[Updated November 2021]
The Basic Film and Camera Guide for 16mm
There are so many different 16mm cameras out there which makes choosing one difficult and confusing. 16mm comes as either as Regular 16mm, or Super 16, there are more cameras for Regular 16, which was the original way that 16mm was shot and shown. Regular 16mm has a boxy image, whereas the image on Super 16 is wider and more suited to modern television screens, the image is filmed in the area that was once the soundtrack area. Super 16 makes the most use of the negative area, and it is ideal for widescreen. There is another variant called Ultra 16, though this is not that popular here in the UK.
To make it easier to understand I have put 16mm cameras into three very broad categories; Amateur cameras, Student cameras, Professional cameras, there is considerable overlap and these categories arn't set in stone. For those looking to buy a 16mm camera prices have been going up over the past few years, finding a good deal can be much harder these days.
16mm film is usually single perforated stock, also called 1R, Double perforated film is known as 2R and is rarer it's usually a special order item as such it can be very expensive. Film is available in two forms, either on small 100 foot daylight spools or on 400 foot darkroom cores which have to be loaded in a the dark or a changing bag. The 100ft daylight spools are easier to use as they can be loaded in the daylight, they give about 2 minutes and 40 seconds when filming at 24 frames per second and the 400ft cores give about 11 minutes when filming at 24 frames per second Kodak make a range of professional colour negative, reversal and black and white film.
There are a few manufatures making black and white film besides Kodak such as Orwo and Foma and soon Ferrania. There are some older stocks still around like Agfa which might be okay for experimental work, Kodachrome which can only be processed as black and white. Although Fujifilm disapeared in 2013, Fuji stocks still give decent pofessional results especially if one over exposes it a little.
These were made from the 1920's to the 1970's with the popularity of the 8mm from the 1940's, 16mm was considered more of a semi professional format, and these days we would refer to it as 'prosumer'. Most cameras are simple point and shoot cameras and are regular 16mm, many are purely mechanical machines driven by their wind up clockwork motors and have parallax viewfinders, they normally take the commom 100ft daylight spools. Most still work well and they are easy to fix, [after all they are 100% mechanical], they are small, relatively easy to load and operate, but they can be very heavy. The ones made before 1950 were mostly made for double perforated film and are useless with modern 1R film. Many of these cameras such as the famous Filmo and the popular Keystone cameras typically have 'c' mount lenses and therefore they offer lens inter-changeability. 'C' mount lenses are still very common, some are extremly good and can be quite cheap. These older amateur cameras can be quite cheap too and their prices can range from between £10.00 - £100.00, they can be easily used with modern filmstocks and the results can often be very good. When getting an old camera it may not work as it once did and one should expect it to need some TLC, it is best to clean andd lubricate it, some are quite easy to fix like the Keystones, there are a lot of help groups online and service manualos for some Bell and Howell and Kodak cameras. Click here to read about my experiences with Kodak cameras.
16mm magazine cameras take special cartridges of 50 feet of film, they are increadibly small and very easy to use, again most have spring driven motors and no reflex viewfinders. The downside is that they only really use double perf film and you'll have to load the magazines yourself, there are videos online and Facebook groups dedicated to these cameras. Recently I used single perf film in my the Bell and Howell 200 the result were good but I found that some cartridges are unpredicatable and single perf film doesn't always yeild good results. Read about my experiences with Magazine Cameras.
I am going to put the legendary Bolex cameras into this section because Bolex cameras have been popular with educational establishments across the world. These cameras are used by all sorts of people including; amatuers and professionals for animations, documentaries and narrative feature films. I am not going to go into much detail here as 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, and are usually standard 16mm cameras, though they can be converted to Super 16, the later versions are electric driven and Super 16. They can be heavy and noisy especially when you add on accessories like the 400ft magazine and are not always ideal for dialogue work. Prices can vary from £500 for the basic models to £3000 for the more recent Super 16 models.
Most amatuer cameras and Bolex cameras do not have sync speed control and filming dialogue can be tricky, this is because their motors are not running at very precise speeds and in most cases their 24fps setting is just and approximation.
I would group all the Arri SR1/2/3, 416, the …clair ACL and Aaton cameras in this section, there are exceotions like the A-Minima which is really a specialist camera. 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 smaller 200ft magazine as well as a 400 magazine] on board batteries, but a thing to remember is that lenses are seperate and not part of the kit and they have professional lens mounts like the PL mount, Bayonet mount and Aaton mount. All of these cameras take 400ft film magazines, they are very quet running and have sync speeds meaning that they run at very precise speeds, making them perfect for dialogue work. These 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 2006 these cameras were very expensive but prices dropped dramatically with the arrival of digital cinema cameras, though this isn't the case anymore, recent interest in Super 16 has seen prices for an Arri SR2/3, Arri 416 or an Aaton XTR go quite high. In fact it's become very difficult to find these cameras for sale.
The thing to remember is that a camera package normally includes the camera body, a set of three 400ft magazines, batteries, but not the lenses. Lenses for these professional cameras are normally PL mount and these in Super 16 are extremely expensive to buy which is why many rent them. The …clair ACL is older but it accepts cheaper C mount lenses, these cameras are also cheaper and they can be had for as little as £500, this is probably because of their age [most were made before 1986] and so not all Eclairs are Super 16. Some earlier Arri's and Aatons may not be Super 16 either but all [including the ACL] can be converted to Super 16.
The Éclair 16mm cameras were made and aimed for the professional and was the preferred 16mm camera of many broadcasters until the end of the 1990's. I like the Éclair ACL; firstly, they are pretty quiet, making them ideal for sound recording and very useful for dialogue orientated projects. The later Arri, SR3 and 416 as well as the later Aaton cameras are quieter, but they are more expensive and use expensive lenses too. Secondly, they are small as they have a smaller magazine for 200ft lengths of film, when using the 200ft magazine and a small lens the ACL truly becomes the most portable professional 16mm camera. Thirdly and finally, the ACL accepts c mount lenses, which means that with an ACL you're not going to have to fork out on expensive lenses as you have to with other professional cameras like Arri's and Aaton's. The c mount is one of the most versatile lens mounts because with a c mount camera you can use any lens, with an adapter. Most ACL's were made between 1970 and 1985, all professional cameras got used a great deal [unlike amateur cameras] in a variety of conditions, that it was necessary to have them serviced regularly. These days replacement parts are scarce and there are only a very few service engineers left to work on these cameras, getting a full service is usually too expensive and as a result many don't have their cameras serviced and this means many ACL cameras may not function optimally. Since the ACL is mostly mechanical it's probably possible and feasible to replicate some moving parts using today's 3D printing, I think getting these cameras to work as they ought to shouldn't be too much of an issue.
There are many 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, but impossible to conver to Super 16, the Beaulieu R16, the Aaton Minima, Russian cameras and the A-Cam, I suppose these all fit into 'specialist cameras'. I haven't mentioned cameras such as the Mitchells, Auricon and CP-16, this is because they are either older or uncommon here n the UK..
It is easy to buy amateur cameras on Ebay 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 they are mostly in the US and postage to the UK might be around £50.00, this is because these cameras are heavy. 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 the 240, GB 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 and thus easy to maintain, 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.
In the past I have always avoided getting a 50ft 16mm cartridge and have discouraged others from getting them too, there are several of these about, they are cute, very small and very, very cheap, but for me the issue has always been getting new film in the cartridges which are very tricky to load, but in the past few months I have found an unconventional and easy way to load these cartridges with new film and my results have been spectacular, converting these cameras and magazines has been easy and best of is all [except Kodak models] take c mount lenses. Read about my experiences with Magazine 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, but in most cases you can dconvert them into Super 16 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. It is the only Soviet camera that I have really used. 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 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 late 1960's and early 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 [which like most Soviet cameras is hard to wind] 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 like other classic cameras is vcompletely mechanical, though it's winding handle requires a lot of strength, itís a very compact camera, 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 and similar to those from other 16mm cameras that I have used such as the Bolex, Ikonoskop, and Bell and Howell.
The Kiev Alpha 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.
Most of these cameras can be easily re-purposed and brought into action for the modern filmmaker as they offer ease; simplicity and they are very portable making them ideal for the lone filmmaker. Kodak first developed a fully self-loading magazine for the Simplex Pockette 16mm camera manufactured by the International Projector Corp. and introduced in 1931, the camera used a 50-ft. magazine, designed and built by Eastman Kodak with either Panchromatic or Supersensitive film available, the Bell and Howell company produced their first magazine camera called the 121 in 1934 that used the same or similiar magazine to the Simplex design and by 1936 this system became very popular. Things change and Kodak introduced a new Magazine system under their Cine-Kodak trademark and Bell & Howell quickly introduced and redesigned their magazine cameras to utilize the new Kodak magazines. This re-designed magazine had now a sprocket wheel and a much more complicated threading path and was apparently better than the earlier Simplex or Bell and Howell magazines. The Simplex camera disappeared by the 1940's as the new Kodak magazine became popular, although it seems that Kodak were still loading film in the Simplex magazines well into the 1950's. Bell and Howell adapted and made all their new magazine cameras for the new Kodak magazine; such as their 141A and 141B. The Kodak magazine was used throughout the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's and it is in fact the 16mm magazine system we know today. Simplex stopped their making the Pockette at the end of the 1930s, and B&H stopped the production of the 121 after Kodak came up with their new magazine design, so in 1938 they introduced the 141 using the new style Kodak magazine. Simplex got out of camera manufacturing altogether but B&H went on with the 50 ft magazine cameras.
In the past I have never really been interested in 16mm magazine cameras; while these cameras are tiny, the run times of their spring motors are short, [about 25 seconds] the cartridges with film, [which are called magazines] hold only 50ft of film, this is about one minute and twenty seconds when shooting at 24 fps and you need double perforated film. Whenever anyone asked me about 16mm magazine cameras I have always made a point to convince people to stay away from them, as getting new double perf film is virtually impossible and loading these magazines the way you're supposed to seems a nightmare. I have seen a few videos online about loading the magazines in the 'proper' way and have wondered why Kodak used such a complex design. I have seen other magazine cameras like the Seimens [which has film in a vertical layout] and they seem so much simpler, which makes me wonder whether Kodak deliberately made their system so complicated to maintain their monopoly!
Initially I was hesitant and reluctant to use magazine cameras let alone endorse them, but I started to change my opinion about them after I saw some home movies from the 1940's that had been shot with a magazine camera. I was impressed with the quality of the images, the footage had all the usual characteristics of home movies from that period; the short shots, awkwardness of people - where they freeze and pose like in still photographs - a 'Madam Tussards' quality and the unique optical quality owing to the quality of lenses used in amateur cameras at the time, but despite all this the image registration was perfect and the pictures were incredibly steady, leading me to assume that the footage was probably shot with a high end camera from the era, but in fact a fairly basic 16mm magazine camera was used. Naturally this got me interested in these cameras and so I began to find out everything I could about this original 'dad cam'. With the help of film enthusiasts, engineers and collectors I have researched everything I could find out and have become quite fascinated with the 16mm magazine system. There were various designs of magazine cameras, but the Kodak system became the most popular and this is the 16mm magazine system that was commonly used from the 1930's-1970's, most popular cameras were Kodak, Bell and Howell, Revere, Keystone, there were other manufactures in Europe too like Zeiss, most of these cameras were made in the 1930's to the end of the 1950's and were aimed purely at the amateur home movie enthusiast.
My interest was peaked when I was sent an article from a 1940's magazine which detailed a much simpler way to load the little Kodak 16mm magazines with single perf film, by avoiding threading film through the the sprocket, since then I have come across several similar stories and articles from the 1940's through to the 1980's. I bought a Bell and Howell GB 600 [known as the 200 in the US], these cameras are cheap, and there are many of them too. Opening, cleaning, lubricating these cameras is really easy and re-fabricating parts [there aren't many in there] is easy too. They are smaller than most Super 8 cameras and are ideal for the individual filmmaker like me and students or anyone else that wants to use 16mm without having to deal with all the complications of loading film and dealing with expensive lenses required by larger cameras.
I tried the simple method of loading the magazine, it was easy to load, but I was understandably sceptical at first, but I shouldn't have been as the film ran through the camera with ease, I was very impressed with the final results which were very good, others I know have tried this and reported that they too have good results, my initial tests were with black and white film, because I can easily process this at home. Encouraged by these earlier experiments I looked around to see if anyone would service / clean my camera and couldn't find anyone, so I looked for a service manual but in the meantime I opened one of these cameras and broke it and a few others along the way. Eventually I found and bought the rare service manual for these cameras, and I finally figured out to open and successfully re-assemble these Bell and Howell cameras. In addition I got hold of a few other cameras, a Revere 16 and the much sought after Revere 36 which is supposed to be the best of these cameras and a Keystone. I have been recommending the Revere 36 as it was said it was the best, but despite this the Bell and Howells have become my favourite, the reasons are simple, when cleaned and re-lubricated they function excellently, they are the easiest to convert to Super 16, it's not too difficult to have an electric motor and to have a reflex viewfinder.
Bell and Howell equipment [cameras and projectors] with the 600 series model numbers were made in Great Britain, Bell & Howell had established an office in London as far back as February 1928. Bell and Howell marketed their 16mm magazine cameras to the Home movie enthusiasts. In the 1930's they produced the 141 series, which accepted the new Kodak magazine, in the 1940's Bell and Howell made the all metal Autoload Filmo and made 16mm GSAP cameras for the war and in the 1950's they had replaced this model with the elegant looking and better Autoload 200 series, finally making the 200EE in the late 1950's, this was a complete and total point and shoot 16mm camera. At the beginning of the 1950's they claimed that they had sold a quarter of a million of these cameras. Their 16mm magazine cameras were designed for the 'home movie enthusiast' and these users shot very little film, maybe 4 or 5 rolls over a year. While they weren't built as well as professional high end cameras these Bell and Howell cameras have held up very well over the years. It should be considered that people's expectations of what the film image looked like regarding registration or image stability, was probably very different in the 1930's than what we expect today. By the 1960's it seems that Bell and Howell and many other manufacturers stopped making 16mm magazine cameras as the 1960's ushered in Super 8 as the new cheap wand easy way to make home movies.
After using this system I can attest it gives you the ease and portability of Super 8, whilst giving the unique and much higher quality of 16mm images; basically it means you get almost twice the image quality of Super 8. These 16mm magazine cameras are much more ergonomic than other 16mm cameras in general, after all they were literally meant to be shot by amateurs and not by trained camera operators, so they have an easy trigger method for filming and no threading just simple system of slotting in a cartridge full of film. Most 16mm cameras are generally much heavier and larger, but one can easily stuff the B&H Autoload camera in a backpack, this is not really possible with most 16mm cameras as they require a separate case to transport them. I think the largest benefit for 16mm magazine system is the sheer simplicity and portability it offers. I have found that this ease is something that really appeals to the younger generation of filmmakers many who have been spoiled with the comforts that modern digital cameras offer as a result many stay away from using 16mm; many are reluctant to try film, not because of costs but because of the complex nature of it as they find using professional 16mm cameras daunting seeing them as too complicated and for many the Bolex just doesn't appeal to, they want something simple and easy which looks current. This is why I have invested a lot of time understating this system and repurposing these old Bell and Howells for a new generation of filmmakers who want to use 16mm but demand simplicity.
16mm Magazine Cameras [added January 2021]
Classic 16mm Cameras October 2019 [revised January 2021]
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