5 Feb 2009 steve   » (Master)

Adventures in Retro Photography

Susan and I frequent estate sales these days. For my part, I'm usually looking for interesting metal objects and potential robot parts. Occasionally, I see something I'm not looking for that's weird or interesting enough that I have to buy it. That was the case recently when I spotted a Bencini Comet S 127 film camera. I'd never heard of Bencini and the camera was in pretty bad shape but, hey, for $2, why not?

An initial inspection revealed a spare film takeup reel inside. The camera still included a metal screw-on lens cap. The shutter appeared to work. On the downside, the focus ring wouldn't turn, the lens and viewfinder had years worth of dirt on them, and the black leathery covering had partially peeled off the front of the camera.

A little Googling turned up quite a bit of information on the camera from Camerapedia, the Vintage Camera Museum and other sites. The Comet is a 127 film camera made by CMF Bencini in Milano, Italy in 1950. The Comet is a half-frame camera, meaning it takes 16 portrait aspect ratio photos on an 8 exposure roll of 127 film instead of the usual 8 square images.

I took the camera to the weekly DPRG meeting. That might seem odd, but we do a lot more than build robots. Basically anything geeky is on topic there. Another DPRG member, Ed Paradis, helped me disassemble and examine the camera. The focus ring problem was due to solidified lubricant. With careful application of solvent we were able to remove the old lubricant. Then we added some new, non-oil-based lubricant. The focus ring worked like new when we were done. I cleaned up the rest of the camera as best I could.

I discovered there's actually a growing community of 127 users on flickr. Surprisingly, flickr is apparently exposing (no pun intended!) a lot of people to film for the first time and helping bring back interest in a number of dying film formats. I found helpful information there on how to load and use my camera.

There is one type of 127 Black and White film still manufactured, Efke, made by Fotokemika in Samobor, Croatia. Efke R100 film is manufacured using a "classic emulsion" formulation, meaning the photos look very much like they would have when the first 127 films were in use. Efke R100 is inexpensive through B&H photo at $5 a roll, so I ordered a few rolls. Coincidentally, Susan received a replica plastic Diana F 120 film camera from her sister as a gift around thsi same time, so we picked up some color 120 film for her and we went out to shoot a couple of test rolls with our new arsenal of cheesy cameras.

As it turns out, the real problem isn't buying 127 film, it's finding a lab willing to process it. While it's technically possible for any professional photo lab to process the film, most don't offer the service. Most 127 film users rely on mail-order processing through either Blue Moon Camera and Machine in Portland, OR or Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, KS. With all the film labs in the Dallas area, however, I was happy to discover The Color Lab, Inc very close to my office. They process 127, 120, and most other film formats. They're inexpensive, offer prints or scanning to CD and I've gotten same-day service so far. I highly recommend them if you're looking for a photo lab in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area.

After getting my negatives back from the Color Lab, I scanned them on an Epson V500, cropped the images in Gimp, and parked them on flickr where you can check them out if you want to see what sort of photos a Bencini Comet S can produce.

As a final note. I recently discovered a Canadian manufacturer is now making 127 color film in small quantities. The film is called Bluefire Murano 160. It can be developed using standard C-41 color processing. It's available in the US through the Frugal Photographer website for $7 a roll. I haven't decided if I want to do any color with the Comet. For now I'll probably stick to the Efke R100.

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