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Taking a Photo with the 130-Year-Old Rochester Premo B Camera


Photographer Roberto Serrini received an antique camera as a gift from his father: a Rochester Premo B. Curious to see what it was like shooting with this camera as if it was 1893, Serrini decided to give see what that process was like.

The Rochester Premo B shoots tintypes and is one of the first consumer cameras ever made. It was made by the Rochester Optical Company in 1893, which makes the camera nearly 130 years old. Interestingly, the Rochester Optical Company still exists, though not in the same form as it did way back then. Rochester’s camera business was actually taken over by Kodak in 1903 after suffering losses it couldn’t overcome, so that part of the company actually has long since ceased to exist.

According to Serrini and catalog from the period he shares, the camera was marketed alongside the bicycle. It was actually called the Bicycle Camera because it came out around the same time as the new mode of transportation.

Serrini shares the language that was used to describe the camera in the catalog, and it is pretty elaborate by today’s standards.

Wood of gigantic mahogany in Honduras, skins gathered from far-off Australia and Africa, combine with brass of finest manufacture and glass of the most accurate grinding to produce the camera.

But it gets better:

All great things have small beginnings. The infinitesimal drop of water combining with its fellows produces the irresistible flood which lays waste vast districts. The tiny grain of sand, having in itself no power, becomes a part of the support of a mighty wall which holds in safety life and property of great moment. The genius and skill of man have wrought marvelous things with the elements of nature about him, but none is more wonderful in its manufacture or uses than the camera.

We began their manufacture in a modest way nearly a quarter of a century ago. To-day they are made in the largest plate camera factory in existence. From the beginning Premos have embodied all that is good in camera construction. Whatever theory could suggest, science supply, and experience furnish, in a field of effort that attracted the master minds of the age, has been incorporated in the Premo.

With adventure-novel-esque marketing like that, it’s no wonder the camera originally sold well. According to Historic Camera, it was a popular hand and tripod model among amateurs because it provided a quality camera at a moderate cost. It was available in two sizes: a 4 x 5 and a 5 x 7 inch. The 4 x 5 inch was sold for between $15 and $20, while the 5 x 7 inch was available for between $23 and $30 depending on the lens selected.

According to the catalog Serinni shows on his blog, it was listed for $18 at the time, which makes it equivalent to about $520 by today’s values. Not cheap for a camera, but also not wildly expensive either.

What was once considered a consumer-level product is now quite complicated by modern standards. Serrini outlines the process of preparing the tintypes for use in the camera, which must be done a day in advance to allow the plates to cure.

A day later and after making minor repairs to his Premo B, finding the necessary missing parts to hold the film, curing the film, and calculating how long his exposure would have to be, he finally was able to create one photo. While imperfect, it does show the level of detail required to take a photo a century ago and if nothing else served as a fun project that made use of a gift his father gave him.

And most importantly, Serrini likes the result he was able to get despite its flaws. To him, it made the photo feel as old as the camera that took it.

To read a more detailed description of the camera and the process Serrini went through (as well as peruse pages of that classic catalog), check out his blog. For more from Serrini, you can subscribe to his YouTube Channel.

Image credits: Photos by Roberto Serrini and used with permission.