We tend to think of medium format film as being for serious work with expensive gear. But its first use was in an inexpensive snapshot camera — this, the Kodak No. 2 Brownie.
This is actually the last of a long line of No. 2 Brownies. The first, its body made of cardboard, was introduced in 1901. Models B, C, D, and E followed. (I own a Model D, too; see my review here.) They all look like the original to me (though this page charts the minute changes). The Model F is different — not in form or function, but in construction, as its body is made of aluminum.
Model Fs rolled off Kodak’s assembly lines from 1924 to 1935. For some of those years you could get one in blue, brown, gray, green, or red! As you can see, mine is basic black. It is also a gift to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras.
If you like old boxes, by the way, I’ve reviewed a couple others: the Ansco Shur Shot (here) and B-2 Cadet (here), and the Kodak Six-20 Brownie (here). A few other cameras I’ve reviewed are boxes, too, just in more modern packaging: the Agfa Clack (here), Kodak Baby Brownie (here), and the Kodak Brownie Hawkeye (here). You can check out all the cameras I’ve ever reviewed here.
No. 2 Brownies are pretty hard to kill. They’re both so simple and robustly enough manufactured that even the jankiest one you find in the back of some dumpy junk store can probably still make images.
But these cameras can get so dirty after a century or so! I cleaned this camera’s lens and viewfinders before I put any film through it. The camera’s front plate is held on only by pressure on the sides, and it’s easy enough to pry the pressure points back. The front just falls off when you do that. It provides good access to the viewfinder glass and mirrors, which slide right out with a tweezers. Isopropyl alcohol and a cotton swab made short work of 80 years of accumulated grime. Any No. 2 Brownie’s viewfinders will be dim even when clean, but when they’re dirty they’re useless.
The lens is a little harder to clean. To get at the back of the lens, remove the film insert by pulling the winding knob out and sliding the insert out. To get at the front of the lens, pull up the little tab on the top of the camera that’s to one side of the lens and flip the shutter lever — the shutter remains open until you flip the lever one more time. Again, I used a cotton swab and isopropyl alcohol. Holy cow, was the front of the lens filthy.
The No. 2 Brownie offers three aperture settings, selected by pulling up the tab on top of the camera over the lens. I couldn’t begin to guess at what f stops these apertures represent, but a manual I found online says that the largest aperture (tab all the way down) is for snapshots outdoors in all but the brightest light, the middle aperture is for bright sunlight and indoor time exposures, and the smallest (tab all the way up) is for time exposures outdoors on cloudy days. I assume the shutter operates at something like 1/50 sec.
I loaded a roll of fresh Ektar. I mis-spooled it the first time and winding was so hard I feared I’d tear the film. I put the camera into my dark bag, removed the film, and started over. Then frustratingly the Ektar’s frame numbers sat at the far right edge of the ruby window. Actually, the window on mine has faded to a sickly yellow. Fearing light through the window would imprint the frame numbers onto the film, I covered the window with electrical tape and peeled it back only to wind.
The Brownie focuses from about 10 feet. As you can see, the lens distorts a little and it is soft in the corners. Standard stuff for a one-element lens.
The act of shooting a No. 2 Brownie is pleasant. You frame as best you can and gently move the shutter lever. The entire process is so quiet and gentle. You just have to accept that the teeny tiny viewfinders make it hard to tell whether your subject is level. Frame as best as you can and hope you got it right enough.
Also, because of the slow shutter speed, camera shake can be a problem. The photo below shows it when you view it full size. Fortunately, the Model F offers a tripod mount. Previous models of the No. 2 Brownie lacked this useful feature.
See more photos from this camera in my Kodak No. 2 Brownie, Model F, gallery.
I love shooting with simple cameras like this. I have half a mind to shoot this camera exclusively for a time, maybe three or six months, to see what I learn. I will want to invest in my own film-processing equipment first, as it is just as expensive to have a roll of 120 processed and scanned as 35mm, to yield a quarter or a third of the number of images.