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!
To get Down the Road in your inbox or feed reader, subscribe here.

Standard
Camera Reviews

Nikon EM

I’m sure photographers everywhere thought Nikon was going to heck in a handbasket when they released the EM, a 35mm SLR, in 1979. Plastic body parts? No way to manually set exposure? Whaaaaaaat?

Nikon EM

SLRs were originally considered pro equipment. But through the 1970s, everyday photographers came to appreciate the SLR’s many positive qualities. Camera companies sensed a vast untapped market of amateurs and even casual shooters. Pentax may have been first to figure that out with their small, light, simple, relatively inexpensive ME in 1976. Is it coincidence that Nikon’s similarly sized and featured camera reversed those letters for its name?

Nikon EM

The EM was the smallest, lightest, simplest, and least expensive SLR Nikon had ever made. Yet virtually every F-mount lens made to that point mounted right on. The EM eliminated most of an SLR’s fussy controls, limiting the photographer to aperture-priority shooting (the Auto mode you see atop the camera). If you could learn to focus, you could get Nikon SLR-quality photographs.

Nikon EM

Nikon was deliberate in which corners it cut to build the EM. They built in quality where it counted, starting with a metal chassis. They also built in a metal shutter with electronically controlled shutter speeds from 1 to 1/1,000 sec. — stepless, meaning that if the available light made 1/353 sec. the right shutter speed, that’s what the EM gave you. You could set ISO from 25 to 1600. The EM even had contacts on the bottom plate for an auto winder. All of this required two LR/SR44 button batteries, but if they died you could set the camera to M90 and keep shooting with a 1/90 sec. shutter.

If you like little SLRs like the EM, also check out my reviews of the Olympus OM-1 (here) and the Pentax ME (here). I’ve also reviewed a slew of Nikon SLRs including the F2 (here), the F3 (here) the FA (here), the N2000 (here), the N60 (here), the N65 (here), and the N90s (here). Or just check out all of my camera reviews here.

I was headed out for a day on the Michigan Road, thanks to a quarterly board meeting. I headed south on the road towards Napoleon, the little town where we were to meet. Our meeting was in the Central House (photo here), built in about 1820. I had Agfa Vista 200 loaded as I made some photographs inside.

Inside the Central House

During loading I had considerable trouble getting the film to take on the spool. You have to make perfectly sure that a sprocket hole is perfectly placed on the little notch that sticks out on the takeup spool. Also, the meter won’t engage until the film counter is on 1, so you can’t shoot those early frames.

Inside the Central House

To activate the meter on most period Nikon SLRs, you pull the winder lever out. It’s a drag. Not so the EM: just touch the shutter button. The camera beeps when the meter has done its thing. Also, a needle moves to point to the shutter speed the EM has selected. If the EM keeps beeping, it can’t find a good exposure at your chosen aperture.

Inside the Central House

The wind lever is both neat and annoying. It’s a two-part lever. The first part pulls out to provide a good angle for winding, and then both parts work together to wind. Under use, it feels as if too much pressure would break it. Winding itself feels thin and unsure, lacking the usual Nikon high-quality feel.

Bank

My EM’s meter didn’t always want to engage. I found that if I moved the selector from Auto to M90 and back to Auto the meter would play nice again for a few frames. Old camera blues, I suppose.

White Lily

On the way home I stopped in Greensburg to photograph some favorite subjects. When this gas station switched from Shell to Sinclair several years ago I was very happy to see this Sinclair Dino placed out on the corner for all to see. It’s the company’s longtime mascot.

Dino

I walked Greensbur’g square to finish the roll. The EM handled easily, which is the whole point of a camera like this. I never got used to the cheap-feeling winder, and the fussy meter remained annoying. But I never failed to get sharp, evenly exposed photographs from the EM.

On the square in Greensburg

To see more from this camera, check out my Nikon EM gallery.

This Nikon EM came to me from a reader who had it in surplus, and I thank him for letting me experience Nikon’s little SLR. I do like little SLRs, as my love of the Olympus OM-1 and especially the Pentax ME attest.

This is a nice little Nikon body for an easy day of shooting.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
To get Down the Road in your inbox or feed reader, subscribe here.

Standard
Collecting Cameras

Operation Thin the Herd: Pentax KM

In the upper room

One of my oldest friends sold me this Pentax KM. His father bought it new in 1976, the year Pentax introduced it and the famous K lens mount. In the 1980s the camera passed down to my friend; somewhere around here I have at least one college-days photo of him using it. I’m very happy to be this camera’s steward today.

Pentax KM

I never fail with this camera. Really. It’s almost magic. According to my notes I shot this tulip with the 28mm f/2.8 SMC Pentax-M lens on Fujicolor 200. I don’t like that lens at all but just look at how lovely it rendered here.

Tulip

Most of the time I shoot the lens that came with this camera, the 55mm f/1.8 SMC Pentax. It is almost certainly a K-mount version of the sublime 55/1.8 Takumar from Pentax’s earlier screw-mount cameras. This lens never misses. It’s just wonderful.

Under the Clock

I took this kit and a roll of T-Max 400 to Purdue for an afternoon with my son. He brought his K1000 along; we spent the afternoon taking pictures. Goodness, was that ever wonderful to me. A fast-ish lens with fast-ish film and my generally steady hand let me do reasonable work indoors. Above, the Stewart Center; below, the Purdue Memorial Union.

Purdue Memorial Union

This is a shot from a library inside Stewart Center. I was surprised that they still follow the Dewey Decimal System, which I thought was passé among libraries today.

Study tables

This is Spitzer Court, with Cary Quad in the background. Damion lives in Cary. It’s very stately. We walked around inside a little bit and its common areas have this very 1890s feel. When you look past the modern pressboard furniture in those rooms, you can almost imagine young bejacketed pipe-smoking men sitting about in high-backed chairs at mahogany tables.

Spitzer Court

You’ll also find plenty of modern architecture at Purdue, like Hampton Hall.

Civil engineering

Damion’s buddy runs the ham radio club, so we got a tour. I just love old electronic gear. Just dig that great typography on that meter.

Ham radio club

They could have just printed “µA” on the meter on the right, but they went all the way and spelled it out in a sober typeface. The space between the letters lends such gravity, such certainty. You may rest assured in this meter’s reading.

Ham radio club

Okay, this has been more about my day at Purdue than about the Pentax KM. Let me reel this back in: this camera performed flawlessly. And perhaps I’m blinded by my love for Pentax gear but I found this camera to be perfectly unobtrusive as I used it. I framed, matched the needle for exposure, focused, and shot my way through this roll in no time flat. I wished I’d brought another roll of T-Max.

Beetle bug

After our long photo walk we walked over to a favorite pub for dinner. I sat the KM on the table, strap dangling. As we got up to leave and I picked up the KM, the strap caught on the table corner and the camera tore from my hand. It landed on the stone tile floor with a sickening splat. The corner of the bottom plate was dented and the UV filter on the lens shattered. Something must have bent slightly on the lens mount, as the aperture ring on any mounted lens now turns clockwise with difficulty. Some steward I am.

Clockworks

To see more from this camera, check out my Pentax KM gallery.

My Pentax KM has been such a never-miss, sure-fire performer that I simply must get it fixed. I’m just very sad that I damaged this like-new camera.

Verdict: Keep

Get more of my photography in your inbox or reader! Click here to subscribe.

Standard
Collecting Cameras

Operation Thin the Herd: Olympus OM-1

Butterfly

Why have I not used my Olympus OM-1 more? This is such a wonderful camera — compact, precise, capable. It sparked the SLR fever that has so heavily influenced my collection. Could my subsequent SLR promiscuity simply have kept me from loving this camera fully?

Olympus OM-1

Probably. But I also know I’ve hedged on using it because I never got used to setting shutter speed on the lens barrel. What a wealth of great gear I have that this one little thing led me to favor other SLRs. But really, this is my only gripe. The OM-1 otherwise feels like a luxury item in my hands. Everything about this camera oozes excellence.

Peppy Grill

I own two OM-1 bodies, this minty silver-topped body (review here) and a slightly worn all-black body (review here). I made the above shot with the silver top on Kodak BW400CN, and the shot below with the black top on Fujicolor 200, both with the 50mm f/1.8 F.Zuiko lens.

Schwinn Collegiate

While I shot the silver-topped one this time, I’m including both bodies in this evaluation. They both stay or they both go. These cameras came to me with a bunch of lenses from the father of a dear friend, and I want his whole kit to be a single unit. With that, I mounted the close-focusing 50mm f/3.5 Zuiko Auto Macro lens that came with the kit, dropped in some Kodak Gold 200, and went looking for little flowers to shoot. I don’t know why this little blue chicory flower came out purple, but I don’t care, I love the photo.

Chicory

I made these photos as summer was ending. There were plenty of little flowers left to photograph.

Fall flowers

I even moved in close to this railroad spike on some abandoned tracks. I love the colors this lens picked up in the blurred background. I’m not sure my Pentax or Nikon lenses would have seen them.

Rail nail

You can use a macro lens for normal work, too. This one acquitted itself well.

L O V E

The 50/1.8 and the 50/3.5 Auto Macro were the only Olympus Zuiko lenses in the kit. He also owned a 70-150mm f/3.8 Vivitar Close Focusing Auto Zoom, a 100mm f/4 Portragon, and a big 500mm f/8 Spiratone Mintel-M mirror lens. I’d never shot some of these lenses, so I tried them this time on a roll of Fujifilm Superia X-tra 400. First, here’s a big green highway sign that is about a half mile away from where I was standing. I had to put the camera on a tripod to steady it enough for this shot, which shows the 500mm Spiratone’s resolving power. Which is only okay, by the way. But in its day it was an inexpensive way to get a long lens.

East

Spiratone was a mail-order house for inexpensive photographic accessories. The 100mm Portragon lens is also a Spiratone product. It was meant for portraits, obviously, but I didn’t have anybody handy so I just shot stuff with it. It created an out-of-focus effect around the center of the image. The best of my Portragon shots was of this Subie’s snout.

Subie snout

I finished off the roll with the 50/1.8. I placed the OM-1 on my tripod, set the self-timer, and got this photo of me in our front yard.

Posed under the tree

Finally, I moved in close to these blue seed balls for one last 50/1.8 photo.

Blue ballies

To see more work from this camera, check out my Olympus OM-1 gallery.

The OM-1 almost makes up for its awkward shutter-speed ring by placing a rewind release on the camera’s front. You turn it to the side and then crank to rewind. Most SLRs place a release button on the camera bottom, and in most cases you have to hold that button in the entire time you’re rewinding. It’s awkward. The OM-1’s system is so easy in contrast.

While I’m going to focus the SLR portion of my collection on Pentax and Nikon, I won’t part with my OM-1s. I feel like I’m this kit’s chosen steward. And they’re just so lovely to use, weird shutter-speed ring notwithstanding. And so this gear stays in my collection.

Verdict: Keep

Standard
Collecting Cameras

Operation Thin the Herd: Pentax Spotmatic F

Around Zionsville

I decided that I’d own but one Pentax SLR body for the M42 screw lens mount. It was easy enough to discard a Spotmatic SP with a dead meter and a rough winder. But I still had to decide between my ES II and this, my Spotmatic F, both of which offered open-aperture metering with Super-Multi-Coated and SMC Takumar lenses.

Pentax Spotmatic F

It was a tough choice. My ES II is an aperture-priority camera and that’s my favorite way to shoot. It was in very good cosmetic and functional condition. The Spotmatic F has a match-needle exposure system, which is a half-beat slower for me than aperture priority. But it had been a seldom-used sales demonstrator and had been CLA’d when I got it. It was, essentially, new. And what a performer it is! Here’s a favorite shot I made with a 55mm f/1.8 SMC Takumar lens on Kodak Plus-X.

Ol' propeller nose

I loaded some Ektar 100 into the Spotmatic for this outing, and screwed on my 35mm f/3.5 Super-Multi-Coated Takumar lens. I love the 35mm focal length for everyday walking-around photography, which is the kind of photography I do most often.

Around Zionsville

The SPF felt wonderful and performed flawlessly in my hands, just as it always had. The Ektar beautifully captured the September colors.

Around Zionsville

Every photo on the roll came out a little overexposed, though. I’ve noticed that on the Pentax bodies I own that were CLA’d by Erik Hendrickson (as this one) I always need to reduce exposure in Photoshop by a half stop or so. Perhaps I should set the cameras that way. Perhaps I should test this SPF’s exposure readings against a known-good light meter.

Around Zionsville

I felt mighty lazy the day I took this photo walk — I couldn’t be bothered to move in closer to a number of subjects. This one would be helped by a closer crop. When was the last time you saw a Chevy Citation parked curbside, though?

Around Zionsville

I took two walks through Zionsville to complete this roll. Zionsville is simply charming.

Around Zionsville

To see more of my work with this camera, check out my Pentax Spotmatic F gallery.

Using the SPF cemented my decision. Before I even sent this roll of Ektar off for processing, I gave the ES II to a fellow film photographer. The ES II remains a lovely and capable camera, and there will be times I wished my SPF would let me shoot aperture priority. But this SPF is just too compelling on its own to let go of.

Verdict: Keep

Get more of my photography in your inbox or reader! Click here to subscribe.

Standard
Collecting Cameras

Operation Thin the Herd: Minolta SR-T 101

State Theater

My Minolta SR-T 101 is from the first year or so of its 1966-75 manufacturing run, making it about as old as I am. It was a mighty advanced kit five decades ago and remains a competent machine today. I hope the same can be said about me.

Minolta SR-T-101

Before its turn in Operation Thin the Herd I’d shot this SR-T but once, and I was impressed with the sharpness, bokeh, and color its 50mm f/1.7 lens gave me on workaday Fujicolor 200 film. Really impressed. Wowed, even. Yet on that first outing I didn’t enjoy how heavy and clunky it felt.

Squirrel

This was the first old-school all-mechanical SLR I’d ever shot. My prior SLR experience was a Minolta X-700, an Olympus OM-1, and Pentaxes K1000 and ME. All of them were far more agile in my hand, even the K1000, which was closest in size and spirit to the SR-T.

Since then, however, I’ve experienced two dozen more SLRs, including early ones like the Pentax H3 and beasts like the Nikon F2. These experiences put the SR-T in proper perspective and let me use it with greater confidence and competence. On this outing, with Ferrania P30 Alpha loaded, it felt satisfying in my hands.

Distillery

When I put a battery in (an alkaline 625 cell), the meter needle jumped up and down, never settling in any light. My heart sank. I was so looking forward to trying this camera but I wasn’t willing to invest in sending it out for repair first. I know, I know, I can shoot Sunny 16 or use an external meter. But daggone it, onboard metering just makes an SLR so much more pleasant to use!

First Source

I asked about it on a forum I follow. One fellow suggested I remove the bottom plate (easy, just a couple screws) and make sure the wire was well connected to the battery compartment. I did, it was, and I figured I was out of luck. But when I screwed everything back together the meter gave consistent readings! Happy day! It read about a stop under, however. I set camera ISO to compensate for the meter’s underexposure and got to shooting.

Steps

I brought the SR-T along on a day trip to South Bend, my hometown. I haven’t spent much time there since my parents moved away four years ago, and I miss the place. Or at least I thought I missed the place. As I wandered downtown’s streets I encountered entirely too many men just hanging out on corners with nothing to do. Several of them approached me. I’m sure they would have eventually hit me up for money, but really, they mostly seemed bored and looking for human connection. I’d never experienced anything like it before in South Bend and it made me sad for the city’s current state.

No parking

I’m disappointed in how the P30 Alpha performed on this full-sun day. Images were so high contrast that subjects stood in full silhouette. Fortunately, in Photoshop I was able to coax out some shadow detail and tone down the highlights. Only a few photos couldn’t be made usable.

Jefferson Blvd. bridge from Howard Park

I didn’t think it through when I chose P30 Alpha. Testing old cameras is best done with forgiving films, which is one reason I shoot a lot of Fujicolor 200. That stuff can take a lot of abuse in exposure, processing, and scanning, and still return usable images. The P30 Alpha needs more careful handling in exposure and, especially, processing. My lab admitted that they did a lot of P30 when it was first released, but my roll was the first one they’d seen in a while. Perhaps they’ve lost the touch.

St. Joe River

But just check out the detail in texture in the St. Joe River above as it makes its way past the Jefferson St. bridge and the di Suvero sculpture. That lens’s excellent characteristics came through! And it did solid documentary work as I photographed this building that’s part of South Bend’s outstanding farmer’s market. Memo to other towns: study South Bend’s market and replicate it.

Farmer's Market

To see more from this camera, check out my Minolta SR-T 101 gallery.

This camera operates well within the typical mechanical-manual SLR idiom. I’m fluent in the idiom, and so in operation everything fell right to my hand. With a CLA that includes a calibration of the meter, this camera would be stellar.

Yet I’m not keeping it. I’ve already decided that I’m going to focus my SLR collection on Pentaxes and Nikons. If I get rid of none of those bodies I will still own a ridiculous number of SLRs, more than I can use. For an SLR from another manufacturer to stay in the collection, it has to have strong sentimental value or be head and shoulders better in some way than my best Nikons or Pentaxes. This SR-T 101 is very good. But it doesn’t clear that bar.

Verdict: Goodbye

Get more of my photography in your inbox or reader! Click here to subscribe.

Standard