Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Ilford Sportsman

Ilford Sportsman 35mm camera
For the purpose of taking photographs for my post on the history of Ilford Limited in Ilford, I wanted to use an Ilford camera. Perhaps described as the lower end of the middle market, the Ilford Sportsman is a little more sophisticated than a simple point and shoot camera: Ilford's competition in the domestic market at the time was the Kodak Retinette (specifically, the first Sportsman model looks very similar to the Kodak Retinette Type 022 model) and the Agfa Silette. As was the case with all Ilford-branded cameras (which continues with the current Titan cameras, made by Walker), Ilford didn't manufacture the Sportsman: it is a rebadged Dacora Dignette, a German-made rigid-body 35mm camera. Peter Wallage's page about the Sportsman gives a good potted history of Ilford entering the mid-priced 35mm camera market after the Second World War, following problems with their expensive high-specification Witness camera and the moderately more successful Advocate.

This model is the earliest iteration; later Sportsman/Dignette cameras had larger viewfinders, then rangefinders, and selenium cell lightmeters. The camera is of all metal construction, the main section of the solid body appears to be cast, while the top plate and lens/shutter housing are stamped. The lens is a 45mm f3.5 Dacora Dignar, in a Gauthier Vario 3-speed shutter, with speeds of 1/25th, 1/50th, 1/200th and 'B'.  The lens focuses down to 3 1/3 feet (for export Dacora simply converted their existing markings in metres to feet), with a depth of field scale around the lens. There is also a PC socket for flash and an accessory shoe on the top plate.

Ilford Sportsman top view
The film counter is built into the rapid advance lever, this counts down, and needs to be set manually, with figures 'A' and 20 marked in red. There is also a film reminder dial set into the top of the rewind knob: half of this dial is marked for black and white with film speeds from 25 to 400; for colour the other half is marked 'D', 'A' and 'F' corresponding to Ilford's colour films available at the time. The shutter release is positioned on front of body with a screw thread for a cable release.

The Ilford Sportsman was first marketed in 1957 (the Dacora Dignette itself appeared two years earlier); the manual which came with my camera is dated 1958. There are some very minor variations during the production run of the first body style, notably in the badging: the earliest versions had the word "Foreign" stamped into the leatherette underneath the Ilford name printed in white. This was then replaced by a small metal badge with 'Ilford' and "Made In Western Germany". In 1959 a new version of the Sportsman/Dignette appeared with a redesigned top incorporating a larger viewfinder, a change common to the design of cameras in the late 1950s (a contemporary example being the Vito B, with a larger viewfinder in its 1959 variant).

An interesting curiosity about the Sportsman's Dignar lens is that, although the smallest aperture marked on the camera is f16, the aperture lever goes further, perhaps to f22. The Dacora version of the camera was also available with a faster f2.8 lens. Obviously the aperture lever needs to travel further for the f2,8 lens and as the camera body housing has the same length slot for this lever, with f3.5 as the widest aperture, the slot is wide enough for the aperture lever to move further in the other direction, i.e. to a smaller aperture setting (this is a speculative explanation as I do not have a Dacora Dignette for comparison). The two images below were shot at f16 and the smaller aperture. From the results, any benefits of increased depth of field are offset by the increased and very clear vignetting.

Exposures of one second at f16, left, and the smaller aperture, right
Despite the pleasures the Sportsman's simplicity of operation, the Sportman's Dignar lens' performance is fairly undistinguished: relatively sharp in the centre at smaller apertures, there is vignetting, and, especially towards the top right hand side of the images, the focus falls off, and in some of the images at wider apertures this is very intrusive, like the first photograph below. This looks like distortion caused by the lens plane not being entirely parallel to the film plane, essentially a tilt effect. The lack of choice of speeds with the Vario shutter is limiting, and eccentric: a 1/100th speed would have been useful in terms of determining exposures; 1/200th was simply too short an exposure with the slow films I've used with the Sportsman for this blogpost.

Sample image on Ilfodata HS23
Sample image on Ilfodata HS23
Sample image on Ilford Mark V film

Sources/further reading
Ilford Sportsman on Photomemorabilia
Peter Wallage's Ilford page
Ilford Sportsman on Camera Wiki
Dacora Dignette on Lippisches Kamera Museum (in German)
Ilford Sportsman in Sylvain Halgand's collection (in French)


  1. Thanks for this about the little Ilford Sportsman. I had one sitting on my desk and gathering dust for six months, at Northampton College where I teach photography. I decided to dust it, stick some of the leatherette back on, clean it up and put a film through it. Keeping my subjects at a distance and not trying to guess the focus, I got good results, if the lens was suitably stopped down. Talking of that, when I was a photographic assistant in London in the 1970s we used 10x8 Ektachrome for all advertising shots, and with the somewhat excellent Schneider Kreuznach lenses capable of f64, 'my' photographer - the wonderful Philip Pace - always said 'stop it hard down', as the aperture control always gave a bit more than f64. Quality on those 10x8 transparencies was always amazing, and my students today are impressed by the quality of some of my own images shot in the format.

  2. Nick, this was your Grandad's camera through the mid to late 60s - used entirely (as far as I can remember) to take Kodachrome slides.

    1. Thanks for that piece of information John - I wasn't aware of that. I'd love to see some of the Kodachrome slides some time!