I’ve had my Kodak Brownie Flash B for years and years. My mum picked it up from a car boot sale in the 90s, and it’s followed me around all my house moves, stored quietly away doing nothing. Until now! Well, until February actually, when I finally respooled some 120 film onto a 620 spool and took the Brownie out of retirement.
Design and Features
Kodak introduced their first Brownie camera in February 1900. It was a simple cardboard box, with a simple single element lens, it cost $1 and it revolutionised photography, handing it to the masses. Considering the Brownie Flash B was introduced almost 60 years later, the camera really isn’t much different from the original. Manufactured in England, it’s a brown painted metal box, with tan leatherette covering and brass coloured trim.
Up front there’s an f/11 rated meniscus lens with shutter speeds of 1/40th and 1/80th of a second, or the option to hold open the shutter as long as you want. Also on the front of the camera there are two small lenses that “feed” the two reflecting viewfinders for landscape and portrait compositions.
All of the controls, such as they are, adorn the right hand side of the Brownie. Here is the lever for selecting shutter speed. There are two pull out sliders, one for the close-up lens, and another for the yellow cloud filter for helping enhance sky shots when shooting with black and white film. To help determine correct settings, there’s a handy exposure table, the film winding knob and shutter button are also here.
On the left hand side there is a connection point for an old style flash unit, on top there’s a carry handle, and at the back there’s a door for loading the film, and a little red tinted window for seeing what exposure you’re up to. You won’t find any tripod screw sockets, but then with every side being flat, it sits straight perfectly well on its own.
One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to use this camera is that like many Kodak cameras of the time, it uses medium format 620 film. This is the same as the still common 120 film, except the spool is slightly narrower. You can’t shoe-horn a 120 roll into a 620 camera, meaning the only way to use one is to shut yourself away in a pitch-black room, roll a 120 film onto a 620 spool, before winding it back onto yet another 620 spool. Only then can you load it into the camera. It’s not a super easy process, but after doing some reading I managed it first time without cocking it up.
To load the camera lift the latch and pop the back door open, pull out the rewind knob, and take out the film support frame. The film spool clips into the top, the backing paper is pulled over the “gate” and then tucked into the take-up spool at the bottom. Once the assembly has been put back in the camera, and the door shut, the film is wound on until a number 1 peeps through the red frame counter window.
One of the nice things about using medium format is the relatively huge negatives you get, ideal for wallet sized contact prints. This camera takes ones measuring about 6×9 centimetres, which on the downside, only gives you 8 exposures per roll.
With this camera I think it’s best to set the exposure first, so you might want to consult the table on the camera’s side. Unfortunately, Kodak only saw fit to give the details for their own products, rather than generic film speed details (I’m beginning to feel they were the stick-with-us-or-else Apple of their day). These are Tri-X (rated 200 ISO at this time), Veri-Pan (125 ISO) and Pan X (32 ISO). You need to remember which equivalent to the film you’re using when cross referencing the weather condition to determine shutter speed, which you select with the lever. Some of them say a +F, which means use the cloud filter too. That’s the front pull-out slider.
So, taking a picture. The reflecting viewfinders require you to hold the camera away from you, and look AT them rather than through them, similar to using an LCD screen on a modern camera. The image is flipped laterally though, so it’s easier to turn the wrong way when trying to compose a shot – it takes a bit of getting used to! If you want a portrait picture you’ll hold the camera the right way up, if you want a landscape, hold it on its side. If your subject is more than 3 metres (10 ft) away, you’re set to go. If it’s between 1.5 and 3 metres you’ll need to pull out the close up slider. It’s not possible to have sharp focus on anything nearer than that.
Once the exposure and focus is set, it’s time to press the shutter button. Unfortunately, the spring is pretty fierce and it requires quite a bit of effort to minimise movement. One of my friends took a picture and I saw the Brownie wildly veer to one side as he made the exposure. With the relatively slow shutter speeds available, camera shake inevitably shows up.
I found it best to wind the film on after a picture was taken because there’s no mechanism to prevent taking more than one picture on a frame. This makes it a good camera for experimenting and playing around with multiple exposures, but if you don’t get into a habit it could be easy to forget whether you’ve wound on or not and ruin some nice shots. Once the eight photos are taken, it’s simply a case of winding on the film until the backing paper has completely passed the window, open it up and take the film out.
Here are some of the pictures I took. The film is Lomography Earl Grey 100 ISO, which I home developed and scanned.
Looking back I realise most of the shots are portrait, I suppose due to that being the “default” mode of the upright camera. The results do have a bit of a vintage soft look which is nice, though doesn’t really take advantage of those huge negatives which have the ability to capture so much detail. That’s the reality of the simple lens I suppose!
I was also a little optimistic with some of the indoor photographs I took even holding the shutter open a bit with the B setting. That said though I rather like the one of my friend Jo and the teapot, even though she’s too close to be in focus.
Whilst it was lots of fun taking the Brownie out for a run finally, it’s not going to be one that I use again in any hurry. It’s a bit of a faff sorting out the film, and the results are pretty crude and a little unpredictable by any modern standard. That said these simple cameras are absolute classics, so if you do have have a similar one lurking around the house, or pick one up at a car boot or junk shop, it’s definitely worth taking out for a play. You’ll have fun using it and certainly get noticed whilst out on the streets.