Box of Magic: The Zeiss Tengor

This post has been a long time coming as well. Seems as though I have a backlog of ideas to work through, so bear with me.

I’ve always had some sort of junk box camera kicking round for decoration, and the few times I’ve used them the results have been a bit of a joke so had never paid them any serious attention. I’m the sort that tends to research to eliminate boredom in down times, so on a mid-century kick I looked further past the plastic lensed detritus found in thrift shops. The top of the heap has a familiar name and a decent pedigree: ZEISS. But good luck finding one, right?

I dismissed the idea for a while until I found a site called Marktplaatz in the Netherlands, where there is a glut of cheap European cameras, and I happen to have a good friend willing to act as middleman. Trans-shipped that week was a Box Tengor 56/2 with leather case and manuals.

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So what is it we have here, and whats so special about it?

Zeiss made a range of holiday cameras from the late 20’s right up until this beauty was introduced in ’53. It boasts a bunch of features that were unheard of in basic cameras. Three aperture values are available, F9, F11 and F16, by way of siding plates behind the lens. Three focus ranges are available by way of auxiliary lenses inside the camera, 1-2m, 2-8m and 8m-infinity. Advance is by way of ruby window, but the shutter cocks automatically on advance. Don’t worry about accidents, though, Zeiss includes a shutter lock and a standard screw-in for a cable release. Doesn’t sound much like your granny’s Brownie Hawkeye, right? It doesn’t make photos like her old Kodak either. The Tengor has a cemented Goertz-Frontar Achromat all-glass triplet instead of your usual box camera plastic cataract.

IMG_1817 First thing I did, of course, was completely disassemble it to see what makes it tick. It’s well made inside, reliable and simple. Q-Tips and some vodka helped clean off six decades of Western Europe and make sure everything was smooth IMG_1818and functional.

I had the good fortune to get an expired lot of PanF online somewhere and this is the camera it was meant for back in the day. The shutter speed is fixed somewhere between 1/30 and 1/45, so PanF for sunny days will work just fine. I’ve run HP5+ on dim days, and the results are respectable.

My go-to subject when there’s testing to do is my daughter, Grace. She’s occasionally an enthusiastic photographer and enjoys coming out on adventures with Dad when it suits her. She’s a sport and let me take some photos of her with her camera, a Pentax ME Super.

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The Tengor makes a 6x9cm frame on 120 film, so no respooling and fiddling with nail clippers. Granted, this is a flatbed scan of a very large negative, but the Tengor makes no excuses about being a real camera with no qualifications about being a box or an OAP.

I also opened the lens up and adjusted it to the closest focus distance to see its character, often times old cameras get psychedelic when shot this way. The Tengor shows a distinctive out-of-focus rendering, but I don’t mind it.  This combination will make for a classic look in daylight portraiture, playing to its strengths. The sharp area is SHARP.

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And of course it works fine stopped down at infinity, as it should in its role as a vacation snapshot machine.

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Overall, this camera was a pleasant surprise to me, I’ve been happy to run some film through it on two different outings. In fact, the first time I had it out, I bounced it off the sidewalk in a less than gracious lesson on box camera ergonomics. The hardly noticeable mark on the corner stands as a testament to the build quality and resilience of this machine. In typical vintage Zeiss fashion, overbuilt and under appreciated.

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I’d use this camera a lot more if I could bring myself to put the Rolleiflex down. It’s true mid-century beauty, and a great conversation starter.

Monotone images in this set are courtesy of the Zeiss Ikon Box Tengor 56/2, F9 Goertz-Frontar Achromat loaded with Ilford Panf. Processing and scans are Ilfosol3 and Epson Perfection 3200 Photo. Color images are Apple iPhone 4S.

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