Design is integral to the story of photography. The chemical and technological innovations that gave birth to the medium have been rapidly advanced across two centuries to give the photographer more image-making potential in their hand than the early pioneers could have ever imagined. Or perhaps they did imagine, as all visionary designers have an eye on the future as well as the present, especially if they are creating a product or a system to meet the demands of mass manufacture and the mass market.
This is perhaps why some of the most successful designs in the world of photography have been produced for the amateur. From genius branding campaigns to the snapshot camera in all its guises, these inventions all have the hallmarks of ‘good’ design in their easy functionality and appealing aesthetics. Here we profile some of the objects in The Family Museum’s growing collection that stand out for these reasons and more…
Absolute Beginners: Kodak Ektralite 400, 450, 600
To support The Family Museum, I started a business selling old photographs, vintage cameras and photographic ephemera. At London’s Hackney Flea Market in June 2021, over just one weekend I sold 10 Kodak Ektralite cameras, all to people in their early 20s trying out analogue photography for the first time. They’re also popular at the Princess May School car boot sale in Stoke Newington, where we have a pitch most weekends and I took the photos below, with an Ektralite 400 loaded with its accompanying Kodacolor 110 film.
The Kodak Ektralite cameras in question began production in 1980, disappearing from the shelves by the end of the decade. Ektralite cameras take 110 film and do not offer a lot in terms of wide functionality; there is nothing special about the lens or the camera’s build or materials – it is a bog-standard snapshot camera. But nonetheless, Ektralite cameras have several excellent functional and stylish design features that are well worth mentioning.
The cameras come in a sleek, minimal, black oblong box, with the number of each model written in silver on the top of the case, alongside the red Kodak logo. The words ‘ELECTRONIC FLASH’ are embossed on the camera body. These Ektralites, like a number of the Ektra cameras before them, have an integrated case made from durable, textured plastic, which means that the camera and case can never become separated, always protecting the viewfinder and lens when not in use. The lens is recessed, creating an inbuilt lens hood. The lens is protected by a steel cover, and is only exposed when the shutter is released. The case is hinged at one end, and when fully open transforms into a monopod for stability.
When it was released, the Ektralite’s key selling point was the in-built battery-operated electronic flash, a design continuation from the Ektra EF series. When in flash mode, the camera charges quickly, making a satisfying high-pitched whirring sound. There is a red light on top of the 400 and 450 models, which indicates when the flash is fully charged, although the flash is ready to go before it lights. With the 400 and 450 models, if you close the camera while in flash mode, by means of a small catch, the camera automatically switches back to normal mode the next time you open it.
The differences between the three Ektralite models are slight. Although it was the earliest model produced, the 600 series is the most technologically advanced. These have a choice of aperture: NORMAL and TELE. When in TELE mode, small distance icons appear in the top of the viewfinder, which the user can scroll across with a red mechanical cursor to focus. A light sensor at the front of the camera reads the light in the scene and automatically engages the flash should it be deemed necessary, taking control of the flash out of the hands of the user. Second-hand 600 cameras have proved the most unreliable; both the flash and its red and green indicator lights in the viewfinder often don’t function. After using the 400 or 450, the 600 feels bulky due to its added length to accommodate the light sensor.
The most striking design feature of the Ektralite series is its black presentation box, which has a lush, red-velour interior with moulded apertures for the camera, film and batteries. It also has a stylish wrist chain which doubles as a handle for opening the camera. This box makes the cameras ideal for gifting and the kit form is just what the novice needs.