If I polled the world’s camera collectors, I’ll bet most of them would say they own or have owned a Kodak Pony. If I asked them why, I’ll bet most of them would say they didn’t plan to buy one, but they found one for a few dollars and they couldn’t resist. If you were to search eBay right now you would almost certainly find more than 100 available, most for under $20 and some for as little as $5. Kodak made a lot of Ponies from 1949 to 1961 in several different versions, all of which followed the same basic formula of all-manual control with a somewhat-better-than-entry-level lens and shutter. The Pony was a pretty good snapshot camera for someone who was ready to move up from a fixed-focus box camera.
I succumbed to Ponymania this year when I scored this Pony 135 for about $10. Kodak made this model from 1950 to 1954, and an amateur photographer needed to scrounge up $34.75 to own one. That was a pretty big investment (equivalent to about $325 today), especially given that the contemporary fixed-focus Brownie Hawkeye cost $7! Still, Kodak made judicious construction choices to keep the cost low. The Pony 135 is made of plastic with aluminum details. Its 51 mm f/4.5 Anaston lens, a step up in quality over what Kodak put in its box cameras but certainly not a high-end lens, can be stopped down to f/22. It is mated to a four-speed (1/25 to 1/200 sec) Flash 200 shutter, which has a simple two-leaf design.
In researching this camera, I found that a common question is how do you open the Pony 135? It’s not obvious. There’s a little button in the aluminum plate on the camera’s right side (as you look at the back). Press your fingernail into the button and slide the plate down. It’s a little tricky – I can’t do it without using both hands and pressing the camera into my body to hold it steady.
The Pony’s most unusual feature is its collapsible lens barrel. To extend it, twist to the left, pull, and twist to the right until it locks in place. The shutter won’t fire unless the barrel is extended.
The Pony is simple enough to use but it does have a couple quirks. You set the aperture and shutter speed atop the lens barrel. You focus by guessing distance and twisting the ring at the end of the lens barrel accordingly. Then you frame the shot in the viewfinder, pull the cocking lever down (it’s on the lens barrel, left of the aperture and shutter speed settings), and press the shutter button on the top plate. To wind to the next frame, you pull a little lever on the back of the camera (just below and right of the viewfinder) and then twist the wind knob until it stops.
I loaded up my Pony with some Fujicolor 200 and went out to shoot. When I got the photos back, I was disappointed to find that the camera leaks light badly. Scotty! One larkspur plant to beam up.
I was surprised by how far back I had to step to fit my subject into the viewfinder. Then I was frustrated by how what I see in the viewfinder (below, left) is so much less than what the lens sees (right). I’m not above cropping a photo, but I do like it when what I frame in the viewfinder is pretty much what I get back from the processor.
Undaunted, I loaded another roll of film into the Pony and sealed all seams with black electrical tape. The camera still leaked light (grumble!!), but not as badly. Do you see the faint streak across this red door?
But I was pleased with the colors I got. I was especially pleased with how well the Pony 135 caught these rays of light – my eye didn’t see this many rays.
While this shot isn’t very well composed, it shows that you can get a little depth of field with the slow f/4.5 lens. I’ve taken tons of photos of my petunias this year with several of my cameras, and only the Pony rendered the shadows this shadowy and the greens this dark. I like the effect.
I knew this was going to be a tricky shot to expose well given the contrast between the dark tunnel and the extremely bright sun on the almost-white concrete and the fact that my skills are limited to the Sunny 16 rule. Sure enough, some of the concrete is washed out. (The Monon was an Indiana rail line. For more information and lots of historic photos, check out the excellent Bygone Places of the Monon site. In central Indiana, the right-of-way has been converted into a pedestrian trail.)
I like how my Pony renders bright colors so boldly and the shadows so, well, shadowy. I came away from these two rolls wanting to shoot more to learn how to get the most from my Pony’s lens. (If only I could tame that daggone light leak!) I haven’t felt that way about all of my manual-everything cameras, some of which I found downright frustrating to use and others of which returned middling results. I never would have guessed that the lowly Pony has such personality.
See my Pony 135 gallery here.
Do you like old cameras? Then check out my entire collection!