The flattering Foth Derby

In 1935, the Berlin cameramaker C.F. Foth & Co. introduced its third instalment of the popular Derby camera, intended as a counterpart to the expensive Leica and Contax cameras. Main plus, although unintentional, was that it could hold 127 medium size rolls. Although 35mm film had already made its appearance, the quality of the medium format proved significantly better. Despite strong ambitions and good quality camera and lenses, it failed to gain a meaningful position in the consumer market. Consequently, you rarely come across a second-hand one. If you succeed, buy one because they look particularly good in the display case. Let’s review this old camera from an interesting era.

Crafted by German engineers, the Derby is a strut folding viewfinder camera specifically designed for 127 film rolls, produced by Foth from 1931 until approximately 1940. This camera is equipped with a cloth focal plane shutter and capable of a very remarkable shutter speed of 1/500th (!) of a second. Small, as a compact vest-pocket camera it positioned itself as an action shots camera. The first model, the Derby I featured a film gate size of 24 × 36mm, akin to the 35mm format used by Leicas. All later versions, as my Derby III adopted the full 30 × 40mm format that the 127 film format could accommodate.

Nice to note that in 1937 Alfred Hitchcock prominently featured the Foth Derby in his movie “Young and Innocent”. A picture can be seen here. Foth, as many other companies in that time, made binoculars and other optical instruments before manufacturing a range of cameras and lenses. There were dozens of small camera factories at the time, and a few were scaling up quickly due to increasing consumer demand. Scaling up usually meant mergers, think Zeiss Ikon, for example. Foth remained independent and also did not work with large series. Therefore, a Derby is also not a mass product that you will easily come across at trade shows. By chance, I came across a copy of a 1935 Derby III. Irresistible. It does indeed look 88 years old, but it has lost none of its charm. It feels heavy, despite its small design. It is also very narrow, even narrower than Leica’s famous Barnacks. The front part of the camera with lens can be pulled out, revealing a small bellows that protrudes about 2.5 cm. Reminiscent of the Kodak camera, a metal cross holds the front part firmly in place.

On the front part are the lens (a Foth Anastigmat 50 mm F3.5) surrounded by two metal rings for aperture (from F3.5 to F18) and distance (from about 1 meter to infinity with 20 m as the final setting distance). Once open, there is a very small shutter release button mounted against the edge of the body. This prevents photos from being taken in the closed position. To its right there is also a small connection for a cable release.

Atop the body, an exciting stage unfolds whose purpose is not immediately apparent at a glance. Most intriguing is the timer with a red button that can be turned up and locked. The lever locks behind a metal tab that looks like a quickly devised solution. And by the way, to use the timer first wind up the shutter/film and do not use the release button, but gently push the red timer button to release it! But to use the timer requires first raising the tilting viewfinder. The advantage is then that you immediately see the correct image size of 3×4. On the left is, in my case a nice brass rewind button with the engraving ‘Germany’. On the right is the ingenious, “Leicaish” wind and shutter knob. As with the Barnacks, you can elevate the knob to set the shutter speed. First you turn the knob all the way to the right (the film is wound), it stops automatically. Then you pull the knob up and turn it to the desired shutter speed where the knob can also precisely engage. De sluitertijden zijn 1/500, 1/200, 1/100, 1/75, 1/50, 1/25 en Bulb. On the back are four peepholes (two green and two red). The red ones are for pan films (those insensitive to green to read the negative number) and red ones for the orthochromatic films insensitive to red.

Orthochromatic film is simply made with silver halide crystals, which are naturally blue-sensitive. First produced in 1873, early film photos and movies used orthochromatic film, which is the reason why skies in early photographs are almost always white: being blue, they overexposed easily. The orthochromatic film couldn’t see a red light, so anything red would turn black.

As technology and chemistry evolved, Panchromatic film was introduced around 1906 a was created with sensitizing dyes to extend the silver halide crystal sensitivity into the green and red portions of the spectrum. Panchromatic, meaning wide color, is now the popularly used film, capturing a wider spectrum of light, rending B&W tones close to what we see in everyday life (source: The

You wind the film taking a picture first when the negative number appears in the first peephole. Then you continue until the same number appears in the second peephole (of the same color) and you can take the next picture up to a maximum of 16. The back wall opens from right to left via a small lever on the side. Here in the back wall you can choose the color for the peephole by sliding a small metal rod. The 127 film roll is inserted on the left and runs from left to right. Finally, at the bottom is a tripod connection.

All in all, the Foth Derby is a quiet but beautiful witness to an interesting time when the 35mm camera was on the rise. It was also the time when the large medium format cameras lost popularity. The large bellows cameras were up against the more common and wildly popular compact cameras. Compact meant it had to fit in the pants or vest pocket. Compact meant quick action to take a picture, which previously took minutes to get everything ready. People could capture their important and beautiful moments forever, and that idea changed the consumermarket immensly.

Nevertheless, other manufacturers eventually managed to keep up with a large and changing supply in that demand. The Derby did not last long. The company has disappeared from the horizon since WWII, which perhaps makes its cameras even more interesting.

Is the camera still usable in 2023? Yes, if you find a good working one. With me, the canvas no longer closes light-tight, in others the shutter no longer functions properly or the bellows is worn out. But why not try? With me, I have to make sure that I close the lens light-tight so that no light falls on the film between the photos. Something that I will definitely try to test the quality of the (very) good lens. And maybe you too have a solution to turn the old, and perhaps flawed, Derby into a fantastic experiment, 88 years later.

Want to read more about the Foth Derby, here are some interesting links:

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