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Bullet-hole cameras

Proper blogs seem to be about cameras and lenses rather than photography, so here’s my grab at fame. 🙂

But here’s an unusual thing – instead of comparing cameras that you can’t afford this is a review of cameras that you can’t buy new.

Why am I bothering with this? Because both of these cameras can be had cheap, so you can risk taking them to places or doing things you wouldn’t do with your proper camera. Both of them are very limited in what they can do, so are good for creativity and experimentation. And both of them look funky. Using one of these will make you smile.

Back in 1950 Britain was on its economic knees after the war. Food rationing didn’t end until 1954. The country needed people to buy things and it needed things to buy. So the government arranged an exhibition of manufacturers to show the world that Blighty still had it. One of the companies that stepped up was Ensign, who showed a couple of new cameras. One of them was the Ful-Vue. It had a futuristic design, simple operation and sold well. It was so popular that Ensign brought out the Ful-Vue 2, which they claim sold over one million units during its three-year span.

Meanwhile, over in the USA, they were riding on a wave of mass production from the enormous manufacturing investment of the war. Kodak’s designer, the wonderfully named Arthur Hunt Crapsey Jr, produced an art deco Bakelite camera for the masses. The Brownie Hawkeye evolved through a flash-synced model, stayed in production until 1961 and sold by the squillion.

So what we have here is a head-to-head between two very similar cameras: an Ensign Ful-Vue II and a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye Flash. Both are around 1950 vintage and so older than me. Both still work, unlike most of your later cameras with electronics. These babies will still be taking (not very good) pictures long after the rise of our robot overlords.

Both are very simple roll film box cameras. The large negative meant that simple contact prints of the negatives were acceptable and would be acceptably sharp. Both had a fixed aperture and a fixed shutter speed plus B. The Ful-Vue had a scale-focussing lens while the Kodak was fixed focus. The Ensign offered a shutter speed of 1/30 at f11 while the Kodak gave approximately 1/50 at about f16. America may have had better weather but the Brits had steadier hands. Both cameras used the simplest possible single-element meniscus lens. So technically, pretty much on a par. In marketing terms, these things were both the epitome of Minimum Viable Product.


Nice, simple. Watch out for the slow shutter speed. The shape of the Ensign and the position of the shutter release means you pinch the camera to fire it. This may help the steadiness. The Kodak has a push-down button to fire, but it’s a lighter action than the Ensign.

Both of them use a bright viewfinder through a second lens. The image is reversed like with a TLR so it can be tricky to frame a group or get your verticals right.

There is no interlock to prevent double exposures, so you learn to wind on after every shot. It does make double exposures easy though, if you want them. Plus, if you can put the camera on something steady like a table or wall, you can compensate for the small aperture by taking multiple shots on the same frame or holding it open on B.

Image quality

Fuzzy. Not too bad in the centre. But sharpness is overrated. The film is not held very flat and tends to give pictures that are softer at the sides. Since the negative is square one of the recommended tricks is to shoot groups with the camera rotated sideways. This makes the sides sharper at the expense of the sky and foreground, which is usually fine. Also, if you are shooting expired film or cock up the spool, it’s more likely to be the sides of the film that suffer. Turning the camera sideways and shooting horizontal subjects makes it easier to crop the top and bottom of the frame. But if you thought looking down into a reversed viewfinder was awkward, try sideways…

Pose value

Either. It comes down to a choice of art deco or streamlined curves. The Kodak has a little carrying handle while the Ensign takes a neck strap. Either would go well with a check shirt, beard and no socks. Actually, they are both lovely. You will feel happy using one and people will smile when they see you. Except photographers; they will shake their heads.


The Ensign wins on film choice. It uses 120 film while the Kodak uses 620. Kodak were the Apple of photography and tried to lock competitors out of the market by using dedicated film sizes. 620 is exactly the same film as 120, but rolled onto a spool that is slightly narrower in width with slightly smaller diameter end disks and a thinner centre post. Some 620 cameras have enough slack to take a 120 spool and I’m told that the Hawkeye can be made to take 120 with a bit of judicious fettling. Mine will take a fresh 120 roll on the feed side but will only wind the exposed film onto a 620 spool. No bother as I shoot black and white and develop it myself, so I can keep my 620 spools to reuse.

You can get 120 film in many types and places. 620 is more rare unless you can reroll your own 120 onto 620 spools. Just don’t call it 120mm or the Hypersensitive Photography people will growl at you.

The Kodak needs one to two more stops of light than the Ensign and won’t be sharp for anything closer than about ten feet. The Ensign has a focusing lens but the markings are speculative at best.

But that’s not the point. If you want sharp or adjustments, buy a better camera. These are fun and a challenge. Use one in bright sunlight as they were intended and get some nice retro shots. Or load it with slow film, go out in the gloom and take some long or multiple exposures. Waves of people washing against the rocks of architecture. Trees thrashed by the wind. Streaky skies and empty streets. All this from something that could cost less than a roll of Ektachrome or Portra.


Oh yes. Marred by the totally expired 620 film I tried to use, but what a joy to try and overcome all the constraints. Never again will I moan that my camera doesn’t have a top shutter speed of 1/4000. The only camera more basic than these is a pinhole. In fact, since the lens aperture isn’t that much bigger than a pinhole, can I call these bullet-hole cameras?

Scarborough Castle
Not normally this bad – this was some VERY expired film

Author: fupduckphoto

Still wishing I knew what was going on.

2 thoughts on “Bullet-hole cameras”

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