Kodak Instamatic 104 and Kodak Hawkeye Instamatic

If the world’s casual photographers had a mantra, it would be, “Don’t make me think!” Kodak built a business on being happy to oblige. But by the early 1960s one pesky barrier still remained: loading film. Even the simplest camera required carefully threading roll film in dim light. What a hassle!

Kodak solved that problem in 1963 with its Instamatic cameras and their easy-loading Kodapak (126) film cartridges. Because the film was in a sealed plastic cartridge, it could be loaded in any light. Because of the cartridge’s shape, it was nigh onto impossible to load it wrong. Just drop the cartridge into the camera and close the door! The Instamatic set the world on fire, and for at least the next 15 years 126 film ruled the amateur photographic world.

The first Instamatic was the Instamatic 50, which included a shoe for a flash attachment that took peanut-sized AG-1 bulbs. The 50 was quickly followed by the Instamatic 100, which included a pop-up flash for AG-1s. At about the same time, Kodak released the Hawkeye Instamatic, which as far as I can tell is functionally and mechanically identical to the 50.

Kodak Hawkeye Instamatic

All of the early Instamatics  left the user with a flash problem: hot, spent AG-1 flashbulbs. So in 1965 Kodak issued the 104, the first camera to use flashcubes, which were four AG-1s in a plastic housing. All early Instamatics used two AAA batteries to power the flash. Here’s a 104 that found its way into my collection.

Kodak Instamatic 104

Kodak made a range of Instamatics with this basic body through about 1971. This commercial, which was made for the TV show Bewitched, shows the Instamatic 124 in action. The 124 was among the last Instamatics to use this body. Just watch how easy it is to load the film. Notice especially how loud the shutter is when it fires. The shutter linkage in these was crude and stiff.

Most of the early Instamatics used a plastic 43mm f/11 lens and a two-speed shutter that fired at 1/40 sec when a flash was attached and 1/90 sec. otherwise. The rest used a glass, three-element 41mm f/8 Kodar lens, and some of those coupled the shutter to a selenium light meter.

Kodak Instamatic 104

Some of these early Instamatics even came with a spring-loaded automatic film winder. You wound a knob atop the camera to tighten the spring, and then as you pressed the shutter button, the spring advanced the film.

But most people bought the basic Instamatics. They weren’t that inexpensive, really: the 104 cost $15.95 new, which is about $120 in 2014 dollars. And they weren’t great cameras. The stiff shutters made the cameras prone to shake, and the plastic lenses returned results sharp enough only for a snapshot-sized print. But that was good enough for most people, and Kodak sold more than 50 million of them by 1970.

The last 126 film was manufactured in 2007, so I’m not going to use these two Instamatics anytime soon. But I shot scads of 126 cartridges when I was a boy with an Imperial Magimatic X-50 camera. I have a box full of blurry square photos from that perfectly dreadful camera. That’s enough for me.

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10 responses to “Kodak Instamatic 104 and Kodak Hawkeye Instamatic”

  1. John Smith Avatar
    John Smith

    It’s funny. I remember our family having an Instamatic around the house when I was growing up. I remember shooting it. The stiff, loud shutter and the little flashcube rotating when you advanced the film. I don’t, however, remember our family using it much. My dad shot all of our family photos with his Retina rangefinder that he brought back from the service. And since he loved projecting slides on rainy Sunday afternoons, he shots lots of Kodachrome. I’m lucky I guess because all those Kodachromes survive and the Retina still works. The Instamatic is long gone and very forgotten.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The Retina had such a fine lens, especially compared to the plastic meniscus wonder in the Instamatic. And there’s nothing like Kodachrome.

      My mom shot our family for years on Kodacolor II using an enormous 126 camera called the Perma Matic. It had an electronic flash built in, a rarity in those days. She saved green stamps to get it, I think. Anyway, she has boxes of square photos in her bedroom closet. This was the best we could do, and so we valued those prints.

      I think there’s been a market for a long time for casual throwaway photography. Most of the images taken on phones today will probably be lost, just as your family’s Instamatic shots appear to have been.

      1. John Smith Avatar
        John Smith

        The Retina did have a fine lens and was well crafted. The folks at the Nagel Camerawerks in Germany built a well made camera line for Kodak. Testament to it’s quality is the fact that after all these years, with regular exercise, the Retina still works fine. My Dad was and is frugal and not sure why he spent the money at the Army PX for that camera in 1952 then carted it all over Germany with him. And other than the fact that he liked projecting slides, I am not sure why he took to Kodachrome so. There were other slide films at the time and some decent color print films he could have chosen as we were growing up. Those were more patient times though and he had no issues with sealing up his exposed film in the pre-paid Kodalux mailers and sending them off for processing. When he got the slides back, he carefully slip each one into little metal frames and then into Argus slide trays for Sunday afternoon projecting in the family basement. Those Kodachromes are still in their slide trays and they still look as good as the day they were shot.

        Your Instamatic was part of Kodak’s long legacy of “You Take The Picture, We Do The Rest.” And they did.

        1. Jim Grey Avatar

          I own a couple Retinas. I’m especially fond of my Retina IIa.


          Those Kodachromes will probably look that good for another hundred years. Meanwhile, the prints I had made in the 1970s via mail order are fading badly, and even the negatives (all Kodacolor II) don’t scan very well.

  2. Mark Avatar

    The 104 was my first camera. I still have the slides that I shot with it, as well as the prints and negs. It is what I took out on a canoe rather than my Exa 2a. The cool thing was knowing that if I put a used flashcube in it, the shutter speed would go to 1/45 sec, giving me a longer exposure for cloudy days. It is also the camera that I used for my first darkroom class in high school in 1973. That was magical.

    1. Mark Avatar

      make that 1/40th sec… as you said in your post!

  3. Lone Primate Avatar
    Lone Primate

    Wow, the 104! Does that ever look familiar. We had one of those when I was a kid. When I was in grade 3 in the mid-70s they took us down to Halifax harbour on a school trip and I took a great portrait shot of the Bluenose with our 104. What I wouldn’t give to still have that photo!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Hey, good to see you around here LP. You’re proving John Smith’s point about how many Instamatic shots were probably lost.

      I was thinking about you last week as I published my posts about then-and-now photos of familiar places.

  4. pesoto74 Avatar

    I remember when these were a hot item. You couldn’t go to any gathering without there being at least one person shooting away with one. And I can remember some people raving about how easy the film was to load. I never really understood it since I never had any problem loading roll film. About my only regret I have about the discontinuation of 126 film is that I am curious about the 126 SLR that Ricoh made. I was unaware of the camera until the last few years and it looks like it might be interesting to shoot a roll with it. I think Kodak also made a fairly nice SLR for 126 film.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I remember mostly the Instamatic knockoffs by other companies. Guess my family was too cheap to buy genuine Kodak! I did have trouble spooling 127 film into my Brownie and so was happy when Dad bought me a 126 camera. I shot more film because of it.

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