Vintage 4 x 5 : Rochester Optical Pony Premo Sr

In a time where everything is made of some sort of plastic having a camera that is primarily made of wood is a curiosity to most folks that are not familiar with the history of photography. 150 years ago all cameras were made of wood and some sort of metal, usually brass. They didn’t have plastic, bakelite or an easy way to manufacture anything out of aluminum and making something portable out of steel or iron was just not feasible, so wood became the standard. The other thing that really differentiates a camera made last week versus a camera made in the 1880s is that they were big. All early cameras were what is considered large format today. This means, in general the camera would create a 4 x 5 inch negative or larger. Some photographers, such as William Henry Jackson would use mammoth cameras that were 18 x 22 inches or larger. The Rochester Optical Pony Premo is definitely not a mammoth camera, but it is a great example of a camera made nearly 130 years ago.

Designed and built in the 1890s, Rochester Optical Company has already been building cameras for more than a dozen years having produced several models of the Pony Premo which also included some variations that produced a 5 x 7 inch negative. Even though this is a large format camera, it is one of the smallest large format cameras I have come across. It fits into the field camera category but is only a couple inches larger than the plate holder that slides into the back. Like most field cameras the camera folds into a small box that make it easy to carry and protects the lens and the bellows. It also has a ground glass and a cover that opens to allow you to focus the camera by looking directly through the lens.

Despite its compact size, it still has movements in the front and rear standards. The standards are vertical sections of the camera where the bellows attaches to the front (which is where the lens is mounted) and the rear (where the ground glass is). The back has swing (pivots on the vertical center) and shift (slides left to right) and rise/fall and shift on the front. It’s very lightweight, weighing only 2.3 lbs. I have lenses that weigh more than the entire camera.

The lens is the most interesting part of this camera. It’s a dual cam, external spring Victor rectilinear brass lens made by Bausch and Lomb. It’s a short barrel so I think it’s a wider angle lens, like 90mm or so. It’s not fast, with a wide open aperture of f/8 but it stops done all the way to f/64; which is another reason I tend to think it’s not a portrait lens. It has 12 leaves in the iris with a leaf shutter. The release extension was a small pneumatic diaphragm.

Popular with many large format cameras up until the late 1950s it has a small waist level finder (they have a name but I’m drawing a blank). Some work better than others and this one is pretty basic. Even after cleaning it doesn’t show much detail, but you can see the basic structure of what you’re looking at. I suspect however, that viewing the image through the ground glass was the preferred way of framing the image.

Unlike today, having a camera in the 1890s was a pretty big deal. Roll film as we know it today did not exist, or was extremely rare, and cameras were expensive. The Pony Premo Sr would have set you back around $25.00 new, plus $3 or so for the tripod and another $3 for each one of the film holders. I mean, all of these things were hand made and an equivalent camera today would easily set you back $1,500 just for the body. In today’s terms the Premo was a $600 camera. Film was another thing that we pretty much take for granted these days. Never-mind the fact that there are plenty of people who have never, and will never shoot a single roll of film in their life, film in the 1800s was primarily made of glass plates with the photographic emulsion coated to one side of it. Acetate film came later, so it was bulky, fragile, expensive and to top it all off had to handled in complete darkness. You couldn’t just drop your camera in the mail, send it off to Kodak, and have them return it with a fresh roll of film and pictures. You either knew someone that could process and print your film or had to figure it out on your own. Oh yeah, also expensive. In the early days of photography you had to want to do it.

This one is one of the oldest, functioning cameras I own. It has a few issues to be sure, but hell I doubt I will work as well as this little guy by the time I’m 123 years old.

Rochester Optical Pony Premo Sr

If you are interested, here’s a PDF copy of the original manual.

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