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The Bolex: A clever little camera for creative amateurs and experimental filmmakers


The small, clever, lightweight Bolex H16 allows amateur filmmakers to experiment with special effects at the time of shooting. It can be operated by solo filmmakers and it provides significant creative freedom to professionals and amateurs alike.

Refer to the “Additional Resources” section to see a glossary of technical terms.

The Bolex H16 and film portraiture

The Bolex H16 is an excellent choice for experimenting with film portraiture. It was designed to be both smart and easy to handle. Thanks to its precision mechanisms, this camera makes it possible to experiment with various effects at the time of shooting, such as overlays, dissolves, etc. This sturdy, stable, Swiss-made camera can be used for a wide range of purposes, from simple filming to artistic creation. Its technical ease of use permits great spontaneity during shoots.

Its functions can be accessed by amateurs with solid basic photography skills and by professionals, whether or not they are working alone. In addition to being lightweight, the Bolex is equipped with a viewfinder and can be carried in one hand. 

This camera is especially popular with amateur and experimental filmmakers for portrait work: self-portraits, family portraits and group portraits. The Bolex serves as an extension of their eyes and body.

A few films shot with the Bolex


A and B in Ontario, produced by Joyce Wieland and Hollis Frampton, 1967
Cinémathèque québécoise collections
A and B in Ontario was completed eighteen years after the original material was shot. After Frampton’s death, the film was edited by Wieland, who created a cinematic dialogue in which the collaborators filmed each other with their cameras (in the spirit of the 1960s) (


Yes Sir ! Madame directed by Robert Morin in 1994
© Coop Vidéo de Montréal, collection Cinémathèque québécoise
Born in Acadia of a francophone father and an anglophone mother, Earl Tremblay is going through an uncharacteristically Canadian identity crisis. Resolved to resolve it, he shoots the 19 rolls of film his filmmaker mother left him. His goal: to record his daily life, and try to find the same meaning in French and in English. As the reels get shot over the course of a journey that leads him from the Maritimes to Montréal, then to Ottawa as an MP, Tremblay watches his personality split and finally separate irrevocably (

The origins of an invention: Swiss ingenuity

The complexity and precision of the Bolex have their roots in Swiss watchmaking.

The Paillard company, which launched the Bolex H16, initially produced music boxes, gramophones and typewriters in the Swiss tradition of precision devices. However, in the late 1920s, the company decided to diversify its activities. It purchased the cameras, laboratories and numerous patents of engineer Jacques Bogopolsky, inventor of the Auto Ciné Model A and B cameras, which were intended to be transportable and “automatic.”

Première page du brevet, ici appelé exposé d’invention, de la caméra qui deviendra l’Auto Ciné modèle A. On retrouve le nom de Bogopolsky, le numéro du brevet, le lieu et la date. Le reste de la page est consacré au descriptif de l’appareil. View

Bogopolsky, Jacques. 1928. Exposé d’invention pour un appareil automatique pour la prise de vues cinématographiques [Invention statement for an automatic apparatus for cinematographic photography]. No.124365. Geneva, Switzerland. 6 p.
Public domain

pdf (744.83 KB)

Paillard wished to create a multi-functional camera. The company bucked the prevailing trend of creating complex cameras for professionals, and instead designed cameras that were easy for inexperienced users to operate. The Pathé Baby, created in 1923, was a good example of this. This very small camera, which predated the Bolex by about 10 years, was designed to be as simple as possible for non-professionals to use. It was so light that it had to be mounted and stabilized on a tripod..

Three-quarter view of the Pathé Baby, right side. It is a small, square, black camera featuring a handle to wind up the spring motor, a carrying handle and a small viewfinder.

Photograph of the Pathé Baby, from the collections of the Cinémathèque québécoise.

This small metal camera measured 11 cm x 10 cm x 5 cm and weighed 615 g. It used 9 mm film for non-professional cameras. It was quite different from the Bolex in its main features. Its functions were quite limited. Even the very wide-angle lens did not require any adjustment; everything was in focus.

Paillard launched the Bolex model H16 in 1935, after five years of development. Some of its working parts were directly inspired by Swiss clockwork, which is renowned for its quality and precision.

The camera is identifiable by its spring drive motor, which must be wound every 40 seconds, and by its lenses, which are mounted on a semicircular turret.

Three-quarter view, right side. This side features the control knobs and the crank for winding up the motor. The three lenses on the semicircular turret are also visible.

Standard model Bolex H16. This model is still used by students at the Université de Montréal. The semicircular turret and the three lenses are clearly shown.

The H16 was a commercial success in the 1960s, both in the USA and elsewhere. Its arrival on the market marked a turning point for the use of 16 mm film as a professional format. Until then, professionals had used 35 mm film for its superior quality. The versatility of the Bolex H16 encouraged them to work with 16 mm film on a more regular basis. Even today, there is still a Bolex workshop in Switzerland that repairs and offers maintenance for this camera.

Première page du catalogue sur laquelle figure en gros plan le dessin d’une Bolex munie de ses trois objectifs. L’arrière-plan est vert et contient les informations d’usage et le logo de la firme. View

Anon. 1959. Paillard Bolex 16 mm Camera Catalogue. Switzerland. 16 p. TR.880.P324. Cinémathèque québécoise.

pdf (7.63 MB)

Bolex technical data sheet

Which features of this light, versatile, automatic camera make it suitable for portraits and creative experimentation?


21,50 cm x 15,24 cm x 7,2 cm.
Approximately 2.5 kg without the lens, which is relatively light.
Interior made of robust materials: duralumin, leather and chrome.
Frame rate
A 30-metre reel of film, equivalent to approximately four minutes of shooting at a rate of 16 frames per second. Silent.

Components and accessories

The Bolex H16 is self-powered. Electricity is not required. It features a spring drive motor that must be wound every 40 seconds using a small handle on the side.
Three lenses, from 10 mm to 150 mm, or a zoom lens
Mounted on a semicircular turret that allows lenses to be changed quickly during shoots, with no need for additional operations.
Viewing system: Integrated optical viewer with reflex finder
The reflex finder allows the filmmaker to see exactly what is recorded onto the film. However, light is only partially directed to the viewing system.
16 mm film
Both colour and black and white 16 mm film can be used. The reels are called ‘daylight spools’ because they can be loaded into the camera in full daylight. They eliminate the need to load the film in darkness to protect the film from the light.
For carrying the camera and for easier handling
RX fader for reflex lenses only
This accessory makes dissolves easier and more fluid.


Multiple frame rates
The frame rate can be changed from 8 frames per second (fps) to 64 fps, meaning that slow motion and fast motion can be planned at the time of recording.
Frame counter
Frame counter that allows effects to be added at the time of shooting. The film can be reversed for overlays, lap dissolves, slow motion and fast motion.
No sound recording system
This camera is relatively noisy. A mechanical clicking sound can be heard every 10 inches or so (at 16 fps). It allows the camera operator to quickly calculate the remaining footage when adding in-camera effects requiring precision
It has a semi-automatic film loading system, which speeds up and simplifies the process.
The Bolex is recognized for its precision, consistency and ability to withstand extreme temperatures.

Operation and handling

The Bolex allows filmmakers to remain close to both their cameras and their subjects. It provides them with great freedom of movement and serves as an extension of their eyes and bodies. Operators often develop a very strong relationship with their cameras.

However, the device is quite noisy and can disrupt sound recordings. In addition, a mechanical clicking sound can be heard when the camera is in use. It keeps track of the exposed film, allowing effects to be added with great precision, but increases the camera’s noisiness.

The Bolex can be used indoors or outdoors, in any conditions. This camera is both portable and adaptable, making it a solid choice for many types of professional operators, as well as for amateurs with a solid knowledge of photography.

The Bolex H16 must be held with both hands. The right hand is positioned underneath the camera, on the base plate, with the index finger on the release button that starts the film rolling. The left hand passes through the leather handle to grip the top of the camera. The camera is light enough to allow operators to move around easily, but heavy enough to keeps camera movements controlled. The spring drive motor must be wound approximately every 40 seconds and the camera can only hold 30 metres of film. This means that in addition to having to complete a number of operations before shooting, operators must also take the time limit into consideration. They have to contend with short shoots.

La première de couverture du manuel est entièrement noire à l’exception d’une bande blanche en haut de la page. On y voit le nom Bolex et le modèle H16 Reflex. En petit à droite est mentionné : Instruction Manual. Au milieu de la partie noire figurent les contours de la caméra en orange. View

Anon. 1956. H16 Reflex Camera Instruction Manual. TR.880.P323. Cinémathèque québécoise.
Public domain


pdf (16.98 MB)

To frame a shot using a camera equipped with a reflex finder, the operator’s eye must be placed against the viewfinder. This changes the relationship between the operator and the camera. Being able to see what is being filmed allows filmmakers to be much more spontaneous, because they know exactly what is in the frame. The filmmaker can see what is being filmed and can move about more freely.

It is interesting to note that early instruction manuals highlighted the importance of keeping the camera as steady as possible to capture “professional” images. However, a shift occurred in the 1960s and manuals began to place more emphasis on the portability and experimental possibilities of the camera.

Ten photos showing different possible uses of the Bolex. Short texts appear between the photos, describing the camera’s history and its various functions.

Bolex Rex-4 pamphlet as it appeared in American Cinematographer in 1966. The title states, “Sometimes a single cameraman has to do the work of ten. He needs a singular camera: The Bolex H-16 Rex-4.”
Public domain

Who uses the Bolex?

This camera appeals to many types of users: amateurs with solid photography skills, explorers, scientists, anthropologists, artists and filmmakers. Today, it is widely used for family movies and experimental films, as well as in many North American schools.

The first Bolex H16 was released in 1935 at a cost of 565 Swiss francs— equivalent to more than $4,000 of today’s Canadian dollars. Only one lens was included in the price. The other two lenses, plus the accessories, added to the cost of the camera. 

“If we consider that the average salary of a Paillard worker in 1935 was 1 franc 23 centimes an hour, the purchase of an H camera represented more than a month and a half’s wages” (Dulac 2016). The camera was therefore not accessible to those with lower incomes. In 1970, its price was lowered, making it more appealing to young amateur filmmakers without a lot of money.

Some of the biggest names in Québécois, American and European cinema of the past few decades started out using Bolexes. They include Jonas Mekas, Maya Deren, Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger, Michel Brault, Claude Jutra, Spike Lee and Peter Jackson.

“Many amateur filmmakers employed these easy-to-use cameras to record the moments of their lives, both the mundane and the extraordinary. The camera allowed them to express their views and emotions regarding the people and objects that surrounded them. Others, driven by the desire to create, took advantage of the camera’s technical features to express themselves and produce works of art. They explored its inner workings to devise new visual concepts” (Dulac, Sorrel and Tralongo 2017). [Translation]

(Dulac, Sorrel et Tralongo 2017)

A young man looks at the camera that is photographing him. He is filming outdoors. He is standing behind his Bolex with a cigarette in his mouth, adjusting the frame. His right hand is on the handle of the tripod, guiding the camera. His left hand is next to the lenses.

 Photograph of Michel Brault with a Bolex. n.d. The Bolex is mounted on a tripod. Cinémathèque québécoise collection, 2000.0005.PH01


In a bus. A woman on the left, Wendy, films a woman, Joyce, whose back is to the photographer. Joyce films the outdoors through the bus window. Two men in the background smile as they watch.

Photograph of Wendy Michener and Joyce Wieland in 1969.
Copyright: York University Library, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Joyce Wieland fonds, ASC07123

Medium frontal shot of the filmmaker holding the Bolex in both hands. Her right hand is on the underside of the Bolex, index finger on the release button, and her left hand is holding the top of the camera. Her eye is glued to the viewfinder.

Still frame from the film L’aventure Bolex by Alyssa Bolsey. Experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer holds her Bolex.
©AKKA Films

The Bolex’s small size and easy handling made it ideal for filming oneself and one’s friends and family, creating intimate portraits of everyday life, capturing important memories and revealing a subject’s personality or emotions, much like smartphones do today.

Additional resources

This motion picture glossary will help you better understand some of the terminology used.

Are you the inquisitive type? Would you like to learn more about the Bolex and the filmmakers who used it? The following websites will provide you with additional information.

  • Trailer for Beyond the Bolex, produced by Alyssa Bolsey in 2018.
  • Clip from a film entitled Paillard Bolex by Alexandre Favre. In progress. (English subtitles available by clicking the “CC” box on the image.)
  • Travelling exhibit entitled “La machine Bolex : Les horizons amateurs du cinéma [The Bolex: Amateur Cinema Horizons].” 2017 to 2020 in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Bourgogne–Franche-Comté and Switzerland. Developed by the Université de Lausanne and the Cinémathèque des Pays de Savoie et de l’Ain.
  • Website featuring all the Paillard Bolex brand’s brochures and instruction manuals.


Bogopolsky, Jacques. 1928. Exposé d’invention pour un appareil automatique pour la prise de vues cinématographiques. No.124365. Geneva, Switzerland. 6 pages.

Dulac, Nicolas. “Le dispositif-Bolex: Archives techniques, discours promotionnel et invention du cinéaste ‘professionnel-amateur’ [The Bolex: Promotional Discourse, Iconography and the Invention of the ‘Professional-Amateur’ Filmmaker].” Presented at the FSAC Annual Conference, Calgary, May 31, 2016.

Dulac, Nicolas, Vincent Sorrel and Stéphane Tralongo (dir.). 2017. La machine Bolex : les horizons amateurs du cinéma. Exhibition catalogue 2017-2020. Veyrier-du-Lac: La Cinémathèque des Pays de Savoir et de l’Ain. Lausanne: Université de Lausanne.

Dulac, Nicolas, Vincent Sorrel, Stéphane Tralongo and Benoît Turquety (dir.). 2020. “La machine Bolex. Les horizons amateurs du cinéma.” Encyclopédie raisonnée des techniques du cinéma. Under the direction of André Gaudreault, Laurent Le Forestier and Gilles Mouëllic.

Perret, Thomas, and Roland Cosandy. 2013. Paillard-Bolex-Boolsky: la caméra de Paillard et Cie SA, le cinéma de Jacques Boolsky. Yverdon-les-Bains: Éditions de la Thièle.


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