Because I’m way too busy getting ready for my wedding this Saturday, I’m doing some reruns this week. I thought you might enjoy the first camera review I ever wrote, published nine years ago today!
When I was a kid, a Kodak Brownie Reflex, Synchro Model, found its way into my hands. I think it might have been my uncle Jack’s. It was an ugly duckling of black plastic with hard corners and an aluminum faceplate. But I’d never seen a twin-lens camera before, and spent hours looking down into its viewfinder, considering its fisheyed world. I never ran film through it – the shutter button was sticky, and a crack ran up the body. It was useless.
Now that I’m gingerly collecting cameras again, my old friend Michael e-mailed me recently and said, “Hey, I saw your blog post that said you used to have a Brownie Reflex. I have one here doing nothing. Do you want it?”
Does a wino want a case of Thunderbird?
This one is crack-free and its shutter button slides on silk. It even came with a flash unit every bit as ugly as the camera itself. Everything on and in the camera was dirty, so last night I broke out the tiny screwdrivers, Q-tips, and rubbing alcohol and went inside. It cleaned up pretty nicely. The only thing I didn’t try to clean was the cloudy lens, which was behind the shutter works. I’ll do that on a day when I have the patience for intricate work.
Some stains wouldn’t come off the mirror inside the viewfinder, as this photo shows. Twin-lens cameras show mirror images in the viewfinder, which is disorienting until you get the hang of it.
The Kodak Brownie Reflex, Synchro Model, was made in the United States from 1941 to 1952. (A non-synchro model, which didn’t synchronize the flash with the shutter, was made from 1940 to 1941.) Its original price was $6. It took typical square photos on 127 rollfilm. Kodak made millions of these cameras, so they’re pretty easy to come by. For more information, including a PDF of this camera’s manual, go to the Brownie Camera Page.
It’s just so cute. And it fits into the palm of your hand. Meet the tiny 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.
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 reflected of the time, but much of his work involved streamlined and Art Deco 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.
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.
If you like 127 cameras, by the way, also see my review of the Kodak Brownie Starmatic (here). I’ve also reviewed a couple other bakelite Kodak boxes, albeit for 620 film: the Brownie Hawkeye (here) and the Duaflex II (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
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 in the center.
The Baby Brownie delivers considerable softness and light falloff 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.
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.
All of the 127 cameras I’ve ever used 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. Since these are the kinds of subjects I shoot, I’ll need to adapt. Also: notice how the markings on the film’s backing paper came through on this shot.
127 film is hard to come by, limiting the ability to shoot cameras like this. A few small companies offer 127 film, which I believe is larger format film cut down to 127 size. Try the Film Photography Store (here) to see what they have in stock. Frugal Photographer may also offer some 127; try here. I bought a roll of Kodak Ektar hand-cut and respooled from this eBay seller and gave it a whirl.
Given that my Baby Brownie didn’t leak light when I shot the Efke, I have to think the red areas on these images come thanks to the vagaries of cutting down and respooling film by hand. But when you ignore that, aren’t these colors terrific? I do love Ektar in old box cameras.
I made these photos on a trip down the National Road in eastern Indiana, in Knightstown and Centerville. There’s plenty of good photo subjects on this historic road. The Baby Brownie was a fine little companion.
Everything about using this Kodak 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.
If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here! To get Down the Road in your inbox or feed reader, subscribe here.
Shortly after I shot my first roll of film as a boy in 1976, my family moved from Rabbit Hill to a larger home on Erskine Boulevard. As summer faded into autumn I returned to Hook’s Dependable Drugs for more film, this time going for black-and-white Verichrome Pan.
Kodak designed Verichrome Pan to work in the simplest cameras for the unskilled photographer – like nine-year-old me with my Brownie Starmite II. This film had extremely wide exposure latitude, meaning it could get a usable image under a huge range of conditions.
I found those negatives recently and scanned them. This is my favorite shot from the roll. On the left is Kevin, a neighborhood boy and coincidentally the son of my family’s dentist. My brother’s on the right. They had been playing catch in the front yard, but I knew that my camera couldn’t freeze their motion. So I staged this shot by asking them to pose. Kevin passed away as a young adult, so it was a sad moment for me when this image emerged from the scanner, onto my monitor, and into my eyes for the first time in 36 years.
This, the crispest shot on the roll, is of my brother in the front yard on a warmer day. My mom always patched the knees of our play jeans when they inevitably wore out. Those were more active times for youth. My sons, products of the video-game era, have never worn out the knees of their jeans.
My brother took this blurry shot of me on the same day. We both had several of these tank tops, which were a staple of our play-clothes wardrobe. I am astonished by how much this reminds me of my youngest son – his hair, the shape of his jaw and chin, the facial expression, the way he stands. My arms are longer, though. I have unusually long arms. I constantly have to return long-sleeved sport shirts because the cuff doesn’t reach my wrist.
A few shots remained on the roll after the leaves had fallen off the trees. I was wearing school clothes when my brother shot this. Mom loved to dress us in plaid pants. They were stylish in 1972, I guess, but by the time of this photo in 1976 they were just embarrassing! Most of our friends were allowed to wear jeans to school, but not us. Mom finally relented when we entered middle school. Note the fire hydrant. To celebrate the Bicentennial, every hydrant in South Bend was painted to look like a Revolutionary War soldier or a father of our country. I wish I had a better photo of the one in our yard. Most of them were replaced over time with plain yellow plugs, but a few of these hydrants may still lurk on side streets.
By 1976, most casual photographers had upgraded to Instamatic cameras and were shooting color film. By the 1990s, most snapshooters were buying reasonably well specified 35 mm point-and-shoot cameras, even the simplest of which could get good exposure under most circumstances. There was little need for Verichrome Pan anymore, though Kodak doggedly kept producing it for many years. They finally stopped making it in 127 (for the Brownie that produced these images) in 1995. Soon you could get it only in good old 120, but even that ended in 2002.
I wish I had shot more of it back then. I wish I could shoot it in my simple old cameras now. It would just be right.
I shot black and white not long ago, using modern T-Max film. Check it out!
127 film hasn’t been made in the US in 30 years. Dedicated 127 shooters know that B&H Photo carries a few varieties still made overseas (check out what they offer). B&H used to offer Kodak Portra 160 cut down from a larger film size and spooled by hand. I got a roll before it was discontinued and loaded it into my Starmatic to revel in the nostalgia.
Not only does the Starmatic automatically set exposure, but it also compensates for various film speeds. At ISO 160, the Portra is on the fast side for this camera. I set the camera to its maximum, 125 ASA, and hoped for the best. I needn’t have worried.
A few shots on this roll were ruined by some sort of funky pink clouding. A little of it shows up on this shot, but I like the colors I got in the evening light well enough that I am sharing it here anyway.
So far, all of these shots are from Broad Ripple, an Indianapolis neighborhood. It’s been a frequent photographic destination for me this year.
I got this last shot in Handley, West Virginia, while I was there for a family reunion. This burned-out and fallen building stands along “the hard road,” highway 61, Handley’s main drag.
It was great to shoot square photos again, as I did as a kid. I enjoy and kind of miss the format. These photos were better than anything I ever got as a kid, though. I know how to hold my camera steady now, and I’ve learned a little about composition. Also, to my eye the Portra 160 renders color more pleasingly and with finer grain than the Kodacolor II I always shot.
Few labs still process 127 film. Dwayne’s Photo does, and they got my business this time. I normally have the processor scan the negatives for me, but Dwayne’s doesn’t offer that service for 127 film. So I had them make prints, which I scanned on my new Epson V300 scanner. After scanning they needed a little color correction and cropping, which I did in Photoshop Elements 9. Whaddya know, a workflow.
When my grandmother gave me a quarter to buy the old Kodak Brownie Starmite II at a garage sale, I don’t think either of us could have predicted that it would spark a lifelong love of cameras, which would lead to a growing interest in photography when I reached middle age.
It was August of 1976. The nation had just turned 200, and I was about to turn nine. I saved my allowance to buy a roll of film. Money in hand, I went to Hook’s Dependable Drugs to buy some Kodacolor II. But black-and-white Verichrome Pan turned out to be far less expensive, and I stood at the photo counter for some time trying to decide. Color finally won. The instructions said to load the camera in subdued light. Taking it a little too far, I first tried to load the camera in my pitch dark closet, where I couldn’t see a thing. So I moved to the bathroom and loaded the camera by night light. And then I went out to shoot. I wrote about the experience here.
Not long ago I dug out my negatives from that first roll of film and scanned them on my new photo and film scanner. I was eager to see some of these images again for the first time in 36 years, for when I got the prints back from Hook’s later that August, I gave most of them away to the children I photographed.
As you might imagine, my photographic skills were terrible! Among my first subjects was our beagle, George. I still have this print, but poor George is just a dot on it as I stood way too far back. My scanner let me enlarge the image.
Neighborhood children were my subjects on most of the roll, however. These little girls are Muffy and Dawn, and they came to my back yard to be photographed.
I was so mad at my brother Rick for stabbing his rubber knife into the frame just as I clicked the shutter on Darin, who is Dawn’s older brother. This negative shows some signs of age and rough treatment.
This is another neighborhood Dawn, the younger sister of Mike. My brother and Mike have been friends for 40 years now. Sadly, Dawn passed away several years ago. This photo also features the side of our garage and a little bit of my finger in the bottom right corner.
One of the neighborhood girls was eager to try my camera, so I let her shoot me and another girl who I can’t identify. Perhaps if the camera had been held steadier I’d recognize her face!
Seeing these faces for the first time in 36 years was a delight. I wish I had shot more so I could have images of more of the many children in our neighborhood. Alas, we moved in October, and my next roll of film would be of children in our new neighborhood. I’ll share photos from that roll in a later post.
It was the pinnacle of Kodak’s durable, if not quite venerable, Brownie line – a Brownie with a built-in selenium light meter for automatic exposure control. The meter fed a simple mechanical system that adjusted the aperture. The aperture maxed at f/8, the limit of its plastic Kodar lens, and the shutter fired at only one speed, but at least the Starmatic let you set film speed. This was pretty heady stuff for the world’s leading line of inexpensive cameras!
Not that the Starmatic could be considered inexpensive. It cost a whopping $34.50 when it went on sale in 1959. That’s equivalent to about $260 today.
Nobody knows for sure how many Brownie Starmatics Kodak cranked out across its 1959-1961 run. (My Starmatic’s CAMEROSITY code says it was made in November, 1959, by the way.) The same goes for its successor, the slightly updated Brownie Starmatic II, which Kodak produced until 1963. Both cameras were part of Kodak’s Brownie Star series, of which more than 10 million are said to have been made. So cameras from this series have long been plentiful.
Atop the Starmatic lie two dials. The smaller dial sets film speed, from 32 to 125 ASA. I guess 125 was considered pretty fast in 1959. The larger dial sets exposure. Choose Auto to let the light meter do the work, or chose the Exposure Value (EV) guide number that matches your conditions:
12 for overcast
13 for cloudy but bright
14 for weak or hazy sun
15 for bright sun
16 for bright sun on sand or snow
I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t use Auto. Kodak probably figured the same thing, because when you turn this dial off Auto a piece of transparent amber plastic fills the viewfinder to alert you.
The primitive mechanical metering works well as long as the selenium in the meter is strong. The shutter operates at 1/40 sec, I’m guessing. The meter reads the light and pushes a mechanical stop into place. This stop limits the aperture — as you press the shutter, the aperture blades close until the closing mechanism reaches that stop. Since “wide open” is f/8, this camera biases toward plenty of depth of field.
When you’re ready to snap a shot, peer through the viewfinder. If a red flag appears inside, the light meter isn’t reading enough light and the photo will be underexposed. If the big dial is set to Auto, you’ll need to use flash. Otherwise, try a higher EV number. The flag still works on my Starmatic, but hard telling whether the light meter is still accurate.
On the back, the little red window shows the exposure number on the film’s backing paper. The Starmatic takes 12 square photographs on size 127 rollfilm. Kodak discontinued 127 film in 1995, but you can get a Japanese b/w film, Rera Pan 100, in a few places (notably at Freestyle Photo) and The Frugal Photographer in Calgary cuts down a few other film stocks onto 127 spools and sells them here. Many mail-order labs still process 127, such as Dwayne’s Photo.
All of the Brownie Star series cameras feature a drop-out film loading and transport system. You flip a lever and the entire camera bottom slides out. The film winder is on the bottom plate, too.
If you like simple Kodak cameras, check out my reviews of the Baby Brownie (here), the Brownie Hawkeye (here), the Duaflex II (here), the No. 2 Brownie, Model D (here), the No. 2 Hawk-Eye (here), and the Tourist (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
This isn’t my first Starmatic. I bought one in about 1980, probably at a garage sale. I loaded a roll of Kodacolor into it just before Christmas in 1981. That Starmatic came with a flash attachment and a whole bunch of flashbulbs. The flash was blisteringly bright, and I blame it for washing out most of my Christmas morning shots. This one of me turned out well enough. I was 13. I had just received a nice dictionary as a gift.
This time I started with some Kodak Portra 160 that had been cut and respooled onto 127 spools. The camera supports films up to only ISO 125, so that’s where I set it. The Portra handled the slight overexposure like a champ.
I took the Starmatic on a walk through Indianapolis’s colorful Broad Ripple neighborhood. Everything on the Starmatic worked as it should.
I finished the roll in my father’s hometown of Handley, West Virginia. Dad wasn’t sure, but he thought this might have been the house he was born in.
The next time I shot the Starmatic I used Efke 100 film, which was still being produced then and was available in 127. It was the last fresh 127 film manufactured.
I wasn’t wowed by this film in this camera. I’m glad I shot the Portra first, or I might have assumed that this camera wasn’t very capable.
The next time I shot the Starmatic I bought some Kodak Ektar that had been cut down and respooled. It performed well.
All is not perfect with the Starmatic, however. This shot shows the strange distortion inherent in the lens. It’s noticeable only when you shoot a flat surface straight on like this. Also, the viewfinder isn’t accurate. I had centered the doorway in the viewfinder when I made this photo.
I’ve heard that the Starmatic lens is a triplet, but its performance reminds me of a meniscus lens. It delivers sufficient sharpness for snapshot-sized prints, but if you look at any of these images at full scan size they are as soft as Wonder bread.
But these are my only complaints. I rather enjoy shooting this simple camera! It’s too bad 127 isn’t still made — the hand-cut and -spooled stuff is expensive. But this camera is so pleasant that it’s worth it to plunk down the cash for that film from time to time.
If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here! To get Down the Road in your inbox or feed reader, subscribe here.
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