Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Kodak Retina Ia

Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime. Here’s one of my oldest camera reviews, from when I was just learning photography.

One of the things I enjoy about collecting cameras is that good-condition examples of quality vintage glass and steel remain, and average people like me can afford to buy them.

However, I’m inclined to think that an excellent supply of Kodak Retina Ia cameras are available in top shape because of disuse. The Retina Ia offers no help to the photographer, who has to guess at the right aperture, distance, and shutter speed for each photo and hope for the best. Cameras that helped you with the settings were readily available, even within the Retina line — the Retina II series had a rangefinder, and the Retina III series had both rangefinder and light meter. I can hear the Retina Ia owner after running a couple rolls of film through: “Crimony. This guess-focus stuff is for the birds. Think I’m gonna buy a Retina IIa.”

Although Kodak’s mission was to crank out millions of inexpensive, low-quality cameras to make photography accessible to the masses, Kodak really invested in its Retina line when they introduced it in 1934. Made in Germany of German components, including excellent German lenses, the Retina was supposed to compete with, or at least carry some of the cachet of, the cream-of-the-crop Leicas and Voigtländers and Zeiss-Ikons. I don’t know whether Kodak hit those heights, but the Retina did become Kodak’s most celebrated camera.

The Retina Ia was made from 1951 to 1954. Mine comes with the Synchro-Compur shutter and a coated Schneider-Kreuznach Retina-Xenar f:3.5 50mm lens. When closed, you can put it in a coat pocket. Try that with an SLR! But be ready for your coat to hang funny, because this camera is heavy.

Kodak Retina Ia

A defining and endearing feature of the Retina through about 1959 is that they all folded open and closed. You can almost make out the bellows in the image below.

Kodak Retina Ia

There was no mistaking that this is a Kodak Retina; the back cover makes it pretty obvious.

Kodak Retina Ia

I ran a roll of film through my Retina Ia last weekend. I have little idea what I’m doing with f-stops and shutter speeds; most of my photographic experience has been behind a cheap point-and-shoot or my all-automatic Kodak Z730. But armed with the Sunny 16 rule, which says that on a bright, sunny day, set the camera to f/16 and the shutter to about the inverse of your film’s speed, I went out and snapped some photos. They turned out all right. I uploaded them to my Flickr space, but here are the images I liked best. This one is from the golf course behind my house. I stepped over my fence and right onto the golf path.

Golf path

This shot is from the cemetery behind my church, which was founded in 1839 on that patch of land.

North Liberty Christian Church Cemetery

My dogs are always easy subjects. This is Sugar, my 11-year-old Rottweiler, who’s been an outstanding dog. I was trying to center Sugar in the frame, and I had, as far as the viewfinder was concerned. It didn’t turn out that way. I can’t tell whether the shot suffered from parallax error or from the itty-bitty viewfinder’s vagaries. Whatever; I cropped it.

Sugar


Do you like vintage cameras? Then check out all of my reviews!

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Kodak Brownie Starmatic

Kodak Brownie Starmatic
Canon PowerShot S95
2010

This is a surprisingly capable little 127 camera.

Photography
Image
Collecting Cameras, Film Photography

How to get into film photography on the cheap

People who see me out shooting with my film cameras sometimes tell me they’re curious about trying film, too, but they don’t know where to begin.

I’ll tell you what I tell them: buy any used Canon EOS-series or Nikon N-series 35mm SLR from the 1990s or early 2000s. They are plentiful and can be had for dirt cheap. They are light and easy to use: load battery and film, turn the mode dial to P, point, and shoot.

Canon EOS Rebel

The Canon EOS Rebel: a perfectly serviceable autofocus, autoexposure SLR

You don’t have to know a thing about focusing or exposure to use these cameras. Yet should you become curious about them, they offer full control over both.

I’d buy mine on eBay, which offers the best bargains. If you’re patient and persistent, you can score a body and lens for as low as $20 plus shipping. But buying on eBay comes with some risk. Sellers don’t always know or care when what they’re selling is broken. If you’re not experienced buying on eBay, buy only from sellers with ratings of 99.8% or above and a feedback score in at least the hundreds. Always read the auction details looking for caution flags. My favorite: the seller admits s/he doesn’t know anything about cameras, or says the camera came from an estate and is untested. Ken Rockwell wrote the ultimate guide to buying camera gear on eBay. Read it here.

To further reduce your risk, you can pay a little more and buy from an online used-gear dealer such as Used Photo Pro or KEH. Both give you a 90-day warranty, so if anything’s wrong you can send it back for a refund. Bodies go for as little as $15. These sites sell the lenses separately; just get a 28-80mm or 35-80mm zoom lens that matches your camera brand: Canon EF or Nikon AF (or AF-D, or AF-G). These versatile lenses offer passable quality. I’ve seen them sell for as little as $30.

My quick advice makes a lot of hidden assumptions and compromises. But these cameras strike a good balance among entry cost, ease of use, and image quality. Just by shooting a roll or two, you’ll learn a lot about whether film photography interests you. If you have any success and pleasure at all, you can explore other kinds of film cameras from there.

If you have enough photography experience to know what an f stop and a shutter speed are and how to use them, my advice changes. Get a manual-focus 1970s Minolta SR-T-series or Pentax K- or M-series body and lens instead.

Minolta SR-T-101

The Minolta SR-T 101: a wonderful manual-focus 35mm SLR

I love Nikons of this type, but they go for premium prices. Canons of this type are good too, and aren’t as expensive as the Nikons. But the Pentaxes and Minoltas are the real bargains of this bunch. It will take some patience, but you can find bodies such as the Minolta SR-T 101 (review here) or the Pentax KM (review here) for as little as $25 plus shipping on eBay.

The Pentax K1000 (review here) is also a fine choice, but it might take a little longer to find a bargain on one. It has almost a cult following, and as such can command non-bargain prices.

For a first lens, get the 50mm f/1.7 MD Rokkor for your Minolta, or the 50mm f/2 SMC Pentax-M for your Pentax. They are both sublime and can be had for as little as $25 plus shipping on eBay.

The same advice goes for these cameras: you’ll take less risk, but pay more, if you buy from KEH or Used Photo Pro.

After you have a body and a lens, get some film and shoot. I give some advice about where to buy film here. And of course you’ll need it processed and printed and/or scanned. I give advice about where to get that done here. Have fun!

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Film Photography

Vacation camera audition: Nikon N2000 with 35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor lens

I think I was made to shoot 35mm SLRs. I am happiest using them, and consistently get my best results from them. So despite wishing for a pocketable compact camera for my upcoming trip to Ireland, I also decided to audition an SLR.

My ideal SLR for this trip would be small and light — and one over which I would not cry if it were damaged, lost, or stolen. As much as I love my pro Nikons, the F2 and F3, they are none of these things.

Nikon N2000

Not pictured: the 35mm f/2.8 lens

But my N2000 checks most of those boxes. My Pentax ME and Olympus OM-1 are noticeably smaller, but are no lighter thanks to the N2000’s polycarbonate body. And should I need to replace it, N2000 bodies can be had on eBay every day for under $30.

The N2000 has many useful features, first among them being programmed autoexposure for times I want to just point, focus, and shoot. It also offers aperture-priority autoexposure and manual exposure for when I want more control. It also winds the film automatically, and is powered by four common-as-pennies AAA batteries.

Because I wanted to shoot a 35mm lens on this trip, I bought one: the 35mm f/2.8 AI Nikkor. And then I dropped in some Kodak T-Max 400, clipped a shoulder strap to the lugs, and went out. Except for the jarringly loud motorized winder, this camera handled beautifully.

Sunlight over the gazebo

I got beautiful tones everywhere I turned with this 35mm lens and the T-Max.

Trail

The film and lens did have a little trouble with Margaret’s white hair here, though.

Margaret

I was impressed with how this camera, lens, and film managed scenes with both bright and dark areas. I did, however, tweak a few scans (including this one) in Photoshop to lighten the shadow areas a little.

Garfield Park north

Moving up close with this 35mm lens I was able to get a reasonable blurred-background effect. I shot this whole roll in program mode, and I like very much how the N2000 biases toward shallow depth of field at close range.

Bucket o' flowers

I almost always shoot 50mm lenses on my SLRs with their relatively narrow field of view. This 35mm lens let me see so much more of my surroundings.

Village Yarn Shop

I’ve tried to capture this ice-cream shop with my 50mm lenses before, and I can’t back up far enough on this street to get it all in without first bumping into another building. The 35mm lens opened the view up wide, and the house fit right in.

The Scoop

I fell in love with this 35mm lens. Now I want one for my Pentax K-mount SLRs, too. This is just a wonderful focal length for walking around in the world.

This 35mm Nikkor is also plenty small and light. On this light N2000 body, I barely felt this camera when it was slung over my shoulder. It’s bigger, of course, than the Olympus Stylus I reviewed on Friday, and the Olympus XA that I’m auditioning as I write this. But given how much I enjoyed using this camera and how much control it gave me over my images, this N2000 and this 35mm lens stand at least an even chance of going to Ireland with me.

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Film Photography

Vacation camera audition: Olympus Stylus

In deciding which film camera to take with me to Ireland, I’ve been auditioning some of the contenders in my collection. I’m taking the camera with me and pretending I’m on the trip, shooting the kinds of things I plan to shoot, to see how the camera feels and performs. First up: the Olympus Stylus.

Olympus StylusI thought surely this would be The One, given how it slips easily into my jeans pocket, is dead simple to use, and packs a sharp 35mm f/3.5 lens.

Overall I had a great time shooting the Stylus, enough that I put two rolls through it: Kodak Gold 400 and an expired roll of Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400. But a couple flaws, one fatal, caused it to fail the audition.

Readers with long memories will remember that my Stylus failed the last time I used it. It was so messed up I just dumped it into the trash and bought another. This one came with date imprint function. I left it off except for one trial shot in my living room.

My living room, dated

Margaret and I have been taking a lot of walks lately to get into better shape for the trip. A favorite destination is the streets of Zionsville. Here’s a typical home in town.

Zionsville Village

Just dig the birdhouse built into the roof gable on this house.

Zionsville Village

Here’s a shot from Monument Circle in Indianapolis. The camera was performing so well, letting me get all the kinds of shots I expect to take in Ireland, landscapes and architectural shots leading the way.

Circle Theatre

I’m especially pleased with this dusk shot in Garfield Park in Indianapolis. I did have to bring this shot into Photoshop and boost shadows, however, to bring out the fountains.

Garfield Park

But the camera is not without issues. First, a few shots had a strange light area in the upper-right corner.

Lit

Second, the Stylus seems to focus on whatever is at the center of the frame. The cars in the background of this photo are perfectly sharp, but the tree is a little fuzzy. You can see it at larger sizes.

Lit

Margaret was the intended subject here, but is so out of focus the shot isn’t usable. I’ll bet if I put the subject in the center of the frame, press halfway down to focus, and then reframe, I’d get the shot. But I’d always be anxious the camera would muff focus anyway.

Margaret out of focus

But here’s the Stylus’s fatal flaw: every time you open the camera, the flash defaults to “auto” and fires in low light. I almost never want flash; every time it went off I muttered a bad word under my breath. There’s no way I’m going to remember to shut the flash off every time I open this camera.

Garfield Park
Garfield Park

So I’ve been auditioning other cameras. I put a roll through my Nikon N2000 SLR with a 35mm lens attached, just to see whether I’d find lugging an SLR around to be too much. (Answer: not as much as I thought.) Photos from that session on Monday. At the moment I have film in my Olympus XA, and that’s going well, too.

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Camera Reviews, Film Photography

Another Argus A2B

“Isn’t this roll of film done with yet?” I said aloud suddenly, to nobody. Oh good heavens, is it possible that I didn’t wind the film on right and it hasn’t been advancing? Because I certainly don’t want to shoot the whole roll over again.

That’s when it hit me: I had not at all enjoyed using this camera. It had frustrated me from the first frame.

To hell with any unshot frames. I rewound the film.

Argus A2B

Meet the Argus A2B. That I disliked it surprised me, because I have another A2B (review here) and I enjoyed shooting it. But that was five years ago, when my camera preferences were still forming. Would I hate that camera, too, if I shot it now?

Argus A2B

Before I get to why this camera and I didn’t get on, here’s some history. The 1936-51 Argus A series of cameras has a fascinating story (read it here) as the first affordable camera for Kodak’s 35mm film cartridge, new in 1934. The A2B is from 1941-1950 and added an extinction meter and exposure calculator over the original A.

The various A-series models offered slightly different lens and shutter combinations. Running changes were even made within a series. The original A2B offered a 50mm f/4.5 uncoated lens set in a four-speed Ilex Precise shutter (1/200, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25 sec.), with a plunger-style shutter button. In 1945, the shutter became an unknown type, still four speeds (1/150, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25 sec.) and the shutter button became a lever. Some postwar A2Bs even featured a coated lens. This A2B’s features make it a prewar model; my other one is from after the war.

Argus A2B

The A2B has some quirks that some find endearing and others find annoying. One quirk is the collapsible lens barrel, which controls focusing. In, the camera focuses between 6 and 18 feet; out, it focuses beyond 18 feet. Twist the barrel to extend or retract it. When retracting, twist so tabs on the barrel fit under flanges on the body. This holds the lens in. The photo above shows the lens extended.

The other quirk is a weird aperture scale with stops at 4.5, 6.3, 9, 12.7, and 18. Whatever aperture my light meter or Sunny 16 guesses told me to use, I set it a hair off the next higher aperture on that scale. The extinction meter on this one looks to be in good shape, but it is tiny and thus difficult for my middle-aged eyes to use. For that matter, the viewfinder is so small as to be almost unusable, too.

I thought old-school Fomapan 100 would be just right for this old-school uncoated lens, so I loaded some and got to shooting. And then all of the A2B’s quirks kept taking me right out of the photographic moment.

I did get a few solid shots from it, such as this one of the public library in tiny Kirklin, a little town on the Michigan Road about 45 minutes north of Indianapolis. This is a Carnegie library; see others from around Indiana here.

Kirklin Pvblic Library

I wished for a carry strap on the A2B. It’s coat-pocket small, but who wears a coat in July? Fortunately, I own a couple pairs of cargo shorts that let me carry even bulky cameras, but I didn’t always already have them on when I went out shooting. So it took me a solid couple months of using it here and there to get through as much of the roll as I did before I threw in the towel. This pavilion is in Elm Street Green, a park in Zionsville.

Elm Street Green

The whole roll came back from the processor suffering from muddy contrast, which is characteristic of these old, uncoated lenses. I tweaked contrast on every frame in Photoshop. On this and a few other frames, I also played with the shadow control to bring out details in dark areas. This shot of Margaret at Elm Street Green is technically the best shot on the roll: decent contrast and passable sharpness at snapshot sizes.

Elm Street Green

I spent an afternoon in Rochester in northern Indiana at a Michigan Road board meeting, and had the A2B along. We met across the street from the Fulton County Courthouse, a grand Romanesque Revival structure. I couldn’t back up far enough to get the whole thing in the frame. And the tiny viewfinder made framing it more challenging than I like. Also, any shot where the sun wasn’t fully behind me suffered from flare. The more sun, the more flare. That’s to be expected from an uncoated lens. The flare made some shots unusable. I suppose if I shot this camera all the time I’d get used to checking the position of the sun.

Fulton County Courthouse

On the way home from Rochester I stopped in Burlington for dinner and shot this scene. I hadn’t looked online yet to discover the ranges to which the two lens positions focused. So I left the lens extended, shot mostly distant subjects, and hoped for the best. I was absolutely within 18 feet for this shot, but it’s reasonably in focus. I did enjoy the plunger shutter button and the self-cocking shutter, which are unusual features on a camera of this era. All I had to think about was exposure. If the viewfinder were more usable, I would have composed this shot better.

On the Michigan Road in Burlington

A handful of shots on the roll came back foggy and blurry, as in this photo of an angel statue in the cemetery near my home. I couldn’t tell you why this happened. Shrug.

Foggy angel

Another quirk of using the A2B: the film won’t wind unless you first slide to the left that little knob below the frame counter atop the camera. The frame counter on mine is so pitted as to be useless, which is part of why I had no idea while shooting whether I’d shot the whole roll yet or not.

Also, the A2B offers no double-exposure protection, so you probably ought to always wind after shooting to ensure the frame you’re shooting is not yet exposed.

See more from this A2B, and from my other A2B, in my Argus A2B gallery.

The Argus A cameras have a small but devoted following. Don’t count me in. But this remains a historically significant series of cameras and therefore worthy of being collected and used.

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