When most people are given an antique, it's thrown onto a shelf as a nice dust-collecting decoration. Not me. I took my vintage 1924 Brownie camera completely apart to see how it worked, researched and found the out-of-production film, took some photos and found someone to process them.
Today I'll take you along for the ride as I go through the entire process so you can see how easy it is to start your own collection of vintage cameras that actually take photos!
The Birth of an Obsession
When I visited my Grandparents for Christmas this year I received a rather peculiar present. "Hey, do you want an old antique camera?" my grandfather asked. I'm not much for antiques but I thought maybe an old camera would look good on a shelf in my office, so I replied "sure!"
My grandfather then handed me something that I didn't expect. This camera wasn't just old, it was really old. My digitally-leaning brain's first reaction was that surely this thing wasn't ever capable of taking pictures. It was little more than a box with a hole in it!
Within a minute or two of examining the peculiar box I started to really appreciate the mechanics. Many of the features that were on my modern day DSLR were present here as well, albeit in a very primitive form.
I very quickly realized that this was most certainly not just going to be a shelf decoration. Not satisfied with abandoning the camera to dust, I would definitely have to get this thing working. Once I made that decision, I was hooked.
I began researching the camera as soon as I got home. I found out what it was, when it was made, what type of film it needed and where I could order the film. Somewhere along the way I fell in love with old cameras. The design and ingenuity of each device was intriguing and the fact that I could follow the evolution of the modern camera with such clearly delineated steps made me appreciate my newer cameras infinitely more.
The process was a blast and I know that many of you would enjoy it as much as I do, so below we're going to walk through how you can get started in vintage photography.
Find a Camera
The first step in your vintage photography journey is to find an old camera. I highly recommend checking out our roundup on vintage cameras so you can get a decent glimpse of what's out there and which model/decade you find yourself interested in the most.
Otherwise, simply start shopping to see what you can find. Flea markets, yard sales, Goodwill stores; all are great places to find a pile of old cameras for anything from 25¢ to $10. When my grandfather purchased my camera, he took what is probably the best and most convenient route and one that you can see countless collectors rely on, often exclusively: eBay.
eBay is a virtual gold mine of old cameras, many of which are available for dirt cheap. For instance, my grandfather purchased mine in a set of three for $6! Both the prices and quality of the products range considerably, but that's the thrill of the hunt right?
A Word of Warning About Film
It seems like a natural progression to buy an old camera and then try to figure out what type of film it takes so you can buy some. It turns out, this isn't necessarily the best way to go (I learned the hard way).
If you intend to actually take photos with your vintage camera, and I highly recommend that you do, it's actually a good idea to research film before making your camera purchase to see what you can and can't get your hands on.
My camera ended up being one that takes size 116 film, which was discontinued in the 80s. This launched me into hours of research and choosing between respooling a different size film, rigging my camera or ordering from the sole supplier that I found who actually sells fresh 116 film for a whopping $50/roll! Intent on keeping everything genuine, I chose the latter.
Which Film Is Good?
Many modern film cameras take 35mm (also known as 135), so this is definitely going to be the easiest to find. However, this type of film didn't come on the scene until 1934 and wasn't incredibly popular until the 60s, so many old cameras don't support it.
You'll find cameras that take 116, 127, 620 and a whole host of others, but by far the easiest film to find for vintage cameras is 120. If you have the choice, make your first foray into vintage photography be with a camera that takes 120 film (if not 35mm). This will dramatically simplify the entire process of buying film and getting it developed.
LomographyFilm.com has all kinds of great 120 film options, some for as low as $5. Again, remember that my roll of 116 was $50. 120 is the way to go. You probably still can't get it developed at Wal-Mart, but plenty of photo studios can handle it without a problem.
Figure Out What It Is and How It Works
Since I received my camera as a gift, this step came after purchase. I should say that before receiving this camera I knew absolutely nothing about vintage cameras, film or anything that was invented before Photoshop.
Initially, I had no idea what my camera was or how it worked. My grandpa said that it was a "Brownie," which turned out not to be a tasty treat but the brand name for one of the first cameras ever produced by Kodak Eastman (second only to the Kodak). The first step in my research was to tear the camera apart and photograph it.
Meet the No. 2A Brownie Model C
Now you can get a glimpse of the strange box that I described at the beginning of the article. As you can see, I wasn't being facetious, it really is just a box with a handle!
Upon further examination, I found two clear indicators of exactly what my camera was. There was an embossed stamp on the back and some text inside the hatch, both informing me that I was the proud owner of a No. 2A Brownie Model C.
The stamp on the back even told me what type of film to use! As I said before, this launched a lengthy effort to track some down. Through a little more research I found out that my camera was manufactured somewhere between 1924 and 1933, putting it at almost 90 years old!
How It Works
Again, knowing nothing about old cameras I was still able to see exactly how it all worked based on what I knew about my modern camera. As you can see in the image below, my Brownie has two viewfinders (for vertical and horizontal viewing) along with outlets for each on the front, a knob for winding the film, and a primary lens.
From these I knew that I would look into the viewfinder to frame my shot, click the shutter lever to take a photo, then wind the film to prepare for the next shot.
To get a better look at how all this works, I popped off the front plate. This revealed the inner workings of all the levers and switches, all of which operate on wonderfully simple physics with zero electrical components necessary.
Don't be afraid to break into your old camera a little as I've done here. Odds are, you'll need to clean it up to get all the grime off the lenses and mirrors. I used a Q-tip and some rubbing alcohol to make sure everything was nice and ready to shoot.
Loading the Film
After you've found out what type of film you need and manage to get ahold of some, it's time to load it in. To protect the film, this process should be done in a fairly dark room so I couldn't photograph it, but I'll explain how it works.
Opening up the back of the camera, I found a large box mechanism that I could see would hold the film.
This box contained a spool that connected to the knob on the outside. When you spin the knob, the spool spins, which winds up the film. Pulling the outer knob outward allows you to remove the inner cartridge to load the film.
The image below describes the basic process for loading in the film. The cartridge is fairly symmetrical and should have one side containing an empty spool and one side where you insert your new film spool. From here you unwrap the film and bring it up and around the box, threading under the little rollers and into the empty spool at the other end.
When you click the lever on the outside, the shutter opens, allowing light to be passed through the lens into the interior of the box, where it goes through the open side of the cartridge and hits the film.
When light hits the film, the attached silver particles react to the light and produce an image, which that then be processed into a photograph.
It's funny how simple it all was back before digital sensors, light metering, etc. These devices were quite affordable and would've had a fairly small learning curve. If you think about it, the film was really the most impressive technological feat of the entire process.
Taking the Photos
Once you get your film all ready to go, it's time to get out and start shooting! Now, on older cameras like this one you have to remember that the fastest shutter speed possible is still going to be quite slow.
This means that you have to hold the camera really still to avoid blurry shots. Likewise, your subject has to remain quite still.
I was actually able to find and download my camera's original manual, which recommended taking pictures in open shade, so that's exactly what I did. Astonishingly enough, the 90 year old camera fit my modern tripod mount perfectly!
When you're taking photos, there's a little window on the back of the camera that shows you how far to roll the film. You wind it until you see the number one, shoot a photo, then wind until you see a two, etc. My roll contained eight images.
Don't forget to roll after each photo or you'll end up with a double exposure! It's admittedly quite strange to take a photo without seeing the result right away and very easy to make a mistake and ruin everything.
Getting the Photos Developed
On this one, you're pretty much on your own. Take into account that it won't be easy to find a place that develops older film formats, so a good deal of research might be necessary depending on where you live. Fortunately, I live in a major city so it wasn't too hard to find someone that could handle the job (a big thanks to Colormark for working with me).
Most places I called wouldn't even consider trying to develop 116 film, and when I finally found a place, they ran into numerous problems getting it to work with their machines because it was the wrong size. In the end they had to do custom digital scans that cost me $5 per image! I'll say it again, do yourself a favor and go with 120 film to avoid excessive costs and hassles that come with discontinued products.
As I was finishing up this article, my photos finally came in. I'm actually thrilled with the results considering it was my first experience with vintage photography. My old Brownie served me well and I can't wait to show my grandpa that I actually got it to work.
Here are four images from my first shoot:
Admittedly, if I were shooting digital, these wouldn't really be impressive in the least. But considering all the work I put into this little project, it's extremely fulfilling to see the resulting images.
In closing, this lengthy process was quite the adventure. The discovery of an entirely different area of photography has revitalized my love of the art and I would like to publicly thank my grandfather, George Farmer, for awakening that in me.
I highly recommend to anyone reading this that you check out Ebay and have your own vintage photography experience. There are some fantastic relics out there and it seems an awful shame for them to waste away on a shelf when you could be using them for what they were made to do!
Leave a comment below if you have any experience with vintage photography. We would love to see some of the pictures you were able to take. Also, let us know if you'd like to see more articles on older photography topics such as this one.