Camera Reviews

Kodak Retina Reflex III

From the 1930s through the 1950s, the finest 35mm cameras had built-in rangefinders to take the guesswork out of focusing. But during the 1950s, manufacturers began to introduce 35mm single-lens-reflex (SLR) cameras. The Germans built leaf-shutter SLRs, including Kodak with its 1953 Retina Reflex. Kodak kept improving that basic camera over the next 14 years before getting out of the SLR business. The 1960-64 Kodak Retina Reflex III was the third, and next to last, of the line.

Kodak Retina Reflex III

The Reflex III, which the Retina cognoscenti also know as the Type 041, came with one of several 50mm lenses. Mine features the f/1.9 Schneider-Kreuznach Retina-Xenon lens, which focuses to 3 feet. This is an interchangeable lens camera; twist counterclockwise and the lens comes right off. Eight different Schneider-Kreuznach lenses were available, ranging from 28mm to 200mm. Six different Rodenstock lenses were also available, ranging from 30mm to 135mm.

Kodak Retina Reflex III

All Reflex IIIs use a Synchro-Compur shutter that operates from 1 to 1/500 sec. That’s pretty speedy for a leaf shutter. It syncs to flashes via a cable, either M or X sync.

The Reflex III lets you set film ASA from a surprisingly slow 5 ASA to a surprisingly fast 1600 ASA. To set ASA, push up the little thumb lever on the camera back below the ASA/DIN dial that’s on top of the camera, and then turn the knurled setting wheel on the bottom of the aperture/shutter-speed rings until the arrow points to the ASA you want.

Kodak Retina Reflex III

The top plate is remarkably free of controls beyond that ASA setting and a film type reminder on the rewind knob. The shutter button is on the camera’s front. The winder and film counter are on the bottom.

Kodak Retina Reflex III

It’s not obvious how you use this camera, so let me share what I’ve learned. Before you take the first picture, set the film counter. Don’t forget, because when it counts down to zero, the shutter won’t fire. There’s a little slide control near the winder; push it repeatedly in the direction of the arrow until it shows the number of frames on your roll.

To open the camera to load film, twist the control around the tripod socket clockwise to reveal a little chrome button. Push it and the back pops open.

The winder is on the bottom, too. Winding the film cocks the shutter. To rewind, press the little button that’s in the crook of the winder arm and twist the rewind knob on the top plate.

To set exposure, first choose the shutter speed you want by turning the shutter-speed ring on the lens barrel. Then turn the knurled setting wheel until the aperture you want lines up with the shutter speed. If you then change the shutter speed the aperture changes with it, maintaining the chosen exposure. For example, if you set 1/60 sec. at f/8, then turn the shutter-speed ring to 1/125 sec., the aperture shifts to f/5.6. As you do this, two red pips on the focus scale move to show you the depth of field you will get. It’s a neat little system, really.

There’s one last way this camera doesn’t follow the modern SLR idiom. The mirror doesn’t return after you fire the shutter, leaving the viewfinder black. The mirror returns only when you wind to the next frame.

This complex machine is also “whoa, that’s heavy” heavy. It was also startlingly expensive in its day: $248.50 USD, which is equivalent to more than $2,000 today.

You’ll find Retina Reflex IIIs with two different meters on its face, one slightly smaller than the other. The smaller one is on Reflex IIIs from before 1962. Mine has the larger meter. Both meters were made by Gossen, and if you look carefully at the plastic cover you can see Gossen’s name in it.

If you like Kodak Retinas, by the way, I’ve reviewed several: a Ia (here), a IIa (here), a IIc (here), and a Reflex IV (here). I’ve also reviewed a Retinette IA (here) and a Retinette II (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

I loaded a roll of Arista EDU 200 into the Retina Reflex III and started shooting. (I developed the roll in Rodinal 1+50 and scanned the negatives on my Canon CanoScan 9000F Mark II.) For the majority of shots I left the shutter speed at 1/250 and used Sunny 16 to guess aperture. For the rest I set exposure based on what my phone’s light-meter app reported.

Stained glass

My Retina Reflex III was well used by its original owner, who was my sister-in-law’s father. It came to me with several issues. The ASA setting mechanism on my Retina III may be broken — turning the knurled knob moves both the scale and the selector, at different rates. But the meter is dead in mine, too, rendering that problem moot.

Fence

The coupled aperture-shutter speed setting doesn’t work properly on this camera, either. If I choose 1/500 sec. at f/1.9, and then twist the shutter-speed ring until I reach the minimum aperture of f/22, and then twist the shutter-speed ring back until the aperture is f/1.9 again, my shutter speed is only 1/125 sec. It should go right back to 1/500.

Suburbia

Sometimes after shooting and winding, the aperture blades closed all the way, blocking the viewfinder. I found that releasing the winding lever very slowly often prevented this. When it didn’t, I had no choice but to fire the shutter and wind again. Toward the end of the roll I realized that the camera was probably still making an exposure, so I tried just pointing the camera toward a subject to see what turned out. This is one of those photos.

Entrance

Finally, the focusing ring is stiff, so stiff that I had to be careful in twisting it not to twist the lens off the camera. Focusing was slow going. Of all of this camera’s faults, this is the only one that tried my patience.

Hoop

But after I did the hokey-pokey to set exposure and focus, the Schneider-Kreuznach lens went to work and delivered well.

VW and license plate

I shouldn’t be surprised; I’ve yet to meet a Schneider-Kreuznach lens I didn’t like. Unfortunately, shooting this camera was more frustrating than rewarding.

Tree shadow

See more from this camera in my Kodak Retina Reflex III gallery.

During the 1960s, rangefinder cameras declined sharply in popularity as the SLR took over. The Japanese found the right formula, starting with focal-plane shutters to open up top speeds of 1/1,000, 1/2,000, and even 1/8,000 sec. Their cameras were generally lighter and less complex. They were easier to use and felt good in the hand. Kodak decided not to change with the times, instead exiting the SLR business with the last Retina Reflex IVs in 1967. Kodak leaned hard into its Instamatic cameras and didn’t look back.

I’m not looking back at this Kodak Retina Reflex III, either. It simply has too many issues. But I’m sure that when it was new, once its original owner got the hang of it, he made scads of lovely images with it.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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Film Photography

Developing 35mm black-and-white film and why you should keep your film in a cool place

I’ve built enough skill developing black-and-white film that I finally made the move from 120 to 35mm. I started with 120 because I could shoot the eight or 12 frames quickly and get to the developing tank. While I was learning I didn’t want to spend the time to shoot 24 or 36 exposures of 35mm film only to bugger up the developing.

I loaded a roll of Arista EDU 200 into my Nikon F2AS, mounted my 50mm f/2 AI Nikkor lens, and took it around with me for a couple days while I was on vacation last week. The film went onto the developing reel with great ease. I used my 290 ml tank instead of the 500 ml tank I had been using for 120 film. I calculated my ratios of developer, fixer, etc., and mixed them all up. I don’t think I’ll ever think of developing as anything other than tedious, but it went without a hitch. But the negatives were mighty thin, and when I scanned them most of them looked like this.

Hobnob Corner, Nashville

I’ve seen results like this only with very expired film with an unknown storage history, such as this roll of Tri-X. I wondered at first if my chemicals were to blame. I used fresh fixer. My Rodinal is less than a year old and has always been capped tightly, so it should be fine.

I used 6 ml Rodinal and 294 ml water for a 1+49 dilution. That’s 300 ml in a 290 ml tank but I chose to do it for easier calculating of the ratio. I developed for the 1+50 time as per the Massive Dev Chart, but that slight difference shouldn’t have mattered. I even researched online whether I’d used too little Rodinal and it exhausted before the film was fully developed. I found plenty of people using an amount of Rodinal similar to mine and getting fine results.

Then it hit me. The space heater.

The fridge in our garage died last summer. I kept my shoot-soon film in the fridge and the rest in the freezer. The kitchen fridge was mighty full, but I did find room in the freezer for my already frozen film. The shoot-soon film went into a plastic box and then onto the floor under my desk. Until a few years ago I always stored my film at room temperature, sometimes for years at a time. I wasn’t worried about my film.

But it’s cold at my desk in the winter. I got out my space heater in January and turned it on every time I sat at my desk until the weather warmed up the first of March. I didn’t notice it at the time, but that heater was less than two feet from my film.

I probably cooked the whole box of film. Here’s what’s in the box. In 120, three rolls of T-Max 100, a roll of Pan-F Plus 50, two rolls of Tri-X expired since 1981, and (most upsettingly) a roll of Verichrome Pan expired since 1983. In 35mm, one roll each of T-Max P3200, T-Max 400, Double-X 5222, Arista Premium 100, Lomography Red Scale, Lomography Purple, and Adox HR-50. There were also two rolls of 35mm Kodak Gold 400 and two Fujifilm single-use cameras in there, all very expired.

I feel 90% sure I’ve found the root cause. But I’ll test this theory anyway with some fresh film. I found a roll of Kosmo Foto Mono and my last roll of Ferrania P30 Alpha in the freezer, both 35mm. I’ll shoot and develop them soon and then we’ll know for sure.

But back to this roll of film. While none of the images looked as good as Arista EDU 200 normally does, many of them looked okay enough to share. Here’s my favorite shot on the roll, of a little statue in a shop window in Nashville, Indiana.

Blow your horn

I shot more than half the roll around Nashville and, later in the day, in Bloomington. But most of those images looked terrible. I finished the roll in Zionsville later that week on a lovely sunny day. Many of those images turned out okay.

Window
Sale

The Zionsville skies all looked post-apocalyptic, though.

House
Houseq

The film’s qualities look pretty good on this tight shot of an old Chevy that parks every day in front of a particular Zionsville house. It’s not a look I strive for, but it’s interesting.

Citation
Citation

Overall I’m disappointed that this roll turned out this way. I was so looking forward to excellent results.

Chairs

I also shot and developed a roll of Ferrania P30 that was in the ill-fated box. It turned out somewhat better. I’ll share those images soon.

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Film Photography

Scanning black-and-white 35mm negatives with the Canon CanoScan 9000F Mk II and ScanGear

I scanned some black-and-white negatives recently with my CanoScan 9000F Mark II and the ScanGear software that came with it, and I want to share the results.

I took much of the advice some of you gave me in my last CanoScan post. Namely, I scanned at 4800 dpi and turned off all of the image enhancements, including unsharp masking and dust/scratch reduction, that ScanGear offers.

My scans were still mighty soft, but what I learned from you is that this is to be expected, and it’s what unsharp masking is for. So I looked up some online information about how to use Photoshop’s unsharp mask tool and fiddled with the settings until I liked the results.

This is the scan I made that I like the most.

Here’s the scan Fulltone Photo made, after I Photoshopped it to my liking. Both scans have their positive qualities. I like the great detail the Fulltone scan shows in the brick foundation of the log cabin. My scan looks good to me and I would happily use it for any of my usual purposes.

My Old Kentucky Home

Let’s pixel peep for a minute. At 4800 dpi, my scans turned out to be about 6800 pixels on the long edge. There’s minor variability among them in length and width because ScanGear determines each image’s edges individually. The Fulltone Photo scans are all 6774 pixels long. So these are comparable scans. Here’s a detail from my scan of the above image at 100%.

Here’s about the same square from the Fulltone scan at 100%. I’m straining at the seams of my experience here, but at 100% the Fulltone scan looks more usable to me despite its enhanced grain.

But at blog sizes, my CanoScan/ScanGear scans are great.

The Fulltone Photo scan is below. Both scans look wonderful to me.

My Old Kentucky Home

I made 1200-pixel-long copies to upload here. 1200 pixels is big enough for every blog purpose I have.

Again, my CanoScan and ScanGear scans are, at blog size, in the same league as the Fulltone scans.

Maker's Mark Distillery *EXPLORED*

One more scan fro the CanoScan and ScanGear.

In this case, I prefer the Fulltone scan. As you can see, my scanner got some ghosting from the sprocket holes. Also, in my scan the barn is softer; its roof slats aren’t as defined as in the Fulltone scan.

Maker's Mark Distillery *EXPLORED*

I made these photos on Arista EDU 200 with my Nikon FA and 35-70mm Zoom Nikkor, by the way.

I am getting somewhere with the CanoScan and ScanGear. Thank you for your kind and excellent suggestions.

In this same scanning session I scanned more 35mm color negative scans, also at 4800 dpi with all image enhancement turned off. I’ll share results in an upcoming post, but I got mixed results.

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Maker's Mark Distillery *EXPLORED*

Low stone wall
Nikon FA, 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 AI-s Zoom Nikkor
Arista EDU 200
2019

My decision to part with my Nikon FA hasn’t sat well with me since I wrote Verdict: Goodbye on its Operation Thin the Herd post. Logically, I own too many Nikon bodies and that this one’s winding lever keeps poking me in the forehead means I will shy away from using it. The whole point of Operation Thin the Herd is to shrink the collection to a set of cameras I’ll use regularly and enjoy.

There is, however, no denying the FA’s brilliant metering system. Just look at how much shadow detail it captured here. A camera as capable as this one probably deserves another chance.

I shot this at the Maker’s Mark Distillery. Margaret and I were struck by how much the Kentucky countryside reminded us of Ireland, except the farms were not divided in Kentucky by low stone walls as they were in Ireland. Then we came upon this most Irish of low stone walls.

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Film Photography

single frame: Low stone wall

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My Old Kentucky Home

My old Kentucky home
Nikon FA, 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 AI-s Zoom Nikkor
Arista EDU 200
2019

At first, I thought this little cabin was the original My Old Kentucky Home and the big house up the hill came later to replace it. But it turns out that the cabin is only a spring house, built to keep the water supply clean.

It also turns out that the song My Old Kentucky Home isn’t actually about this place, even though that’s what this place is called. The song is about a failing farm and a slave who knows he’s going to be sold to help cover expenses. The song shines a light on the slave’s plight.

This home belonged to Stephen Foster, who co-wrote the song. It and its expansive grounds are now My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown.

I continue to be deeply impressed with this film, Arista EDU 200, which is the same emulsion as Fomapan 200.

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Film Photography, History, Travel

single frame: My old Kentucky home

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Collecting Cameras

Operation Thin the Herd: Nikon FA

Necklace

I own more Nikon SLR bodies than I can possibly use, but each one of them offers its own wonderful characteristics. Also, many of them were gifts to the Jim Grey Home for Wayward Cameras, and remembering the gift-giver makes it hard to want to say to goodbye.

Nikon FA

This Nikon FA is the body I received most recently, and I’d shot just one roll through it. I liked it for its compact size and excellent capability. Here’s a photo from that roll, which was Fomapan 200, through my 50mm f/1.8 Nikon Series E lens.

Wet hosta leaf

The FA is part of the FE/FM/FA family of semi-pro 35mm SLRs that Nikon introduced to replace its Nikkormat line. The FA was last to the party, introduced in 1983 as a technological tour-de-force. It is the world’s first camera with matrix metering, which Nikon called automatic multi-pattern (AMP) metering. I believe it is also the first Nikon SLR to offer programmed autoexposure, setting both aperture and shutter speed. It also offers aperture- and shutter-priority autoexposure and manual exposure.

The FA is also small and lightweight compared to Nikon’s flagship cameras like the F2 and F3. That makes it great for a long weekend of shooting, as when my wife and I recently visited bourbon country in Kentucky. I started with Arista EDU 200 on board, which is rebranded Fomapan 200.

Maker's Mark Distillery *EXPLORED*

My 35-70mm f/3.3-4.5 AI-s Zoom Nikkor lens was mounted. Ken Rockwell calls this one of Nikon’s 10 worst lenses ever, but except for noticeable barrel distortion at the wide end I like it. I use it like three primes: 35mm, 50mm, and 70mm, all of which are marked on the barrel so I can dial them right in. For that convenience I’m happy to spend a little time correcting distortion in Photoshop. The photos above and below are from the Maker’s Mark Distillery near Loretto, KY.

Maker's Mark Distillery *EXPLORED*

I shot in program mode at first, but the in-viewfinder display kept telling me 1/250 sec. and I wondered whether something was amiss. I switched to aperture-priority mode after that. But every photo I made came back properly exposed. Perhaps the FA’s program mode just biases toward midrange shutter speeds. This photo is of the spring house at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown.

My Old Kentucky Home

I blew through the Arista EDU in a day and switched to Agfa Vista 200 for the rest of the trip. In challenging late-afternoon light the FA did a good job of exposing so the Talbott Inn in Bardstown wasn’t lost in the shadows. This tavern and hotel has been operating since 1779.

Talbott Inn

Bardstown is charming, especially for people like Margaret and me who like old houses. We walked around town a lot just photographing homes and buildings.

Old Talbott tavern

I have one peeve with the FA, and I became more and more annoyed with it as the weekend rolled on. To meter, you have to pull the winding lever out to its first stop. With the camera at my eye, that lever poked right into my forehead. I wished for a different way to activate the meter. Also, my FA has a strange fault: the mechanism that prevents you from winding past an unexposed frame is broken. Otherwise, the FA performed well. Its size, weight, and feature set make it a great everyday manual-focus SLR.

Pointy signs

The 35-70 zoom also includes a macro mode. What a versatile lens this is.

Spring blooms, macro

It’s taken me most of the last 10+ years of collecting and using old cameras to internalize that the lens is the critical component of any camera. But I do believe the FA’s matrix metering made a real difference in mixed and challenging light. My beloved Pentax ME would likely not have done as nuanced a job exposing this mid-evening light.

Bardstown street

We drove out to Bernheim Forest on our trip to see the giants, these wooden sculptures just completed by artist Thomas Dambo. I’m sure I’ll do a whole post about them soon. Light reflecting off the smooth wooden surfaces made for a challenging exposure situation, with lots of bright and dark areas. I had to tone down highlights in Photoshop.

The giants at Bernheim Forest

The FA’s 1/4000 sec. top shutter speed lets me blur the background in dimmer light, compared to my 1/1000 sec. Pentax ME.

Smoking bear

Want to see more? Check out my Nikon FA gallery.

Let’s take an inventory of my manual-focus Nikon SLR bodies.

I’m not getting rid of my two Nikon F2s or my Nikon F3, no sir, nuh uh. I own two Nikkormats, an FTn that’s big and heavy like the F2, and an EL which is smaller and lighter like this FA. I also own an N2000.

The Nikkormats will have their turns in Operation Thin the Herd soon. But I don’t see me keeping either of them over my F2s and F3.

When the N2000 had its turn in Operation Thin the Herd (here) I decided to keep it. I travel with it, as if it is damaged, lost, or stolen, replacements can be had for as little as $20. And I just plain like it.

A working FA costs at least $100, but it’s a far more capable and sensitive performer than the N2000.

On this Kentucky trip either camera would have been fine, though the FA nailed exposure in some of these shots where the N2000 would probably have only done okay.

It comes down to this: The Nikon FA’s wind lever pokes me in the forehead. It’s really annoying.

Verdict: Goodbye

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