Tahbes Synchro and Synchrona – an In-Depth Look at the Machines of an Obscure Dutch Camera Company

Tahbes Synchro and Synchrona – an In-Depth Look at the Machines of an Obscure Dutch Camera Company

2200 1237 James Tocchio

Europe in 1945 was not a great place for manufacturing, yet it was there and in that moment in history during which a small, Dutch company successfully manufactured and sold some of the most beautiful cameras I’ve ever seen. The Tahbes Synchro, Synchrona, and Populair were old fashioned even in their own time. And these cameras might never have existed without the unique circumstances brought about by the global conflict that preempted their creation. They were a true product of their time and place, and are special cameras worth talking about.

Where did Tahbes come from?

In 1940, Nazi Germany invaded the neutral country the Netherlands without any warning or formal declaration of war. Four days into the invasion, German officers negotiated a temporary cease-fire with Dutch ground forces in the city of Rotterdam. Almost immediately after, the German Luftwaffe began an aerial bombardment that leveled the city center, killed over 900 Dutch civilians, and rendered 85,000 others homeless. The following day, the Dutch government surrendered to Germany.

Five years later, World War Two had ended. More than 60 million people had died in a conflict that had wrought incalculable destruction across the whole of the European continent. The economies of Great Britain and France were crippled, and the former industrial dynamo of Germany was all but destroyed. People had no homes, no work, no food; Europeans were starving to death. The United States’ Secretary of State George Marshall, speaking at Harvard University, implored government to assist in the economic restoration of Europe, a call that would be answered to the tune of more than $13 billion spent over a four year period.

At the end of the war, materials were scarce throughout Europe, and those that were available were appropriately used to fill more critical needs than camera-making. But people wanted cameras, and in countries such as the Netherlands where imports of cameras were incredibly slow to resume following the conflict, it took a homegrown company to fill the market need.

The company was called Tahbes, an acronym for Technisch en Algemeen Handelsbureau Brokmeier en Steegers. As the name suggests, the firm was founded by J. B. Brokmeier (who designed and built the company’s first camera prototype) and a colleague named Steegers, with the works opening in Voorburg, the oldest city in the Netherlands, and a place situated just 2.5 miles from where Dutch forces had repelled German invaders at The Hague just two years earlier. Advertisements from the period point to the specific address; 503 Kon. Wilhelminalaan, and it’s here that Tahbes would make every unit of every model of every camera that would bear the company’s name. These, as mentioned, are the Synchro, the Synchrona, and the Populair.

The Tahbes Synchro

The first camera produced was the Synchro, an incredibly beautiful medium format camera that exposes 6×6 centimeter square images on 120 roll film. It uses a simple meniscus lens, offers only a single shutter speed plus a timed exposure setting (in which the shutter stays open until manually closed), and the ability to shoot at one of two available apertures via a rudimentary metal flap that can be extended over the lens opening.

Its polished metal body is something we just don’t see anymore. The muted brilliant nickel coating of its wind knob, top and bottom plates, and retractable lens barrel is simply stunning. Its concise design and perfect proportions make me think of a far more basic, medium format sized Leica M, with its bauhaus curves and rounded ends.

The viewfinder (a design by the famed Dutch military officer and optical designer Lieuwe Evert Willem van Albada) displays an almost magical view of the world seen through it, and this perfectly rounded peeping window is perched atop the sparse top plate like a cherry on the proverbial sundae.

There’s a tripod mount on the bottom, and a flash mount on the top. A frame counter in the form of a red tinted viewing window hides behind a flap on the back of the camera, the whole of which is removed for loading and unloading film. A simple slide lock on the bottom of the machine holds the assembly together when shooting.


The Tahbes Synchrona

The second camera produced by Tahbes, the Synchrona, is a camera that’s both a simplified and more complicated version of the Synchro. It adds to the earlier camera’s abilities by incorporating a multi-speed shutter that’s capable of exposures of 1/100th, 1/50th, and 1/25th of a second, plus timed exposures. The adjustable aperture improved to allow three settings, f/7.7, f/9, and f/11.

All of these controls are arranged on the front plate of the lens barrel and are articulated via tiny levers settling into detents. The Synchrona also offers adjustable scale focusing with two settings, one for shots in which the subject is from 1.5 to 3 meters away, and one for shots in which the subject stands from 3 meters away to infinity.

Internal components are fundamentally improved as well, with the newer camera showing an overall higher level of refinement and finish, most obviously in the inclusion of light-sealing felt, film transport slides, and a more precise film gate.

These improvements make the Synchrona a much more usable camera compared to its predecessor, the Synchro. But with its leatherette covering and its much-simplified viewfinder, some of the most interesting design elements of the Synchro have been abandoned.


The Tahbes Populair

The last camera, the Populair, is a simplified version of the first camera, with all of that basic camera’s limitations and then some. It loses the Synchro’s flash capability, replaces the original’s Albada viewfinder for one that’s even more primitive than the lower-spec VF found on the Synchrona, and hides the original machine’s gorgeous metal finish with a coating of paint.

It’s the least capable and least attractive of the three Tahbes cameras. These criticisms leveled, it’s a rare bird indeed. If you find one, you should buy it.

Shooting a Tahbes today

In use, the Tahbes cameras are equal parts limiting and liberating. There’s very little a photographer can do to influence the final image, but there’s also very little to think about. Like shooting the earliest Kodak box cameras, photography with the Tahbes machines is something of an act of faith. We approximate our framing with a noncommittal viewfinder, point a laughably basic lens at our subject, and fire one of the most limiting shutters in all of photography. There’s no live view, no depth of field preview, no focusing aids, no metering. Shooters who’ve shot only digital cameras will find themselves on another planet, and even experienced photographers who’ve shot plenty of film machines will guess, and second guess, every exposure.

And let’s not even mention accidental double exposures, over-running the manual film advance, and light leaks. These things happen. They happen a lot.

Images produced through Tahbes lenses are mostly typical of what we see from primitive cameras of earlier generations. With general softness, vignetting, imprecise focus, and large apertures, we’re left with shots that are more suggestive than they are photographic. We see the idea of an image.

Compared to cameras produced contemporaneously, the Tahbes is cripplingly underdeveloped. Consider that elsewhere in Europe, Leica was making their IIIc and Kodak was making the Retina. Comparatively speaking, the Synchro and its siblings were simply cheap, basic cameras produced under a decades-old design ethos. Had the Tahbes cameras been released in the early 1900s, they’d have likely found more success outside of their native country. As it was, Tahbes solved the temporary problem of camera import shortages in the Netherlands, filled a specific market need, and succeeded in giving the people a camera to use following a war that continued to hinder the resumption of normalcy throughout the course of the following decade. In 1957, Tahbes ceased operations.

Shots in the samples gallery were made on expired Kodak Tri-X and Kodak Portra 400.

Today, the cameras Tahbes made are rare, especially in the United States. It took me three years to find these machines in anything close to working condition, and I had to source them from a camera dealer in Spain who’d only ever seen the two in question. Information on the brand is sparse, no patents were filed outside of Europe, and to the best of my knowledge, these cameras were never sold in the United States.

Are these cameras worth owning? Worth seeking out? That’s up to the individual collector. It’s possible to use these cameras today, and even with all the guessing and hoping that comes with doing so, shooting them is fun. Do they make excellent images? Not at all. Are they exemplars of precision engineering and masterful craftsmanship? Not a chance. But they’re important nonetheless, as gorgeous and rare machines indicative of the time and place in which they were made. And I think they’ll look pretty nice on my shelf of keepers.

Want your own Tahbes camera? (Good luck…)

Get them on eBay (probably not)

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and advanced digital cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
22 comments
  • Cool to learn something new about the scarce Dutch camera history. Actually never seen one of these. Greetings from The Netherlands!

  • Nice write up James. I think you hit the nail on the head, some cameras we do not buy for their shooting quality, but the feeling they give us shooting, also called fun. I fully agree with your comment relating to the Kodak Box cameras etc. I love taking some of these out, and putting my faith in the exposure gods, due to their limitations. And oh, G’day from Australia.

  • These are truly lovely looking machines. Look at those gleaming lens barrels!

  • Stunning cameras, I had no idea of their existence!
    It seems that every article on this site is an education, and I mean that as a compliment.

  • Gorgeous cameras James, especially the Synchro. Well done for discovering them, and although they don’t make the most amazing pictures, well done too for actually putting film through them and proving they are usable.

  • Well you learn something new every day! Beautiful cameras, and I’ve got to say some excellent product photography here.

  • I found a Tahbes Synchrona with Albada viewfinder in an Antique store that was closing down recently, I’m from New Zealand so I was surprised one ended up here, it had seen it sitting there for a while with a price tag of $125 NZD, I thought that was a bit steep so I researched the camera a bit more and stumbled across this write up, the next day I offered the guy $50 NZD ($35 USD) and he agreed.. I am excited to test it out! Thanks so much for the detailed description/history it helped a great deal.

  • This is amazing!
    I have been searching the Internet for this camera for years!
    I remember my parents having what I from this article learned was a synchro. As a kid I played with it and I clearly remember looking through the large viewfinder. Now, 50 odd years later, my dad has passed away and my mom is in assisted living with dementia. A couple of years ago I asked her about the camera and she said she gave it away. I live in the US now and can’t visit her as often as I would like. But I have several of the negatives made with this camera, which I am scanning.
    This article brings some fond memories; thanks for sharing!

    • Lovely memories. If you feel like sharing the scanned images please do share them here. Thank you.

      • Hi James,

        Reading your article again, I rember that my parent’s camera was a Synchro (I remember clearly the huge, round viewvinder) but with grey leatherette (not polished); any thoughts on this?

        How can I share images here?

        Eric

        • Hi Eric,

          Some of the Synchrona cameras had the Albada type viewfinder attached. Additionally it seems that some of the Synchro cameras were fitted with leatherette. Factory records are (as far as I’m aware) unavailable. You can link to photos hosted elsewhere on Flickr or Instagram if you like! We’d love to see them.

    • Hi Eric,

      If you’re still looking for one, I might have a nice camera for you. It is a Synchrona with Albada viewfinder. This one does also come with a high mounted flasher and three Philips photoflux PF14 lightbulbs in original package. It even comes with a original “De Witte Kat kleine staaf 3V No58” battery to complete the picture. If you’re interested I can send you some pictures.

  • Hi all. I just bought a Synchro on second hand site. Should receive it next week. Saw some rust here and there, have no idea how it works, will probably have to spend some time cleaning and getting it back in shape…but your comments are interesting ! Thanks for this. Will keep you posted. Hope that I will manage to shoot with it…even if the quality is not the one like Zeiss or others….

  • Hello from Canada. I actually came across and own a Tahbes Synchro Camera. Great condition and fascinating to know that there is alittle information on it

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and advanced digital cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio