Bell & Howell 2709 featuring the signature lens turret that allowed the user the quickly switch lenses.

Jackson Rose, ASC, with a 2709 camera in 1918. Spanning 1935 to 1956, Jackson Rose authored nine editions of the American Cinematographer Hand Book and Reference Guide.

The Bell & Howell 2709 motion picture camera was introduced in 1912 and remained in professional use for over two decades.

It is an historical landmark in the world of filmmaking as it played a crucial role in the development of the motion picture industry during the early twentieth century. This camera was designed by Albert S. Howell and Donald J. Bell.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the motion picture industry was rapidly evolving, with filmmakers and technicians pushing the boundaries of what was possible in terms of visual storytelling. At this time, a young engineer named Albert S. Howell started working for a Chicago-based motion picture equipment company called the Kleine Optical Company. Howell had a keen interest in the technology of film projection, and during his tenure at Kleine, he collaborated with a machinist named Donald J. Bell. Together, they aspired to create an innovative motion picture camera that would surpass the existing cameras of the era in terms of precision, reliability, and ease of use.

In 1907, Albert Howell and Donald Bell founded the Bell & Howell Company, with the primary objective of manufacturing and marketing their motion picture camera. After several years of research and development, in 1912, the Bell & Howell 2709 camera was introduced to the public. The camera was an immediate success, thanks to its numerous advancements in design and functionality.

The Bell & Howell 2709 featured a unique turret design that allowed for the mounting of multiple lenses. This made it possible for filmmakers to switch between various focal lengths without interrupting the filming process. This turret design was innovative and is still used in some modern motion picture cameras today.

One of the most significant innovations in the 2709 camera was its incorporation of a precise and reliable film transport mechanism. The camera employed a registration pin system that ensured consistent and accurate positioning of the film during each exposure. This feature was particularly important in the era of hand-cranked cameras, as it minimized the potential for human error and film damage, resulting in a significant improvement in the overall image quality.

Furthermore, the Bell & Howell 2709 boasted an efficient and reliable intermittent mechanism, which allowed for a smoother and more accurate film advance. This feature reduced the wear and tear on the film, ultimately extending its lifespan and preserving the integrity of the images.

The camera’s robust construction, composed of cast aluminum alloy, made it durable and suitable for the rigors of filmmaking. Its enclosed design also protected the film from dust and other potential contaminants, ensuring consistent image quality and reducing the need for extensive maintenance.

The Bell & Howell 2709 camera quickly became the industry standard of the silent picture era, and it was used by many prominent filmmakers, including Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and Cecil B. DeMille. Its innovative design and reliable performance influenced the future development of motion picture cameras, establishing Bell & Howell as a major player in the cinematic technology landscape.

During the era of the Bell & Howell 2709 motion picture camera, a variety of lenses were utilized to achieve different focal lengths and artistic effects. The 2709’s turret design allowed filmmakers to mount multiple lenses, providing them with the flexibility to switch between these lenses quickly and efficiently. While it is impossible to comprehensively list every lens used with the 2709, some popular lens types and manufacturers used in conjunction with the camera are discussed below:

  1. Cooke Lenses: Produced by the British company Taylor-Hobson, Cooke lenses were highly regarded for their exceptional image quality and sharpness. A popular choice among filmmakers using the Bell & Howell 2709, the Cooke lenses provided reliable and consistent performance. The Cooke Series II, for example, was a set of prime lenses with varying focal lengths, which were frequently employed in early motion pictures.
  2. Bausch & Lomb Baltar Lenses: These lenses, manufactured by the American company Bausch & Lomb, were another popular option for filmmakers using the Bell & Howell 2709. Baltar lenses were known for their superior optical quality and were favored for their distinct aesthetic characteristics, rendering images with pleasing contrast and warmth. Baltar lenses were available in a range of focal lengths, enabling cinematographers to achieve various visual effects and compositions.
  3. Carl Zeiss Lenses: The German company Carl Zeiss produced a variety of high-quality lenses that were compatible with the Bell & Howell 2709. Renowned for their precision engineering and exceptional image quality, Carl Zeiss lenses were highly sought after by filmmakers. Notable examples of Zeiss lenses from this period include the Tessar, Planar, and Sonnar series, each offering different optical characteristics and benefits.
  4. Dallmeyer Lenses: John Dallmeyer, a British optical designer, and his company produced a wide range of lenses that were compatible with the Bell & Howell 2709. Dallmeyer lenses were known for their high-quality optics and durability. The Dallmeyer Super-Six series, for instance, offered a selection of prime lenses with various focal lengths that were well-suited for early motion picture production.
  5. Goerz Lenses: The C.P. Goerz Company, originally founded in Germany and later established in the United States, produced a range of lenses suitable for use with the Bell & Howell 2709. Goerz lenses, such as the Celor and Dagor series, were known for their high resolution and contrast, making them a popular choice for filmmakers seeking to capture detailed images.

The Bell & Howell 2709 motion picture camera was designed to accommodate 35mm film, which was the standard film format in the early twentieth century. This film format provided a good balance between image quality and manageable size, making it ideal for both production and exhibition purposes. During the era of the 2709, several film stocks were available, each offering different characteristics and sensitivities to light. Some of the notable film types and stocks used with the Bell & Howell 2709 are as follows:

  1. Orthochromatic Film: Orthochromatic film was the most common film stock during the early days of cinema. It was sensitive to a limited range of colors, particularly blue and green, but not to red. This characteristic made orthochromatic film ideal for shooting outdoors, as it rendered skies and foliage with a distinct contrast. However, it required careful lighting and makeup techniques when filming actors, as the lack of red sensitivity could result in unnatural skin tones. Eastman Kodak’s Type 130 was a popular orthochromatic film stock used in the era of the 2709.
  2. Panchromatic Film: Panchromatic film became more widely available in the 1920s and offered a broader color sensitivity, including red light. This film stock provided more accurate tonal rendition, particularly in skin tones, and allowed filmmakers to achieve a more natural representation of the world. Panchromatic film stocks, such as Eastman Kodak’s Type 240 and later Type 250, became the standard for black-and-white motion picture production, eventually replacing orthochromatic film.
  3. Nitrate Film Base: Early motion picture film stocks, including those used with the Bell & Howell 2709, were made from cellulose nitrate. Nitrate film provided excellent image quality and sharpness but was highly flammable and subject to degradation over time. The use of nitrate film necessitated careful handling and storage, as it could pose a significant fire hazard.
  4. Safety Film Base: In response to the hazards posed by nitrate film, cellulose acetate-based safety film was introduced in the 1920s. Initially used for amateur formats, safety film eventually became the standard base for professional motion picture film stocks, offering a more stable and less flammable alternative to nitrate film.

Many notable movies and newsreels were filmed using the 2709, some of which include:

  1. “The Birth of a Nation” (1915): Directed by D.W. Griffith, this controversial film is considered a milestone in the history of American cinema. The Bell & Howell 2709 was used to capture the film’s groundbreaking cinematography, which included innovative techniques such as parallel editing and close-ups.
  2. “Intolerance” (1916): Another D.W. Griffith film, “Intolerance” showcased the director’s ambitious storytelling and elaborate set design. The 2709 was employed to capture the film’s intricate details and visual effects.
  3. “The Kid” (1921): Charlie Chaplin used the Bell & Howell 2709 for many of his productions, including his famous film “The Kid.” The camera’s reliability and ease of use made it an ideal choice for capturing Chaplin’s signature comedic scenes.
  4. “Nanook of the North” (1922): Directed by Robert J. Flaherty, this pioneering documentary film followed the lives of Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic. The Bell & Howell 2709’s robust construction and enclosed design made it well-suited for filming in the harsh Arctic environment.
  5. “The Ten Commandments” (1923): Directed by Cecil B. DeMille, this epic biblical film utilized the Bell & Howell 2709 to capture its grandiose sets and complex action sequences.
  6. “The General” (1926): Directed by and starring Buster Keaton, this classic silent comedy showcased the 2709’s ability to capture intricate visual gags and fast-paced action scenes.

Throughout the years of its production, the Bell & Howell 2709 underwent several modifications and improvements to address the evolving needs of the motion picture industry. While the core design and functionality of the camera remained relatively consistent, these refinements resulted in different versions and variants of the 2709. Some notable examples include:

  1. Bell & Howell 2709 Model A: Introduced in 1912, the Model A was the first iteration of the 2709. This initial version of the camera featured the innovative turret design that allowed for the mounting of multiple lenses, as well as the registration pin system and enclosed film transport mechanism that would become hallmarks of the 2709’s design.
  2. Bell & Howell 2709 Model B: The Model B was introduced in 1915 and featured several improvements over the Model A, most notably a more efficient and reliable intermittent mechanism. This improved mechanism allowed for smoother and more accurate film advance, resulting in better image quality and reduced wear on the film.
  3. Bell & Howell 2709 Model C: The Model C, introduced in 1921, retained the key features of the previous models but incorporated refinements to the camera’s construction and materials. This variant utilized a lighter aluminum alloy, making the camera more portable and easier to use in the field.
  4. Bell & Howell 2709 Model D: The Model D, introduced in the mid-1920s, featured several design changes, such as a more compact form factor and an improved viewfinder system. The Model D also included an optional motor drive attachment, which allowed filmmakers to transition from hand-cranking to using an electric motor for more consistent frame rates.
  5. Bell & Howell Eyemo: While not a direct variant of the 2709, the Bell & Howell Eyemo was a portable 35mm motion picture camera introduced in 1925 that borrowed several design elements from the 2709, such as the turret lens system and the film transport mechanism. The Eyemo was designed for use in newsreels, documentaries, and other situations where a more compact and lightweight camera was needed.

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