When my wife turned 40, she wanted just one thing: to have a nice vacation in a warm place with a beach. After negotiating that our destination be all-inclusive so that I might walk around with cocktails in coconuts all day, we settled on a resort in Veradero, Cuba. She got her beach; I got my coconuts.

While there, we took a day trip to Havana in one of those famous 1950s cars that are ubiquitous, not out of love for antique cars, but out of necessity. The car we rode in was a 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air Sedan with a Mitusbishi engine, Toyota transmission and Pioneer (prounounced Pee-o-nair by our tour guide) stereo.

After raiding a record store for all I could carry, downing as many margaritas at El Floridita as we could, and taking in the sounds and sights of Havana for the day, we had fallen in love and vowed to return.

And so, in January 2020, we returned to Havana, staying in an Airbnb near the Malecon in Centro Habana. I knew I wanted to be able to capture Havana in a way that would do justice to the amazing city, its amazing architecture, and remarkable people. Wanting to keep it as simple as possible, I brought with me a 1950s Brownie Reflex 20 and an armful of Kodak Tri-X 400 120 format film (along with a couple of other vintage cameras).

The tricky part of shooting 120 film on a camera like the Brownie that was made to accept 620 film is that one must trim the outer edges of the spool to get it to fit. It’s not so difficult with a good pair of sharp scissors (don’t use the ones your wife uses for sewing – just… don’t do it) and a little bit of thumb strength.

Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to pre-cut my spools before we arrived. I’m sure finding a pair of scissors is not completely out of the question in Havana. It’s just that I don’t think we would have enjoyed spending that much time looking for the store that one goes to specifically to buy scissors and nothing else.

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The Brownie Reflex 20 is a twin reflex camera with 3 settings that boil down to close, a little bit further, and all the way out there. It’s a small camera, only about six inches tall with the top pulled up to look down the viewfinder. The lens has a focal length of 70mm with a shutter speed of 1/30.

I love a simple camera like this for traveling. When it was created 70-odd years ago, it was made to make taking pictures easy, and it does just that. If you’ve got enough light, just frame your subject, and click. Where a camera like this can really excel is in street photography situations. It has a barely discernible click when engaging the shutter, allowing one to remain incognito and unintrusive.

Where I find this camera does its best work is in the medium range from about six to 12 feet. When out walking with my Brownie, I like to have it at that medium setting and then just try to situate myself next to the right moment, as opposed to trying to manipulate my camera setting to suit.

I couldn’t have asked for this wonderful city to be represented in a better way than what I took home with me. And while I’m tempted to return with a more professional camera and a selection of lenses, I still think it best to experience the trip while I’m there and take home a few shots as memories as opposed to spending the entire time concentrating on capturing images.

After all, great experiences are much harder to come by than great pictures. Especially these days.

~ Mark

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Avatar - Mark John Hiemstra

Mark John Hiemstra

Mark John Hiemstra is a professional writer and amateur photographer loves learning more and more about film photography every day. He is loathe to describe himself in the third person, but can be persuaded to do so, from time to time.

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  1. You did great justice to Havana with the Brownie and b&w film! That shot of the woman inside the cafe is fantastic!

  2. I’ve been looking at this camera in my Brownie collection thinking it should be fun to use and you’ve shown me it works really well. I think it’s time to load up! Thank you for sharing your experience 🙏

  3. I believe your comment about this being a great street camera is spot on. I just ran a roll through my Reflex 20 on the mean streets of Madison, Ga. [G]

    This is also a good camera to shoot sprocket hole photography. Takes a little practice to line up the 35mm film with the 120/620 paper backing but I’m starting to get the hang of it.

    I believe these bakelight cameras will become very popular in the near future and I feel as if those of us that have discovered them are ahead of the curve.

    My Rollei’s are gathering dust ATM while I play with my Kodak Brownie Bulls-eye.