Cameras

Kodak Baby Brownie

It’s just so cute. And it fits into the palm of your hand. Meet the tiny Kodak Baby Brownie.

Kodak Baby Brownie

Produced from 1934 to 1941 in the United States and from 1948 to 1952 in the United Kingdom, the Baby Brownie is about as simple as a camera can be. Made of Bakelite, it features a glass meniscus (single-element) lens and a rotary shutter. I’d bet that this combo is something like f/11 at 1/40 sec., or maybe f/8 at 1/60, or f/16 at 1/30, so the camera can capture a usable image outdoors under most lighting conditions.

Kodak Baby BrownieKodak Baby BrownieKodak Baby Brownie

The Baby Brownie produces eight 4×6 photographs on 127 roll film. To take photos, you pop up the viewfinder, frame the scene, and then slide the lever under the lens to the left to fire the shutter. The lever springs back. Wind the film to the next frame right away so you don’t forget, because nothing about this camera prevents double exposure.

Noted industrial designer Walter Teague designed this clever little camera. Perhaps it was a reflection of the time, but much of his work reflected streamlined and art-moderne sensibilities. But his designs were also practical and functional. To wit, on the Baby Brownie, the lever on the bottom separates the camera so you can load film. The spool clips are up front; you thread the film around the back.

Kodak Baby Brownie

When new, the Baby Brownie cost just $1. That’s equivalent to about $18 today. I checked Amazon, by the way, and you can get a new digital camera for under $20. But the reviews say you won’t like it very much — faulty software and lousy image quality. And none of those cameras are made by a company you’d recognize, let alone the number one consumer camera maker in the world.

I’m on a jag to use up the oldest films in my fridge. That’s why I bought this camera — my final roll of Efke 100 in 127 size had been in there for a couple years and it was past time to shoot it. I could have shot this roll in my Kodak Brownie Starmatic, but I’d done that before and wasn’t excited about the results. I was a little happier with the photos I got back from the Baby Brownie. They had pretty good clarity and detail.

Suburban shopping

The Baby Brownie delivers considerable softness and distortion in the corners, however, but that’s pretty normal for such a simple camera. It also probably didn’t matter when this camera was new, as it was advertised as making 1 5/8 x 2 1/2 inch prints — essentially contact prints off the negatives.

Home sweet home

Here’s the building I work in. Fans of the show Parks and Recreation might recognize it as the Gryzzl building. I kind of wish I hadn’t used the whole roll taking landscape and architectural shots, and had gathered a couple friends to shoot them from about 10 or 15 feet away. I’ll bet that’s the kind of photograph this camera was made for.

Gryzzl

All of the 127 cameras I ever shot delivered square photos. It was novel to get 4×6 photos from the Baby Brownie. But the pop-up viewfinder shows considerably less than what the camera sees. When I framed this shot, the Wrecks sign filled much, much more of the frame. The photo above of my house filled the viewfinder from left to right. If I shoot the Baby Brownie again, I’ll choose subjects 10 to 15 feet away and see how it behaves. I’m betting Kodak designed this camera to favor family photos rather than landscapes.

Wrecks

When I next shoot this Baby Brownie, I’ll cover the red window with black electrical tape. In the shot above, you can just make out the frame numbers printed on the film’s backing paper. This was much more pronounced on one other shot from the roll. To see more photos from this roll, check out my Kodak Baby Brownie gallery.

Everything about using this Baby Brownie was a delight and a pleasure, starting with when I first held it in my hands. I couldn’t get over how small it was! And then it was so easy to carry with me. I even found the shutter lever to be intuitive and easy, despite its unusual left-right action and placement under the lens.

I’d like to shoot this camera again. But even though Efke stopped making film a few years ago, all is not lost: as of 2015, a few 127 films are available. You can buy Ilford HP5 Plus cut down from 120 and hand spooled at B&H Photo. Or you can buy one of the three newish films specially made in 127: an ISO 100 black-and-white film called Rera Pan, available at B&H and at Freestyle, as well as color films at ISO 160 and 400 called Bluefire Murano, available from Frugal Photographer. These films are all pricey a bit north of $10 a roll, but that they are available at all today is remarkable.


Do you like vintage cameras? Then check out all of my old-gear reviews!

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20 thoughts on “Kodak Baby Brownie

  1. Extremely cool as a camera and even more so as an example of early industrial design. Walter Teague and his college-age son did the design work on the Marmon Sixteen, which is said to be the first car that was truly designed as an organic whole.

    That it takes pleasant pictures is a surprise, though perhaps it shouldn’t be.

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    • I knew Teague was involved in some auto design but didn’t know the specifics; thanks for filling in the blanks!

      Cameras like these tended to be acceptably sharp in the center, and this one’s no exception.

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  2. Hey, that’s a new one on me – I’ve never seen one of these before. Anything made of Bakelite is inherently cool, in my opinion. You managed to get some good pictures with a nice distinctive look.

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    • Cool – and fragile. I have a Bakelite Brownie Hawkeye and when I dropped it, it cracked. Fortunately, the crack was small and in a place where no light should leak. But still.

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      • Dan Cluley says:

        My Mom’s Brownie Hawkeye met its demise that way about 1960. A few years ago I bought several on ebay and put together a complete boxed set, but I don’t think she has used it.

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    • I’ve heard of people spooling 35mm onto 828 backing paper to save the cost. I’m not into the sprocket-hole look, but at least it lets one try out an 828 camera.

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  3. Impressive… something about the nature of the photos… the vignetting around the corners and the muted contrast… makes them look like photos from the 50s or 60s. The only thing that puts the lie to it is the late model cars. What a really sweet deal. :) If only it were digital! :D

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    • 127 is on life support, but determined shooters can always cut 120 to size and respool! But yeah, there isn’t a digicam extant that will still work when it’s as old as this Kodak.

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  4. I admit, I’m attracted to cameras and radios, made of Bakelite, and have an Art Deco design. :) Great review and photos. I have a few rolls of 127, but they’ve never been cold stored, so they’re essentially museum pieces. I have a few cameras in my collection that use 127 film, but I’ve never used them. I may have to find some fresh film and give them go.

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    • Well then this post hit the jackpot for you!

      If your 127 film is b/w, and it’s not toooooo old, you might try shooting it anyway. A lot of the consumer b/w films seem to still return usable images even after 40 or 50 years.

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