Tips from Townsend (3) - Choosing a Hand Camera


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!)

Discussion 3

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Awesome!  I'm glad to see that my challenge was met head-on!

I can't wait to see the actual photo(s) that you took from the bike!

::fights urge to watch Pee-Wee's Big Adventure::

OK, I've always been one to take up a good challenge, especially one that offers an opportunity to take my old Schwinn out for a spin. I'll also say I've shot out of helicopters and trunks of cars. I've also shot from bicycles, but not with a hand-held 4x5 made in 1904 (a Chattauqua Seneca Uno). This is where it starts getting tricky.

Setting the exposure, pre-setting the focus point, readying the film holder, and cocking the shutter are easy enough, but composing the picture and tripping the shutter are where it starts getting hairy. So in the interest of safety (and to avoid the hassle and paperwork of lawsuits) I strongly recommend stopping the bike before shooting pictures with a 4x5 camera. As for the correct shooting stance for hand-held 4x5 bike-straddling picture-taking, see below;

Allan, I think you should try it on that Schwinn of yours...