admittedly i might have a few too many lenses. i don’t have curio cabinets full of them, or 4 shelves piled high but i am always a sucker for a cheap lens that might be interesting. the merriam-webster online dictionary defines interesting as holding the attention. its usually the cheap unwanted lenses that hold my attention. i bought a speed graphic camera as my entry to large format photography back in around 1988 from an old camera store called e. p. levines. i bought it back when it was still on lincoln street in boston
before it moved to 23 drydock in south boston.
back then it was kind of an unloved camera, every photographer back in the day had and used and sold one, and i was picking it up. i was more than happy because not only could i use shuttered lenses ( it came with a tominon 127 in a polaroid press shutter ) it had a curtain shutter so i could use the camera with enlarger lenses, and cheap unwanted barrel lenses. i still use the tominion and while over the years folks who know lens design and much more than i do about optics have told me that the lens does not cover a 4×5 sheet of film, i have used it for decades and never had dark corners or problems. maybe i lucked out? i’m not sure, but i do know that because there have been so many unloved polaroid mp-3 copy cameras flooding the online auction site over the years and people don’t believe the lens can work well with a 4×5 camera, the lens is an unloved lens as well.
so over the years i have bought and used barrel and enlarger lenses with this speed graphic. if you are wondering what a speed graphic is or what i am talking about, its one of those old fold-up newspaper cameras press photographers used back in the day. they look like this
and the curtain / focal plane shutter makes them a great camera for playing around with. you can fashion a lens out of pretty much anything, from a 5 and dime magnifying glass (cheap magnifying glasses) to a 18th century brass barrel lens that cost as much as a used car (brass lenses on google shopping ) … i tend to shy away from things that cost very much money, but over the years i have bought these unloved lenses and years later they are loved which brings me to the ilex seminat.
i bought this lens more than a decade ago, before the soft lens gold rush had really started. people really weren’t buying old brass lenses because no one really cared much about how they might give a nice soft image if shot wide open, without much effort. people hadn’t been bitten by the wet plate photography bug yet, so no one really needed a super fast large format lens so their portrait subject didn’t fall asleep during the exposure. i’ve photographed portraits with slow lenses, and paper negatives and counted to 45 or 50 or longer than that. while my subject was able to sit still and hold a pose, without a victorian head clamp, i am not sure how easy it would be to do on a regular basis, and if the subject was a kid, forget about it. a guy on ebay. he starts all his auctions at .77¢ and has a flair for selling great stuff. anyways, the lens cost, i don’t know $40 or 50$, shipped to me from sunny california and it arrived a few days later. ( sorry i don’t have a photograph of my particular lens but it looks kind of like this but mine is in an old ilex general shutter. it was described as being elusive or mysterious, the seller described it to a T—elusive.
i usually don’t stop the lens down, i don’t see much of a point in stopping down a lens unless it is some sort of documentary project where some sort of context and extreme detail is required. in that respect i live my photographic life by the HABS/HAER code. you might have heard of HABS, back in december 2015 a position opened up in washington DC to be one of the few photographers who work on HABS Documentation jobs full time. the photography is straight ahead photographic documentation, no soft lenses, everything exposed at f22, descriptive views, architectural history/descriptions, and the images aresometimes used together with measured drawings ( tape measure measuring a structure and doing detailed renderings, elevations &c ) and a technical research paper about the building, its historial significance, the builder, style &c …. while with the seminat i could stop down to f22 i don’t really use it for HABS work, i have modern coated lenses that do that job well, the seminat is for other”stuff”. i like to put the shutter on TIME so i can just do a long exposure and not deal with short exposures. i don’t have a lenscap so i use the focal plane shutter in the speed graphic. it takes a little while to learn how to focus with this lens to get the most out of it. while making portraits with it works great, and it does give a nice diffuse image i like photographing outdoors or through a window and letting the f3.5 and lens design do their things.
over the years i have done research on the ilex seminat, there really isn’t much written about it at all. i’ve read old photography magazines+ads on google books, sometimes they are there and available to look at (usually they talk about the cinema lens ilex sold with the same name) but very little if anything is written on this seminat. sometimes just buying a cheap lens on a whim works out. it might take a little playing with to figure out what the lens is good for and what it can do, and usually, if you don’t want it, you can put it up for sale for about what you paid for it, and get your $$ back, unless of course you bought things ahead of the curve and in that case you will be getting the loved price for your formerly unloved lens.