Ansco Shur-Flash box camera review and photos

Denver City and County Building
A snowy view of the Denver City and County Building (yes, THAT shot) with the Ansco Shur-Flash and Ilford Pan-F+. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Ansco Shur-Flash (sans flash) is the only camera I found on a trip to Denver’s Mile High Flea Market, but it was well worth the drive.

It’s not that there weren’t other cameras at the flea market, just no others I wanted to buy.

I have other box cameras, though no functional ones of the paperboard-construction era like this. My Brownie Junior Six-16 is in rough shape and the viewfinder mirrors have all come unglued. Most of my boxes are Bakelite beauties from the Art Deco period.

Ansco Shur-Flash front
Front view of the Ansco Shur-Flash box camera, with it’s beautiful pressed steel front plate. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Ansco Shur-Flash, though, is both in one — it’s paperboard construction, mirrorless viewfinder, Art Deco and utility all wrapped into a neat, attractive package with a shining stainless steel front panel and a big, Cyclopean lens dead center (not that it would be terribly useful anywhere else).

In fairness, I didn’t spot it first — Kate did. But it made its mark as soon as she pointed. I negotiated the price down to $12 and carefully added it to my camera bag for the ride home.

Features

It doesn’t have many. It’s simpler than the Minolta SR-T 200. It’s got basic camera things in it like a shutter and shutter release button, a film advance and a lens. Oh, and flash contacts.

That’s right, it’s an early-ish example of a box camera with flash contacts. Mine didn’t come with its flash, but that’s okay with me. It’s honestly much more elegant without it (see for yourself).

The shutter speed seems to be around 1/40 sec. like most other boxes of its era; unlike some, it has only snapshot mode — no bulb mode. It’s got an aperture somewhere around f/11 that is very nearly exactly f/22 (h/t commenter James T. Randall).

The Shur-Flash was reportedly introduced in 1953. A kit with the camera, flash attachment, four flash bulbs and three rolls of Ansco film sold for $9.45 in 1955 (it was on sale for $5.99 on the weekend of July 2-3, 1955, at Mack’s in Schenectady, N.Y., according to an ad in the June 28, 1955, Schenectady Gazette).

Ansco Shur-Flash side
A side view of the Ansco Shur-Flash shows how shiny the front plate is, and the simple viewfinder, winder, and very easy-to-use shutter button. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The shutter release button is big for its day. It’s not just a little switch near the lens like so many Brownies. It’s located on the side, or top, in just the right place for your right index or middle finger when holding the camera up in “landscape” mode, and it’s neither so easy to depress that you’ll fire accidentally, nor so difficult that you’ll induce too much movement for the relatively slow shutter.

At f/11 and 1/40th sec, you’ll make good exposure with 50 or 100 ISO film in reasonably full sun. As you’ll see below, you may want ISO 200 or 400 for mostly cloudy or heavily overcast days.

I tested the Ansco Shur-Flash with a roll of Kodacolor VR 100 that expired in 1985. I don’t know how it was stored before it spent a couple years in my refrigerator, but I’m guessing not well. As you can see below, the backing paper’s markings bled onto the film, leaving impressions of all the arrows and numbers in a strange, ghostly purple, and a yellowish cast over most of the frames. The film also exposed more like ISO 8 or 16 (2-3 stops underexposed), which would be consistent with the 1-2 stops per decade of deterioration expected with most color films.

The film advance knob is comfortable to use, if a bit small. Its “winged” shape is easier to turn than many knurled knobs. It also has a one-way clutch, so you can’t accidentally wind the wrong way and add more scrapes to your negatives.

Ansco Shur-Flash open
A view of the Ansco Shur-Flash opened up and awaiting a roll of film. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The film path is pretty clean and even features two long, thin rollers for the film to move over, so scratching is considerably lessened compared to many of its competitors, particularly most of the Bakelite ones — pretty advanced compared to most cameras of that era that I’ve tested.

The lens is big — almost twice the diameter of several of my other, similar 6×9 box cameras. It’s not bad, either. It’s pretty darn sharp in the center, and while it goes soft at the corner, it’s not all that soft, and is really quite a pleasant effect.

The Ansco Shur-Flash camera’s biggest enemy is its slow shutter. As photo.net user TW Oliver reports, “‘Shur’ hand needed for the Shur-Flash.” As you can see below in the photo of Denver’s Ogden Theatre, very little movement is needed to soften your photo’s edges. But in the photos of downtown seen from Cheesman Park and the man on the ladder you can see the lens is capable of an exceptionally sharp exposure, for a $10 (about $82 in 2013 dollars) box camera.

A man and his pot-bellied pig
A man and his pot-bellied pig out for a stroll in Cheesman Park, at the heart of the historic Cheesman Park neighborhood in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Cheesman Park Pavilion
The Cheesman Park Pavilion was dedicated in 1908 and has been a popular location for senior and wedding photography as long as I’ve lived in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Downtown Denver from Cheesman Park
A view of the Cheesman Park neighborhood’s high rises and downtown Denver from the steps of the Cheesman Park Pavilion. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Inside Cheesman Park Pavilion
Looking out from the Cheesman Park Pavilion, it’s clear the Kodacolor VR 100 wasn’t good for its rated ISO 100 any more. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Liks Ice Cream in Cheesman Park
Liks Ice Cream parlor in Denver’s Cheesman Park neighborhood is a fantastic place for fresh, delicious ice cream in both traditional and interesting non-traditional flavors. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Penn Garage, Denver
Penn Garage has been servicing cars in Denver for over 60 years, and their building at 13th Avenue and Ogden Street in Capitol Hill is full of classic character. (Daniel J. Schneider)
ReCyclery Cafe Denver
At 14th Avenue and Ogden Street in Capitol Hill is ReCyclery Cafe Denver, featuring a table made from an ironing board and some bicycles. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Ogden Theatre Denver
The Gaslight Anthem’s tourbus is parked on Ogden street a quarter block south of Denver’s historic Ogden Theatre. Steadiness clearly matters with the Shur-Flash. (Daniel J. Schneider)
16th Street Mall
A look up the 16th Street Mall from around Cleveland Street in downtown Denver. The ISO 50 Ilford Pan-F+ was no match for a heavily overcast day. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Civic Center snow storm
Snow comes down fast over Denver’s Civic Center, nearly obscuring the Denver Public Library Central Branch in the distance. (Daniel J. Schneider)
After the snow
Repairs on the roof of The Denver Post building in downtown Denver after an overnight snow. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Ansco Shur-Flash box camera
Author Rating
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  • James T. Randall

    You can clear the numbers that “bled through” by thoroughly pre-soaking the film before developing. They aren’t actual ink transfer, but are caused by the film emulsion drying out unevenly. The inked parts of the paper backing in contact with the emulsion wick moisture away slower than the blank areas. Pre-soaking allows full re-hydration and evens out the difference allowing for correct development. I enjoy using expired film and paper, and prefer developing with Caffenol mixes. I don’t have a blog specific to that work, but you can see my latest art and photography at… https://www.facebook.com/up.urz.94 I came here to see what you had to say about the Ansco Shur-Flash, because I just got one. Nice write-up. Good shots! BTW – I measured the aperture at 3/16″ and the Focal Length at 4″ (from the lens not the aperture), that works out to an f/21.333 – which explains why you may have gotten even slower exposures than you would expect for that 1985 film.

    • Yowza. Maybe I should start measuring these apertures myself instead of trusting the resources I find online. f/22 is pretty small for a simple box camera like this, so yeah, that would definitely contribute to the underexposure I saw.

      That’s a great tip about pre-soaking the film. That was the only the third or fourth roll of really expired 120/620 I’ve attempted and the first to show those marks. I had the film processed at a local lab, but if I find more C-41 that old, I’ll definitely ask them if they can pre-soak it (and I’ll have to remember to do so on any B&W I find that’s that old). Thanks for the really helpful explanation!

      • James T. Randall

        Your welcome. I’m really just parroting advice I’ve gotten from others regarding Caffenol and other alternative techniques. The pre-soaking may not always work, depending on many conditions. BTW – I’ve had success developing C-41 in Caffenol. Since there’s no bleach step, the orange mask is left behind and you must use a 2700K light source to get a decent B&W print. You usually can’t tell the difference from standard B&W proc in the finished print. When the conditions are right the staining effects can be really interesting. Otherwise, the Caffenol rivals commercial developers once you get used to using it – and it costs next to nothing. I was looking forward to removing the faceplate and taking a few “pinhole” images with the Shur-Flash. At f/22 it’s a magnitude lower than what I’m used to using, but it should make some interesting Bokah effects with an extremely narrow field of view. I’ll fit a proper aperture for the next roll of film I put through it. Film photography is a lot of fun.

        • Yeah, I’ve wanted to try Caffenol, but haven’t had much luck getting the washing soda in the U.S. I’m still learning to use HC-110 expertly, though, and it’s so cheap in syrup form I’ve developed over 100 rolls from a single $20 bottle and it’s still got plenty left.

          I don’t do real prints… I don’t actually have any darkroom experience or access to one. Someday…

          Also don’t have much experience with pinhole, but it’s another thing on my list. more to explore with film, for sure. I love it!

          • James T. Randall

            I had the same trouble finding sodium carbonate here in Canada, so I make it myself. Sodium Bicarbonate reduces to pure Sodium Carbonate at temperatures above 50C/122F, with small amounts of Carbon Dioxide and Water as byproducts. I lay out the bicarb on a cookie sheet in an even layer and bake it in a pre-heated oven at around 250F for 20-30m and then let it cool in the oven for a few hours. Cheaper and more pure than any washing soda you can find in a store. Using whatever you have at hand is the nice thing about home developing. No matter what you use for chemicals.

            I only got back into film via alt.photo.proc to do large format and pinhole images on vintage papers and film – as well as anthotypes and other methods. The friend who sent me my first pack of 1970 paper got me hooked on the Caffenol. I had a few old rolls of C-41 lying around and moved onto other film from there.

            I made a bathroom photo lab, which is far more easy than it sounds. It was already windowless, so that made it easier. I made my enlarger out of a couple of cardboard boxes – using an inverted 35mmSLR as the projector head. Before that I only made the pinhole images, contact exposures, and photograms with open light sources. I did have to buy a safelight bulb and some fixer. I didn’t even have a developing pot and reel. I’ve been doing my films by cutting it into strips, folding it backwards, holding it with binder clips, and doing it in a ceramic Dutch Oven for a light-proof pot. I was absolutely shocked that it worked perfectly the first try! I’ve spent well under $100, and most of that was to buy a big box of new high quality photo paper. There’s something special about seeing the image form as you develop papers, and being able to control the more subtle aspects of the finished print. The toning and other stuff you can do really turns it into an Artistic process.

            Thankfully my friend sent me an old vintage bakelite pot and reel that arrived today. The Ansco Shur-Flash and a roll of old 120Acros-ISO100 were a completely unexpected bonus!

            Sorry to go on, and on about it. Maybe you’ll try it out one day…

          • Man, talk about DIY to the max! You ought to be blogging about this stuff; I’m sure lots of people would be fascinated by how cheap you’ve made things. I had read before about making your own sodium carbonate, but haven’t given it a try yet. Someday… Printing, too: Someday… I’m still very much enjoying testing vintage and toy cameras, and frankly, just learning to be a photographer. And, to be fair, I’m still much more interested in the act of taking the picture than all the stuff that comes after. For now, at least. Still trying to find my own way down the paths I saw traveled by Nat Geo and Life photographers when I was a kid, you know? But I’m definitely bookmarking your comments for the future!

  • sheila

    Enjoyed your article. I have this exact camera, and it still is in excellent shape. I believe it is the camera my father brought to Korea with him in 1949. He took hundreds of pictures with it. Still has the original carrying box too. So here is my question, how do you remove the inner box out, to put film in? I don’t want to force or break anything.

    • Thank you! The history of so many of my cameras is lost because of the ways I acquire them, but I know so many of them have stories like yours, and I always feel like I’m holding a grain of sand in the beach that is history when I handle one.

      These old Anscos are made with surprisingly tight tolerances, and the inner box doesn’t just fall out on its own. It’s held in by the film advance knob on the side.

      So the first thing to do is pull that film advance straight out from the side of the box. It may be a little firm, but gentle pressure should get it out, and it should slide out about 1/4″ or 3/8″. Now the insert should move more freely.

      When you open the back, you should see the shiny metal frame of the mask (see the fourth photo up above for a look at the camera opened — the “front” of the insert is the tapered-down end with the film spool holders). I found it easiest to then hold the camera with the lens pointed down, spread out the fingers of one hand in the opening of the film mask with my fingers just inside and touching at least a couple of the sides or corners — think of the way you would hold a rubber band open near the tips of your fingers in order to get it around a thick bundle of something. Then you just sort of wiggle the insert around as you lift up gently and it should slide out pretty easily.

      Let me know if you still have trouble and I’ll get mine off the shelf and try to be more helpful!

      • sheila

        Thank you so very much Daniel. Pulled out the film advance knob, and it opened right up. Now to find some film and give it a try!
        My dad’s pictures of Korea taken with this camera told the stories of the impoverished country and the hardworking people he came across while in the Army there. All the pictures and stories, were not appreciated by me as I grew up. Now that my father is in a nursing home, and I go about my day to day life, taking photographs of my own, I appreciate how he took the time to capture the people, and the country he was trying to help over 60 years ago!