Cameras, Photography

Kodak Monitor Six-20

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I have always had a thing for folding cameras and own several. They sure look impressive, especially my giant No. 3A Autographic Kodak. But many of them either take film that hasn’t been made in decades, or are low-end cameras with limited capabilities. I wanted a usable, versatile shooter, so I went looking for a folder with a fast and well-regarded lens. I found it in the Kodak Monitor.

Kodak Monitor Six-20The Monitor is near the pinnacle of Kodak folding cameras, second only to the rare and expensive (even now) Kodak Super Six-20. Produced from 1939 to 1948, versions were made for 616 and 620 film. Regular 620 Monitors came with an f/4.5 Kodak Anastigmat lens at 103 or 105 mm and a Kodamatic or Flash Kodamatic shutter that operated from 1/10 to 1/200 sec.

For more money, however, you could get a 101 mm f/4.5 Anastigmat Special lens, which is a four-element Tessar design. It was coupled to a Supermatic or Flash Supermatic shutter that operated from 1 to 1/400 sec. My Monitor is one of these. The CAMEROSITY code in the lens’s serial number tells me mine’s from 1946. I gather that Kodak started coating, or Lumenizing in their lingo, this camera’s lens that year, which made them perform better. My Monitor’s lens is marked with a circled L, meaning it’s Lumenized.

Monitors also came with double-exposure prevention and automatic film spacing so you couldn’t wind beyond the next frame, both mighty nice features in those days.

All of these goodies cost, of course. The Monitor Six-20 with the Anastigmat Special lens was $66, which is equivalent to a little more than $1,000 in 2012 dollars.

Kodak Monitor Six-20

The Monitor comes with two viewfinders, both an old-fashioned bubble type attached to the lens assembly, and a flip-up finder on the top plate. The flip-up finder is big and bright, and includes manual parallax compensation.

Kodak Monitor Six-20

To use the Monitor, first cock the shutter with the little lever next to the bubble viewfinder. Guess the distance to the subject and turn the lens barrel to that number of feet. Then frame the shot and press the shutter button on the top plate. Mine requires a very deliberate press or the shutter won’t fire, but I got used to that fast enough.

I never got used to the winding system, though. A lever on the top plate has two settings: WIND and 1-8. After you load the film, slide the lever to WIND and, using the red window on the camera back, wind to the first frame. Then move the lever to 1-8. For the rest of the roll, the winder knob stops when you’ve wound to the next frame. I couldn’t make it work well on my Monitor. When I first shot this camera last fall, the winder usually stopped long before it had actually moved the film fully to the next frame. I ended up with several double and triple exposures. I got two usable photos from that roll; this is one of them.

First Presbyterian Church

A colleague owns a Monitor with this lens and shutter and showed me some fabulous slides he took with it using some Ektachrome E100G. I was so impressed with the color he got that I bought some E100G respooled onto 620 spools from B&H Photo for my Monitor. I shot Sunny 16.

Hydrant with shadows

But I was so deflated by my winding woes that I sat the camera back on the shelf and worked up the courage to try again. In playing with the camera, I found out that it’s possible to bypass the winding system. In the well underneath the pop-up viewfinder is a little lever that, when you move it, overrides the double-exposure prevention system and lets you take a second exposure on the current frame. I figured out that if I left the WIND/1-8 lever on WIND I could wind freely just like any other folding camera, using the red window on the back to gauge when I’d wound to the next frame. Then I tripped the double-exposure lever so I could take another shot. It was a little convoluted, but it worked. So I loaded some more E100G and went to town. This time, I brought my GE PR-1 light meter with me. This is my favorite shot from this roll, of a picket fence in Broad Ripple.

Fence

A fellow parked his 1960s Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia in front of a natural-foods store. Somehow, that seems appropriate.

Karmann-Ghia

I just love this goofy chair painted on the side of this building. I’ve shot it over and over.

Polka-dotted chair

See all the photos that turned out at my Monitor Six-20 gallery.

If I had it to do over again, I might not buy this Monitor. The Kodak Vigilant Six-20 used the same body and could be had with the Anastigmat Special lens and the Supermatic shutter – but it lacked the self-stop wind feature that gave me so much trouble. I would think it would be a less complicated camera to use. Hindsight is 20/20, of course.

Do you like vintage cameras? Then check out my entire collection!

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20 thoughts on “Kodak Monitor Six-20

  1. Lone Primate says:

    I know I’ve said this before, but I’m always struck by something about the saturation in these shots. If it weren’t for the late model car in the church shot, you could easily convince me it was circa 1960, and even a hand-tinted job. I keep wondering if it’s a result of the optics of the day or the nature of the film used by these older cameras.

    I’m especially impressed by the limited focal range in the fence shot. I would have thought you’d need an f/2 lens, if not faster, to achieve something like that. Is the lens a fix focal length or can you vary it, and if so, between what lengths?

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    • I’m going to point primarily to the film here. I shot slide film, the quintessential color stock of days gone by. Even though I used a more modern Ektachrome formulation, it has a blue tinge that, I think, gives that feeling of vintage.

      The Monitor’s f/4.5 lens is certainly fast enough to get some creamy backgrounds when you shoot it at its faster speeds, e.g., 1/400 sec. It’s just easier to achieve that when the lens goes to f/2 or faster!

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  2. I had pretty much the same experience in shooting my Monitor, though I like the photos you got better.

    Something I’ve never been able to understand about the Monitor is how Kodak could put a depth of field scale on it that is completely inaccurate. It is a really well constructed camera with an excellent lens and shutter. It is hard to imagine how a fault like that could creep into the design process.

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    • I normally shoot b/w in my folders but after seeing my colleague’s results with E100G in his Monitor Special, I couldn’t resist — and am glad I didn’t. I was just thinking I ought to buy more and use this camera again.

      I’ve read in multiple sources about the useless DOF scale, so I didn’t bother to use it. Maybe they had some of these left over from some other camera.

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  3. I have been tempted to get one of these, but have been put off by the need for respooling. Do you think this camera is worth it just for its build quality alone? I don’t imagine anything like it will ever be made again.

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    • I think it depends on what you want to do with it. If you want to shoot with it frequently, the hassle of respooling 120 or the expense of buying pre-respooled 620 may not be worth it. But if you want to use it occasionally and otherwise enjoy looking at it on the shelf, it might be worth it. From a straight usage perspective, the Vigilant with this lens and shutter should be a better choice, because it will be simpler to use. As for build quality, it’s well made but isn’t overbuilt, like some of the German cameras I own.

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  4. ambaker49 says:

    This brings me back to the days when things had designers, rather than committees. When designs fulfilled a vision, not a focus group. Thank you for sharing this great old camera, and its capabilities.

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