Since becoming interested in the 126 film format, I have been looking at the range of cameras available that shoot the format. When 126 first came onto my radar I was already aware of the Kodak range of Instamatic cameras. You know the type – found in most charity shops for either a pittance, or a mint if the owner was trying to sell them as vintage or antique…!
Usually a plastic or Bakelite affair, and usually a simple point and shoot. Some had a few options for aperture but nothing more than a sun and a cloud icon which probably denoted about f/11 and f/16. The Instamatic term was Kodaks but since became a rather blanket term for any of these cheap consumer 126 cameras regardless of who actually manufactured them.
After some research though it seemed that a few manufacturers actually invested some of their R&D money into ‘quality’ cameras that used the 126 format. Ricoh, Rollei, Minolta, and of course Kodak to name a few. So now I was on the hunt for one of these cameras that could make the most of the format, and the Kodak Instamatic 500 became my White Whale 126 camera. Weeks went by turning into months and either nothing showed up, or something showed up described as something like ‘untested’ or ‘parts or repairs,’ or simply looked in the listing images like it had had a tough life. It was a big ask but I decided that if I was going to part with decent money – even the wrecks were seemingly still commanding a fair premium – I wanted something that was known working.
And then one day a listing hit eBay advertising a ‘Kodak Instamatic 500 with a leather case.’ Not really much more information than that except the seller had noted that the leather case had a small tear in it. Fine I thought, I can deal with a small tear in the case. What really caught my eye was the fact that the first line of the small description went as follows:
“You are bidding on one of my fathers treasured cameras…”
I thought if it was a fathers treasured camera then a) it should be well looked after and b) there’s a good chance that the guy had owned it from new or fairly new. One careful owner and all that…
Well I sat and watched it and the £13.99 start price just sat there to. I dropped a bid on with my customary 7 seconds left (always, I dont know why) and before I knew it it was mine. Much cheaper than some of the ropers that had sold so I guess I was just lucky in the auction timing!
Anyway, it arrived a few days later and man apart from the small tear in the case (really barely noticeable!) it’s certainly been well looked after. It’s a beaut.
I would genuinely go as far as saying that to pick up and hold this is getting on for one of the most pleasing cameras that sits in my collection, and I never thought id say that about a 126 camera. It feels amazing in the hands and weighs in at a hefty 395 grams, which for reference is 4 grams heavier than my Olympus Trip 35, and almost twice as much as my Kodak Instamatic 255X…
So lets get into a bit about the camera. As you can see from the image at the top it allows the user to shoot fully manual. In fact you have to, there’s no point and shoot or auto options here – its proper camera! Shutter speeds are a choice between 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250 and 1/500. Not massively quick but plenty for what i’m going to need I think. Apertures from f/22 down to f/2.8. And they are stepless so in theory anything in between your standard apertures as well.
There is a depth of field indicator scale around the barrel just in front of the shutter speed dial, and you can focus the camera either with the three icons under the lens barrel for 1 dude, 2 dudes and mountains, or on the top and easier for me I think a feet scale from 2.5 feet to infinity, with marked distances in between of 3, 3.5, 4, 5, 7, 10 and 20 feet. The icons underneath are stepped and correspond to 1 dude at 4 feet, 2 dudes at about 8.5 feet, and mountains at just over 20 feet. Curiously the infinity setting is past mountains which seems odd…?
Anyway, all these settings can be adjusted from rings around the lens, which is worth noting is a Schneider-Kreuznach 38mm Xenar. Schneider-Kreuznach is decent. Same as my large format lens…
Nice little feature ive found so far is that the aperture selection ring has a nice little lever on it, we’ll come back to this.
Underneath the camera is another cool feature. There’s a button underneath which when I first took delivery of the camera I could not for the life of me work out what it did. I thought it was broken, but then I couldn’t fathom out what it was supposed to do, even if it was broken…! So I had to hit Google, and found mention of the fact that the lens collapses into the body for transport. This is what the button was for and it works perfectly. The whole lens doesn’t push away to be fair, but it does protrude less by probably 10 or so cms.
So next thing is the light meter. Yes, this camera actually has a proper light meter! And you know what? Its a Gossen meter. Yes Gossen who make those awesome hand held light meters. They designed and made the meter in this Instamatic camera and you know what? This camera was made somewhere between 1963 and 1965, and this meter is still good. The meter is hooked to a needle that you can see through the viewfinder with a simple +/- gauge, open up the aperture or lower you shutter speed and the needle moves towards the + or close the aperture and raise your shutter speed and it swings towards the – side. Wonderfully simple. Theres even a little piece of design, a small ‘fin’ below the meter that stops you putting your finger in the way of it. Lovely little touch.
The meter is hooked up to a small pin inside the camera that you can just see when you open the back. Remember my last post on 126 as a general? Check it out here if not, but in that I mentioned this pin that once you drop in your cartridge and close the camera door it drops into a notch in the top of the 126 cartridge. The position of this notch, and thus the position that the pin drops into tells the meter what the ISO of the film is in the cartridge. The light meter then adjusts accordingly. You gotta admit thats pretty cool…!
So what else is there to tell you?
Looking down on the camera the top plate looks to be buffed aluminium or similar and all you’ll find there is a hot shoe rather than an attachment for magic cubes, and the shutter release button. Which I’ll point out is threaded to take a release cable. Finishing this off is the serial number – 72435 in my case and that little icon that shows you where the film plane is. Theres a tripod socket on the bottom with the lens release button, metal strap lugs either side and the switch to open the back so you can drop your cartridge in, and on the front is the PC sync port to plug your flash into.
And if you’re planning to shoot up close there is parallax correction markings in that big bright viewfinder as well.
So thats about all I have to say about the camera and its specifications. I took it out the afternoon that I got it with a roll of Kodaks Verichrome Pan film. I have been reloading 35mm into my 126 cartridges but I didn’t have any to hand, and it seemed fitting to try this camera with a roll of Kodak film that expired two years after the camera itself was even built…! and….everyone knows that Verichrome Pan is seemingly bulletproof!
So there you go. Yeah the film looks rough, but its upwards of 60 years old, been stored god knows how, and been developed in coffee. The grain is huge and you can see the inverted backing paper numbers but you know what? I couldn’t give less of a crap. The camera works as it should, and I have some cool images to prove it.
Oh yeah, and I shot the film at box speed!
This camera is awesome, and I invite you all to grab yourself a 126 camera and give it a go, either with an old roll of dubious drug store film or some 35mm that you’ve jammed in there yourself!
Thanks for reading.