You might try every Kodak Retina ever made, but you’ll find none finer than this, the Kodak Retina IIa. Read my updated review here.
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.
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?
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Sometimes I wonder if the universe or fate or whatever is trying to tell me something. Within a few weeks, three camera collectors whose blogs I follow all wrote fawning praise for their Kodak Retina IIa and shared some great photographs from these 60-year-old cameras. I noticed how the IIa had not only a usable viewfinder, but also a rangefinder to take the guesswork out of focusing. And then I spotted the six-element 50 mm f/2 Schneider-Kreuznach lens – and I was a goner. I wanted one! Then one night while trolling eBay’s vintage cameras category, I found an incredible bargain on this IIa in good condition.
Kodak made three different series of Retina IIa cameras before and after World War II. My IIa is from the last series, which the Retina cognoscenti call the Type 016. This series was produced from January 1951 through April 1954, but my IIa’s Compur-Rapid shutter dates it to the first three months of 1951. Kodak switched to Synchro-Compur shutters after that. Both shutters fired from 1/500 to 1 second.
The Retina IIa has the usual Retina quirks. To fold the camera closed, you first have to set the focus to infinity and then squeeze the two buttons above and below the lens barrel while closing the door. The frame counter on the wind lever counts down – and when it reaches zero the film won’t advance anymore. If you haven’t shot the whole roll yet you can just reset the counter and keep shooting, but you have to know to do this.
If you like Kodak Retinas, by the way, I’ve reviewed a bunch of ’em: the Retina Ia (here), the Retinette IA (here), the Retina IIc (here), the Retinette II (here), the Retina Automatic III (here), and the Retina Reflex IV (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
I spooled some Fujicolor 200 into the IIa and relied on my vintage GE PR-1 exposure meter to read the light.
I had much better luck with my IIa than I had with my Retinas of yore. That’s mostly because I’ve gained so much experience shooting with old cameras over the past four years. The park near my home, with its new playground, is becoming a favorite spot to practice.
The IIa’s rangefinder is coupled to the viewfinder. The “spot” is small and dim, but not unusably so. The camera focuses to 2½ feet. I planted five flats of cheerful white petunias this year. Dang do I wish they were perennials.
This men’s-room door is kind of a color stress test. It’s shockingly red. The IIa’s lens and the Fujicolor 200 rendered it almost painful to look at.
The Retina IIa is heavy (though not oppressively so) and small. I found myself carrying it with me everywhere. My parents visited for Memorial Day weekend, and I got this good photo of my dad as we all sat out on the deck one warm evening.
See my entire Kodak Retina IIa gallery here.
The Kodak Retina IIa is a winner. If you want to try a Retina and don’t know where to start, start here. It will either kindle a Retina lust of your own, or you will be so satisfied with it that you’ll never need to try another.