There is a saying that a camera is just a light tight box to capture the image. Box cameras are the best example of this, only one step more technologically advanced from a pinhole camera. In the early 1900s Kodak was introducing box cameras in all shapes and sizes for a range of different film sizes. The Kodak No. 2 Brownie thankfully uses one of the more common film formats, and in-fact introduced 120 film to the world, which is still the standard size for medium format photography.
Every so often, after using a variety of cameras, it is cathartic to get back to basics and box cameras are perfect for that. It takes a lot of the decision making out of the equation, which is exactly why they were aimed at the masses. As the old Kodak saying goes, “You press the button, we do the rest”.
A review of a similar camera, the Kodak No. 0 Brownie Model A can be found here. Before looking at the Kodak No. 2 Brownie Model E closer, let’s explore some history on this 97-year-old camera.
Brownies were introduced by Kodak in 1900 and continued for over 80 years. Not bad for a camera named after a late 19th century cartoon by Palmer Cox. While Kodak box cameras had been around since 1888, the Brownie was introduced with an target market of children. The Brownies were instrumental in establishing photography amongst the wider population.
Unfortunately for collectors now, Kodak made many models with confusing and duplicating model names. This included varying film types, loosely designated by number, though not consistently. The No. 2 Brownie is the first camera to use 120 film, which is still widely in use today.
Generally, they are made of cardboard and wood. The basic design of all models includes two viewfinders, for both landscape and portrait shooting.
The No. 2 Brownie was introduced in 1901 and was manufactured until 1935. Even the most successful cameras struggle to last anywhere as close to this in more modern times. Six models were sold, A through to F and there was a choice of materials. A leatherette cardboard version costing US$2.00, an aluminium version for US$2.75 and a colourful version for US$2.50. Over 2,500,000 were manufactured in both the United States and the United Kingdom.
This specific camera, the Kodak No. 2 Brownie Model E was introduced in 1919, and was the first one of this model to have a metal carrier rather than wood. The No. 2 has the bonus of being able to adjust the aperture even though it was not the only one of the box cameras of that vintage that could do that.
The Kodak No.2 Brownie Model E was sold between 1919 and 1924. In 1920, the shutter guard was introduced, which dates this camera to at least that year. The No. 2 uses 120 roll film which is readily available today. The image produced is 2¼ x 3¼ inch (5.71 x 8.25 cm), almost the 6×9 format but not quite. Frame spacing is managed through the red window at the back when the film is advanced forward. The No. 2 shoots 8 frames on a 120 roll of film.
The camera has two viewfinders, one for portrait and one for landscape photographs. Unlike most modern cameras where you put your eye to them, they are viewed from a distance which can be difficult if you forget your reading glasses. The film advance key is on the right side under the lever for the shutter. There is a shutter guard around the lever. The shutter lever is flicked to fire it, but not returned to the starting position, otherwise it fires again on the return journey, which is how rotary shutters operate. It fires at roughly 1/45th second. It goes without saying, the lower the film ISO the better on such a slow shutter.
On the top/front, there is a couple little tabs. The smaller one is to set the camera on Time mode, allowing the photographer to keep the shutter open indefinitely when pulled up. The bigger tab is to control the aperture. When it is fully pushed down, it is at the largest aperture, and as you pull it out it progresses to the smaller apertures. Three aperture settings are available; f/11, f/16 and f/22.
The back is opened by releasing a hinge at the back/top. This allows access to the back of the camera to load the film, for which you need to remove the metal film carrier. It is a simple matter of then threading the film through one side to the other, ensuring the paper backing is facing the back of the camera so that the frame numbers are visible through the red window. The film advance key must be pulled out when removing/inserting the film carrier.
On the top of the camera is a leather handle. This is usually worn but can be found in one piece as per this example.
I picked up the No. 2 in a Kodak box camera lot of six sold by a gentleman locally. I was very pleased as the collection was of different sizes and models from the same period. So, having decided that it was due for an outing, I grabbed some Ilford FP4+, my slower speed film choice, and loaded up.
I was in North Sydney and it was a beautiful day, so I took a nice long walk down through McMahon’s Point, Blue’s Point and Milson’s Point. Something I noticed was that the red window on mine was better described as orange rather than red. I hoped at the time that this did still mean the camera was light tight, but as the film was already in, there was not much I could do.
Framing is always interesting with box cameras, as the viewfinder is quite small and you need to hold it towards your waist. This was with both portrait and landscape. An issue I found was that the shutter is quite stiff, and it was very hard to hold the camera still when flicking the lever.
Using it is a simple affair, so I was quite interested to see what it produced on film. Unfortunately, there is a light leak, but luckily it seems have mainly affected one corner. I am not sure if it is from the non-red window or not. The biggest problem I found was that the viewfinders are both slightly out of alignment. Both the viewfinders are off to the right which is the reason for the title of the review.
The quality of the images is exactly what you expect from a meniscus lens, a little soft, sharpest in the middle with considerable loss of sharpness as you move to the corners. Light fall off is also quite noticeable the further from the middle you look at. Considering when this was initially made and market it was aimed at, this is still a great result.
The Kodak No. 2 Brownie Model E is fun to use. You get quite a few looks as you walk around making photos with it, people aren’t quite sure what to make of it. While it will not rival the quality of a more modern medium format camera it is a great experience to shoot with. If you get a chance to purchase a box camera, especially a Kodak which can be bought quite cheaply, don’t hesitate. Grab one and take it out for a shoot.