What’s with all those old film sizes and cameras?

by Bob Walden

Kodak was the major photographic company from the 1880’s until the early 1970’s. Kodak was responsible for major advances in film, cameras, chemicals and photographic papers. But why did Kodak make all the different films and cameras sizes and camera types?

The original film negative was on a glass plate.

While the glass plate negative sizes did vary, most common were the 4×5, 5×7 and the 8×10 inch plates.

These glass plate negatives produced very high quality images and were the standard negative size in professional photography. The early glass negative plates were called wet plate glass negatives because they had to be prepared just before use. This was definitely a problem as was the breakage of the glass negatives. Along came the dry glass plate negative. This was a premade glass plate already coated with the necessary chemicals. No more messy and dangerous chemical applications needed. And the photographer’s time was greatly reduced.

With the advent of better chemicals and better cameras and lenses, sitting times for portraits were reduced from minutes to seconds. Outside, landscape photography was less bother by uncontrollable movement of trees and people. Still, photography was mainly a professional business rather then something of interest to the masses. Also photography still used the large, bulky wooden cameras.

The other major problem with glass plate negatives was breakage. Photographic materials were expensive and easily broken or emulsions destroyed with improper handling. And as anyone who has handled a glass plate negative knows, the sharp edges could be very dangerous to fingers! Some photographers continued to use the glass negatives into the early 1900’s but their days were limited.

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A Transparent Transition

By 1889 Kodak had introduced the first commercial transparent roll film. A game changer! This development also made movies possible. Thomas Edison introduced his first movie camera in 1891 made possible by the use of Kodak’s flexible transparent film.

 Kodak used this flexible transparent film in their first Kodak box camera, the Kodak Serial No. 540 box camera.

Some of the early box cameras did offer a special back that would allow glass negatives to be used as an alternative to the flexible roll film. However by the mid-teens roll film had taken over as the film standard.

Some early Kodak film was referred to as cartridge roll film. A bit confusing as this was transparent roll film used in a cartridge or housing that could be used instead of glass plates. These cartridges or housings used wooden spools that held the paper backed roll film that could be loaded in daylight and then placed into the holder that used a mechanical advancement system that moved the film into different positions for the exposures to be made. The 126 and 110 format cartridges would become a smaller more compact version of the original cartridge film holder.

Another unique but not necessarily well excepted film camera was the folding Autographic. Cool in concept, poor in function.

The camera was designed to enable a person to write information on the film itself. A stylist was included with the camera and a small door on the back of the camera gave access to using this stylist to scribe information on the film. The folding cameras were a step up from the Brownie line of cameras and I guess the designers felt the more sophisticated users would be able to handle this innovation.

First problem was the stylist. Some were located on the front of the cameras and some on the backs. The stylists were very easy to lose. Next problem was the door opening to the film. Rarely were they light tight and the door needed to be left open while scribing, leading to light streaks on the film. And it took a real artist to be able to scribe a readable message on the film.

And then there was the film itself. A special film was needed to allow for the etching on the film. Pretty sure not many drug stores (the photographer’s main film supplier and developer) stocked a lot of this Autographic film as demand wouldn’t have been great.

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Over the years Kodak has introduced many different film sizes and formats. This does not include the special films for things such as X-ray or the graphics industries. Some films were introduced because of design changes and improvements. However George Eastman was a marketing man in addition to a great innovator. Like so many items today, the manufacturers make the larger part of their profits on consumables for the products they produce. Kodak cameras were the leader in the camera and film making field. That was the signal for other manufacturers to enter the market.

Kodak remained the leader in film, chemicals and papers until the early 1970’s. But when the 35mm camera became popular in the 1930’s, completion from overseas helped in the Kodak decision to concentrate on the consumables rather than the expensive manufacturing of cameras. Kodak continued to brand and sell cameras, manufactured by others but their primary goal was the manufacturing and selling of products that would produce a constant flow of purchases.

Kodak’s roll films had a tremendous longevity. From the late 1880’s until the mid-1960’s some of the old film formats were still in use and being sold.         

The film spool should be credited as one of the major advancements in photography.

 The 101 wooden spools were used in the early cartridge film cameras. The box cameras soon switched to smaller metal spools and in the later years the spools would be made of plastic. George Eastman was always on the lookout for cost saving measures. From wooden spools to metal was a large time and materials savings.

 The 116/616 box cameras were very much alike. As were the 620’s and the 120’s film format. Most cameras were marked in several ways so the correct film would be used.

The Brownie Six-16 on the left used 616 format film and the Brownie Six-20 needed 620 format film to be used.

Kodak used many different locations for identifying cameras and film sizes.

Constant Change

Kodak’s constant changing and adding different film sizes and formats was a business decision. By making changes in the films, that would give Kodak a reason for a new camera model. This gave Kodak new, better (different?) cameras and consumables to sell. A good example is the 120/620 film format. Kodak’s 120 roll film was introduced in 1901 for the Kodak N0. 2 cameras. It was very successful. However in 1931 Kodak introduced the 620 format and the new line of 620 cameras. The only difference between the 120 film and the 620 film was a smaller and thinner spool.

Same thing with the 116/616 film formats. In 1899 Kodak introduced the 116 film format. In 1932 they introduced the 616 format. Like the 120/620 film formats the only difference was a smaller and thinner spool size. The change was made for, guess what? New cameras that were smaller in size. Kodak was still selling 116/616 film into the 1970’s. By the way the 6 in the 620 designation stood for the number of frames the film could take. However by the time 620 was introduce the number photos the camera could take were 8 frames.

The evolution of Kodak’s cameras went from the original wooden construction to cheaper cardboard then metal construction and in the late thirties to Bakelite and plastic. The first Bakelite Kodak I could find was in an article by David Purcell. Sometime in the 1930’s a Kodak No 2 Hawkette was produced and assembled by Kodak Limited in the UK.   

What a beautiful design and camera. Apparently the Kodak No 2 Hawkette was never made for sale. It was used as a promotional piece for premium sales, items giving away to promote their products. The No. 2 in the camera name relates to the using of 120 roll film in the camera as there was no No 1 Hawkette.

Kodak was now into downsizing their cameras and switching to plastic materials. Bulky box cameras and folding cameras gave way to smaller and more compact models. And this gave Kodak a chance to introduce even more film formats! The 620 film format would maintain a large following for the amateur market for many years. The Kodak Bull’s Eye used the Kodak 620 film format.

 Kodak introduced the 127 film format and made their cameras even smaller.

 The Kodak Bullet used 127 film format. The 620 and the 127 film formats were considered amateur films. These formats could produce square negatives, full frame negatives and half frame negatives. A square format could make 12 exposures, a full frame made 8 exposures and a half frame could make 16 exposures. The more negative exposures the more profits from Kodak’s printing services!

The 620 and 127 formats were very popular from the 1930’s until the early 1960’s. The square formats were printed onto a 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 print. The full frame negatives were printed onto various sizes of rectangular prints. The 127 half frame negative was half of the square negative which made it a rectangular print. With the increased popularity of the 35mm in the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s, Kodak gave the rectangular prints the designation a 3R print.

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Unlike the early years of photography when the negative size determined the size of the print, 35mm negatives did not fit the 3.5” length of the automated prints, so the negatives were cropped on the long dimension. Many people wondered why Uncle Bill, who was at the end of the Thanksgiving Day table, had disappeared. This was also true on the popular 8×10 prints from 35mm negatives. Either the left or right of the negative had to be cropped to fit the 8×10 size.

The 126 format, camera was introduced in 1963. The Kodak 126 was a great square format.

No cropping of the negatives and the quick loading cassette was introduced. It was a great success, although a nemesis for wedding photographers. (Myself being one at the time!) The photographer would show up for the reception and find the tables had instamatics at all the seating places! Less profits for the photographer, more for Kodak.

Not to rest on a great product Kodak introduced the 110 film format in 1972. The 110 cartridge held 24 tiny exposures. So much wrong with this!

In 1982 Kodak brought out the Disc camera. This one really sucked! 

After having printed thousands of these two terrible negative formats (IMO as many people still love them) that’s all I have to say about them.

Digital cameras have taken over photography. For some that’s a great thing. And I do like digital! However I will always be a film fan. And a film camera fan, mainly the old boxes and folding cameras. Granted the old box cameras look like ………. old cheap boxes.

 But popularity grew and innovations made the cameras more available to the general populous, design was added to the marketing.

Who could resist a camera used by Brownies?
Or a camera so simple a child could use it?
Or a camera as beautiful as a piece of furniture?
Beautiful leather and brass, design worthy for display.

Fun & Treasures

But these old treasures offer something really fun! Using them. I have over a dozen old cameras, all pre-1940’s. Brownie Boxes and folding cameras. Most are for display. I do have two that I use. One is a 116 box camera and the other is a 120 folding camera. When I purchased them I made sure the shutters were not stuck and the film advance worked correctly.  These are main concerns and easily checked before buying. If you are planning on actually shooting with an old camera the other main consideration is the spools needed for the film. While the 120 and 620 film is the same size the spools are different sizes.

If you buy an old camera and it comes with film spools, treasure these as they are getting harder to find. If you send you film out to a lab to be developed be sure and ask for you spools back. Consider developing your own black and white film at home. A really fun and easy hobby. Several companies make the old format films and more companies are getting into the market as using film is becoming more popular.

Opps! Almost forgot to mention there are adapters available to add to your existing spools to make them fit your old cameras.

If you are into 3D printing like my son is, these are a perfect application for your printers.

One more thing I want to touch on is the value of old cameras. The last sale I went to and bought a couple of cameras had well over one hundred box and folding cameras. They are very common. People do collect them. The price of old cameras remains low. So many were made. A realistic price for a good condition camera is in the $15-25 range. Cameras with working shutters and advance mechanisms being on the higher side. Keep in mind the old shutters have slowed a bit with age. Still very workable on a bright sunny day. And using one of these old cameras will bring lots of looks and questions from people. 

There are exceptions to the low values of these cameras.

The colored box cameras if in great condition can bring very good prices.

As do the Art Deco boxes.

And the colored coordinated folding cameras are beautiful and very collectable and valuable. Not the round the world vacation valuable but can reach the low three figures in great condition and with the matching colored box.

For me these old cameras and films are fascinating. Actually using the old box and folding cameras brings back many good memories and I find it to be a great inexpensive hobby. And finding, saving and digitizing old negatives is very rewarding. Most attention is given to photo while old negatives from these wonderful cameras of our past generations tend to be thrown away or stored in drawers or old boxes, never to be seen again. When you do find these old format negatives, treat them with the respect. The negatives should be individually stored if possible to avoid scratching and sticking together. These old negative records of the past deserve being digitized and brought back to life!


More articles on the early days of film.

The Lighter Side of Early Photography
The Evolution of the Camera