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.
My dad had to be in a mighty good mood before he’d spend money on non-essentials. He must have been in a fabulous mood that summer day in 1977 when, on a quick trip to Kmart, he bought me this Imperial Magimatic X50 camera. It must have cost him a whole $10, an outlandish sum for an avowed tightwad!
I assume that the Imperial Camera Company manufactured X50s in its Chicago factory as they are all stamped “Made in USA.” This all-mechanical camera takes 126 film cartridges and pin-fired Magicube flash cubes. It’s made of plastic except for a few pot-metal parts, like the pin that catches the film sprocket during winding and the pin that fires those Magicubes. The lens is certainly plastic too. According to camera-wiki.org (here), the lens aperture is about f/5.6 and the shutter operates at about 1/100 second. This strikes a good compromise between outdoor and flash shots, allowing both to be well enough exposed and in focus across a reasonable depth of field.
By the way, if you like 126 cameras you might also like my reviews of two 110 cameras, the Rollei A110 (here) and the Minolta Autopak 470 (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
My X50 came in a box with a 126 film cartridge and one Magicube, so I made photographs that very day. We spent it at my grandparents’ home on a small lake in southwestern Michigan. I made some photos of my grandmother that I’m very happy to have now. See a couple of them here.
I will always wish, however, that those photos weren’t so blurry. The X50’s shutter button is super stiff and hard to fire, leading to camera shake that obscured the details of my recorded childhood memories. This is Phil, a boy in our neighborhood, and my brother Rick in our driveway. More than forty years on I recall Phil’s blonde mop top and his unbounded energy and enthusiasm, but I can no longer call up the details of his face. I wish my photos of him were some help.
This is Betty, my family’s next-door neighbor for 35 years. She’s holding her own 126 camera, a Kodak Instamatic. It seemed like everybody had cameras that took 126 film in the 1970s and early 1980s. The vast majority of those cameras, like my X50 or Betty’s Instamatic, had no settings to fuss with.
It’s a little hard to tell through the camera shake, but the X50’s lens was reasonably sharp from edge to edge with little distortion. I see no vignetting.
The X50 wasn’t my first camera; a garage-sale Kodak Brownie was. After I got the X50 I never shot that Brownie again. I always struggled to load the 127 rollfilm into that Brownie. There was nothing to loading 126 film into the X50: insert the cartridge and close the door. And thanks to Magicubes I could easily take photos inside with the X50. The Brownie could take flash photos too using AG-1 flashbulbs, but they were too hot to handle after firing. They also required two AA batteries, which I had to buy myself; every penny counted when I was this age. Here’s a flash photo someone took of me at Christmas in 1977.
Magicubes lit scenes fairly evenly. Here are my grandparents at home in the summer of 1981.
Here’s our family dog Missy, posing patiently in 1981. The closer you were to your subject, the more likely the flash would reflect.
I made my last photos with the X50 in 1983. By this time I had learned to squeeze that shutter button with utmost care to eliminate shake. Here are my parents on my mom’s birthday that December. I’m eight and 12 years older now than they were then.
I suppose my dissatisfaction with the X50 led to a lifetime of trying old cameras. It is as if I was on a quest for the perfect camera. After more than 40 years I’ve figured out that no such camera exists. It’s great fun to keep trying anyway.
My Magimatic X50 is long gone and I don’t miss it. But I’m so happy I have all the photos I made as a kid. As blurry as they are, they anchor my childhood memories.
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.
Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime.
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. 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.