Balmain Photography

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Vest Pocket Kodak

Vest Pocket Kodak meniscus conversion

Ok, here is another one of my crazy projects. I converted an early version of a World War I era camera, popular with the troops, namely a Vest Pocket Autograph, made by Kodak.

I am not the first guy to come up with this idea and there are several approaches to this theme.

The VPK series of cameras were made in great numbers and were reasonably affordable back then. The early ones had a ball bearing shutter with a single primitive meniscus lens BEHIND the shutter. The better models had improved optics in front of the shutter. Those "in the know" look for the older meniscus lenses. These produce soft but totally charming images. I paid $29 for this nice looking sample which included shipping.

Some devotees will take the entire camera and mount it onto a M42 extension tube ring and then adapt the ring to a modern DSLR. Others remove the lens from the entire shutter mechanism and mount that into some gizmo. Removing the lens from the camera exposes the entire lens which is around f/6 or something. When the lens is mounted in its stock shutter the bayonet uses the center of the lens and reduces its speed to f/11. I want all of that glass working for me though.

So far I have carefully removed the lens without harming this great looking little camera. I then removed the lenses from a cheap enlarging lens I had lying around. The old meniscus lens fits in the enlarging lens body nicely. The tricky part is deciding how to take care of focusing? I can use a series of extension tubes, a macro focus rail or some kind of helicoid focus ring. I prefer to have the greatest flexibility when it comes to focusing so I vote "no" on the extension tube rings option. I would prefer not to use a macro bellows. This means finding some rotating helicoid system. Checking eBay I found that prices start at about $80 and up for M42 focusing helicoids. Too much! I then visted my local camera repair shop and found some junky M42 50mm lens for a few dollars. I then removed all the glass elements and used the lens focusing helicoid to mount & focus the old VPK meniscus.

You can see the small "pocket" size here. Note the camera used 127 film and not the 35mm film shown here. There is one company in eastern Europe that still makes 127 film.

There were several versions of the VPK. The Autograph model came with this window and a "pen" stylus mounted on the back. Users could then write their name or a short message by pressing on the film's backing paper which would show on the edge of the developed photograph. This was an effective sales tool for service men serving oversees, etc. This camera became known as the "soldiers camera". Pretty cool, no? I wonder what images my camera has taken over the years?

Here is the front of the lens with all its retro focusing and composition guides.

Here is the back of the lens with a US penny.

Here is the lens and shutter removed from the camera. You can get a sense of scale when its posed with my 58/1.2 Rokkor.

I took the "donor" lens totally apart and abandoned all the glass elements. Between all the old lenses I have dismantled recently I now have a growing collection of threaded rings. After playing around with all the various bits and pieces it suddenly came together. I now have the little meniscus lens element mounted in this old Yashica lens housing. Even all the front Yashica lens rings are in place. I think a longer donor lens mount would have worked better though as I needed my Canon EF12 Extension Tube to get some kind of normal focus going. It still needs a little more extension. I then looked for a decent set of M42 extension tubes. These are dirt cheap. The right length tube got me in the zone and the Yashica focus barrel should then provide the "fine tuning".

What should I get after all this? That is a good question. It looks like I will get really soft images that are hard to focus. But what I have read it takes some practice and work before this becomes more natural. I think this crazy old lens might be appropriate for some stills photo subjects. Might be worth trying for video as well.

In the end I picked up an old set of three metal M42 extension tubes. The middle one is perfect with my fabricated meniscus mount (the Yashica lens). The tube gets me "there" and the focus action on the Yashica lens mount does the rest. Finally! I took a nice walk and shot a few test shots in Seattle this as a test.

This meniscus lens is SOFT and it flares like crazy. But I love the character. Its like nothing I have tried before.

Usually the quest is all about sharpness, clarity and accurate focus. This lens is counter all that and more. Its not perfect for all subject matter but going "soft" is kind of fun in its own way.

Here is the "finished" lens. You can see the old VPK meniscus lens (the brass ring and glass) inside the center of the donor Yashica lens housing. I removed all of the Yashica glass elements but managed to keep most of the housing and lens aperture blade system. I can sort of activate the aperture blades on the Yashica behind the VPK meniscus lens for better stopped down "performance"... but I like the glow with this lens wide open.

Behind the Yashica is a metal M42 extension tube that is mounted onto a M42 to EOS adaptor. I bought three tubes today. The middle one is perfect for most use. The longer tube is the ticket for closer work.


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Adam: Beautiful shots...I'm so going to mod my Canon like this. When searching on ebay I notice there are 2 different with glass on the front, and one that looks like yours, with just a concave the one with the concave front the one with the meniscus lens?

Maxwell Balmain (site admin): Yes, IIRC. The simple meniscus lens is just one single lens element that is housed behind the shutter. The "newer" lenses had an element in front of the shutter I believe. The bowl shaped ring with the hole in front of the shutter was designed to stop the lens down to f/11 instead of its wide open F/6.8 goodness. In this conversion the lens is used wide open for maximum soft effect. In my conversion I can use the modern donor lens housing to stop down the lens a bit if needed, but I love the look wide open...

Luis: Great pictures! Do you know if Kodak Vest Pocket Model B has one single meniscus element too? Thanks.

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