Shutters - History and Use

By Ernest Purdum © 2006 for

If you don't care about history, skip down to here

You don't need a shutter to make photographs. As far as we know, nobody used one until 1845 when two great French physicists designed a simple gadget for controlling light entering a camera so as to assist in such matters as measuring the speed of light.

The physicists were Fizeau and Foucault. Millions of Americans know the great pendulum of Foucault which hangs in the Smithsonian demonstrating the rotation of the earth.

The first shutter was used in photographing the sun. At the time, the sun was the only subject for which a shutter would have been much help. Even now, a few photographers have passed up the shutter for the lens cap.

We know that Matthew Brady used a shutter in 1850. This, like the Fizeau and Foucault unit was a "drop" or "guillotine" shutter, just a board with a hole in it sliding past the lens opening.

From 1850 to 1880, shutters became more common, but still hardly a necessary part of the camera, just an accessory handy at times. For this reason, shutters made before 1880 are, today, extremely rare.

During the 1880's, development of hand cameras and increased film speeds made the shutter much more important than before. Increased importance created a period of very rapid development. Some of the basic shutter mechanisms already existed and were now further developed. William England had designed a crude focal plane shutter in 1861. The next year Humbert de Molard had a roller-blind shutter, Jamin had somewhat refined the drop shutter into a guillotine shutter mounted between the lens elements, and Mann had built a center-opening leaf shutter. Rotary shutters were already well known by 1880. All of these types, and others, some very odd, formed the basis of the 1880's rapid progress. Until then, shutter timing, if it existed at all, was very crude. The tension on a spring or a rubber band was a common method of adjusting the speed. A brake of some sort was another. In 1886, Arthur S. Newman designed a shutter with a pneumatic timer. This was a big leap in exposure accuracy, and pneumatically controlled shutters were to become important for very many years. Self-diaphragming shutters, in which one set of blades opens to a pre-set aperture, then closes, were used for some time. One, designed by C. Sands of Sands Hunter and Company, appeared in 1881. It had only two blades. Later examples, with many blades, were made by Bausch & Lomb (1890), Goerz (1904) and others. Some of these still show up frequently on sale today.

Earlier films, very sensitive to blue, inspired the design of shutters intended to expose the sky less than the foreground. One of these, the Packard, is notable because it still exists today. There were many others, including one, infrequently seen, by Wollensak, the Skyshade. The Packard was intended to be mounted behind the lensboard. Many others were similarly attached. One interesting type, designed, I believe, by Grundmann, was a hemispherical bellows affair, opening like your eyelids. Silent operation was a design objective of many of these, the idea being that your subject would not be aware of the moment of exposure. Other early shutters attached in front of the lens. Newman's shutter worked within the Waterhouse slot as did a few others.

Among the many shutters intended to mount in front of the lens were those roller-blind types made by Thornton-Pickard. These were made in such large numbers that today very many still exist. You will find one, or often more, on sale at eBay on most any given day. Though the basic design goes back all the way to 1862, the first model of T-P shutter was patented in 1886. The type usually seen is marked "Time & Inst.". Some other T-P models are quite uncommon. Thornton -Pickard was so influential that nearly all competitive shutters followed T-P's lead in marking the highest speed as 1/90th (not to be taken very seriously). Most others did not follow T-P by using a string for cocking. Roller-blind items from other makers usually cock by a knob. Many of these other makers were in Germany and Japan. They remained on the Japanese market into the 1970's.

Shutters more nearly resembling those we see today started appearing in the 1890's. Bausch & Lomb entered the shutter business in 1890 with their "Iris Diaphragm" a self-diaphragming type. They followed up with improvements to this model and with the less expensive "Unicum" of 1897. A succession of former B&L employees went into the shutter business on their own. Gundlach (1896), Wollensak (1899), and eventually Ilex, were all B&L offshoots. At this time, many camera makers created their own shutters. Even so, American shutters were, for a time, found on many cameras made in England and continental Europe. The name of one European shutter maker may surprise you. It was Valentin Linhof. Cameras came later. He started out in 1887 and by the 1890's his improved designs were well regarded. His shutters used a leather brake to control the timing. Much later, Kenngott used the same device in his "Koilos" shutters, but later replaced it with a pneumatic timer.

In the early 1900's, pneumatic timing was augmented by clockwork control. In 1910, Ilex (then called "XL") obtained a patent which was licensed to Friedrich Deckel in Munich. Deckel was the maker of the "Compound" shutter. These first became available in 1904. Their quality was so high that the many that still exist require only very occasional routine servicing to continue to provide reliable service. (They also made highly regarded milling and engraving machines.) The dial-set "Compur", introduced in 1912, was the clockwork successor in sizes 00 to 3. The Compound remained for sizes 4 and 5. Ilex, of course, also produced shutters themselves. "Rim-Set" clockwork shutters came along at about 1930.

Surprisingly early, several makers concerned themselves with making high speed shutters. Focal plane shutters could be as fast as anyone desired just by making the slit very narrow. Since the actual time the blind was traveling was much longer than the exposure factor, this sometimes resulted in an interesting distortion in which a rapidly moving subject appears to be leaning far forward. I rather like the effect of a racing car with oval wheels and a radically tilted radiator housing. Interlens shutters, though, were a different problem. The blades had to travel really fast to result in short exposures. Some early types relied on brute force. The Prosch "Athlete" had two very strong springs to muscle the blades through their motion. Not surprisingly, this shutter seldom remains intact. Later, a more scientific approach used blades which, rather than opening, then changing direction to close, continued on in the same direction to close. One example is the "Multispeed" which claimed speeds up to 1/2000th second. Today, finding a Multispeed in working condition is difficult. Another example of this design is Wollensak's Optimo. Its designer made no attempt to achieve extremely high speeds and many Optimos still exist. A later design of this type was the Kodak shutter which achieved a speed of 1/800th second. There are actually two shutters within this one housing. Auxiliary blades are used to "cap" the shutter while the main blades are being returned to the cocked position. (Many early shutters were not "self-capping". You had to put the cap on the lens when cocking the shutter.) For their "Super Speed Graphic" Graflex produced a shutter with blades which instead of working from a simple pivot, were made to whirl around in a complex movement which again kept them moving in one direction only. An oddity was that they cock by twisting the built-in lens shade. If you have and intend to use one of either the Kodak or the Graflex high speed shutter types, frequent routine servicing is cheap insurance, since neither is noted for longevity. Fortunately, in current large format work there is rarely any need for fast shutter speeds, quite the opposite is the case.

Today, most shutters are controlled electronically. Sadly, this does not apply to most large format shutters which remain controlled by clockwork. This limits their slow speeds, so we have to resort to "Bulb" or "Time" exposures. Accuracy is also much poorer than electronics would permit. About thirty years ago, all the major makers put electronic shutters on the market. These had speeds up to thirty-two seconds. Although precision resistors and capacitors are cheaper to make than gears, these shutters carried very high prices and soon disappeared from the market. My thought is that the makers attempted to recover tooling costs too fast. Maybe they would have been less costly if Deckel had just replaced the pneumatic cylinder of the Compound with a solenoid. Should you run across one of the 1970's items, be aware that they can now be a reliability problem. It is hard to find anyone to work on them. Electronic repair people are put off by the mechanical portions and vice versa. The originally specified batteries are no longer available. Quite recently, there have been several new electronic shutters put on the market. It is perhaps too early to see how successful these will be. There are also several electrically operated shutters, some in very large size. These usually appear on the market without their control boxes which are harder to find than the shutters themselves. The cables between the two components are even harder to find and not always easy to duplicate. Most of these require so much power to operate that use in the field away from wall outlets is impractical.

Once upon a time, there were many shutter makers. Now, for large format users, Copal, and perhaps Prontor, are almost all that are left.

Who needs a shutter, anyway?

Well, most of us. It's still possible to make exposures with a lens cap or a hat. but it's not easy and getting harder. Films now available are too fast. There are, of course, ways of getting around the problem. Heavy filtering is the most obvious. Neutral density filters are made specifically to slow matters down. You can, of course, take up daguerreotypy, but if you do, please take precautions against mercury poisoning. You could wind up literally "Mad as a hatter'. (Hat-makers were also subject to mercury poisoning.

There can be many reasons to buy a lens in barrel - no shutter. You might want a specific lens, perhaps a soft-focus type that is only available in a barrel mount. Perhaps you might want one of the many "process" lenses now available in barrel at very attractive prices. Maybe you just want to get started in large format work as inexpensively as possible and have realized that it's possible to find a good barrel lens for much less money than the same type in a shutter mount. Having done so, now what do we do about a shutter?

As large format users, we have quite a choice. Our shutters can be focal plane, in front of the lens, behind the lens or between the lens cells

Focal plane shutters are built into Speed Graphics and other large format cameras occasionally available today. If, however, we select one of those, we have to either be satisfied with extremely limited movements; or have difficult and/or expensive modifications done. Occasionally, an accessory focal plane shutter, most often made by Graflex. will become available. When they do, they usually sell for rather high prices, and it is likely that the buyers will have even more expenses required to put them into a serviceable condition.

Probably the most readily available shutter designed for mounting in front of the lens is the roller-blind, particularly those made by Thornton-Pickard. The basic design dates from 1862. Most of these now available are much newer than that, but still old enough that a new blind is needed. If you can find one made in Japan, it may be much newer, perhaps made in the early 1970's. Once you have found a source of the material, it isn't too hard to make a new blind, but once done you will still have a very limited shutter. For some reason, the top speed is nearly always given as 1/90th second, but I wouldn't place much faith in that. As compared to other front-mounting types, though, they do have the advantage of having a range of speed selections. The Japanese, like some German roller-blind shutters, sometimes have metal cases. They are set with a knob unlike the T-P shutters which set with a string. The knob is preferable. Amongst other problems, the string sometimes gets hung up on its way back into the shutter housing during the exposure.

Other, and to my mind much better, front-mounting shutters, are those made by Luc, Gitzo, Zettor and unknown Italian makers. These have blades like those of a between-lens shutter and metal housings. They are very limited, however, in that they typically have only open, closed and bulb settings. You might find one with a single "instantaneous" setting.

Some folks have gone to a lot of work making a box to fit a Packard shutter before the lens. The advantage here is that Packard shutters are still available new in a very large selection of sizes. You can even get one with flash contacts if you like. Once done, though, you have a quite limited shutter that fits only one lens.

The Packard is a very old design. When used as intended, it sits on the back side of the lensboard. The outer dimensions are roughly twice those of the opening. Unless your lensboard is very large, you are quite limited in lens size. You also have to somehow pass a rubber tube from outside to the inside of your camera, usually through the lensboard. Some roller-blind shutters were made for behind-lens mounting (these have their own lensboards) and any roller-blind can be easily adapted to this use. The advantages and disadvantages are the same as those discussed above. It would also be feasible to adapt a Luc or similar shutter to behind-lens mounting. (A few were made that way to begin with.)

A large shutter intended for mounting between lens cells can become a very satisfactory behind-lens shutter if, but only if, vignetting can be avoided. If the lens has a wide angle of view, the back of the shutter will cut off some of the rays coming out of the lens unless the shutter is very large, the lens small, and the lens is mounted close to the shutter blades. Should, however, you want to mount a lens with a rather narrow angle of view, an Artar, perhaps, there is much less of a problem. Shutters suitable for this sort of service are those made by Ilex and Wollensak in sizes numbers 4 and 5, (occasionally even a smaller size will do), and particularly the number 5 Compound, which is larger than the American examples. The larger the shutter, the larger the lens can be without vignetting. One shutter occasionally seen was made specifically for this kind of service. It is the "Shanel #5A" (no relation to Chanel #5") made in Japan. It came with adapters to fit several Fuji barrel lenses, but as it happens the same adapters fit a number of European lenses as well. I have also seen what surely is the same shutter with a Chinese name on it. The Shanel has no diaphragm. Other shutters adapted to behind-lens mounting should have their iris blades removed or be blocked open to prevent goofs.

Another family of shutters made specifically for this purpose is that sold by Sinar. These are great, but difficult to adapt to cameras other than Sinars. The original "Sinar-Copal" is perhaps the easiest to adapt.

Having an adapter made to mount a barrel lens in front of a shutter is neither a particularly difficult matter nor all that expensive. Very likely a local machine shop could do it for you. Having lens cells put into a shutter is a very different matter. Unless they fit directly, the necessary adapters have to be made with great care to avoid a degraded image. Correct spacing is very important. Caution. Even if the cells screw right into place, the resulting spacing may be incorrect. This is particularly true with older lenses, but sometimes happens even with recent items. I even have a pair of Wollensak cells which screw right into a Wollensak shutter but which would foul the shutter blades if screwed all the way in. If you have doubts about spacing, a machine shop can put the original barrel assembly and the intended shutter assembly beneath a height gage and determine easily whether or not they match.

If the cells don't fit directly, making adapters is basically a job for a specialist firm. In the United States, this is often the company founded by the late S.K. Grimes ( In any event, anyone considering having this done should look at his website.

The expense of adapters is high enough that a lens needs to be either a great favorite or particularly desirable to warrant the cost. Buying a new shutter is also expensive. Buying used will usually cut the cost, but if purchasing a Copal, be aware that those having a plated speed adjustment ring are older and less desirable than the all-black ones. Although Seiko and Deckel (the Compur people) made fine shutters, if you want the assembly to have good resale value, it is probably well to stick to Copal if you have had to lay out the money for adapters.

Even with the cells fitting correctly into a shutter, the job isn't finished. Now you have to consider the diaphragm markings. This gets rather tricky when the barrel diaphragm has many blades and the shutter diaphragm only a few. Determining the effective aperture of a more or less pentagonal shaped opening isn't straightforward. Someone probably knows how to do it mathematically, I don't. The problem is even worse when your barrel has no stops as is often the case with a lens which once had Waterhouse stops, now long since lost. One answer is simply to send the lens to the Grimes firm and let them figure it out (at some expense, of course). Another is to point the camera, focused at infinity with another lens of equal or faster speed, at a blank wall. Set the diaphragm to any known opening. Take a reading from the groundglass, then match that reading with the lens in the new shutter. Mark that opening on a temporary scale. Repeat for the remaining openings. While doing this, you will want to screen the groundglass from extraneous light. Now your temporary scale can be copied by an engraver onto a permanent scale. I think most any engraver can make up a scale that goes in a straight line, but a scale that, like most, is on a segment of a circle may be more of a problem. The late S.K. Grimes made tooling for his own use in doing this.

A few words about shutter accuracy. This is much less of a problem than many think. Consider that changing from one stop to the next either doubles or halves the amount of light coming through. If a shutter is ten percent off marked values, it is a rather small error. More than accuracy, we need consistency. We can live pretty well with exposures of 1/20th second instead of 1/30th, as long as the exposure is close to 1/20th each time. This is where a good shutter repairperson is helpful. Most shutters given a routine cleaning, lubricating and adjusting procedure (CLA) will work quite consistently, even though marked speeds may be highly inaccurate. You should receive a calibration slip listing the actual speeds. Shutters used regularly won't usually require CLA for several years, but if one has been out of use for some time it's a good idea to have it done even if it seems to be working well. Carol Miller of Flutot's Camera Repair in Whittier, California ( is a highly regarded specialist in large format shutters.

The accuracy of pneumatic shutters, such as the Compound, is a special case. After cocking, wait briefly before making the exposure. This allows the air pressure inside the pneumatic cylinder to equalize with the atmosphere.

The main difficulty regarding accuracy of long exposure is in the two to four second area. For longer exposures, it is fairly easy to calibrate yourself by counting along with a digital timer like the one on your microwave. With some practice, you can become quite accurate this way. You can also look at the second hand of your watch, but I find this is actually harder. Prontor made an auxiliary timer for long (up to 32 seconds) exposures. This threads into your shutter like a cable release and holds the shutter, which is set on Bulb, open for a pre-determined time. It's a nice gadget, but expensive.

There are two common ways of fastening a shutter to a lensboard - flange and retaining ring. A flange is held onto the front of the lensboard by several screws; while the retaining ring threads on from the rear of the lensboard. There are a few points to watch out for here. Sometimes a wooden lensboard is too thick for a retaining ring. This can particularly be a problem when the rear cell of the lens has to be removed in order to pass the rear of the shutter into place. If the lensboard is a little too thick, everything may go together, but the rear cell may not be screwing all the way in. You might then think you had bought a bad lens, but the problem is simply improper spacing. The usual answer to this type of problem is to have a little relief routed into the back of the lensboard. In extreme cases, it may be necessary to add a metal patch to the front of the lensboard.

Before mounting a new shutter, look to see if there is a tiny screw on the back, just outside the threaded part. The purpose of this screw is to prevent the lens turning when being cocked, etc. Many people consider it unnecessary, and simply take it out and throw it away. I prefer to take a needle file and make a little notch to accommodate it.

In buying a used shutter, there are many things that should be considered in establishing a price. Is there a convenient way of opening it for focusing? Is it flash synchronized? If so, does it have the modern "pc" type cord connection. Does it have a flange or retaining ring? If the shutter is small and common, this may be only a ten dollar or so matter, but a flange for a large uncommon shutter might cost about $60.00 or even more. Has the shutter had a recent CLA? This adds about $50.00 to its value.

One matter to decide before making a purchase is whether or not you want a self-cocking shutter or one that must be cocked before each use. Personally, I think the self-cocking type more appropriate for any camera mounted on a tripod. Oddly, though, in buying a new lens you will probably find yourself without any choice, the lens will come in a cocking type shutter. Why do I like the self-cocking variety? Because it reduces the number of steps needed to prepare to photograph, and it makes multiple exposures feasible. Multiple exposures aren't just for stunts, if you flash hasn't enough power, pop it off, twice, or even more times. If you need another flash unit, just move the one you have. Just don't shake the camera by cocking a shutter, though. I have another reason for liking self-cocking shutters. I occasionally play at macro work and dislike having to stick my finger into the often small space between the lens and subject any more than necessary.

Some folks have a preference for an earlier shutter type having many iris blades forming a round aperture. This is matter of the appearance of out-of focus areas.

Well, there we have it. Shutters can be a source of great aggravation, but they have been found to be a help ever since the time of Fizeau and Foucault.

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