The 1920 Brownie 2A Review | Playing with Film

For the past few years I’ve taken most of my personal photography with film cameras, principally instant film (Polaroid) cameras of different types and from different eras. A lot of people ask why I choose to shoot film for my personal photos when I have the best digital cameras and lenses available to use, and I can’t really explain it – I suppose I like to use old things occasionally, the same way some people get a vintage car and enjoy taking it for a spin on the weekend. Lately I’ve been expanding from just shooting instant film to shooting some medium format film, and I’ve really enjoyed the experience of taking the images. What digital has in its quality and immediacy, film has in a certain look, and the anticipation of seeing your images when they return from the lab.

Country Lane, September 2013. Brownie 2A, Fuji Acros 100 ISO

My father recently found a Brownie that was given to him as a child (it was old then!) and he passed it on as a curiosity to me. I was interested in finding out a little more about it, and I was intrigued to find that while the original film for Brownies is no longer made, you can use 120 film (standard medium format film) in the camera with a few minor adjustments. Once I determined this, I realised I had to shoot a roll through it and check it out!

The Brownie 2A, dating from 1920 and one of dozens of different Brownie models made between 1900 and 1980.

The Brownie 2A was manufactured from 1907 to 1936, with a few upgrades alond the way. Mine dates to 1920, and was one of over 2 million made before 1921. With that number made of just one model, you can imagine that Brownies today are still commonplace, and in this condition mine is probably worth $10. As an introductory camera for medium format photography you can’t get much cheaper! It features three apertures and one shutter speed, as well as a bulb mode for long exposures. As such, it’s one of the better specc’d Brownies, many had only one or two apertures and no capacity for long exposures.

Image showing the three apertures available on the 2A. From left to right they are f/22, f/16 and f/11.

The small apertures and relatively wide angle of the lens enabled the camera to be focus free, and anything from approximately 8 feet to infinity will be in focus. The aperture is adjusted by lifting a sliding piece of metal which has three differently sized holes cut in it. This slider is behind the lens, and by moving it up and down you select your desired aperture.The shutter speed was originally approximately 1/45th second, it’s now quite a bit slower – I estimate that it is around 1/30th. Originally the film for use in these cameras was very slow (ISO 25) and as a result the camera needed to be used in full sun to get good results. However, with modern 100 ISO film I can shoot with the camera in overcast to bright conditions, and be relatively confident of getting a good exposure.

The viewfinder is not designed to be held to the eye – instead an image is reflected onto a frosted piece of glass, and viewed from a distance. There are two viewfinders, one for use in portrait orientation, and one in landscape. The two smaller holes on the front of the camera are to allow the light through for the viewfinders.

The two viewfinders – the camera had to be shaded to see any image at all in the viewfinder.

The exterior of the camera is leatherette over card, and it features a metal film carrier inside. Earlier models were made with wood instead of metal, and later the 2A became available with a metal exterior as well. It’s quite amazing the difference in technology between one of these cameras and the quality 35mm cameras which were becoming available in the 1930′s, but the Brownie was designed to be “everyman’s” camera, and with a cost when released of just $3 (approximately $34 in today’s money) it was inexpensive and popular.

View showing the camera opened with the film carrier visible. Look at the enormous hole in the back – that is the size of the negative!

Negatives from the Brownie were massive – 6.35cm x 10.80cm, larger than any current medium format camera. This large negative means that the lens does not need to be ultra-sharp, as the level of enlargement of the images is not great. That said, the images I took with the camera showed an impressive amount of detail, and I was quite surprised by their quality.

View from Moonbi Hill Lookout, September 2013. Brownie 2A, Fuji Acros 100 ISO

Crop from the above image, showing the level of detail resolved by the camera.

Images from the camera are a little flat, as you would expect from a simple, uncoated lens. When developing prints or (in my case) processing your scans, some liberal contrast enhancement will bring the best out in your images.

Overall, it was a blast to use a camera that was close to 100 years old, and get images from it that were of a good quality. While it won’t be making an appearance at any weddings I photograph in the near future, I’ll certainly be shooting with it again soon.

To find out more about Brownie cameras, or to identify one you may have in your closet, visit the Brownie Camera Page. Thanks go to the author Chuck Baker for this great resource.


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