So taking a somewhat winding road to get here, and shooting everything between small format film (Minox and 110) and large format (6×9 120 and 4×5”), I am back to shooting 35mm b&w film in a big way. I’ve always contended that 35mm wasn’t the best film format, but that it probably was the best compromise format optimized for practicality, size, and quality. While I was concentrating on my Leica IIIf and Red Scale Elmar, this camera developed a capping issue (even though I recently had new curtains installed in it). After I sent the camera in for further adjustment, a pushed ad from usedphotopro.com (highly recommend!) popped up hawking a Kodak Retina Ia for $37 with free shipping. Since I’ve also been getting back into biking, a quality small inexpensive pocket camera seemed like a good thing to add to my collection, so I ordered it.
It’s not perfect, but after cleaning the lens and viewfinder it’s been a mostly reliable camera. Quality of the photos are easily on par with the Leica–no surprise since both are products of fine German engineering and optics. Unlike my Kodak Retina IIa, the Ia has no rangefinder, but instead is only scale focusing (guess), but stopped down, I haven’t spoiled a photo yet because of bad focusing. Also, I am finding the simple viewfinder without integrated rangefinder lends itself to concentrating more on composition. This made me realize that one of the first things I was taught when I started studying photography–that you needed an SLR for serious work–was definitely wrong. The reason given (aside from no parallax issues) was that you were looking through the taking lens. Unfortunately, as a young student, composing through a wide open lens with shallow depth of field made everything basically look better and almost magical while composing, but in ways that didn’t automatically transfer to the prints you were going to make in the end. The distracting bits that were hidden in the blur were often way more evident in the print, or on the other end, important details were less sharp than you expected. All of this works itself out with experience, but the same can be said for a rangefinder camera.
There are many different types of shooting, and when I was shooting more portraits back then, I would use long lenses with fairly wide apertures for a classic shallow DoF look, but for maybe the last 10 years, I’ve shifted much more toward deep focus landscape/scenic photography, so a simple Galilean viewfinder gives me a much better view to compose from than that of a shallow DoF SLR with a fast lens. Parallax is only an issue with close focus, so rangefinder/viewfinder cameras really are not an ideal choice if this is what you need to do, but I find this limitation, more often than not, forces me to take better photos because I retain context.
The old adage (attributed to Robert Capa), “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” can be taken to extremes and when you put a nice macro lens on my camera, I often end up getting closer and closer and ending up with mostly (interesting?) abstracts. Nothing wrong with this, but personally, I’m looking to build my abstractions and art on top of and from contextual reality. Kind of similar to my personal philosophy for getting by in life—don’t deny reality, but find the magic within it and in spite of all the imperfections.
One thing I noticed getting back into film work is how much film prices have increased over the last ten years that I have shot (color!!!) digital exclusively. Tri-X is now nearly $10 a roll for a short roll and this is starting to seem prohibitive to me so I started looking for alternatives. In medium format, I had been primarily shooting Fomapan 100 (mostly because it is the only film I can read the numbers through a ruby window) and I was getting fine results. Fomapan is a fine film, but for the speeds, it is a bit grainy from what I’ve seen. Then I read about Kentmere Pan 100 which is made by Ilford (really!) and decided to give it a go. It took a few tweaks from what is published in The Massive Developer Chart before I was happy with the results, but now I am consistently getting stunning results using it in Tmax Developer 1:9. I’m finding Kentmere Pan 100 for around $75 per 100’ roll, which ends up being less than $4 per roll when I bulk load. With my quality Russian made steel re loadable cartridges, the added effort is minimal. The new plastic ones from Adorama and B&H are garbage.
When I was younger, I always shot 400 speed film, “just in case” I needed those two extra stops for handheld shooting, but now, I feel the much finer grain that can be had when shooting 100 speed film is much preferable. It doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the aesthetics of Tri-X in D-76, it just means that what I’m shooting now benefits from the finer grain and smoother tonal gradients from a finer grain film. I also shoot much less candid “people shots” and prefer stopping down and using a tripod for my low light work instead of trying to get away with a 1/15th or 1/30th low light handheld shots. For most people, even 1/60th handheld, while “acceptable,” is really not ideal for image quality. I believe Ansel Adams once said something like, “If your lens isn’t sharp enough, buy a tripod.”
Another reason I am loving these little Retina cameras, other than size, absolute quality, and low cost, is because they are one of the few pocket 35mms that are fitted with a 50mm lens. By the end of the 60’s, pretty much every quality fixed lens small camera had a 35mm lens (Contax, Minox, Olympus, etc.)! This is fine, and I know many people prefer them, maybe more than those of us who like a 50mm field of view, but for me, I find a 50mm lens ideal for a one focal length solution. 35mm lenses always feel awkward and sloppy to me.
Aside from the rangefinder versions of the Retinas (II, IIa, IIIc, and IIIC) which have an f2.0 taking lens and an integrated rangefinder, all the “lessor” models have some form of a Tessar lens (Kodak Ektar 50/2.8 or 50/2.8 or 50/3.5 Schneider Kreuznach Zenar lens are the most common). Tessar lenses are known to give very good results when stopped down a bit and by f/8, I cannot see any corner lack of sharpness or vignetting at all on images from any of my Retinas.
Tessar lenses just have a wonderful classic look to them. They aren’t magic, but instead just look right to most people. Perhaps it’s the fact that many many famous photos have been taken with Tessar lenses. Many early press corps used Rolleiflexs or Speed Graphics fitted with a Tessar lens and while most people don’t look for lens signatures, they do seem to subconsciously notice them. We see something enough and it becomes something we expect to see. For 60-70 year old lenses, these are quite fine performers.
Aside from the Kodak Retinas, other pocket 35’s with a 50mm lens include the Barnack Leicas when fitted with a collapsible Elmar lens, and other folding cameras like the Balda Baldinette, Welta Welti, and Voigtlander VITO series of cameras. There are others as well, but somehow, the German made Kodaks excite me the most, and except for some of the rarer ones, all are basically the cheapest. The Retina Ia that I have represents about the cheapest Retina you can get, rarely going for much more than $50 for a fully working and near mint copy.
Regarding pocketability, life changes when you have a real camera with you at all times. I don’t like walking around with a heavy full sized camera slung around my neck at all times. It gets in the way and it actually starts hurting my back after a couple hours, but shoved in a pocket, my Retina never gets in the way and is always ready to capture something that strikes me as remarkable. Someone in one of the forums I often post my photos to commented that they liked how I “document the things everyone passes by everyday, but doesn’t notice.” I don’t really think I’m a documentarian, but more an artist creating something from what I see, but since photography is rooted in (trapped by?) reality, I think it is more seeing something that offers potential to convey an emotional message and capturing it in the best possible way. You don’t have to travel around the world to do this, you can even find things to shoot in your own back yard. The biggest challenge is translating the emotional content onto the film while managing all the imperfections and awkwardness of reality.
Depending on how you look at it, all Retina cameras are fully manual, even if it is one of the newer models with a builtin selenium meter, which is good, because it is always a crapshoot whether an old selenium meter will still be functional. It also avoids the problems associated with specialty or impossible to find batteries. I could say I was a purist and won’t shoot auto exposure (only) cameras, but I’m not. If someone like Minox had made a camera like a GL with a 50mm lens, I would love to shoot it. Even though you dream up situations where the focal length limitation would impact what you’re able to shoot, one of my fundamental thoughts regarding photography is, “There are infinite photos to take, so don’t worry about the ones you can’t take.” Focus on what you can create with the gear at hand.
For those that have noticed that I haven’t been keeping up on my blog here very well, part of that is because I have gotten much more active on Instagram. If you are over there much, check me out and follow at http://www.instagram.com/markhahn_art_music/. I am very actively posting there (almost everyday).