Digital Brownie


Digital Brownie—Using the Vest Pocket Kodak as an Experimental Lens



DA, the Vest Pocket Kodak doublet lens.
The Shutter is on the upper left, the aperture dial (#2) is on the right,
the shutter setting, T for “timed” and I for “instant” are found on the top.


By introducing a camera that could be taken anywhere, and used by anyone, the Brownie camera series revolutionized photography. Released in 1900, and selling for one dollar, the Brownie introduced the world to not only mass photography, but also to mass marketing.  The Brownie’s “target market” included children and woman, and even the Queen of England, Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII. Alexandra used the Brownie to take portraits of the royal families of Europe before World War I.[1] During the 80 year production run for the Brownie, nearly 100 different camera models were sold under the Brownie name, [2] and Brownies continues to turn up at rummage sales and an active Brownie market runs on eBay attests which attests to the Brownie’s popularity with collectors. The Brownie series is also popular with experimental photographers who adapt the camera to contemporary film stocks. As we will see, the heart of the Brownie, the soft focus meniscus lens, can be adapted to work with interchangeable digital camera bodies.


 DA, The Vest Pocket Kodak, Model B, Autograph model, (note the stylus on the left), serial # 27325, circa 1925.

I recently discovered a Vest Pocket Kodak Model B,  a very popular variant of the Brownie series manufactured from 1925-1934 [3] and recently explored  experimental options with this beautifully designed camera system. Touted by Kodak’s marketing as “You Don’t Carry the Camera, You Wear It”, the Vest Pocket Kodaks were produced from 1916-1934 and sold for as little $7 dollars. The Vest Pocket Kodak was “always ready for the unexpected that is sure to happen.” [4] Designed for use with 127mm roll film, and producing a 4 x 6.5cm negative, the Vest Pocket Model B series featured a simple “Kodak Droblet” lens[5] with a rotary shutter and rotary aperture with four settings. Autographic Vest Pocket Kodak was supplied with a stylus, similar to those found on smart phones, which allowed the user to etch notes onto the paper back of the 127mm.[6] The Vest Pocket Brownie Model B is folds up small enough to fit into a pocket and is a little over an inch thick when folded. [7] Like all folding Brownies, the camera contains a bellows unit, which in the case of the Vest Pocket Brownie completely detaches from the film holder. The detachable lens bellows permits interchanging with contemporary camera bodies. Once the bellows unit is detached from the film bed, the Brownie’s lens can be fitted over the lens opening of any interchangeable digital camera body, and simply held in place with your hand to take photographs with this 88-year-old lens. [8]


The Vest Pocket Brownie bellows unit moves on a track, which guides the lens into the film bed when folded. When detached from the film bed, moving the lens on its track permits focusing of the lens when attached to a digital camera body. The shutter features two settings: “I” for instant or between 1/25th and 1/50th of a second and “T” for timed exposures. Placing the shutter on “T” means the shutter will remain open until manually closed.



DA, the Vest Pocket Kodak, Model B lens/bellows unit removed from the film bed
and place over the lens opening on a Sony A900 full frame (digital). 

Using the Vest Pocket lens/bellows unit on an interchange lens digital camera body is relatively easy. No elaborate modification is necessary, and no damage is done to your highly collectable Vest Pocket or your digital camera body.  Here are steps for converting your Vest Pocket Brownie into an experimental soft focus lens:


1. Remove the lens from the digital body.

2. Set the Vest Pocket lens to “T”; trip the shutter;
turn the rotary aperture ring set the adjust the depth of field

3. Next set the Vest Pocket lens/bellows over the opening for the lens.

4. Set the digital camera on manual and take your first exposure.

5. Depending on your camera model, you may need
to set your digital camera shutter to fire without a lens attached.

6. Use the LCD readout to adjust your shutter speed up or down to dial in your exposure.

7. Good to go!



 Margaret Arnold, DA holding the Vest Pocket Kodak over the lens opening on the Sony A900.
Note that the lens is retracted about half way down the  track to focus the lens.

DA, Bill’s Restored T-Bird, with the Vest Pocket Kodak lens and Sony A900.
The aperture was set at wide open, and note the soft bokeh [9] produced by the lens at the the edges of the frame.
DA, Morning Glory. The Vest Pocket Kodak lens works well as a macro lens.
David Arnold, 7.2.2013

[4] Eastman Kodak Company Advertisement, 1920.

[5] See Charles Edward Kenneth Mees, The Fundamentals of Photography, p.20-32 for a lively discussion of Brownie Camera Lens types.

[8 127mm roll film is still available from Freestyle and from other suppliers including B & H Photo. 35mm roll film cassettes must be modified to work in the Vest Pocket Brownie.

[9] Bokeh refers to the out of focus area of a photograph.


4 thoughts on “Digital Brownie

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