B&L Photomicrographic Apparatus VI: AX-1

The final development, before the microscope camera went from still-chemical photography to motion/still digital photography is equal parts groundbreaking and re-purposing. Like the System II the new version maintained the same basic layout and universality, it was made compatible with all the camera backs of the System II. It retained the focusing knob (to date all those known are marked at 3x, 5x, 7.5x, and 10x) but departed from the consumer camera style shutter speed selector and remote shutter release; the new camera was automated.

Since the earliest days of photomicrography it was just assumed the the microscopist would be the darkroom technician as well. Those seeking to record images of their work were expected to practice and understand the skills needed not only for obtaining a clear, useful image at the eyepiece, but at the imaging surface of their camera, and final media as well. Books from the golden age are filled with detailed information on how to properly compose and sequentially expose test images. Entire chapters in books on general microscopy are devoted to the proper taking of photomicrographs. In detailed texts on photomicrography extensive chapters describe the best way to salvage (and in future avoid) over or under-exposed films. The AX-1 changed all that.


For a generation that grew up (or like the author, grew complacent) with the automatic exposure and aperture cameras of the “Kodak Moment” era, the AX-1 no doubt seems unduly complex. A two variable analog meter, no less than six buttons-two thirds of which light, two additional indicator lights, four tumbler set values, all run off of a grounded AC plug in a package the size of a lunch box and weight of a bag of sugar is understandably daunting. The space-hogging controller is only half the unit and like it’s counterpart is entirely useless without the automatic shutter assembly camera. As previously mentioned it is superficially like the System II but in place of a release bears a nine pin cable and connector that conducts light data from its integrated sensor to the control box and carries the exposure signals back. A small electromagnet actuates the simple shutter, and the photo-sensor is positioned to one side of a right angle partially silvered reflector.

To allow for the proper calculation of required exposure one must set a few parameters on the controller before beginning. Film speed is dialed in using A.S.A. units and it’s worth noting that the controller uses the 1960 revision (from what I can tell in use, I’ve not been able to locate anything in the documentation). One must also select the desired reciprocity, which is best left set to “OFF” for most uses. Setting the level of magnification to the nearest value marked on the shutter informs the photo-sensor of the general range of light intensity and is vital for achieving accurate exposure times and light levels. One may also set the desired exposure to a fixed value darker or lighter than the calculated exposure which may be useful for those who want to avoid pushing or pulling during processing.

Once properly set up the user is ready to set the focus of the shutter assembly, load film, power up and begin taking pictures at the push of a button! Imagine, no need to shoot and develop costly trial exposures or to calculate required shutter speeds/exposure times by hand with based on light meter readings. The device can serve as a light meter only and exposure may be done manually at the press of a button. The controller can be put on a separate table and the only source of vibration limited to the movement of the shutter itself. That’s probably the chief point in the AX-1’s favor these days, but it may still be worth while for those more willing to give it the space than to learn about shutter speeds.



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