What the Experts Have to Say....

A friend who worked with an expensive single lens reflex once asked me what was so special about a box camera that made me perennially harp on the same subject with such ardour and enthusiasm. I do work with an SLR when the need arises, but at the time I could think up of no answer to this question; I was baffled. I merely grinned at my friend and mumbled that I was fascinated by the old box, that it was simple to work with and cute to look at...

I think the appeal of the box camera can be traced to the following two reasons : first, it is grand old vintage stuff ; and secondly, being devoid of mechanical and optical sophistication, it resembles in some measure an optical toy. I know of photographic collectors who spend days hunting for an old revolving zoetrope, a magic lantern, even an early hand-cranked cinematograph. The box camera can be likened to one of these optical toys. But it is more than a mere toy--it is simple in construction, and yet it works. And I would say it works rather well.

The fascination we feel for a box may be likened to what pin-hole camera enthusiasts feel. There is nothing as lovely as a pin-hole camera. It gives an image that is mathematically an exact perspective view of the subject, it involves little more than a shoe box pricked on one side with a microscopic hole, and ignoring the long exposures called for, it gives reasonably good results, so that when holding up a pin-hole print one can only wonder with delight how a simple device as this is capable of giving a picture without the accompaniment of a lens.

I was wondering all along who invented that ingenious little red window you see at the back of a box camera to show up numbers printed on the backing paper. The mystery was cleared up a few years ago when I came upon an old book on photography in a second-hand book store. It wasn’t George Eastman who came up with this innovation, as I had thought. The red window dates back to 1892, I found, when Samuel Turner of the Boston Camera Company designed a box camera called the Bull’s Eye, the first ever camera to use film rolled in black paper with a red window at the back of the camera. 

Books on photography are as old as photography itself and it can be a real pleasure browsing through some of the early works. Here is a selection of comments made by notable photographic authors of yesteryear telling us about what a box camera is like and what it can be expected to do :

“The Kodak camera created an entirely new market and made photographers of people who had no special knowledge of the subject and who had as their only qualification the desire to take pictures.”

From ‘George Eastman’, a Kodak publication.

The Camera that takes the World !

   THE  KODAK   
No previous knowledge of photography necessary.


(Unless you prefer to do the rest yourself)


From an 1893 advertisement for the Kodak camera.

“...Your box camera is a valuable friend. It provides the best method of recording for all time such happy occasions as the joys of holiday-time, weddings, the first baby, and all the landmarks in family life. It is also an important tool in one of the best hobbies imaginable—Photography...  Simple in design though it may be, your box camera can perform wonders if used correctly...”

Your Guide to Better Box Camera Photography, Fountain Press, 1950.

“A box-type camera of today may not look at all like the boxes of yesteryear, but functionally it is quite similar. Its most significant characteristics are that the size of its lens opening and the duration of its shutter time are fixed in manufacture. They are usually set so that on a bright sunny day they will deliver just the correct amount of light for those films which are recommended for box-type camera use...  Deluxe models (also) offer a limited choice of different lens openings.”

The Kodak Camera Guide, Pocket Books Inc, New York, 1959.

“....There is nothing simpler than a box camera. It produces a sharp, precise picture, so careful focusing is made unnecessary. But this advantage can also become a disadvantage, since both foreground and background are clearly defined, and in consequence important and unimportant objects are equally portrayed. A further convenience and yet limitation of this camera is the simplicity of its shutter speeds. Therefore you cannot adapt the exposure time to the movements of the subject you are about to photograph...”

   Everybody’s Guide to Good Photography—The All-in-One Camera Book by W. D. Emanuel and F. L. Dash, Focal Press, 1944.


“...The box camera is the simplest and cheapest type of camera. It is mainly intended for people who want to take snapshots in good light and who do not know—or want to know—a lot about photography....  In spite of its simplicity the box is capable of taking photographs of a high standard...”

The Focal Encyclopaedia of Photography, Vol. I, Focal Press, London and New York, 1965.

“...Because they are so easy to use, Brownie (box) cameras are excellent for beginners. They are mainly intended for snapshots in sunny weather, but most models have a time exposure adjustment so that they can take pictures in dull weather as well...”

How to Make Good Pictures, Kodak Limited, 1951.