What were “Press” cameras and what made them different?

Jun 14, 2023

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

What were “Press” cameras and what made them different?

Jun 14, 2023

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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With the resurgence in film, the term “press camera” pops up a lot these days. It comes up often in online auctions and marketplaces. The term has also evolved over the years, too. Initially, they were medium and large format cameras often used by the press. As 35mm took over, press cameras were modified standard bodies that were specifically advantageous for press use.

But what exactly is a press camera, and what makes them different from the regular cameras that regular people used at the time? And why don’t they make them anymore? This excellent video from Japan Vintage Camera takes us on a journey through history to show us why they were so special.

Stanley Kubrick’s Speed Graphic press camera / Wikipedia

In the early days of film, medium and large formats were king. They were pretty much the only options at the time. The problem with most of these cameras, however, is that they were pretty huge, especially large format cameras. Press cameras were essentially a lightweight alternative to these larger format cameras that allowed them to be used more easily out and about in the world – where the press typically shoot photos.

They were quite limited compared to their studio counterparts. They typically didn’t offer front or rear standard movements that provide the tilt, shift and swing movements used to correct perspective. They usually didn’t contain large bellows in between the lens element and the film plane, either. Usually, their bellows were small, and cameras were more of the pop-out variety. This allowed them to pack up small for easy transport.

Typically, press cameras shot 4×5 large format film, but other models were developed that shot 6×6, 6×9 and even 6×12 format images on 120 roll film. A number of European cameras shot a 9x12cm format, which was slightly smaller than 4×5 large format film.

Nkon F3P with MD4 motor drive / Wikipedia

In the 1960s, 35mm film started to supersede large and medium formats as the format of choice for the press. The quality of small-format film had improved to the point where picture editors were happy with the results they saw. The 35mm cameras were also much lighter and more compact than their medium and large format counterparts, with easily interchangeable lenses.

While they presented a much easier workflow, most 35mm cameras targeted consumers and not working press photographers. As such, they often contained features that were irrelevant to press photographers and lacked features they deemed essential. The new “press camera” started to become modified versions of standard model cameras, designed specifically for press use.

One such camera is the Nikon F3P, with which the video opens – and then goes back to at 13:41. It was modified to have larger dials on top that are easier to grab and change settings when rushing to get the shot. A hot shoe was mounted above the pentaprism viewfinder, as press photographers typically needed to use flash. It eliminated the shutter from the viewfinder, a feature typically used for macro, landscape and long-exposure photography to prevent light leaks. It also had a motor drive attached for rapid shooting, durability improvements and a number of other features removed for easy workflow.

The almost-seventeen-minute video covers a number of other press cameras, including medium and large formats, and another 35mm camera from Canon, the Canon VT. The Canon VT was a rangefinder camera and not an SLR like the Nikon F3P. It was designed to target press photographers and utilised the Leica M39 screw mount lenses. It had a three-position viewfinder with rotating prisms to match 35mm or 50mm lenses or a rangefinder setting. In the RF setting, shoe-mounted viewfinders were used to complement the lens’s focal length.

Press cameras aren’t really a thing these days, as pretty much all digital cameras available now are capable of producing usable images for the press. The wide range of bodies available from Nikon, Canon, Sony, Fujifilm, Panasonic, Olympus, Leica, Sigma and others also means that everybody’s needs are covered by at least something. And all of those bodies are valid for a wide range of other uses, too. There’s no need to make dedicated press cameras anymore. Or at least, certainly not the need that there used to be.

But if you’re thinking of expanding your film camera collection or even dipping into film for the first time, it might be worth keeping an eye out for a press camera. Press cameras can offer some unique (for their day) functionality, and they can occasionally be found for pretty low prices if you’re patient and persistent.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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