The Beacon II Camera Shines / by Philip Krayna

Beacon II Camera

This diminutive 127 film camera is quirky in all the right ways and can capture surprisingly sharp images.

I love 127 format film and cameras. At four centimeters wide this roll film is a sweet spot between smaller, more common 35mm cassettes and big brother 120 film, yet still offers the nostalgic pleasure of loading a paper-backed spool into the camera. And there are a huge variety of interesting and unique 127 cameras, ranging from primitive paperboard boxes like the Kodak Baby Hawkeye to the bakelite toy cameras popular in the 1940s, to the stylish cast aluminum Bencini Comet S from Italy. These cameras are often small, even tiny, yet can deliver a medium format negative with lots of detail.

One of my favorite 127 film cameras is the Beacon II, manufactured from about 1947 to 1955 by Whitehouse Products Inc. in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Beacon has a collapsible lens that pulls out, and records 16 portrait format exposures on a roll of film. Like many of the American-made 127 format designs of its era, some of which were novelty toy cameras, the Beacon II is small, lightweight, and has a plastic body. 

The design of the Beacon is a curious mixture of incongruities. A plastic body with fake leather texture, housed in a real leather case stamped with the Beacon logo and a metal-hinged cover design that is more durable than many cases included with high-end cameras of its time. The Beacon body design, available in several colors including black, red and beige, has a sweeping, streamlined shape reminiscent of the 1930’s art deco era, and a curious Teutonic script logo that seems like it would be more at home engraved on a Viking sword. A plastic winding knob plated with fake chrome contrasts with a lens surrounded by an elegant stamped metal frame. The Beacon has a simple viewfinder, but a coated and color corrected glass lens. Inside the camera are a well thought out film loading system and pressure plate for the film and a rugged metal slide locks the back cover. The pressure plate, standard in SLRs and higher quality cameras, is uncommon in small 127 cameras. The plate serves to keep the roll of film flat for a more consistent focal plane and sharper focus.

This odd mixture of quality components and plastic flimsiness initially made me skeptical about the durability of the camera and the quality of images it could produce. To field test the camera, I shot imported Japanese Rerapan black and white film. In comparison to 120 film, Rerapan is expensive, and I proceeded with caution as I walked through neighborhoods in San Jose, California on a sunny day, selectively clicking off images of vintage cars and interesting architecture. The results were astounding. 

With an extremely wide depth of field and contrasty lens almost everything in the photos was crisp and in focus. I suspect design details like the film plate and coated lens improve the quality of the images the Beacon II can capture. And the exposure of the 100 ASA Rerapan was almost perfect, a nice surprise given that the Beacon II has a single shutter speed of about 1/50th of a second. 

And yet with the Beacon there was also that unpredictable quality—the “happy accidents” that keep us all allured to the mystery of shooting film on vintage cameras. Light leaks? Yes. Very subtly along the center of the frame. Inconsistent focus? Certainly. Sometimes the center of the image was hazy. Lens flare? Occasionally. When the camera was pointed towards the sun there was this nice stripe of light along the top of my negative. The Beacon can surprise the user with unpredictable results, but they are subtle and seem to happen in all the right places on your film negatives.  

Given the cost of purchasing 127 film—a roll or two might be more than you pay for a vintage Beacon II— this camera may not be a good choice for everyone. But if you want to try out a vintage camera that can offer great image quality and large negatives in a small, uniquely designed package, the Beacon is a great choice for you.