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Bolex H16 Non-Reflex DIY mods


Will Heuring
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Hey y'all, this is my first time posting anything so apologies if I'm not in the right spot. A while ago I got my hands on a Bolex H16 in the naive hopes of upgrading from Super 8. I'm a big fan of film photography, and since I've started working the local indie scene I've been trying to convince a few of my peers to get to work on a 16 project. I've been doing some reading and it seems like, outside of hobbyist work or cannibalizing them for spare parts, non-Reflex H16s are pretty much useless. Sure, I could fork over $2,000+ for a Rex model and get exactly what I need for framing, and even kit it out with a monitor and several other bells/whistles; but my current budget can't support that (really it can't support 16 in general, but I'm already this far). 

I figure the next best thing to do would be to sack up and buy a K3, because it can do pretty much everything I need, plus I'd be able to buy motors/video taps for it. For the time being, since I've got this camera (which only cost me around $100), I'm considering doing some crazy DIY hackjobs with it and seeing if I can develop anything somewhat useful. 

Does anyone know if I can get any use out of this thing, besides an Ultra 16 conversion? I've got some wild ideas, but I don't wanna start tearing this thing to shreds without any guidance. I'm no expert when it comes to the mechanical side of this camera, so any help would be appreciated.

Edited by Will Heuring
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A have something against wild ideas accompanied by don't wanna start tearing this thing to shreds without any guidance. I'm no expert when it comes to the mechanical side of this camera.

Why should an older H camera appear useless? Thousands of people have shot with them and you can as well. What you need though is a finder, either the early three-focal one that attaches on top and to the lid or the multifocal finder on the lid, according to the model. Both have a parallax correction. Attached to the camera lid, you have no vertical parallax, only horizontal, and that can be corrected for. Newton finders are always bright.

If you must have a reflex viewfinder, the advice is to find a corresponding zoom lens, for example the Angénieux L 1 or L 2. Looks like that:

549034898_AngnieuxL1Paillard.jpg.25228162e346784d0248ab13b203d157.jpg

The Paillard (pie-are spoken) Bolex H is an amateur camera. Much effort was made to give it a professional touch. It was all in vain. Only that people fall for the false play.

First learn to make a 3:4 image movie. Cinematics are not the same within that aspect ratio compared to the wide screen. Watch a classic normal image movie in the correct ratio. Three to four is still in effect.

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The non-reflex H16's shouldn't be under-estimated.  Assuming it isn't one of the really early models you have, it will deliver similar images as the reflex versions do,  as well as giving a bit more light on the film.  Again, assuming that it works as it should. And arguably better images than the K3.

As regards whether you need reflex viewing for your project,  if you're using wideangle lenses and standard focal-length lenses of say 25mm,  you will be usually OK for focus and framing, with the side-mounted viewfinder.  If you're concerned about focus you can always swing the taking lens over and check via the top focusing aid.  Longer lenses similarly.  Though maybe your project doesn't need them ?  Wideangle lenses are effective for much handheld stuff, with loads of depth-of-field.

You can of course do mods for ultra-16  (see my site below) and S16,  but I certainly wouldn't recommend doing anything like this if you aren't familiar with what's involved.  As Simon says, 3:4 is nice too, and perhaps attractive these days ?  Or if you wanted some widescreen without too much effort, anamorphics may be an answer,   though more focusing issues maybe.    

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Even a non-reflex Bolex is better than a K-3 in my opinion. Far less chance of something failing, or scratching. I think Bolexes are near the top of the amateur camera pile in terms of their durability and ease of use. The auto-load works beautifully (unlike a K-3) and they are usually pretty steady and reliable. 

As Simon and Doug say you can film just fine with one if you have the side finder, and you can always rotate the lens to the top lens position if you need to check the focus before you start filming. Most of the time, if you’re a bit stopped down you can just estimate the distance, set the lens focus scale to match and you’re good to go. You just need some sort of light meter, even just an app on your phone.

The beauty of non-reflex Bolexes is they’re much cheaper than the reflex models and there are plenty of cheap C mount lenses. The only thing I would advise is to get a camera that takes single perf film - serial numbers after #76471 from 1952. Otherwise you’ll either need to source double perf (2R) film with perfs on both edges, or have the top set of teeth turned down on the sprocket rollers in order to use the much more common single perf film. 

As far as modifying them goes, why bother? Crop the 1.37 frame down to whatever aspect ratio you want in post, or keep it old school. Modern stocks are fine grained enough you’ll barely notice. If you pull apart your Bolex and start filing it without any mechanical knowledge you’ll just ruin it.

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9 hours ago, Simon Wyss said:

 

The Paillard (pie-are spoken) Bolex H is an amateur camera. Much effort was made to give it a professional touch. It was all in vain. Only that people fall for the false play.

btw I meant the non-reflex H16 is "underrated".   And although in general the Bolex models are not considered a pro camera compared with say the Arri,  they were used alot in professional films, maybe because of their reliabilty.  Auto threading superb, short-duration motor not so impressive.

Edited by Doug Palmer
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Have made a mistake with the Angénieux, L 2 is the designation of the 17-68, f/2.2 without finder.

I don’t write about conversions negatively without a reason. Tomorrow I’ll finish an overhaul of a Paillard-Bolex H-16 RX-5 that was made a cripple. The new bayonet front had a bow back, FFD was 20,86 mm instead of 20,76. The asymmetric and wide opening does not allow the screws to be tightened. I have put on a dial indicator and measured 0,03 mm elongation of FFD upon turning the screwdriver in either of two screws on the left hand side. Besides that the exposure aperture is not wide enough, the mask on the ground surface of the double prism doesn’t even have the height of the projector gates (Paillard’s fault). All optical elements were not cleaned on all sides. The four screws attaching the shutter on its shaft were loose. The list goes on. Plastic magazine port insert not modified to S-16, housing impressed, it’s almost endless.

I shall not disclose the name of the person who did the conversion, also not the name of the person who returned the camera unusable to the client. I think I’ll have to decline work on con/perverted equipment in the future. Not certain, yet. The tinkering on all sides is horrible.

Yes, the H ranks among the best amateur cameras, if used properly. At normal frame rates steadiness is as good as from an Arriflex. I know of somebody who has purchased an H-16 S-4 recently, also a member here. That’s perhaps the best Bolex model, it gives one the most freedom at the least complication.

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Just get the camera CLA'd and shoot with the H16 as-is. It will teach you more about distance, taking your time to properly compose, focus, and expose your shots than a reflex will. I started with a Filmo 70DR, eventually collected a bunch of them, got a Bolex REX4 and then realized that I just wanted to use my parallax finder Filmos more. Aside from that, I can completely overhaul a Filmo with confidence, but not a Bolex. 

If you have to have a reflex camera, and not a lens with a dogleg viewfinder, just sell the H16 and save up for what you want. All that said, your H16 is certainly not useless.

Phil Forrest

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Filming with a non-reflex Bolex is fun. I often think of getting one again for more informal, 'on the move' filming. As Dom said if you do want to focus it with extra care then you can. Probably one of the best cameras to get into 16mm with. It was my first 16mm camera. I did a straight swap of my SLR for a Bolex my friend had. I was over the moon.

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I've just recently shot this to test a 1965 non-reflex Bolex H16 S-4 (I'm the member Simon mentioned) and a Kern-Paillard 25mm lens. I actually much prefer the non-reflex to the Rex 1 I have. Most of it was shot by guessing the distance and exposure. For close ups and some low light situations I used the critical focus finder.

 

Edited by Uli Meyer
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3 hours ago, Uli Meyer said:

I've just recently shot this to test a 1965 non-reflex Bolex H16 S-4 (I'm the member Simon mentioned) and a Kern-Paillard 25mm lens. I actually much prefer the non-reflex to the Rex 1 I have. Most of it was shot by guessing the distance and exposure. For close ups and some low light situations I used the critical focus finder.

 

Thanks Uli !

I think I'll use my H16M more now.  Maybe sometimes it's quicker than a reflex Bolex,  where you are taking some precious moments trying to get a sharp (dim) image in the viewfinder. 

Edited by Doug Palmer
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16 hours ago, Uli Meyer said:

I've just recently shot this to test a 1965 non-reflex Bolex H16 S-4 (I'm the member Simon mentioned) and a Kern-Paillard 25mm lens. I actually much prefer the non-reflex to the Rex 1 I have. Most of it was shot by guessing the distance and exposure. For close ups and some low light situations I used the critical focus finder.

 

Great footage. Great camera and lens.

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11 hours ago, Jon O'Brien said:

Great footage. Great camera and lens.

Yes agree.  I don't think I've ever used the critical focus finder on a Bolex.  It feels somewhat fiddly moving the lens over.  On my H16M of course there's no option for this 🙂

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From serial number 94201 on you have a click stop also for the turret when a lens screwed into the lower port is swung up. To my feel there’s nothing fiddly with those cameras. The longitudinal position (on the optical axis) of film plane and the frosted surface of the focusing prism can be adjusted with great precision relative to the lens thread rims. The turret should revolve freely and be lubricated lightly with grease, oil or Molykote powder or graphite. Worst enemies are sand and brute force. The biggest friend is the tripod.

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On 11/9/2021 at 2:10 PM, Simon Wyss said:

From serial number 94201 on you have a click stop also for the turret when a lens screwed into the lower port is swung up. To my feel there’s nothing fiddly with those cameras. The longitudinal position (on the optical axis) of film plane and the frosted surface of the focusing prism can be adjusted with great precision relative to the lens thread rims. The turret should revolve freely and be lubricated lightly with grease, oil or Molykote powder or graphite. Worst enemies are sand and brute force. The biggest friend is the tripod.

I'm not a great fan of the turret on the H16.  It was designed I suppose for fairly small lenses.  Long lenses though may be heavy and strain the turret downward.  Later models better maybe.  And I don't like the fact that the rear elements can sometimes be exposed to dust etc and also preventing easy winding of the motor, because of the non-circular shape of the turret.     However, it's useful for checking the gate between shots.

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21 hours ago, Doug Palmer said:

rear elements can sometimes be exposed to dust etc and also preventing easy winding of the motor

Very valid point. A sheet cover could have been added that’s dragged around with. Regarding the conflict between wind crank and turret one has to understand the initial concept which wants to include a slender body, perhaps comparable to the Zeiss-Ikon Movikon 16 of 1932 (slightly over 6 cm or 2½"). The wind key of the Auto Bolex was taken over, it folds down onto the camera lower than the crank.

Yes, small and lightweight lenses were normal with all early sixteen-mil cameras. If we look around, they were in use until the sixties. I find the heavy optical equipment of since then infantile. At the same time people are crazy about a Goerz Hypar, pay thousands of money for such a lens which is three glass.

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Yes the winding crank bumping into the turret when it's turned 90 degrees can be frustrating. As you know you can make the winding crank shorter and do it that way but the camera wants to move around more as a lot more effort is needed. I came to the conclusion that on some shoots, using three lenses on the turret, or in my case one of the lenses being a bigger Nikkor, that an external electric motor is really going to make your life easier. That is, if your camera works with one.

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10 hours ago, Jon O'Brien said:

Yes the winding crank bumping into the turret when it's turned 90 degrees can be frustrating. As you know you can make the winding crank shorter and do it that way but the camera wants to move around more as a lot more effort is needed. I came to the conclusion that on some shoots, using three lenses on the turret, or in my case one of the lenses being a bigger Nikkor, that an external electric motor is really going to make your life easier. That is, if your camera works with one.

Swings and roundabouts... motor/battery much more bulk.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I have an H-16 Supreme and mostly shoot with a 12.5mm wide angle lens. This camera has an eye-level focuser, so as an alternative to the side-mounted viewfinder, I mount a second 12.5mm lens in the upper turret position, set it to the same distance as the taking lens, and use the focus screen as a viewfinder. This gives a much larger wide angle image than the Trifocal finder and a much more comfortable viewing position. The spinning shutter blade is visible in the upper righthand corner of the ground glass, but that's no problem. A 25 or 75mm lens is mounted in the third turret position and I use the side mount viewfinder for that one. Parallax has not been a big issue with the 12.5mm lens and this arrangement works great for me. 

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