Antique Cameras and the ubiquitous Kodak Brownie

Have you ever wondered what it was like “back in the day” with those old cameras? Remember the black box you grandparents had that took pictures? The ol’ Kodak Brownie was sold by the hundreds of thousands in the 50’s and 60’s. In fact the name Brownie was used by Kodak throughout the over 100 year life of company. It seems any box with a lens and a shutter was called a Brownie. The premise of the camera is simple, put a hole in a box and with the help of a mechanical shutter expose a frame of film. If a ground lens is put in the space for the little hole all the better!

Recently I have fallen into a large cash of antique cameras. Most of these gems are going to be great wall pieces. Old cameras make great art. The material is foreign, the cameras with bellows never fail to look old and evoke memories of lost loved ones or old pictures from magazines, family photo albums, or movies (always in black and white.) If the lens looks like it might take a good photo I’m likely to load a roll of film into the box and push the shutter. Of course, it’s not quite that easy. First the 120 film from the retailer needs to be re-spooled onto the old Kodak 620 spool. The film is the same but the Kodak stem is smaller making it impossible to load the 120 film. In a few moments I’ve made the necessary transfer and into the camera it goes.

I came across the camera pictured here in the boxes and it looked too good to be true. The leather cover and camera looked showroom perfect. The leather was so untarnished it was a little difficult to remove it from the camera and load the film. In the day this original “point and shoot” camera was designed to be easy to use. There is no focus, no shutter speed, and no aperture ring to mess with. To a teenager of the 2010’s this is all as it seems it should be, after all this is how the phone camera works. Even to the 40 somethings who used a point and shoot 35mm camera or one of those disposable cameras at the department store or pharmacy, the Brownie is a fancy version of that camera.  The Brownie of the 50’s and 60’s was molded of an early plastic substance called bakelight. Over time the material becomes brittle but back in the day dropping the camera was unl

ikely to do any real damage. With this very clean “new” camera I decided to explore what kind of photo it would take.

Take a look for yourself. The photos came right out of the camera via an Epson 700 scanner that scans and reverses the negative. I didn’t clean up scratches or make any adjustment other than to do minor exposure adjustments, if necessary.

You can decide for yourself what you think. Here’s my view. The photos (all 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inches) are not sharp like the cameras but they would be acceptable for a family album when printed. It didn’t take any expertise to take a photo, just look down through the viewfinder and push the shutter. The cost of the film and developing came to about $25.00 (assuming you had to buy a 620 roll of film from B&H photo) and the camera can be had anywhere for about $20.00. Compare that to the cost of a new digital camera.

Of course these old antiques aren’t for everyone. For many people they are too much work. But if you’re curious or are looking to see what is was like back in the day…


Back to Film, or how to find a good cheap camera.

I was recently asked to help someone sell an extensive camera collection.  The cameras represent consumer photography from the 19 teens through the 1960’s.  Many of them are display pieces and are no longer useful without being sent out to a shop for repair.  Overtime cameras that aren’t used suffer from fungus on the lens, sticky shutters, and overall dust. The old folders are vulnerable to separation of the leather from the metal bodies. The old bakelite plastic gets brittle and is prone to splitting. Most of the cameras have one thing in common, they take medium format film. Back in the day the most common roll film was 120. Kodak, perhaps to push consumers into buying Kodak film, used the same film on a smaller spindle and marketed it as 620.  Kodak 620 film was used in everything from the point and shoot Brownie Hawkeye to their early folding cameras.  The folders are interesting because the same roll of film was used for 6×6, 6×7, 6×9 and 6×11 frames.  In addition to changing the number of pictures a roll of film would hold (12, 10, 8, 7 respectively), the negatives are all huge compared to 35mm film. The smallest medium format film size is 645 (15 frames per roll) which produces a negative 2.5 times larger. From there it only gets better. By better I mean the larger the negative the less it needs to be enlarged to produce a sharp viewable picture. In addition that means that larger prints (above an 8×10) are possible.  Since old cameras can be cheap there is an opportunity to get into higher quality film for a low price. The Ansco 40 TLR is one of those finds.


The Twin Lens Reflex camera was made famous by Rollei from Germany. With superior optics, ease of use, and packaged in a small metal frame, the Rollei was a favorite of professional and amatuers for over 50 years. The problem with the Rolleiflex is that even today you will have to spend over $500 for one in good shape. It inspired many knock offs by nearly every camera manufacturer.  Perhaps the most sought after copy is the Yashica 124. Not the same quality of the Rollei but pretty close and nearly bulletproof, it shares the quality glass lens and metal body of the original. I have one and couldn’t be more pleased. With the combination of a large film size and the lack of a mirror to flop up and down and possibly create camera shake. The lens on top is for viewing only with the bottom lens being used to expose the film. TLRs are capable of very sharp pictures.

The Ansco 40 is a very inexpensive copy of this same format.   In addition the Ansco is a viewfinder camera meaning the prism does not help the user to focus on the subject. The lens has distance markings for focusing purposes (called zone focusing).  I came across this camera among the boxes of about 100 cameras. It looked very clean as did the leather case it was in and when I shined a light through the lens there was no evidence of fungus.  So I put a roll of black and white film in it.

Take a look. This is right out of the camera. I cleaned up a few spots but that is it. No adjustments from the software. The camera is like new (40-50 years new). For about $100 US a guy (or gal) could play with this piece of history. Ebay, Etsy, or what ever marketplace you like to frequent has these old TLR’s. Of course let the buyer beware-be sure to buy a camera that is in working condition and if it doesn’t work return it.

Some kinda fun, and you won’t know if you “got it” until the film is developed.


Shoot film, shoot digital, or do both. It doesn’t matter.

Until next time.


3000 miles in 10 days AKA 2018 Moto Guzzi National event

Forty one degrees. A great way to start day two of our motorcycle journey to the Pacific
Northwest. When we left the Bay area on Thursday at noon it was warm and sunny with
temperatures in the mid 60’s. The cool Sacramento River seemed to calling us as we stopped at the Sundial Bridge in Redding with the air at 80 degrees.
Not being sure exactly where one needs to stand to use the sundial, we pulled on the cable to make sure the tensions was right, snapped a few photos and on to Shasta Lake, over the border into Oregon and a final stop in Grants Pass at about 10pm. A good day!
Our forty one degree start was rewarded just outside of Corvallis when we spotted a 747 on top of a building in the distance while scooting down a secondary roads on the way to Portland.

Sundial Bridge, Redding, CA
Woodinville, WA

Tempted by the obvious marketing attempt to wrestle some cash out of our pocket, we stumbled into the Spruce Goose at the Evergreen Museum in McMinnville, Oregon. Bike guys, cars guys, airplane guys, to borrow a phrase from Billy Joel, “It’s still rock and roll to me.” Two and a half hours later we were on our way to Portland just in time for Friday rush hour. On to out campsite in Woodinville, Washington, another 10pm close.
The Cossacks Motorcycle Stunt Team and the National event awaits us for Saturday and
Sunday. Like our little Entourage, you too will have to wait.

Film or Digital-You’re kidding, right?

Is is film or digital and does it matter?  For some the debate was settled a decade ago. However, if you’ve D7000-w.jpgnoticed film is in a big resurgence.  A casual look on eBay will reveal the prices for film cameras is higher than it has been in 6-7 years.  While the manufacture of film is limited to a couple of companies and emulsions (Fuji and Kodak), amateurs and professionals alike are returning to the unique look and satisfaction of film.  The Film Photography Project, Lomography, and others are introducing a new generation of photographers to the hobby of using old cameras and developing at home.  If you’re still in doubt take a saunter over to YouTube and in the search box pop in “developing black and white film”.

I’m not trying to convince you to ditch the digital camera.  That would be like me trying to convince you to take all the screwdrivers out or your toolbox in favor of only having hammers, or all the mascara out of the cosmetic drawer in favor of lipstick.  How absurd. Each tool has a purpose.  When photography was paying the bills I used digital.  The benefits of instant viewing and the ease of transferring photos from the camera to the lab were all critical.  Film was a luxury I could enjoy alongside my DSLR. These days I have more time to process and submit photos.  Relaxed time constraints allow me to shoot more film. Shooting film isn’t like returning to the past, however.

While there are those who will go retro all the way to the darkroom, I don’t want to give up the powerful tools of Photoshop and Lightroom. I’m not alone either.  Look at the advertising for Kodak Ektar and Porta films. The boxes clearly point out they were developed to be the best scanning film on the market and I appreciate their efforts. I shoot with a variety of film cameras and scan into the digital darkroom. Scanning was always part of the equation. When I was learning to shoot manual film cameras I used Fuji Velvia exclusively.  Velvia is great transparency film for nature and landscape photos and a real challenge to scan.  Its over saturated and vibrant colors make scenes pop. Unfortunately, it seems like I have been chasing the image on that piece of film from day one because Velvia doesn’t scan well. You might be thinking, “If Mamiya Press-w.jpgyou’re going to scan, why not just shoot digitally in the first place?” Different tools for different purposes I say.

First, the number of frames on a roll of film is limited. This means the photographer has to be more selective and careful before pushing the shutter.  No more spray and pray-more craft and vision and less hoping. Second, even when scanned, film has a unique look. The look isn’t about sharpness or grain/noise and after the print has been made you may or may not be able to pick out the difference. But I think you can see it.

Scanning ushers me back into Photoshop where after I have made any adjustments I can print as many copies as I wish. In the old darkroom every print is unique and may take a long time to adjust.  One and done is the beauty of the digital process. DSCN1525.JPG

I’m partial to medium format cameras. I like the larger negative and the feel of the cameras.  I’m not limited by any specific brand either. My camera inventory is in constant flux. Currently the choices include a Mamiya 645 Super, Yashica 124G, and a 1936 Kodak Junior.  Recently I’ve let go of a Fuji GA645, a 6×9 Mamiya Press, and a Rolleicord (1933). I expect to constantly turn over inventory for no other reason than to have the of experience shooting a variety of cameras.

I’ll keep shooting film.  The magic of the image appearing on the plastic strip has a  satisfaction that digital can’t capture. A computer virus isn’t going to wipe out my files forever either. But I’m not selling my DSLR.  And the new Olympus OMD-E10 MII is perfect for the upcoming series of reflections on the Moto-Seattle trip.

Stay tuned.

Santa Cruz Paddle Fest

Since I last wrote we’ve had a bumper crop of rain in California.The last post with the fog lifting off Lexington Reservoir isn’t possible today because that part of the lake is about 10 feet below the surface. Since then I have been developing black and white film.  I enjoy it much more than I thought I would.  In addition to bringing me back to what I love about photography, developing my own film has me focusing more closely on the various aspects of making a picture.

I have set my self a challenge to spend the year using my manual cameras without a light meter.  I’m using the “sunny 16” rule and keeping in mind the latitude of black and white film.  Briefly, it works like this.  In the bright sunshine you set the aperture to 16 and match the shutter speed to the speed of the film (100 speed film: 1/100-1/125 shutter speed, ISO 400: 1/400 or 1/500 shutter speed.)  On a cloudy day reduce the f-stop to 11, shade, reduce to f8, always keeping the shutter speed at the same number as the ISO of the film.

My workflow looks like this: load the film in one of my cameras (a Yashica 124, a Mamiya 645, or on of the two 35mm cameras), go out and shoot, bring the film to the shed to change the film from the camera to the light tight developing tank (all done in the dark).  After developing the film and hanging it to dry, I scan it into Photoshop using either an Epson v700 or taking a picture of the negative with a digital camera.  Adjustment in Photoshop completes the process.

My long lenses and extremely wide lenses are all matched to my Nikon digital cameras so any surfing photos I take are done with the digital equipment.  At this year’s paddlefest I had both Nikon digital and my Yashica film camera with me.  A funny thing about long telephoto lenses is that sometimes the photos are better than what you can see with your eyes and this is the case for the photo below.  I had a 300 lens on the camera and then cropped in Photoshop to get these pictures.  The thrust you see in the photo is certainly more than we saw from the cliff at Steamer Lane.

The black and white photos are later in the day after we watched the pros do amazing things in the surf.  They were taken on the Santa Cruz warf.

A last note about developing my own film.  After purchasing all the equipment (canister, chemicals, measuring cups and thermometer) I feel like I am developing the film free.  It cost me $100 total but I expect to use the chemicals for over a year.  I’m already on roll 8 or 9 (between 35mm and 120mm) and hardly see a dent in my chemicals.  It’s almost like developing for free.  Contrast this with a consistent $6-8 per roll and having complete control over the process.


Winter Opportunities

It’s winter so I naturally want to jump in the car and find snow.  In my case I would have to drive about three hours to find something truly worth a wintery scene.  Winter offers other opportunities to take advantage of the cold mornings besides just snow.  One good way to improve your photography skills is to find a place close by your house you can return to at different times of the day and different seasons.  Not only will you be familiar with the area, it allows you to track your progress as a photographer over time.  This post will address both aspects, cold mornings and one of my favorite places.

One of my favorite places to go in San Jose is Lexington Reservoir.  Lexington has two bonuses in addition to being close to the house, first, a local rowing company operates on the reservoir providing a never-ending opportunity to play with sculls with one to six people pulling on the oars.  Second, the surface of the water gives me a chance to play with light and reflection.  Recen
tly, I returned to the reservoir to capture sunrise and the fog created when the early morning temperature of the water is warmerthan the ambient air temperature.

My first challenge was to find the correct exposure to reveal the fog coming off the water.  Going into the session I had two choices, put the camera on aperture priority and use the exposure compensation or use complete manual and measure the scene to get the contrast correct between the emerging sun and shade created by hill. In each case my most important technical tool was the histogram on the camera’s screen.  I know I can’t trust the video display because it is not calibrated and it will appear different as the ambient light changes with the sunrise.  I’m not a huge fan of HDR and I know that if I shoot in RAW format Lightroom and Photoshop RAW will help me pull out some detail in the shadows.  My tack in the field in 32 degrees is to expose to the right of the histogram making sure I don’t overexpose the highlights.  It’s not possible to bring back too bright highlights (blown out) but it is possible to bring back shadow detail.

You will see in the first image I overexposed just a little on the left.  I did it on purpose to draw the view’s eye to the fog and then let it move into the picture.  lexington-fog-sunrise-wSecond, I waited for the sun to peak over the top of the hill.  In this case the fog was not so important as the lens flare-star of the rising sun.
I had to clean up a few spots in post-production to get a clean foreground.  In the second picture, I have blue skies, a hint of blue water and leading lines to the sunrise along with that beautiful star created by the camera lens.

The last thing I did was take a picture specifically to convert into black and white.  As I have written before, my go-to program for black and white is Silver Effex Pro (SFX) (currently available as a free download from Google).  Lines and contrast are by tools in black and white so I wanted to make sure I have a hint of a sunrise to backlight the hill.  The shade of grey on the water needed to be less than the silhouette of the hill and I knew I wanted the mirror reflection of the water.  My plan was to expose to the right for the sun, wait for the water to be still and create the mi
rror I was looking for, and make sureI could use the fog on the water to create a separation _dwp9711sfx-wbetween the water and the hill’s silhouette.  Lastly, knowing I was going to play with a digital filter to fine tune the final image, I shot in color and converted later in Photoshop/SFX.

I hope I’ve encouraged you to find a place you can return to and play with new aspects to perfect your photo taking craft.  If you have other techniques of questions be sure to leave me a comment.


Fall time is color time


It’s officially fall.  To some that may mean the return or everything pumpkin or pumpkin spice.  To others it’s the beginning of the countdown.  It seems as though once All Hallows Eve is done the end of the year is upon us like the Jonestown Flood.  In some parts of the country fall means bright yellow, orange, fiery red, and other colored leaves that transform the landscape into Vincent Van Gogh’s palate.  To some you have to go to or be in Vermont to see the fall color.  If you ask around at work and other places you visit about where to go to see the beautiful colors of fall it’s likely you will get one answer over and over…not in California.  I’m here to tell you they are mistaken.  California has fall.

Where would that be, you ask.  Here is a site that can get you in the right direction (to the east),  This site is volunteer run and will help you plan your fall trip to the Eastern Sierra Nevada’s.  Color starts up around 10,000’ and from the end of September through the first of November works its way down.  Two of my favorite places are Lundy Canyon and June Lake.  The aspens turn a bright yellow and since aspens always grow in large groups in the wild they are easy to spot.  You can take a fancy camera to capture your memories but if you are looking for some new screen wall paper your phone will do just fine.  Here are a few tips to help you capture California’s wonderful fall colors.

First, be sure you plan your day to take advantage of the soft light.  The Golden Hour is the time just after the sun rises and before it sets.  It isn’t really an hour but about two hours on each end of the day.   Because of the angle of the sun all those bright oranges, yellows, and reds will more saturated, something your camera sensor will like.  When you plan your trip be sure to account for the shadows thrown by the Sierra Nevada range.  If you take a DSLR I strongly recommend you pick up a polarizer.  It does for your camera what your polarized sun glasses do.  Because the polarizer bends the light it will saturate the colors even more and help eliminate glare.  You operate it by turning the front.  As you turn it you will see the colors go from subdued to saturated.  Pick the level you like the best.  If you want crisp leaves on those trees use a high shutter speed, something above 1/500.  If you like the somewhat fuzzy look that communicates a windy day dropping to 1/250 or below works well.  If you want a watercolor type look drop your shutter speed below 1/60 but beware, you’ll need a tripod.

If you done have time to go all the way to the Eastern Sierras we have color locally in the Santa Cruz mountains.  I strongly recommend you do not touch the poison ivy that grows naturally in the hills, however, I strongly recommend that you look for its fiery red color when taking pictures.  The red poison ivy contrasts nicely with the brown leaves falling off the trees laying on the ground and the evergreens that are all over the hills.

Lastly, there are come parks in the area that have been planted with trees with fall in mind.  My favorite is Vasona Park.  As an added bonus the pond in the park acts as a mirror of the colors.

Don’t fret if you can’t afford the time or money to go to Vermont this fall.  All you need to do is plan a weekend, or even a day right here in California.

This fall pictures brought to you from Lundy Canyon, California.