Pictures with old cameras: boxes

Discussion in 'Classic Manual Cameras' started by heqm, Apr 14, 2015.

  1. I promised some comments about my varied family of cameras, and here's the first installment. This one concerns the least sophisticated set: one f-stop, one shutter speed and fixed focus. (Actually, there is the choice of "instantaneous" or "time" on the shutter speed, but for most purposes there really isn't a choice.) The lack of choice can be seriously limiting: there are many pictures that you just can't get. But I find it's also seriously liberating, because all you have to think about is taking the picture or not.
  2. Above, they are shown open: a Kodak Brownie Junior on the left, a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye in the center and an Argus Seventy-Five on the right. (There was a recent post on the Argus, going into more detail on the camera itself.) All take 620 film, which of course is no longer made. I just re-roll 120 onto one of my 620 spools, and it has worked without trouble. All have the red window in back for checking your film advance. I'm aware sometimes this is a problem with light leaks, but I haven't had trouble. These are plastic and cardboard constructions and so they're pretty light. That, together with the slow shutter speed, means I have to consciously remember to hold still when taking a picture. Below, I show the boxes closed.
  3. The Hawkeye is subject to flare if pointed too near the Sun, but doesn't do badly if you take care, and don't make big enlargements. This is a straight scan of a 5x5" print.
  4. The Brownie Junior has much more trouble with flare. I suspect that there's serious fogging inside somewhere.
  5. The Argus has a better lens than the other two, though I get uneasy with 10x10" prints.
  6. A project I have in mind is to take one of these around my neighborhood and snap away as if I'd just received my first camera, a naive look at everything. You might have your own ideas.
  7. Sounds like a great project to me.
    Gene M is a master of old box cameras and old film ( ).
    Others of us have never yet got beyond the "naive look at everything" stage. :|
  8. Alan--thanks! Amazing output from those little cameras. The last one is particularly good. Thanks for sharing and can't wait to see more!
  9. Hello Paul, thanks for the post! Those box cameras are capable of surprising results, with a kind of elegance in their minimalistic form. And I understand what you mean about being liberated with limited options. Years ago, my aunt gave me this Ensign 116 camera.
    I remember shooting a few rolls through it (this was the early 70s, I was a young teenager), but never knew what became of them. Some time this past year I finally stumbled on them, tucked away in a box with some other odds and ends. I developed the VP 116 film in HC-110 (Dil B)and although there was a little fog, the film turned out great.
    Here is a frame from that roll (my grandmother's house) and it's now on my wall in 11x14 with surprising detail!
    Anyway, excellent pics, show us more when you can!
  10. Great job. A lot was learned (and still can be) with box cameras.
  11. Ah yes, I've considered a similar project but just haven't found the time... Nice work, Alan, and thanks for the post.
  12. I have 3 box cameras that were thrown with other purchases from Ebay. I always considered them as interested artifacts and never would have considered using them. Seeing these I will have to add them to my to do list.
  13. The average shutter speed is 1/30 to 1/60. Would it be unwise to place a card behind the lens with a smaller hole to increase the fstop to get more appropriate exposure and more resolution with the faster films?
  14. Alan, thank you for posting the information and the photos. You've inspired me to find my mother's Brownie Hawkeye and do some shooting with it.
    Donald, rigging a smaller aperture would be possible. I don't think you would see an increase in resolution, but there would be a modest increase in depth of field. I played with a depth-of-field calculator ( by using approximate specs for the Brownie Hawkeye (f/16 and 80mm f.l.). I found that if the lens is factory-set to focus at 27 to 28 feet, the DOF is approximately 14 ft. to infinity. Using the same focus distance, but dropping the aperture to f/22 gives a DOF of about 12 ft. to infinity. Dropping it again to f/32 gives a DOF of about 9.5 ft. to infinity. So, stopping down two stops might gain around 4.5 feet of DOF close to the camera. It would be interesting to know what your actual results are if you do the modification.
    Another reason to use fast film would be for photos in low light (without the aperture modification). With 400 ISO, you should be able to get down to EV 11 or 12 with the standard shutter. You could still shoot in bright daylight with the 400 ISO film by using a ND filter over the lens.
  15. I have a Kodak "No. 2 Folding Cartridge Hawk-Eye Camera" which came with the instruction manual. This has the "I" and "B" shutter speeds, but also an aperture with "1", "2", "3", and "4" settings.
    Seems that they never thought about ISO 400, or likely even 100 film. For the "4" setting:
    "No. 4 -- For time exposures outdoors in cloudy weather. Not for instantaneous exposures."
    I will guess that the four correspond to about f/8, f/11, f/16, and f/22. The No. 4 setting should be just fine for sunny days with ISO 400 film, and probably still work for ISO 100!
  16. An Argus 75 was ny first camera, bought new when I was 10 (shows my age). I chose it because the viewfinder was bigger than the one on a Brownie Hawkeye, also because it looked cool. As in the OP's example, results were surprisingly good. In those days 100-125 ISO b&w film was the norm, worked well in sunny or bright overcast weather.
  17. Donald, at some point going to smaller apertures is going to run into diffraction effects. I'm not sure exactly when, and it's not a hard line anyway, but going beyond something like f/22 to f/32 you're certainly risking it. Also: the location of the aperture stop is important in the lens design, even when it's a simple meniscus, so it would be best if you could put the smaller aperture in the same place (which may not be feasible). I'd be interested in your results. Personally, I find that the greater speed and choices of speed in film today give the boxes a lot of flexibility, much more than when they were new.
    That said, there are inconveniences in using these. The viewfinder takes practice to use, and may not be bright enough if you're standing in sunlight and taking a picture of something dark. I suspect the Argus viewfinder, while much easier to use, doesn't show the full film frame. The take-up spool in the Brownie Junior is held in place by tabs around the outside, not by something sticking in the end, and so doesn't always wind tightly; it's inconvenient to have to unload in a changing bag and wind the film again!
  18. Alan, Thanks never thought of diffraction issues, did think I was getting into that territory. It is just that these cameras look so simple I am probably getting ahead of myself worrying about over exposure. What I should do is shoot a roll first to see what I have before I consider anything else (duh). I am going to try it though just for fun at some point. It should not be too difficult and I was wondering if anyone else had tried it.
  19. I agree with Alan that resolution is degraded by diffraction, which becomes more apparent with smaller aperture openings. With some of the basic box cameras, I would think that the limit of resolution is more determined by the simple lens, film flatness, and flare than diffraction. I wouldn't hesitate to try f/32 (or even f/45 or f/64), and not worry too much about diffraction. It might be fun to try some ISO 3200 film in a Brownie at a small aperture.
  20. I have shot 400 film in daylight, and it does turn out dense, but it's usable. The best niche I've found for the Brownie Hawkeye is going out during a snowstorm. You wouldn't want to do that with your best shooter, unless you had it protected somehow; but the BH is plastic and it won't hurt to get it a bit wet (and even if it did get a bit damaged, it's not a huge investment lost). Also, the batteries don't wimp out in the cold, and the automatic exposure won't keep trying to make white snow a medium gray.
  21. Motivated by Allan Cobb's story of an 11x14 print from one of this kind of camera, I went back to a recent roll (developed this morning) and scanned two frames. The one below, a larger-size version of which I'll try to upload to my portfolio here at, looks like it could handle even a decent-sized enlargement. On the other hand, the next frame is worryingly soft. There are too many variables (my primitive scanning, how steady I held the camera) to trace causes, but it seems the Hawkeye can do better than I thought.
  22. I am not sure how accurate this story is but it is said that a professional newspaper photographer (Bert Hardy) was challenged about how easy it was to take a decent photo with a modern (1951) camera. Bert hardy said give me a single speed box camera and I can still take a good photo. He used a Kodak Box Brownie and this picture proved his point and made him a lot of money.
    Photo removed. In violation of Terms of Use. Do not post photos which you have not taken yourself.
  23. I have a similar similar story. I had a friend who was a professional photographer in the early 70's and he said give me a 110 instamatic. Came back with some beautiful and actually had one published.
    From Wikipedia
    "Bert Hardy rose from humble working class origins in Blackfriars, the eldest of seven children he left school at age 14 to work for a chemist who also processed photos. His first big sale came when he photographedKing George V and Queen Mary in a passing carriage, and sold 200 small prints of his best view of the King. Hardy freelanced for The Bicycle magazine, and bought his first small-format Leica 35 mm. He signed on with the General Photographic Agency as a photographer, then found his own freelance firm Criterion.
    In 1941, Hardy was recruited by the editor Tom Hopkinson of the leading picture publication of the 1930s and 1940s, Picture Post. Hardy was self-taught and used a Leica —unconventional gear for press photographers of the era— but went on to become the Post's Chief Photographer, after he earned his first photographer credit for his 1 February 1941 photo-essay about Blitz-stressed fire-fighters.
    Hardy served as a war photographer in the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) from 1942 until 1946: he took part in the D-Day landings in June 1944; covered the liberation of Paris; the allied advance across the Rhine; and was one of the first photographers to enter the liberated Belsen to record the suffering there. He also saved some Russian slaves from a fire set by German police in the city of Osnabrück, before photographing the aftermath.
    Near the end of World War II, Hardy went to Asia, where he became Lord Mountbatten's personal photographer. He later went on the cover the Korean War along with journalist James Cameron for Picture Post, reporting on United Nations atrocities[citation needed] at Pusan in 1950, and later and on that war's turning point, the Battle of Inchon, photojournalism for which he won the Missouri Pictures of the Year Award.
    Three of Hardy's photos were used in Edward Steichen's famous Family of Man exhibition and book, though not his favourite photo —which shows two street urchins off on a lark in Gorbals —it nevertheless has come to represent Hardy's documentary skill. Hardy himself was photographed many times, including during the war; three very good photo-portraits of him are currently in the Photographs Collection of the National Portrait Gallery.
    Having written an article for amateur photographers suggesting that you didn't need an expensive camera to take good pictures, Hardy staged a carefully posed photograph of two young women sitting on railings above a breezy Blackpool promenade using a Box Brownie in 1951, a photograph which has since become an iconic image of post-war Britain.[1]"
  24. I can thoroughly recommend Bert Hardy Book My Life. It is full of atmospheric pictures. A delight.
  25. Thanks.I will look up Bert interest is piqued! I too love the Box cameras, and I think that your post is a great idea, certainly has encouraged me to use some Box cameras again....just loaded up my favourite....the Portrait Brownie.
    Another benefit of using a Brownie is when you download your pics you can click on Brownie in PDN and it will be correct!
  26. Link to the Bert Hardy picture that was removed.
  27. Thanks Mark.
  28. I think the trouble with most box cameras is film flatness. The majority do not have any sort of pressure plate and rely either on the tension of the film to maintain flatness - or count on the curl of the film itself to keep the film in contact with the inside back of the box. Obviously neither of these designs is great for maintaining reliable film flatness.
    The other trouble is the fixed focus, which contrary to popular opinion is not set at the hyperfocal distance (which with a 100-110mm lens would be unuseably distant for average photos). The result being the cameras are neither suited to close up photos or to distant scenery. If you pay close attention you will find the far end of focus falls off usually around 30 to 40 feet.
    In both cases it meant little when the cameras were made since these were cheap cameras for making contact prints for albums, and not meant to be used for making enlargements.
    But if you're aware of these more subtle issues you can choose your subjects better and actually get away with some very sharp photos.
  29. Dave, I agree that film flatness plays a crucial role. You also pointed out that the fixed focus lenses were not set to the hyperfocal distance, which makes sense. I suspect that Kodak loosened standards a bit when it claimed that its Brownie Hawkeye was sharp from 5 feet to infinity. The depth of field calculator that I mentioned earlier suggests that f/45 could get that kind of DOF. I haven't come across anything that conclusively shows where the Brownie focus was set. Depending on the assumptions one makes, the calculator says that the focus may be set somewhere in the 11 to 15 foot range. I would be curious to know if this is indeed the case. Does this match your observations?
  30. My personal observation would seem to indicate that focus is set to about 20-25 feet. For a 100mm lens on 6x9 set at f/16 this would give a depth of field from about 12 feet to about 60 feet. Which on a contact print could easily be "stretched" to 10' to infinity for all practical intents and purposes. Only an enlargement would show that infinity is not actually sharp, nor is 10' quite sharp either. The distance covered in sharp focus would be appropriate for group photos, houses, most scenery, etc. so it also makes perfect sense that the actual focus would be set just slightly short of the true hyperfocal distance. Really old boxes usually had a second smaller stop for use indoors (seems counter intuitive but increasing the exposure time made it easier to count the seconds and get a good exposure) which would have allowed one to move the camera a couple feet closer still for seated portraits.
    Now I do have a couple of boxes which have the focus set a bit closer, maybe at about 15', but this could be by design or simply by loose manufacturing.
  31. Dave, thank you for the follow-up. That is interesting about the smaller stop for indoor shots.

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