Home Camera Articles FOR SALE Orders I Buy / Wants Repairs Books Adapters
Bell & Howell Foton Super Camera
Very few cameras are all time classics. This is one of them. Bell & Howell's 1948 effort to produce the best 35 mm camera did in fact produce the USA's best made 35 mm camera, and the highest speed full frame hand wound motor at 6 fps!!
The fabulous Bell & Howell Foton with 50/2.2 Cooke Amatol, 100/4 Taylor & Hobson Panchrotal, heavy chromed machined lens caps, and original instruction manual. An impressive post-war effort, but the Foton's high original price of $700 in postwar America assured it would not be the real competitor to Leica it deserved to be. It's really too bad. With a full array of lenses and accessories, the Foton would have been a real contender for the crown. The Foton's mechanical 6 fps motor is remarkable. By my count it would only take 33 years for a regular production 35 to equal its speed -- the 1980 Nikon F3! Other advanced features for the time were a hot shoe and "T-stop" calibrated lenses for the utmost in exposure accuracy.
Note the unusually deep machined front lens cap for the 100/4 in the above left pic. The right pic shows the smooth elegant lines of the Foton's layout. The round window which looks kind of like a watch face is the manually set film counter. In front of the film counter is the shutter release? Nope, that's the rewind button! The very small round window next to the film take up knob (for film loading) is a shutter cocking indicator.
Pic on the left shows the shutter release. The small lever below the shutter release is the shutter release lock. The gob of metal sticking out above the shutter release is the motor speed director. Left in this position, you get single shots. Move it clockwise, and you can get bursts up to six frames per second! Notice that funny looking wheel near the shutter release? That's the focusing wheel! On the right notice the heavy machined bottom plate. The large key on the left end of the camera is the motor winding key. On one wind, as many as 17 shots can be continuously made.
The opened back shows the Foton's all metal vertically traveling shutter. It's a strange unique design which also included a second shutter capping device in front of it. Unlike the other great American 35 mm, the Kodak Ektra, the Foton had a excellent reputation for reliability despite its considerable complexity. The shutter speed dial is to the right of the lens in the above pic with a range from 1/1000 to 1 second. To remove a Foton lens, just unscrew it. Like the Zeiss Contax, the 50mm lens helical is built into the body. The two windows on the back of the top plate are the separate rangefinder and viewfinder windows. The Foton's built in 50mm viewfinder was typical of 1948 -- no brightline framelines, no parallax correction, small squinty field of view.
Foton with the extremely rare 100/4 lens.
Some sources claim 16,900 were made. I personally find this difficult to believe considering how seldom I find them. I have seen encountered about three dozen Kodak Ektras (a contemporary American system 35), yet only about six Fotons. Ektra production is usually estimated to be about 2,500. Unlike the extremely unreliable Ektras, most Fotons still work -- a testament to their sound design and workmanship.
Considering the Foton's quality design, workmanship, and dependability, it makes a strong claim as the premier 35mm rangefinder manufactured in the United States, despite the Foton's limited range of lenses and accessories.
It's interesting to note that the Foton's concept of a built in, compact, high speed motordrive lives on today in practically every higher end 35mm camera !
Revised: November 25, 2003 . Copyright © 1998-2002 Stephen Gandy. All rights reserved. This means you may NOT copy and re-use the text or the pictures in ANY other internet or printed publication of ANY kind. Information in this document is subject to change without notice. Other products and companies referred to herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective companies or mark holders.