It was the pinnacle of Kodak’s durable, if not quite venerable, Brownie line – a Brownie with a built-in selenium light meter for automatic exposure control. The meter fed a simple mechanical system that adjusted the aperture. The aperture maxed at f/8, the limit of its plastic three-element Kodar lens, and the shutter fired at only one speed, but at least the Starmatic let you set film speed. This was pretty heady stuff for the world’s leading line of inexpensive cameras!
Not that the Starmatic could be considered inexpensive. It cost a whopping $34.50 when it went on sale in 1959. That’s equivalent to about $260 today.
Nobody knows for sure how many Brownie Starmatics Kodak cranked out across its 1959-1961 run. (My Starmatic’s CAMEROSITY code says it was made in November, 1959, by the way.) The same goes for its successor, the slightly updated Brownie Starmatic II, which Kodak produced until 1963. Both cameras were part of Kodak’s Brownie Star series, of which more than 10 million are said to have been made. So cameras from this series have long been plentiful.
If you’ve seen one Brownie Star camera, you’ve pretty much seen them all. My first camera, which my grandmother bought for me for 25 cents at a garage sale, was a Brownie Starmite II, and it bears a strong family resemblance to the Starmatic.
Atop the Starmatic lie two dials. The smaller dial sets film speed, from 32 to 125 ASA. I guess 125 was considered pretty fast in 1959. The larger dial sets exposure. Choose Auto to let the light meter do the work, or chose the Exposure Value (EV) guide number that matches your conditions:
- 12 for overcast
- 13 for cloudy but bright
- 14 for weak or hazy sun
- 15 for bright sun
- 16 for bright sun on sand or snow
I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t use Auto. Kodak probably figured the same thing, because when you turn this dial off Auto a piece of transparent amber plastic fills the viewfinder to alert you.
The primitive mechanical metering works well as long as the selenium in the meter is strong. The shutter operates at 1/40 sec, I’m guessing. The meter reads the light and pushes a mechanical stop into place. This stop limits the aperture — as you press the shutter, the aperture blades close until the closing mechanism reaches that stop. Since “wide open” is f/8, this camera biases toward plenty of depth of field.
When you’re ready to snap a shot, peer through the viewfinder. If a red flag appears inside, the light meter isn’t reading enough light and the photo will be underexposed. If the big dial is set to Auto, you’ll need to use flash. Otherwise, try a higher EV number. The flag still works on my Starmatic, but hard telling whether the light meter is still accurate.
On the back, the little red window shows the exposure number on the film’s backing paper. The Starmatic takes 12 square photographs on size 127 rollfilm. Kodak discontinued 127 film in 1995, but you can get a Japanese b/w film, Rera Pan 100, in a few places (notably at Freestyle Photo) and The Frugal Photographer in Calgary cuts down a few other film stocks onto 127 spools and sells them here. Many mail-order labs still process 127, such as Dwayne’s Photo.
All of the Brownie Star series cameras feature a drop-out film loading and transport system. You flip a lever and the entire camera bottom slides out. The film winder is on the bottom plate, too.
If you like simple Kodak cameras, check out my reviews of the Baby Brownie (here), the Brownie Hawkeye (here), the Duaflex II (here), the No. 2 Brownie, Model D (here), the No. 2 Hawk-Eye (here), and the Tourist (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
This isn’t my first Starmatic. I bought a Starmatic II in about 1980 for a couple bucks at a garage sale. I loaded a roll of Kodacolor II into it just before Christmas in 1981. That Starmatic II came with a flash attachment and a whole bunch of flashbulbs. The flash was blisteringly bright, and I blame it for washing out most of my Christmas morning shots. This one of me turned out well enough. I was 13. I had just received a nice dictionary as a gift.
This time I started with some Kodak Portra 160 that had been cut and respooled onto 127 spools. The camera supports films up to only ISO 125, so that’s where I set it. The Portra handled the slight overexposure like a champ.
I took the Starmatic on a walk through Indianapolis’s colorful Broad Ripple neighborhood. Everything on the Starmatic worked as it should.
I finished the roll in my father’s hometown of Handley, West Virginia. Dad wasn’t sure, but he thought this might have been the house he was born in.
The next time I shot the Starmatic I used Efke 100 film, which was still being produced then and was available in 127. It was the last fresh 127 film manufactured.
I wasn’t wowed by this film in this camera. I’m glad I shot the Portra first, or I might have assumed that this camera wasn’t very capable.
The next time I shot the Starmatic I bought some Kodak Ektar that had been cut down and respooled. It performed well.
All is not perfect with the Starmatic, however. This shot shows the strange distortion inherent in the lens. It’s noticeable only when you shoot a flat surface straight on like this. Also, the viewfinder isn’t accurate. I had centered the doorway in the viewfinder when I made this photo.
The Starmatic’s triplet lens delivers sufficient sharpness for snapshot-sized prints, but if you look at any of these images at full scan size they are as soft as Wonder bread.
To see more from this camera, check out my Kodak Brownie Starmatic gallery!
But these are my only complaints. I rather enjoy shooting this simple camera! It’s too bad 127 isn’t still made — the hand-cut and -spooled stuff is expensive. But this camera is so pleasant that it’s worth it to plunk down the cash for that film from time to time.