Basics: The Box Brownie Leica

Everyone knows about the old Kodak Box Brownie, with its simple fixed-focus, fixed-aperture lens, single shutter speed and red-window film advance. It's about as far as you can get from a 'real' camera such as a Leica, a Pentax, a Nikon or a Canon.

Except that it isn't. You can use a 'real' camera just the same way. Indeed, a friend of ours tells of how he used to work at a holiday (vacation) job in an American camera store in the 1950s. The elderly widows of various doctors, lawyers and the like were in the habit of taking an annual cruise or trip to Europe. They would come in with their late husbands' Leicas and say, "Young man, can you load the camera for me and set it for the trip?" He would put in a roll of film; set the shutter to 1/30 second and the lens to f/11; and develop the film when they got back.





The more daring ones might have had another roll loaded in another camera store, but the settings would still be the same.

You can do the same with any camera that has manually set shutter speeds and apertures, even if you don't know what they mean, whether it's a Leica, a Nikon, a Canon, a Minolta, a Pentax or anything else.

Today, the obvious choice for film would be ISO 400 ('400-speed') colour film, but if you want to get closer to a vintage look, get some Ilford XP2 Super, which is a black and white film that can be processed in the same chemicals as colour film. There is a Kodak equivalent, too, if you can't get XP2. All you have to look for is 'C41 Process' on the box or cassette: this is the standard colour negative process. Be warned, though, that some labs handle these films better than others. The best give you neutral or warm-looking (brownish) prints; some give you greens, blues and purples. If they do, ask to have them reprinted.


Civil War Re-Enactor

Frances used Ilford XP2 Super (see above) for this picture. Because she has a 'benign essential tremor' (shaky hands) she sets her 'snapshot' speed a step or two higher than most people, usually 1/250 second. But on a sunny day she can still use f/11. She shot this with her Voigtländer Bessa-T and 50/1.5 Nokton.

Loading the camera isn't difficult, and there is a whole free How do I use a 35mm camera? module in the How do I...? group of modules.

You could just about get away with the same settings as our friend used to set, 1/30 and f/11, though 1/60 is a better bet with faster modern films. In bright, sunny weather, the film would get about ten times as much exposure as it needed, but it would still print. On a bright overcast day (the old 'cloudy bright'), the exposure would still be generous, and on a cloudy, rainy day you would still get just about enough exposure.


Shutter speed dial of Leica M2


The shutter speeds run from 1 second to 1/1000. On some cameras you can rotate the dial freely in both directions; on others, it will come to a stop at one speed (usually B) and you then have to go back the other way. On the 'B' setting, the shutter remains open as long as the shutter release button is depressed. The lightning flash is an intermediate speed of 1/50 second, the fastest at which electronic flash will synchronize properly with the somewhat leisurely Leica M shutter -- which, however, lasts half-way to forever because it is so low-stressed. This camera dates from about 1959.

For examples of other styles and layouts of shutter speed controls, go to the free Shutter Speeds and Exposure module in the Basics group of modules.


leica dial



50 at f11



Lens set to f/11 for 'focus free' use

This is actually a Canon lens from the early 1960s. It is marked only in feet (no metre scale) but we chose it because the markings are so clear. Set to f/11, with the infinity mark at the f/11 d-o-f mark, the other f/11 d-o-f mark is at about 12 feet, a bit under 4 metres.

With the lens set at f/11, you wouldn't need to worry much about focusing. You could even use the f/16 d-of-f marks, and have acceptable sharpness in small 'snapshot' prints (4x6 inch or 10x15cm) from about 8 feet/2.5 metres to infinity: see the free 'How do I...?' module on zone focusing.

But even if you were guessing the focus distance and setting it by scale, you would not need to be very accurate to get excellent sharpness under a wide range of lighting.

Of course, when the light levels start to fall, you can still further increase the versatility of the camera by either giving a longer exposure time or opening up the lens. The latter is probably a better idea. Stick with 1/60, but open up to f/5.6, and you'll be OK in the late afternoon; open up to f/2, and you can just about take pictures indoors in a brightly lit room without flash, though at the wider apertures you will have to be a lot more careful about focusing. If you are using a Leica (with its rangefinder) or an SLR (with through-lens focusing and viewing), this is not exactly difficult.

You are now using just one shutter speed and three apertures. The next step, of course, is to start using some of the other shutter speeds too, preferably reading the Basics modules on shutter speed and exposure and focus and depth of field as you do so. Little by little, you turn your Box Brownie back into a Leica (or Pentax or Nikon or...)


Samoca LE controls

All right, the 1957 Samoca LE is no Leica (though unlike contemporary Leicas, it does have a built-in meter).

Here, though, you can see that the focus is set to a red dot which is specifically designed for snapshot use. As with the Canon, everything from about 12 feet to infinity is in focus, as long as the aperture is set to f/11.

With the built-in meter, all the photographer had to do was select the shutter speed that corresponded to f/11. In this case it's 1/50, which would be fine with ISO 400 film on an overcast day. There's more about the meter in the How Do I...? strand on using 35mm cameras.

Crude? You bet. A waste of a coupled rangefinder and an f/2.8 lens? Yes. On the other hand, highly convenient if you don't yet fully understand what you are doing.




The Bottom Line

The caption to the Samoca picture, above, sums it up. We all have to start somewhere. If you have a more versatile camera, the usual answer to 'I wish I could...' is 'You can. You do it like this...' But put it this way. If someone offers you an old camera, don't turn it down because it is too complicated. It isn't, as shown in this module and the How Do I...? module on using 35mm cameras. So try it. You might hate it, and come away wondering why anyone bothers. Or you might get hooked.

Go back to Basics

or go to the list of modules

or go to the home page

or support the site with a small donation.


© 2007 Roger W. Hicks