I figure I’d hear the call at some point. When I got back into film photography last year, I entered via the film format most common: 35mm. 35mm film cameras were dominant from the 1960s through the turn of the century. (There’s even a chance you may still have one in some forgotten corner of your house!) While the film selection and availability of 35mm pale to what you’d get twenty years ago, procuring this film stock isn’t difficult. Heck, I remember seeing Fuji Superia at Rite Aid last year.
But I’ve read enough blogs and literature to be tempted by medium format. For the uninitiated, it’s a film size that lies in between 35mm and big sheet film. Bigger negatives mean more detail. There were several different medium format film sizes, but the one that’s truly survived is 120,* a negative about 60mm wide (vs 35mm’s, uh, 35mm wide).
The problem is that 120 is not as prevalent as 35. It stopped being a common format for consumer cameras in the Western world in the 1960s, supplanted by 35 and 126. (It still was present in other parts of the world, though.) After that point, 120 became the domain of the professional, who wanted what the bigger negative could offer. By the time we got around to the late ’90s when I had a stint as Cameras/Electronics Manager at a Kmart, 120 wasn’t sold in the department stores or the pharmacies of the US. (I never recalled seeing 120, but plenty of 35 and some token 126, 110, and Disc for folks who still had/used those cameras.**) You had to go to the real camera store if you wanted that.
Now almost 25 years (gasp!) after my stint of announcing “Attention Kmart Shoppers” on the PA*** I’m looking into 120. I wanted to get a basic camera to start out my journey. That was tougher than I hoped. Oh sure, it’s easy to get a Holga or Diana, but I didn’t want something as cliche as that. I wasn’t that enamored with the lo-fi/Lomo vibe. And I wanted something vintage.
I looked backward to the 1950s, the last gasp for basic 120 cameras in the Western world. Germany seemed to make their share, so I sought out an Agfa Isola, a basic viewfinder/zone-focus machine. The trouble was that the only ones I could find being sold on eBay in the US were “untested” and $30-$50.**** I could get cheaper from overseas, but the shipping would offset any savings, plus international post is moving very slowly right now. I put off the search and ended up buying a Minolta SRT-101 instead.
Another month or so went by and I had an order to pick up from Blue Moon Camera here in Portland. I took a quick look at their eBay, seeing if there’s anything I can use. (Blue Moon allows in-store pickup for eBay orders, which makes getting things from them even more tempting!) And they had a Dacora Digna for sale. Dacora was another (West) German camera maker. The Digna looked pretty similar to the Agfa Isola. And the one they had worked and was only $10! So I picked it up.
Of course, it took awhile for me to get around to using the Digna. It came into the stable right after getting the SRT-101 and at the same time I bought an Olympus Pen EES-2 and picked up the Olympus 35 RD from the shop. There were a lot of cameras in the testing queue, and I wanted to give them the attention they deserved.
I finally gave the Digna some attention in January. It’s by all means a basic camera, a step up from the box cameras like Kodak Brownies that were its peer in that era. Some folks refer to them now as “toy” cameras, but these machines were meant to be the family camera for birthdays, vacations, and the like. There’s not much info online about the Digna. It was made by Dacora-Kamerawerk from 1954 to about 1959. What little I could glean was that it was a pretty “eh” camera, at least the model I had. (There was one deluxe model with more shutter/aperture options, a better shutter, and sharper/faster lens. Good luck finding that one.) At least the camera looks nice and classy in that mid-century type of way.
The Dacora Digna features a f/8 80 mm “Achromat” lens, two aperture settings of f/8 and f/11, two shutter speeds: “Instant” at 1/50 second and Bulb, and zone focusing. (The distance listed in feet, meaning that this camera was most likely sold in the US.*****) That’s pretty much it for features besides a cold accessory shoe on its top plate. (There is a flash sync port underneath the lens, and it actually does work!)
I put through a roll of Kodak Ektar 100, as I wanted my first shots to be color. Like other similar medium format cameras, there’s no winding lever, just a knob. You tell what exposure you’re on via a little red window on the back. 120 film has a paper backing with appropriate frame numbers. The problem was that it’s pretty dim, and I didn’t realize that I had rolled past the first four shots! Oops. I’ll be more careful on the next roll.
Using the camera was pretty underwhelming. The viewfinder is pretty small and dim. And to call the shutter “crude” is a compliment. It has a “chunk” when you depress, and another “chunk” when your finger moves off the lever. That wasn’t exactly reassuring. Oh yeah, you can depress the shutter button at any time the lens barrel is extended, (there’s no cocking lever) so you better be sure that you wound that film before ya did it, otherwise you’ve got an unintentional double-exposure. (Best to retract the lens when not using, as it can’t fire when closed.) And if you did wind to the next frame but forgot you did, you may wind again, meaning you wasted a shot. It’s best to have a system and stick with it, so I decided I’d wind to the next shot immediately after taking a shot.
I took several shots around the house. When the roll was done I dropped it off at Citizens Photo, my local lab. I decided to get 6″x6″ prints made instead of scans, partially because I thought it’d be neat, and partially because it’d be cheaper than scans. Of course the big question was would I get anything back?
On Friday January 15th I went to pick up the order. And yes, there were images! None of them were that great, though. I forgot to focus correctly on the first one, so it came out blurry. And the limited aperture choice meant that some of the shots were underexposed. But the shots were something. And it all came out better than I expected.
I immediately put a roll of black and white (Fomapan/Arista 200) through it. The results were better than the second roll, for one, I managed to get 11 of the 12 possible exposures this time. And since I was a bit more familiar with what the camera could do, the quality of shots was overall better. There was still a couple underexposed shots, though. I’m realizing with the maximum f/8 aperture the Digna is not going to be a low-light machine. As for flash, the one test shot I did failed. I’ll try another one on the next roll, but it’s probably not going to be a flash-able camera.
Overall, I’m pleasantly surprised with the Dacora Digna. Yeah, it’s a bit lo-fi, with the typical softness and a bit of vignetting on the edges one gets with this style of camera. I think I’m okay with that. It’s also amazing to think how such a basic and simple camera can still work like it was intended almost 70 years later. With no batteries or electronics to worry about, it may truck on for another decade or three.
And yes, I still would like to find a better 120 camera at some point. But they tend to command higher prices than any 35mm camera I bought. So I’ll keep looking. In the meantime, I’ll have fun with the Dacora Digna, maybe even find some expired stock to shoot on it. And if it stops working properly, I can always make a pinhole camera out of it…
For shots from/of my Dacora Digna, please see the dynamic flickr album below or click here.
*The other still-available stock is 127, a size halfway between 120 and 35. The selection of film is limited and expensive, so I wanted to avoid that size for now.
**OK, there was APS as well, as it was introduced a year before my stint.
***Since you are going to ask, yes, I have done a Blue Light Special or three.
****Months later, the two examples I saw then are still up. Maybe time to lower the price?
*****It could have also been from Canada or the UK, as these nations had not yet been metricised in the 1950s.