There have been few opportunities for me to take the Instax Wide format MiNT Camera Instantkon RF70 on a night shoot, a favourite activity of mine. With the “iso” in Sydney having lifted in June, I was excited to have an opportunity to see what it could really do in low light.
The Instantkon RF70 is produced by MiNT Camera, a company that started selling refurbished Polaroid cameras, before developing its own Instax Mini TLR. Released in June 2018, the Instakon RF70 is a folding bellows rangefinder that comes in two models: an automated version, and a model with manual aperture and shutter speed controls. I use the latter. There is a great review of the camera by Matt Murray from the Matt Loves Cameras podcast, which I also recommend you read (as well as this one!).
The camera is not a cheap camera, particularly when compared to its other Instax film competitors, however, there are no Instax cameras in the same class as the RF70, and in fact, no newly designed or currently manufactured film cameras of any sort approaching the RF70 on the market today. I suspect the price would not be notable in a more replete high-end Instax camera market.
I have pushed a few packs of film through the rollers in daylight, and a maybe a pack in blue hour and in my back yard at night, and my experience with the camera up to this point can be divided into things about the camera and things about Instax.
A quick look around the Instakon RF70
Folded away, the camera is a large oblong object. It has a weight in the hand that might be slightly lighter than anticipated due to its plastic build, and I have found a wrist strap suffices for handling safety for me. As you might expect, the plastic build conveys less than the usual confidence for a drop test.
The shutter speed dial and film eject lever are shiny and large, but you won’t be tempted to crank them fiercely for fear of ripping them off their fix points. The film door is a thin plastic cover. I get the impression of a greater-than-usual camera wobble when it is on the tripod and I press the shutter button without a cable release.
As with all the images in this article, please clicc/tap to view them in full screen.
The rangefinder patch is bright enough in most conditions, but I have consistently not been able to hit focus with the aperture wide open at f/5.6; so much so that I wondered if the calibration was off. Stop down the aperture and I hit focus every time.
As with all rangefinders framing an image accurately when close focusing can be fraught with danger, and I have found the close focus frame lines to be only ballpark-accurate for me. For the life of me, I have not been able to work out how to make a B exposure open the shutter for more than 30 seconds at a time. The camera should be able to shoot a 10-minute exposure, which is still not “Bulb”, but for 99% of the time that would be plenty enough if I knew how.
Despite all of this, and as a disclaimer, I love this camera. It looks the business, it gives you full manual controls, and it is plenty sharp when you nail focus.
A word on Fujifilm Instax
Fujifilm Instax sheet films have been around for more than 20 years, and we know it has a narrow light sensitivity range, low-resolution film (~10 lines per mm), and it has terrible reciprocity failure characteristics. I have found that about five stops of compensation may be required when shooting beyond a 1-second exposure, much worse than even Kodak Tri-X 400 or Fomapan films.
Finally, there’s an issue that must be close to the top of the list of First World Problems: how do you present your Instax images digitally? I have rephotographed the Instax frames and have hopefully eliminated the majority of those pesky reflections.
My evening photowalk with the RF70
I took the Instakon RF70 down to the north shore of Sydney Harbour along the Milson’s Point and Kirribilli foreshore, a short drive from home — please follow along below on your favourite mapping device.
I would start at Jeffrey Street Wharf (to the right of the bridge on the map route below). It was an obvious point of interest right where I parked, after which, I headed east a short way. There is an interesting stone pier at the end of the accessible foreshore, and there are nice vantage points for the city and Harbour Bridge. The foreshore on this side of the water is very dark, which would make for a great contrast against the harbour and the lights on the other side.
Coming back, west of the wharf I headed through a more brightly lit park and then under the bridge itself and Luna Park on the other side. I have shot there enough that I have a mental list where I might be able to compare results with previous film rolls/sheets. The compositions would not be original, but for this test, I was more interested in whether I could create decent images with the RF70 in true night light.
I used a tripod, of course, and a remote release cable. The RF70 fits a standard threaded cable onto its shutter button. As described, the lighting conditions on this night ranged from, relatively speaking, quite bright (the city skyline across the harbour and Jeffrey Street Wharf on my side of the harbour metered at 1 sec at f/8), to distant street lamps (the Sydney Harbour Bridge metered at 4 sec at f/8), and then to dark (the foreshore metered at 16 sec and above at f/8).
I used a smartphone app to meter, which is usually accurate enough. I shot at f/8 to ensure I hit focus.
Even knowing that I needed about 5 stops of reciprocity failure compensation didn’t stop me from underexposing a few frames of film. A couple more frames were less than optimal as I tried to work the longer B exposure mode, caused obvious camera shake, then giving up. Instead, I would end up shooting multiple 30 second shutter actuations for a complete exposure all that night.
Normally such a profligate waste of an expensive film would be heart breaking, but MiNT Camera has an unlimited free film offer for its TL70 and RF70 cameras. T’s and C’s apply, and the international mail service had been shut down from Hong Kong due to the “Virus That Shall Not Be Named”, but I had already received 5 packs of Instax under this program for a month of social media postings and am expecting a new delivery soon. This supply of film does encourage creativity and experimentation and is no gimmick.
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This first image I am sharing is the first successful image of Jeffrey Street Wharf. It is still a little under exposed, but I like the detail in the brighter areas of the film, though it is a shame that the larger context of the wharf is largely lost. My next couple of shots that included both the foreshore and city skyline failed. There was simply an insufficient light sensitivity range to capture any detail in the dark foreshore and retain light detail in the city. I would need to make any silhouettes striking enough that the blocked out blacks would stand on their own.
Next, there is a stone pier a little further along with flagstones that create a pleasing pattern when side lit. I metered the stone pier at 16 seconds, knowing that the city lights across the harbour would well overexpose.
With 5 stops of compensation, this would be an 8 minute exposure. With 30 second exposures at a time, this would be 16 actuations of the shutter as multiple exposures. This ended up being one of my favourite images. The available detail of the stone surface is beautiful against the bright water of the harbour, and the overexposed city lights at the top frame don’t have enough detail to distract from the stone pattern. Surface water splashed from the waves of passing ferries also lends a pleasing highlight to the bottom centre of the frame.
The next couple of images were also metered at 16 seconds, but I think this was simply reflecting the hard limits of the phone app, and the true reading was somewhat beyond this as, these photos were also well underexposed. It was dark enough that even a dedicated light meter may not have helped.
I was also not wanting to consider a 16 minute or 30 minute bracketed exposure, not least because keeping concentration to count to 60 shutter actuations would be a bridge too far. In the dark conditions, the rangefinder was also impossible to focus, but since the subjects were more or less at infinity, this was easily overcome. This isn’t a criticism of the RF70 specifically, but of rangefinders in the dark in general.
The image of the foreshore (first frame above) is another of my favourites. Light reflecting off a splash of surface water on the ground, the barely discernible shape of a huddled couple breaking the foreshore silhouette, and the light of the water and Harbour Bridge in the background holding colours I would normally associate with a Fuji Provia 100F long exposure. The images of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in full and the Sydney city skyline were shot from almost the same position.
Closer to the bridge, I included elements of all three lighting conditions in the composition, bright, dim and dark. I took separate frames exposed for either the bridge or for the wharf, and in the end, I liked the exposure for the bridge better. The bridge is the dominant element in the composition, and although the wharf is well blown out, having the bridge properly exposed seemed more tolerable than having a well-underexposed bridge and a well-exposed wharf. A wise alternative may have been to leave off the shot altogether.
At this point I had loaded my third film pack for the night. There is an issue with the RF70 not ejecting the Instax dark slide properly, but I have not had that issue with loading film packs, at least not up till now. For the first time, I experienced the RF70 dark slide eject problem. Matt Murray describes this happening to him 2-3 times over a 12 month period.
The camera manual describes this as potentially happening and recommends pressing onto the film door back to assist the dark slide ejection. Matt also describes researching that removing the batteries and reinserting fresh ones can help, but I had already had fresh batteries, and further battery removals and reinsertions didn’t help.
The camera takes 2 AA batteries, and to my mind seems power-hungry. I always carry spares. Reloading the batteries always sets the film counter back to zero). With no success at clearing the dark slide, I reluctantly followed Matt’s method of last resort of removing the film pack in the open without a dark bag available. What I found was not a dark slide that failed to catch, but that the dark slide had carried a frame of Instax with it, jamming the rollers. With a tense tussle, I managed to remove the dark slide and Instax, without damaging the camera (at least as far I can tell – I’ll need to shoot a couple more packs to be happy about that).
MiNT Camera carries a five-year warranty, but I didn’t really want to test the T’s and C’s of that out. The conditions were dark enough that despite having a free-ranging pack of Instax I decided to keep shooting it. I reinserted the film pack, ejected the next frame and then kept going. I don’t think I can see any problems with the images on the remaining frames.
In the park under the Harbour Bridge I took a couple of images of the stone hut and tree (above), well underexposing the first, and acceptably exposing the second. I took an image of the parked bus below, anxiously hoping it would not leave as the driver started to stir.
This final image under the Sydney Harbour Bridge is another favourite from this night. I metered for the underside of the bridge, again knowing that the city skyline would blow out the highlights. I was very pleasantly surprised to see what detail the camera and film could capture here.
Again, the overexposed city skyline although very bright doesn’t have sufficient dominance to distract from the detailed under the surface of the bridge, as least to my opinion.
My Thoughts on this experience
I shot about 24 frames of Instax Wide on this night. It was challenging because of both the Instax and the camera. This was certainly not a night where the gear “got out of the way” of the photography. Both the film and camera monopolised my forebrain for the night.
The results, though, are better than what I had expected. Not so much as because it could not be achieved, but rather, I did not think I would achieve that on my first real night out with the RF70. Shooting film for me, an enthusiastic amateur, is a somewhat meditative pursuit where the joy not only results from the image(s) but also from the process. And boy there was plenty of process! Having my mind wholly focused on a task that I find intrinsically pleasurable is a relaxation. Obviously that will not be the case for some.
For more photography from me, I have a zine “NSW West” currently available and my socials are on Instagram: @billthoo for film, or @bill.thoo for film and digital. I also run the @AnalogNights account.
Thanks for reading!
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