6.01.2016

Boxy Beasts of 127: the Bell and Howell Electric Eye and Revere Eye Matic 127

Resistance was futile.  

I kept telling myself I had no need to go into the format of 127.  I continually insisted that there was no benefit or interest in my part into making a mad foray into yet another largely forgotten format.

Resistance was futile.  

I discovered one really neat camera (article forthcoming!) that made the perfect gateway into this rather obscure format, so I snapped it up, dipping my feet into the 127 pool in the process.

And then with the format being formally introduced to me, I dove in.  I should have known just how futile resistance really was.

Often known originally as "Vest Pocket" format, the 127 roll film format provided snapshooters of the early part of the 20th Century with a truly compact option for photography when compared with the substantial cameras in 116 and 122 format also available at the time. The format was in many ways the most interesting of any, particularly given that it had a unique tendency to fade in interest, only to rise again as camera makers were able to create new ways to capitalize on its film size or convenience to reinvigorate interest in the format yet again.

As my own interest in the 127 format began to grow, and having finally made the leap into this sort of "mini-120" format, I happened upon a pair of square format 127 cameras that hit the market in 1958, both making use of selenium cell "Electric Eye" technology to be able to provide a rudimentary automatic exposure on its images, making them easier for the casual snapshooter to use.  The emergence of the fad of"Super Slides" around this same era helped to give both of these cameras an initial boost in the market when they were introduced.

And while many 127 cameras made through history were created with designs that emphasized portability and compactness, neither of these tend to follow that mantra. Instead, adjectives such as obnoxious, obtrusive, or even ungainly may come to mind when seeing the form factor of these cameras that make use of the miniature roll film format.

Meet the Bell and Howell Electric Eye 127 and the Revere Eye Matic EE-127!

Both of these cameras are interesting examples of the American market of the late 1950's, as interest in photography continued to grow, and moves were being made to try to simplify the entire process of photography, while enabling a greater degree of versatility of use. 

Camera models of previous years tended to fall in two camps: those with a full range of settings that enabled usage for a wide range of photo applications but which also required a fairly robust knowledge of photography to properly use, and very simple cameras that required little knowledge on the part of the user to estimate exposure and focus settings, but which were largely "full sunlight" only models suitable only for general "snap shot" images by the casual user.

Selenium cell meters that were directly in cameras managed to make the first major inroads to bridging the gap between ease of use and versatility.  And these two cameras both were in the pioneering wave to take this technology to the next level.  Rather than simply tell the user that their chosen settings needed adjustment upwards or downwards to get correct exposure, these cameras used the selenium cell to change the apertures themselves! 

And while both of these cameras are similar in this way, they are overall quite different from each other.  What follows are my experiences and results with both! 


The Bell and Howell Electric Eye 127

Of these two camera models, the B&H is certainly the more compact of the two.  While it has a metal housing, it is still reasonably light in weight, and fits comfortably in the hand.  That said, it is also the less versatile of the two models, and the more enigmatic.  The focal length of its "Wide View Special" lens can only be speculated to be around 60mm.  The fixed focusing distance of the lens is hoped to cover from about 8 feet to infinity.  And the camera's single shutter speed is presumed to be in the 1/60 range or slightly faster. Literature for the B&H is decidedly simplistic, and does not reveal these details.  After all, the camera is the one promoted as doing all the work, allowing the user to sit back and just focus upon the composition.

The Bell and Howell Electric Eye 127 in its more common "Black Leatherette" variant.  Another, less common "denim covered" variant is also available.

And admittedly, just composing and shooting on the Bell and Howell is a pretty easy going affair, provided that the meter still works.  Testing the meter is pretty easily accomplished by simply pointing the camera at a light source and seeing if the red-striped aperture plates move to widen the aperture opening.  I got lucky with my $16 B&H in that the plates readily moved as light increased or decreased.  Not too shabby at all. 

And while the camera aims to be as easy to use for the novice as possible, it does require a decent degree of oversight to get it up and running.  One must unlatch the bottom to remove the interior works of the camera to load the 127 supply film as well as the take up spool properly, and then to reaffix the bottom properly and advance the film to the first frame using the red window on the back of the camera.   But from here on out, it gets easier.  One now need only set film speed to properly expose their film. 

The single intentional setting on the B&H Camera.

And here is where it gets quirky.  To simplify dealing with variances in film speed for both the user and the camera, the Bell and Howell offers just two speed settings: 
  • white circle 🔴 
  • and red triangle .
What's that you say, you have never seen film in these odd speeds?  Neither has anyone else. These symbols are merely a reference to cover a range of popular films of the era. Fortunately, the speeds of these films are easily looked up online, and as a result, the user can dial in the "triangle speed" for films around ISO 32 and the "circle speed" for films around ISO 80.  

A film key that now regrettably lists like a epitaph of long abandoned 127 films. 

The lack of much versatility in this setting can be attributed more to cost and technological limitations than the desire to make things simple for the end user.  Switching from the faster setting to the slower setting simply rotates a mask filter into place to lessen the amount of light hitting the electric eye, thus opening up the aperture blades to let more light in compared to the faster setting.  It's simple, but really pretty ingenious. 

While not easy to make out here, this is the "mask" folding into place over the electric eye, which, despite the usually indicative honeycomb at the bottom, is actually in the viewfinder itself at top.

The happy offshoot to this is that despite its simplicity, the Bell and Howell does permit a slight bit of creative allowance at least when it comes to exposure.  The result is that when using a film around the ISO 80 range, the user can deliberately overexpose to compensate for backlighting by switching the film setting dial to the red triangle.  The savvy user can also manipulate the aperture to widen even further by covering the viewfinder (the location of the electric eye) prior to taking the exposure. 

But wait, there's more! One can also do some manipulation to underexpose from these settings as well.  This might come in some degree of handy if shooting a faster speed of film than the icons technically allow for.  The key to this lay in a "hidden" panel that will deliberately stop down the aperture mechanically.  Intended as a means to avoid washed out exposures using flash, the sliding switch stops down the aperture based upon subject distance.  According to a 127 format website, selecting the following settings will stop down the aperture as follows:
  • Red Triangle pointing to "13" is roughly f/8.
  • Red Triangle pointing to "6" is roughly f/11.
  • Red Triangle pointing to "3" is roughly f/16.
Do note that this ONLY works for stopping down the aperture.  The result is that you can't "open up" the aperture to f/8 in a bright light setting using this switch.  The only ways to overexpose are to use the methods listed above to change the settings or obscure the viewfinder to limit light hitting the electric eye.


The "hidden compartment" on the Bell and Howell that will let you stop down the lens manually.  

The viewfinder of the Bell and Howell is one of the nicest that you will ever see.  Easy to see and very bright, it makes the process of composing photos a breeze.  Its close proximity to the lens minimizes parallax error, and since this is a fixed focus camera, there is no rangefinder to set using this camera.  The only "indicator" in the viewfinder is a small "red flag" mechanism directly attached to the aperture setup that will obscure an otherwise green "light" if the Electric Eye determines there is inadequate light for a photo.

Just about the clearest viewfinder that I've ever had the pleasure of peering through. 

And that's about all there is to know.  The B&H does include interlock that prevents double exposures, taking one more worry out of the photo taking process. Aside from taking a photo and then resetting the shutter in a dark room for a second exposure, there is no way to override this for the sake of creativity.  

In use, I found the Bell and Howell to be a complete joy to use.  Composing shots was a snap in the huge viewfinder, and for the first roll, I was content to let the B&H choose the aperture settings for me, though most images were shot in full sun anyway.  For my test roll, I elected to use a roll of Rollei Retro 80S film that I cut down to 127 size, as its speed seemed ideal for one of the "geometric" settings of the Electric Eye 127.  

Overall, the camera did a remarkable job, returning images that were remarkably sharp, with exposures generally falling in the acceptable range for a film with questionable latitude such as Retro 80S.  Some did require some some tweaking to the curve profile to improve, but none were absolute lost causes.

My first subject for the B&H was a pair of long forgotten entrance markers sitting in park that I pass often on the train.  The results are a bit underexposed, but the results appear particularly sharp throughout the distances presented.

If there was anything tricky about the combination of this film and this camera, it was results like this.  Despite being shot in daylight, the tonal curve has to be helped along in lighting that is only somewhat variable. 

In more subdued lighting, the results tended to be better.  An aqueduct renders sharply and with good tonality.

The Retro 80S creates a barren appearance helped quite a bit by the lack of vegetation as well as the carrion remnants nearby.  The sky picks up a deep dramatic tone.  

A shadowy scene with light areas required some help to get an acceptable image, while the "Wide View" lens didn't quite get the bridge very close-up. 

This forsaken scene rendered quite well on the Bell and Howell, helped along by considerable and favorable sunlight. 


My favorite of the batch is this one, spotlighting a historic cemetery with a wistful background.  Thanks to Mike Eckman for help with the curves to salvage this one!


A pair of images taken in Muddy Creek Forks, PA on an early Spring day, and with some different post-processing methodologies, show a range of possibilities. 


Closing out the set with a battleground image at Antietam, the B&H gave me a pretty unforgettable scene.

The Revere Eye Matic EE-127

So, I may have featured this camera once before, albeit briefly, in a feature on medium format cameras that can be had for under $50.  It is certainly the oddest camera on that list as it is one of the oddest cameras period.  Made by a company whose photographic focus was movie cameras, it may also be one of the largest and heaviest 127 cameras ever made, weighing in at over 2 pounds, owing to its largely metal construction. 

As a result, the EE-127 is a camera that looks imposing because it is imposing,  Most of the few available write-ups on this beast involve some jokes that you can use it as a self-defense mechanism. I can see where people could be maimed by an assault with an EE-127.  Despite this massiveness, it has a feature set that is decidedly light by comparison, although still quite a bit more versatile than the Bell and Howell.  

Just as with the B&H, you are limited to a single shutter speed, although the documentation readily tells the user it is a 1/100 shutter speed.  And whereas the B&H offers no ability to change the focusing distance, and offers only about 2 stops of latitude in its (presumed) f/8 lens, the Revere is unique in being one of the few 127 format cameras to offer a speedy f/2.8 lens, and is also one of only a handful of 127 format rangefinder cameras.  These two features combine with the limited shutter to create a sweet (yet heavy!) creative platform for some photographic fun.

However, the EE-127 is intended to be more automatic in nature, hence the electric eye.  In non-flash shooting, the electric eye would take care of the aperture, allowing the user to focus solely on focusing via the rangefinder, and pressing the shutter button. On my copy however, the meter had seemingly bitten the dust, so I could not really use it as it was originally intended, and this was fine by me, as I wanted to be as creative as I could be with this camera and manually select the aperture.


Prior to its arrival, I researched the EE-127 as much as I could, and all indications were that the user could manually set the aperture, but in every photo I could see of the camera, I saw no markings for setting the aperture, only an inset in the lens ring for a flash guide number.   It was only after it arrived and I had to chance to look at it in person that I discovered that the ability to set the aperture was indeed there by disconnecting the coupling to the electric eye, but that you could only see the aperture setting by actually looking through the viewfinder to see a superimposed scale within it.    

Also missing was any indication of focusing distance on the lens ring's exterior.  The only "validation" of focus there is comes through the rangefinder and its accuracy.  And if the rangefinder on a Revere is not working, there is no real ability to "guess focus" your way through a roll.  

The Revere lacks anything in the way of external markings to assist in knowing focusing distance or aperture.  When the dots are lined up and the tab is pushed in, the camera is supposed to be in full auto mode, but this feature did not work on this camera. 

A look through the viewfinder shows the EE-127 offers framing lines, a bright circular rangefinder spot, and if you look closely, apertures in the lower right that can be changed by rotating a collar on the lens.  This is your only way of knowing the aperture.

The EE-127 is often described as looking like a mid-century refrigerator, and this comparison seems apt.  Coated in a warm cream enamel and offset (on most models) with chrome-aluminum finishes, the vibe of the Revere is definitely a retro one. And while the Bell and Howell uses a pair of gradually opening overlaid grooves to compose the aperture, the Revere uses a two piece aperture in an unusual crescent and gull-wing mashup unlike any I have ever seen.  These oddities combine to create a very much one-of-a-kind camera with little in the way of comparisons. 

The EE-127 was priced at a substantial premium ($139.50) when it was introduced to the market in 1958, but can be readily had for significantly less today than it cost when new. Aside from the fast lens, electric eye, and rangefinder, there was little else in the way of premiums to justify the original cost of the Revere.  The EE-127 does come equipped with a crank advance, but it seems to lack an interlock, and as such, can be advanced several times without releasing the shutter.  And it's easy to accidentally initiate.  The result is a tendency to mistakenly pass frames without exposing them.  However, when using converted 120 film, the feature does allow for up to 18 exposures on a single roll of film if you are judicious about cutting, and load in the dark. 

Mid-Century Refrigerator Chic.  The massive camera has an easy viewfinder, film advance, and frame counter on the back.  The latch can be twisted to open the back of the camera.

The film setting dial sits atop the center housing, adjacent to the flash shoe.

Unlike the B&H, the Revere does allow for setting of multiple film ISO settings, but since the electric eye feature on mine did not work as it was, I had no idea how accurate it was, or how it worked mechanically in conjunction with the electric eye to properly set the aperture for exposure. It also has a proprietary system for flash that I can't fully figure out.  

Using the Eye Matic was interesting to say the least.  I had to be patient in getting the shutter to work properly when I first received it, but with a little bit of exercise, it began to work flawlessly.  The camera certainly feels bulky in the hand and the placement of the shutter release can make it a challenge to hold and not obscure the focal path needed by the rangefinder to focus.  The shutter release emits a sharp "chunk" when activated, while the film advance feels a tad draggy.  The rangeinder focusing feels more "spring-mechanical" than "helicoid-fluid," but it does the job.  All in all, it is obvious that this camera is not as finely crafted as the higher end German or Japanese products of the era.

I loaded the Revere with a roll of 120 Ektar 100 that I cut down to 127 size.  I wanted to see what the Revere could do with color film, and since the 100 speed of the film matched the 1/100 speed of the shutter, it seemed to be the easiest and most versatile way to be able to get photos that encompassed the aperture range of the camera in varied lighting situations. Overall, my results were quite pleasing for the most part, and shockingly good for some of the photos.  I was unsure of just what to expect from such an unusual camera, but the photos I saw made me very anxious to go back and shoot this camera again as quickly as I could.


My first shot on the Revere fell unfortunately too close to the edge of the film to be usable, but the second came out just fine, although slightly over exposed. 


Very soon into my results, I realize that the Tessar type Wollensak lens, when stopped down to f/16, such as done here, renders some very sharp results. 


One of my favorite Frederick County Landmarks taken from a dialed back perspective, offers me a good result.


Close up, the results are also quite good.  By this time, the sun was gradually getting lower in the sky to create a "golden hour" type of cast.


Though the colors seem to be a bit muted, the results from this roll are certainly sharp at smaller apertures.


But what I really wanted to do was test the Revere at a wider aperture, such as f/5.6 and see what sort of results I would get.  I love how the focal point is sharp yet the background gets nicely muted.


As daylight wanes, I tried an overall scene shot and found that even at a wider aperture, the camera produced acceptable sharpness in the center of the image.


My favorite shot of this roll was this image, shot at about f/2.8 to f/4.  The rendering of the bench came out quite well, but even nicer is the rendering on the out of focus areas. 


More Golden Hour imagery, and more success.


Close up under full sun, the EE-127 produced a snappy image with punchy contrast.


Vignetting of the Revere was surprisingly minimal.  This image appears pretty evenly lit across the entire frame. 


When subjects were not centered however, a bit of distortion and loss of sharpness could be observed.  Shot at about f/8, this image loses some of the sharpness of previous images.




A pair of images taken in roughly the same place show how foreground elements render when the focus is on the backdrop, and how backdrops render when the focus is on foreground elements.  Both are shot at f/8.




With a return to sun and a close focused point, the Revere renders pleasingly.  The Ektar does a pretty good job with the green hues. 


One last shot of a medium distance subject.  The backdrop is surprisingly blurry given the focsuing distance.

Thoughts:

Resistance was indeed futile, but that has turned out to be a good thing.  Both of these unconventional American cameras managed to continue to reinvigorate my interest and curiosity in this hobby, while giving me an interesting glimpse of the times in which they were created.  Both of them are very unique, not only from other cameras prevalent in other formats, but unique from each other as well.  The B&H has managed to become one of the few true "point and shoot" cameras in my collection suitable for worry free and leisurely shooting, while the Revere is a camera that just makes me want to push it to its fullest and maximize a 3-D type of effect through its lens and unique aperture.  

The examples shown here are hardly going to be the only usage of these oddball cameras, and I look forward to seeing what else I can do with these beasts of 127!