This is a personal account of 16mm cameras that I have come across. For those looking to buy a 16mm camera, things have never looked better, professional 16mm cameras can be bought very cheaply these days. There are so many different 16mm cameras out there which makes choosing one difficult and confusing. First we need to understand that 16mm has three versions or variants;
1] Standard or Regular 16mm, its native aspect ratio is1.33:1 which was ideal for 4.3 television, originally 16mm was double perf, [there were sprocket holes on both sides of the image] but the sprocket holes on one side were replaced for a magnetic or optical sound track.
2] Ultra 16, this is somewhat of a specialist variant and didn't really take off, though it is quite popular with independent filmmakers in the US. Here the image is extended within both perforations making it wider and the native aspect ratio of Ultra 16 is 1.85:1, though not all labs and scanning facilities recognise this variant. It is cheaper than Super 16 and has more lens options.
3] Super 16 is by far the most popular variant, using single perforated film the image is expanded into what was once the soundtrack area. Super 16 makes the most use of the negative area, its native aspect ratio is 1.66:1 making it an ideal fit for widescreen television. Super 16 is still widely used in professional television and film productions.
To make it easier to understand I will put 16mm cameras into broad categories; amateur cameras, student cameras, professional cameras.
These were made from the 1920's to the 1960's, most were simple point and shoot cameras and were strictly standard 16mm, many were purely mechanical machines driven by their wind up clockwork motors and had parallax viewfinders, they normally took 100ft daylight spools, while they were small, relatively easy to load and operate they were extremely heavy.The ones made before 1950 were mostly made for double perforated film only and it's best to avoid these as double perf film is rare and difficult to get hold of. However many of these cameras such as the infamous Filmo and the popular Keystone cameras had 'c' mount lenses and therefore lens inter-changeability. 'C' mount lenses are very common and can be quite cheap. These older amateur cameras can be quite cheap between £10.00 - £100.00 and can be used with modern filmstocks and the results can often be very good.
16mm magazine cameras fit into this category they take 50 feet of 16mm film in a cartridge, they are very small but I have never used one of these camerasI can see that loading film into these small magazines may be tricky, I expect these cameras to be very limited as 50 feet of film will only give just over a minute of screen time.
The legendary Bolex cameras fit into this section, it isn't strictly a student camera, it's used by amatuers and professionals too, even feature films have been made with Bolex cameras. Undoubtedly the Bolex is popular with educational establishments across the world. I am not going to go into much detail there is a lot of literature and several online recources dedicated to Bolex 16mm cameras, but briefly I would say that Bolex cameras are packed with all sorts of features, they are usuall mechanically driven with spring motors, they are usually just standard 16mm cameras though they can be converted to Super 16, the later versions are electric driven and Super 16. My only issue is that they can be heavy especially when you add on accessories lie the 400ft magazine. Prices can vary from £100 for the basic models to £3000 for the more recent Super 16 models.
I would group all the Arri SR1/2/3, 416, the …clair NPR, ACL and Aaton cameras together. All of these cameras are modular, the camera kit usually consists of the camera body, a separate magazine for the film [the …clair ACL has a 200ft magazine] on board batteries and seperate lenses. All of these cameras take 400ft film magazines, they are silent running, and they have professional lens mounts like the PL mount, Bayonet mount and Aaton mount. The cameras are widely used in film and television, here in Britain the Arri's are more common and very popular and virtually everything shot on Super 16 is shot by these cameras. Until recently these cameras were very expensive but in the current market and Arri SR2/3 or an Aaton XTR can be bought for around £2000, this would include the camera body, set of three 400ft magazines, batteries but excluding lenses, PL mount lenses in Super 16 are pretty expensive. …clair cameras are cheaper and they can be had for as little as £500, this is probably because not all Eclairs are Super 16 and they are pretty old, …clair stopped producing cameras around 1985. Some earlier Arri's and Aatons may not be Super 16 but can be converted though the conversion to Super 16 is pretty expensive.
There are some cameras that don't easily fit into my three broad categories that I've mentioned above, they include the Canon Scoopic - which is probably the easiest 16mm camera to use, the Beaulieu R16, the Aaton Minima, Russian cameras and my favourite the A-Cam.There are other cameras that I've not mentioned such as the Mitchells, Auricon and CP-16.
Amateur cameras are often found on populoar auction sites and there are loads to choose from they can sell between £10,00 to £2000, many of them like the Keysone cameras sell for about £10.00, but postage to the UK might be around £50.00, this is because these cameras are heavy. They are almost always spring wound clockwork cameras. Many Keystone cameras were made for double perf film, double perf film is difficult to get these days, if you buy a Keystone 16mm camera you can easily check whether itís for single or double perf film all you do is open the side of the camera [as if youíre about to load it with film] and have a look along the film path, in particular at the large sprocket wheel [in the middle] that the film wraps around. If this has two sets of teeth, one set at the top and the other at the bottom, then the camera is for double perf film only. My Keystone camera was for double perf film I very easily and carefully filed one row of teeth from the sprocket wheel to use the more common single perf [1R] film. The advantage of Keystone cameras is that they are easy on film, give steady images and are small [but very heavy] and most crucially they accept C mount lenses. I use mine with my 17-68mm Angeniuex zoom thus making this a reflex camera. I would probably avoid most older 16mm cameras except the later Bell and Howell cameras like 627.
It is silly to compare an old amateur 16mm camera with a modern professional 16mm camera as they are too different. I am constantly been asked that with professional 16mm cameras selling very cheaply these days, then why do I talk about using old amateur 16mm cameras. The answer is simple, amateur 16mm cameras offer something different, they are simpler machines, they are smaller as they often only can only handle 100ft daylight spools [which are very common] and they are easier to load with film, after all they were aimed at the ordinary person who didnt have specialist knowledge and you can take them with you to risky places where its sometimes too difficult to take a modern professional 16mm camera. These cameras are often spring/clockwork driven and therefore they need no batteries, quite often older cameras are immaculate and they can be easily fixed as they are 100% mechanical and best of all is you can take them with you to risky places.
I would avoid getting any camera that requires a 50ft 16mm cartridge, there are several of these about, they are often smaller, the issue is the cartridges are rare, arenít very good and tricky to load. I would be weary of cameras built before WW2, as almost all 16mm cameras made before 1950 were made specifically for double perforated film, itís better to avoid most of these perhaps with the exception of Keystone cameras.
I am sure that many will be surprised that even a cheap 65 year old camera can provide surprisingly good results, I always say that a good 16mm camera needs to provide steady images, the sharpness is largely due to the film stock and lens, if you are using a camera that excepts different lenses the sharpness will by affected by the lens you choose. I generally avoid older lenses and feel they often create softer images. As a filmmaker I do feel liberated at not having to charge the batteries or look for power outlets to run my camera especially when I am out on location.
For under £100, you can easily get a decent classic Bell and Howell Filmo they are simply indestructible. Many newsreels and location travelogues, or parts of them, even pieces of major movies, from the 1920s into the 1990s were taken with this camera or its very similar siblings. Many donít consider these cameras much largely because they were really consumer quality, but I find because of this they are easier to use and less hassle. As Iíve mentioned before avoid 50ft cartridge 16mm cameras, do not get a 16mm camera that is a "magazine" type or "auto-load" type of any brand. You want a 16mm camera that accepts C mount lenses and one that loads manually and uses 100'ft daylight spools.
100ft of 16mm film is 2 minutes and 46 seconds long at 24 frames per second, 100ft daylight spools are commonly available, these were designed for basic film cameras - some basic cameras allow you to fit an extra magazine that takes 400ft.] Typically on clockwork 16mm camera the longest take [when the camera is fully wound] ranges from 52 to 45 seconds before the spring winds down. On my Keystones the longest shot I can take at 24fps is 30 seconds, the motor starts slowing down after 30 seconds and stops after 35 seconds. With a digital video camera it's easy to shoot for minutes, even hours without having done anything particularly interesting. You can end up with perhaps 10 hours of footage to edit down to 10 minutes - you think you've covered all the bases, but is it at the expense of dumbing down ones critical thinking skills? Learning to tell a visual story with film is a beautiful, thoughtful and a tremendously rewarding process, it teaches you so much about structure, resonance, tightness, that would take you a lot longer to learn if it didn't matter how much film you were wasting, these limitations force an unparalleled disciplined creative thinking.
I think you learn a great deal about the importance of both visual story telling and economic film making. The most liberating thing about clockwork cameras is that you can take the camera anywhere without worrying about a power source. Remember older 16mm cameras will be Regular [often called Standard 16] with the 1.33:1 [4.3] screen ratio, most will be impossible to convert Super 16, but an Ultra 16 conversion may be possible and in most cases itís something you can do yourself, but if you donít want to have such a conversion and you want a wide screen image you can just crop the image, with todayís modern fine grain film-stocks there will be no noticeable quality loss or grain issues.
Itís no secret that I like pretty small film cameras [this is one of the reasons I love Super 8], I feel more independent and liberated, I like the fact that you can film spontaneously and fairly discreetly and you donít need heavy duty tripods and accessories. Recently I have re-discovered my Kiev Alpha, I was putting it away when curiosity got the better of me so I tried it with a dummy reel and it worked flawlessly, so today I put some film in it and it worked great too. Thereís very little information about the Kiev Alpha, it is in fact the smallest and lightest 16mm camera ever. I think it was built in the 1970ís as an amateur cine camera in the in Ukraine during the Soviet era, it has a simple Ďboxyí design which is very 1970ís. The camera has a mechanical spring motor and when fully wound it lasts about 25 seconds at 24 fps, it takes 100ft daylight spool film, a reflex viewfinder, a C-mount for lens inter-changeability, it only weighs 1.6 kg this is because it is made body made from 'polycarbonate resin Diflon'.
The camera doesn't use a mirror shutter like most reflex 16mm cameras, instead it has a 170 degree rotating shutter disk near film gate and for its reflex viewfinder it has a semi-transparent glass between lens mount and ground glass, this pellicle mirror diverts some of the image to the viewfinder. Due to this pellicle there is some light loss suggesting that this camera may not be ideal for low light filming. Iím not sure exactly how much light is diverted to the viewfinder; some sources indicate 30% while others say 50%. The camera has a range of filming speeds of 12, 16, 24, 32 fps and single frame shooting and comes with a VEGA-7 20 mm F2.0 prime lens with a 35 degree angle of view.
In my experience this is a very reliable camera, maybe Iíve just been lucky with mine, Iíve heard that quality control was an issue in the Soviet era and some cameras are useless, but surprisingly my Alpha does not scratch or jam film, though the take up spool can be a little sensitive. The feed and take-up reels are coaxial and are placed next to each other, this makes the camera very small, there is important lever arm that needs to rest between the spools, if the lever arm is wrongly positioned the take up spool wonít rotate properly causing film jamming, it is crucial that both spools are free to rotate independently.
I like the fact that this is a completely mechanical camera where I donít need batteries at all, itís a very compact camera and itís a very easy camera to use, its reflex viewfinder is very good too, being large and bright with good ground glass for critical focusing. Loading it with film has to be done carefully; always being mindful of the separation lever, but loading film is pretty easy and straightforward. I don't have registration tests for the camera, but in my experience the Alpha produces images which are pretty steady similar to those from other 16mm cameras that I have used such as the Bolex, Ikonoskop, and Bell and Howell.
This is strictly a regular 16mm camera i.e. a boxy screen with a 4.3 ratio, an Ultra 16 or super 16 modifications are virtually impossible [Iíve tried], but I was thinking of using a widescreen adaptor [like the Panasonic], but I donít know how heavy it is.
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