Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Rollei Retro 80S

Let's have a look at Rollei Retro 80S, a contrasty black and white film sold by Rollei, which is apparently part of whatever remains of Agfa. Although Agfa's website doesn't explicitly mention Rollei 80s the film is apparently derived from their range of aerial surveillance film, with extended infrared sensitivity so that it penetrates atmospheric haze.

It's available in two speeds, ISO 80 and ISO 400. I bought some ISO 80 and shot it at ISO 80 in Prague, which is a retro place. I'm surprised that anyone in 2020 still makes aerial surveillance film, but perhaps the Croatian Air Force has a bunch of reconnaissance MiG-21s that it continues to use because they work and they're cheap.

Why is it called retro film? I'm not sure. It feels like a lith-type film, with very high contrast. As a result if you meter for the shadows the overcast sky blows out, which resembles the look of old-fashioned orthochromatic film. Perhaps that's why it's called retro.

The Croatian Air Force still flies the MiG-21, by the way. The aircraft was introduced into Soviet service in the late 1950s, but despite the basic design being more than half a century old it's still in service throughout Africa and the Far East because it can cover a lot of airspace quickly and spare parts are widely available. China built a reverse-engineered copy called the J-7, which is also still in service.

What was the MiG-21 like? Visually it resembled the English Electric Lightning, but on an operational level it was more versatile. The Lighting was designed to intercept Soviet bombers coming over the North Sea so it had a excellent rate of climb and high top speed. On the downside the range was poor and it had a weak payload of just two missiles.

English Electric eventually added more fuel tanks, and fitted bombs and rocket pods for ground attack, but it was overkill as a ground attack aircraft. The MiG-21 had a similar evolution, from interceptor to multi-role aircraft, but it had a greater range and payload than the Lighting and a more powerful radar, so it remained in service a lot longer.

By modern standards it has a massive radar signature and limited space for internal avionics, and I imagine that it's not very environmentally friendly, but it's still unusually fast. Modern fighters prioritise mission flexibility over speed, but the MiG-21 was designed when the world's air forces wanted something that could go at mach 2+.

I'm digressing here. Orthochromatic film is hypersensitive to the colour blue, which means that blue skies tend to register as pure white. That's why 19th-century photographs often appear overcast even when there are sharp shadows from the sun. Orthochromatic film can't distinguish between white clouds and blue sky.

SMEG has a history dating back to 1948 - it's an Italian company, the name stands for "Smalterie Metallurgiche Emiliane Guastalla".

And unless you're over the age of forty you probably don't remember Red Dwarf. But still, it's an unfortunate name.

Did I like Rollei 80s? Erm. At ISO 80 the negatives were very thin, and as with other lith films it's a fragile dust magnet, so I had to spend a lot of time getting rid of white dust spots on the scan.

On the positive side it has deep, deep blacks that resemble a Bela Tarr film. It can also apparently be used as a near-infrared film, but I didn't try this. I would have to shoot blind through an infrared filter, and I'm not sure about the metering. Perhaps another day. If you're a member of the Croatian Air Force and you regularly use this film, and you're prepared to share exposure tips, please get in touch via the comments.

What's it like up close? There's very little grain, and it benefits from sympathetic sharpening.

Here's a 100% crop, and bear in mind that my Epson V500 desktop scanner is (a) antiquated (b) not a dedicated film scanner. My guess is that a really good scanner would resolve the Mercedes' numberplate. Note that even after sharpening far more heavily than I would have done with a digital photo, the grain is still almost unnoticeable.

80S and 400S are available in 35mm and 120, and unlike the range of Adox films - which I have tried before, and liked - they seem to be widely in stock, at least here in the UK.

Development? Ordinarily I develop black and white film myself. I use with R09 / Rodinal. Unfortunately the first two rolls I tried to develop came out completely transparent, so I think at this point my Rodinal has expired. What was on those two rolls? One of them had a bunch of photos of Prague's largest panelak, viz the following image, but in black and white:

The first was shot when I went off to see Nights of Cabiria and the BFI Sound Bank. I sent the third roll off to a leading British photo development company that rhymes with Bleak Pillaging, which is why it has survived whereas the other two rolls are gone.

Do I have any more thoughts about Rollei 80s? My hunch is that the 400-speed version would be good in a Holga, with a red filter stuck on the front. All the images in this page were shot with a Canon 50E using a 100mm f/2 lens, which I have been using a lot recently because I feel sorry for it - the 85mm f/1.8 overshadows it, but it remains on sale, so obviously some people like it.

The lens has a bit of barrel distortion and at f/2 there's noticeable purple fringing, and without image stabilisation I find that I have to keep reminding myself not to shoot at 1/60th, but on the whole I like it. It's compact, silent, and on a full-frame camera it's just wide enough to use as a walk-around lens.