The Kodak Aero-Ektar is a mammoth of a lens. A gargantuan, girthy, and goliath grouping of glass, that quite literally makes the front of the Speed Graphic droop when it's attached. Then lens was designed for the U.S. Air Force and that is why the lens is ridiculously fast for a large format lens. Taking aerial surveillance photographs on large format roll film for nighttime reconnaissance missions. 
This Aero-Ektar is of the 7" variety (or 178mm for team metric) which makes it a 48mm lens on 35mm format cameras, give or take. What's far more astounding though, is the maximum aperture achievable. ⨍/2.5. This renders the depth of field stupidly shallow and calculates to be ⨍/0.68 in 35mm terms. Jesus H. Christ. We will talk about focusing this bastard in the field in a little bit. It stops down to ⨍/16, but no one is shooting this lens stopped down, there are way more practical lenses out there that will do a far better job and weigh a fraction of the Aero-Ektar's massive bulk.

This lens will be available, along with the Speed Graphic as lot number 450 in the Cameras, Scientific & Collectables auction at Flints on the 25th of March 09:30 GMT. 
Shooting the Aero-Ektar in 2021
Few ways exist to fully take advantage of this lens in modern-day circumstances. With a lot of fucking about you can mount it to things like the GFX or other digital MF setup, but that would be a huge crop factor in comparison. Plus it would mean forking out several thousand pounds to buy something disgustingly digital.
To take full advantage of the Ektar's characteristics, a 4x5 format camera will be required (I've also heard it will cover the 5x7 format too) and that means shooting film. It also means doing away with essentially every modern convenience conceivable, making shooting with the Aero-Ektar almost ritualistic in nature. Methodical, measured, conscientious. 
Introducing the Speed Graphic
The Speed Graphic is a singular name that is applied to a range of press-style medium and large format cameras. Ranging from baby-Graphics that shoot 120 film, right the way up to 5x7, although these are exceedingly rare. The Speed Graphic I used was of the 4x5 persuasion, with a side-mounted Kalart rangefinder and ground glass designed to accept film holder such as the fidelity series of DDS (which is what I used, and they're really good. I prefer them to the risky wooden ones any day of the week. I've been brutally betrayed at the worst possible of times by the wooden ones in days past). 
The front end is capable of movement but the rear is fixed. What makes this camera an ideal candidate for the Ektar is that is has a built-in, ridiculous looking, focal-plane shutter. What's even more ridiculous is that the curtain is big enough to cover the entire 4x5 image area, and can also achieve shutter speeds of up to 1/1000 of a second, which is absolutely wild. The Ektar does not have a built-in shutter, as most large format lenses do, so a camera with a built-in focal plane shutter must be used to circumnavigate this issue. The shutter system in the Speed Graphic is a clockwork mechanism that requires a complete revolution of the winding lever to change the shutter speed and charge the curtain. As the curtain is wound the user can see it is constructed as one continuous blind with depreciating sized slits cut out. Like a giant blackout blind with several different sized horizontal gaps removed. And it's all sewn together like a clowns handkerchief gag that keeps giving and giving despite no one asking it to. A second, smaller, winding nob, acts as a tension multiplier to speed up or slow down the speed of the curtain aperture passing, giving rise to even more shutter speeds, a bit like the front and rear gear system on a bicycle. That was a really long and utterly boring way of saying 'shutter speeds from 1/10 to 1/1000 of a second plus T. 
The Ektar can just about be mounted to a lens board suitable for the Speed Graphic and away we go. It's stupid heavy on the front mind, so watch out for that, and make sure you don't try and close up the drawbridge of the camera with the Ektar still attached. No way that thing is fitting inside! 
Due to the nature of cameras with rails and bellows, the lens can be focussed down to pretty much any damn subject. I wouldn't like to say what the minimum focus distance is on this Speed Graphic / Ektar combo, the bellows start to make a creaking noise before I get anywhere near the maximum rail extension, mainly due to being around 80 years old. Note that when the bellows extension is increased, the volume of light decreases despite the shutter speed and aperture remaining the same values. This fall-off will need to be anticipated and taken into account when metering. 
The Painful Process
Getting decent results on the Aero takes a bit of practice as the Speed Graphic handles about as well as a melted shit in late July. I had to take it out for a spin four or five times before I got the hang of it and stopped making mistakes. There's no such thing as super cheap 4x5 film, but Fomapan Action 400 is pretty close to it. That's what I chose to test the camera with. It may also be all I had. Developed in Ilford Perceptol at 1+3 using the 'bend-and-shove-in-the-Paterson method, because apparently no expenses were spared in the making of this review.
First up, we gotta load our film into the film holders, one on each side. To keep it brief, a notch in the top right corner tells you that the emulsion is facing you. The emulsion side needs to face outwards towards the subject from the film holder when the dark slide is removed. Tip: Open and close a film holder in daylight to understand how it works, and what features it has to help you work with it in the dark or a dark-bag.  
Get a big old tripod. The bigger the better. Just to take the weight and dampen vibrations. When I popped it onto a Manfrotto be-free for the shits and giggles, it took a good 60 seconds for the vibrations to subside. I opted for a Cullmann CT 50 ball head, or a Manfrotto #400 geared head on a multitude of large tripod bases. Let's face it though, you're not shooting this handheld. The Ektar and the Graphic are both heavy in their own right, and together they are heavy as fuck. Plus, the Kalart rangefinder and range guide on the rail are calibrated for the Kodak 127 / 4.7 that usually accompanies the camera, so your only choice is to 'pod up and use the ground glass.
The Painful Process Completed
So we've got the camera mounted to a tripod, on its side, with the hand strap removed to shoot in portrait orientation. The camera doesn't have a rotating back like an MPP or Linhof. Something about what appears to be a single screw preventing the entire lens assembly from dropping towards the floor seemed sketchy as hell, but to its credit, held on for dear life throughout the entirety of its time with me in the field.
Working with a heavy-duty tripod means that focussing with this extremely fast lens can be achieved with the use of a dark hood and ground glass. The image seen with the lens wide open on the matte is quite bright, even more so in favourable light when compared to the image of other lenses I have seen. It's just that the depth of field is so damn shallow that it's almost impossible to see if you have nailed it if your subject is farther than 6 feet away. I tried to use this lens wide open and hand held - fucking nightmare. Like trying to use tissue paper to fix a burst water main. Stopped down it's possible, but difficult. 
The bigger issue is having your subject remain still for the entirety of the time from the moment focus is achieved to the moment the film holder is loaded into the camera, shutter wound to desired shutter speed, dark slide removed, and finally shutter released. You have to wind it after you've focused as winding blacks out the ground glass. If you're not well practised, this process can be as long as sometimes 30 seconds and quite disruptive. If it's a windy day or your model is as drunk as a skunk and the lens is wide open, you're up shit creek. 
Once you have completed these steps and replaced the dark slide (the other way round so you know that that frame is now shot) that shot is safe and ready to bring back to the lab, be it yours or another. Well, after the other sheets have been shot of course. Light work.  
The results are worth the dog and pony act. The depth of field is astoundingly shallow (⨍/0.68 in 35mm terms) and can render portraits in an ethereal and dream-like aesthetic that is extremely desirable. The transition into the plane of focus is sublime and the bokeh renders out of focus points of light in a charismatic way. Sharpness isn't too much of an issue, it is so fast that it is sure hard to tell what is and isn't in focus. Upon inspection, I am more than satisfied with the sharpness and contrast of the lens, especially considering its speed and its age. The aperture blades are fucking gorgeous too. 
Is it worth carting a huge tripod, a shit load of film holders, a massive camera and a massive lens around? This is like the 'if you can afford it' argument but instead of money its biceps. If you can carry it and you need that shot to look this specific kind of way then absolutely. Cameras like the Norita 66 and Pentax 67 aren't too far off at a glance, however. 
Overall the Aero-Ektar 7" ⨍/2.5 is a beautiful lens and helps create images that are utterly stunning and positively unique. Albeit with a hefty caveat. I will definitely look to shoot with this combination again in the future, especially for editorial and large print work, as the quality of 4x5 negatives, when properly made, are divine. 
For a great range of cameras and film-related products for sale and at auction, be sure to check out the links below! 
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