Sunday, October 29, 2023

Spotlight: Bell & Howell Foton

As the resident camera expert at the auction house I work at, I was recently tasked with going through a large lot of vintage equipment that came in from an estate. Inside one of the many boxes of old gear, I found a Bell & Howell Foton, one of the rarest and most sought after American-made cameras of the 20th century! As I realized what I found, my mouth dropped wide open and I instantly started breathing heavily. While out of my price range (these things often fetch over a grand), my boss was nice enough to let me put a roll through the camera.

The Foton was made right here in Chicago by the Bell & Howell company in 1948. It first retailed for a whopping $700, which is about $9,000 in today's money according to the CPI inflation calculator. Yikes! Mostly due to this high price, the Foton didn't catch on and was soon discontinued in 1950. 

Check out that cool frame counter!

The Foton's most distinguishing feature is its spring-driven motor drive which, once wound up via a key on the bottom plate, lets the camera fire at six frames per second! If the key is fully wound, you can shoot through an entire roll of 24-exposure film without having to wind at all between frames. It's a thrill to fire the shutter and watch the circular dial-style frame counter spin, spin, spin away! You can set the camera to fire in semi-automatic mode, or flip a switch and make the Foton keep firing until you take your finger off the shutter release. There is also a manual film advance knob on top of the camera, but it is only used during film loading. The shutter is of the focal plane variety, made of metal, and travels vertically. Speeds range from 1 second to 1/1000, plus bulb.  I didn't get a chance to shoot any action sequences, but you certainly could with this camera. I'm sure the 6fps winder made the Foton a dream camera for photojournalists and sports photographers back when it originally came out. 

Bottom of the Foton, showing the winding key.

The Foton came with a standard "2 inch" (about 50mm) f/2 lens, which is actually measured in t-stops on the barrel. Other lenses were manufactured, but are just about impossible to find these days. You can focus the lens by twisting the barrel, or by turning a small dial on the front of the body, similar to on a classic Contax or Nikon. The Foton has separate focusing and framing windows, both of which are pretty small. The rangefinder window on the Foton I used had a bit of haze, which made focusing slower and trickier than it should have been. I also shot almost my entire roll indoors, which didn't help the situation. 

You can use this little dial to focus the lens, if you're not in a hurry!

Besides the slightly hazy focusing window, I absolutely loved using the Foton. For my roll of film that I shot with it, I made photographs of my wonderful co-workers at the auction house. I used Ilford HP5+, which I pushed an extra stop to ISO 800. Below are my results! If you want to bid on the camera, it will be up for auction live and online on November 11th at Direct Auction Galleries in Rogers Park.