In its heyday, Sears was on a quest to sell anything an average person could want. They were Amazon, minus the Web site and the free shipping. Sears offered a vast number of products under its own brands, including cameras under the Tower brand. A number of different manufacturers produced Tower cameras, usually simply relabeling for Sears a camera they already sold directly. Such was the case with this box camera for 120 film, the Sears Tower Flash 120, which Sears sold in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Made by Bilora in (then) West Germany, it was identical to the Stahl Box (Steel Box) camera but for a different face plate.

Sears Tower Flash 120

Like most box cameras, it offers a meniscus lens set behind a rotary shutter. A switch on the front lets you choose between bulb and a timed shutter of probably 1/30 second. The aperture is almost certainly f/11 — I’ve seen other Tower Flash 120s with “f/11” printed on the face plate. The box is made of metal, rather than the usual cardboard. Also, you operate the shutter with a proper button on the camera’s face, rather than a lever on the side. The button even accepts a cable release, although like most boxes, there’s no tripod mount. The Tower Flash 120 offers two waist-level viewfinders, portrait on top and landscape on the side.

Sears Tower Flash 120

I’ve seen two other versions of the Tower Flash 120. One wraps the box’s sides, top, and bottom with a ribbed, rubbery skin. The other uses a plainer face plate (it says “Model 7,” but I’m not aware of models 1 through 6) and a smooth, rather than textured, front and back. Some Tower Flash 120s use a slotted shutter-speed switch rather than the tabbed one on my copy.

Sears Tower Flash 120

My Tower Flash 120 was was donated to my collection by a longtime collector who retired and downsized. It came with its flash attachment, which takes two AA batteries. I’m not much for flash photography so I didn’t try it. But the battery compartment was clean, so I see no reason it shouldn’t work.

If you like box cameras, also check out my reviews of some classic Kodak boxes, the No. 2 Brownie, Model D (here) and Model F (here), as well as the No. 2 Hawk-Eye Model C (here) and its 50th Anniversary of Kodak companion (here). Or look at my reviews of the Ansco B-2 Cadet (here) and Ansco Shur Shot (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

I’ve had this camera for a few years, but have put off a minor repair it needed. The bit of plastic that is the red window around back had come unglued. Repairing it meant bending the film pressure plate to get it out of the way, and I was afraid of damaging it. I finally braved it, and with a bead of super glue the camera finally returned to fully usable condition. I bent the pressure plate back into place with no trouble, but unfortunately a little super glue squished out and dried visibly on the red plastic. Fortunately I could still read the markings on my film’s backing paper.

I loaded some Ilford FP4 Plus into the Tower Flash 120. This film expired in December of 1994 but was stored frozen, so I figured it would be okay. The box opens from the sides near the front, by pressing the small button on each side simultaneously.

Tall shadow

The smooth, easy shutter button guards against camera shake. You still need a steady hand, however, thanks to the slow shutter.

Front yard

Surprisingly reflective glass made the viewfinders hard to use. In all but bright, direct sunlight, I saw my silhouette in the viewfinders, which obscured my subjects.


Thanks to the small, reflective viewfinder, it’s hard to frame subjects. Every last photo I made was far from level. I straightened them all in Photoshop.


The lens is remarkably free of vignetting, and is soft only in the very corners.

Across the street

I shot the whole roll in my yard, as I sometimes do. Except for the balky viewfinders, the Tower Flash 120 was pleasant to use and returned decent results.

My vee dub

To see more from this camera, check out my Sears Tower Flash 120 gallery.

Remarkably, the Sears Tower Flash 120’s body is based on a camera Bilora made starting in 1935. That goes to show that the box had long been perfected, but was still viable as a family snapshot camera even that many years later. It’s flash attachment made it even more useful. I am unlikely to use this camera often because I enjoy my 1910s-era Kodak box cameras so much more. But if you are box curious, or your collection leans hard into boxes, you would be well served to find one.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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20 responses to “Sears Tower Flash 120”

  1. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    I’m always amazed that when you look at the history of Sears Tower camera offerings, how high quality a lot of those items were! By the time I became a knowledgeable “consumer”, it seems like we always had a suspicion of “house brand” items, no matter what they were. It seems like Sears really put a lot of time and effort into making valuable offerings under their personal brand. I still have a couple of Sears brand lenses knocking around in “K” mount, that are decent and competitive with the best aftermarket lenses.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      A Sears (Ricoh) 50/2 I owned gave nearly identical results, to my eye, to my Pentax 50/2.

  2. lasousa2015 Avatar

    Great results, surprisingly sharp!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This would have been a fine family snapshot camera in its day!

  3. brandib1977 Avatar

    I always stop and admire this camera in my antiquing journeys. It’s good to know more about it!!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      It’s a common one! Sears must have sold a million of them.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        At least that many and I’ve seen them all in junk shops and antique stores!

  4. Mike Connealy Avatar

    The Sears Catalog was the Amazon of my childhood.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Mine too, really!

    2. Kodachromeguy Avatar

      You may recall that Sears also offered specialty catalogs, such as ones for tools, farm equipment, and photographic equipment. As of about 1970, the photo catalog offered Nikon cameras and other high-end options, not just Tower versions. If you go back to the post-WWI era, Sears sold very high quality kit houses, which were delivered to your town via railroad.

      Back to the present: I am always amazed (or maddened) that Sears could not transition into the internet era. After all, they already had a huge product mix, warehouses, trucks, retail outlets, and a loyal American and Canadian customer base. How did they blow all those advantages? How was this possible?

      Maybe this is another example that major retail empires never last more than about a century (think of the Great A&P Tea Company, Woolworth’s, Montgomery Wards, Jordan Marsh). If we are really lucky, Walmart will succumb sooner than a century.

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        I did not know that about Sears. All I knew was the Christmas catalog!

        Companies grow large and have to protect their old-line revenue streams even as the world changes. Especially public companies — “the street” won’t tolerate a temporary dip in profit while the company retools for the future.

  5. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    That camera probably would have been a display piece for me. Hats off to you on the repair and the photographs!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ll try any camera I can get film for. I put off repairs because I don’t enjoy them, but if I am capable of them I will eventually do them!

  6. arhphotographic Avatar

    Great results from a super looking camera, with the flash attached.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks! This box is a winner.

  7. Peggy Avatar

    I am not sure I there is a UK equivalent of sears, maybe woolworths? But not really. Love the shadow shot.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sears was huge in the US for a long time. Not so much anymore.

  8. boolean10 Avatar

    Came across this while researching mine! I’ve got a 120 “deluxe”, which has an adjustable focus (6ft -> inf) and lets you choose between F16 and F11. It’s my first film camera ever, so I’m feeling my way forward blindly in the dark (ha). I had to do some minor restoration on it, and I never noticed a film pressure plate – if you have a chance, could you share what that might look like? Also, any advice for film ISO? I looked into the FP4 and I might go for that after I finish my 400 rolls.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I no longer have mine so I can’t say for sure, but I think the nature of these boxes is that the tension on the film as it winds around the transport is what keeps it flat. Also, I generally shoot ISO 100-125 film in old boxes, but I know people who have good luck with ISO 400 films because of exposure latitude. Good luck!

      1. boolean10 Avatar

        Gotcha, today I learned. Thank you so much for the reply!

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