Technology gives us photographers new toys to play with every week, it seems. Digital, autofocus, smile recognition, scene modes, in-camera HDR, the list is seemingly endless. I enjoy using film as well as digital, which often involves giving up some of these niceties.
I’d been given a Kodak Junior Six-20 by my parents and had it as a display item for while, but really wanted to give it a try with a film to see if it worked at all, and if so what the results would look like.
First, the history. According to “History of Kodak” this model was first released in 1935 at a retail price of £13.50. I haven’t converted this to take account of inflation but my guess is that this would be a pretty substantial investment for your average working person in 1935. It seems to be a fairly basic model, even by the standards of the time; there were other Kodak models for £57.50 in 1934, so my model is a long way from “top of the range”.
There are three fixed shutter speeds – 1/100th, 1/50th, and 1/25th of a second, plus B (hold it down as long as you want) and T (press once to open the shutter and press again to close it). The maximum aperture is f11 (oh dear) and the minimum f32. And the focussing is … nonexistent as far as I can tell. Like today’s disposable film cameras, it has “fixed focus”.
The viewfinder is a little bit of glass perched above the lens. I don’t suppose it was marvellous when the camera was first introduced, and with 76 years of added gunk, it’s practically useless. If you’re lucky you can just about distinguish dark shapes from light shapes as you attempt to compose an image.
I’ve seen pictures of this camera on the web, and they all have an extra viewfinder on the side, which is just a metal frame to peer through. Mine doesn’t even have this luxury.
As for film, as the name suggests, it takes 620 film. I hear you say, you can’t remember having using that type before. 620 was a format introduced by Kodak, probably in an attempt to create a revenue stream from film which only they manufactured. It’s not made anymore, but the saving grace is that the film itself is really the same as 120 film, used by a wide variety of medium format cameras, and relatively easily available (not too common on the high street but easily purchased online). However, 620 film was loaded onto a spool with a smaller diameter than 120 film. To use 620 film, you have to either:
- buy an expensive roll which has been respooled from 120 to 620 spools by someone else, in a darkroom.
- Do the respooling yourself
- Trim the excess plastic from a 120 spool.
I chose the latter option, using kitchen scissors to start with and then using sandpaper to smooth the edges. I was concerned that the sandpaper would get inside the rolled film, and indeed the first exposed frame did have an awful lot of dust on the negative.
The camera uses the 620 film to produce eight images of 6cm * 9cm each. That means the negative area is 6.25 times the area of 35mm film. To put it another way, to produce an A4 print from a 35mm negative requires an enlargement of 72x ; producing a print of the same size from a 6*9 negative requires an enlargement of just 11.5x.
Medium format film was probably popular with manufacturers of consumer-grade cameras at that time, because they were able to use relatively simple and cheap lens designs (I think mine has just two elements) and still produce a reasonable print quality. Leica were using 35mm at that time, but of course they were using lenses with a price tag which was (and still is!) out of reach of most photographers.
The camera in use
A trip to Beamish, the Living Museum of the North provided the spur I needed to give the camera some use. Beamish focusses on the 19th and early twentieth centuries, often with many staff and volunteers in period costume, so presents some subject matter which would appear to be in keeping with a vintage camera.
I was using Kodak T-Max 100 black and white film. I’d read on the web that colour film was likely to be more troublesome due to the uncoated lenses of the time. Once I’d filed down the film spool to fit, loading it was fairly easy, except that I accidentally missed the number “1” appearing in a red window on the back of the camera, which indicates that the correct starting point for the film. So I had to start at number 2 which left only seven possible photos on the roll …
The first problem was exposing through that tiny and marked viewfinder. I soon discovered that a large amount of guesswork was involved so I pointed the camera in the right general direction and tried to leave empty space around the subject in case cropping was required at a later stage.
And here is the first attempt. I’d like to kid you that I produced a silver-gelatine print in my home darkroom, and added a sepia tone with some archaic chemicals, but actually I developed the film in Ilford Ilfosol then got all modern, scanned the negatives with an Epson v700 scanner, and added the toning in Adobe Lightroom.
You can see a lot of dark marks, which are light marks on the negative. These could be from the sandpapering I referred to earlier, or more likely from dropping the film on the floor as I took it out the developing tank … I should have put it back in the tank for another rinse.
I chopped a little of the left off the steam engine in this shot – a product of not being able to see very well through the viewfinder.
Once I had developed the film, I realised I had two double exposures. The camera has no mechanism to prevent a double exposure, and the shutter requires very little pressure to make an exposure. It might be seen as a good thing that the shutter is almost silent and light to touch, but it does make it very easy to accidentally make a picture, the result being two exposures on one frame:
Other “casualties” were an overexposed shot (and too boring to be worth rescuing) and one shot of an old truck moving very slowly up a hill, for which I thought 1/100s would be fast enough, but the truck was blurred.
So will I be using the camera again ?
It was a fun experiment to use this old camera and the fact that I was able to produce any images at all from a 76-year old camera helped support my faith in the relative longevity and dependability of film cameras … I doubt many current digital models will be able to even switch themselves on in 76 years time.
The experience reminded me that, at it’s most basic, a camera is simply a device to hold in place a recording device (film or digital sensor), a lens to focus an image, and (optionally) a shutter and aperture to control the amount of light falling on the recording medium. Pinhole cameras dispense with the shutter and aperture and still work.
These basic elements were in place long before the Kodak Junior Six-20, and since then all that modern camera design has added is greater convenience for the user, rather than anything fundamentally different … maybe we don’t need anything fundamentally different. Incidentally Voigtlander and Fuji released a medium format folding camera in 2010 which is similar in basic design to this Kodak and other folding cameras of that era.
Realistically though, the camera is now back on the display shelf and the experiment is over. I have two other medium format film cameras which, although they don’t fold, have sharper lenses, bigger maximum apertures, a broader range of shutter speeds, and that all-important multiple exposure prevention – so I’ll go back to using either my Yashicamat 124G or Mamiya RZ67.