Copyright 2015.  All rights reserved.


The Crown Graphic and Speed Graphic are large-format "press cameras", so-called because press photographers used to employ them for taking news photographs.

Can you imagine?  One shot;  make it count!

Remarkably, some of these guys managed to get iconic photos that are still among the most famous news photos of all time.  That's some skill!

Anyway, these cameras were made in USA by Graflex.  They are about as far opposite as you can get from digital cameras.  The Crown and the Speed are all-mechanical, they have no light meters, and they shoot big ol' pieces of film, one at a time.

This is a quick look at how to set up and use one of these press cameras.    Let's consider this Part One, because just setting up and opening the camera sort of needs this whole article.  Once you learn it, though, it's so easy!

A Quick Note

Articles like this one exist only with the support of readers like you, when you purchase your gear through the links on here.  (You can shop for a Crown Graphic here.)

Thank you in advance for your help.

In This Article

The Rangefinder

The Barrel Lens

Opening the Camera

Extending the Bellows

Ground-Glass Focusing

One More Thing


The Rangefinder

Some of these press cameras will not have the rangefinder.

Also, occasionally the shutter-release solenoid is not there.

As long as the core-function parts (bellows, ground glass, etc) are all there, the camera can still be used.   You'll focus with the ground glass, which is pretty much what any serious landscape photographer does anyway. 

The rangefinder was mainly for hand-held shots;   generally you're not going to be shooting landscapes hand-held on large format.

Why would the rangefinder not be there?  A rangefinder would be accurate only for one particular focal length;  when someone was using a different lens, maybe they took off the rangefinder so they wouldn't forget, use it, and get blurry photos.  Mis-focusing a shot on 35mm is not that big a deal;  doing the same thing on 4x5 is a waste of a few dollars.

Other people probably took off rangefinders and sold them for parts.  Or, they took one camera's rangefinder and put it on one that was in better condition.

Lack of an intact, functioning rangefinder (etc) reduces the value of one of these cameras.  The flipside is that it lets you get a working 4x5 camera for cheaper.   Just note that if the rangefinder is gone, it may well be that the bellows are leaky or something, too.  Carefully inspect the camera, or have an experienced person check it for you.

The Barrel Lens

The Speed Graphic with its cloth focal-plane shutter can make use of what's called a "barrel lens".  This is also sometimes referred to as a lens "in barrel".  Your Speed Graphic could be missing the rangefinder, but if it's missing the cloth shutter, you won't be able to use barrel lenses.

You cannot use barrel lenses on the other Graflex press cameras, either, unless you want to use T or B shutter mode and hold a lens cap over the lens when you're not actually taking the picture.  (Actually, duh:  there would be no T or B shutter mode;  there's no shutter.  Just use the lens cap, for your own T or B shutter mode.)

This works OK for very long exposures;  I used to shoot a lot of Velvia 50 where the shutter speeds were like two minutes, due to reciprocity failure. 

If that's the kind of shooting you'll do, then you could get by with a barrel-lensed Crown Graphic or whatever.  Just remember you won't be able to shoot anything that needs faster than about four seconds of open shutter.  (Two seconds might be OK.)

For everyone else, your lens should be "in shutter", which means it has all the shutter speeds marked on a ring that goes around the lens;  there will also be the shutter release lever on it.  Many times, the Crown and Speed Graphic cameras have a shutter that says "Graphex" on it.

Opening the Camera

OK, now let's get to actually using the camera.  You might as well mount the camera on the tripod before you even do anything else.  This is usually what I do.

A Graflex Crown Graphic or Speed Graphic folds up into a sort of box, which is really just the casing of the camera itself.  When you get one of these cameras, this is (hopefully) how it will arrive to you.

To open up or unfold the camera, you'll have to release a catch that holds the thing shut.  This can be rather confusing for beginners.

Actually, it's quite easy.  There is a slightly-raised bump on the top of the case.  You might not see it at first, but it's there.

Just above "GRAFLEX" you will see the slightly-raised bump.  That opens the camera.

Press this down, and hold it down.   The trapdoor-like thing that opens is called the "bed".     The bed will open downward, revealing the actual Graflex camera.  At this point, the camera still has to be extended.

At this point the bed is not all the way down. 
Bring it downward until those side rails lock into place.  In the photo, they're at about a 45-degree angle to the bed.

Look about 1/3 of the way up from the bottom of the photo.  That lever is what you'll pull toward you to extend the bellows.

It's called the "front standard clamp".

Extending the Bellows

Once you have the camera opened and the bed locked into place, you can extend the bellows.   Make sure the front standard clamp is perpendicular to the plane of the lens board (the big flat part where you see the lens).  Now, pull the front-standard clamp toward you.  The front standard should slide down the rails, extending the bellows as it goes.

It's going to be kind of confusing at first, because the bellows will extend until the assembly hits the stop, but the rails themselves will keep extending even further as you pull the lever.  Don't worry about it;  you'll fix this when you focus the camera.

The front of the camera (the "front standard") is now extended to the stops.

At this point you can lock the front standard clamp by turning it counter-clockwise, as shown.

The front-standard clamp, once locked, does not stop you from focusing the camera.  It only stabilizes the front standard with respect to the rails, so that you have a reliable reference point from which to start focusing.  The rails are still free to move, and that's how you'll actually focus the camera.  (Well, you'll focus with a knob, but the knob is what will move the rails.)

Bellows, Fully Extended

Take note here that the bellows are actually extended farther than they need to be, because the focusing rails are extended farther than they need to be.  You then use the focus knob to bring the rails-- and the front standard-- back toward the rear of the camera, until the scene is in focus.   At least that's how I always focus. 

So, just a quick review:  you've opened the case, lowered the bed until the side rails locked into place, and then you've extended the bellows.  Pulling the front-standard clamp, you extended them until the front standard hit the stops.   You then kept pulling the front-standard clamp until the focusing rails were pretty much fully extended, which caused the bellows to extend a bit more.

And then, it's time to focus the camera.

Ground-Glass Focusing

After you lock the front-standard clamp, the rails are still free to move.  There are some distance markings near the end of the bed, and they show something like six feet to infinity.    Maybe you'll get a camera where the lens is original and no one ever messed with it, but many people will find these marks do not line up where you'd expect them to. 

But don't worry about it, because you don't really need them if you're doing ground-glass focusing.

Now, before you even think of putting film into the back of the camera, you'll need to focus.  Ground-glass focusing is always done before you load film into the camera.  You cannot focus with the ground glass when there's a film holder in the back of the camera!  (That might be another reason to have that rangefinder focus, but I never use it anyway.)

Basically, you'll be sliding a piece of film into the camera where the ground glass used to be.  The camera was designed so the film holder will put that film into the correct place, as long as your ground glass wasn't crooked or something when you were focusing.

I'm presuming you've already composed your scene before focusing.   If you're just following along as an exercise, then by all means just practice focusing on random scenes, without bothering to compose something good.  Then again it wouldn't hurt to try.  (You'll find the scene backwards and upside-down on the ground glass.  Get used to it now, because it's always going to be that way!)

In the previous section, we noted that the bellows and rails were actually extended farther than they need to be. 

So, your focusing will probably involve bringing the rails and the front standard backward, by way of the focus knob.

Graflex Focus Knob

The infinity focus does not line up with infinity.
The indexing marks don't line up where they should.  I didn't even bother trying to line up the 100' mark with the 100' mark.

This happened because someone changed the lens focal length, I guess.

You could probably loosen and re-align the bed focus scales, if you wanted to.  Measure to some point exactly 100 feet away, focus carefully on it, and tighten everything down.  Then, loosen those two screws that hold the index marks in place.  Line up the focus marks for 100 feet and re-tighten.  This would enable you to pre-focus and use the wire finder instead of the ground glass.

Don't worry about it too much, though;  if you use the ground-glass, you can focus the camera without these markings anyway.  I figure if you're going to use a sheet of 4x5, you might as well compose and focus as accurately as possible, using the ground glass.

We'll look at ground-glass focusing in a bit more detail later, perhaps (in a future article);  right now, we're mainly getting acquainted with the basic mechanics of the focusing rails (etc).  And so, there's one more key point to know here:  when you do get the focus you want, you can then lock the rails so the camera will stay focused. 

The rail lock (focus lock) is shown in the photo.  It's that short lever immediately next to that rail:

The Focus Lock

So, there are really two locking levers here:  the front-standard lock (or front-standard clamp), which we used to extend the bellows;  and the focus lock, which holds the rails in place after you're done focusing.

Let me put that another way:  the front-standard lock immobilizes the standard with regard to the rails.  At that point, you can still focus, because the rails are still free to move. 

Then, the rail lock or focus lock immobilizes the rails with regard to the rest of the camera, so the focus cannot change.  See the difference?

One More Thing

If you want to get really technical, you're supposed to extend the focus rails to line up the 100-foot marks.   From that point, you would then focus by looking at the scene through the ground glass.  That's not quite what I did here, but it's only a minor variation in procedure. 

With mine, I don't pay attention to where the index marks line up, because I don't think it lines up correctly.  But the idea is to line up with the 100-foot mark, then focus forward or backward with the knob, depending on the actual distance to your subject.

If that method works for you, then great;  again, I never bother.  I extend the bellows and rails about as far as they safely go, then focus backward until the scene is in sharp focus.  That way, I always know which way to turn the focus knob.   Works for me.


This has been the main setup procedure for a Graflex press camera.  In a future article we'll learn the camera front movements and such, and also the film loading (etc).

If you found this article helpful or entertaining, please help me out by shopping for your stuff through the links on here.  Get your 4x5 press camera through this link or the other ones on this page, and it helps me keep this site on-line.  (The small commissions allow me to keep this site going, whether you buy cameras, stereos, camping gear... almost anything.)

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