The Kodak Instamatic is synonymous with photography. The saturation that both the Kodak brand and the Instamatic camera reached within the photographic community is truly awe inspiring. Over 60 million Instamatics were sold, or promotionally given away, making it the most successful camera line to be ever produced.
One of the issues faced with the current users of an Instamatic is that most of them use 126 cartridge film, a format which has been discontinued for some time. Effectively this makes the millions which are still around into display pieces. I’ve tried to address this by reloading a 126 film cartridge.
The Instamatic 133 is one of the cameras from this long line and carries the design principle of being simple to use.
The 1960s were an era of photography growth. This was recognised by quite a number of manufacturers. Everyone wanted to make photos. That is why there is a plethora of simple to use, simple operating, almost toy cameras of that vintage. Another good example of this is the Soviet Smena 8M, which was probably one of the very few cameras which was manufactured to the Instamatic scale.
So how was it to shoot with the Kodak Instamatic 133 now, especially since initially I only had some 20+ year expired colour film? Let’s find out a bit more first.
Kodak’s history has been covered quite a few times on Photo Thinking. Here is a list of articles of interest which cover some Kodak history:
- Kodak Retina IIa
- Kodak No. 1 Pocket Autographic
- Kodak No. 0 Brownie Modal A
- Kodak Retinette 1B Type 037
- Kodak No. 2 Brownie Model E
- Kodak Brownie Six-20 Model D
The Instamatic history is of interest in itself. Kodak introduced the world to the Instamatic camera in 1963 and with it brought in the then new 126 film cartridge format. The 126 designation should not be confused with the roll film which was in use 50 years earlier.
The idea behind the Instamatic line of cameras and the 126 cartridge film was to make it very easy for anyone to use. You can’t insert the film incorrectly, you don’t have to rewind at the end and the film is essentially light tight except for the current frame. By using backing paper within the cartridge, it also removed the need for a frame counter in the camera, thus simplifying it further.
Even the film speed is detected by notches on the cartridge, so there is less chance of an error there too. Exposure indexes available through this mechanism were 64, 80, 125 or 160 ASA. Not all manufacturers took advantage of this though.
Kodak sold over 60 million Instamatics. Being so popular, other manufacturers did jump on the 126 band wagon and produced many other models and variations. Generally, the format was designed as 29x29mm, but the captured frame tended to be 26.5×26.5mm. As a square format, this also removed the need for portrait framing.
The 126 Instamatic range stayed true to its original design and remained a camera aimed at the everyday user. This did mean that very little of more “professional” cameras were ever produced.
In 2007/2008 Ferrania manufactured the last of the 126 cartridge film which has left millions of cameras next to obsolete for everyday use.
The Kodak Instamatic 133 was manufactured from 1968. It was designed by Alexander Gow with styling by Sir Kenneth Grangewho is also the designer for the Kodak Vecta, Brownie 44A and 44B, and the Instamatic 25. It uses 126 cartridge film producing 26.5 x 26.5mm square frames, 24 per cartridge. They we manufactured in England, Germany and Spain. This copy was made in England.
There are a couple of variations of the 133, which originated from the Instamatic 33. The Instamatics designated with the “33” number were the same camera with some varying features. The 133 uses flashcubes, while there is a 133-X which uses Magicubes.
The Instamatic 133 is a view finder camera, without any options for focusing. It relies on the fixed aperture f/11 43mm lens to capture as much as it can. The ring around the lens has two positions. One for sunny conditions, which sets the shutter speed to 1/80 second. The other is for lower light or using flash, which sets the shutter speed to 1/40 second.
The top of the camera is a fairly plain affair too. Here you will find the flashcube slot, the shutter release at the front of the right hand side, and the frame advance lever. The frame advance lever also cocks the shutter. The shutter is actually cocked when the single sprocket hole for each frame allows the sprocket though it.
The left hand side has a cover which can be removed and a battery inserted. This only powers the flashcube if you have one on. According to the manual, it takes a Microdyn-Anode 6V 15 x 20mm battery.
The back of the camera only has a window so that the frame number can be seen. When the back is opened, the cartridge can easily be inserted and only one way.
I’ve had a fascination with the Instamatics for a long time. They were extremely popular and successful for Kodak and just have this easily recognisable design. I came across the 133 online offered with some film, which according to the seller, had been refrigerated its whole life. Now that interested me, as the film is getting harder to find for a reasonable price. Even so, it had expired in 1995, so I was not expecting much.
I must admit, it took me another year to actually get to shoot this film. I loaded it up and carried the camera around for a couple of days. That let me get acquainted with the camera. I think I understand why they were so popular. Very easy to keep with you, it weights almost nothing, and then there is almost nothing to set up. You rely on the film latitude based on the limited shutter speeds.
This led me to the thing I was most worried about. The film was over 20 years expired and I even usually overexpose fresh negative film slightly. The camera has no controls, so I shot the film at box speed. I do not even know if it recognises the film as 80ASA or 125ASA.
The viewfinder is surprisingly quite clear. It is large and comfortable, with no frame marks, but in a square shape as per the film frame. It was actually quite liberating not having to think about much except lifting the camera to the eye and shooting. What I did notice afterwards though, is that the framing is a little off, but I am not sure if that is on this copy or a regular issue on the 133.
After shooting the film, I took it into the lab and asked them to try and save the cartridge if possible. Luckily they did and it easily pulls apart with some gentle force. The film came back as faint as can be, but there were images on there. I scanned them in and adjusted as needed for this review.
Next, I was keen to try out some fresh film and went looking for some film around the ISO 100 speed to match the cartridge. I settled on some Kodak Portra 160 and loaded a short roll into it.
It was interesting using the camera with 35mm loaded. I would make a shot and then I would cover the lens, usually against my thigh, and fire off two more frames that way. This avoided overlapping frames, in that the camera had thought that the next sprocket hole was a full frame. On 135 film, it has a lot of holes per frame, so a couple more times did the trick.
When I got my hands on the processed film, I was pleased to see decent exposures on there. What I did notice was that the Portra roll had less focused photos. I have a suspicion that the lack of backing paper may be the culprit to that. Next time I may affix a piece of backing paper to the back of the cartridge to simulate having it.
I can’t be too critical of the results. They are what you would expect from this camera. I recall multiple people actually saying to me that all their old family albums are filled with fuzzy square photos taken on Instamatics. Based on that, there is no use talking about sharpness, fall off or anything like that.
The results have their own character. With the photos taken with Portra I love the sprocket holes at the top. I had quite a bit of fun shooting with this camera, which on occasion is all you need.
As a final thought, the name Instamatic is interesting. It is not instant photography, the film still needs to be processed. It is also not an automatic camera. You do not need to do much, but it relies on the film latitude to produce results rather than anything the camera does automatically. But hey, the name Instamatic is catchy and has become as iconic as the camera.