127 Film Format and Detrola Cameras

Earlier this year, I came across a gallery of cameras produced between 1939 and 1941 by the International Detrola Corporation, a short-lived electronics company started in Detroit by an ex-Ford Motor Company toolmaker. I was not looking to get into medium format photography, let alone a somewhat obscure format, but I was so enamored with their style that I had to buy the first one I found on eBay...

Detrola model HW, with its lens retracted. A lot of Art Deco style in a small package.

Detrola model HW, with its lens retracted. A lot of Art Deco style in a small package.

The $35 or so I paid turned out to be an incredibly good buy. If you read what few descriptions you'll find about Detrola Cameras online, there's talk of the cheap build quality. Disagree! As far as I know, this 78-year-old camera has never been serviced, but everything still works beautifully. This model is the Detrola HW - the W there stands for Wollensak - Detrola used the nicer Wollensak lenses rather than their own lenses for their higher-end models. As was common in those days, the shutter was built into the lens. The shutter here was a simple spring based mechanism, the kind that have aged much better than other types. For example, the German company Exakta made some beautiful mid-20th century 127 and 35mm SLRs that had cloth curtain shutters that, while being an elegant predecessor of modern curtain shutters, are not known for reliability and are tricky to service.

The big drawback to shooting on 127 format these days is finding film to shoot on. Despite 127 being the format of the once-ubiquitous Kodak Brownie camera line (the childhood camera of both Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson!), there's almost no new rolls of it being made. The one exception is ReraPan, a black & white 100 ISO 127 film made by Kawauso in Japan. Going for around $12 a roll in America, it's very pricey for a film that yields so few shots, but it's nice...

The Kennedy Center and Potomac River on 127 roll film, with a circa 1940 Detrola camera.

The Kennedy Center and Potomac River on 127 roll film, with a circa 1940 Detrola camera.

The wonderful steps at the National Gallery of Art's East Building, Washington, DC.

The wonderful steps at the National Gallery of Art's East Building, Washington, DC.

While the above shot works nicely in portrait orientation, I had actually intended it to be in my usual landscape orientation. This shot was from my first roll with the Detrola, and I learned upon development that it takes rectangular photos which are portrait-oriented when you're holding the camera horizontally, and landscape-oriented when you're holding it vertically. Quite confusing when you're used to shooting with most any modern film or digital camera where it's the opposite! Of course I would have been aware of this off the bat if I had read the Detrola instruction manual that I got with the camera, but who ever reads the manual?

Those familiar with 127 film might be surprised to see a 127 shot that isn't square. Most 127 cameras were designed to produce 8 square photos per roll, but Detrolas were one of the cameras that squeezed 16 exposures from every roll. Rolls of 127 film are marked from 1 to 8 for on their backing paper. Whereas a classic Brownie typically has one little window in the center of the rear panel to see what exposure you're on, the Detrola has 2...

The disk can be turned, both to use the light metering chart, and to cover the two film windows to protect from light leaks.

The disk can be turned, both to use the light metering chart, and to cover the two film windows to protect from light leaks.

This is a 50-year-old roll of Kodak Verichrome Pan film, set to shot one. When the "1" is advanced to the left window, that will be shot two. Then when the "2" is advanced to the right window, it will be on shot three. The plastic of these windows were always red like the red of darkroom safe lights, but with modern panchromatic film (what the "Pan" in Verichrome Pan is short for), the tint doesn't really matter since modern film picks up red light frequencies as much as any other color. Some black duct tape can be seen over the bottom of the pop-off aluminum backing - I was getting minor light leaks.

This is a 50-year-old roll of Kodak Verichrome Pan film, set to shot one. When the "1" is advanced to the left window, that will be shot two. Then when the "2" is advanced to the right window, it will be on shot three. The plastic of these windows were always red like the red of darkroom safe lights, but with modern panchromatic film (what the "Pan" in Verichrome Pan is short for), the tint doesn't really matter since modern film picks up red light frequencies as much as any other color. Some black duct tape can be seen over the bottom of the pop-off aluminum backing - I was getting minor light leaks.

That long-expired Kodak 127 film was picked up off eBay for a few dollars less than rolls of ReraPan would go for. It produced some fun results with nice contrast...

M Street in DC's tony Georgetown neighborhood. It was called safety film because it was made of cellulose acetate, as opposed to the nitrate films from earlier in the century which would start a house fire the second you looked at it wrong.

M Street in DC's tony Georgetown neighborhood. It was called safety film because it was made of cellulose acetate, as opposed to the nitrate films from earlier in the century which would start a house fire the second you looked at it wrong.

18th Street in DC's Adams Morgan neighborhood.

18th Street in DC's Adams Morgan neighborhood.

I can't complain about the performance given that it's 50-year-old film. It had only lost about a stop or two of light sensitivity. It's really a hassle to develop though, because the film is so extremely curled it's tough to get on the film spool, and then it refuses to stay in any of my scanner's film holders. The only way to get flat scans of it was to lay a piece of glass over top of it. So going forward I'll usually stick with the ReraPan.

I recently picked up a Yashica-44 (so named because 127 film is 4 cm by 4 cm in square format), which is considered one of the best 127 cameras ever made....

My first twin-lens reflex camera. Pretty, no?

My first twin-lens reflex camera. Pretty, no?

It seems highly capable, with nice sharp f/3.5 lens(es), a wide range of shutter speeds, and a self-timer. From the one roll I've shot so far...

Back to the ReraPan film. I liked how the clouds seemed to be extensions of the tree. Taken on the summertime 127 Day - July 12, or 12/7 if you write your dates like that. Of course the more American wintertime 127 Day will come January 12. Shooters of 120 format film sadly only get their day just once a year January 20.

Back to the ReraPan film. I liked how the clouds seemed to be extensions of the tree. Taken on the summertime 127 Day - July 12, or 12/7 if you write your dates like that. Of course the more American wintertime 127 Day will come January 12. Shooters of 120 format film sadly only get their day just once a year January 20.

The Yashica is a beautiful machine, but being used to the Detrola I have one major complaint about it - only getting the standard eight shots per roll seems like such a waste, even if the square shots are slightly bigger....

Look at all that unused film real estate between the shots drying in my shower. Sad!

Look at all that unused film real estate between the shots drying in my shower. Sad!

For my next roll with the Yashica, I will ignore the exposure number indicators on the film, and try to keep the shots closer together on the reel so I get 10 or maybe even 12 out of a roll. This can be tricky though, and can lead to shots overlapping, or unintentional double-exposures if you forget to advance and can't check what number shot you're on. I do like having one square format camera, though. [Edit: Readers have informed that the Yashica-44 is indeed made to shoot 12 exposures, and that I just need to learn what I'm doing with it.] I find it funny that shots form cameras so old are the most ready for Instagram's format. Which leads me to conclude this post with a cheap plug - follow me if you're on Instagram! And if you've made it this far, then you'll love the 127 Film Blog - they founded 127 Day, and they feature great work and really know their stuff.

Trump Protests

For all that's happened over the last few weeks that I've disliked, I can at least say it's been interesting living in Washington, DC. I slept in for the actual inauguration, but as someone who was packed in tight over a mile and a half away as I watched President Obama's first inauguration from near the Washington Monument, I can assure you that the crowds this time were indeed quite small. But I did make it out that night to the anti-inaugural ball at one of DC's best music venues, Black Cat. This was a fundraiser for the wonderful groups Casa Ruby and One DC. Over a dozen acts played, including hometown heroes Priests...

This was taken with my latest lens - a vintage JC Penny (!) 28mm f/2.8 lens Minolta mount (which I adapted onto a Sony a7sii), bought for $11 on eBay. These "brand" lenses were typically really made by legit lens or optics companies, and I'm quite happy with the glass in this one. Note the slender snake-like lens flares.

But on to the protests, which started the next day with the wonderful Women's March on Washington...

Taken with my trusty Helios 44-2 58mm f/2, which is a lens I will always keep coming back to. It's easy to find one for less than $50 - I don't know of any better bargain in lenses out there. Shutter: 125, ISO: 250, Aperture: Probably around f/8.

The beautiful architecture of the new African American Museum made for a nice frame here. Helios 44-2. Shutter: 200, ISO: 100, Aperture: Somewhere around 5 - with the Helios click-stop aperture ring, I'll often float between the set stops.

Note the great arm tattoo - "I love you." I didn't know this person and wouldn't have felt comfortable taking such a close shot at this angle, but my friend had asked if photographs were ok and they they said yes. I still cropped the bottom a bit so I could comply with Instagram's absurd no-nipples rule. Helios 44-2. Shutter: 1/200, ISO: 400, Aperture around f/4.

That was a special and powerful day, but what you may not have seen on the news is that smaller but still sizable protests have been almost daily since then. This one was taken 4 days after the Women's March, on January 25, when rumors of the travel ban were swirling. The travel ban was issued two days later.

Just outside the White House. The Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8. Shutter: 1/100, ISO 3200, Aperture: f/1.8. This is the only native lens for my a7sii I own, and the only one I'm interested in owning at the moment. I'm usually not one to chase sharpness, but I do love how sharp it is at faster apertures.

On January 29, the day after the travel ban took effect, there was a large protest that moved between the White House and a few blocks away at the newly opened Trump Hotel. These shots I took with the Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9.

Near the White House. Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9. Shutter: 1/400, ISO: 125, Aperture around f/2.8.

It was quite a sight seeing such a crowd outside the hotel's door. Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9. Shutter: 1/250, ISO: 200, Aperture around f/4.

Not sure how someone managed this given all the police and security that were around. I suppose they had allies crowd around them while they worked. The moment the protest broke up, workers came out and got to work on removing it. Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9. Shutter: 1/400, ISO: 160, Aperture: around f/2.8.

Walking up Pennsylvania Avenue. Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9. Shutter: 1/400, ISO: 160, Aperture around f/7.1.

Asahi Takumar 85mm f/1.9. Shutter: 1/400, ISO: 160, Aperture looks fairly open, maybe f/4 or so.

Crosswalks and Bokeh

Hellios 44-2 58mm f/2 lens. 16th Street NW at U Street NW, Washington, DC.

Crosswalks are ground zero for street photography. One of my favorite street photographers, Tokyo's Tatsuo Suzuki, does a lot of his work walking through Shibuya Crossing where he always has thousands of passing faces to choose from. Having strangers in close proximity with a wide open space around you, which usually means more (or at least more uniform) light than on the sidewalk, is perfect for using a mid to wide-angle lens with zone focusing to get street portraits. There's the added bonus that people are so focused (forgive the pun) on getting to the other side of the street that they're less likely to stop and yell at you for taking their picture.

So I use crosswalks a bit for standard street photography...

Rough Day. I'm tempted replace his backpack with a briefcase and the cars with 1960s Buicks and Fords.

I was so excited by the idea of catching Justin Bieber's face like this that I ran up so I get the shot while the shirt-wearer was still in the sun and I could get lens flares.

Everyone always takes some variation of this shot sooner or later. Cliché or not, it's too fun to resist.

A map of DC walking through DC.

But what's drawn me more lately is using crosswalks for abstract bokeh experimentation. They're good spots for that because the various background lights will be nice and far away (and completely out of focus), and no matter how abstract the shot is the white stripes give an easily recognizable reference, and nicely frame the dark silhouette-blobs of anyone in them...

The Soviet Jupiter-3 50mm f/1.5 lens. This is an example of how delicate this lens's blur spots can be, with most of the blur spots brightest around their edges, and showing various personality and shape depending on where they are in the pictures frame. This was looking across U Street NW, at 14th Street NW - one of my favorite DC intersections.

I've written before what a great bargain the Helios 44-2 58mm f/2 is. One of the reasons it's one of the best lenses you can find for under $50 is the bokeh...

While the blur spots don't have quite the subtle personality of the Jupiter-3, look how ginormous they can get. The Helios 44-2 can focus to very close distances, giving far off lights extra big blur spots.

Next up is a more obscure lens, at least going by popularity on flickr - the Asahi Takumar 35mm f/2, which I found mounted to a Pentax in a bin of old film cameras. The camera's price tag said $80. I brought it to the register, unscrewed the lens from the Pentax body, and told the store owner, "I don't need the body." He replied, "I don't need the body." I said, "How about $75 for the lens?" and she said sure. Probably not perfect haggling on my part, but it was a good deal for both of us - they go for around $125 to $200 on eBay, but this one is pretty beat up and hazy.

Not bad, but not as good as the Jupiter and Helios.

One more, this time back to the Jupiter-3...

Dupont Circle, looking north up Connecticut Avenue NW.

Dupont Circle, looking north up Connecticut Avenue NW.

...I liked how the abstraction doesn't make it any less clear what's being shown here - I was lucky with how well the white of the crosswalk so nicely frames the couple's interlocked hands. When I posted it on 500px, photographer Joseph DiPolito commented with a more clever caption than I ever would have come up with - "Love is always out of focus."

Ireland with Leica Leitz, Industar, and Zeiss.

In June I drove around Ireland and Northern Ireland, taking occasional photos between beers. My primary lens for the trip was the only native lens I continue to use on my Sony a7ii, the Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 Sonnar T. Otherwise I packed light with three little M39-mount lenses:

1951 Leica Leitz Summaron 35mm f/3.5
Industar 28mm f/2.8
Jupiter-3 50mm f/1.5

I'm mainly into the Jupiter-3 for its bokeh, particularly at night:

This was taken on U Street in Washington, DC. Shutter: 1/160, ISO: 640, f/1.5. So much lens personality showing here - note the two blue lights bottom center: perfectly round with classic rings of brighter light at their edges. The lights toward the edge become more misshapen, and there's the nice lens flare to the upper left. You can also pick up some of the lens's scratches and imperfection within the individual light spots.

But bringing my favorite night lens to Ireland in June wasn't the best planning ... because there was 16+ hours of sunlight a day there. So I never actually used the Jupiter there, because the light at night was like this, which I took with the Leica Leitz 35mm at 10pm on the night of the Summer Solstice in Oranmore, a nice spot outside of Galway.

Shutter: 1/80, ISO: 200, and aperture somewhere around f/8.

My favorite shot with the Leica Leitz was at The Rock of Cashel, which is well worth the visit and a quick drive from Dublin or Cork...

With a scene like this, most any wide lens would've done here! Shutter: 1/250, ISO: 250, f/16 (probably).

I rarely use the Industar-69, but it's so tiny I usually keep it in my bag anyway. And every now and then there's a good chance to take advantage of its unique look. Someone in the Industar-69 flickr pool pointed out to me that the gobs of vignetting I get on the lens is because it was made for half-frame cameras, and I'm using it on my full-frame Sony a7ii. It seemed appropriate for this shot, inside the castle at the Rock of Cashel...

Shutter: 1/60, ISO: 1250, f/5 ish (this lens has one of those old-style aperture rings that's on the front, right up against the glass, and it's tough to know exactly what the setting is).

As I said the native Sony Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 was my main lens. It's so comfortable in the wider apertures, while also showing enough personality to satisfy even us lovers of old weirdo lenses. In Galway I visited the grave of my great, great, great grandmother Mary...

I should've left some flowers, but I was a bad great, great, great grandson. Next time! Shutter: 1/1600, ISO: 200, f/1.8.

The background of that shot looks nice and distantly faded and blurred. Mainly because the shot was wide open at f/1.8, but also a bit because it was a misty day with cool light rain, as is typical in Galway. The same shot, full crop and unedited...

I once heard a great tip from a lightning photographer - he always tried to catch lightning that was at the front of the storm, because even lightning bolts lose clarity behind rain.

The sharpness of the Zeiss helped with street photography - most of those shots I had to crop down in editing because I was extra shy about the distance I took them from, as my fear of getting yelled at is great when I'm a dumb foreign tourist. This one was from Cork, which I found to be an incredibly friendly place, though even other Irish sometimes have trouble understanding the unique song-like accents of the locals.

Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 640, f/1.8.

This one was in Belfast. I was drawn to his expressive face. It was only later when editing the photo that I noticed what was on his shirt and how well his hand was placed on it...

Shutter: 1/250, ISO: 80, f/4. That's the sharpest aperture for this lens, which helped here because I had to crop the shot down quite a bit - I was across the street when I took it.

Adapting Rangefinder Lenses with Focus Levers

Most of my lenses are in the old rangefinder M39 screw mount. Being able to use these smaller lenses is one of the big advantages of mirrorless cameras - the bellows length on these are much shorter than SLR mounts like the sister M42 screw mount common on vintage SLR lenses.

M39 will usually equate to a rangefinder lens, but be careful when buying - in the 50s and 60s, the Soviets started using an M39 mount with a longer bellows length to accommodate SLRs. When I picked up a 1965 Mir-1 M39 mount lens on eBay, I expected to be able to use it with a standard M39 adapter, but it needed a longer SLR bellows length. Luckily there are little M39 to M42 adapter rings available for a few dollars, and the usual M42 adapters will hold those lenses at the right distance.

For reasons I wrote about before, I sold my heavy, ginormous Zeiss Distagon 35mm f/1.4 native ZA E-Mount lens. I wanted to replace it with a compact manual 35mm for under $500. After a lot of research (I was also tempted by an M39 mount Canon 35mm f/1.5), I bought a 1951 Leica Leitz Summaron 35mm f/3.5 for $300. I hadn't expected to settle for something as slow as f/3.5, but I liked samples of shots made with that lens. And it is terrifically compact:

With this lens on, the camera will fit into larger jacket pockets.

I also like that it has a focus lever. Focus levers, in addition to having great vintage steam-punk-y aesthetics, are functionally a lot of fun. You can snap them to infinity almost instantly, and in time you get a feel for where your focus is by where the lever is, and you can get lightning fast at focusing at any distance without looking - something particularly useful for street photography.

I had a problem when the lens arrived. I alway use the great little $9 Fotasy M39 to E-Mount adapters. The lenses fit very flush against the base of the adapters, which is fine for most lenses. But with a lens like this that has a locking focus lever, there's not adequate clearance for the spring-loaded locking/unlocking mechanism to engage. With the lens fully screwed in, It wasn't able to get it in and out of its infinity focus.

This was an easy fix though, thanks to the adapter design which allows you to remove the inner screw mount ring. A 1/16" flathead screwdriver can loosen the three little screws in the body.

Careful! The screws don't have to be completely removed, but it's easy to accidentally completely unscrew them. Do not attempt it over shag carpeting!

Careful! The screws don't have to be completely removed, but it's easy to accidentally completely unscrew them. Do not attempt it over shag carpeting!

In theory you can mount the ring to stick a bit out from the adapter if you need to microadjust the distance of your lens to get proper focus. This is possible, and I've done it, but it's very tough. The sides of the ring are tapered, which will often cause the ring to return to flush as you tighten the screws...

It's also tough to keep the ring exactly on-plane with the adapter (and ultimately camera sensor) when re-installing it at a longer length.The good news is that if your lens isn't wonky then adapter should work perfectly fine with the ring in its snug, flush position.

So here's how I adapted the adapter to work with my new (1951) focus lever lens. I removed the screw mount ring from the inside. I then selected a spot on the body where I wanted the focus lever to be while at infinity. The adapter bodies always fit the same way onto an E Mount - with the adapter lettering ending up on top while mounted. Ergonomically this focus lever (and most focus levers, if I'm not mistaken) should sit close to the bottom of the camera while at infinity. At about 7 or 8 o'clock while looking at the lens will put the lever's entire range in easy reach of your left hand.

Once I had a spot picked, I started filing the heck out of that spot on the front of the adapter body. This is why I'd removed the inner thread ring -- I didn't want to mess the threading up, and there was no reason to file the ring anyway. It took a lot of filing to get a nice deep groove, but once I did I simply first screwed the inner thread ring all the way onto the lens, and then dropped the lens and ring into the right position on the adapter body. so everything was in its right place. I then tightened to the three screws bit by bit until voila...

The focus button mechanism now has full clearance to get in and out of its locking infinity position.

The focus button mechanism now has full clearance to get in and out of its locking infinity position.

By the way, that trick of readjusting the position of the inner thread ring is useful for properly fitting on any lens so the aperture and focus indicators are properly positioned in sight. You don't ever have to use your lenses upside down! The threading on these lenses is quite precise, so they'll always fit onto the same adapter the same way. Once I have a lens properly adapted, I always keep it on that adapter though. I buy a separate adapter for every lens. At less than $9 an adapter, it's worth the convenience.

Anyway, now that I've got it adapted I've been happy with the Summaron so far. It looks and feels like new. The handling is wonderful - I particularly like aperture adjustment, which subtly clicks and every spot, but is also tight enough to hold in-between apertures. The lens is sharp enough for my purposes, and it has nice lens contrast. Like most any uncoated vintage lens, it can drunkenly spill light all over the place in high-light settings, but learning how to tame and use that is half the fun. Samples shots:

Uncropped image. Shutter: 1/125, ISO: 100, Aperture: f/11 probably.

Cropped image. Taking advantage of the lens flaring. Shutter: 125, ISO: 80, I forget the aperture, possibly f/5.6.

Shutter: 1/80, ISO: 1000, Aperture: f/4 I thin. This uncropped image shows the lens's pleasant vignetting.

Shutter: 1/80, ISO: 5,000, f/3.5. This type of image is exactly why I chose this lens.