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The definition of a 'compact camera' has changed somewhat since the days of glass plates and tintypes, though the criteria for choosing a sensibly-designed and easy-to-use camera rings familiar. The following tips on choosing a good 'hand' camera were offered by Townsend T Stith back at the turn of the last century in Chapter II of his wonderful book ,'The Photographic Instruction Book' (1903, Sears Roebuck & Company).
As indicated by its name, a "hand" camera is one that is intended primarily to be used when held by the hands, and, therefore, except on rare occasions, such an instrument does not require a tripod as in the case of the view camera. As it is practically impossible to hold a camera in the hand with sufficient steadiness to give an exposure of more than about the tenth-part of a second, all hand cameras are provided with a shutter so as to insure quick exposure.
The most popular size for a hand camera is 4x5, though instruments of this kind are made to take much smaller pictures; some users are not satisfied with so small a picture as 4x5, and prefer a 5x7 instrument or even 6x8 or 8x10. As a rule, a 4x5 or 5x7 camera will be found quite large enough for all ordinary amateur work. It is not many years ago that a hand camera was regarded as a toy rather than as an instrument for serious picture-taking; but this opinion no longer exists, owing to the development of this most useful instrument from the original crude box to the present perfect apparatus.
A hand camera is even better than its prototype on a tripod, in depicting street scenes. In this class of work a tripod camera, erected in a busy thoroughfare, would not only obstruct traffic, but might in the case of some operators be objected to as rendering them disagreeably conspicuous.
With a hand camera the amateur can stroll about when and where he will and take a shot here and a shot there, without attracting undue notice or inconveniencing anybody. For cyclists, too, a hand camera is most convenient, as it is compact, easily carried, and can be used at a moment's notice during a ride.
If any Insights readers have tried shooting hand-held with a 4x5 camera while riding a bicycle we'd love to hear from you. (And please don't tell us you weren't wearing a helmet at the time!)