By Dick Kraus
Newsday Staff Photographer (Retired)

Back in the days before the digital revolution occurred and even before the advent of 35mm cameras, the 4 x 5 Speed Graphic was known as the news photographer's workhorse. In use during the 40's through the 60's, these cameras were boxy looking affairs.

There were two shutters on these cameras. One was a Compur shutter mounted on a lens board on the front of the bellows. This was comprised of several thin metal leaves which were driven by spring tension. You could adjust the tension on the springs to make the leaves of the shutter open and close more quickly or more slowly.

The second was a Focal Plane Shutter which was placed towards the back of the camera, just in front of the film (which was known as the focal plane.) The Focal Plane Shutter was a roll of rubberized cloth that had several different sized openings which passed in front of the film. The largest opening allowed more light to reach the film and took longer to pass over the film, ergo, a slow shutter speed. The thinner openings passed over the film more quickly giving us a faster shutter speed. There was also a tensioned coil spring that was adjustable to make each of these openings go by the film faster or slower. Before making each exposure, the photographer would have to decide what shutter speed was required and then would roll the curtain to the spot where the desired opening in the curtain would be set (you can see the winding key for the Focal Plane Shutter curtain at the upper rear of the camera body in the photo below.) Then you had to adjust the spring tension to get the exact exposure.

Whichever shutter you decided to use, it was necessary for the other shutter be set in an open position. The front shutter was much easier and convenient to use for news work, so the rear shutter was always left open.

A Pacemaker Speed Graphic. An exposed sheet of 4x5 film lies on the light box next to it.

This is the good part. Back in those good old days, the competition among the various newspapers was very, very intense. Most of the old news photographers got along, for the most part. But if there was a major story breaking, it was not uncommon for a competitive photographer to try to get an exclusive photo by whatever means possible. In New York City alone, in those days, there were about a dozen daily newspapers. On a big story, that meant a dozen news photographers trying to beat out their competition. And, oh yeah, let's not forget the 3 or 4 photo agencies that were around, then, too.

Just as it is today, there was often a lot of standing around and waiting for the story to break. Standing in front of a police precinct, waiting for a suspect to be brought out. Or hanging around in front of a court house waiting for a verdict. During the long wait, most of us would put our heavy cameras on the floor or on the ground someplace where we could grab them when the action started. Usually, the cameras were all lined up nearby. It was during such times, that our colorful brethren would resort to skullduggery and would sabotage the other photographers so that he (yes, it was mostly an all male fraternity in those days) would be the only one to get the photo. At an opportune moment, this photographer would set himself down next to the spot where the others had lined up their cameras until the moment came when they would be put to use. When he was certain that no one was looking, our friend would touch the lever that released the rear shutter curtain which would then block the light from reaching the film when the front shutter was tripped. These weren't today's single lens reflexes which would show the problem as soon as you held it up to your eye. These photographers had to sight their picture through an auxiliary viewfinder and there was no way to see that the focal plane shutter had been tripped unless you looked closely at the tiny dial on the side of the camera.

If the villain was lucky, he might have been able to get to all the other cameras and he would get the only shot. Of course, his name was mud for a long time to come in that tight knit, albeit competitive industry. And, if you ever fell victim to such a dastardly act, it usually only happened once. After that, you never let your camera out of your sight. And even then, when the action started, the first thing the old veterans did, was check to make sure that their focal plane shutter curtain hadn't been tampered with.

There were other ways to screw your competitor. A smear of ear wax on the lens would put a camera out of business until the hapless victim developed his film and saw the blurred result.
Oh yes, my young friends. The "Good Old Days" was truly a colorful era.

Dick Kraus

For more information on "The Good Old Days" see "The Good Old Days" see "Life Before Digital (Continued)"




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