Guest Blog by Marc Paquette
As a little kid I used to knock myself out with my father’s camera. It was a Kodak Retinette, of which I can’t remember the model. I had no idea how to use it but I was fascinated by its shiny metal, complicated dials, and mysterious numerical markings. He bought it new, before he married my mother.
By adolescence, I forgot about dusty, old cameras and sought other things to occupy my time. (Those stories can’t be mentioned in The FPP.)
Now that I’m older, my mind has returned to being entranced by old, shiny things. Recently during my weekly (ok, twice-daily) Craigslist browsing, I answered an ad for a used Kodak Retina S2. It’s a compact 35mm camera that Kodak sold in the 1960s, about the time that my father bought his Retinette. There was only one cure for this merciless combination of gear acquisition syndrome and age-induced sentimentality and it cost me $60.
Kodak cameras were popular and useful but were never leaders in quality or innovation. Except, maybe, the Retina cameras. These were built by a German company, Nagel, that Kodak acquired in the 1930s. The Retina S2 is at the low end in the Retina line. It’s simple but solid gear. The parts that matter are metal, including the outer case, the exterior lens components, and the film winding crank. The rest is plastic. It has a hot shoe and a socket for flash cubes.
The lens was made by Schneider-Kreuznach, an optics company that’s still around today. They practically packed the whole camera into this lens. The shutter release and rings for aperture, shutter speed, focus, and film ISO/DIN are all crammed in there. I’m impressed that there’s room for glass. The 45mm lens is the “standard” for 35mm film. It opens up to a respectable f/2.8 and stops down to f/22. The selection of shutter speeds is limited from 1/250 to 1/30 seconds, an automatic flash mode (only 1/30), and a bulb mode. The ISO/DIN dial goes from ISO 25 to 400.
The automatic flash mode is clever, probably useful back in its day, but useless today. When you set the shutter speed to flash mode, the lens limits the focus ring to a range from 4.5 to about 20 feet. The lens also locks the aperture and focus rings together to adjust for flash brightness. As you focus nearer, the aperture stops down automatically. This mode is tuned for flash cubes and is useless for a flash on the hot shoe. The camera has a compartment for a PX-23 battery, which is used only for firing flash cubes. You don’t need the battery otherwise, not even for the hot shoe or light meter.
The meter is driven by a selenium cell, which is next to the viewfinder window. It doesn’t need a battery but is susceptible to corrosion. After a few decades, a selenium light meter might measure incorrectly or not at all. Luckily for me, mine still works but it’s measuring the entire scene and couldn’t care less about backlighting, shadow detail, or scene contrast.
If you press your forehead firmly against the camera, tilt your head at a sliver of an angle, then move your eye to the limit of human ocular dexterity, you can see the light meter needle on the right side of the viewfinder. The needle will point to a + sign, a -, or the goal: right in the middle. The meter reacts to light, of course, but also compensates for shutter, aperture, and film speed settings.
The viewfinder is static and not coupled to the lens. That means you have to guess your subject’s distance then turn the focus dial accordingly. To paraphrase Henry Ford, any guess will do as long as it’s correct.
Not only do you have to guess, you have to remember to focus. Some people call this simplicity “charming”. Cynical spin doctors call this “zone focusing”. Other people call it a few exotic words (which also won’t be mentioned in The FPP) when they realize that the perfect focus in the viewfinder has nothing to do with the lens. Or so I’m told.
Loading film is easy with a plastic tongue on the take-up spool that grips the film with friction. Just drop the 135 (a.ka. 35mm) canister in the chamber, pull the leader and slide it onto the tongue. Close the film chamber and snap away until the film counter is at 1. Done.
The Kodak Retina S2 is a simple camera with a few nice features. Its great lens, light meter, and easy film loading make it quirky but fun to use. And the little kid in me likes the shiny parts.
Marc Paquette is a technical writer by day. In his spare time he rides a bicycle, sails a boat, and uses his film cameras to take photos of bicycles, sailboats, and life in Montreal. And, of course, he never misses an episode of The FPP. He is the self-appointed chief editor of the self-proclaimed 2nd most austere photography magazine on the internet: seriousphotostuff.blogspot.com