Box cameras are without a single doubt the longest line of a particular type of camera ever produced. It can be argued that they ran for 140 years, possibly longer depending on how loose the interpretation is. There is even a new one being produced now in 2018!
The Kodak Brownie Six-20 Model D is considered one of the more modern box cameras, and as such has been styled to look wonderful, while still aimed at the lower end. It has minimal controls, but with a promised frame size of 6x9cm, it is intriguing to see what quality a simple contraption like this can produce.
Other box cameras have been reviewed here, including The Kodak No. 0 Brownie Model A, the funky Ensign Ful-Vue, the Kodak No. 2 Brownie Model E, and the stylish Ferrania Rondine. As can be seen, they vary in film size, physical size and interestingly shape.
Before we see how the experience with this particular box camera was, let’s find out a bit more about box camera history and some specifics of the Kodak Brownie Six-20 Model D.
Rather than cover Kodak’s history again, as it has been covered in the Kodak box cameras above, for the Kodak No. 1 Pocket Autographic, the Kodak Retinette 1B, and some very good dedicated Kodak websites, we will cover some history on box cameras.
The first camera to make continued photographic images was Nicéphore Niépce’s box camera made out of wood in the 1820s. He was joined by Louis Daguerre and by that period they were using box cameras with a diaphragm iris. Years later when Fox Talbot was conducting experiments, he too used box cameras. It is not surprising as leading up to that point in history, the camera most known to people was the camera obscura, which if you consider it, is basically a pinhole camera using a box, or in its case a room.
Later in 1939 Daguerre presented his pioneering photographic inventions which enabled shorter exposure times, and was still designed around a box. It didn’t utilise shutters, but had the lens covered with the cover removed manually for an exposure. There were even variations of box cameras with focusing through ground glass. Pioneers of the box cameras during the 1840s were many, but some notable manufacturers included James Ottevill, John Roberts and Gaudin & Lerebours.
In 1888 Kodak, the company most known for its box cameras, introduced the first successful roll film box camera. It would produce 100 exposures on paper film. From there it produced many different variations, and with the introduction of the Brownie in 1900 became the powerhouse of photography in the twentieth century. Box camera production for Kodak continued through to the 1960s, and some would argue well afterwards with 126 cartridge cameras, as they were considered nothing more than a plastic box camera.
During the twentieth century, there were a number of other companies that competed with Kodak in box cameras with one notable being Zeiss with the Ikon Tengor. This was a box camera with some controls of exposure, including aperture and focus distance. Zeiss produced the Tengor from 1926-1956, in itself a very long production run. Mid twentieth century is when the design started getting creative with some unique cameras like the Ensign Ful-Vue being produced. This was helped by the advancement in moulding which allowed easier shaping which was not a box. There were also a lot of cameras which “pretended” to be other types of cameras, for instance a TLR, but are basically a box camera. That includes models made from Ilford, Kodak, Voigtlander, Ansco/Agfa, Ferrania, Bencini and many others.
Since the 1960s there has not been a big focus on any new box cameras, but in 2018 the Hamm Camera Company is introducing the Nubox which will be the first new true box camera produced in over 40 years. This is a very interesting concept as it will use modern lens technology, will allow changeable lenses and viewfinders and will come in many colours. This is quite exciting.
The Kodak Brownie Six-20 Model D was manufactured in England from 1953 until 1957. It followed the previous Six-20 Model D camera which was produced from 1946. It shoots on 620 film, as denoted by its name, which is the same film size as 120 medium format film but on a tighter spool. Exposures are 6x9cm which allows for 8 frames per roll. Exposure counting is by the little red window at the back of the box.
The Six-20 has 2 viewfinders, one for portrait and one for landscape modes. They are viewed from waist height and use a bright finder. Behind the beautiful art deco front, the meniscus lens is roughly 100mm for that format and the aperture f/11. There is an option for close up or portrait mode by pulling out a tab on the right side of the camera. This brings out another lens behind the meniscus lens, thus allowing closer focus. The close up setting is for focusing on a subject 5-10 feet, with the normal setting for anything beyond 10 feet.
The shutter button is located on the right side of the camera and fires the single blade shutter at 1/50th second. There is also a switch near the shutter which allows the photographer to change the camera from “I” Instant to “B” Bulb. Bulb allows the shutter to remain open while the shutter button is depressed. There is no cable release option, but under the camera is the option to mount it onto a tripod with the availability of a standard size tripod mount.
Two flash contacts are available on the right side as well, as this model was designed to use an attachment flash to allow for easier photography indoors. On top of the camera is also a holding leather strap with the “Made by Kodak Ltd. London” wording pressed into it.
Behind the flash contacts is the wind on knob, which pulls out to allow for removal of the film mechanism, which is handily marked on the mechanism itself with the words “KEY SIDE”. The back opens from a latch at the top of the back and swings downwards.
Once the film mechanism is removed, loading film is a pretty standard medium format process for roll film, by threading it at the top and once back in the camera, advancing until the number “1” appears in the little round red window at the back. The camera shows the markings on the backing paper equating to a 6×9 format.
The camera is light, weighing in at 510 grams. They came with leather cases, and other accessories.
I’ve had my Model D for almost twenty years now, and only just got around to shooting with it. It has been a beautiful little display for many years. The art deco design graphics make it stand out, even though this model is not very rare or expensive. It only cost me £10 (I was living in London at that time) and they have not appreciated much since then.
Loading the camera was quite easy and painless, but since the 620 film spool is significantly narrower than my normally used 120 film spools, it felt like I was advancing for an extraordinarily long time before the first frame indicator came up. In-fact, I thought I must have mis-threaded it and it had not caught on for a moment.
Once that was sorted, I was off shooting during a few lunch breaks to test it out. I tried shooting mostly landscape type shots mixed in a few close focus ones. The decision to select whether it was close or not is a lot simpler than exact focusing!
It did attract a bit of attention, but that is understandable considering its shape and nice art deco front. I was concerned about the slower shutter speed, while it is reported at 1/50th second, I imagine after many years it has gotten a bit slower, just like me.
One of the other concerns I had when I finished, was that when I took the film out I noticed what is called a fat roll. The advancing had not been precise and some of the last few frames had wound slight off and not quite tight. I crossed my fingers, but unfortunately some of the latter frames had some light leakage in them.
The results were a bit of a mixed bag. The landscape type photographs, where the close focus was not used, were quite good. Exactly what you would expect from a meniscus lens, sharp in the middle with loss of sharpness as you travel from the centre. The same with the exposure which comes with the classic box camera vignette. Who needs a filter to create that effect?
The photos with the close up enabled were a different story. They were completely out of focus, and interestingly grossly overexposed. I have brought back some details in Photoshop in the ones shown above. While I looked at the lens after opening the camera, from behind when I enabled the close up lens, it does not look too hazy, but it is hard to see inside the camera. Even with bulb enabled it is not obvious. It could be that over the years it has gained some haze causing complete lack of contrast. I considered removing it and cleaning it, but as I doubt I will use this camera regularly, I have left it to avoid damaging its wonderful front.
I had fun, as I always do with box cameras, with the Brownie Six-20. It is a great conversation starter, very easy to use and came away with some nice 6x9cm negatives. While the snag with the close up lens was a little disappointing, I am glad I tried it and that I have this camera. If you do see one for a few dollars, and want some fun with a box camera, try one out.