My Dad's favourite camera was a Kodak Retina Reflex that he bought in Germany in 1957, just before we moved to North America. It's a beautifully solid piece of German engineering. It weighs a ton, has a thick leather case, and all the moving parts give a very satisfying built-to-last resistance when you move them.
Recently, I rediscovered it and became very nostalgic about it. I was very curious to know a) if it even still worked; b) if shooting film was still fun after so many years of shooting digital; and c) how the quality of film images compares these days to the image quality I've gotten used to from digital cameras.
So I asked my daughter (who owns it now) if I could borrow it, bought a roll of 36 Kodak T-MAX 400 black and white film, and put it in the camera. Still remembered how to load film into a camera!
To be honest, I was surprised that Kodak still sells film. I actually thought I was buying a version of their classic Tri-X film, which used to be one of my favourites, but I was wrong - T-MAX is different, so, another thing for me to explore.
My digital backup
Since I was about to go shoot 36 photos with a camera that may not even work anymore, I decided to take a second shot of each subject with my favourite camera, the Fujifilm X-T2. In addition to giving me a set of backup digital images, it also gave me a way to check the Kodak's exposure settings, since I wasn't sure if its light meter worked either. Finally, taking digital duplicates was also a handy way for me to record the exposure settings of each photo, by matching the Kodak's ASA/ISO and shutter speed and aperture settings on my Fuji, which stores that info in each digital image's Exif data.
I also tried to match the focal lengths of both cameras. The Kodak has a fixed (prime) 50 mm lens. On the Fuji, I used an 18-55 mm zoom lens, but I tried to set it as close to 33 mm as I could. With its APS-C-sized sensor, the Fuji has a crop factor of 1.5, so 33 times 1.5 gives you an equivalent of a 50 mm focal length (i.e., what the focal length would be if it was storing its images on 35 mm film instead of on a smaller APS-C-sized sensor). As you can see below, sometimes I didn't set the zoom lens exactly to 33 mm, so some of the digital versions look a bit more (or less) zoomed in than the film version.
I shot the digital versions as full-colour RAW images, and then converted them to black and white in Photoshop, using Fujifilm's Acros film simulation.
It took me quite a while just to take 36 images (X 2 cameras), but when I finally did and then finally got the film developed, I was happy to see that this old Retina Reflex still works well!
As you can see (and as I discuss) below, too many of my resulting Retina Reflex photos are blurry, and/or under- or over-exposed. But that's my fault, not the camera's. After all these years, this camera is still very capable of taking great, sharp photos if you hold it steady and use a light meter.
Below, the Retina Reflex film images are in the left column if you're reading this on a computer screen (or the upper column if you're reading this on a small screen), and their Fuji X-T2 digital equivalents are in the right (/lower) column.
Click/touch any of the images to see it larger, if your screen allows.
Thoughts on this exercise
1. This was fun! Back when the photography world turned digital, I embraced it wholeheartedly and never looked back, even though I had done film photography for many years before and even had my own B&W darkroom for a while. But this exercise reminded me that shooting film is fun, and also, how much I love the beautiful grainy look that film gives you. It's a bit like listening to vinyl records: more trouble and less portable than its digital counterpart, but warmer and more physical.
2. This old Kodak camera still works, and it can take nice, sharp photos. Considering that this was one of the first single lens reflex cameras that Kodak ever made, it holds up quite nicely in 2019, especially when used properly (which I often didn't do this time).
3. I forgot how steadily you have to hold a non-stabilized camera. I didn't realize how much I've come to rely on my digital camera's optical image stabilization! As you can see, quite a few of my film shots are quite blurry, not because the lens is bad but because I didn't hold the camera steadily enough when I pressed the shutter. This shutter in particular requires some serious finger pressure to work. I have definitely gotten out of practice holding a camera rock-solid steady when shooting! My brother reminded me that we used to hold our breath when pressing the shutter.
4. Shooting film requires some patience, and that's a good thing. It took me almost a month to shoot a whole roll of 36, and then more time to find a place near me that develops 35 mm film, and then more time to wait for it to get it developed. But in a way, that made me appreciate the whole deliberate process more. I spent way more time planning my subjects and compositions and exposures than I usually do with digital shooting. And it's kind of fun to have to wait to see how the photos turned out: finally seeing the results was actually kind of exciting!
5. I like T-MAX 400 B&W film! When I first got the scans back from the photo lab, I thought it was way too high-contrast, but it turns out that was because they scanned them so poorly (see my postscript below). When I re-scanned the negatives myself, I was pleasantly surprised.
6. The light meter on this Retina Reflex isn't reliable anymore. As you can see, many of my film shots were either under- or over-exposed. If I were to keep using this camera, I'd definitely invest in a proper external light meter to determine the correct exposure settings. Partly because the built-in meter isn't through the lens but beside it, making it awkward to check, and easy to block with my finger. More importantly though, I didn't find it to be very sensitive or accurate. It probably shouldn't surprise me that the light meter on a camera this old would stop working at some point.
7. When I only have a limited number of shots available, I prefer shooting portraits. With the mindset that "film shouldn't be wasted", I discovered that I'd prefer to spend most of those shots on people - especially family members - than on random places or objects. I'm glad I did too - I love those photos the most.
8. This exercise also reminded me what I love about shooting digital. When digital cameras came out, I spent about the first 10 years raving about how great it was because "you don't have to worry about wasting film! It's all just ones and zeros!" And that's definitely a plus, especially for hobbyists like me: you can experiment with different settings to your heart's content, and just keep the few shots that really worked, at no additional expense.
But there are other benefits to digital too, and the results above illustrate some of them:
- Shooting digital in general, and RAW in particular, is way more forgiving than film. If you under- or over-expose a film shot, you're more or less stuck with the results. Do the same with digital, and especially if you shot in RAW, you can adjust the results with software, after the fact, to a really remarkable degree (D9, D14).
- I do like (and apparently rely upon!) my digital camera's in-lens optical image stabilization. I'll bet a lot more of my digital photos would be blurry without it.
- With a decent-sized digital image, you can often crop a good photo out of an uninteresting larger one. D5 isn't much of a shot as a whole, but crop it and you've got a decent close-up of those dried leaves in the middle.
- Digital shooting lets you see the results immediately and take multiple shots when you need to make sure you've gotten a good one. If you're taking a portrait and your subject looks away or blinks at the wrong time, with film, you won't realize it until days or weeks later. With digital, you see it in the camera immediately after you take the shot, and you can just take another shot right away to get the one you need (e.g., D7).
Overall, I guess I had the best possible outcome from this exercise: new appreciation and enthusiasm for BOTH film and digital photography. I hope you've enjoyed this post; thanks a lot for reading it.
I scanned the film negatives myself to get the images above, using my humble Epson Perfection V500 Photo scanner. The photo lab that developed my negatives did supply me with scans, but they were awful! If I'm generous, I'll guess that it's because maybe they adjusted their global scanning settings to try to make my worst, very poorly-exposed images look even half-way decent, but in the process, made all the rest of my photos look super contrasty and almost totally devoid of any grey scale values.
(When I'm feeling less generous, I also remember that they originally sent me someone else's photos, and also packaged their crappy inkjet prints of their crappy scans of my negatives in an envelope marked "Quality Photofinishing". As you can guess, I do not recommend this lab, which I won't risk promoting by naming them.)
Here's a sample to show the difference between their scan and mine, of the exact same negative:
And here's their Ministry-of-Truth-style envelope: