The Auto-Exposure Class of 1959

Auto-exposure means that the camera sets the exposure automatically for each photo. (If you have to match or center a needle by turning a dial or ring, it's not automatic.)

The first auto-exposure camera was the Kodak Super Six-20, introduced in 1938. It was expensive at $225, equivalent to $3500 today. It wasn't reliable, either, only 719 were made, and it was discontinued in 1944.

The auto-exposure Agfa Automatic 66 came out in 1956, but it, too, was produced in low numbers (only about a thousand), and only for one year. The very expensive Zeiss Ikon Contarex had auto-exposure, too. It came out in 1958, but didn't get widely distributed until 1959.

Auto-exposure for the masses came in a big way in 1959, with six cameras:

Agfa Optima

Bell & Howell Electric Eye 127

Braun Paxette Electromatic

Kodak Automatic 35

Kodak Brownie Starmatic

Revere Eye-Matic EE 127

(Click or tap on an image to go to that camera's page.)

The first version of the group photo above was missing a Braun Paxette Electromatic, but it arrived in early August 2011, so the cameras were called back for a retake.

Popular Photography asked four pro photographers to try out four of these cameras for an article that appeared in their Nov. 1959 issue, which you can read by clicking or tapping this image:

All of the photographers said pretty much the same thing: Auto-exposure worked well given the limits of the cameras (slow lenses, primitive focusing, whole-scene meter reading).

An interesting question is why, with only two failed previous attempts, in 1939 and 1956, did auto-exposure suddenly take off in such a big way in 1959? It had probably to do with the growing practicality of color. Fixed-exposure box cameras were OK for B&W prints, with its extreme tolerance for error, but not for color. Adjustable cameras were too difficult for average, non-hobbyist snapshooters to master. So if color was to be used by the masses, the cameras had to set the exposure automatically. And selling to the masses was the way to sell lots of color film.

Color had been around for years, of course, but it got much better in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Kodak introduced 35mm Kodacolor in 1958 and High Speed Ektachrome in 1959 (ASA 160—amazingly fast for color). Kodachrome II came out in 1961, with a big jump to ASA 25.

As Popular Photography showed, auto-exposure worked. After 1959, it became a normal feature of easy-to-use cameras, and, eventually, a feature of all cameras.