This camera was acquired purely by accident. In searching for (and finding) a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye, I came upon this dirty and somewhat worn example of the earlier Brownie Flash Six-20, and simply could not resist buying it for the low, low price of $15. Part of the allure was the fact that is still had an ancient roll of Kodak Verichrome loaded (with six of the eight frames presumably exposed). How can I be expected to resist such temptations?
Alas, the film turned out to be a disappointment – no images remained. I took the last two shots, which did come out – not well, mind you, but they were exposed, so at least I knew the camera functioned. What I was going to do with this camera, functional though it might be, remained quite unclear.
The Brownie Flash Six-20 is one of a long line of simple cameras produced by Kodak for mass market consumption; they were quite literally the point-and-shoots of their day. The only exposure controls are a shutter setting lever that toggles between I (for instantaneous, which actually means about 1/30) and B (Bulb). Another lever flips up a secondary lens for close-up work between five and ten feet; the standard lens, a simple single-element meniscus, is used for subjects ten feet and beyond. Like most Brownies, this one is made to fit 620 film, though modern 120 can be used with slight modifications and an old 620 take-up spool. Exposures are 6×9, giving eight frames per roll.
Though I fully expected this camera to be relegated to my shelf, at least in the short term, an unanticipated opportunity presented itself when my carefully crafted plan to convert my Brownie Hawkeye into a pinhole camera crashed and burned, the victim of the remorseless laws of physics (damn you, science!). Since that option was now off the table, I started investigating the possibility of converting the Flash Six-20 instead. Turns out this was considerably easier, as the lens and shutter placements were closer to the outer wall of the body, eliminating the vignetting problem that scuttled the Hawkeye plan. The lens simply pops off with a screwdriver (three small tabs hold it to the body), leaving a nice flat surface on which to mount a pinhole plate right in front of the shutter.
I did some calculations and figured out the ideal size for the pinhole (0.015″), cut a brass plate out of some shim stock and drilled the hole with a pin vice and a #79 bit (actually 0.0145″, slightly smaller than the ideal size, but the closest thing I had). I grabbed an old copper washer to mount on top of the plate to keep it flat and give a slightly more finished appearance. The whole thing was mounted with contact cement. Pinhole photography requires long exposures, so I had to modify the camera to accept a cable release (it already had a tripod socket). I drilled a hole next to the existing shutter button and mounted a small nut on inside of the body.
With a roll of film (Fuji Acros 100, selected for its low reciprocity failure) in place, I headed out to see if this thing might actually produce photos. First attempts were not exactly trouble-free: first, as a result of me not locking the body shut, the whole thing popped open and ruined a frame and a half. Then the film refused to wind because the 120 spool was rubbing on the body – some judicious trimming fixed that, albeit after having to manually rewind the film in the dark. Then the cable release mounting nut broke out of the epoxy mounting; another rewinding session and some quality time with my MIG welder (I’m a big fan of overkill), topped off with some flat black paint, and that problem was resolved. Things went better after that, but it was still not clear whether or not actual images would be produced, and if they were, how good they might be.
The test roll finished, it was developed by my local photo shop. There were images on the film, but I didn’t know much more than that until I got them home and ran them through the scanner. I was, to put it mildly, stunned.
And then I was even more stunned.
Who would have thought that this could actually work well enough to produce such quality? Certainly not me. They’re hardly pin-sharp (as usual, click the image for a larger view), but not bad at all considering the technology. The second one is actually quite a pleasing image to my eye. Note that all I did to the images was to clean up some dust from the scanner; no tonal adjustments, sharpening, or any other modifications were made.
My skepticism having been duly quashed by science – the very same science that thwarted my first attempt – I am now ready to play my own little part in Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (which is coming up quickly – 28 April if you’re interested). And while it’s not exactly the most flexible or convenient camera to use (for reference, the photo above was a 22 second exposure; obviously, a tripod is a necessity), I think it’s going to be more that a simple shelf ornament. Not bad for $15 and a little work.