Japanese 4.5×6 folders
Between the 1930s and the 1950s, a good number of Japanese companies, some of them very small, produced a quantity of 4.5×6 folders.
image by Geoff Harrisson (Image rights)
Prewar and wartime
The Ikonta A appeared in 1932 and was the first camera to take 4.5×6 exposures on 120 film. It was directly copied by Fujimoto for the Semi Prince and was the inspiration for the Semi Minolta by Molta (one of the first cameras to have the Minolta name), both launched in 1934 and disputing the distinction of being the first Japanese 4.5×6 camera. The Ikonta copies or near-copies were very numerous. Some of these were made in large quantities, like the Semi Lyra by Fuji Kōgaku, released in 1936, and others initiated a long line of cameras, like the Semi Pearl introduced by Konishiroku in 1938 and the Waltax and Okaco introduced by Okada in 1940.
The Nettar, released in 1937, was a simplified version of the Ikonta with plain diagonal struts. It was copied by Shōwa for the Semi Leotax, by Fujimoto for the Semi Lucky, by Kigawa for the Semi Kulax and Kiko Semi and by other lesser-known makers.
The Baldax appeared in 1933 and existed in two body variants, for #00 size and #0 size shutters, and the large variant also existed in 6×6. The first Japanese copy was probably the Semi Proud by Proud-sha in 1935. The body of the Semi Proud was sold to Takachiho for the Semi Olympus released in 1936 or 1937, the first camera to have the Olympus name and one of the first Japanese folders to have a four element lens. Other copies of the Baldax were the Semi Lester, Semi Victor, Semi Condor and Zeitax that seem to originate from the same company called Motodori then Nissan Kōgaku. The Baby Semi First made by Kuribayashi seems to be the only Japanese copy of the Baldax small model, and was offered as a compact camera along the contemporary Semi First.
The names of successful Baldax copies like the Semi Proud and Zeitax was used again at the beginning of the 1940s on Ikonta or Nettar copies. This probably indicates that the Baldax shape was becoming old fashioned at the time.
The inspiration sometimes came from other German cameras as well. The Semi First models made by Kuribayashi were copied from the Perle by Welta, and the Auto Semi First and Auto Semi Minolta (1937) rangefinder models were largely copied from the Weltur. The Semi Prux by Miyoshi and Proud-sha was copied from the original Duo Six-20 by Kodak AG while its successor the Roavic was copying the Series II version. It seems that the lesser-known Semi Rody II was also copying the Duo.
Sometimes it was not the camera body but some specific device that was copied. The exposure counter of the Auto Semi Minolta was taken from the Plaubel rollfilm backs and Roll-Op II camera, while the rangefinder of the Super Semi Proud was also inspired by the Roll-Op II design.
Few of the prewar Japanese 4.5×6 folders had a genuine national design. The Semi Minolta and Semi Pearl already mentioned above were much inspired by the Ikonta but were not plain copies. The Semi Gelto, Semi Clover, Star Semi and Semi Kreis are inspired by the Nettar but have a reversed construction with the finder on the opposite side, thus having a body release actioned by the right hand, and the two last ones have rounded body ends.
Most 4.5×6 horizontal folders were original designs, like the Semi Olympus II and the Primo by Daiichi Kikō with folding struts inspired from the Balda models, or the Tsubasa Nettar and Tsubasa Kiko Three by Kigawa with folding struts inspired from the 6×6 Ikonta. The Tsubasa Super Semi was an inexpensive camera but had a completely original design, with curved folding struts and the shutter release on the folding bed.
Some strut folders were also made, like the Seves, Semi Chrome B and Bakyna, but only in very small quantities. The Collex had the lens and shutter assembly mounted on a large plate supported by scissor struts, retracting under a vertical folding bed. This design was only partly original because it was an enlarged copy of the German Goldi 3×4 camera by Zeh.
The first generation of Japanese 4.5×6 folders had the shutter release on the lens housing itself. Most of them were upgraded at some time with a "body release", that is a release button located on the body and mechanically linked to the shutter. The body release is usually located near the hinge of the folding bed, and thus it is tripped by the left hand fingers.
Most prewar models were equipped a folding optical finder, making it large enough without being a bulk. Some cameras had a tubular optical finder and a limited number had a top housing containing the viewfinder. There was a short-lived vogue at the beginning of the 1940s to make dual finder models having both an eye-level finder and a brilliant finder, often place side by side in a small housing.
The first models had two red windows in the back, placed to match the series of numbers intended for 6×9 format, each number having to be read twice, once in a window then in the other. On a few early models these windows had no protective cover. However the use of panchromatic emulsions was becoming more common and these were rapidly upgraded with red window covers. After a few years the film makers began to sell 120 rollfilm with another series of numbers specific to the 4.5×6 format, and the camera makers sold enhanced models with only one red window. It seems that one of the first Japanese 4.5×6 cameras to have a single red window was the Semi Condor in 1939.
At some point, nearly all the folder models changed the method to open the back. The first models had a sliding button on the side on a thick metal part covering the back latch and supporting a handle. This was replaced by a sliding bar giving a more modern look with no handle. It seems that the inspirator of this change was again the Ikonta, whose back latch was changed at some point.
Innovative and advanced models
Most Japanese prewar folders were regular copies of simple German designs, equipped with average three element lenses. However this does not mean that there was no innovation at all.
On the anecdotal side, some Japanese makers introduced curious patented devices, like the pseudo exposure counter of the Semi First A, the ground glass back of the Semi Elega or the audible advance device of the Semi Dymos (so-called "talkie numbers"). These did not meet great success and no detail is known for some of them.
Other makers tried to improve the quality of their products by adopting a more robust body or a more advanced lens design. The body of the Semi Minolta II was changed around 1940 from a pressed steel construction to a die-cast one, more robust and allowing less tolerances, with no change of the model name. Among the few four element lenses on prewar 4.5×6 folders were the Zuiko on the Semi Olympus and Semi Olympus II, the Hexar on one version of the Semi Pearl, the Kolex on the Waltax and Okaco and the Promar on the Auto Semi Minolta. These lenses were all made by the same company as the body, except for the Promar made by Asahi Kōgaku. It is worth noting that all these companies were long-lived, the first to disappear being the maker of the Waltax that disappeared in 1958. The smaller and less ambitious companies had a much shorter life cycle.
Some expensive models featured an auto-stop film advance device. The first folder such equipped in the world was probably the German Roll-Op II by Plaubel, using a device that was also fitted to the roll-film backs of the Plaubel Makina. This mechanism was directly copied on the 1937 Auto Semi Minolta and a comparable one was offered as an option on the 1938 Semi Proud II and III. It seems that the only other Japanese 4.5×6 folder to have this feature was the Semi Leotax in its most expensive version.
Unit focusing was another uncommon advanced feature mounted on a few models, the most successful being the Semi Pearl whose lens and shutter assembly was mounted on a helical focusing. Very few expensive cameras had a coupled rangefinder: the Auto Semi Minolta, Super Semi Proud and Auto Semi First. This device was not generalized at the time and it would only become common after the war.
To be completed
After the war, many models switched from a folding optical finder to a viewfinder enclosed in a top housing, giving a more modern look. The Baldax copies became rare and most models now had a body styled after the Ikonta. Some makers, like Daido or Mihama, made both 4.5×6 and 6×6 models, but the 4.5×6 folders tended to be abandoned first. In general they were considered to be cheaper models, and very few received the advanced features of the last Japanese folders, like the coupled rangefinder or automatic film advance. An exception was the Pearl III by Konishiroku; and its successor the Pearl IV had one of the most advanced designs for any format of folder.
By about 1960, all the Japanese 4.5×6 folders had disappeared. In the 1970s, Fuji unexpectedly launched a 4.5×6 folder again, the rangefinder Fujica GS645. It was the last 4.5×6 folder produced in any country. The later autofocus Fujifilm GA645 and the rangefinder Bronica RF645 descend in some way from the early 4.5×6 folders, but they no longer have bellows.