Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Modifying a Brownie 127 by Nigel Middleton

A Kodak Model 0 Box Brownie complete with film was my gateway into the world of 127. There was no way of telling when the camera had been loaded but most of the Kodak Verichrome was well and truly stuck to its backing paper and sadly it wasn’t possible to recover any original images. However, the final, undamaged section of film did yield something magical and captivating. The frame number and lettering from the backing paper had been superimposed on the photograph I took of my washing line.

That this little black wooden and cardboard box could produce an image of such character mightily impressed me. Then I found out just how scarce and costly each of the 8 frames of a 127 film would be!

Not one to be easily deterred, I searched around on the Internet and discovered the inventive ways fellow 127-ites had found to overcome this barrier. I set about mastering the knack of rolling 35mm film onto a 127 spool, using a cut down and renumbered 120 backing paper. Soon there was no stopping me and I kept an eye open for other examples of 127 format cameras. Over time I acquired a small range from the tiny VP Twin, to the stylish Baby Brownie Special, never paying more than £2 - £3 (the Baby Ikonta was a bit more!). The technological, design, and social history of one aspect of 20th century picture making seemed to be encapsulated in these little marvels; I especially liked the economy of squeezing 16 frames from one roll and the creative use of Bakelite as a manufacturing material.

Elevated by the very occasional ‘treat’ of a genuine roll of Rera Pan 100, I was content to spool and shoot my DIY rolls. However, little by little I found myself becoming frustrated by slow shutter speeds and relatively light bodies. I began to feel that camera shake would stop me getting the best from my cameras. The obvious solution of course, would be to use a tripod and cable release but many of the consumer level 127 cameras, such as the Brownies, lack this sort of refinement.

So it was out with the electric drill, needle files, ruler, epoxy cement and sand paper plus one rubber tap washer. After a satisfying afternoon of trial and error, with a bit of ingenuity and imagination thrown in, I ended up with a neatly modified Brownie 127 (Second Model), proudly sporting its own very smart tripod and cable release sockets - just like its ‘grown up’ relatives!

The modification was pretty straightforward. The film chamber at the shutter release side of the camera allows plenty of room for drilling a hole to receive the tripod socket. Before starting I masked off the lens and shutter housing, and it’s a good idea to make a pilot hole to prevent the drill bit sliding around and scratching the Bakelite surface. After drilling, I used small files to clean up the hole (alternatively, you could use sandpaper). To avoid any light leaks, as well as gluing the socket in place I used epoxy cement to fill any small gaps around it and over it where it extended inside the camera. A rubber tap washer provides a nice cushion for when the camera is attached to the tripod.

The cable release was even easier. The white plastic shutter button can be pushed out from the inside, leaving a hole that’s an almost perfect size for a threaded socket. Epoxy cement was used to fix the threaded socket in place. Having left everything to set overnight I gave the camera a quick going over, inside and out, with the vacuum cleaner and a damp cloth to get rid of any dust or debris from the drilling and filing. All I needed now was a fine day and a trip to a local riverside village to test things out. I was pleased with the results that the tripod enabled and relieved to find that having a cable instead of a shutter button was no hindrance to using the camera hand held.

This has been an enjoyable and rewarding project and given the really very minimal outlay (I think I paid £1.50 for the camera; the threaded sockets for the tripod and cable release were salvaged from the dead camera box; the rubber tap washer was lurking at the bottom of my tool chest and I already had the adhesives), if it all went pear shaped I didn’t have much to lose. I also discovered that ‘T-Cut Scratch Remover’ is a great medium for reviving tired and dull Bakelite!

I don't possess a light meter. I really like reviving and using old cameras so in fact I haven't used a camera with a meter for quite a long time - although I do have a favourite 35mm compact that I use from time to time. My technique for taking photos with the Brownie is to more or less look at the sky, press the shutter and hope for the best! I pick the days when the conditions (sunny 16s/11s/8s) will be just about right for the camera and film I'm going to use.  I’ve found that ISO 125 film seems to work well with the fixed shutter speeds and apertures commonly found on older cameras. Being consitent with my choice of film gives me a reasonable clue about the range of tones I'm going to get when I've developed the negs. I sometimes use a yellow filter if it's going to suit the conditions. I've found it's true that black and white film is very forgiving and I know I'll be able to make any adjustments to exposure, contrast etc. with the editing software on my computer.  So with one shutter speed, one aperture, and one film speed, then it's all about letting the subject, composition and light do the work. It's quite liberating really.

The fact that a roll of 127 is not too lengthy means that any time I’m loading a regular 35mm camera I can easily donate a portion of the film, and the sprocket holes do indeed add an interesting dimension. However, because 35mm does not match the full width of 127 film, accurate framing of shots can be a bit hit and miss. Also, compared to regular 127, keeping 35mm negatives flat on the scanner bed for full width scanning can sometimes be a bit tricky. So, I’m on the hunt for an alternative to 35mm film, which I think I may have found in a post on this very website and on the Lomography website - all I need now is some Lego and a craft knife blade...