Photography

Lessons learned in choosing photo labs

When I started making photographs again in 2005 I couldn’t afford a new digital camera, so long story short I bought a used Olympus Stylus Epic Zoom 80 for $20 and some film and got to shooting. That necessarily meant I’d need to find a lab to process my film.

Walmart still processed and scanned color negative film, for about $6 I think. Money was tight for me then, but I could manage that price if I didn’t shoot too often. So that’s who I used.

I have lamented on this blog (here) the loss of easy, inexpensive film processing at drug and big-box stores. The by-mail labs I use now charge up to three times more than Walmart used to. But perhaps you get what you pay for.

I was looking back through old scans recently to update my review of the Kodak Retina Ia and was surprised and disappointed with the dull color. I didn’t see it then, as I had a lot to learn. I sure see it now. I don’t blame the camera — that Retina’s lens is crackerjack. I also shot Fujicolor 200, a film I know well. So I blame the processing and/or the scanning. I brought the scans into Photoshop hoping to improve them. I got better color at the cost of too much contrast, but I couldn’t tone that down without making the images too hazy.

Red Matrix
Gracie and Sugar

These aren’t bad images, but they could be better.

I did some quick checking of other images I had processed and scanned by Walmart, Target, Walgreens, and CVS, and think that I get noticeably better work from the by-mail labs I use now. The only in-store lab that did equal work was Costco.

In 2012 I bought a Retina IIa and put it through its paces with another roll of Fujicolor 200. I forget who I used to process and scan the film — probably Dwayne’s Photo or Old School Photo Lab. Can you see it like I do, how much more natural and nuanced the colors and contrast are in these?

Matrix
Planting petunias

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Camera Reviews

I dug way back into my archives to update these two reviews.

The first is the Kodak Retina Ia, an early-1950s compact folding camera for 35mm film. The Retina line represented Kodak’s finest efforts in those days. Check out my review here.

Kodak Retina Ia

I’ve also freshened my review of the Ansco B2 Speedex, which uses 120 film. For a medium-format camera, it’s fairly compact. Check out my review here.

Ansco B2 Speedex

Updated reviews: Kodak Retina Ia and Ansco B2 Speedex

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Camera Reviews

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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Camera Reviews

Kodak Retina Ia

Kodak’s mission was to bring photography to the masses through cranking out millions of inexpensive cameras. But Kodak really invested in its Retina line when they introduced it in 1934. Made in Germany of German components the Retina was supposed to compete with, or at least carry some of the cachet of, Leicas and Voigtländers and Zeiss-Ikons. The Retina became Kodak’s most celebrated camera.

The Ia (“Type 015” in Retina-speak) was the entry-level Retina, offered from 1951 to 1954 to improve an earlier Retina I (“Type 013”). The Ia’s most obvious improvement was its winding lever; the I had a knob. This Ia features the Synchro-Compur shutter with a top speed of 1/500 sec. and a coated 50mm f/3.5 Schneider-Kreuznach Retina-Xenar lens. Other lenses were available on the Ia, including an f/2.8 Retina-Xenar and an f/2.8 Kodak Ektar. Early examples were fitted with a Compur Rapid shutter.

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 above. When closed, you can put it in a coat pocket — but be ready for your coat to hang funny, because this camera is heavy.

Kodak Retina Ia

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

Kodak Retina Ia

If you’re into Retinas, also check out my reviews of the Retina IIa (here), the Retina IIc (here), the Retina Reflex IV (here), and the Retina Automatic III (here). Other surprisingly capable Kodaks include the Pony 135, Model C (here), the Monitor Six-20 (here), and the Brownie Starmatic (here). Or check out all the cameras I’ve ever reviewed, here.

I put a couple rolls of Fujicolor 200 through my Retina Ia. I decided to “go commando” and use the Sunny 16 rule to guess exposure: on a bright, sunny day, set the camera to f/16 and the shutter to about the inverse of your film’s speed. I had the bright, sunny day! The Retina’s shutter doesn’t have a 1/200 sec. setting, but it does have 1/250 sec., so I just used that. The photos all turned out right enough that minor tweaking in Photoshop made them look fine. Here’s the cart path on the golf course behind my house.

Golf path

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

North Liberty Cemetery

My dogs are always easy subjects. Meet Gracie and Sugar. The Ia’s viewfinder is teeny tiny, making it challenging to frame subjects. I thought I had my doggos centered in the frame, but they wound up noticeably left of center. I cropped the photo to fix that.

Gracie and Sugar

My car is another easy subject. Toyota Matrix owners all know it: it’s so easy to lose wheel covers on this car. That Schneider-Kreuznach lens delivers good color and sharpness.

Red Matrix

For my second roll of Fujicolor 200 I stayed right in my yard. I didn’t have my car repainted — I bought a new one in blue. I’m a giant fan of Toyota Matrixes. And there’s Gracie just hanging out.

Front yard with dog

One challenge I always have with a manual-everything camera is remembering to set all the settings. On about half the photos on this roll I forgot to focus. D’oh! I remembered to focus this shot, where the lens was as wide open as the light would allow it to be so I could get a blurred background.

Matrix tail

This shot of the back of my house shows the resolution and detail this Schneider-Kreuznach lens delivers.

Deck

We’ll wrap this slideshow with a photo of my pal Gracie. The house across the street had been abandoned for a few months when I made this; gotta remember to choose my backgrounds better.

Gracie

To see more from this camera, check out my Kodak Retina Ia gallery.

The results I got from this Retina Ia helped me see why the Retina line remains well respected among collectors today. But its tiny viewfinder and lack of focusing and exposure assistance helped me see why collectors prefer Retinas II and III.

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