Imagine the soft focus of the Diana, the magic touch of the Holga and the awesome sharpness of the Lubitel (creds to Vicuna)… The Mefag Handy-Box is capable of producing astonishingly beautiful, dreamy yet sharp, captures of our world!
Box cameras first started to appear around 1880 and I can imagine there is a wide variety of brands available out there. This particular camera was manufactured during the 1940’s by Göteborgs Kamerafabrik here in Sweden and it’s a quite rare batch, the factory was closed back in 1947. With that said, I think it’s still possible to get your claws on one of these at a really fair price.
When my father was born in 1949 my grandpa bought a Mefag Handy-box to document the life of his little boy, bringing it with him on their travels around Scandinavia. As my dad grew older, grandpa taught him how to use the camera. With a Kodak development kit and a home made enlarger (constructed with the optics from a pair of binoculars) they developed and made prints of the family portraits.
A while ago I spoke to my dad and asked him about the old photo equipment that I remembered from my own childhood. We always had cameras with us on our family vacations, travelling by car to all these exotic European countries, all four of us sleeping in a small two person tent. I remember one night in former Yugoslavia when there was a wicked storm and dad had to stay up all night securing the tent to the ground so that we wouldn’t fly away. I’m getting nostalgic now, but back to the essentials. I had my Agfamatic 2000 and my dad had a Praktica Super TL-2 which he later gave to me on my 12th birthday. I couldn’t remember what cameras my mom or sister had, but I knew there would probably be a lot of cool equipment saved from these times.
This last christmas he brought with him a very special gift for me, a mystery box… When I opened it up I found several cameras, the Kodak development kit, some 16mm film rolls, photo paper, old negatives, enlargement frames, flash bulbs and lots of other cool stuff… And there it was, the Mefag Handy-box, I remembered it so well, not from my dad using it, but I had played with it as a kid, using it as a toy. I carefully did some tests to see if it would still work and to my surprise everything seemed to be intact, I was amazed!
As soon as I returned home I loaded her up with a roll of Lucky SDH 100 and took her for a spin around town. The results from this “first” roll blew me away! There it was, the dreamy, slightly blurry effect around the edges, the soft viginetting of the corners and (to my surprise) an awesome sharpness of the subjects. It’s like a Diana, Holga and Lubitel all rolled into one.
It can’t get much easier. It’s a light-sealed box with a strip of film in one end and a glass-covered hole in the other. That piece of glass is almost the only thing separating it from a pinhole camera. You can choose between “T” (Time) and “Instant” (a fixed shutter speed of approximately 1/30). The shutter release works in two directions, like a switch. If you set it to Instant it will open and close in either direction, but if you set it to “T” the shutter will open when pushed in one direction and stay open until you push it back in the opposite direction, meaning you don’t have to keep it depressed for the whole exposure like you would with the “B” setting that we’re normally used to. That’s very useful in cold conditions where you would otherwise need a nice pair of gloves to keep warm. The focal distance is approximately 3 meters (10 feet), I read about it in the manual, but from what I experienced I think you can get a little closer than that.
And that is all there is to it, there’s no flash sync, no adjustable aperture and certainly no interchangeable lens. Oh well, there’s a tripod thread underneath which can be very useful for those “T” exposures.
The Handy-Box takes medium format 120-film and loading it is, as everything else with this camera, simple. Pull out the film advance knob, unhook the safety buckle on the back and pull out the film holder, which is actually all the vital parts of this camera, leaving only an empty shell. You should be careful at this stage since the lens is mounted on the front of the film holder! Now load the film like you would on a Lubitel, then push the whole thing back into the box and close the back. There’s a tinted red window on the back where you can see which frame you’re on and it shoots in 6×6 format giving you a total of 12 shots on a normal 120-roll.
Double exposures are easy to do, by your own free will, or accidentally, since the film advance isn’t coupled to shutter. There’s a very basic waist-level viewfinder to help you compose your shots and from what I can tell it’s rather accurate, but it can sometimes be hard to see through it, either if it’s too light (giving reflections on the glass) or too dark (naturally). You might as well learn to compose your shots from the hip, staying true to the commandments.
What struck me when shooting my first roll was the solid feel this camera had. It’s made out of light-weight materials and weights only 300 grams (0.66 pounds), but it’s still very robust. The film advance wheel was really smooth and the shutter worked like a clock. This camera has really stood the test of time…
The manual, by the way, consists of only two pages, all in all it’s less than 20 sentences long and the last one reads “The MEFAG-camera is a Swedish quality product” …I couldn’t agree more!