When Tony Kemplen resolved to use a different film camera each week, he discovered a treasure trove of lost gems.

The instamatic, or 126 film format, is 50 years old this year. I’d like to be able to wish it a happy birthday, but it’s been dead and buried for nearly a decade. Of course, many of the cameras live on, although they are hardly enjoying a fulfilling life, being more akin to zombies — living dead deprived of their source of sustenance. Unlike the 126’s little brother, the 110 Pocket Instamatic, which has returned from the grave, those of us who wish to use our 126 cameras have to rely on long-expired stock, picked up sporadically at car-boot sales and charity shops. Or perhaps you can find something on eBay, where occasionally one of the legion of Instamatic cameras listed comes in its box complete with unused film.

Few families in the 1970s and ’80s would have been without an Instamatic camera. The format was introduced to make 35mm film more foolproof. There was no need to thread a film leader at the beginning, or rewind at the end. Instead, you simply dropped the cartridge into the back of the camera and away you went. Needless to say, the bulk of 126 cameras were very basic, usually with no controls to fox the novice photographer. However, a few more sophisticated models were made, even some single-lens reflexes.

Although the film is 35mm wide (and therefore can be developed in a standard developing tank), that’s where the similarity ends. Instead of the 35mm film’s twin perforations running along each film edge, the 126 format has only a single perforation per frame, used by the camera to detect when the requisite amount of film has been wound for the next exposure — and in some models, to set the shutter. The single perforation leaves more room for an image, so while the standard 35mm frame is 24mm tall by 36mm wide, the 126 negative is 28mm square. Some people have successfully reloaded 126 cartridges with 35mm film, but it’s a fiddly process that only works for some cameras, and fails to give the full height of the negative as the perforations get in the way.

The Ricoh Auto 126 is a curious beast. I can’t remember where I got it from, but it was most likely a car-boot sale. One of its key features is a built-in clockwork motordrive, which allows you to shoot in quick succession. It also has a 35mm f/2.8 Rikenon lens and a fully automatic exposure system driven by a selenium cell. Selenium meters operate without batteries. The photocell gives out a voltage dependent on ambient light levels, so the camera is spared the risk of damage from a leaking long-forgotten battery, although the Ricoh 126 does have a compartment for an obsolete 15V cell to fire a flashbulb. Luckily, the previous owner had removed it, or maybe they never used the flash.

The motordrive is a bit of a gimmick, in my opinion. The first 126 cartridges held 12 or 20 exposures, and although 24 exposures came later, I’m not sure how often the holiday snapper would have wanted to rush through this limited supply. Worse still, the clockwork advance ensures that the shutter is always set and ready for use, and in the absence of a shutter-release lock, it’s all too easy to lose a frame when taking the camera in or out of a bag.

I took care not to fall into this trap when I took the Ricoh with me on a trip to Haworth in West Yorkshire, where I was reminded that photographers are not alone in cherishing technology that is past its sell-by date, as this shot of a steam locomotive (left) on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway shows. It was a relief to find that the Fujicolor film that I used, which expired in 1994, hadn’t run out of steam, either

Incidentally, while writing this column, rumours have started to surface that the Ferrania plant in Italy is to resume film production, and may even dust down its 126 assembly line. That would be good news, but I’m not holding my breath.

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