By Lorraine Healy
For as long as I have been photographing, I have had a quiet project-on-the-side, unrelated to any others I may have undertaken. I love old storefronts and old signs, the kind that are disappearing from view everywhere in the world as we all become more uniform and globalised.
Some signs hand-made, some neon, some storefronts peeling away, some withstanding time and global economics, I look for these beauties everywhere I go. I am blessedly far from being the only one at this; there are hundreds of joyous IG accounts posting these finds. I was always clear, however, that I wanted to keep these signs and storefronts alive in analogue film.
To that end, I experimented with several 35mm cameras, the Holga 35BC, the Lomography Sprocket Rocket with its wide-angle lens, the Olympus Mju-II, the Olympus Trip 35. They all gave me good results but I kept running into situations when I needed a longer lens. Sometimes the signs were too set too high or were too far away to shoot with a standard lens. Enter the Pentax 90WR.
Let me say from the start that I am not looking at creating photographic masterpieces when I find these remnants of the past. I just want to take a decent colour image, preserving what was there. I try to get rid, in camera, of as much visual garbage as I can. I try to find the best composition possible. But the main thrust of this idea is: get the sign, get the place. The Pentax 90 WR has been the surprising winner of my search for the perfect camera for this project.
Launched in 1991, it has a 38-90mm 3.5 to 7.8 zoom, autofocus 0.8m to infinity, and shutter speeds 1/5 to 1/400 second and a Bulb mode (which I have never used, or the detachable remote control either). I assume this camera was aimed at the casual shooter, providing a decent glass lens and simple operation.
I discovered the Pentax 90 WR through an IG post by Blue Moon Camera from Portland, Oregon, where they extolled the simple but effective possibilities of this very cheap camera, readily available on eBay for $10-$40. I bought one immediately for $15. Since then, I have acquired several, finding them at Goodwill Stores in Washington and Oregon, where it is hard to find camera bargains anymore. But there are usually a couple of 90 WR to be found, for ridiculously low prices.
The WR stands for weather-resistant, a great feature to have here in western Washington state. In fact, you can still find most of these cameras with an intact white sticker in the front, showing an open faucet raining on the camera with the word OK.
Loading could not be simpler: drop the roll, close the back cover, and the camera advances to frame 1. If the number 1 is not showing on the upper LCD screen, you open the camera and extend the film’s tail a tad, close again. Once the roll has been exposed (a very generous 39 frames out of a 36-frame roll, in my experience), it rewinds on its own. Mid roll rewinding is possible. I don’t use the back LCD panel at all, because I don’t want the date on my negative, but that’s up to the user. The very clear viewfinder has some frame lines that indicate the size of your image if shooting in macro mode (0.5-0.8m), otherwise you get the entire frame, even when zoomed to the full 90mm.
The default mode on the camera is auto-flash, not something I ever use. For my purposes, as soon as I turn the camera on, I press the Mode button once to get the plain, non-auto flash mode, even if I’m shooting at night. There are several more modes to choose from, but I have never needed to try them. I use this camera for this project only.
From the very start I paired the Pentax 90WR with Lomography CN400 colour film. It is a cheaper alternative to other colour brands, is usually readily available in my freezer, and its 36 exposures give me a good long haul of shooting. Unless I’m on a road trip, a roll of 36 frames will last me three to four months.
The camera is always loaded, in my car, with a spare roll in my bag. It takes two CR123 batteries that supposedly last about 30 rolls, but I would say that in reality they probably last twice as long. It is heavier than I would prefer in a compact camera, at over 455 g (more than a pound) without batteries, but I still take one with me when I travel. I usually find some nice old places and signs no matter where I am, and I enjoy keeping those images consistent with the rest of the project.
In my opinion, this camera would be a great way to introduce a young person to film photography. It is inexpensive, solid, and paired with a roll of plain colour film it can deliver pleasing results that would probably lead to an interest in something like a SLR.
It is also an inexpensive travel camera (a tad on the heavy side) for those snapshots that don’t require your Leica or your Hassy.
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