I love shooting with vintage cameras for the retro look and the feel of film but I also enjoy their simplicity. Here’s a beautiful camera that’s just about as basic as it gets.
The Brownies were made for the tourist market in the 1940s and 1950s and came in a number of variations. I picked this one up on Ebay for around $20. It’s an all-metal, sturdy, little camera. It is solidly built and still functioning perfectly. There are two missing parts on mine: a strap that was attached to the top along the rangefinder, which quickly came off when I started fiddling with it, and a very old-school looking flash that gives this version of the Brownie its name. The flash was originally attached to the front of the camera onto those two protruding metal buttons on the face.
There are only two adjustments that you can make: a standard exposure setting “I” for “instantaneous” and “B” for “bulb,” which holds the shutter open for as long as you hold the button down. The “bulb” function is a reference to the pneumatic action of early cameras where you actually squeezed a bulb to activate and hold open the shutter. It’s the abbreviation that are still used on cameras today.
You also have the choice of focus between “5 to 10 feet” and “beyond 10 feet." I love old labels like this and what makes it even more charming is how the focus mechanism works. When you flip the switch to “5 to 10 feet," a small lens snaps into place over the stationary lens. That’s it! Want to focus to infinity? Flip the switch back and the little lens snaps back into the camera. The close-up “5 to 10 feet” lens on mine is pretty foggy and I don’t want to bother trying to open up the assembly so I just shoot with the stationary lens which is very clean.
The camera comes in two sections and can be separated using a switch located on the bottom. Once the two camera pieces are apart, you can now load the film. I usually find at least one spool inside these vintage cameras when I buy them. This one was no exception.
620 vs 120
620 is a medium format film size which is no longer available. It was created by Kodak as a way to save space and create a more compact camera. In doing so, they simply shrunk the size of the spool and not the size of the film. This means it’s still possible to shoot with these old cameras using the standard 120 roll film that’s available online or in camera stores. Just get a couple of 620 spools and roll your 120 film onto them (in the dark!). It’s a pretty simple to do.
That being said anyone who develops 120 film can develop your 620 rolls. You’ll just want to ask for the film spools back so you can roll more film. Apparently up until 1995, it was still possible to buy 620 film although I’ve never come across any of the newer rolls. An interesting feature of the older 620 spools is that they were manufactured before companies began using a lot of plastic in things. All the ones I’ve found, inside cameras and for sale on Ebay, are metal as opposed to the plastic 120 rolls used today.
The vignetting on this camera is beautiful. With the right film and favorable lighting, you can get some great results. Here are some shots I got on an early winter morning at an empty Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk using an expired Fuji Velvia film.