All about the Balda Pontina (probably) camera

Balda Pontina front view
A general overview of the Balda Pontina, a folding 6×9 medium format camera which I believe was made in 1938 in Dresden, Germany. This camera is in remarkable shape for its age, and who knows what stories it’s told in so many years. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I’m actually not 100% sure what this camera is, but I’m fairly certain it’s an unlabeled Balda Pontina from 1938. It’s not particularly special, but I like it quite a bit anyway.

I already covered how I identified and dated the Pontina in quite a bit of detail, so I’ll just summarize that here:

Balda Pontina shoulders
The unique shape of the Balda Pontina’s shoulders was a key factor in ultimately identifying it. It still took multiple hours over the course of several days to identify it. Note that I omitted the center of the camera to focus on the ends. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The shape of the camera’s ends (viewed straight down) is unique to the Balda Pontina as far as I can tell, and the shutter and one mysterious marking make it fairly certain that it is from 1937 or 1938. Other parts are clearly the same as those on similar models sold at the same time and at least demonstrate that it was definitely made by Balda. Regardless whether this exact camera was sold as a Balda or intended for rebadging by a third party, I’m going to call it a Balda Pontina.

In the early 20th century, it seems to have been quite common for a given model of camera to be assembled from whatever parts the manufacturer had on hand that would do. Hinges, shutters, lenses, latches, etc., of several varieties might appear on what is otherwise an identical camera. It’s as if, when they ran out of the Pontina hinges on a Thursday and weren’t expecting a new shipment until the following Monday, but had an order to fulfill on Friday, they’d just grab a bunch of Baldi hinges and put them on the Pontina line until the order was fulfilled.

In those days the differences between lines of folding cameras were usually in the lenses and shutters, the viewfinders, and little things like the image format (i.e. 6×6 vs. 6×9) and whether the shutter was actuated directly or had a button on the body that was coupled to the shutter release. Additionally, it paid to make a given part work for multiple models — if your hinges looked different but all used the same mounting points, you only had to set up one station or jig to drill the doors for all your cameras.

I guess what I’m saying is, there was a solid business case for having lots of interchangeability in your parts. And a lot of manufacturers clearly took advantage of that, particularly European brands like Agfa, Balda and Zeiss Ikon.

The Pontina appears to have been sold under other brand names as often as its own, Balda being heavily involved in manufacturing for others. Variants of the Pontina, in particular, were sold in vast quantities by Porst as the Hapo 10 and Hapo 45.

One thing I know for absolute certain is that I got it at an antique store in Orchard City, Colo., on the way to Grand Mesa National Forest from Paonia. Another thing I know is that everything works.

Features

The Balda Pontina is made of steel, and you can tell that from the weight. The covering is leather, and even after 80 years it looks pretty good in spite of the scuffs and nicks that come with so many years.

Balda Pontina tripod socket
This tripod socket is on what I think of as the “bottom” of the camera body. Note what appears to be a threaded insert stepping down the larger 3/8-16 threading to the more modern 1/4-20 thread. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Outside, there’s a hinge on one end and a latch on the other. The latch end features a leather carrying handle on two square wire rings. On one of the long, narrow sides is the film advance knob and a tripod mount.

The tripod mount appears to have a large diameter thread (I’d guess it’s a 3/8-16 thread), with a step-down insert screwed into it that fits modern 1/4-20 threaded tripod mounts. There’s a second large-diameter tripod mount on the front door, and I suspect the step-down insert is meant to move between the two if needed. The front door also has a flip-out leg to stand the camera up vertically with the door open.

On the other long, narrow edge is a flip-out viewfinder with three moving parts. They are nicely sprung, and depressing a latch to the side of the finder allows the two main elements to pop out. These are a large magnifying lens and a shield with a small eye hole. The air-gap between them allows this to act like the sport finder on many TLR cameras.

The third element of this finder is a flip-up mask that shrinks the view area to match a 6×4.5 centimeter frame. Though the Pontina is a 6×9 centimeter camera on its own, they were originally sold with a mask that can snap into the film plane to convert it to 6×4.5. I was not able to test the camera in that mode as I don’t have the mask, and the one time I saw one on eBay it was priced several times higher than what I paid for the camera itself.

Balda Pontina flip-up viewfinder
The sport finder has three elements that can flip out, including an eyepiece, a magnifying lens, and an optional mask for use with the 6×4.5 centimeter mask. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The back of the camera features two ruby windows, with a sliding cover. In 6×9 mode, the ruby window closest to the lower-left corner is all you’ll need, but to make 6×4.5 centimeter frames you would advance each frame number to the left window, and then to the window near the center of the back, before advancing the next number to the lower-left window, and so on.

When testing, I kept the cover closed except when I was advancing, mainly because I figured if the cover was supplied with the camera there was probably a reason. One Pontina user appears to have learned the hard way just how necessary this cover is, so I’m glad I used mine.

A small steel button next to the advance knob releases the door to reveal the bellows, shutter and lens.

The bellows extends on a pair of sprung chrome hinge assemblies that latch the door open when it reaches full extension. A clever cam allows the lens and shutter assembly to fold under the door during closing, and fold out until it is perpendicular to the door (and thus parallel to the film plane) when open.

Balda Pontina ruby windows and cover
The enameled brass cover has left green marks where the underside has oxidized over the last 80 years or so, but it still functions smoothly. The dual windows are necessary to allow switching between 6×9 and 6×4.5 modes. (This photo is sort of upside down.) (Daniel J. Schneider)

Once open, the Pontina has a second optical viewfinder mounted next to the shutter assembly, which offers cross-shaped framing edges (just like My Kodak No. 2) and rotates 90 degrees for use with the camera in either landscape or portrait mode. This works very much like a teeny tiny waist-level viewfinder.

The shutter itself is a Prontor II, although it is not consistent with the listed shutter speeds I can find on the Internet, all of which mirror the Camera-Wiki list. The Balda’s fastest shutter speed is 1/150 second rather than 1/175 or 1/200. The rest of the speeds, though, match the speeds otherwise listed with the 1/175 second model, including the Time and Bulb options, which are past the fastest end of the scale rather than being beyond the slower speeds.

While this could be a labeling discrepancy, I tested the shutter and found that the 1/150 second speed consistently fires around 1/135 second. While I might not be surprised if a 1/175 second model had slowed down this much, I would be surprised if the fastest speed slowed down that much and the rest of the speeds were still accurate (the indicated 1/100 was about 1/95, and the rest were dead on). I believe the shutter was probably marked accurately when it was new.

The Prontor II does not have any flash synchronization (that would be introduced on the next model, the Prontor S), but it does have a self-timer. I couldn’t find any specs on how long the time delay should be, but it tests out at a consistent 12 seconds on mine. Interestingly (and intelligently), the self-timer is locked out when the shutter is placed in Bulb or Time mode, but works at any other speed. Like most mechanical self timers, you can set it for any fraction of its 12-second maximum delay simply by moving the lever that fraction of its maximum travel distance.

Balda Pontina Prontor II shutter
The Prontor II shutter on the Balda Pontina isn’t quite as fast as the listed specs for Prontor II shutters I can find, but its speeds are remarkably accurate for its age. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Prontor II needs to be primed for every exposure, so you’ll notice two levers on the side of the housing near the shutter speed markings. The outermost edge of the front plate is actually a knurled ring that rotates to set the shutter speed and has a red enameled index mark. Once set, the lever nearest the 1/25 second marking needs to be actuated to cock the spring. The lever nearer the end of the scale, just past the T marking, then trips the shutter.

Though most Balda cameras I can find pictures of have the Balda name on the shutter’s cover plate, this one only features the Gauthier G.m.b.H. Calmbach name and logo.

The lens is a Schneider-Kreuznach (no relation that I know of) Radionar 10.5 centimeter f/4.5. The triplet design is compared favorably to other high-end three-element lenses of its day such as the Zeiss Trionar, particularly when stopped down a little.

The front element simply screws and unscrew to focus, with a tiny set screw hitting a stop at both minimum and maximum focus. Focus is achieved using a scale, which is marked only in meters and ranges from just under one meter to infinity. At 105 millimeters, the focal length is long enough for f/4.5 to isolate a subject less than 10-12 meters away very effectively. Stopping down even one or two stops rapidly expands the depth of field, though, for all but the nearest focus distances.

The smallest aperture marked is f/32, although the indicator actually goes a bit further than that. When aligned with the f/32 mark, the aperture appears to be almost exactly 3.25 millimeters in diameter, which would equate to about f/32.3. Moving the lever all the way to the stop, the opening is definitely a little under 2 millimeters. An aperture of f/48 would be about 2.2 millimeters on a 105 millimeter lens, and f/64 would be about 1.65 millimeters. I believe this last, unmarked position is very close to f/64.

Balda Pontina take-up spool
Detail of the film advance knob and flip-out compartment for the take-up spool. You can see a small post at the far end to locate the film spool. The supply side has a similar shield. (Daniel J. Schneider)

To adjust the aperture, note the lever on the “bottom” of the shutter assembly, nearest the “Prontor II” label. The indicator is on the “top” of the shutter — the edge that would face up if the camera were open and standing in portrait orientation, opposite the door.

Some parts of the interior of the camera, both in front and in back, have a really cool black crackle finish that is very indicative of the camera’s age.

Opening the back you’ll find a large matte black sprung pressure plate on the inside of the door. The front of the film path, just behind where the bellows is attached, features a broken ridge of metal that marks the edges of the film plane and which meshes into the shape of the 6×4.5 centimeter mask to keep it aligned when installed. There are smooth pin rollers at either end of the film path that spin freely.

The feed and take-up spools fit into little half-round fixtures that swing in and out of the ends of the camera. To remove or replace the take-up spool, you’ll need to pull the film advance knob out about one quarter of an inch. The film holder fixtures have spring tabs integrated into them to keep the film tight against the spool.

This may be the most thorough description of a single camera I’ve written, and we haven’t even gotten to the actual review yet. Let’s do that, shall we?

Republic Plaza Balda Pontina
Republic Plaza’s colorful cafe table umbrellas on a harshly sunny day, this time taken with the Balda Pontina 6×9 folding camera and a roll of Lomography Color Negative 100 film. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Impressions

The first thing you’ll notice about this camera is that, if you’re familiar with folding cameras of the era, it’s pretty self-explanatory. The bulk of the functionality is really no different from that of the Kodak No. 2 Folding Cartridge Hawkeye Model B or the Voigtlander Bessa I. As with everything, however, it does have a few quirks that make it unique.

The first notes in my Moleskine are about the rotating optical finder by the shutter. Two things to note: a) make sure it’s rotated to portrait orientation before attempting to close the front of the camera or it will get jammed; and b) be sure it aligns correctly in both positions before using it.

You can see in several of my test frames that the horizon is far from level, and some of the culls were even worse. I discovered after developing the film that the metal tab which acts as a stop when you rotate the viewfinder to the landscape orientation has some wear that allows the finder to rotate just a little more than 90 degrees. I could probably repair this with a drop of solder or by folding a tiny bit of gaffer tape over the tab, but I don’t anticipate really using this camera again except for fun.

I suspect that the problem of attempting to close the camera with the finder in landscape orientation could be partly to blame, causing unanticipated wear when the finder gets caught against the side of the body. Additionally, the finder flops around quite freely on mine which leads me to believe it may have been heavily used by a previous owner.

Columbine Memorial entrance
A short stone wall marks the entrance to the Columbine Memorial in Clement Park, Littleton, Colo. (Daniel J. Schneider)

This finder is also very small and it’s rather difficult to use for accurate framing. If possible, I recommend using the flip-up sport finder on the outside of the camera body. The pictures I made using the sport finder were much more consistently level and much easier to frame.

The spring to open the door on my Pontina is tired — it’s showing its age and the door doesn’t really open more than a hair’s breadth when the release is pressed. I found that by pointing the door down I could employ a bit of gravity to convince the door to open more easily.

The shutter speed and aperture markings are all on the “top” of the shutter assembly (with the camera in portrait orientation) and will require you to look over the top of the body to adjust settings, or in landscape mode, require you to just turn the camera around (unless your neck is more goose-like than mine). The white enamel that was once in the markings has faded on my Balda — whether from age, wear, or just plain grime, I can’t tell — and can be a little difficult to read without good light.

The shutter, though, is a joy. The speeds are substantially accurate — more accurate than most of the cameras in my collection that I’ve tested, the majority of which are much younger — and all the adjustments and levers work smoothly and correctly.

Clement Park skaters
Robert F. Clement Park in Littleton, Colo., houses the impressive and varied Clement Skatepark, frequented year-round by skaters of all skill levels. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The lens seems quite sharp, though it does exhibit some light falloff toward the edges. I’m not sure this is all vignetting; some of it might be the result of haze in the lens. So eager was I to test this camera that I forgot to clean the lens beforehand. I’ve noticed since that it has a little dust, particularly around the edges, and a few specs of what I believe are fungus. The lens’s elements are uncoated so this camera might be a good candidate to practice removing fungus.

You’ll see the test images are really quite sharp when they are in focus, all the way to the edges. Despite the uncoated glass there is almost no noticeable chromatic aberration, either. This lens might be sharper than that of my Voigtlander Bessa I. I didn’t notice any significant distortion at all.

Focus being done by scale, I missed it a few times — as often because I forgot to change it as because I misestimated the distance to my subject. That’s on me, not the camera — I’m just not good with scale and zone focusing. Hopefully that’s just because I don’t use it consistently.

The placement of the film advance knob under the right-hand end of the camera body seemed strange to me at first, but I quickly found that when operating it with my right hand, the orientation of the camera put the cover for the ruby windows right under my left thumb. Advancing became a very fluid motion after just one roll of film and allowed me to keep the ruby window open for only the shortest possible time.

Columbine Memorial Wall of Healing
The Columbine Memorial’s Wall of Healing is made of native Colorado sandstone. The top rises and falls with the surrounding hills, and plaques with quotes from survivors and victims’ families adorn the south side of the wall. Note the un-level horizon and vignetting. (Daniel J. Schneider)

While the shutter — the whole camera, really — is very quiet, its age and design make it a spectacle, so it’s not easy to be discrete. It’s okay, though — I’ve attracted two conversations with it in the time I spent working on this review at a coffee shop.

The little flip-out spool holders inside the back of the camera are a bit fidgety, but I have no other complaints. The Balda Pontina is a very easy and fun camera to use, and I can see how the manufacturer was able to sell them to the many companies that rebranded them. They weren’t cheap, but they were cheaper than many of the famed Dresden cameras they originally competed against, and it doesn’t surprise me that they made so many.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this camera as a user — it’s more of a collectible, and given the age it could be difficult to find one that’s really in great optical condition. But if you’re into these older cameras — whether to try out, use regularly, or just keep on a shelf — this is a good way to start with antique folders. The ones that occasionally pop up on eBay aren’t terribly expensive — $25-75 depending on condition, from what I’ve seen — but “occasionally” is more like “almost never,” so good luck on that front.

Here are the last of my test images:

Observatory Park observatories
The training and full observatories in Denver’s Observatory Park. Students would start in the smaller building before graduating to the large telescope in the Chamberlin Observatory behind it. Slight haze in the center of the lens is in full effect here. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Columbine Memorial waterfalls
These waterfall fountains adorn the Wall of Healing at the Columbine Memorial in Littleton, Colo., providing a gentle burbling that is conducive to the reflection the designers hoped the memorial would inspire. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Seal Fountain at the Voorhies Memorial
The Seal Fountain at the Voorhies Memorial in Denver’s Civic Center Park on a warm summer day. With the Colorado State Capitol peeking out of the trees in the distance, Civic Center can be a stately and calm patch in the middle of a bustling city. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Balda Pontina 6x9 folding camera
Author Rating
41star1star1star1stargray
  • Christian Woehrl

    Hello Mr. Schneider, thanks a lot for this in-depth review and description of your Balda camera. I came across it while trying to date a similar camera myself and found your insights quite valuable.
    Mine can be seen here https://www.flickr.com/photos/h4ndw3rk/29990258470 (more to come in a few days), and it’s also equipped with a Prontor II without flash sync and down to 1/150. Compared to yours, mine sports the flip-out finder and tripod thread on the respective opposite sides of the camera body (which, I understand, might be the later design).
    It does *not* show those characteristic noses to the sides of the body you show in the other article. And it’s also two-format judging by the double film window and additional viewfinder mask.
    You’re lucky the shutter works so well, mine seriously lags below 1/25.
    From the available information, I couldn’t manage to exactly identify mine so far, also because the catalogues I found don’t list the 6×9 models with Meyer Triotar lenses. But with the shutter and other information I found here, I’m a big step further now.
    Best wishes from Germany!

    • Yes, it seems that Balda really put a lot of things together from whatever parts were laying around at the time, doesn’t it? I’m really fascinated by learning the history of these devices, though, and they are all beautiful in their own way.

      You know, if you’re interested in paying a few marks plus shipping costs (probably about $30US) I would send you my Balda so you can enjoy it. I have far too many cameras.

      Either way, I hope you’re able to try yours out and see what photographers saw 75 years ago. :D