This review is part of the Cameras of the Dead series which I have been publishing every year on Halloween and “Halfway to” Halloween, featuring three cameras that I’ve wanted to review that either didn’t work, or was otherwise unable to shoot.
I am republishing each of those individual reviews this October in anticipation of this Halloween’s Cameras of the Dead post as a way to revisit the cameras of the past that allows them to be properly indexed on the site.
This is a Foca PF3, sometimes called the “three star” for the three stars that appear on the front plate of the camera, made by Optique & Précision de Levallois, in Levallois-Perret, France between 1947 and 1957. The Foca PF3 was a 35mm rangefinder camera that is sometimes called the “French Leica” for it’s similar feature set. It was often seen as a more cost effective alternative to the Leica in France as it was not subject to steep tariffs and import taxes. The cameras were generally high quality, but are rarely seen outside of Europe today.
Film Type: 135 (35mm)
Lens: 50mm f/1.9 Foca Oplarex Coated 6-elements
Lens Mount: Foca PF Screw (~36mm) Mount
Focus: 1 meter to Infinity
Viewfinder: Coupled Coincident Image Rangefinder.
Shutter: Cloth Focal Plane
Speeds: T, B, 1 – 1/1000 seconds
Exposure Meter: None
Flash Mount: Accessory Shoe with PC Port M and X sync
Weight: 925 grams (w/ lens), 735 grams (body only)
When you make a camera as successful as the Leica rangefinder, everyone wants to copy you, and copy the Leica companies did. Nearly every company from every country, made Leica copies. Companies from the Soviet Union, Japan, England, the United States, Italy, and even France all made cameras that were either exact copies, or similar enough to be considered “Leica Copies”.
While some of these copies were like the Soviet Zorkis and FEDs that externally were nearly identical, there were others that took a few liberties making cameras that were more “Leica-inspired” than downright copies. The Foca rangefinder from Optique & Précision de Levallois, or OPL for short, was such a camera.
OPL was founded in 1919 but had roots as far back as 1911 as an optical company making all sorts of military rangefinders, scopes, and other lenses. By the late 1930s, OPL started work on their own compact 35mm camera that they had hoped would compete with quality German cameras like the Leica. The European economy in the late 1930s caused the import of luxury items from Germany to be quite expensive in France and for the few who could afford a genuine Leica, getting their hands on them was another story. By building their own domestic camera, OPL could offer a quality camera for much less.
Development of this new camera was halted during the war, but in 1945, OPL was ready to release their new camera which they simply called the PF for ‘petit format’. Rather than give the camera a name, each model would be indicated by a number of stars. The base model, or Standard, would be the PF 1 Star, or simply PF Standard. The PF 2 Star would add a coupled rangefinder, and the PF 3 Star from 1947 would add an additional slow speed dial on the front of the camera.
All Foca cameras would shoot the same size 24mm x 36mm images on Kodak’s 135 format 35mm film, would have a focal plane shutter, and have an interchangeable screw mount lens. Later Foca cameras would switch to a Foca specific bayonet mount, but otherwise were the same.
Foca cameras were made in small quantities for the French market and were not actively exported to other countries, so finding any of these models in the US today is very difficult. Most of the websites I found while researching this article were in French and I had to use Google Translate to try and piece the facts together. I have no idea how much these cameras cost when new and I found very little marketing or advertising material to see how they were sold.
This particular camera has serial number 408,193 which I believe is a later model, and was loaned to me by fellow collector Kurt Ingham but sadly, was inoperable. Although the camera was in cosmetically very nice condition, I could not get the shutter to fire at any speed. This shouldn’t be surprising as it was a uniquely designed shutter, built in small quantities by a company that did not have a lot of experience making focal plane shutters.
On the upside though, the Foca PF3 is a gorgeous looking camera. Although many people call these “French Leicas”, I think that moniker doesn’t do it justice. Aside from shooting the same size images on the same film format, the two cameras have nearly nothing alike.
The PF3 is a heavy, solid feeling camera, weighing in at 735 grams body only and 925 grams with the Foca Oplarex 50mm f/1.9 lens, this camera is quite a bit heavier and wider than a Leica II or III.
The body is wide, which allows for extra room on the top plate of the camera, giving it an uncluttered feel. On the left, the rewind knob also doubles as a film reminder dial. Since this camera is meterless, a reminder is all you’ll get. Next to it is an accessory shoe which likely would have been used with variable viewfinders or flashes. The shutter is flash synchronized for both flashbulbs and electronic flashes, via two PC sync ports on the camera’s left side.
The shutter speed dial is a lift and set type with fast speeds from 25 to 500 plus Bulb on top and 1 to 25 on the separate slow speed dial on the front. Since I was unable to use this camera, nor could I find any sort of user’s manual, I can only assume that you must set the top dial to 25 before the slow speed dial will work. Another assumption that I can’t prove, but is probably a good idea, would be the make sure the shutter is cocked before changing any speeds. It might not be a requirement, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt anything.
Lastly, we have the threaded shutter release and non automatic resetting exposure counter.
On the bottom of the camera is a combined European 3/8″ tripod socket and film back release that is used to remove the entire back of the camera. Fold out the handle and twist it 180 degrees and the back and bottom come off. The Oplarex lens on this camera is collapsible so I show a side profile shot of it extended.
Loading film into the Foca is easy with the back removed. There is a folding plate that covers the film as it goes over the film sprockets to maintain pressure on it. Film transport is from left to right onto a removable take up spool, which suggests cassette to cassette film transport was possible. On the inside of the film door is a warning in French that I think says not to leave the shutter cocked when the camera is not being used. Perhaps this warning was not needed as is the reason that the shutter was inoperable on this example.
The camera has an interesting body mounted helical with a depth of field scale that moves with the lens as it focuses, and with the completely removable film back.
The Foca PF3 is a really good looking and unique camera that is more deserving than the name “French Leica”. It should just be called a Foca as it stands on it’s own. For the era in which it was made, the viewfinder is large and bright with an easy to use coincident image rangefinder patch. Although I could not shoot any images with this camera, the 6-element f/1.9 Oplarex appears to be well constructed and likely would have made very good images.
Sadly, dead cameras happen and no matter how promising it may have been, their inclusion in these articles is the best I can do…unless I find another!
Related Posts You Might Enjoy
http://www.foca-collection.fr/ (in French)
http://roland.weber4.free.fr/index.htm (in French)