July 12 isn’t historically notable, though a few things of note have happened on that day. The Rolling Stones had their first performance in 1962 and “Family Feud” debuted on ABC in 1976. Pablo Neruda and Henry David Thoreau share it as a birthday, along with Kodak founder George Eastman, who was born in 1854 in Waterford, New York. Coincidentally, July 12 is also World 127 Film Day, which celebrates the nearly dead and almost forgotten film format that Eastman’s company created.
George Eastman’s first big contribution to photography was his invention of roll film. While experimenting in his home he created the first practical film in roll form, eventually patenting it in 1884 and releasing the first roll film camera, the Kodak Black, in 1888. The creation of roll film was the first step in photography’s journey toward democratization that continues today. Throughout most of the 19th century photography was the realm of a select few who had access to field cameras and the technical knowledge needed to successfully expose and process images. Roll film and the Kodak Black made photography more accessible to the average person and quickly made Eastman Kodak the world’s foremost supplier of film.
A Brief History of 127 Film
Unsatisfied with simply riding the success of their initial roll film, Kodak continued to search for ways to put their products into the hands of more potential photographers. In 1912, Kodak was about to release its newest and most consumer-friendly camera yet — the Vest Pocket Kodak (browse for Vest Pocket Kodaks via our eBay affiliate link here). As the name suggests, it was a folding camera capable of fitting in the vest pocket of the user. For a camera of such proportion to work, the company developed a new film format: 127 roll film.
Initially nicknamed vest pocket film after the camera it accompanied, the paperbacked film was 4.6 centimeters wide, placing it between medium format and 35mm film in terms of potential image area.
Early 127 cameras took eight exposures in the 4×6.5 format. Shooters would have the film developed and would typically receive paper contact prints, since enlargements were exceedingly rare in the early 20th century. A few years after its debut, Kodak released 127 film with its Autographic feature, which allowed the photographer to write on the back of the film while it was being used.
The film was wildly successful on its release because of its affordability and the fact that the cameras using it — typically folding cameras — were so portable. When sales of practically everything were threatened by the Great Depression, manufacturers began offering cameras that squeezed sixteen 3×4 exposures onto a roll, giving consumers twice the bang for their valuable buck.
Despite its early success, the popularity of 127 film was quickly giving way to the more cost-efficient 35mm format. That format’s smaller size and greater number of exposures led to its widespread use by photographers during World War II. Despite lagging sales, 127 film continued to sell, and even experienced a revival of sorts in the 1950s with the release of many cameras that used it to produce 4×4 exposures. Cameras like the Imperial Satellite and Kodak Brownie were huge sellers, as they were both cheap and easy to use. The format remained popular in tourist destinations where vacationers preferred the larger 2” square transparencies 127 offered. Known as “superslides,” the projections were much more vivid and offered greater depth than 35mm film.
Despite this brief resurgence in popularity, the increasing automation in 35mm cameras continued to hurt sales of 127 film, and the introduction of 126 film in 1963 and 110 film in 1972, both of which used cartridges to take even more difficulty out of the process, all but crushed 127 as the choice for tourists and point-and-shooters.
It wasn’t until 1995 that Kodak ceased production of 127 film. But even in 2019, much like the film community itself, 127 refuses to disappear completely. Photographers wanting to try this now unusual format today still have the opportunity to do so with a number of interesting cameras.
The biggest obstacle to shooting 127 film today is finding some. A few 127 emulsions are still kicking around if you can find them in stock. For black-and-white shooters there’s Rollei Rera Pan 400, the Ilford HP5-inspired PAN 400 and the Rera Pan 100. For color, there’s the Rollei Crossbird, a “creative” 200 ISO-speed film that has to be cross-processed in C-41 chemicals and the Rera Chrome 100 slide film. Each roll costs between $10-15 and while there’s not a lot of choice, it’s still fresh film when you can find it in stock. A somewhat cheaper alternative is a number of expired 127 film available online, including Agfa Isopan, EFKE R100 Ilford FP4+ and more. There are also a number of mom-and-pops cutting down 120 film and spooling this onto 127 film spools, which are smaller. And it should finally be mentioned that developing 127 film is no more challenging or expensive than developing 120 film, and can be done at home with standard Patterson tanks and reels (which easily adjust for the size difference across 35mm, 120, and 127).
127 Cameras for the Beginner and Pro
To shoot the film, you’ll need a camera. For the latter part of its existence, 127 film was geared toward those who didn’t want to fuss about with controls and settings, leading to most 127 cameras being as basic as the era allowed. This means they are often available in flea markets and junk shops for very little money.
Take for instance, the aforementioned Kodak Brownie and Imperial Satellite. Kodak produced millions of Brownie 127s in three variations in their UK factory from 1952 to 1967, often badging the exports to the United States as Brownie Starlet. Initially made from Bakelite (the first synthetic plastic), they had rotary shutters with speeds of 1/50th of a second or 1/40th of a second, and plastic Meniscus and Dakon lenses with focal ranges of 51mm and 64mm (both at fixed apertures of f/14). Taking a picture was easy: Just wind the film with a knob and push the shutter release. The camera only had one aperture and shutter speed, so just cross your fingers when you push the button.
Imperial was a camera brand made by the Herbert George Company of Chicago, who in 1961 became the Imperial Camera Company. They made a number of backlight and plastic cameras, including the first series of colorful cameras. These included models with outstanding names, such as the Debonair, Official Cub Scout, Official Girl Scout, Princess and the Mercury Satellite. Nearly all of these operate in the same method as the Brownie/Starlet, with plastic lenses and fixed shutter speeds and apertures. While they are available online for less than the price of a case of beer, it’s both cheaper and easier to just go to your local junk shop where they are frequently available in abundance. Be sure that the camera you are buying shoots the format film you want, however. Imperial’s 127 cameras have 127 in the name: the Imperial 127 Reflex, The Mercury Satellite 127 and the Imperial Satellite 127. Others shoot either 620 film or 120 film.
But to say that all 127 cameras are basic or consumer oriented cameras isn’t exactly true. The 127 format also birthed some truly impressive cameras from the likes of Rollei, Zeiss, and other legendary brands, which would feel just right in the hands of a seasoned professional photographer.
Shooters wanting a more premium experience will find it with the TLR Rolleiflex 4×4, also adorably called the Baby Rolleiflex and Baby Grey. Released in 1957, with a Schneider Xenar 60mm f/3.5 taking lens and Heidosmat 60mm f/2.8 taking lens, it produces twelve 4×4 cm images per roll. It is one of the finest 127 cameras ever made with a price tag that confirms its reputation. Today a Baby Rolleiflex in great condition can run between $400-500, a steep price to pay considering the meager film options available with which to use it.
Introduced around the same time as the Baby Grey, the Yashica-44 is another popular high-quality TLR 127 camera. It has a three-element Yashicor 60mm f/3.5 taking lens with a Copal shutter capable of speeds from 1 second to 1/500 second and bulb mode. Interestingly, the first 44 model initially sold for the same amount as Yashica’s medium format 6×6 TLR. Later, a more basic version, the 44A was developed with a more limited shutter and fewer creature comforts like a bayonet filter. A more elaborate model, the 44LM was also released, which came with a selenium-cell light meter and more modern design. The regular Yashica 44 typically sells for $100, with the 44A and 44LM models both varying greatly in price between $100-500.
Many other 127 cameras options abound, including the Kowa Komaflex-S, the Foth Derby, Ricoh Super 44. That’s without even getting into the seemingly endless number of folding cameras from the early part of the late century. The notable among them include the Zeiss Ikon Kolibri, Zeh Goldi and, of course, the Kodak Vest Pocket. These are typically available for much lower prices than the TLR cameras mentioned earlier. But they also come with the additional rigors and delicacy brought on by their age. It’s entirely possible that they will still produce many interesting images for many years. But they could equally end up nothing more than an artifact for your mantle or bookshelf. Which in and of itself isn’t entirely a bad thing either.
Is 127 worth the trouble today?
After all is said and done, you might be left with a nagging voice in your head asking, “Is shooting 127 film really worth the trouble?” Truth be told, it’s hard to answer in the affirmative. The film community is strong in its support of different stocks and formats — take the current attempt at reviving pack film for example. But when we defend the existence of a film (like Kodak Ektachrome, Fuji Acros, etc.) there’s typically something unique or advantageous that comes with it. It’s hard to find something unique about 127 film, or an advantage that it gives shooters over other formats. 35mm is both more portable and economic, while 120 offers a bigger negative at a cheaper cost. 127 film was in use before both of those, but lacks any clear advantage over either, unless you’re especially attached to a particular 127 camera.
With the rarity and cost of the few 127 film stocks remaining and the typically high cost of a quality camera to shoot it with, there’s no question that shooting 127 in 2019 is a labor of love and money. If it’s worth it in any way, it must be in a historical context. As the first format that really brought photography into the household, it’s a valuable experience to shoot 127 film with a Vest Pocket camera. But if you’re interested in doing so, might we recommend doing it sooner rather than later. There’s no telling how many more World 127 Film Days we’ll be able to celebrate.