My Camera History
Part 1 - The Kodak Instamatic - 1970s
The first camera I owned was a basic Kodak Instamatic. I have no record of the actual model but upon image searching the internet I figured it was probably a Kodak Instamatic 133 as these were very popular at the time and the look seemed familiar.
I recall it was lightweight to hold and simple to operate with few settings to tax my skills, including a tacky bent metal shutter release which needed too much force to use so shook the camera with a noisy mechanical clunk whenever pressed. The automatic functioning of the camera was overwhelming so it soon gave up all joy as it lacked creative possibilities. The only decision to make wheen shooting involved making one of two choice settings in the twist action of the lens dependant on whether the shoot was in sunlight or inside
The simplicity did allow the novice camera operator to concentrate on composition however as the lens offered no zoom facility composure involved moving towards or away from the subject. Also as it did not have a direct view single lens reflex [SLR] function whenever you got too close the captured image was not the same as viewed through the edge mounted viewfinder, causing many early photographs to look offset.
A Flashcube connection was available for night shots, although this destructive flash photography method was so expensive and yielded such poor results I rarely used this function.
At the time lining up film roll was a complex process, which I shall cover in greater detail in another article, so the Instamatic range used a 126 film cartridge system meaning loading film stock was a simple case of opening the back, lifting out the cartridge and dropping in a new one. Then wind the film on to start. Then a couple more winds before every other shot. Finally after about 20 odd shots the cartridge was removed and posted off to be returned as a set of negative strips and printed photos. All at great expense. Plus a film processing wait time of a couple of weeks.
This expense meant that shots were considered semi-precious so were limited. It was common to put the camera away with a half used film cartridge then to get it out again several weeks or even months later. So you had to have a system of remembering to roll to the next film image after shooting, to safely secure the picture just taken.
The film selector wheel mechanism was designed to prevent double images being taken. The process was to gently rotate the wheel until a click was felt, which released the shutter for the next shot, then another wind or two until a clunk to signify you had correctly aligned the next image placement whereupon the film counter in the small back rear window advanced the frame counter by one.
With such a design, using a careful rolling of the wheel you could engage the click in readiness to reshoot without moving the film on, meaning a double exposed photograph of two or more separate images. This occured once by accident when I got a picture of both my siblings superimposed onto an image of me. Naturally I tried this technique again in a creative way to get a picture of my sister fleeing an enormous guinea pig [a close up of my pet, Squeeky]. I have posted the images in this article above.
You will see the monster guinea pig picture didn't really work as well as I had hoped. Composition was fine but the exposure between the two frames was mismatched and the pet would not be obvious without explanation.
This was the other issue with film roll photography, any taken image wasn't seen instantaneously, editing wasn't possible and after several months you may receive back many prints of dubious quality. Exposure issues, irregular framing and errant thumbs were commonplace in those days.
In time the days of having a child's camera ended as I finally acquired a semi-serious replacement.
Part 2 - The Cosmic Symbol - 1980s
Around the late seventies I wanted a better camera and yearned for something more than the toy like Instamatic. My budget wouldn't stretch to a full SLR but I wanted something as close as possible to that type of machine.
I remember discussing all this with my father. I'm not sure where he had come across the Cosmic Symbol, a UK adapted Russian Smena Symbol first launched in 1973, but he suggested the simplicity of the operation would suit someone like me graduating from a snap camera. I can't recall anything of the purchasing process, the price or where I got it. Or even if it was a part present. Or what I first used it for but I think I got it around the very beginning of the eighties.
The camera was a boxy shaped device that looked semi-serious with it's black plastic corrugated panels on front and rear. It had a matching black plastic fixed lens featuring focus adjustment as well as another ring to set the exposure. To add further complication around the lens itself was another fiddly fingernail operated adjustment for the film speed.
Taking a picture involved pressing a plastic horizontal lever to the right of the lens, which moved with an initial gentle movement but then clicked on as it fired. On the top left was a lifting film loading wheel spline which incorporated a swing out metal crank handle and in the centre a hot shoe accessory mount for flash units.
On the back of the camera was a centrally mounted image counter, a large cocking lever to quickly move the film stock on one frame in a single action plus a small moveable dial mounted in the centre to remind you what film you had installed.
The worst feature was the same as experienced on the Instamatic, a lack of SLR functionality, again relying on an offset viewfinder meaning the picture taken was never quite the one seen, particularly for close shots. The second worse feature was the reason it was named.
The Symbol moniker was included because this camera not only featured focus gradations on the lens in metres and feet but also added little pictograms to help indicate which settings to use. Icons of heads, full bodies, buildings and mountains were included making the camera look like it was designed for a child. These simple representations were also on the settings ring showing various weather conditions. I suppose they helped the user get a good photo without being able to see via a focus screen but it made the thing look amateurish. Unlike the gorgeous, two piece, protective brown leather case it came in.
Loading a film in those days involved a process of opening the back of the camera, lifting the crank, dropping in a 135mm film roll cartridge, commonly called 35mm film, lowering the crank, feeding the film strip out of the roll and onto some splines on the right hand side, cranking the handle to feed a few turns securely on the shaft, closing the door, winding the film a couple more times all ready for the first shot.
On completion of all shots the crank handle would again be deployed to wind the film back into the roll ready to be removed in the opposite sequence from above.
Film rolls commonly came with a capacity of 36 frames but with judicious use you could get about 38 or even 39 pictures which was pleasing as the price was based on a per roll basis, not per image. Also in those days the price paid for a film included postage and processing which ensured you paid up front. Not only that but with the returned photos you received a money off voucher and freepost envelopes to keep you returning to the same supplier.
You could also select film roll cartridges with 12, 20 or 24 frames which were naturally much cheaper. You also had to choose the film speed, measured in ISO. If you were going to capture shots on a sunny day you would select an ISO 100 film but if you wanted to take pictures in dull lighting or indoors an ISO 400 would be better. ISO 400 would also work best for fast moving subjects as well, such as moving animals or racing cars. Particularly useful if the Grands Prix circuit passed through your bedroom at dusk.
The problem with all this was you couldn't chop and change meaning if you had an ISO 100 film in the camera all the darker scenes would look dark and blurry and if the film was ISO 400 any bright scenes would be grainy. So to counter the problem many usually used a mid point ISO 200 general film meaning sunny shots were not fully crisp and darker scenes had a modicum of grain. But at least you didn't have to use a crystal ball to foresee what you might be photographing in six months time.
The other decision to make was whether to use film roll and processing that returned actual physical photographs or the much cheaper slides. Either way you would also get your originally exposed negative film roll returned as well. Having slides in those days wasn't an issue as many homes had slide viewers or projectors.
I tended to opt for an ISO 200 film stock in a 24 roll format with about two thirds of the time using slides. All decisions made based on my budget limitations, which also restricted the number of times it was used.
I owned the camera for about a decade and remember it fairly fondly. It was rugged, durable and mechanically reliable, particularly in the fitted protective case which aged wonderfully. I always yearned for a true SLR and should have painted out the childish pictorial icons to make it look more mature. Furthermore the brand and name left any enquirer non the wiser so I was lucky to be able to move on.
Author: Vince Poynter
Version m5.316 25 Jun 2020
The first image shows two side by side photos taken with the Kodak Instamatic camera, both featuring multiple exposure images. The one on the left includes three similarly positioned shots with me in the centre, my sister, Dawn, in the foreground and my brother, Mark, in the background. All taken in the back garden of our family home in Southampton, around 1972. The image was mistakenly grouped and only discovered after printing. The right hand image is an attempt to be creative by utilising a similar technique. The idea was for Dawn to be seen fleeing from a monster sized guinea pig with both shots intently merged. The images were taken by me and his family around 1977
The second image shows me holding the Cosmic Symbol in a photograph taken by my new best friend Lynda around 1983 on her Canon AE-1 Program SLR camera
The Kodak Instamatic section was added to the website in Version m5.311 13 Jun 2020
The Cosmic Symbol section was added to the website in Version m5.316 25 Jun 2020
The Cosmic Symbol was produced by LOMO in Leningrad [now St. Petersburg], Russia and has a LOMO T-43 40mm f/4 coated triplet lens. It was produced between 1973 and 1993. Camera data source: Camera Wiki