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Friday, August 1

Rollei Blackbird - refreshingly different or clever marketing?

There are some photographers who are driven, creative individuals who know exactly what they want to do and just go and do it. The rest of us, a bit jaded I suspect, look on in envy as we desperately search for something new or different to give our creative juices a stir.

In digital photography, some savour the ability of their cameras to be adapted for use with just about any lens to try out optics from all eras and price bands. From what I can see, this doesn't seem to produce anything genuinely different but it's certainly a lot of fun.

From time to time, I also find myself in the doldrums, lacking motivation and inspiration. I'm a little like that at the moment at which time I often think of trying a different film for an artistic jolt. Lately, I've been looking at some of the more obscure films such as Rollei Blackbird. It's an interesting looking film but, as is often the case nowadays, it's not always clear whether this is something different or just the result of creative marketing.
I've read (on I think) that Blackbird is no more than Rollei Retro 100 but some users claim it has it's own special qualities. One of these is Rob Lambert who has the excellent blog 28mmf2, named after his favourite Zuiko lens. Rob is a fellow Olympus OM user but he also uses digital a fair bit, particularly for the book cover market he services. At the risk of offending him, I haven't read anything at all that he writes about digital photography but I've read just about everything related to film.

He says Blackbird has a special look. "Rollei Blackbird is a really unusual film and produces unique results. However if it’s underexposed it will be a disaster – there will be no shadow detail at all, so it’s always best to expose for the shadows and let the highlights sort themselves out," he said.

"What makes it special is its treatment of shadows – if correctly exposed and developed it cuts to a deep black at just the right point in the midtones giving a dark, moody image."

Here's one of his Blackbird pics that I think illustrates what he's saying quite nicely. Now that's what I call a moody shot! You can see some more of Rob's pictures of and words about Blackbird here. If you take a look here at a Google page of (mostly) Rollei Blackbird photographs, you might get a feel for the film, what it's capable of and what its shortcomings are.

It occurred to me that Ralph Gibson might have had an inordinate amount of fun using Blackbird instead of Tri X. Could it be that Blackbird is capable of producing the deep shadows and bright highlights that Ralph loves without going to bother of torturing Tri X?

Or is Blackbird really just Rollei Retro 100 with a different recommendation for exposure and development? Well, let's take a look at the Massive Dev Chart. It's not infallible but it's usually possible to tell if two films are the same from the development times they get in common developers.

Unfortunately, there's only one common developer in this case - D76 stock. Blackbird at 100 ISO needs 10 mins and Rollei Retro 100 at the same speed gets 9 mins. That's too close, in my opinion, to say decisively that the films are different.

So what say you readers? Is anyone using Blackbird and do you have anything good or bad to say about it? Does it have empty shadows and bullet-proof highlights if abused? Is it the same as Rollei Retro 100? Please use the comments below if you can shed some light on this mysterious film.


Eric said...

Hello Bruce. I can't say anything about Rollei Retro 100 but I've used some Blackbird and found it to be quite a tricky film. As Rob Lambert says it does not take much underexposure to loose the shadows altogether and the negatives seem to get dense quickly if you give it too much development. You might be better off sticking to TriX like Ralph.

Simon F. said...

Hi - I'm a new reader enjoying catching up on your excellent posts. I think the film your thinking of is Rollei Retro 100S which was one of those aerial films. It's no doubt moot now anyway as I can't find Retro 100S on sale now. If you want the Blackbird look then you'l need to use Blackbird!

Oscar said...

I saw this on macodirect: ISO 25/15° / ISO 100/21°

process 100/21° D76 20° stock 10 min
process 25/25° D76 20° stock 6 min

I've never tried this film myself, but most shots I've seen look underexposed/overdeveloped. I'm guessing it will look like most other films exposed for ISO25 and developed more carefully.

Rob Lambert said...

Hi Bruce,

Thanks for the link to my post. No offense taken btw - film is more interesting than digital!

Rollei Blackbird seems to me to be different from Retro 100 (or any other) film, based purely on the results and the sheer mess it makes of D76 stock - unlike any other I've used.

It's easier to expose and develop at ISO 100 - at ISO 25 it shows even more contrast.

Using 'difficult' film such Blackbird (as well as Adox CMS20 and Ilford PAN F) is worth the effort for the different 'look' they give. Or I could just like doing things the hard way....

Art said...

Rollei is pretty vague about Blackbird, but the handling instructions (subdued light) look awfully similar to Retro 80s. Even rating that film at ISO 64 it tends to cut off shadows, though the highlights just go on forever. I imagine even a slight push to 100 is going to look very dramatic.