I got such beautifully colorful results when I shot with my Kodak Brownie Starmatic 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.
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.
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.
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.
I finished the roll at home after work, as the sun was starting to set.
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.
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.
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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