My local vintage store has a corner with stacks of cameras. Most are battered, unattractive, or unusable because film is no longer available. Some are both ugly and unusable: Kodak Instant Camera, anyone?
I found a No. 2 Brownie in the pyramid of box cameras which was interesting because it takes 120 film and it was cheap. The camera was in decent shape. The viewfinder and lens needed some cleaning. The cloth door hinge was loose and the latch tended to slide open. A rubber band fixed both of these problems.
No. 2 Brownies were introduced in 1901 and was sold for over 35 years with many variations. I learned from the incredible Brownie Camera Page that mine is a Model C, from between 1907-1914.
Body and construction. It's a small box made of cardboard, cloth with a leatherette texture, wood, cloth tape and some metal. In materials it has more in common with a book than a modern camera. Later models had metal inserts, then metal bodies.
Controls are minimal. A shutter release which moves up and down and trips the shutter on both the up and the down stroke. A pull-out tab that enables bulb mode. A three position pull-out tab for selecting f-stop (all the way down = f/11, middle = f/16, top = f/22). A ratcheted film advance knob that only moves in the direction that advances the film. Two viewfinders, one horizontal and one vertical. There is no tripod screw on this version. Later metal-bodied models have them.
The camera makes 8 6x9 photos on 120 film.
The back of the camera has the latch to open it up, and a red window to view the frame number. Old film wasn't sensitive to red light; modern film is. The red window should be covered over with black electrical tape to protect the film.
The shutter is ingeniously simple: A rotating disk and a spring. It supposedly gives a shutter speed of around 1/30 or so, but it looks like on my copy it fires at slightly different speeds depending on if the release is pulled up or pushed down.
The lens is a simple meniscus and focuses from about 8 feet to infinity. There is a close up lens, the Kodak Portrait Attachment No. 1, that pushes into the lens mount and reduces focus distance to 3.5 feet.
Viewfinders. There are two viewfinders, one horizontal and one vertical. There are small viewfinder lenses on the front of the camera and a small ground glass on the side and top of the camera. Not sure if it's due to age, the mirrors coming unsilvered, or by design but the viewfinders are really dim. They're almost usable with a loupe.
Loading film. Since there's only one shutter speed and it's fairly slow, choose a slow film for outdoor shooting. I used Ilford Pan F. Releasing the catch allows the back door to fold down. Pull out the winding knob and then the insert inside the body can be pulled out. Loading film is easier to learn by watching a video than by reading.
Shooting. The viewfinder is dim so it's not easy to frame a photo. Since the shutter is slow the camera must be held steady. This is easiest to do by pressing the camera into your body, then steadily moving the shutter release. It makes almost no sound. Next lift up the tape covering the film counter window and wind on until the next number appears.
Conclusion. It's cool to shoot with a piece of history, and amazing at how well this camera works considering its age. It's not an easy camera to use, difficult to load and unload, with dim viewfinders, a slow shutter and very limited exposure control. The results are not technically great but can be very beautiful.
As I've said in a previous essay, my first real 35mm camera was an Olympus OM-1n. It was the best I could afford at the time. Nikons and Canons were too expensive.
In college I worked on the newspaper and their cameras were Nikons: F2s and FMs. The cameras were big, heavy, and loud compared to the Olympus but the lenses. Oh, the lenses. And considering how the pool cameras were abused I was impressed by their durability.
Fast forward 20 years. I use Nikon digital and the later Nikon film cameras (F5 and F100). But I find myself nostalgic for a manual focus camera. The FE and FM bodies are identical but FEs are cheaper. I ended up with a beautiful black FE2 and a 35mm f/1.4, a lens that I couldn't dream of affording in college days. I enjoyed shooting with it so much I bought a second FE2 in chrome.
Body and construction. The FE2 is a mid-sized 35mm camera that's typical of its era. Construction is all metal and it feels solid. The few controls are clearly laid out.
On the top deck at the left is the ISO selector, the rewind crank, the exposure compensation lock and setting dial. To open the back, there's a small release tab on the rewind crank that must first be pushed while pulling up on the rewind crank. Continue pulling up on the crank to pop the back open. On the right is the shutter speed dial and the shutter release. Next to the shutter release is the frame counter and the winding lever. The small tab at the front of the winding lever is the double exposure lever - pull this back while using the film advance lever to cock the shutter without advancing the film.
Looking at the front of the camera the lever on the left of the lens mount is the depth of field preview. The large lever on the body of the camera is the self timer when pulled away from the lens. Push it towards the lens for AE lock.
On the right side is the lens release button and the PC terminal.
On the bottom of the camera is the motor drive mechanical connection, the rewind button, tripod socket, battery compartment and motor drive electrical connection.
The back of the camera has a memo holder for film type.
The shutter release is locked until the film advance lever is pulled out, and a half press on the shutter release activates the meter for about 15 seconds.
The shutter fires with a solid clack. Film advance is beautifully smooth.
There is no mirror lock up. As a workaround use the self-timer which causes the mirror to go up as soon as the shutter release is pressed.
Power. The camera takes 2 S-76 silver batteries or a CR 1/3 N lithium battery.
Viewfinder. The viewfinder is big and bright and can be seen with the eye a bit away from the camera. The current aperture is visible in the window above the focusing screen. There's a list of shutter speeds to the left of the screen. In manual mode the green bar shows the currently selected shutter speed while the black needle shows the meter's recommendation. In auto mode the green bar goes to A at the top and the black needle shows the shutter speed. A red +/- LED lights up to the right of the focusing screen if exposure compensation is set, and there's a red light above the eyepiece that lights up when a compatible flash is attached and ready.
Focusing screens are easily changed through the mirror box. My first FE2 had a plain ground glass with grid (type E) screen, which I found difficult to focus with. I replaced it with a type K3 (split image/microprism).
Manual and auto exposure. For manual exposure set the shutter speed and aperture as desired. For aperture priority auto exposure set the shutter speed dial to A - it locks in this position. To release, press the small silver button in the middle of the shutter speed dial while turning. Shutter speed range is amazing: 8 seconds to 1/4000.
The meter is center-weighted and on my first FE2 it has proven to be very accurate. My second FE2 wants to consistently overexpose by about one stop compared to the first body and handheld meters. Not sure why. I simply double the ISO to compensate.
Flash. The FE2 has off-the-film reading TTL auto flash control with compatible flashes, which can be more accurate than standard auto flash. Compatible flashes will cause the shutter speed to be set to 1/250 if it's higher though lower shutter speeds can be selected.
Motor drive. The optional MD-12 motor drive can shoot a little over 3 frames per second, takes 8 AA batteries, weighs a ton and is as quiet as a blender. It can be attached or removed while film is in the camera (some motor drives could not and would cause light leaks). Not for stealth shooting but convenient, and they're dirt cheap nowadays, about $30.
Quirks. When loading film, the camera fires the shutter at 1/250 until the frame counter reaches 1. The meter does not activate if the counter is at less than 1.
The bottom line. A fabulous camera that doesn't get in the way.
Choosing between FE/FE2/FM/FM2n/FM3a Do you want the best? The FM3a was the last of the line, and very advanced. It has a manual/electronic shutter that can work without batteries, and aperture-priority auto. If you can afford it, go for it.
Do you prefer mechanical or electronic? The FM and FM2 are all-manual mechanical cameras while the FE and FE2 are electronic and require a battery to operate. When these cameras were manufactured, many photographers felt that cameras dependent on a battery seemed risky.
Do you want an auto mode? The FE and FE2 have aperture priority autoexposure in addition to full manual control. The FM/FM2 only do manual exposure.
Do you want to use really old (non-AI) lenses? The original FE and FM can mount non-AI lenses, while the newer FE2/FM2/FM2n can't. The trade-off is the older cameras top out at 1/1000 vs. 1/4000 for the FE2/FM2.
History. Zeiss, now known for lenses, made cameras until the 1970s. Their medium format folding cameras were mostly sold under the name Ikonta starting before World War II. There were many different formats and lens options over the years. Certo6, who restores folding cameras, has an excellent introduction to the different models.
The Super Ikonta III and IV were the last models produced, from the mid-50s until around 1960. The IV is a III with a built-in light meter.
I found an Agfa Isolette at a local vintage store which I restored and used. I like the size and the quality of the pictures. I didn't like the "guess the distance" zone focusing. I sold the Isolette and bought a restored Super Ikonta III. I've been using it for five years, and like it so much I bought a second two years ago.
I'll talk about my particular camera - with a a 3-element Novar lens, and Synchro-Compur shutter - in this review. Because there were many variations over the years individual models may have different features or specs.
After several years out of photography, and a couple of years using a DSLR I was ready for a change.
My local camera store has a used equipment case strategically placed so you can browse while the staff is in the back fetching whatever it is you came in for.
There was a Mamiya C330 that looked almost new that reminded me of the TLR I used in the 80s. During the next week I kept thinking about it, and I went back to the store to take another look. Too late, sold. They did have one other medium format camera, though...
That's how I ended up with a Hasselblad 500C/M in 2008.
I began shooting the series Descent on medium format using a Hasselblad and the Fuji GF670. My father became more impatient and impulsive and these cameras could not keep up with him. I purchased an F5 because it had fast focus and film advance. I've been using it for about 4 years.