Your Humble Filmosaur has been on a bit of a camera buying spree of late. For the most part, this is not the result of Gear Acquisition Syndrome, but rather just stumbling across things that were too cheap to pass up. This piece, however, was sought out for a very specific purpose – more on that in a minute.
The Brownie Hawkeye Flash was the last in a long line of Kodak box cameras. It is absurdly simple: a single-element meniscus lens with a fixed shutter speed of around 1/30 and a fixed aperture of f/16 or thereabouts, a shutter button, a shutter lock for long exposures, and a winder knob. That’s it. The viewfinder is similar to what you’d find in a twin-lens reflex camera, projecting a bright image through a lens on the top of the camera. Point and shoot.
Obviously there are some limitations imposed by such a simple design. Even with the latitude provided by modern negative films one has to be a bit careful about matching film speed to lighting conditions. The slow shutter speed means that care must be taken to hold the camera steady when shooting. The 620 film that the Brownie was designed for is difficult to find today, and while 120 can be used, it demands either respooling on 620 spools or trimming the edge of the 120 spools to allow it to run smoothly; a 620 spool is still needed for the take-up side.
My example is quite an early one, which means it has all glass lenses. Later versions used plastic, which sacrificed some optical quality. Aside from being dirty and having a stuck shutter, mine was in quite good shape. I disassembled it and cleaned everything, applied a little oil to the shutter mechanism pivots, which got things running just fine.
So why, you might ask, did Your Humble Filmosaur go out and purchase something that was never intended as anything other than a cheap snapshot camera for Mr. & Mrs. Middle America to take on their summer vacations? It all started when I happened to read about Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (hereafter WPPD), which sounded like an intriguing idea. Of course, one needs a pinhole camera to properly participate in such a day, and thus the rusty brain gears began to creak to life (this is often a sign that Something Bad is about to happen, but I digress…). A plan was hatched: find an old box camera, remove the lens and replace it with a pinhole, and…well, that’s pretty much it.
Some quick research showed that the Kodak Brownie Hawkeye was good-looking, well-documented and simple to take apart, and common enough that it shouldn’t be hard to find one. A trip to one of my local antique haunts turned up my example (along with another, even older, version of the Brownie, to which you will be introduced in due course).
Adding the pinhole in place of the lens was easy enough, but I realized even before I got the camera that I would need to make more modifications to make this plan work well. The Brownie Hawkeye lacks both a tripod mount socket and a cable release socket, making it virtually impossible to take steady long exposures, something that’s very important to pinhole photography. Thankfully, the magic of the internet provided numerous examples of these modifications already worked out by other tinkerers. A little drilling, a little epoxy, and a few bits from the hardware store and the mods were accomplished.
One other issue remained: the red window in the back of the camera that allows the user to see the frame numbering on the backing paper is a common source of light leaks. I added an internal surround of self-adhesive felt that should limit the amount of light that can enter once film is loaded (I was quite proud of my cleverness in coming up with this solution, at least until I looked at the older Brownie and saw that it is exactly what Kodak did from the factory on the earlier model). The final touch was to make a little aesthetic modification to personalize the camera a bit. I scuffed and painted the aluminum front plate to add a splash of color.
Everything seemed perfect, but it wasn’t. Without a lot of boring geometry, suffice it to say that placing the pinhole plate where the original lens had been located was not ideal, as it introduced some significant vignetting as the light clipped the aperture on the way in. Bugger. After trying a few other variations that were equally unsuccessful, and even resorting to breaking out my old drafting board to diagram the whole arrangement, I decided that it was simply easier to revert the Hawkeye back to its original form and convert another camera for WPPD. Fortunately, Your Humble Filmosaur had just the thing waiting in the wings….