Monday, 31 August 2015

Agfa Isolette III

Agfa Isolette III
Agfa's Isolette range of 6x6 medium format folding cameras are still very much well-used and well-liked, judging by the numerous references and results among film photographers online, a good sixty years since the models were produced. My own experiences with the Isolette are limited and recent, having bought an Isolette III earlier this year at a Stockholm flea market for 200SEK, but I had used an Agfa Record I for a number of years, and the Isolette's construction, styling, design and user experience are all very similar to the Record 6x9 cameras. The Agfa Isolette cameras take 6x6 images, although a couple of the Isolette models had masks for smaller formats. The Isolette III was introduced in 1954, snd is essentially the same camera as the Isolette II with the addition of an uncoupled rangefinder.

The Isolette cameras were provided with lenses of both 75mm and 85mm focal lengths, which are dependent on the lens' widest aperture: f4.5 lenses on the Isolette are 85mm, while f3.5 lenses are 75mm. I've preciously had a couple of medium format cameras in the 6x6 image size with 75mm lenses, a common focal length, but I've sometimes felt it a little too wide on the format. However, it may be worth bearing in mind that the 6x6 format came about with the twin-lens reflex camera, the typical construction of which would not have been conducive to changing the camera's orientation had it shot a rectangular image, and so the square format allowed cropping in either orientation as much as being used full-frame. Using the full, square frame, I find achieving satisfactory compositions require more thought than a common rectangular photographic frame; conversely, it seems a shame to crop the image to do so and not make use of the whole negative's area.

Agfa Isolette III lens and shutter detail
My model has Agfa's Apotar lens in a Pronto four-speed shutter, both being among the cheaper variants available. The Apotar is a triplet lens, but, being post-war, it is coated. The Apotar was the middle of the range of lenses: the lowest priced lens was the Agnar, the lens that my Record I came with, even so it did provide very good results on modern medium format films. The Isolette has focus below 1 metre, although the 1 metre is the last mark on the focus ring (possibly the lens focusses down to 3ft which would be marked on US - under the Ansco name - or UK export models). The marks at 3m and 10m are picked out in red. The Pronto shutter has four speeds 25th, 50th, 100th, 200th, plus B. The addition of the camera's rangefinder meant that unlike other Isolette models, the III no longer sports a T setting (I personally find shutters with a 'T' setting more useful then a 'B'). Other features mark my Isolette as a later version, from 1956 onwards: there is a film reminder dial on the top left of the camera instead of a depth-of-field calculator, the DOF indications are around the lens instead (the film reminder has old DIN speeds of 23/10 - 21/10 - 17/10 and COL T - COL K - COL NT). Film advance is manual, using a red window on the camera back but it does have a double exposure lock on the shutter release: after exposure a small round window shows red until the film is advanced and the lock disengages. The shutter can still be tripped by the lever around the lens when locked.

Agfa Isolette III top plate
The camera had two problems when I bought it: the camera back did not close tight at one side; and the rangefinder wheel was immovable. The first of these problems was solved by using pliers to bend inwards one of two prongs to provide a tighter fit with the camera back's latch (when in Stockholm itself I realised this might be a problem and simply held the back tight when shooting - although on some exposures I wasn't careful enough with this and some show the top right corner of the pressure plate not keeping the film in alignment, falling behind the plane of focus).

Detail of loose catch
I didn't have the tools to attempt to fix this or the rangefinder while in Stockholm. However, as the rangefinder is uncoupled, the fact that it was stuck did not interfere with using the camera, it merely meant estimating distances, and paying more attention to the DOF scale around the lens. Despite these issues, I liked using the Isolette III enough to use it while in Stockholm rather than the Baldalux 6x9 camera I'd brought with me, and shot a number of different films with it, Rollei RPX 25 and 400, Fomapan 400, Superpan 200 and some Kodak Verichrome Pan with a "develop before" date of October 1969.

Sample image with Fomapan 400
Sample image with Superpan 200
Sample image with Rollei RPX 25
Sample image with Rollei RPX 400 at 1600
Sample image with Kodak Verichrome Pan, develop before date of 1969

Sources/further reading:
Isolette range on Camera-Wiki
Agfa/Ansco Isolettes by Andrew Yue
Isolette cameras on J. Noir's Camera Pages
Isolette III manual (first version)

Monday, 10 August 2015

Foma Retropan 320 Soft

Foma Retropan 320 Soft 35mm bulk film
In May this year, Foma announced a new film, Retropan 320 Soft. As the past few years have seen the market for film contract, and products discontinued, any news of new films provokes interest - and sometimes a little scepticism - from film photographers online. Foma has both the well-established Fomapan 400 and 100, and recently re-introduced their 200 speed film to their product lines, a new film at a speed fractions of a stop between the two needs to have distinctly different characteristics to be a worthwhile addition. Foma states that Retropan 320 soft is:
is a panchromatically sensitized special negative black and white film with fine grain, good resolution and contour sharpness. The film is characterized by a wide range of half tones and soft light which makes it suitable for photography and subsequent contact printing or “retro” style enlarging of negatives (photographs of still lives, architecture, experiments, landscapes, portraits, etc.)
The choice of name for this new film provides an indication of these qualities, and it could be said that the speed itself, 320 ISO, has something 'retro' about it, there being only one other black and white film rated 320, Tri-X sheet film. Retropan 320 Soft is currently only available in bulk rolls of 35mm and large format sheet films. For this post about the film, I have only tested the emulsion in 35mm, but results for sheet film can no doubt be extrapolated from these. I bought a bulk roll from Process Supplies, the only distributor in the UK so far.

As an entirely new film, there is as yet little data for developers and times. At the time of writing, Retropan 320 is not listed on the Massive Dev Chart; the data sheet from Foma gives times and dilutions for just four developers and their dedicated one (these are: Foma's new Retro Special Developer; Ilford Microphen; Kodak HC 110; Spur NHC; and Rollei Supergrain). I don't use any of the listed developers, and although best results may be achieved in the manufacturer's dedicated developer, it may not be practical to buy specialist developers tailored to every film. Instead, I chose both of the two developers that I've used over a number of years: Rodinal (in this case, RO9 One Shot) and Ilfotec LC29.

For my first test roll I had intended to process the film by using one hour stand development in Ilfotec LC29 at 1+100; instead due to a mix up of tanks (the other tank had Kodak Plus-X), I developed this in Ilfotec LC29 diluted 1+29 for 9 minutes at 20ºC. It was immediately evident when pulling the film out of the wash that the negatives were of low contrast and good latitude; there is a grey base to the film, and it does not have any edge markings in 35mm, which can be useful for gauging development. However, the time and dilution used appeared relatively successful despite being entirely serendipitous. The first test roll was shot on an overcast morning, and the six-stop difference in exposures made for the latitude test appeared as a fairly gentle gradation across the frames. When scanning the negatives of this first test, these appeared to show a slightly usual tonal response: however, the grass under the trees was very yellow and reflective of the diffuse lighting conditions. I shot (in sunny conditions) and developed a second latitude test as I had initially intended, using stand development with Ilfotec LC29 diluted 1+100 (this went over the hour mark by a quarter, but with stand development and a film with good latitude, there would be naturally a wide margin in timings).

For a third test roll, I used stand development with RO9 One Shot at 1+100. Although direct comparisons suffer the vagaries of each stage between subject and resulting image - metering, camera equipment, development and scanning - this roll appears to show fuller negatives. The first two rolls developed in Ilfotec LC29 looked as though rating the film at box speed risked a lack of shadow detail, especially in high contrast subjects. This is in part an issue of metering, but the negatives in RO9 appeared to better achieve the stated box speed.

Retropan 320 at box speed, developed in Ilfotec LC29 1+29, 9m at 20ºC
Retropan 320 at box speed, stand developed in Ilfotec LC29 1+100 for 1 hour 15 minutes
Retropan 320 at box speed, stand developed in RO9 One Shot 1+100 for one hour
Foma's data sheet lists Retropan 320 Soft as having qualities of "fine grain, good resolution and contour sharpness". The first quality, fine grain, may be achievable with the dedicated developer. In the tests that I made, the grain appeared not untypical of a 400 ISO film, not what I would describe as 'fine grain'; there does appear a slight difference between the results developed in Ilfotec LC29 with normal agitation and stand development: the appearance of the grain is just perceptibly tighter when stand developed in the two images compared below.

Retropan 320 at box speed, stand developed in Ilfotec LC29 for one hour
Retropan 320 at box speed, developed in Ilfotec LC29, 1+29, 9m at 20ºC
Retropan's "good resolution and contour sharpness" are more evident. There must be a relationship between fineness of grain, sharpness and resolution, although this is not necessarily a straightforwardly linear one: a film can be 'grainy' and still possess good resolution, and the converse may be true. The image below of the chain link and wooden fences does show these qualities, as does this photograph with a spider's web showing up in this shot, and the lettering in this photograph.

Retropan 320 at box speed, stand developed in RO9 One Shot, 1+100 for one hour
The "soft light" described in the data sheet appears to be related to halation, and possibly irradiation. This may be due to the film having little or no anti-halation layer. In the tests I made, halation was more prominent when over-exposed, as one would expect, but as the film's good latitude means that it copes well with over exposure, so this effect could be deliberate by design (this can, incidentally, produce a look reminiscent of infrared film when these highlights are located on foliage). With regards to this effect, the data sheet states:
The following bases are used for manufacturing the particular sorts of the film:
- 35 mm film - a gray or gray-blue cellulose triacetate base 0.125 mm thick,
- sheet film - a clear polyester base 0.175 mm thick furnished with an antihalo colour backing which will decolourize during processing.
This suggests that in 35mm the film does not have a specific anti-halation backing, but the "gray or gray-blue" base may be tinted so as to reduce halation, although the effect of halation can clearly be seen in some of my results; this may also be light scatter due to irradiation, a separate but related effect.

Retropan 320, two stops overexposed, stand developed in RO9 One Shot 1+100 for one hour
Retropan 320 at box speed, stand developed in Ilfotec LC29 1+100 for one hour
Additionally to overexposure as a general approach, specifically, subjects with bright local luminance - light areas against a larger dark background - emphasise these effects. This is in part due to metering: all the above tests were shot with an Olympus OM10, relying on its centre-weighted metering. The relationship of subject metering and exposure to development could be better correlated when shooting sheet film of course. These effects would also be less obvious with large format.

Foma's data sheet states that Retropan 320 Soft's "wide exposure latitude provides very good results also when overexposed by min. 1 EV (ISO 160/23°) and underexposed by 2 EV (1250/32°)." It provides times for rating the film at 640, but not 1250 (interestingly, all developing times on the data sheet are given as a range and not absolutes: these are all either one or two minutes). Given the results from the latitude tests that I shot, there seemed little point in specifically finding and adjusted developing time for rating the film at 160, but I did want to try push processing. I shot a roll of Retropan 320 rated at 640 with the Voigtländer Vito IIa,  developed in Ilfotec LC29 1+19 for 16 minutes at 18ºC. This guess at a developing time was based on the results from my first film, with less dilution, and what felt like a much increased time.

Retropan 320 at 640, developed in Ilfotec LC29, 1+19, 16m at 18ºC
For a two stops push, rating the film at 1250 ISO, I developed it in Ilfotec LC29 1+19 for 20 minutes at 19.5ºC. As is generally the case with push processing, the results in good, even lighting were better than the few that I shot at night (as underexposure and overdevelopment increases contrast, and night shots tend to be high contrast, with localised point sources of illumination and deep shadow areas). For a further test of push processing, I might chose less dilution, 1+9, with similar times. Despite local halation, the highlight areas appear resistant to blocking. The characteristic curves on the data sheet are cropped to the very start of the shoulder area: from the latitude tests, I have a suspicion that the film demonstrates a gentle rollover at the shoulder. The curves also show an unusual 'bent leg' to the straight line section, at least with the dedicated developer.

Retropan 320 at 1250, developed in Ilfotec LC29, 1+19. 20m at 19.5ºC
Retropan 320 at 1250, developed in Ilfotec LC29, 1+19, 20m at 19.5ºC
All the tests I've made so far do show Retropan 320 to have quite distinct qualities, and so providing perhaps some kind of niche for it as a product, although these are an unusual combination; I've found it to be a bit of a curate's egg. With limited availability and limited information from the manufacturers, this does provoke some speculation about the intentions for the new film. Presumably what is currently available represents a limited batch of emulsion made to test market viability, but Foma's production of a dedicated developer for it demonstrates a willingness to support Retropan 320 at least for the immediate future; with sufficient demand, availability in 35mm cassettes and medium format rollfilm would confirm this.

Retropan 320 at box speed, stand developed in Ilfotec LC29 1+100 for 75 minutes
Retropan 320 at box speed, stand developed in RO9 One Shot, 1+100 for one hour
Retropan 320 at box speed, developed in Ilfotec LC29, 1+29, 9m at 20ºC
Retropan 320 at 640, developed in Ilfotec LC29, 1+19, 16m at 18ºC
Retropan 320 at 1250, developed in Ilfotec LC29, 1+19, 20m at 19.5ºC