5.12.2017

Super Sleeper: The Kodak Brownie Starflex

About the best barometer of a camera collector's affinity towards a particular example in his active collection would be the number of rolls of film that have passed through its chambers to produce images.  A camera that sees a single inaugural roll of film only to then sit and collect dust would certainly seem to be less favored than a model that has seen numerous rolls of film in the same amount of time.  

Given that I have a decent sized collection, it isn't too often that a particular example stays by my side for several months as a primary camera churning out roll after roll of film, so a camera that sees half a dozen rolls over the course of a year would admittedly be a well favored "high-use" camera for me.

Occasionally, I come to notice that a particular example in my collection has been called into use more than I would have guessed, seeming to indicate that I have a latent, almost subconscious liking of it that comes as a surprise to me.  I call these examples "Sleeper Cameras" as they possess some intangibles that seem to make them inexplicably endearing to me.   This is one of my very few examples of such a camera in my collection...

I'd more or less expected this little camera to be good for one roll and nothing more.  Nope!
My discovery of the Kodak Brownie Starflex came through the most roundabout of means that started in a national home furnishings store.  My wife, who has seemed to never take too adoringly to my habit of collecting vintage cameras, spotted a pair of mass-produced bookends featuring replicas of classic cameras, and suddenly elected that these were a necessary decoration for our home, and added them to our cart.  Ironically she dropped one of them as we unloaded the car, and it separated from its mount, leaving it more or less a waste of the $14 it cost us to acquire.  Even with this functionally useless "camera" being stripped of its decorative purpose, I was interested enough in this model to discover what it was, and explore grabbing one to use for (gasp!) actual photography rather than a decorative trinket.  After asking about on the Facebook "Vintage Camera Collectors" forum as to whether this model had a basis in fact, I was quickly informed it was a replica of the 127 format Kodak Brownie Starflex. 



Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  A bulk made cast that was intended as a book end mimics the curved lines of the 1960's Kodak Brownie Starflex. 

As I had not too long ago gotten interested in the 127 format anyway, it seemed perfect timing.  I looked online and quickly found a complete outfit in the original box with flash mount and bulbs for about $10, LESS than the price of the non-functional mass-produced replica.  I jumped on the purchase, partly taking interest in the camera model, but perhaps more trying to get the last word in the continuing conversation with my wife about the value of my hobby compared to simply decorating.  

I almost ate my argument when the camera arrived and had a non-functioning shutter, but a heathy dose of naphtha and some repeated use of the shutter release, and it seemed I was able to breathe some new life into a camera that had likely sat dormant for decades.  My goal was initially for my wife and I to both take shots on one roll of film through the camera, print the results, and then mount the camera in its display box along with the photos as a "working decoration" of sorts.  It would be something of a quiet victory in my book, having done a true arts and crafts project for a decorative idea rather than simply buying something and putting it into place. 

Starflex outfits complete with flash holder, bulbs, and box are surprisingly easy to find at an affordable price.  The small opening at lower right was for a roll of film, seemingly long used. The Brownie Starflex seems likely geared towards a more adolescent audience of casual snappers. 

But then, something unexpected happened.  I became oddly enchanted by the Starflex.  The "TLR" style form in a slimmed down package was a surprising joy to take along and shoot.  Everything from the shutter release to the film advance, while somewhat rudimentary in nature, feels unexpectedly fun.  The biggest joy of all is the easy waist level viewfinder, which generally makes for easy composition of scenes, provided light is adequate.

Sufficient light is an important element for good photos on the Brownie Starflex, as it has a single shutter speed somewhere in the range of 1/75 of a second, and just two apertures: a color setting (presumably around f/11) and a black and white setting that stops down to about f/16.  These aperture and shutter settings are mere presumptions since the manual does not give these specifics, only stating the shutter as "instantaneous"and states the "exposure value" numbers as 13 for color, and 14 for black and white.  These figures merely reflect the films of the era, with most color films being slower than black and white, and thus giving better exposures at wider apertures.  

With its shields up, the Starflex hardly looks intimidating, but is actually charming in its appearance as it mimics the feel of a Twin Lens reflex camera.  There is no focusing adjustment on this camera however, but simply a diaphragm set with a lever on the bottom of the front of the faceplate. 

As equipped however, the Starflex was not limited to simply broad daylight scenes.  As you can see in the images above, this Starflex outfit included the "Midget" flash holder which used the included bulbs powered by a pair of "pen light" batteries (AA) to enable use of the Starflex in indoor settings. I've yet to waste an exposure attempting to try a flash shot (as I rarely shoot with flash) but I may just have to give it a try one of these days.  

Despite its very limited amount of features and settings, the Brownie Starflex is a surprisingly tough camera to put down.  It makes for a fun travel companion, and in the past year that I've owned this camera, it has ventured out with us on country drives, a vacation in Maine, meanderings into Baltimore, and simple outings with the kids.  It requires so little in the way of decision making and is such an easy camera to frame and shoot that it makes a fantastic fair weather companion.  And unlike some 127 cameras in my collection that can be a bit persnickety, the Starflex does not seem to come with much in the way of drama.  It even recently was called in as a late substitute when the Bell and Howell EE 127 kept tearing the backing paper as I tried to load a roll of film into it.  The Starflex gladly stepped up and gave me no issues as I ran through the roll of film.



Though the waist level finder is fairly easy to view provided there is not excessive glare from overcast or sunlight present, one can also use the "sport finder" by flipping out the two metal frames on the bottom of the camera.  Note the additional controls on the bottom nicely concealed to advance film and open the camera.  



Four rolls of film later, I realize that my initial idea of snapping a single roll through this camera as a mercy gesture is dead in the water.  It turns out this camera has had the last laugh at my expense. And while any camera that may be fun to shoot isn't worth much if the photos from it lack adequate contrast or definition, this simple Brownie Starflex records a remarkably decent result when you keep in mind its limitations.  The images that result certainly do carry with them a nostalgic quality, particularly when shot on a durable stock like Verichrome Pan.  I've shot both color and black and white on the Starflex (while not always adhering strictly to its rules of "Color" and "Black and White" settings) and have seen some remarkable images put forth by the simple "Dakon" lens.  

So by all means, have a look at my inaugural roll on the Kodak Brownie Starflex..... and the one after that..... and the one after that......   and the one after that.......






One thing discovered early in shooting the first roll of the Starflex on some long expired Verichrome Pan was that scenes require a healthy amount of contrast.  Thus a wooded scene like this doesn't render with the delicacy that one would hope.

But add in a sun drenched scene with varying tones and a bright sky and viola!  The Starflex rewards the shooter with some fairly impressive results! 


Again, care must be taken with the Starflex as well with shadowy scenes with distant subjects, as the results tend to be on the mushy side. 


Yet, add a bit more depth to your scene and you might be surprised at what the Starflex gives you, even in sub-optimal lighting conditions. 


One quite charming aspect of the Starflex was the tendency to make contemporary scenes appear vintage, a recurring goal in many of my projects.  The more modern silos to the left likely ruin the overall effect, but there are many vestiges of a more aged look to this image. 


Focus range on the Starflex is likely in the vicinity of 8 feet or so to infinity, as evidenced by this image. 


Despite a composition that doesn't quite make the most of this scene, as I could have moved closer to the road to make the scene lead away from the camera, the results from the Starflex are particularly decent. 


An interesting yet endangered setting that has since become a favorite of mine over the past year.  I first discovered it as I snapped this shot on the Starflex. 


A visit to a newly discovered overlook also offered a log cabin complete with a radial wave lamp, a great photographic subject for a history geek like myself. 


A first attempt off the Middletown overlook doesn't quite convey an impressive result...


...but shooting through more closely positioned elements results in a much better photo.


Despite a fairly decent shutter speed, one must still hold the Brownie Starflex still in shooting. 
An attempt to use some cut down Kodak Pro 100 resulted in a mixed bag of results that offered some surprises along the way.  Despite a murk of shadow to mar this shot, I'm sort of pleased with this first Maine shot. 
Not perfect, but the results from this old film tended to be much better than I expected. 


Sometimes the Brownie Starflex gives you shots like these that appear both sharp and unsharp at the same time.  Color rendition is good though.
Though the 1957 vintage Starflex heavily promotes its usability for color film, some shots occasionally reminded me of images taken using uncoated lenses.  This is more than likely more a byproduct of over exposure more than qualities of the lens. 


Some color shots like this one really came out quite well though. 


As this cut down roll of 120 film proceeded through the film chamber of the camera, some problems began to emerge, first from a light leak...


...and then some issues with the width of the film that caused issues with film flatness.  This would worsen in the following exposures. 


The next shot managed to largely avoid the issues with film flatness and came out quite well. 

But most of the last half of the roll was marred.  Note the uneven top edge of the frame and the poor focus in the white boat in the center of the frame.  


The bridge railing here was actually straight despite this depiction. 


The top border seems to indicate a measurable amount of stress on the film surface. 


The buckling of the film hits its pinnacle here. 


But by the next to last shot, the problem eases a bit, though the center of the shot is still blurry.  It should be noted that these issues are not faults with the camera but rather indicative of the challenges of cutting down 120 film to 127 width in the dark and re-spooling.  


Regrettably, as things begin to work themselves out technically, I botch the last shot on the roll with motion blur. 


The Starflex sat idle for most of the Fall and Winter as I concentrated on other models, but was happy to resume, as I loaded it with some more Verichrome Pan, now knowing some of its finer points.  It started by rewarding me with a nicely toned shot on decades-old film.


I had however forgotten that both the Starflex and its square format were not ideal for distant landscapes from elevated vistas.  
Seemingly, subjects in the 8-15 foot distance range seem to work best with the simple Starflex. 


The lens does seem to exhibit some degree of pincushion distortion as evidenced by the pillar on the left. 


Though the viewfinder is pretty bright and splashy, I still had the occasional issue of perfectly framing subjects with the desired centering.  In the dim light of this scene, I switched to the wider aperture "Color" setting which reduced sharpness somewhat. 


The square format works well in scenes like this involving water reflections. 


While I hadn't been a huge fan of square formats on my return to film, I've since become a lot more adaptable to shooting scenes in a 1:1 aspect ratio.


I closed this old roll of Verichrome Pan out in an area of West Baltimore that seems to exist in a time warp.  Dickeyville provides a perfect photo destination on a Spring day. 


Without the hindrance of unevenly cut film impacting film flatness, the Starflex really returned some nice images that suited the nostalgic feel of the area. 


Though the emulsion of the old Verichrome Pan held together well for the most part, it did have some "characteristic" flaws that emerged here and there, but thankfully nothing overly distracting from the image itself. 

My PLAN for a cut length of 46mm wide Agfa Portrait 160 film on 127 backing was to run it through the Bell and Howell EE 127, but when this camera insisted on tearing the backing as it wound through, I readily swapped it into the Starflex. Though the film itself has some very odd issues with its emulsion layers, it is possible to glean the decent results the Starflex can provide. 


As the film is advanced using a porthole red window, light leakage is possible in bright light.  I did a rare close up shot using the Starflex that actually came out fairly well. 


The sport finder on the Starflex doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence, so shots taken while driving tended to require me to stop and step out.  The Agfa film was in poor shape, but made a somewhat "artistic" rendering of this scene. 


I guess if there was one shot in which I wish I had used the included flash, it would be this one.  The film here did not handle the backlight terribly well. 


Looking at the results from the Agfa film, I'm realizing it best to use on more artistic or abstract compositions which I can use in conjunction with its flaws. 


Close subjects again render quite well.  It seems as though shots on the "color" setting (which all of the ones from this roll were set) seem to compromise the infinity aspect of focusing.  The trees in distance seem to look fuzzy compared to the marsh plants. 


The Starflex is not an action camera. Despite very little motion here, the camera did not do well. 


The manual advance can result in some frame overlap.  This is definitely a very primitive camera in many respects. 


Though I'd known this 14 year old film had some issues with its sensitivity, I still wanted to see what it would do on this scene.  Some of the color comes through but the overall rendering is muted. 


Haste makes waste.  Trying to get a quick shot in for a backlit scene in the middle of the street gave me this miserable result. 


Scans like this do make me wonder how they would look if they were shot on a film with more clarity than this old Agfa Portrait. 


Closing out the roll, I snapped a gently lit scene that actually came out decently.  Still, my use of this film will need to be carefully thought out.  

Despite some hiccups, I'm a lot more pleased with the Kodak Starflex than I'd ever imagined.  It is not only a fun camera to use, but one that can yield some decent results.  With a very simple mechanism for a shutter that works at only one speed as well as a mere two apertures, its usage is very limited but keeping these limitations in mind, one can be quite happy shooting a camera like this.  

So that display idea I had for this is likely never going to happen.  But I'm perfectly content if such winds up being the case.  On the other hand, I could always take that worthless cast model of this camera and plunk it in the original box along with images taken using the genuine article, thus liberating that same genuine article to continue pleasing me with roll after roll of interesting photographic goodies.

Winning.... Duh!!!