Week 42: Rollei Retro 400s and others do Family portraits!

Taking advantage of a big family birthday bash, I brought along a few rolls of Rollei Retro 400s as well as the always reliable Kodak Portra 400.

At my mother's recent birthday celebrations (age stays strictly confidential!), I had the chance to see part of the extended O'Neill family, who came together for a few days celebration in London. Thankfully the weather cooperated, and it was another good opportunity to practice some portrait photography with my Hasselblad.

This week's choice of film was Rollei Retro 400s. I had read mixed reviews online, and was a bit uncertain of trying it, but figured at ISO 400 it would be good for most indoor situations, asadvertised.  It turns out that was the least of my problems, with many of the shots coming back being totally unusable. Thankfully some good shots came through, and I had also brought with me the trustworthy Kodak Portra 400 to add some colour to the mix.

More on the Rollei Retro 400s film below:

Rollei Retro 400S is a high-speed black and white film with a nominal sensitivity of ISO 400/27°.

Retro 400S is a completely reliable partner in changing light conditions. It can be used as both an all-round film and as a film for the grey areas - photography in available light and dim lighting conditions. Rollei RETRO 400S is coated onto a modern synthetic film base.


  • medium to high speed panchromatic black and white film
  • special coating to improve the transport properties of the film in the camera
  • suitable for use in daylight and artificial light, without any restrictions
  • spectral sensitivity 380 – 730 nm.
That's my cousin Shereefa, ever the patient model. This shot turned out better than most with little to no re-touching required. Some good overall sharpness.
A great shot of Jackie, my cousin Brendan's fiancee. This is one of my favourite shots of the 2 rolls, no editing required.
The one and only Uncle Sumi, this shot could be straight out of a Hollywood movie.
My cousin Brendan.  Pity I did not manage to get a sharp shot here, but in black and white with the changing light it definitely works, more of an artistic shot for sure. Interesting to start seeing such different results from indoor vs. outdoor shots.
My happy mother and Aunt Davnet sharing a nice moment together.  Quite a few scratches on this shot, which is fine it kind of adds to the character, but I wonder if this is due to the scanning process.
The always happy cousin Eimear. I would have liked a bit more sharpness and contrast in this shot, it seems a bit flat.
Those eyes have a story to tell.
This film does produce some great results wheni it wants to - but I did not find the consistency I have come to expect with other 120mm films loaded in my Hasselblad.
Another great Sumi shot. I had to do quite a lot of editing to this one, unsure why the original came out so dark it was all metered correctly as far as I remember.

Other portraits - shot on Kodak Portra 400

All shots below taken with Kodak Portra 400, with some being converted to black & white.

The alway stylish Sinead (another cousin of mine). I really like the light in this shot with the always consistent Portra 400 film.
Uncle Conor. It always amazes me how light can make such a difference in a shot. I probably should have moved him more into the light but then he would have lost his patience and not be smiling anymore!
Aunty Carmel. I used the extension tube here, which can make focusing a real challenge and has this crazy depth of field look to it. Converted to black & white.
Crazy depth of field, again with the extension tube. Super bright Portra 400 film.
My sister in-law Danielle, what a lovely shot (if I say so myself!).
Lovely shot of Kathleen, converted to black & white.
Very soft focus shot of my Dad, Jim.
Uncle Conor and Brendan - not the best lighting, but they both seem happy so I decided to include it!
My favourite shot of the weekend - actually shot on Rollei Retro 400S. One of my mother's friends brought in an old black and white photo album of when she was young (with my mother and aunt and uncles in many of the shots), all immacutely stuck in place with names, dates and descriptions. If only we treated our digital files with so many care and attention. Oh, and that is my cousin Feargal looking through the album.
My mother (Orla), with her siblings, Davnet, Shane, Conor, and Diarmuid.

Things I have learned from this impromptu photo shoot weekend

As I reflect on these shots there are a few things I have learned, that I thought would be good to write down. If anything, for me to check back on!

In reality the Hasselblad system is best used for portraits in a studio and professional environment. Not only because of slower lenses requiring tripods, but due to its size and "clunkiness". Ever the rebel, I do enjoy taking this amazing camera system out and about with me, despite the crazy looks I get sometimes. This is a camera that forces you to slow down, to the point you are completely immersed in the viewfinder (it has a 3D feel too it, like a movie happening right infront of you).

But all of this does not bode well with everyday family shots. Granted my family have more patience with me than most, but the general expectation is: 1. camera goes up, 2. camera makes a noise, 3. continue drinking. My approach of "please hold your smile for the next century" doesn't go down that well. What it does mean is really pre-planning a shot to the extent you have pre-focused, taken a light reading, set shutter speed and aperture and when you are ready to take the shot you use the few seconds patience your subject gives you to make some minor changes.

More specifically I have thought about the following:

  • Hasselblad extension tubes are fun but create some whacky viewpoints not always that flattering
  • The telephoto Carl Zeiss Sonnar 150mm f4 lens is probably my most used for cropped head / shoulder shots, but its slow f4 requires plenty of light.
  • Taking shots of people on a balcony with the bright sun outside is a nightmare. A better solution might be to use reflected light off the balcony window, or not taking it at all.
  • Spot metering (taking multiple measures and getting an average) should be done in situations with a big contrast between the bright outdoors and darker indoors, especially if leaning on a balcony is involved. I was let down by an average light reading of the scene, which failed big time.
  • In future I will probably spend more time one-on-one with a model than try to use the Hasselblad as the unofficial party photographer. It is too slow for fast focusing, and expensive to get wrong!

Overall impressions

I am not sure what happened with this Rollei 400s film, but it really did not perform well. I had read some reviews online that say it is a bit tempremental, so maybe it is just getting used to it. Of the 2 rolls I shot (24 photos), I found my 'keep rate' dropped significantly. When shooting with a Hasselblad I find my keep rate is very high, not only due to the amount of time you take in composing an image, but because medium format photography is in a world of its own.

That being said, many of my shots were extremely underexposed, to the extent that they were unusable. Very strange, as they were all metered normally using my Sekonic lightmeter. Granted a lot of the shots were taken in bright conditions, but I am not sure why some were fine and others absolutely unusable. For that reason, and given the extensive amount of other "consistently good" black and white film available, I cannot readily recommend this film right now. I will try the 35mm version in future to see if it makes any difference. I could also try it again with another developer to see if that makes any difference, but frankly I would rather stick with Bergger Pancro or Kodak T-Max or Tri-X films.

Of course all the Kodak Portra shots were spot on, this film does not disappoint and produces some real stunners under the right lighting conditions.  

Another week down, with more exciting film and themes coming including the Guggenheim in BIlbao (black & white of course), and trying out Kodak Vision cinematographic film!