The history of cameras began in 1820, when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce invented a box camera prototype while working on a pinhole camera. Around 1870, in France, the very first box camera made its appearance on the market, even lacking a shutter mechanism: the photographer had to remove the lens cap to expose the photo.
Then Kodak developed the roll-format film in the 1880s, making box cameras easier to use, and began selling the first commercial models. At the beginning of the 20th century the company, led by George Eastman, invented the Brownie box camera, one of the most successful box cameras ever, quickly followed by the German Zeiss Ikon.
The Brownie owes its name to the little characters created by the Canadian illustrator Palmer Cox. Kodak Brownie designer Frank Brownell was able to make the least expensive camera in the market, yet it was able to perform well in most conditions.
What is a box camera? It is a very simple camera made with two metal parts combined to form a sealed rectangular box, with a single element meniscus fixed focus lens on the front and a loading knob on a side. Several models have two more controls: one to switch from normal (about 1/50th of a second, but with very, very large tolerances) to B mode, the other to slide a diaphragm over the lens. On the back of the camera is the frame counter window. On top and on one side of the camera are two angled mirrors acting as viewfinders, providing just a row framing for the photographer.
Just for those very curious about optics: the meniscus lenses in these cameras were convex on the external side and concave in the internal one.
The first Brownie was priced just $1 (yes, it was very cheap even in 1900)!
As you cannot focus with this camera, you have to work with aperture and hyper-focal distance to have your subject in focus. This camera, of course, work at their best in full daylight. Photos are taken quickly with no accurate framing. Just a will to capture everyday life moments, not taking into account photographic techniques or perfection. Such photos were called snapshots. So today, when taking a snapshot with whatever camera you use, you should thank the Brownie.
The camera I will show you here is the Brownie No.2 Model, Canadian Market version, series F.
- Type: Box roll film camera
- Introduced: October 1901
- Discontinued: Late 1935
- Film size used: 120
- Picture size: 6×9 cm
- Lens: Meniscus
- Shutter: Rotary, two speeds: B and 1/50th of a second (with very large tolerance)
- Aperture: Lever adjusted, values about: f/16, f/22, and f/32
- Original price: $2.00 (Aluminium model, since 1931, series F: $2.75)
How the camera works
First of all, you must load the 120 film into the camera. To do this you have to separate the two halves of the body, which are kept close by two small latches. Once you open the camera, you will find the (quite) usual loading schema for a medium format: the empty taking spool must be put on the lower holder and the new roll on the top one. Once the film is secured on the lower roll, close the camera and continue to turn the loading key until you can see the number one on the frame counter window. I suggest that you put a small piece of tape on this window to avoid light leaks.
To take photos, you can frame the image through the two reflecting mirrors on the top and on the side of the camera. Keep in mind that they are not bright and suffer from parallaxes, so you don’t really see what the camera takes. This is more pronounced on shorter distances. The shutter is the small lever on the side of the camera, and on top are the two controls for aperture (the central one) and speed (the lateral one).
That’s all! This kind of camera is one of the easiest to use that’s ever built, so the only thing you have to learn is how the camera “behaves” as there are several features that is particular to certain cameras, so you need to go and shoot frequently to learn how to get what you really want from this little box.
Meniscus lens and chromatic aberration
Meniscus lenses show some spherical and chromatic aberration. Spherical aberration is an optical effect that is caused by the different refraction of light between the edge and the center of a lens. This means that the image has a soft focus, a slightly halo of blurred focus, that gives to the photos a sort of dreamy atmosphere. Chromatic aberration is the optical effect causing different colors of light to focus on different points behind the lens, so the image has a margin of scattered colors around the edges.
Taking photos with meniscus lenses
First of all, know the effect of the aperture on your hyper-focal distance. The hyper-focal distance is the distance at a set aperture beyond which all objects can be considered into an acceptable focus. As we are using a fixed-focus camera, we have to consider that the hyper-focal distance is the distance giving us the maximum depth of field. My suggestion is to use a high ISO film (eg., ISO 400) and go with f/22 and f/32 apertures, leaving f/16 for low light conditions. The minimum focus distance is about 2.5 meters (8 feet).
The next thing to consider is the amount of soft focus you want in your photo. Very often in a snapshot this in not relevant, but if you want to take sharp photos, you can do it to a certain extent.
Soft focus is perfect in portraits to enhance the relation or the separation of the subject from the background. If you want to make a great soft focus portrait, use f/16 or f/22 apertures, keep your subject at about 4 meters from you, and keep the light source well behind you to avoid excessive aberrations.
On the contrary, when you need sharp focus, close the aperture all the way, keep your subject a little more distant from the camera (7-10 meters works the best), frame for a central subject image, and look for a bright environment.
A final suggestion: remember that you have just two speeds: 1/50th and B. If you need a long exposure time, as you are closing your aperture, go for B mode and try to guess the correct shooting time. In this case, you may use an exposure meter to get a reading and try to figure out what is the best shutter speed.