Shooting with Early Twentieth-Century Cameras

Southport Pier taken in 2013 with a Contessa-Nettel "Cocarette" circa 1920. Converted to black and white.

In 2012 I was given a box of old cameras. In amongst the broken rangefinders, defunct slide viewers and tired plastic Kodaks from the 1960s, were three gems from the early twentieth century: a tiny circa 1913 “Vest Pocket Kodak”, a scruffy Kodak No. 1 Autographic made in 1915, and a Contessa-Nettel “Cocarette” from around 1920.

Operating cameras from this period turns out to be surprisingly easy once you get the hang of it, but it’s a world away from the digital cameras most of us are used to. Photographers in 2014 are blessed with being able to choose whether to point and shoot, or take complete control of the creative process. 100 years ago cameras were a lot more limited. Needless to say, I had to see if any of these cameras worked, and whether I could get any usable images out of them.

One Hundred Years of Miniaturisation: on the left a 1913 Vest Pocket Kodak in 'closed' position. On the right, a 2010-vintage Panasonic LX5.

One Hundred Years of Miniaturisation: on the left a 1913 Vest Pocket Kodak in 'closed' position. On the right, a 2010-vintage Panasonic LX5.

I was most taken by the Vest Pocket Kodak, also known as the “VPK” or “soldier’s camera”. This is a tiny folding camera which, in its closed position, is no bigger than a modern compact camera. It would have been easy to slip one of these into your pocket as you boarded the train for the battlefields of France. I managed to find some expired 127 film and set out to take pictures of rainy Liverpool. Unfortunately, my VPK turned out to have been wounded in action. The film was ruined and until I can work out how to fix a hole in the bellows it is relegated to the shelf.

I had more luck with the other two. Despite its battered state, the Kodak No.1 folder needed little more than a roll of 120 film and some improvised gaffer tape light seals on the body to make it work. Focussing is done by moving the the lens backwards and forwards, and aligning it with marks on a distance scale. A tape measure helps to get your subject in the right place, while shooting in low light involves a tripod and everyone sitting very still. But the slow lens also means the depth of field is manageable at least.

Informal portrait taken with Kodak No.1 Autographic, made in 1915.

The Kodak No.1 was another camera type widely used by soldiers in World War I, and the exercise of shooting with it gives some insight in to how those informal pictures of men in the trenches must have been taken. With its tiny and rather dim viewfinder, the Kodak No.1 is not the most precise of cameras, but its size and relative ease of use must have been a revelation at the time.

Contessa-Nettel “Cocarette” from around 1920.

The Contessa-Nettel “Cocarette” is my favourite of the trio. These were first manufactured in 1919 and continued under the Zeiss name when the companies merged in 1926. The “Contessa” is an altogether more sophisticated creature than the two Kodaks, with a remote shutter release and a spirit level next to the finder. It even has a rising lens standard—just like a large-format camera—to help ease problems of perspective caused by the long 6x9cm negative when shooting portraits. While focussing is still by guessing or measuring distance, a smooth lever for moving the lens back and forth, and a calibrated distance scale, make it easier. Three shutter speeds (1/25th. 1/50th and 1/100th) besides B and T, and apertures from f/6.3 to f/31 give plenty of flexibility.

A view of Buttermere and Crummock Water. Taken handheld in 2014 with a Contessa-Nettel "Cocarette" circa 1920.

The viewfinder, which rotates from portrait to landscape positions, is bright and clear in the right light, but is a bit small, inaccurate, and difficult to see in bright sunshine; it helps to shade it with your hand. The lens itself is surprisingly sharp, in an old-fashioned kind of way, and I have been experimenting with using this old camera for landscapes, where the wide format makes it ideal, but the viewfinder makes it rather difficult.

View of Lerwick, Shetland taken in 2013 with Contessa-Nettel "Cocarette" circa 1920. The amount of foreground here speaks to the difficulty of composing with the tiny viewfinder, especially in landscape format.

The first two decades of the twentieth century were the time when photography became accessible to just about everyone and the simplicity of the mechanical parts in these old cameras means that they are still quite reliable even by modern standards. They are fiddly to work with at times, but no more so than ten screens of settings on a digital camera. If you find a good one the image quality will be better than you might expect, with a lovely old-fashioned look, and sharp enough for just about anything. There were lots of different formats of roll film a century ago and we are left with just 120 and occasionally 127 now, but even so there are still large numbers of cameras out there to enjoy. Just remember to take your tape measure when you go out to shoot.

Portrait taken with Contessa-Nettel "Cocarette".