Late last year I went to a local garage sale and found a box of old camera gear and what caught my eye was a very old folding Kodak Retina camera. For some reason I had an urge to buy it and, as it only cost $10, I thought why not. When I brought it home, I discovered that it was in much better condition that I’d realised, virtually mint, and everything worked perfectly. After some internet searching and sending a query to a collector of these cameras, it was confirmed that this Kodak Retina was manufactured around 1957/1958 in Germany (as they were). I’m absolutely gobsmacked that such an old camera can still be in such good condition and even the case was too good to believe, a credit to the previous owner/s.
Getting this camera has given me a nostalgia hit of sorts and I just want to put a roll of film in it and see what it can do after all these years. While film was becoming increasingly difficult to find only a short while ago, it’s having somewhat of a resurgence and there are places stocking both B&W and colour film for those who don’t wish to give up this imaging medium. It’s a bit like vinyl records, which has had a similar resurgence of late. Film processing has also become more readily available (even Kmart is doing C41); so I need to consider whether to process it myself (B&W that is), which is pretty easy and doesn’t require much in the way of equipment or materials, or have it processed externally. Once processed, the film can be scanned and digitised for easier use. I have no desire to do wet printing, as years ago when I was doing this, the chemicals started to give me dermatitis and who really wants to set up a darkroom from scratch nowadays?
All of this, however, made me ponder how far the world has progressed from finely crafted manual film cameras, to easy to use point and shoot (P&S) film cameras; then Single Lens Reflex (SLR) cameras and then the same all over again in digital, and onwards to the likes of mobile phone cameras. No doubt many of today’s younger ‘instagrammers’ probably don’t even comprehend the history of photography and how it has progressed, especially in the last 50 odd years. Note that there is much more to the history of photography that preceded the last 50 years and, ironically, it was Kodak, 114 years ago, that brought photography to the masses with the Kodak Box Brownie; a very simple to use camera with the slogan ‘You push the button, we do the rest’.
From simple and cheap Box Brownies, to relatively complex and finely crafted cameras like the Retina, photography moved onwards to ever more ubiquitous cameras that were almost as simple to use as the Box Brownie, such as the Olympus Trip 35 (made between 1964 and 1984, and selling in the tens of millions). From a similar vintage came the Minolta SR-T 303 SLR camera and a few years later the Pentax MX SLR, as well as many others, during what may have been the heydays of film photography. There were also all sorts of attempts to make film photography easier, with many oddball formats and film options produced in the late 1980s and into the late 1990s that never took off and heralded the end of film’s dominance. We have come a long way from the early days of film.
In the mid 1990s, digital cameras started to arrive for the masses and while there was a lot of resistance from film photographers, the die was cast and film was on the downward spiral. In fact, the general demise of film happened far faster than anyone predicted, not taking decades, but effectively coming about in less than a decade. Digital cameras came hot on the heels of personal computers and they were a match that could not be slowed down; one of my last film photographs was taken back in 1995. I wont go into my digital history, as I’ve more or less covered that previously, but it’s strange that I’ve never had a desire to use film since going digital, until I purchased the Kodak Retina. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s perhaps what vintage car owners feel, a need to get the old girl on the road once again, see how it performs and have some old time fun.
So my mission was to get some B&W film, maybe a processing drum and chemicals, and do a bit of Ye Old Time picture taking and making. I then needed to figure out the best way to get the processed negatives scanned. You can buy very cheap film scanners, but they are generally of such poor quality and resolution, that they really aren’t worth the money; however, proper film scanners are quite expensive and not really cost effective if you only plan to do this once in a while. First off, I needed some film to get going and ended up purchasing some Fomapan B&W, from Lofico.
In the meantime, I’d also bought an old time slide copier from eBay, the sort that you attach to the camera and use it as a copy device. These can work very well and were the normal way that film and slides were copied onto 35mm film in the days before electronic copiers came about. These can currently be purchased fairly cheaply on eBay, but I hazard a guess that they’ll start to become more expensive as the trend towards film photography increases. Anyway, a few test shots with the copier and some old slides revealed that it can do a decent job of copying, though not quite to the level of expensive digital film scanners.
As for taking the actual photographs, I have no idea as to how accurate the selenium light meters are in either the Retina or Trip 35, as selenium cells do deteriorate over time, especially depending on storage conditions. When I compared the readings from the Retina with my digital camera, the selenium meter in the Retina was showing two stops under-exposure, but then one reading was incident and the other reflective. The same applied when I compared incident readings with my digital camera set to the same ISO. The Trip 35 doesn’t allow me any options, so it’s either right or wrong. So the easiest thing was to set the Retina ISO dial to compensate for the difference and just see how things go.
My basic dilemma was what should I do with my two rolls of film; use both in the one camera, or one in both cameras? At the end of the day I thought damn the torpedoes, I have two old cameras, why not see how each of them performs and put a roll in each one and compare the results. And what better way to do so than on a trip with some friends for a weekend away at a bush pub, remembering/recreating a similar trip we did over 30 years ago. The outcomes weren’t as pleasing as I wanted and that’s because it’s so difficult to get film processed nowadays, but at least I know that the cameras still work and quite well at that, given what we took on our trip.
Update: The slide copier attachment that I got off eBay proved to be less than satisfactory, as I couldn’t keep things in focus every time that I changed a slide and the focus adjustment was simply too finicky. Not to be fazed by this, it did come in handy for cobbling together a completely new slide copier by cannibalising it and using other components that I had lying around. So with not much additional work, and with my usual desire to make thing look good as well as being functional, I came up with this, which works a treat. And after a few more modifications, the Steampunk look is more or less complete.
And this is how it works in practice. The camera is tethered to my tablet, so that I can better see what’s going on, rather than having to peer at the screen on the back of the camera. I fire the shutter through the tablet controls as well. And if you happened to come to this page through some other source, this Is how the coping worked out: When I was Nineteen.