Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

submit your photo

Hall of Fame
View past winners from this year

Please participate in Meta
and help us grow.

Take the 2-minute tour ×
Photography Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for professional, enthusiast and amateur photographers. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I inherited my Grandfather's beautiful Graflex Crown Graphic which he used for his entire career as a portrait photographer. (It's the picture on my avatar if you want to see it.)

Doing research on Graflex cameras I came across the Speed Graphic and the Crown Graphic. The main difference being the inclusion of a focal plane shutter in the SG.

My Crown Graphic has a leaf shutter in the lens itself. If my research is correct, I believe the Speed Graphic has both a leaf shutter and focal plane shutter. Why have two shutters on the same camera? What difference does this make?

And, in general what is the difference between a leaf shutter and focal plane shutter in function? I obviously know that the location is different! It also, clearly, makes the lens production less complicated because the lens no longer needs to contain a shutter mechanism. But, is there a photographic difference between the two?

share|improve this question

1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The biggest functional difference between a leaf shutter and a focal plane shutter is the ability of a focal plane shutter to precisely allow the same amount of exposure time over the entire frame and to allow the practical use of faster shutter speeds.

Due to the fact that leaf shutters are open in the center longer than at the edges, the light coming through the center of the lens falls on the image plane for slightly longer periods that the light coming from the edges of the lens. This wasn't such a big issue when photography first got started and the emulsions were so low in sensitivity that typical exposure times were in minutes, rather than hundredths or even thousandths of a second! In fact, the first "shutters" were lens caps or plugs that were removed and replaced on the front of the lens by hand.

As camera's became more sensitive to light and the desired exposure times got shorter and shorter, the limitations of the leaf shutter became a more significant issue. Even so, there are still new digital cameras produced today that use leaf shutters. The designers feel, and the marketplace seems to agree, that the tradeoffs are worth it in some cases.

A focal plane shutter can be designed to begin exposure on one side of the frame and end it on the other side of the frame. This allows all parts of the frame to receive light from all parts of the lens for the same amount of time. The earliest single curtain focal plane shutters, such as those used in the Speed Graphic, had a fixed slit that passed across the focal plane. By allowing the user to select different slit widths and spring tensions for the mechanism that drove the slit across the focal plane, shutter speeds ranging from 1/10 second to 1/1000 second were possible using most of the various models of the Speed Graphic.

Why would the Speed Graphic have both a focal plane and leaf shutter? It doesn't necessarily also need a leaf shutter. Barrel lenses without a leaf shutter can be used with a Speed Graphic. The focal plane shutter is used for speed, specifically faster shutter speeds, thus the name Speed Graphic. But the camera was certainly not speedy in terms of shot to shot intervals and the operation of the FP shutter took longer between shots than the operation of a leaf shutter in the lens. This may be one reason many users preferred both options. The lineup of lenses that included leaf shutters offered by lens makers could be used across both the Speed Graphic and the Crown Graphic and Century Graphic models. (The lack of a focal plane shutter allowed the Crown Graphic to be made slightly thinner which allowed use of some wider angle lenses than could be used with the Speed Graphic.)

Though not exactly applicable to your specific model, here is a link to the instructions for a c.1925 Top Handle Speed Graphic.

share|improve this answer
Ive resisted putting this as an answer - a VERY important feature of a lens-mounted shutter is flash-sync. it is well known that a lens mounted leaf shutter can sync to 1/1000th+ –  Darkcat Studios Jan 1 at 22:47
Thanks! Great post! I've never gotten a satisfactory answer before! –  David M Jan 1 at 22:54
@DarkcatStudios For lenses that are designed either for sensors much smaller than 4X5 or made of modern materials and electronically controlled (or both) they can... –  Michael Clark Jan 2 at 1:31
There's also the traverse time (if I recall correctly, it was 1/10s on the fastest of the Speed Graphics, meaning that the top of the frame and the bottom saw the world a little bit differently—which is why those old-timey race cars had those neat slanted elliptical go-fast wheels) and the time it took to wind the shutter. Using the leaf shutter, wireframe finder and a Grafmatic back, you had a "burst mode" of about 6FPM. (3 FPM if you needed flash, depending on how good you were at "recycling".) –  user2719 Jan 2 at 3:16
That's pretty much it, Michael. Given that most of these cameras were used by newsies (with the film often developed by inspection), having the ability to properly expose for the conditions was a "nice to have" compared to "f/8 and be there — with flash". The FP shutter allowed you to take nice pictures when you had the time, but you didn't always have the time. The leaf shutter gave the equivalent of "spray and pray", which is a legitimate photojournalistic technique sometimes. –  user2719 Jan 2 at 5:37

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.