Friday, March 6, 2009

Shooting a "new" old classic

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to shoot some portraits of an uncle and aunt on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary. Somehow, the talk got around to my fondness for old film cameras and my uncle mentioned that he had a camera he bought when they were first married.
It had not been used for years and, if I wanted it, it was mine.
Did I want it? Is the Pope Catholic? Do big dogs pass gas?
A few days later I collected a beautiful Kodak Retina Reflex, the first SLR Kodak made.
Made by Kodak AG in Stuttgart, Germany it is an SLR camera with interchangeable lens components. It is unusual in that the rear of the leaf-shuttered lens is fixed while the three front elements are contained in a capsule that bayonet-fits into the front. The 50mm standard front lens-cell can be replaced with one of three Schneider components - an 80mm, and two different 35mm components.
Sometimes called the "Stuttgart Leica" or the "Poor Man's Leica", the Kodak Retina was introduced as a rangefinder in 1934.
The camera is also unusual in that the winding mechanism is situated on the base-plate and it has a few other quirks you can read about if you do an internet search.
The Retina is a phenomenal example of German engineering -- some would say OVER-engineering. It is all metal except for the film winding-spools and is like handling a piece of jewelry.
The leather, ever-ready case is a work of art.
I received the camera in perfect working order except for stuck-open shutter leaves, a common problem with lenses of this type that have been left unused for lengthy periods.
It was an easy fix. I simply removed the front lens capsule and doused the shutter in lighter fuel which dissolved the gummed-up lubricants.
Naturally I couldn't wait to run a roll of film through the camera that, according to Kodak records, was manufactured in 1957.
The Retina SLR comes equipped with a built-in selenium light meter that in this case, still works perfectly and does not need a battery. Also supplied is a white disk that can be clipped over the light-gathering cell to convert it into an incident light meter. The readings from the Retina's meter exactly match those of my hand-held digital light meter.

How well does the camera work?

Within it's limits pretty well but it is certainly no Leica. With the lens wide open images are very soft. In my opinion, unacceptably so. Sharpness increases from about f5.6 and is not bad from f11 but the truth is, it cannot hold a candle to my Nikon lenses.
Without a lens-hood, the 50mm lens -- the only lens I have - is particularly prone to flare. Fitting a lens-hood helps a lot, but does not entirely eliminate the problem.
The truth is, beautiful as the Retina is, there are other cameras of that era (Voigtlander and Leica in particular) that are considerably better. It is also easy to see why Japanese SLRs that were beginning to make an appearance at around the same time, quickly captured the market.
But with all of that said, it does not mean this is not a fun camera. It's a precision instrument, kind of like driving a beautiful old vintage car -- you know, in terms of features and performance it comes a very distant second to a modern vehicle -- but there's still something wonderful about it.
There is no doubt, I will continue to lovingly and often use the Kodak Retina. It produces a look that, in some ways is unique.
I have posted a few pictures -- nothing special or particularly artistic -- that I shot in an effort to see what the camera can produce. A few have had their levels tweaked in Photoshop but no sharpening was done.
Also posted is a picture shot with the Retina and then "hand coloured" in Photoshop.

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