Lancaster Instantograph

For Christmas, my father-in-law-to-be gave me a Victorian mahogany and brass view camera. It’s an Instantograph, manufactured by J Lancaster & Son of Birmingham. Despite its name, there’s nothing instant about this camera! The Instantograph was first introduced in 1882 and evolved through various design iterations until the last ones were made some time in the early 1900s.

Lancaster Instantograph
Lancaster Instantograph

I’m not exactly sure which year mine is from. All of the Lancaster cameras carry a small plate engraved with the year of manufacture, but on my example the plate carries some Cyrillic markings instead of a date – perhaps this was an export model, or has been customised since manufacture. Judging by notes and pictures on various websites, some time around 1897 seems likely.

The condition is good – the wood and brass are lacquered and varnished and in nice condition. The leather bellows are starting to show their age a little. There are no cracks or tears but there are a couple of small pinholes. I will probably “repair” these with some black tape.

One or two of the screws needed tightening up a bit and I had to add a handle to one of the darkslides as the original had snapped off. I don’t have any mahogany lying around, so I used pine, painted with mahogany-effect woodstain. It’ll have to do!

The lens

The lens is a 5″ (127mm) f/10. The aperture diaphragm is continuously variable from f/10 to f/30, and the front of the lens carries markings to show the exposure compensation factor needed for each aperture.

It’s a single achromat, meaning it has two glass elements cemented together in one group – a doublet. It ought to be reasonably well corrected for chromatic aberration but will suffer from coma, spherical aberration, curvature of field and other effects which will cause the edges of the image to be unsharp. It should be a nice effect compared to today’s ultra-precision engineered lenses. The glass elements in this lens are not coated, so I would expect the lens to flare in direct sunlight and to offer low contrast in difficult situations. We shall find out when I take some pictures!

Lancaster Instantograph
Lancaster Instantograph

The film

The camera takes glass photographic plates in the quarter-plate format – that’s 4¼”×3¼” or 108×83mm, making it larger than 6×9 medium format, and the smallest of the large format sizes. For the digitally-minded, it’s a crop factor of approximately 0.3, and has 27 times the area of an APS-C sensor. Win.

These days it is hard to get hold of photographic plates, although by chance I happen to have some lying around. I wrote about them a couple of years ago. They are too large to fit the camera, so I have ordered a glass cutter so I can cut the plates in two and be able to use them in this camera. Using a glass cutter in a darkroom? Sounds safe to me! 😀 Fortunately the plates are so slow that I’ll be able to use a red safelight and hopefully avoid chopping my fingers off.

When I run out of plates I’ll have to resort to sheet film. To use film it has to be sandwiched with a piece of plain glass from a picture frame, to make it the right thickness for the plate holder and prevent it from curling. The greater challenge is finding sheet film the right size. Quarter-plate is an obsolete format but I can still buy 5″×4″ and trim it down in the darkroom with a guillotine.

The camera lacks a shutter, because at the time the ISO speed of glass plates would have been very slow (several minutes for a portrait) and exposures were usually controlled by the photographer placing his hat over the lens.

However, to expose modern film properly I’ll need some sort of shutter. It seems that these cameras could be purchased with an optional shutter when they were new, for those wealthy Victorians who wanted to show off that they could afford a shutter rather than using a hat. I might be able to find a compatible shutter on eBay, or perhaps I could fit a modern view camera shutter to the existing lens. We’ll see – I’ll be sure to post about my experiences here.

Possibly a happy medium would be to cut up some photographic printing paper to the right size and make paper negatives. You can’t really do much with a paper negative in the darkroom, but it can be scanned and inverted on the computer. It seems that Ilford MG IV has an equivalent ISO speed of approximately 6, so that makes it slow enough to expose without a shutter – simply using the lens cap.

Whichever of the three options I choose (cut down glass plates, cut up some roll film, use paper negatives) I’ll be sure to write about it and post pictures here 🙂


  1. December 28, 2012

    I think you should get yourself a top hat to use as a shutter. May as well do the job properly!

  2. Toby Madrigal
    July 5, 2013

    Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I am particularly grateful for the priceless info on using photographic paper at ISO 6. I am about to buy a Lancaster and now know that I can actually use it. It has no shutter. Scanning the paper negs into a computer and reversing them turns my Lancaster into a digital ! (of sorts)

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