127 Film Format and Detrola Cameras

Earlier this year, I came across a gallery of cameras produced between 1939 and 1941 by the International Detrola Corporation, a short-lived electronics company started in Detroit by an ex-Ford Motor Company toolmaker. I was not looking to get into medium format photography, let alone a somewhat obscure format, but I was so enamored with their style that I had to buy the first one I found on eBay...

Detrola model HW, with its lens retracted. A lot of Art Deco style in a small package.

Detrola model HW, with its lens retracted. A lot of Art Deco style in a small package.

The $35 or so I paid turned out to be an incredibly good buy. If you read what few descriptions you'll find about Detrola Cameras online, there's talk of the cheap build quality. Disagree! As far as I know, this 78-year-old camera has never been serviced, but everything still works beautifully. This model is the Detrola HW - the W there stands for Wollensak - Detrola used the nicer Wollensak lenses rather than their own lenses for their higher-end models. As was common in those days, the shutter was built into the lens. The shutter here was a simple spring based mechanism, the kind that have aged much better than other types. For example, the German company Exakta made some beautiful mid-20th century 127 and 35mm SLRs that had cloth curtain shutters that, while being an elegant predecessor of modern curtain shutters, are not known for reliability and are tricky to service.

The big drawback to shooting on 127 format these days is finding film to shoot on. Despite 127 being the format of the once-ubiquitous Kodak Brownie camera line (the childhood camera of both Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson!), there's almost no new rolls of it being made. The one exception is ReraPan, a black & white 100 ISO 127 film made by Kawauso in Japan. Going for around $12 a roll in America, it's very pricey for a film that yields so few shots, but it's nice...

The Kennedy Center and Potomac River on 127 roll film, with a circa 1940 Detrola camera.

The Kennedy Center and Potomac River on 127 roll film, with a circa 1940 Detrola camera.

The wonderful steps at the National Gallery of Art's East Building, Washington, DC.

The wonderful steps at the National Gallery of Art's East Building, Washington, DC.

While the above shot works nicely in portrait orientation, I had actually intended it to be in my usual landscape orientation. This shot was from my first roll with the Detrola, and I learned upon development that it takes rectangular photos which are portrait-oriented when you're holding the camera horizontally, and landscape-oriented when you're holding it vertically. Quite confusing when you're used to shooting with most any modern film or digital camera where it's the opposite! Of course I would have been aware of this off the bat if I had read the Detrola instruction manual that I got with the camera, but who ever reads the manual?

Those familiar with 127 film might be surprised to see a 127 shot that isn't square. Most 127 cameras were designed to produce 8 square photos per roll, but Detrolas were one of the cameras that squeezed 16 exposures from every roll. Rolls of 127 film are marked from 1 to 8 for on their backing paper. Whereas a classic Brownie typically has one little window in the center of the rear panel to see what exposure you're on, the Detrola has 2...

The disk can be turned, both to use the light metering chart, and to cover the two film windows to protect from light leaks.

The disk can be turned, both to use the light metering chart, and to cover the two film windows to protect from light leaks.

This is a 50-year-old roll of Kodak Verichrome Pan film, set to shot one. When the "1" is advanced to the left window, that will be shot two. Then when the "2" is advanced to the right window, it will be on shot three. The plastic of these windows were always red like the red of darkroom safe lights, but with modern panchromatic film (what the "Pan" in Verichrome Pan is short for), the tint doesn't really matter since modern film picks up red light frequencies as much as any other color. Some black duct tape can be seen over the bottom of the pop-off aluminum backing - I was getting minor light leaks.

This is a 50-year-old roll of Kodak Verichrome Pan film, set to shot one. When the "1" is advanced to the left window, that will be shot two. Then when the "2" is advanced to the right window, it will be on shot three. The plastic of these windows were always red like the red of darkroom safe lights, but with modern panchromatic film (what the "Pan" in Verichrome Pan is short for), the tint doesn't really matter since modern film picks up red light frequencies as much as any other color. Some black duct tape can be seen over the bottom of the pop-off aluminum backing - I was getting minor light leaks.

That long-expired Kodak 127 film was picked up off eBay for a few dollars less than rolls of ReraPan would go for. It produced some fun results with nice contrast...

M Street in DC's tony Georgetown neighborhood. It was called safety film because it was made of cellulose acetate, as opposed to the nitrate films from earlier in the century which would start a house fire the second you looked at it wrong.

M Street in DC's tony Georgetown neighborhood. It was called safety film because it was made of cellulose acetate, as opposed to the nitrate films from earlier in the century which would start a house fire the second you looked at it wrong.

18th Street in DC's Adams Morgan neighborhood.

18th Street in DC's Adams Morgan neighborhood.

I can't complain about the performance given that it's 50-year-old film. It had only lost about a stop or two of light sensitivity. It's really a hassle to develop though, because the film is so extremely curled it's tough to get on the film spool, and then it refuses to stay in any of my scanner's film holders. The only way to get flat scans of it was to lay a piece of glass over top of it. So going forward I'll usually stick with the ReraPan.

I recently picked up a Yashica-44 (so named because 127 film is 4 cm by 4 cm in square format), which is considered one of the best 127 cameras ever made....

My first twin-lens reflex camera. Pretty, no?

My first twin-lens reflex camera. Pretty, no?

It seems highly capable, with nice sharp f/3.5 lens(es), a wide range of shutter speeds, and a self-timer. From the one roll I've shot so far...

Back to the ReraPan film. I liked how the clouds seemed to be extensions of the tree. Taken on the summertime 127 Day - July 12, or 12/7 if you write your dates like that. Of course the more American wintertime 127 Day will come January 12. Shooters of 120 format film sadly only get their day just once a year January 20.

Back to the ReraPan film. I liked how the clouds seemed to be extensions of the tree. Taken on the summertime 127 Day - July 12, or 12/7 if you write your dates like that. Of course the more American wintertime 127 Day will come January 12. Shooters of 120 format film sadly only get their day just once a year January 20.

The Yashica is a beautiful machine, but being used to the Detrola I have one major complaint about it - only getting the standard eight shots per roll seems like such a waste, even if the square shots are slightly bigger....

Look at all that unused film real estate between the shots drying in my shower. Sad!

Look at all that unused film real estate between the shots drying in my shower. Sad!

For my next roll with the Yashica, I will ignore the exposure number indicators on the film, and try to keep the shots closer together on the reel so I get 10 or maybe even 12 out of a roll. This can be tricky though, and can lead to shots overlapping, or unintentional double-exposures if you forget to advance and can't check what number shot you're on. I do like having one square format camera, though. [Edit: Readers have informed that the Yashica-44 is indeed made to shoot 12 exposures, and that I just need to learn what I'm doing with it.] I find it funny that shots form cameras so old are the most ready for Instagram's format. Which leads me to conclude this post with a cheap plug - follow me if you're on Instagram! And if you've made it this far, then you'll love the 127 Film Blog - they founded 127 Day, and they feature great work and really know their stuff.