Film Photography

In praise of square photographs

I wonder why square photographs aren’t more common. Maybe it’s because starting in the 1980s 35mm point-and-shoot cameras became popular. That could have cemented the format’s 3:2 ratio as normal for photographs.

In the digital era the DSLR kept 35mm’s 3:2 aspect ratio. Point-and-shoots went with 4:3 for some reason, but that’s close enough to 3:2 to not look weird. My digital point-and-shoot, a Canon S95, has a 1:1 setting buried somewhere in its menus. My iPhone 6s also offers a square setting. But no digital camera I know of shoots square by default.

For me, however, shooting square feels like going back to my roots. For the first eight years of my photographic life, I shot nothing but cameras that made square photographs. It was the 1970s and early 1980s; square was very common then thanks to the wildly popular 126 format.

Here’s a scan of a print from my first-ever roll of film, Kodacolor II in a Kodak Brownie Starmite II, August, 1976. Side note: just look at how beautifully these drug-store-print colors have kept over the last 40+ years! These are my childhood friends Darin, Colleen, Christy, David, Mike, tank-topped kid whose face I can’t see and therefore whose name I can’t recall, and Craig just entering the frame from the right.

Here’s a scan of the negative, cropped 3:2 to the subject. Conventional wisdom calls this the better composition because the subject fills the frame. But what it lacks is the big blue sky we used to play under and the city infrastructure that lay all around and above us. The crop also cuts off the rounded tip of Mike’s grand walking staff. The square format brought in all the details.

That’s not to say that square format is inherently magic. Just like with any aspect ratio you have to find the subjects and compositions that work best. Here are some decent square photos I’ve taken more recently.

Wheeler Mision
Kodak Brownie Starmatic, Kodak Ektar 100, 2018
Fire Station 32
Kodak Brownie Starmatic, Kodak Portra 160, 2012
Benches
Yashica-D, Kodak Ektachrome E100G, 2014
Jet
Yashica-D, Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros, 2013.
Charles H. Ackerman
Yashica-D, Kodak Ektar 100, 2017
Available
Yashica-12, Ilford Pan-F Plus 50, 2018

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Film Photography

Operation Thin the Herd: Kodak Brownie Starmatic

Wheeler Mision

Arthur Crapsey designed scads of Kodak cameras starting in the late 1940s, including an entire line of 127 cameras with Star in the names. This one, the Starmatic, sits atop the Star food chain with a coupled light meter, a pretty astonishing feature upon this camera’s 1959 introduction. It was especially astonishing given that this is just a box camera.

Kodak Brownie Starmatic

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. That’s what I got when I shot my first roll through this Starmatic on Portra 160. I had to shoot it at EI 125 as that’s as fast as the Starmatic can go. But Portra has enough exposure latitude that it didn’t matter.

Kayaks

I’ve used this camera quite a bit, for one that takes film that isn’t made anymore. It’s just so easy and pleasant to use. Here’s a shot I made on Efke 100.

Tire and hay

Most Star cameras are fully point and shoot. The Starmatic is point and shoot, too, but only after you put the camera in automatic mode and set the film’s ISO. That’s what the two dials atop the camera are for. (Taking the Starmatic out of automatic mode sets it for flash photography, if you attach a flashgun.) For this outing I loaded some Ektar 100 that I bought pre-cut and -rolled from a user on eBay. Ektar is great in simple cameras.

Musicians Local

I blew through the whole roll in 20 minutes walking along Delaware Avenue in Downtown Indianapolis. I’ve always really enjoyed shooting this camera and this time was no different.

Roberts Park Church

This lens has a wide-angle feel. Nothing on the camera itself gives away its focal length, but you sure see a lot in the viewfinder window. When you’re far away from your subject you’ll get a lot of foreground in the shot.

Bail Bonds

You can see it a little in the two shots above, and a lot in the shot below, but this lens has some pretty wicked barrel distortion. Also, the viewfinder isn’t very well matched to the lens as I centered this door in my frame.

Door

The Starmatic almost certainly uses a single-element 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.

Park

There was a little leaked light on the last shots of the roll. I don’t know whether to blame the camera or the hand-rolled film.

$5

To see more photos from this camera, check out my Kodak Brownie Starmatic gallery!

I want to keep one 127 camera in my collection, and what better one to keep than one I enjoy shooting this much? I feel fortunate that the selenium meter in this Starmatic is still strong enough that it yields good exposures within my film’s exposure latitude. As this camera remains in my collection, I’ll keep it bundled up in its ever-ready case so that light doesn’t rob that selenium of its sensitivity.

Verdict: Keep

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Film Photography

The Kodak Brownie Starmatic and Efke 100

efkeI got such beautifully colorful results when I shot with my Kodak Brownie Starmatic last year that I knew I’d want to try a roll of black-and-white film in it. At the time, Croatian film producer Efke still made a black-and-white stock in size 127, the last one in the world. I ordered two rolls. And then their equipment promptly broke down, and the company decided to throw in the towel. At least I decided to buy before the film became unavailable.

Kodak Brownie Starmatic

The Starmatic was among the most expensive Brownies ever made, costing $34.50 in 1959. That’s equivalent to $277 in 2013. The Starmatic cost so much because it offered automatic exposure, an unheard-of luxury feature among Brownies. It used a selenium meter to vary aperture (down to only f/8) around its single shutter speed, which is probably 1/30 or 1/60 sec. It adjusted for the film speed you set using a dial atop the camera, from 32 to 125 ASA. The ISO 100 Efke seemed like a perfect match for this little plastic camera.

Yet after I shot the roll, I got a set of muddy, low-contrast prints back from the processor. I use Dwayne’s to process my 127 film, and they don’t scan 127 negatives. My scanner doesn’t handle 127 negatives, either, so I have Dwayne’s make prints, which I scan.

Last time I used the Starmatic I put ISO 160 Kodak Portra in it. I set the film speed to max, 125, and hoped for the best – and got very nicely exposed images. Perhaps the selenium meter in my Starmatic is a little weak, and I would get better results with the Efke 100 if I set the Starmatic to 80 or 64. I am also curious whether I’d get better results if I scanned my negatives rather than the prints. I’ve wanted a scanner that can handle medium-format negatives, as my Epson V300 is limited to 35mm; maybe now’s the time to finally buy.

I fiddled with my print scans in Photoshop Elements. This helped, but didn’t entirely solve the muddiness. Here are the photos I liked best from this roll. I shot this tire among the rolls of hay near an abandoned, unfinished bridge.

Tire and hay

My friend Dawn lives out in the boonies and she keeps two of her neighbor’s horses on her property. Here’s one of them.

Horse

When I walked the streets of Indianapolis with my Polaroid SX-70, I wore the Brownie around my neck, too. I thought this tree was dramatic, so I shot it.

Tree

I finished the roll at home after work, as the sun was starting to set.

Shadows

You can see more photos from this roll, as well as the roll of Portra 160 I shot, and a scan of a Kodacolor II print from another Starmatic I owned when I was a teenager, in my Kodak Brownie Starmatic gallery.

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Camera Reviews

Shooting my Kodak Brownie Starmatic

I normally spend every spare summer Saturday exploring the old roads, but it’s been too stinking hot! So I’ve been taking pictures with my old cameras instead.

Kodak Brownie Starmatic

I was feeling nostalgic about 127 film after I found the negatives from my first photgraphs, which I took with a Kodak Brownie Starmite II. That camera was part of a whole family of similarly-styled “Star” Brownies made in the late 1950s and early 1960s. My collection includes the finest camera in the series, the Kodak Brownie Starmatic.

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.

Canoes

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.

Caboose

So far, all of these shots are from Broad Ripple, an Indianapolis neighborhood. It’s been a frequent photographic destination for me this year.

Fire Station 32

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.

Collapsed

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.

See more photos from this roll in my Kodak Brownie Starmatic gallery.

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Camera Reviews

Kodak Brownie Starmatic

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Kodak Brownie StarmaticIt 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.

If you’ve seen one Brownie Star camera, you’ve pretty much seen them all. My first camera, which my grandmother bought for me for 25 cents at a garage sale, was a Brownie Starmite II, and it bears a strong family resemblance to the Starmatic.

Kodak Brownie Starmatic

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.

Kodak Brownie Starmatic

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.

Kodak Brownie Starmatic

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.

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.

Christmas 1981

When I started collecting cameras again several years ago, I knew I’d want to add some of my old favorites into my new collection. The Brownie Starmatic made the list because I enjoyed my Christmas morning adventure with it as a teenager.

Do you like old cameras? Then check out the rest of my collection!

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