5 Frames… Of 35mm film in a Kodak Brownie 1B (EI 125 / 35mm format / ILFORD FP4 PLUS) – by Christopher James

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This is essentially a thank you letter to this roll of ILFORD FP4 PLUS for tolerating extreme levels of abuse and still producing usable images. I not only shot this roll three times in two different cameras, but the second TWO times involved awkwardly passing it through a Kodak Brownie 1B (circa 1904-1916) which is actually intended to take 117 format film.

Let me start at the beginning. I really like the sprocket-hole effect some of the medium format cameras produce with 35mm film but my budget does not (and hasn’t for some time) stretch to buying one. I semi-accidentally purchased this Kodak Brownie 1B months ago for $20, thinking it would take 120 film. When I discovered it did not, I kept it in my cupboard as a precious relic of a simpler time.


Eventually, however, I thought that I should use it. I’ve developed my own black and white film at home for a few years now so I’m quite familiar with pulling out film in a dark bag and mucking around with it. I thought through the process and realised I could do the same with unexposed film, tape it to one of the Brownie reels (on the left side of the camera) and wind it up. Then I could pull it across the aperture, tape it to the right-hand reel, and shoot it as intended.

It wasn’t that simple of course. The Brownie 1B has a frame marker window on the back that needed to be covered up, which I did with cardboard inside and out so as not to damage the camera. Second, I needed to figure out how many times to wind the film on so that my frames did not overlap – I did this by winding a tape measure onto the camera with the back off and counting centimetres (it turns out that two full winds is perfect). Finally, I needed film that I could sacrifice if it all went wrong.

That final step came from a friend who had hand-rolled the FP4 and generously given me a roll. I had put it into my Canon EOS 300 which – I had forgotten – winds on the entire roll at the very start, and then as each frame is exposed it winds it back into the canister. I quite like that feature, but in this case, the tape at the end of the hand-rolled film jammed the mechanism and my camera showed “low battery”. I bought and discarded two whole sets of batteries before opening up the back and figuring out what was wrong. Then it was into the dark bag to pull out all the film and wind it into an empty film canister for storage. I had my experimental film!

Shooting the Brownie was a joy. With no viewfinder and no settings to speak of, it’s just a case of bracing the box against your body and flicking the shutter. It’s simple to the point of ridiculousness and joyously unpredictable. The first time I shot the roll I hadn’t taped it properly to the take-up reel so none of the frames advanced. That was over a month of carefully taking shots. The second time I set it up the roll went through! All was left was developing it, which I did as usual with Kodak D76 in a 1:1 dilution.

These shots are not amazing pictures, but they are precious to me. They are a reminder that among all the angst about the film we shoot it is really a robust medium that will take a lot of punishment and still perform. Try treating a digital sensor with the same amount of agitation, fingerprints and misuse as I did this roll and see if it still makes pictures. I think not.

~ Christopher


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This series is produced in conjunction with Hamish Gill's excellent 35mmc.com. Head on over to read the other half of these stories there.

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