Shooting the Often Overlooked Kodak Instamatic 500
--A High End Instamatic--
One of the most overlooked film cameras around is the Kodak Instamatic 500. Lumped into the same category as other Kodak Instamatic cameras, it can most often be acquired at a reasonable cost. But underneath that Instamatic labeling is a shining star that captures crisp images, and is fully adjustable. A German camera that records square negatives in near 35mm size, and fits into your shirt pocket. This article was created for two reasons. First, is an attempt to place in one location enough general information about this camera to both have an overview of the camera and a general guide on how to reload and use the camera today. Second, as is always the case with the internet, information is floating around that seems wrong to me. I can only provide what I have experienced with the Kodak Instamatic 500. This information may or may not transfer to other Instamatic models. Some of the information herein was gathered from other sources. I have attributed those sources where available. Other details come from my interaction with this camera model and film.
Made completely in Germany. A Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar f/2.8, 38mm, 4-Element lens that stops down to f/22. Set into a Compur Leaf shutter that will function at up to 1/500 of a second. Sound like a well-made, expensive European camera? In fact it is. The ubiquitous Instamatic Model 100, which sold for $15.95 new in 1964, is one of the models that comes to mind when one thinks of "Instamatic". During the same time, the Instamatic 500 sold for $94.50! That equals $755.59 in 2018 money. Not the cost of a professional camera, but far from a throw away piece of plastic!
The 500 uses a Gossen selenium meter. Exposure needle is observed along the very bottom of the viewfinder. You have to look for the meter or you will miss it. I have found that most people cannot easily find the meter, and therefore sell the camera as "meter not working". There is a hot shoe and also a PC flash socket. Body has a tripod socket. Shutter release is threaded for a cable release. The lens accepts standard 32mm Kodak Retina filters and lens hoods. F stop, shutter speed, and distance scale are found on the lens. The camera is not a rangefinder, and distance must be estimated and set via the scale. The lens can be retracted into the camera body when not in use, adding to the cameras compactness. Often overlooked is the ability of this camera model to sense, and adjust to the film speed of the 126 cartridge being used. More on this later.
According to Kodak, the 500 was produced for only two years, from 1964-1966.¹
Now the downside, which applies to all Instamatics. The camera uses the same 126 film cartridge size. I do not consider the film size itself a downside, the exposed negative is close to 35mm in size. The downsize is the delivery method, the cartridge. Even then, the cartridge in and of itself is not the problem. It is the fact that the film/cartridge is no longer produced, and never designed to be reloaded. So before you go any further, you must come to grips with the fact that loading, advancing, and unloading film for this camera is difficult. Not hard to place the cartridge itself into and out of the camera. Rather, difficult to manually, in the dark, load film into the cartridge. Explicit rules must be followed to advance the film between shots. Then, when you have exposed the film, removing the exposed film, in the dark, from the cartridge so it can be developed. Especially if you use a lab for your developing. These issues can be overcome. With practice, the whole process is not really that hard. It is just more time consuming than with other film cameras.
This article is about actually using this camera, so we will focus on three orderly steps: Loading 126 cassettes with film. Advancing the film in the camera. Unloading the film from the 126 cassette. There are tricks that must be mastered to be successful in using the Instamatic 500 today.
I have specifically avoided talking about any of the aftermarket 126 cartridges. My personal experience has found some issues with such cassettes. Light leaks and in correct fit seem to be common. I am sure these things will be worked out, but for that reason I will not be discussing aftermarket cartridges in this article.
It is in vogue today to expose legacy films, because they can sometimes produce interesting and unique result, however I am not going to cover shooting expired 126 cassettes. Reading the manual explains how. This discussion is about reloading the cassette with current 35mm films, in hopes of producing great images.
The International Standards Organization covered 126 film cassettes under ISO 3029. Because the film has not been produced for many years, the organization has removed the standard from its library. The couple of places where I was able to find a copy, wanted nearly $100 for the proviliege of downloading this outdated document. Therefore I must rely on information I have obtained from others for some of this standardizaton information.²
The standardization for this film type covered film speeds between ISO 20 and ISO 1600. However, no cartridges were ever produced with a speed higher than ISO 400. 126 cartridges were produced between 1963 and 2000.³ Since the product was designed for the consumer on the go, the cassette was not made to be opened for reuse. The cartridge would be sent, or given to a photo lab, which would crack open the cassette to remove the exposed film, thereby distroying the cartridge. Since this was the development method used, and to ensure a light tight cartridge, each cassette was glued closed at the factory.
The primary method of shooting the Instamatic 500 today is by reusing existing 126 cartridges. One can also find several sellers of 3D printed replacement 126 cartridges. Each has its drawbacks and beneifits.
So how does one get the old stock cassette open so that new film can be installed? As of this writing you have two methods. Easest is to purchase a cassette at a place like eBay, from someone who has already cracked the case for you. There are advantages to this method. The most important is that the seller likely has had practice cracking cassettes. That increases the likelyhood that you will receive a cassette that has been correctly opened, so that the case will fit back togather and be light tight for its future application. It is not always easy to open such cartridges without ruining them. I have a half dozen or so cartridges that I have successfully cracked open. The down side of the DIY method is that for me, I ruin about 2 cassettes for every 1 cassette I successfully open. 126 cartridge film is becoming scarce enough that you are likely to spend $7 - $15 for each cassette. $20 or so will allow you to purchase an already successfully cracked cassette. Your choice. There is however, one very good reason to break open your own cassettes. That is if as in this case, you are going to use the cartridge in a camera such as the 500 that can sense film speed.
Film speed sensing or manually allowing for a camera to adjust film speed is common in most cameras. The Kodak Instamatic 500 is one of the few Instamatics that have this capability, so it makes sense to take advantage. Current films are designed to have several stops of latitude when it comes to exposure. This means that with most films you can underexpose at least 1 stop, and overexpose several stops, while still producing a negative that has enough detail to create an acceptable "snap shot" image. This is why the cheaper Instamatics could get away not having a method to adjust for film speed (ASA/ISO). Under or over exposure was compensated for during printing. Instamatic film was developed by something like a 1-Hour lab. Remember that these were snap shots, not meant by the shooter to be works of art. As such, expectations were much less. If the resulting 4" x 4" print was not horrible, everything was A-OK.
The Model 500, was designed for the more descriminating photographer. As such, accounting for film speed was considered necessary and expected. This was accomplished on the 126 cassette with a slot cut into the outside of the cartridge. Placement of that slot, referenced the speed of the film inside the cassette. The 500 had a lever that found the "slot" in the cartridge when the camera back was closed, locking in the correct film speed. The images below further explain how this interaction worked.
In order to get the most accurate exposure when using the Instamatic 500, film speed should be accounted for. If you purchase a different cassette for each speed film you plan to use in the camera, then you have covered that piece of exposure. A different cassette designed for each speed film is not necessary if you wish to manually adjust exposure to compensate for the speed difference.
Lets look at some additional details on how 126 cartridge film designated film speed. In image #4 you can see the lever that mates with the slot in a cartridge. This lever travels right to left when the back is closed. It is spring loaded to continually push the lever down. When the camera door closes and a 126 cartridge has been installed, the lever begins its travel, stopping when it reaches the "slot" in that particular cartridge. Where the lever stops, identifies and sets the Instamatic 500 for the correct speed of that film.
The International Standards Organization set the size and position of the slot for each speed of film. I found what I believe are those ISO measurements.⁴ Again, because I was unable to see the actual standard myself, I can only go with these reported figures. I have personally measured the cartridge slots for those below speeds in bold and found them to be within tolorances of my measurements. The first figure is film speed. The next is the measurement at the start of the slot. The third is the measurement at the end of the slot, indicating how long the slot would be. In practice, the lever is much narrower than the slot, to give the travelling lever time to lock into the slot rather than just skip over. Therefore, it apprears the the critical figure is the third number. This would be the final resting location of the lever for that film speed. Note that these measurements are from right to left as the cartridge is installed, starting where the right spool holder meets the flat on which the slot is located.
Length In MM
20 = 5.21 - 9.17
25 = 6.15 - 10.11
32 = 7.09 - 11.05
40 = 8.03 - 11.99
50 = 8.97 - 12.93
64 = 9.91 - 13.87
80 = 10.85 - 14.81
100 = 11.79 - 15.75
125 = 12.73 - 16.69
160 = 13.67 - 17.63
200 = 14.60 - 18.57
250 = 15.54 - 19.51
320 = 16.48 - 20.45
400 = 17.42 - 21.39
500 = 18.36 - 22.33
650 = 19.30 - 23.27
800 = 20.24 - 24.21
1000 = 21.18 - 25.15
1250 = 22.12 - 26.09
1600 = 23.06 - 27.03
The movement of the lever on Instamatic 500's can continue much further than the slot location for ISO 400 film, raising the possibility that a person should be able to customize cartridge slots by using a file to create their own slot, and load with film of a speed that is listed in the standard, but never actually manufactured, such as ISO 1600.............
Internal Look at the 126 Cassette
Here are a series of images that show how the factory 126 cartridge film functions in the cartridge. This will help in understanding what rules to follow when reloading with 35mm film.
Notice the slots cut into the paper & matching holes in the film. The holes are what prevents the factory film from over advancing before each exposure. This presents issues when reloaded cassettes using 35mm film. The problem is compensated for through various methods that will be discussed.
As you can see the film in the factory loaded cartridge has a paper backing, like comes on 120 film, but there are differences. First the paper backing has slots on the upper portion of the roll at pre-set intervals. With the film side up you see that the the film also has slots. Note that this is different than conventional 35mm film, which has closely placed repeated square holes in the film along the length of both film edges. This presents challenges when advancing the reloaded 35mm film.
The internal film advance lever or pin as seen in image 3 (Not to be confused with the film speed lever seen in image 4), continually pushes out against the paper backing or film so as to find the next hole in the backing and film to stop the advance of film. This same lever only retracts when the film advance begins its cycle, allowing the backing paper and film to begin its travel to the next spot for exposure. The factory 126 film has limited holes in the film's edge. Those holes occur only where needed, allowing Instamatic cameras to expose much closer to the edge of the film than is done in normal 35mm film cameras.
³Wikipedia: 126 Film, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/126_film