Sometimes there is a real sense of clarity by stripping back to basics. There are of-course basics and then there are real basics. That is what using a camera that is one-hundred years old and is effectively designed as a box brings us. The Kodak No. 0 Brownie Model A is a camera which helped introduce photography to the people, but how is it to use in the modern age?
Kodak has a long and very focused history, of which is well known and too long to include in this article. The Brownie history is also a very long one, starting in 1900 until the final model being produced in the early 1980s. During this time they used a variety of different film types, generally designated by the allocated number, e.g. No. 0, No. 1 etc.
The Brownies were named after the brownies in the Palmer Cox cartoons at the end 19th century. Brownies were primarily marketed to children, which Kodak used as a vehicle to help popularise photography. Being such simple machines and priced well within most people’s means they became hugely popular very quickly. They were even taken to war by soldiers. As they were so widely used, many historic shots were taken on brownies.
Many of the early Brownies were made from cardboard and wood, with some metal, mainly for the mechanism. The fact that there are so many of them still around, especially made from cardboard, shows how successful Kodak was to the masses with these.
This camera, the Kodak No. 0 Brownie Model A was produced from 1914 until 1935. There were a few variations for this model, with the changes mainly internal (it is after all a box).
My particular model would have been produced between 1914 and 1916, making this camera about 100 years old. It is constructed out of cardboard and wood, as most of that era of Brownies were. It uses 127 medium format roll film which was discontinued in 1960s.
This is a tiny camera. Compared to some other box brownies that I have, this is the smallest. Probably this is helped that it uses the 127 film. It measures roughly 103mm x 65mm x 88mm. Weighs about 236 grams.
The camera has two viewfinders, one for portrait and one for landscape photographs. Unlike most modern cameras where you put your eye to them, they are looked at from a distance. There is a wind on key on the side/top, and a lever for the shutter. The shutter lever is flicked to fire it, but not returned, otherwise it fires again on the return journey. There is also a little pull out tab, which allows the camera to be shot in timed mode for longer exposures.
The lens is a 3” meniscus lens, which is a convex-concave lens. It has one outward curved face and one inward-curved face. The shutter is rotary, which is why you flick it across when you transfer the shutter lever from one side to the other. It is fixed at an aperture of f/11 with a speed of 1/60th of a second. Apart from using the long exposure pull lever, that is the only speed.
The frame number is shown on the back through a round red window displaying the printed numbers on the back of the film backing paper. The wind on mechanism is not set, so you need to keep an eye on the window to make sure you wind enough to the next number and not progress too far. It shoots 8 frames which are 4.13cm x 6.35cm (1 5/8” x 2 1/2”) in size.
The first thing I needed to do when I decided to try this camera out was get some 127 film. Not such an easy exercise in Australia, for a film discontinued over forty years ago. Luckily there has been a resurgence of interest in this film type as people have been keen to try out some really fantastic old cameras which use this format. So when I had an order from B&H Photo in New York for some other items, I added a roll of Rerapan 127, 100 ISO, to the list. Being hand rolled, I was not so sure of the quality, but was pleased to see it was well done.
I use quite a few 120 and 620 roll film cameras, and 127 film is just a smaller version of these, so I was not too worried about loading it. What I did not see coming is that you need to remove the insides of the camera to load this (picture below on left). It did go smoothly though. I suspect the age of the camera and working through this mechanism, also contriuted to some debry on my film during expsosures.
Note, that in the picture above right, the 127 film spool is the second from the left, to give you a sense of size if you aren’t familiar with it. From the left, 35mm canister, 127, 620, 120 spools.
To try it out, and enjoy its hundredth birthday so to speak, I headed out to Centennial Park in Sydney. This is quite a large park so it was with an idea there would be some nice scenic pictures to be made and with a park being a park, the subject matter could be from the early twentieth century.
Using the camera is very easy, you frame through the viewfinder and pull the lever. As you can’t make any settings, you need to trust in the quality of the film and its latitude. As I had not used Rerapan before, and it was quite expensive in 127 format, I was a bit worried. Needlessly as it turns out, as the film performed very well.
Looking through the viewfinder, in bright daylight, I was able to see the picture I wanted to take, in both the landscape and portrait formats. While I would not call it clear, it was enough to ensure I was pointing it in the right direction. Then flicking the lever to fire the shutter, you can hear clearly the rotary shutter running across the front of the lens.
In terms of quality, that was the most surprising. While the expectation was quite low in image quality, it actually produced images which I imagine in the early part of the twentieth century would be considered quite good. From a technical point of view, they are a little sharp in the middle of the frame with a very drastic loss of sharpness towards the edges. The exposure also tapers off considerably from the centre. But, hey, it is a box with a lens which is a hundred years old.
All in all, though, I thoroughly enjoyed using the No. 0 Brownie. Even with the obvious expected quality of the results, I did enjoy looking at them. It felt like I was back in the 1910s and the pictures amazed me in that this simple box created them, just like it would have people back then. I purchased this in a lot of five Box Brownies for twenty-five dollars, so for the investment, I had a great time with this camera.