The Infallible Electric Eye

2016-10-10

By far the oddest-looking camera I own, the Electric Eye is an auto-exposure viewfinder camera made by Bell & Howell in the late 1950s. I picked one up online and ended up with another one, that came with a very cool, retro looking carrying case, from my grandfather. It took a little while to try these two out but after running some film I found that this camera is a lot of fun to shoot with.

“The Infallible ELECTRIC EYE STILL CAMERA — This amazing new Electric Eye still camera sets itself for you automatically… instantly…continuously. All you do is point and press the button." — Original Advertisement

The Technical Specs

The Electric Eye’s unique auto-aperture system is controlled by a selenium cell, both are still working in my cameras after more than 50 years. When the conditions are right, the selenium cell causes a slider to move up or down and what looks like a green light appear at the bottom of the big viewfinder (when it’s too dark for shooting, the light turns red). There’s not actually light in there since there’s no battery involved but rather a red flag that moves along with the aperture slider depending on the amount of available light hitting the selenium cell.

Sarah shooting with the Electric Eye on the Central California Coast, shot with slide film and a Canon AE-1

There are two film speeds controlled by a dial on the side of the viewfinder, a red triangle for Anscochrome, Ektachrome, or Kodacolor and a white dot for Super Anscochrome, All Weather Pan, or Verichrome Pan. These settings and other instructions are found on the base plate as well.

Film setting instructions on the baseplate.

The Electric Eye came in two different finishes. I own two of the silver enamel with black leatherette models, but it also came in a cool-looking black enamel with a grey, denim-like covering. There was apparently a flash handle that came with them as well although I don’t have a flash for either of mine.

The Pictures

I like the results. There’s just a touch of vignetting at each of the corners and a decent crispness to the images. I ran a couple films through the camera for testing. A ReraPan 100 B&W 127 I bought on B&H Photo and some expired 127 film stock I found online. I bought up to 100ft of negatives and roll it onto 127 rolls. Regular E-6 processing renders a good color range and cross processing creates an interesting “greenscale” effect.

Abandoned buildings on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay with the Electric Eye and B&W ReraPan 127 film
Central California Coast and the Joshua Tree with cross processed expired 127 slide film. Cross processing creates a kind of greenscale film with this old film stock.
Joshua Tree with old 127 film stock and the Electric Eye, standard processing.

Shooting with the Electric Eye

This is a fun vintage camera to shoot with. For one, it has a huge viewfinder that’s bright and clear and gives the whole camera its unique design. No other rangefinder I own can compare with the big, bright view you get with the Electric Eye’s viewfinder.

(1) Sarah with the Electric Eye, notice the big window above the lens, that’s the viewfinder. (2) Looking through the viewfinder. Notice the green light at the bottom letting you know that the light is good

Also, there’s almost nothing to adjust with this camera, with the exception of a flash setting hidden beneath a door on the nameplate. This is a simple point-and-shoot camera. To access the hidden flash settings, flip up the nameplate and adjust the slider beneath. This will override the auto-aperture setting of the camera.

Don’t worry about forgetting that you’ve taken the camera off auto, the camera’s engineers added a small post onto the lid of the door so that you can’t close the nameplate when you’re in manual mode.

For the vintage collector

Kodak was the first with a photocell-powered, auto-exposure system when they released the Kodak Super Six-20 in 1938 but few of those were ever sold, making it an expensive collectors item today. By contrast, released twenty years latter, Bell & Howell’s Electric Eye 127 sold much better, making them very inexpensive to own. Today, you can get one for around $25.

I recommend anyone interested in collecting and shooting with vintage cameras to add this one to the list. It’s a unique piece of camera history and an inexpensive, fun camera to shoot with.


Mark Hannah (@kangiha) is an art director and analog photographer who primarily shoots with vintage cameras and false color films. This article was originally published on Medium.

written by Mark Hannah on 2016-10-10 #gear #electric-eye

More Interesting Articles