Monday, February 8, 2016

For the Love of Bakelite!

Bakelite. It sounds like the heat source for one of these.

But it isn't. It's a modern miracle of materials science!! Alright, it isn't so modern, but just because it was invented in 1907 doesn't make it any less miraculous. It was the first synthetic plastic and was developed for its electrical insulation properties. So you could make a telephone casing with it and be pretty confident that when you answered, the person on the other end would hear “Hello?” and not “Gggggrraaaaaahhhhhhhhggg!!!!” It soon became popular to make lots of things with this durable moldable material. And make things they did. Everything from radios, to pipe stems, to automobile dashboards were made from Bakelite.

But you are on the Through a Glass, Darkly blog, not the “Through a Windshield Because They Haven't Invented Seatbelts Yet, Darkly” site, so best we stay on topic. Yes, they made cameras out of Bakelite. They made LOTS of them. Probably the most prolific Bakelite pusher in the photographic world was... yes, you guessed it, Kodak. They made Brownies of all types out of Bakelite and in the 1930's through the 1960's if your family didn't have one, the next door neighbors did. Early Bakelite Brownies took 127 roll film which is not as wide as modern 120 medium format film and usually produced 4x4 cm images. The Bakelite Brownies later evolved to shoot the more popular 6x6 cm format on 120 and 620 (120 film on a different spool) film.

That brings us to one of the most abundant of the Bakelite Brownies, the Brownie Hawkeye Flash Model.


Aside from maybe the Nikon F, this is probably the most thoroughly covered camera on the web. Partly because they last forever and there are still piles of them available in like new condition for practically the cost of shipping, and partly because they are so much fun to use. It took me a while to warm up to the idea of getting one of these little black boxes. I had read enough and seen enough pictures from them to know that they were capable little cameras, but the point and shoot nature sort of turned up my snob dial and I resisted the urge to drop $5 on such a common piece of equipment. One day however, I was perusing an auction site (not the one you are thinking of… yes, the other one) and there was one listed for $5 with local pick up available. Okay, a fiver and no tax or shipping... What's the worst that could happen? So I won the “auction”. Really there isn't much in the way of actual bidding on these, so that was just a waiting game. I went downtown and picked up my first BHF (that's short for Brownie Hawkeye Flash among BHF owners – yes that's a thing) and the first thing that happened was the clerk dropped it on the concrete floor. I fully expected to be picking up little bits of BHF but the thing bounced a little and there was one small chip that I didn't even notice until days later. I decided to do a thorough cleaning and prepared my tools and rags and pointy things for tiny crevices, but all I needed was a Philips head screwdriver. That's it. I didn't even have to consult the Googlz. It is so simple to take it down to a reasonable number of components and clean them. So there I was. I had a BHF that looked and worked like the day it rolled off the production line, which thanks to the CAMEROSITY code (YSRM), I know was in July of 1953.

Now what is it about this camera that would inspire so many to devote their time and creative juju to it? Well, I can't speak for others, but have I mentioned it's made of Bakelite? That puts it pretty firmly into the “cool junk” category and I've heard that chicks dig that. The simple meniscus lens keeps it sharp in the center from about 5 – 15 feet and just slightly softer around the corners.


Obviously, if you live and die on Mount Hassy, this may not be for you, but if you want to go even deeper into the soft corner abyss, you can simply take the lens out and flip it around. That gives a sharp center circle but the outer parts of the image quickly fly apart into a nightmarish spectacle that you will never want to wake up from.


This is a fixed focus, fixed aperture, fixed shutter speed camera, so "point and shoot" in every sense of the word except that you have to remember to wind the film. There is no protection against double, triple or tredecuple (it's a word, look it up) exposures, so wind first or wind last, but do it every time. There is a bulb setting for long exposures, but there is no tripod socket, so good luck with that (keep reading if you want to know what the "bulb" setting is really for). Not having control over aperture or shutter speed makes the choice of film important. These cameras were made before fast emulsions, so iso 100 is about right for daylight shooting or indoors with a flash. That's right, many of these have working flash units attached. They take regular #5 flash bulbs which can still be had if you look. They aren't cheap, but if you are going to oh, say your company Christmas party and want to impress that girl from the steno pool that you've been admiring from afar, load up on #5's and crack one off casually when she is reaching for the cheeseball. If the blinding flash doesn't get her attention, the smell of the bulb's plastic coating melting away will. The flash diffuser combined with the size of the bulb itself creates a more pleasant light than does the harsh point of an electronic flash. Plus, if your subjects are cold, it throws a blast of radiant heat that washes over them, warding off those winter chills. Obviously, if you are in a really dark place, you can use the "b" or "bulb" setting by pulling up on the button opposite the shutter release. This keeps the shutter open as long as you hold the shutter button down, but it also fires the flash. The most common type are M bulbs or Medium fast bulbs, offering time to peak of 18-20 ms and generally 8-12 ms flash duration. That is much faster than the regular shutter speed, but it has to be dark or you will get weird dim blurs around your sharp flash image.


Finally, I want to talk about maybe my favorite feature of this camera. The Bakelite is good, the lens is 'special', the flash does what it does in spectacular fashion, but I just love the sound of the shutter. It is the simplest of spring loaded rotary shutters. The speed on yours may vary from mine, but between 1/30th and 1/40th is a safe bet. It doesn't really matter though. You can't change it! But that sound… I wish I could make a really good recording of it and play it for you. It goes like this “ker-SNAP!...schokkk.” Well, it sounds better than it looks phonetically, trust me. I have it on a shelf just above the computer where I am writing this and I just keep stopping to push that button, and when I am actually taking pictures with it, it's even more satisfying.

The Brownie Hawkeye Flash Model camera is really more than the sum of its parts. The experience of using one isn't about maximizing your creative potential. You probably won't realize your dream photograph with it. The BHF is about pointing, shooting, having fun and looking cool (for very specific definitions of “cool”). Bakelite is a miraculous material because it has made the preservation of thousands of these neat little box cameras possible. Pick one up, they're everywhere. Load it with your favorite medium speed film and take a walk with some friends. I guarantee you will have some fun, make some memories and take some good pictures.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Film Mini-Review - Kodak Plus X Aerecon II

A while back I was approached by an online acquaintance and asked if I would be interested in going in with him and another Filmwaster on a group buy of some odd expired film. If you have read any of my other posts, you will suspect that I am loath to turn down such an offer, regardless of the "oddness" of the film. I like grain and contrast (both low and high) and "cheap" is my second favorite price right after "free". The particular film that was being considered was 2 100' rolls of Kodak Plus X Aerecon II (expired 1998). What the heck, the more mysterious the better! At least this film was produced with pictorial photography in mind, unlike some other films. The group buy went ahead and then I didn't hear from the buyer for some time. I didn't pay up front, so it wasn't like he was holding something of 'mine', but I was curious to get the film and try it out. Time passed, and I communicated with him a couple of times and it was clear that he was busy with more important things. So I took the opportunity to practice patience and grace. I have plenty of film and the resources to buy more when I run out (that is not likely to happen any time soon). Finally, he sent the film along with some other treasures. There was two rolls of K-Mart branded slide film and an instamatic cartridge of Ektachrome HS! Awesome! Mike, if you're out there. THANK YOU!!

Any-hooo... I read the tech sheet and what little I could find online, which wasn't much. I did see that it was originally rated at iso 200 for daylight, so I figured I would start at iso 100, ignoring the "loss of 1 stop per decade" rule of thumb. I put one of the 100' rolls into my Watson daylight loader and rolled a couple of 36 exp rolls for an online trade and then a couple of 20's for myself (I don't have the patience for 36). I loaded one into my Nikon N2020 because that camera lets me shoot fast. I think that is psychological since an internal meter shouldn't make any difference unless you are really shooting from the hip to get street or action shots. I do neither of those, so the N2020 with its internal meter and auto-wind just makes me feel faster. I took some shots around my workplace and around my home. I think there is an endless supply of good photos right around us in the "mundane" surroundings we take for granted. So I tend to take a lot of photos right around the places where I spend the most time.

I didn't think that the development times from the Massive Dev Chart were going to be of much use, even though it says "Plus-X". So I decided on my old stand-by... Adonal (Rodinal) diluted 1:100 with semi stand development for 70 minutes. Semi stand, for me, means agitation for 20-30 seconds at the beginning and another 10 seconds or so half way through (35 min in this case). That does all the good things we expect from stand development, but reduces the bromide drag associated with stand development of 35mm film. The base of this film is clear (so could be reversal processed for slides), and is VERY thin. In fact when I walked by it hanging in my office to dry, the static actually started drawing it toward me. But it flattened out fine for the scanner and it didn't tear in the camera or spooling it for development, so all's good.

Over all, I was very pleased with this film. The grain is there, but not at all obtrusive. When I zoom in on the original 4800 dpi scan, I can definitely see some degradation of the grain. It has the salt & pepper look of a badly stored film, but to a much lesser degree. At normal magnifications, it is practically unnoticeable. Here is a 100% zoom on a smooth sky area of one of the photos. Remember, this is 4800 dpi, so you are looking at a piece of an image that would be over 5 feet wide.

Here are some more of the photos from this first roll. I am happy to have almost 200 feet of this film. I'm sure I will enjoy many of the images I make with it. I would be happy to hear any feedback or experiences of others who have used this film. Leave a comment.


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Isolette III Overhaul part 6

If you have read parts 1-5 in this series, you might have been left wondering "What happened?? Where are the pictures???" Well, I'll tell you. The bellows I made (seen in part 5) were not light tight in the end and there were light leaks apparent in the photos. I am not strictly opposed to light leaks (EXHIBIT A), but in this case, I was hoping to realize the full potential of this camera in the sharpness and contrast categories. So I was unhappy with my results and I took the bellows off and put the camera parts back into the box of disassembled cameras. Sad really. When Christmas rolled around however, I decided to put a custom-made bellows on my list. I knew just where to get it and gave all the details to Santa's little helper. For the benefit of my readership (hi, mom) I'll let you know that the craftsman is Sandeha Lynch and his site is found at It is a beautifully made bellows and fit perfectly without any trimming or fussing.

The one struggle I had was getting the retaining ring on the back of the lens plate, but eventually that went on and I loaded a roll of Fuji Acros 100 and started shooting. Here are a few shots from that roll, developed in Rodinal 1:100 x 60min.


Now I'm happy. This camera is fun to use and the results are quite good (technically). The range finder needs a little vertical adjustment, but I think that the lens collimation was successful and especially when stopped down, the Apotar lens produces good sharpness and contrast. This was a good experience overall. I think it is good to get out the tiny screwdrivers once in a while and get a feel for the ingenuity of these little machines. It certainly increased my appreciation for this camera and its manufacture. If you get a chance, pick up an Isolette and see how it works for you.