Thursday, May 7, 2020

Brownie Starflex Camera

This is a fun story about photography, history and art.

I used to assume one needed a fancy new camera to take good pictures. My Holga film camera has taught me otherwise. A cheap, plastic relic from the past offers unimagined artistic possibilities. The pictures it produces aren't shabby even if the camera is utterly basic.

A good deal of credit goes to its use of film. Photographic film was carefully developed over a century to optimize quality. Like vinyl records, film records reality accurately, surpassing digital reproduction. Two decades ago film photography was replaced by digital photography for commercial, not artistic reasons. Cheaper technology always wins the marketplace even when it's not as good because the majority of consumers value cost over quality.

A few years ago I picked up an old Brownie camera in a thrift store. I paid $5 for it. I bought it as a decoration and assumed it won't work because it's old.  Again, an assumption.

After discovering my first assumption wasn't true, I just decided to test this second assumption. Simply because a camera is old doesn't mean it doesn't work. In fact, it can produce attractive images on film when used with a good eye.

The first Brownie was made in 1900. Not only was it one of the first cameras used by ordinary people, it was the most popular. Kodak sold tens of millions of them during the middle of the last century. The original Brownie was simply a square cardboard box and glass lens. Later, the cardboard was replaced by Bakelite, the first synthetic plastic.

The model I found was made between 1952-1964. Back then it was inexpensive ($10) and intended for children and teens. The camera is very small and fits easily inside my hand. It has no battery or electric parts. The design couldn't be simpler: just a chassis for holding film tucked into a plastic box. You lift a metal hood on top of the camera and look down into the viewfinder to see a reflected image coming from the upper of two lenses. (The bottom lens takes the picture.) This kind of camera is called "twin-lens reflex" because of the two lenses; most other cameras (SLR; point-and-shoot) have only one lens. SLR actually stands for "single lens reflex."

The design of the Brownie is surprisingly simple and barely evolved from its 1900 predecessor. There's only one shutter-speed (1/50th second), one aperture (f/14) and one lens-length (51mm). There is no way to focus the lens. There's no hole to attach a tripod, no way to change lenses, and no place to add a filter. The camera was made to take basic "snapshots."

Researching the Brownie, I found its original instruction manual online. The camera uses a type of film I've never tried before -- "127 roll" which is larger than 35mm (SLR) and smaller than 120 roll (Holga). Kodak stopped making 127 roll film in 1996 but there's one company in Japan that still produces it. I just ordered two rolls online. I plan to load the Brownie up with film, shoot these rolls of 127 film and see what happens.

Part of the appeal of a project like this is you don't know how it'll turn out. I might get back a set of blank negatives (which happened to me last month with the Holga). Or a bunch of outstanding photos (another Holga experience). Or something else entirely. Who knows?

I can't wait to find out. I'm playing with history. :)


  1. My grandad had a camera very similar to that - I remember it from when I was a kid. I love that you're exploring these ways of processing what you see in the world, Ally.

    And yes, I went into a store and shopped!

  2. I can see the appeal of going retro, and getting back to an earlier (and chemical) way of taking photographs. Even having to wait for the results, and not being sure that will be good, has an appealing side to it, especially for those who like the unexpected in life, the chance element.

    And yes, the look of a print is quite different from the look of a digital photo - I have many books about photography to prove the fact. You can achieve things with film that you can't with digital. Even the way you approach the shot is different.

    Still, my experience of film photography from 1965 to 2000 made me embrace digital with relief. Using film may have allowed a slow equipment turnover, saving money, but it was an expensive way of producing pictures in any quantity. The printed results could be stunning when produced by a talented expert, nondescript when done casually. Exposure and composition errors were all too easy to make, wasting film. One was too much at the mercy of labs. And even if the print were excellent, how could an ordinary person share or publish it?

    Digital photography may have produced its own sea of dross, but it has made the pleasure of photography totally accessible for those who are drawn to it. Which is a Good Thing.

    As to equipment, I agree that less is more, and old tech can be as good in its way as the latest digital thing. I've ditched my phone for photography, and although still digital, I'm using an eleven year old camera. Having refined my processing technique, I can get satisfying results from it without 'needing' a newer tool.

    All this said, I really hope you enjoy what you get from your Brownie, love it to bits, and find ways to stick with it.


    1. Hi Lucy. Thanks for visiting.

      You raise some good points. I think the best way to view this situation is that we don't have to choose only one approach (film v. digital): we can enjoy both for what each offers. Sure, digital is easier and cheaper; there are times for that. I just don't want to forget the old way of doing things, for the joys that offers. Embodying this, I do both film and digital photography, choosing between them depending on the situation.

      Hope you comment again!

  3. I have a bit of a penchant for Brownie cameras, and have several in my collection. My husband and I only buy them if they are still in working order, even if they mainly serve as collector's items. Good on you for putting your Brownie camera to the test! xxx

  4. The history of this is so so interesting! It's so fascinating to see how technology affects art. I can't wait to see how your experiments turn out!

  5. Well, I have learnt a lot from this post! I can't wait to see how the photos develop!

  6. I love learning about old cameras. What a fun hobby!

  7. How fun, I feel like old cameras are such a fun hobby to be into.

  8. That's brilliant, Ally! I adore finding ways to weave the past into the beating heart of the present as well. Fingers - and camera straps - crossed that your photos turn out positively.

    Autumn Zenith 🎃 Witchcrafted Life

  9. How amazing that you were curious enough to see if it worked! are the pictures from the black and white post taken with this camera?

    1. No, those were from the Holga. I haven't taken any with the Brownie yet. Will post some soon.