Kodak Brownie Hawkeye: A cube of Art Deco Bakelite

Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera
The Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera, a robust block of Bakelite that oozes Art Deco, is a paragon of modern camera design. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Kodak Brownie Hawkeye is a true classic, one of the cameras that visually defines an era with its art Deco styling and simplicity. Cheap and plentiful, it’s an icon of its time.

As if it were machined from a single billet of solid Bakelite, the Brownie Hawkeye is a basically a near-cubic brick of the hard plastic, with a lens in the front and a button on the side. The corners are rounded, of course, as it was produced in the age of Deco — from 1949 to 1961.

The Brownie Hawkeye was a popular camera for young photographers in the 1950s, originally priced at $5.50 for non-flash models and $7.00 for flash models.

Accelerated Schools in Denver
The Accelerated Schools on Cook Street in Denver. The private school occupies the historic Fitzroy mansion, a Richardsonian Romanesque-style with ties to the Iliff family which was completed in 1893. (Daniel J. Schneider)

It takes 620 roll film. As you know, 620 is just 120 film rolled onto a smaller spool with thinner ends. Many people believe Kodak did this just to reap the rewards of selling the only film that would work in these cameras, or making a mint in licensing when other companies (at the time, probably Agfa, Ilford and Ansco) had to make their own to compete. Sound business, and I don’t blame them — but 50 years later it leaves guys like me rerolling 120 film onto our hoarded 620 spools.

The Brownie Hawkeye has a simple meniscus lens and a rotary shutter that fires at about 1/30 sec. in instant mode. It also has bulb mode, which you activate by lifting up the grey button on the left (as you look down at the viewfinder). When lifted, the button exposes an “L,” presumably for “Long.”

The viewfinder, referred to as “brilliant” by many sources, is similar to a TLR design. There’s a small lens on the front of the camera, a mirror inside, and a large magnifying element on the top of the camera.

Looking down, you’ll see a blurry reproduction of what the camera sees. Depending on the age of your Brownie Hawkeye, it could be quite dim, too (I have two, and they are both quite dim). It’s backwards and not nearly as big as your TLR or top-down SLR, and it’s frankly not that easy to frame a shot. Fortunately, what you see isn’t quite what you get — the finished frame appears to be about 25 percent larger than what you see in the viewfinder.

Greenbelt along Hampden Avenue
A sunken greenbelt along Hampden Avenue in Denver follows Little Dry Creek, walled off from the concrete sprawl on both sides. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Very late models had an acrylic viewfinder with framing guides molded into it — they have nothing to do with the edges of the frame, but are meant to help budding photographers center and appropriately size the ‘area of interest.’

There are several reasons these particular Brownies are popular with lomographers and toy camera photographers today, not the least of which is just how many of them there are — Kodak probably made a couple million of them. They can be found in almost any antique store in America, and were marketed in plenty of other countries, too. Consequently, they’re cheap.

Beyond that, the lenses and viewfinders in all but the last models were made of glass, and are very easy to take apart. Because they are easy to disassemble, you can remove and clean the lens. If you do this, be careful to keep the lens the right way around. Or don’t.

Some people like to ‘hack’ their Brownie Hawkeyes by reversing the lens. This flipped-lens effect makes the images slightly softer in the center, and somewhat more soft than that around the edges. Some people do this on purpose, though it may require a bit of effort (I have not tried this). There is also a square piece of flat glass in front of the lens which will fall out if you take the camera apart — be careful not to break it (one of mine is cracked).

Army Surplus on Broadway
A winding maze of narrow aisles bedecked with gas masks and a cutaway training model of a B.A.R., the Broadway Surplus store in Denver has everything you need for camping, fishing, survival, and all kinds of other things. (Daniel J. Schneider)

As you can see, the edges are already a bit softer than the center, as is common with meniscus lenses. The falloff doesn’t become noticeable until you get pretty close to the edge, though, and even then it’s not really that bad. Overall, sharpness is much higher than many of my other box cameras, such as the Imperial Debonair, getting just a bit dreamy in the outer 20% or so of the frame. The Brownie Hawkeye’s fixed focus is from 5 feet to infinity according to the manual.

The fixed aperture appears to be about f/16, and the focal length is reportedly around 85mm. Despite its good looks, there isn’t a whole lot to this camera that doesn’t apply to most Brownies. Well, it was designed by period genius and industrial design legend Arthur H. Crapsey.

All but the earliest models accept a Kodak flash attachment with one pin and one screw, such as the Kodalite Flashholder. Loading film is done by flipping the little switch at the base of the handle and sliding the back cover off. It has no double-exposure prevention and no tripod mount.

The Brownie Hawkeye was available in a variety of outfits over the years, most including a flash attachment along with bulbs, film and batteries. A field case and a couple lens attachments were also available.

Observatory Park in Denver
A jogger takes a moment to relax in the grass of Observatory Park in Denver, with the dome of the observatory visible over the trees. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Student observatory
This smaller observatory was reportedly built to allow younger students to find their feet before winning a place under the larger dome. The main observatory houses a 26-foot-long, 20-inch-diameter aperture, f/15 Alvan Clark-George Saegmuller refracting telescope built in 1894. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Englewood United Methodist Church
With its steep concrete sides and jagged roofline, Englewood United Methodist Church is a great example of Denver’s Mid-Century Modern heritage. I don’t think it was used in Sleeper, but it probably should’ve been. (Daniel J. Schneider)

While I’ve seen some others’ example photos that look fairly stellar, as you can see I didn’t find the lens quite that sharp. Now that could be the result of dirt in my own examples, or owe to the fact that the lenses underwent changes through the years, and mind aren’t in as good of shape as they could be.

Personally, I found the smallish “bright” viewfinder difficult to frame a shot with. It didn’t seem possible to get straight horizons and decent composition out of the camera, especially not knowing quite how much of the frame was going to be outside the viewfinder area. The curvature of the viewfinder glass is deceptive sometimes. I just wasn’t terribly impressed with the overall function.

That said, It’s lovely and feels pretty good in the hand. I think I just am starting to prefer box cameras with an eye-level viewfinder. The Kodak Brownie Hawkeye can’t be beat for looks and availability, tho, and it’s certainly easy to use.

It’s easy, really. Just like any other box camera. Pick one up today! (Or don’t!)

Chamberlain Observatory
The University of Denver’s historic Chamberlain Observatory was completed in 1890, also in the Richardson Romanesque style. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera
Author Rating