Shooting with the Canon Brownie Star… WHAT?!

I bought the Canon EOS Rebel T100 to experiment with, and by golly it was the right choice! I keep thinking up more experiments to do, like six this morning before breakfast. This is the first one of those I’ve been able to execute, as it was fairly simple to arrange. The idea was to take pictures as though I was using a cheap 127 camera from the 1960s, like one of the Brownie ‘Star’ series that I had just about every edition of.

So here is the thinking behind the project: first the format has to be 1:1 because the 127 film cameras shot either 8 or 12 or 16 (half-frame) pictures per roll and I picked 12 just like those Brownies made. Second, exposure is fixed on most of those cameras so there would be no changing it. How to determine what exposure to use? Guess! Well, educated guess: the speed of good ol’ Verichrome Pan was 100, the aperture is determined by depth of field, and the shutter speed is whatever was close “and likely” for the camera being imitated.

Now about that aperture. These cameras had fixed focus so what we (and they) do is make use of depth of field to determine both in a sort of reciprocal way. Mostly the focus was described as “5 feet to infinity” or such, so we know that if we use f8 and set the infinity mark at the far side of the DOF scale … viola, 5′ turns up at the other end. This is “focus cheating” and all fixed-focus cameras use it. Technically speaking the image isn’t in focus throughout, it’s just sharp over a wide range. The focus thus set, the aperture so determined, you never change them. (A few cameras had different apertures for “cloudy/bright” or “colour/B&W” and some had limited focus control but we needn’t get picky.)

Now about that shutter speed. Normally the rule-of-thumb setting is 1/ASA (or ISO for you modernists) and that’s good enough here. For example I know from shooting with the correct set-up this exposure is about right, although the elevation and 16 hour days here mean there can be up to 2 stops latitude between noon light and morning/evening light (“2 hours after sunrise, 2 hours before sunset” rule). So we will rely on exposure latitude to get the job done. To be honest I’m not sure what the actual shutter speed of those old cameras is, but I suspect it is somewhat slower than 1/100 judging by how easily things blurred. Possibly 1/60. On some of the much older cameras “I” (Instantaneous) was around 1/25 of a second so holding still was quite important.

It’s somewhat ironic that the lens I selected to do this with is the 28mm Super Takumar, because that’s the sharpest lens I’ve got and normally the plastic wonder cameras had fairly unsharp lenses (often made of plastic). But there are ways around that. I chose the lens based on its field of view (slightly wide, just like a cheap camera would have) and its ability to have fixed aperture and focus with a DOF scale to make all that work out.

So everything is set, except the need for lower resolution (turned the setting down to 2.5 MP – it could go lower) and adding a bit of blur and grain to look like the old negatives did (I shot enough of them that I should remember). That part was done in post-processing by adding RGB noise and then desaturating to B&W.

The last part was how to shoot. Well these Brownies were kids’ cameras so … shoot like a kid! Don’t get wrapped up in subject matter, framing, composition. Kids quite literally just point and shoot. This was perhaps the hardest thing to achieve; winding down decades of learning and practice to go back to my visual childhood. And for once I have not shrunk the photos to fit the Internet as they are only 2X what I’d normally use anyway. Here they are, as they are:

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Some notes on the project:

For one thing I had to shoot in “live view mode” because that’s the only way to get the square format in-camera. This saves a ton of editing later, though. I shot in colour, but frankly it didn’t look right. Probably due to the psychological conditioning that comes from having shot hundreds of rolls of B&W like this. The lens is perhaps still too sharp despite the blurring accomplished in the processing. This can be overcome with the addition of some simple plastic wrap in front of the lens to distort the image more. The camera itself has some “built in” filters, one of which is “Toy Camera”. I tried this (as well as many other setting variations) and found it not realistic. I guess I’ve just handled more cameras than whoever came up with that idea.

I have to confess I had far too much fun doing this and the outcome has me highly amused. It is so like the ‘original’ photographic type it’s uncanny. And yes I do have some other experiments along similar lines in mind.

What do you think?    Would you try such a bizarre experiment?

2 thoughts on “Shooting with the Canon Brownie Star… WHAT?!

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