) Pull the drop bed down until it locks itself.
6) Squeeze the spring actuated clamp of the lens standard and pull the lens standard to the infinity mark on the track of the drop bed.
7) Adjust fine focus with rack and pinion on right side of the drop bed.
8) Turn diaphragm to adjust wide open and less open aperture and check the effects on the ground glass.
9) Enjoy focusing on near by and far away objects and practice opening and closing the drop bed.

What do you need to know before starting ?

This Graflex embodies many -for that time- new features and particular attention is directed to the "new" automatic safety curtain.
This curtain is actuated by the swinging mirror frame, protecting the sensitive layer on the plate or film for incoming light when the mirror is set.
As soon as the release lever is pressed the swinging mirror takes its place in top of the exposure house and at the same time drops the safety curtain to allow the focal plane shutter to make the exposure in the usual way.

The mirror frame in this camera is constructed of aluminium, which reduces the weight of the camera and as the mirror frame seats against an air cushion in the top of the camera, it eliminates all danger of vibration,
which is a valuable feature when making slow exposures holding the camera in the hand.
An improved mechanism was provided for setting the shutter for Time or Instantaneous exposures and the improved shutter winding tension
is so constructed that all mechanism inside the plate is thoroughly protected. However its successor had a square plate and improved Time release lever.

The focusing hood is made amply large to afford full view of the focusing screen when making exposures with the camera held in position for making either horizontal or vertical negatives.
This hood is made so that it detachable affording easy access to the focussing screen. The lens board support is made out of metal and is fitted with a spring actuated clamp which firmly grips the track at any desired point.
The Compact Graflex Camera is fitted with the regular Graflex Focal Plane shutter permitting exposures of any duration from Time to 1/1000 second .
Two tripods sockets were provided, one in the base for horizontal and one in the left side for vertical exposures.
The back of this Compact Graflex camera was constructed to take the postcard film pack holder. More about that here below.

Why is this camera called COMPACT

Beside all these above mentioned new features there is another one which deservers our attention.
First of all the ingenious developed storage system of track and bellows. This invention enables swift, safe and easy set up of the camera, ready to shoot and then pack and go!
This new feature made the camera to be a lot more compact than its predecessors and allows the use of Postcard film format.
As the name suggests this film format was very popular with the professional travelling city postcard photographers.

Example of such a city postcard photo

Having said that, you know or at least would soon find out, that there is no postcard size film on the market anymore.
The manufacturing of the 3 1/4 x 5 1/2 format has been discontinued in the 20 th of the last century.
However there are two possibilities to try out to take pictures with this fine classic camera.
There are still 3 1/4 x 5 1/5 roll film holders to be found on eBay. However, as said before, unfortunately no appropriate film.
The good news is that there are film adaptor kits for sale on eBay to enlarge your 120 film spool to the larger size of the old 124 Kodak Film
 which was the appropriate film for the Graflex Compact 3 1/4 x 5 1/2 camera. In other words, the normal available 120 film spool, gets an adapter on both sides to fits
between the spool reception mechanic of the camera.

Another option is to use the old Postcard sized film pack holder. This holder was used with the no more available 3x5 film pack.
These holders are often to find on eBay and mostly very low priced.
No need to alter this film pack holder. Just a block of wood or plastic with the size of the inside hinged cover of the Film Pack Holder to serve as
a filler and light baffle as well.
It fills the gap between the back of the sheet of film film and the cover of the holder and closes the slit of the holder light tight.
 You only have to cut down the 4x5 sheet film to 3 1/4 5 inch and place it with the sensitive side to the front with the darkslide.
Place the block on top of the sheet film back and close the hinged cover.
Unnecessary to tell that loading the holder with film has to be done in fully darkness.


Setting the mirror for focusing and exposure

oval top plate with mirror control, winding mechanism,  I - T setting plus T release lever.

Press down the lever H until the mirror locks in focusing position.
This position, with the mirror on 45 degree, allows a view on the ground glass to focus on the subject.

The shutter contains 5 apertures or slits ranging from full opening to 1/8 of an inch. When the letter O appears in window F,
the shutter is wide open.
The other apertures 1˝, 3/4, 3/8, and 1/8 follow in rotation visible in window F as the winding key is turned to the left.
The plate mounted to the viewing hood shows the curtain aperture.
The combination of curtain open slits and tension of the focal plane shutter - visible in numbers on the lower plate window G -
results in the obtainable shutter speeds.

Preparing the settings for Instant exposure

The calculator table on back of the focussing viewing hood will help you to choose the exposure time setting.
Nowadays we can use an electronic exposure meter rather than guessing.

Press down lever H into the mirror focusing position
Set bar beneath disk on I = instant by sliding the bar D to the left to its utmost position. " I " appears left from the disk.
Now wind the curtain by turning the key to the left, until the required number appears in the window F.
If the curtain is set at a smaller aperture than required, release the curtain by pressing the lever M downward until the proper aperture is registered at window F.
Note: as the first Compacts were not equiped with a long lever,
operation is not easy. You may like testing this procedure several times.
Note: A safety lock prevents the rewinding of the curtain before the mirror is set in focusing position. This prevents fogging the film
making it necessary to set the mirror before rewinding the shutter curtain.

Now we move our attention to the lower plate.
Here we're going to set the spring tension of the focal plane shutter.
The spring tension is needed to draw the curtain with the previous programmed slit, down along the film surface.
To achieve this, turn the milled tension knob B on the lower plate anticlockwise until the appropriate number appears in the window.
The tension numbers can be set from 1 to 6
If the previous setting appears to be too fast, the tension can be released by sliding the escapement knob P upwards.
Each move reduces the speed one number. Check the setting again and if they are correct, the camera is ready for taking photo's.
Place the film holder
slide dark slide in open position
Now the shutter has been set and the image on the ground glass is properly focused, the exposure is made by one gentle downward pressure of the release lever
which is located on the forward, left hand side of the camera body.
This pressure on the release lever simultaneously releases the mirror and the safety curtain.
Once the safety curtain is pulled down, the focal plane shutter including its previous set slit, starts its trip along the film to expose.

Slow instantaneous exposures of about 1/5 second can be made with the curtain set at O (full opening) and tension number on 1.
Pressure upon the shutter release causes the mirror to rise just before the curtain with the slit drops, closing the exposure aperture.

Time Exposures
1) place the film holder against the camera back but don't slide the dark slide.
2) Press down lever H and slide the bar to the right, exposing letter T indicating time exposures. See picture above.
3) Wind the curtain until letter T is registered at F.
4) After focusing the image, release the mirror by pressing the shutter lever on the left hand front side.
The mirror flies up against the ground glass and leaves the mirror house wide open to the lens. No focusing is possible any more.
Slide the dark slide in open position giving free access to the film.
6)To make the exposure press the lever M downward, a second pressure on the lever M terminates the exposure.
7) don not forget to slide the dark slide in close position.
Good luck!

Place mirror in the back of the housing
before closing the camera.

Pull back the mirror lever H

Before storage, the camera should be closed and the bellows should find its place inside the camera's mirror house.
To achieve this, the mirror should be hold back in its utmost back position even behind the exposure setting.
 Now squeeze the lens standard lock and push the lens standard inwards the camera house as far as possible.
Release the lens standard lock to fix this position before closing the drop bed.
Press side brackets to fold the drop bed till it locks in the snap lock.



Some more interesting technical details
The bellows storage system.


US Patent 932,457 William F. Former.
Drawing shows clearly the slant position of the frame (7) of the partly stretched bellows.

Fig 1
1 indicates the camera body, the detachable back has been removed.
2 The exposure chamber
3 The bed
4 The extension bed.
5 The adjustable front.
6 The bellows
7 The tilting bellows frame pivoted to 8
8 pivoted frame which when tilted back to an erect position, makes room within the body for housing the front.
At the top of the exposing chamber (2) there is a focusing opening 9 surrounded by a focusing hood and fitted ground glass.

By moving the protruding lever H backwards the mirror is rocked in one direction and held in a 45 degree position. The mirror projects in this operative position the image on the ground glass.
Operating the exposure knob, the mirror frame 5 flies upward and closes the focusing aperture and seals the exposure chamber from the entrance of light from the ground glass.
The arrival of the mirror frame in closed position pulls down the safety curtain. Now the film exposure frame is set free, the exposure curtain starts its travel along the film surface.
The pre-set opening slit together with the pre-set curtain speed tension, exposes the film as it should be.


Restoring the Compact Graflex 3x5 camera.
demands skills and experience
here are some handy tips to help you with the first steps.


by pulling out the lens board as far as possible the bellows may show its imperfections.
Before working on the camera, remove the focussing hood and ground glass.
Cover the mirror to protect its silver sensitive surface coating.
Never rub such a mirror. Cleaning only with a nylon static dust cleaner.

To start disassembling separate the bellows including inside front plate from the back of the lens board.

Photo on the right: Backside with film holder. Don't remove film holder to avoid touching the focal plane shutter or use a cardboard protector shield.
Make sure the mirror is in horizontal position.

Start inspection of the camera before beginning to disassemble.
Note the grey plate cover protecting the mirror setting assembly shown on the left photo.
Right photo. Check the working of the focal plane shutter. Unlike most of the Graflex focal plane shutters, this one is equipped with a third blind which raises
 while the mirror is set in focussing position and thus at the same time protecting light coming into the exposure chamber.
Now the normal curtain setting by key winding can be done without the need of the dark slide.
Check the working of this.

New Bellows for the Graflex Compact Camera 

  Remove old worn Bellows

Start the work to remove the old worn bellows.
To remove the lens including the lens board unscrew the top plate of the lens standard and slide the lensboard including the lens upwards out of the standard.
Store the lens on a save place.
Remove the infinity screws on front of the track and pull out the lens standard. The outer board is coupled with the board inside the bellows.
Separate them by carefully bending the little hooks holding the inner lens board. The inner lens board can be taken off now.
If you bend the hooks too much they might brake off, so you better bend just enough to be able to get the outer board separated.

Bellows with frame can be taken out now.
After removing the bottom plate the brass hinged plate becomes visible.  The black finished part of it holds the bellows frame inside the mirror house in position.
This is done by a build in leaf spring. When working on the camera make sure the mirror is in rest position to avoid sudden release.
Unscrew both hinged plates but make notes and keep the screws separated.
Photo left shows the partly dissembled camera bottom.
After completely taken off the bottom assembly, you'll be able to pull out the bellows frame including the worn bellows with the inner part of the front lens board.
While disassembling, please pay attention. Store the screws separately and make notes and take photos of
their original location. Each part of this assembly has its own size of screws.



The bellows inside the camera house is fastened to a wooden frame by nails and you have to be very careful getting the little nails out without breaking the frame.
Be aware that you won't find those very tiny nails in your local hardware shop nor in their surrounding world, so you'd better try to get them out of the frame without spoiling them.
 The separated bellows is very useful for taking the measurement to create the new bellows. Take length measurement of the four folds and
length and width of the frame and inner lens board. Make a dummy out of thin cardboard for testing purposes.

Making New Bellows.

The slant shaped bellows are not easy to design and manufacture.
First make a paper or cardboard dummy to check if the old bellows fits around it and if the slant end fits precisely into the bellows frame.
Use Photo Shop® or Coral Draw® to design the bellows folds. Print them on normal print paper and glue them to the dummy cardboard design. (right picture below)
9 mm for each stiffener, 2 mm for the space between them and so on. 

cut out the space between the stiffeners and make sure to use removable tape to consolidate their position.

If the drawings are ready cut two pieces of fabric out of the BK5 Black Nylon fabric.
One piece for the outside and one for the inside cover. Take at least one inch more than your pattern.
Only use spray glue and and glue the stiffeners to the BK5-Black Nylon Blackout fabric.
You should end up with a round closed model which needs to be formed with your fingers to the bellows.

Mount the inner lens board into the front of the bellows.
I used the test cardboard dummy to hold the new bellows strait while working on it.
Mount the back of the bellows to the frame using the original tiny nails.
I'm really happy to
 present the overhauled 1917 Compact Graflex in perfect working condition and equiped with new bellows.

Camera Photos © Jo Lommen

Graflex Cameras
Home  Jo Lommen camera