The Compass Camera was the brainchild of a guy who, if you were in an especially charitable mood, you’d describe as “a character.” Noel Pemberton Billing (1881-1948) was a man of many interests, and nothing if not an iconoclast – he got his start in professional life when, at the age of 13, he set fire to the headmaster’s office at his school and ran away from home. Eventually he ended up in South Africa, where he worked odd jobs (apparently he was a pretty good boxer) until he was old enough to join the Army, and he ended up being wounded twice in the Second Boer War.
Back in London after the war, he devoted himself enthusiastically to two things: aviation and politics. In the latter field that he became notorious – Billing held extreme right wing views and also had many rather weird conspiracy theories – but that didn’t keep him from becoming a Member of Parliament in due course. The aircraft company he founded – Pemberton-Billing Ltd. – would go on to become Supermarine Aviation Works Ltd., and would manufacture, amongst other groundbreaking aircraft, the Supermarine Spitfire. This was some time after Billing had anything to do with the company, but he never lost his taste for inventing and in the early 1930s – supposedly as a result of a bet as to whether it was possible to make a camera that would fit into a cigarette packet – he began work on a miniature, collapsible camera that would accept 35mm film.
35mm format film started out as cinema film and as every photography buff knows, its earliest use for still photography was when Eastman Kodak cinema film was adapted for use in still photography by Oskar Barnak, for Leitz Camera. His Leica camera debuted in 1927 and it was revolutionary, with a design that has stood the test of time with almost unbelievable stability (modern digital Leica M cameras bear a startling resemblance to the ur-Leica from 1927).
Given the fact that what we today would call large format film was still very much a professional standard in the 1930s, it took an enterprising and slightly intolerant frame of mind to find the Leica camera excessively bulky – it itself was a miracle of miniaturization in its day – but if you wanted enterprising plus intolerant, Noel Pemberton Billing was your boy.
His design required a company with expertise in miniaturization of gear trains, and instead of working with a conventional camera manufacturer, he set up his own company in London – Compass Camera Ltd. – and contracted with LeCoultre & Cie to assist with engineering and manufacturing.
It’s a seductively beautiful little machine. Only about 4,000 were made – the first version used individual sheets of 35mm film, while the second version allowed the use of a roll film magazine that added very little bulk to the camera (you could actually swap out backs and the roll film magazine was offered as a free upgrade to Mark I owners). The procedure for using the camera was somewhat complicated, but this was as much owing to its versatility as anything else.
You would begin by opening the telescoping lens, and loading a sheet of 35mm film into the back. Closing the back would leave one edge of the light-tight paper film envelope protruding, and you would pull this out, which would leave the film ready for exposure.
Amazingly enough, there were three options for focusing: a fold-out ground glass screen; a distance ring at the base of the lens (with calibrations from 1 3/4 feet to infinity) and an honest to Betsy split-image rangefinder, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that the first rangefinder Leica (the Leica II) had only come out a few years earlier, in 1932.
For aperture, you had several options – the lens is f/3.5 with a 35mm focal length and there were suggested apertures, based on available light, which you could set via a dial on one side of the lens. Filters could be selected depending on whether you happened to be using orthochromatic or panchromatic film. (Orthochromatic film uses unmodified silver halide emulsion, which is much more sensitive to blue light than to green or red and which could produce very distorted contrast. This can be corrected, to some extent, with filters. Panchromatic film could compensate to some extent but still required correcting filters, and was much more expensive and in the 1930s both film types were widely used.)
If you wanted to, you could also use an “extinction” type meter. This was built into a finder on the lower right hand side of the camera; it was basically a strip of transparent material of gradually increasing opacity. You pulled it out, while looking through the finder, until you could just see the highlights in what you wanted to shoot. Then you would read off a guide number, which you could use to set aperture and shutter speed.
There is a wonderful YouTube video that goes into a great deal of detail on how you set up and use the Compass Camera.
Now, as you can imagine, shooting with such a small camera, and having to juggle all the manual settings, is not for the faint of heart but it’s salutary, in this Instagram age of ours, to consider what a hassle taking a picture used to be (those of you who, like me, are old enough to remember taking film to drop off at the drugstore and waiting with bated breath to see what “came out” will know what I mean). You really had to know what you were doing, but if you did, the engineering and optical sharpness of the Compass meant you could get quite detailed images. Recently, Jaeger-LeCoultre Fake Watches sent a photographer out with a Compass Camera to take pictures around the world, and, as you can see, at its best, and for its time, it was quite a Mighty Mite.
You’ve gotta love film – when you consider these pictures were taken with a camera made in 1937, it’s impressive just how built-to-last the Compass really was. Some of these images, by the way, are going to find their way into the exhibition “The Art of Behind the Scenes” organized by Jaeger-LeCoultre Replica, which will open at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday, May 19, 2017, so check it out if you happen to be at Cannes in May (and hey, who isn’t?). I’ve had a chance to handle a Compass and it’s got an amazing tactility – if somehow an upgraded version were made that could handle modern 35mm film rolls I suspect they’d sell like hotcakes. Expensive, high-precision aluminum hotcakes.