This review is part of the Cameras of the Dead series which I have been publishing every year on Halloween and “Halfway to” Halloween, featuring three cameras that I’ve wanted to review that either didn’t work, or was otherwise unable to shoot.
I am republishing each of those individual reviews this October in anticipation of this Halloween’s Cameras of the Dead post as a way to revisit the cameras of the past that allows them to be properly indexed on the site.
This is a Kodak No. 3A Folding Brownie made by the Eastman Kodak Company from 1909 to 1915. The No. 3A version of this camera took very large “postcard” sized images on 122 format film. There was a slightly smaller variant of this camera known as the No. 3 Folding Brownie that took smaller images on 124 film. The Folding Brownie series were Kodaks least expensive folding roll film cameras designed to make large contact prints using inexpensive film. Despite their cheap prices, they were solidly built of wood with metal fittings, covered with leather which in the case of this example, has held up well over the past century.
Film Type: 122 Roll Film (six 5 ½” x 3 ¼” exposures per roll)
Lens: Unknown Focal Length Meniscus Achromat Uncoated single-element
Focus: 6 feet to Infinity
Viewfinder: Scale Focus Reflecting Watson Type Finder
Shutter: FPK Automatic Metal Blade
Speeds: T, B, I
Exposure Meter: None
Flash Mount: None
Weight: 1027 grams
This No.3A Folding Brownie is likely the oldest camera in my collection, being made between the years of 1909 and 1915. As best as I can tell, at some point in it’s production, Kodak switched from red to black bellows suggesting mine is an earlier variant. It is usually pretty difficult to narrow down the exact years of production of these old Kodaks, so as a general rule I just consider them to be made in the first year I knew that model existed.
This camera came to me via Facebook, and I was alerted to it by my wife (who regularly chides me for my collection). The lady selling it was asking $200 and I politely PMed her and asked how she came to that price and she said she just made one up, without any basis for it’s worth. I ended up talking her down to $20 and met her on my lunch break one day in a McDonald’s parking lot and picked it up.
The Folding Brownie was in excellent condition when I first opened it. Other than a surface layer of dust, the camera was completely in tact, with what looked to be light tight bellows. The leather handle on top of the camera was not only still attached to the camera, but it showed no signs of cracks or tears, something you rarely see on early 20th century box and folding cameras. The shutter was left open in “T” mode, so I released it from it’s (likely) decades long prison and tested the Instant mode, to which the camera responded as it should. I should point out that many of these earlier Kodaks had a lens design in which the glass lens element is behind the shutter. Looking at the front of the camera, someone not familiar with it’s design might think the lens is missing, when in reality the lens is behind the shutter. This is actually a good thing as the shutter acts as a built in lens cap, protecting the glass elements from dust and debris.
I declared this one a winner, mostly. While the camera seemed to be in perfect working order, this is a No.3A which means it uses type 122 roll film which was one of the largest types of roll film ever made. Each exposed image is nearly half a foot wide. Take a look at the image to the left where I show a 122 spool next to a (still very large) 116 spool and 120 spool. Back when cameras like this were made, photography was still an expensive industry. Models like the Folding Brownie might have been affordable by the mid to lower class, but developing the film cost money. Even after developing the film, you still needed a way to make prints from your exposed negatives which typically involves some type of enlarger to make images big enough to be framed.
Folding Brownies like this No.3A were popular because they made images that were already about the size of a post card and didn’t need to be enlargened. When film was developed, the end result would be created via something called a contact print. A contact print is basically when you take an exposed negative and put it in contact with light sensitive paper and momentarily shine light through the film to “print” a positive image on the photographic paper. Of course, this still needs to be done in a darkroom with chemicals to stabilize the light sensitive paper, but the benefit is that large complex equipment like an enlarger was not necessary.
When you would shoot images in a camera like this, you would send out your film to be developed (or do it yourself) and then take your exposed film and make positive prints directly from the negatives that were the same exact size. If you were ever in an antique shop and saw an old photo album that had photographs that measured 5 ½” x 3 ¼”, it is very possible they were shot using a 122 film camera like this one.
The Folding Brownie is a pretty neat camera. When folded, it resembles a medium sized box. To someone not familiar with old cameras, they likely would have no idea that this was even a camera. To open the front, a hidden button on the top of the camera right in front of the handle must be pressed to unlock the door. This is not a self-erecting design, which means that once the door is opened, you must manually pull out the lens and shutter by gripping the shiny metal handle immediately below the lens.
Unlike other folding Kodaks in my collection, the Brownie has click-stops at various focusing distances which means the camera will lock in at one of 8 focusing distances from 6 feet to 100 feet (infinity). While this may seem limiting today, the reality is that these cameras never needed precise focus to begin with, so each of the set distances on the focusing plate are more than enough to cover any distance. This is especially convenient today, as many of the earlier folding cameras I’ve encountered struggled to stay at their proper focusing distances. Over time, things loosen up, but that wouldn’t be a problem with this camera as once the camera is set to a specific distance, you must press down on the locking lever to move it to another distance.
All of the camera’s controls are on the shutter itself. At the 12 o’clock position is the shutter speed selector. You only have three choices here, T (for Time), B (for Bulb), and I (for Instant which is approximately 1/25th second). At the 6 o’clock position is the aperture selector, which gives you values from 8 to 128.
If the thought of an aperture of f/128 sounds strange, you should know that prior to the 1920s, Kodak used a different system for calculating f/stops known as the US System or “Uniform Standard” (also sometimes incorrectly called the Universal System), which was originally developed by the Photographic Society of Great Britain in the 1880s. Using this system, the Folding Brownie’s maximum and minimum apertures of 8 and 128 are actually closer to f/11 and f/45 using the modern system we use today.
Finally, the last thing on the shutter is the shutter release which is near the 11 o’clock position. The shutter release on this camera is not threaded for a cable, and there is no self timer. At the 9’clock position is a chrome cylinder which an air piston inside of it that acts as an actuator to fire the shutter.
Considering the excellent condition of this 100+ year old camera, I really wanted to try and shoot some images through it, but a combination of the sheer size of 122 film, and the fact that the camera only came with one spool meant I would have had to either get really creative and insert single sheets of 4×5 film in the camera and figure out a way how to protect it and develop it, or fab up some type of 120 to 122 adapter and shoot some super panoramic 5 ½” x 2 ¼” on 120 film. I decided to just admire the camera for it’s beauty and talk about it here in my Cameras of the Dead series. While the camera itself is still very much alive, it’s film format has long gone the way of the dinosaur and prices for expired 122 film in eBay are in the $40+ and up range. Wikipedia suggests that 122 film went out of production in 1971 so my options would be extremely limited for viable original film.
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