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The History of the 35mm Folding Camera

Design Innovations



Folding cameras collapse into a compact package for easy transport. They dominated camera design from the 1890s into the 1930s. Their folded size was limited by reliance on fairly large film formats, which were necessary to achieve an acceptable printed image quality. Their era came to an end when advances in lens design and manufacturing techniques yielded the capability to produce high quality images on smaller negatives, making the compact 35mm film camera a practical and desirable alternative.

35mm folding cameras were first made in the early 1930s, and their place in history needs to be considered with regard to a social context. The early 1930s were the age of the Great Depression

In 1929, the Wall Street Crash plunged the USA into economic depression. They called in their loans to other countries and put up customs barriers to stop imports of foreign goods. This created a depression across the world. In the UK the effect was a reduction in trade, a fall in output from heavy industry, high unemployment, and poverty. One of the underlying causes was the out-dated, labour intensive practises in our industries. Once the Depression lifted in the mid 1930s (after much reform), and affluence returned, the lucky ones wanted to party and shop - to enjoy increased leisure, luxury goods, and modernity. Photographic equipment needed to match the new out-and-about lifestyle, and 35mm cameras were the future.

There were two types of folding 35mm cameras; bellows and tube. Collapsible lens (or tube) cameras are a bit of a spurious group, so I'll deal with them first, and get them out of the way. When a camera lens is focused at infinity, there is often quite a bit of empty space between the rear lens element and the film plane. This allowed manufacturers to design cameras that could be flattened when not in use. The lens tube could be retracted into this empty space, shrinking the size of the camera (as seen in modern compact digital cameras, where the lens telescopes outwards for use, then collapses back into the camera body when switched off). The issue with tube cameras - as a genre - is that many (primarily Leica and its many copiers) had interchangeable lenses, which makes their classification transient. The only manufacturer of 35mm cameras with fixed collapsible lenses that I can call to mind was the West German Wirgin Company, plus the Japanese Monte 35 (Shinsei Optical Works) from about 1953. We more commonly think of folding cameras as those with a Bellows.

A Bellows is a lightproof tunnel made from a flexible material such as leather or leatherette. It is usually rectangular or square in cross-section, and pleated, so that it can fold and expand like an Accordion. One end connects to the film chamber, and the other to the lens/shutter housing. The majority of 35mm folding cameras have a hinged protective cover for the folded bellows, which forms a rigid base (bed) when open. The strut mechanism for unfolding the bellows extends and locks them to the same fixed position each time. This system is known as self-erecting, since the bellows are automatically put into position when the door is released; one unlocks the cover and the lens pops forward.

There are four types of bellows cameras, but their differences are simply a matter of the manner in which they fold.

  • The most common are vertical and horizontal folders; in other words, the base board/door either drops down (vertical), or swings to one side (horizontal), and some of these open to the right while others go to the left.

  • The next group has a lens board (i.e. a flat square plate that attaches the lens/shutter housing to the bellows) attached to scissor-style struts, which is simply pulled out from the body. These are not so common, but ...

  • the final variation is confined to the Voigtlander Vitessa models, which had a symmetrical Barn door arrangement; two doors ... like those found on a Barn, which opened either side of the lens/bellows.

German made cameras included (*):

  • the Baldina types by Balda Werke, produced from 1935 to the mid 1950s,
  • the Beika and Beira by Beier, produced between 1931 and 1941,
  • the Contina, Contessa and Super Nettel by Zeiss Ikon, spanning the period of 1934 to 1955,
  • the Dollina by Certo, made from the mid 1930s to 1950s, except for the Super Dollina II, which (amazingly) remained in production until the beginning of the 1970s,
  • the Retina and Retinette by Kodak, starting from 1939, and ending in 1958,
  • the Peggy by G. A. Krauss in the 1930s,
  • the Solinette by Agfa, from 1952 until 1955,
  • the Vito and Vitessa by Voigtlander, produced between 1939 and 1954, and finally
  • the Welti and Weltini by Welta, made from 1935 through to the 1960s.

Japanese made 35mm folding cameras were far less abundant, and comprise:

  • the Arco by Arco, made from 1952 to 1957, plus
  • a handful of others, but these were either prototypes that never made it into production, or are as rare as unicorns.

(*) All of these cameras had several or many model revisions and variations. They may have been 'sold' beyond the dates quoted.

The lack of Japanese models sort-of illustrates the fortune of the 35mm folder ...

... there were no significant design innovations!

Post WWII German companies kept doing what they had done in the past (slowly evolving and modifying old designs): except for Leica and Contax. These giants developed innovative compact 35mm rangefinder models, which inspired a host of clones and copies, and helped popularise 35mm film. Meanwhile, the Japanese companies, whilst copying their German mentors, also took a fresh look at design, which led to leaps forward in new directions.

By the 1950s, folding cameras were often made alongside compact, non-folding counterparts; the folding Agfa Solinette was replaced by the Silette, the folding Zeiss Ikon Contina II gave way to the fixed lens Contina IIa, and the folding Voigtlander Vito IIa succumbed to the rigid Vito B, etc. The last folders probably appealed to more traditional and conservative photographers, but they offered no real advantage over a modern compact, and had some definite drawbacks in terms of their performance and handling.

Ironically, their lack of success was mainly due to full-scale miniaturisation, making controls hard to see, and fiddly to operate. The genre was perhaps doomed from the outset (their USP was convenient non-use - when folded in a pocket), and but for a few stragglers, 35mm folders were consigned to obscurity by the end of the 1950s.

As with most things, there was a slight resurgence in the folding concept, but the 35mm bellows was never seen again. The tube lens survived in the form of the Rollei 35, in its many variations, with a production period that spanned 1966 to 2014. The Minox 35 family also lasted from 1974 to 1998, and a Balda tube popped up in the 1980.


Other pages at Camera Portraits

The History of the 35mm Rangefinder Camera

The History of the 35mm SLR Camera

The History of the 35mm TLR Camera

The History of the 35mm Viewfinder Camera