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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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!