Classic Cameras
Zeiss Ikon Baby Box

The Baby-Box alongside its case.

It's hard not to fall in love with the Baby-Box even before you see the camera itself. If it's in its case, you see the sweetest little saddle-leather box just 31/2x21/5x3". It has a dinky little strap, all of 17" long from end to end, and on the press-stud on the front are the immortal words "Zeiss Ikon," guaranteed to make any photographer's heart beat at least a little faster.

Open the case and ease out the camera--it's a tight fit--and you have something better suited to a large doll, or at least to a particularly winsome child, than to a full-grown adult. It's very basic, it's true, but it is absurdly pretty.

Also known as the Box Tengor and (by devotees of the arcane Zeiss model-number system) the 54/18, the Baby-Box takes 16 pictures, each 3x4cm (1.2x1.6"). Film is Zeiss Ikon A8, better known as 127. This is very small for a contact print, but by 1931, when this camera was introduced, "en-prints" (enlarged contact-sized prints) were reasonably common.

For those who did not care to have their en-prints made commercially, Zeiss offered a choice of two fixed format, fixed focus enlargers to go with the Baby-Box. One enlarged 2x to 6x8cm, roughly corresponding to a 21/4x31/4" contact print from 8 on 120. The other gave 3x for 9x12cm (31/2x43/4"), another popular size as a contact print.

Available Lenses
These enlargement ratios corresponded to the camera lenses available. Both were 50mm, one an f/11 fixed focus, fixed aperture Goerz Frontar, the other an f/6.3 Zeiss Novar triplet with front cell focusing and iris diaphragm. The Frontar would be hard put to support 2x, but the Novar could easily have stood 3x. The films of the day were another matter: in 1931, you'd probably see the difference in grain and sharpness between 2x and 3x enlargements.

The Frontar was in a single speed shutter, 1/25 sec, plus B, while the Novar's self-cocking Derval shutter offered 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 plus both B and T or Z. On B ("Bulb" or "Brief"), of course, the shutter stays open for as long as the release is operated. On T ("Time"), often marked Z ("Zeit") on German shutters, it opens on one pressure and closes on another.

The casual but admirably bright viewfinder consists of a flip-up rear sight and a wire frame that pulls up out of the front of the camera. The shutter release won't work unless the front frame is pulled up. On the right-hand side there's a tommy-bar knob for winding on; one of two post-type strap lugs; a clip for opening the camera, with a delightful little hinged finger pull; the shutter release (which slides vertically in a slot); and a tapered PC-type cable release socket below the release. There is also (on the base model illustrated) a pull-out tab that switches "instantaneous" to "B."

The other side has the other strap lug and a 1/4" Whitworth (0 BA) thread, which is repeated on the bottom. The back has twin red windows--this is the extent of automation!--and the front is utterly beautiful and is graced with a six-sided panel surrounding the lens, Zeiss Ikon written above and "Baby-Box" (with the hyphen) written below. The body is of thin metal covered in black leatherette.

The whole is in superb condition today, over 70 years after the camera was introduced and around 2/3 of a century after it was discontinued. But then, when it was introduced, the English price was the equivalent of around $4--a lot of money in 1931, the equivalent in purchasing power of well over $100 today. (And speaking of prices today, since the Baby-Boxes aren't unusual, the base model illustrated would start at around $50, maybe less. If you paid more than $75 you'd be paying too much. More desirable models might be 50-100 percent more.)

With the Frontar you'll get a good exposure on a sunny day with an ISO 10 film. In 1931, this was a slow to medium speed film: a normal fast film was around ISO 25. You would get an acceptable exposure on a "cloudy-bright" day with slow film, or even on an overcast day with faster film. The extra exposure on a sunny day would be lost in the latitude of the film; on a dull day you would still get an image but it would be somewhat lacking in shadow detail. By 1938, when the Baby-Box was discontinued, films were faster, though ISO 100 was regarded as fast and Agfa Ultra Speed at around ISO 180 was a "super speed" film, held in the same awe as Ilford Delta 3200 or Kodak TMZ P3200 today.

Slow It Down
If you want to try a Baby-Box on a sunny day in the 21st century, you will be well advised to process your Efke 127 film (the most widely available brand) in an ultra-fine grain developer in a bid to get the speed down from a searing ISO 100. An ultra-fine grain developer will drag the speed down a stop or so to ISO 50, and a few stops of overexposure won't hurt that much. It would be a good idea, however, to overdevelop it a little, to make up for the inevitable flatness of a 70-year-old uncoated lens--though the simplicity of the Frontar means that losses and flare due to lack of coating may not be all that serious. Don't even think about color, though.

Each number on the backing paper of the 127 film must appear twice, once in the first red window and once in the second. This is a bit fiddly, though initial loading is easier than (say) a Hasselblad, which uses similar loading technology. Note, though, that 127 films have a post at the end which fits into a hole in the camera, and that only one of these posts is slotted for the wind-on drive.

What are the results like? Don't ask. This is not the sort of camera you use for serious photography, unless you are a certain kind of fine art photographer. Put it this way: I'd rather have a Baby-Box than a Holga.

On the other hand, it's a superb "stunt" camera for showing that indeed a good photographer can get a pleasing photograph with just about any camera--as long as he can live with fixed focus, f/11, and 1/25 sec. The trick, of course, is to find a subject that requires that exposure, at about 8-10 ft...

And, as already intimated, it is unutterably pretty. For the happiest of happy snaps, it really is hard to beat. It's the equivalent of a cheap consumer digital camera today, but you have to ask yourself how many of today's electronic cameras will still be usable in 2075.

To learn more about Efke 127 films, contact Marida Trading Co. by phone at (415) 979-0950 or fax at (415) 979-0945.