To be sure, I did not have high expectations for the build quality of a camera that retails for just under $50. Still, when I first pulled it out of its packaging, I was amazed how light and flimsy the camera felt. It was almost as if there was nothing inside of the thing. The Ektar H35 is made almost entirely of plastic, and that includes the lens.
My second thought soon entered my head: wow, this thing feels really cheap! I remember muttering to myself not long after pulling the camera out of its box that I would have been very disappointed had I forked over a $50 bill for it. Somehow paying less than the equivalent of two $20 bills seemed to make the penny pincher in me feel a little better.
The camera is very comfortable to hold. Considering its light weight, it almost feels like there’s no effort necessary to keep it in your hand. A shallow indent on the top right of the camera’s back gives a place for your thumb to find a resting spot. The front has a faux-leatherette finish that actually has quite a comfortable tactile feel.
I had read on other reviewer’s writeups that the wrist strap was useless, so I never even bothered to attach it to the camera. Instead, I had my own wrist strap from my old Canon Powershot S110 that worked far better.
On the other hand, a nice and very useful cloth pouch accompanies the camera for storage.
Loading the camera with film takes a bit of care. You can just wedge the roll of film in and out without messing around with the flimsy rewind crank, which feels like it’ll break if anything except super-gentle force is exerted on it. You then insert the leader end of the film into the take-up spool slot on the other side.
The shutter gets cocked as the teeth of two middle gears move with the sprocket holes of the film, so it’s essential that everything meshes into place before closing the camera up.
The viewfinder doesn’t quite match the actual exposure frame. The viewfinder’s field of view is a bit smaller than what actually gets captured on film. I suppose this is better than the opposite arrangement.
There’s also what appears to be two masks on either side of the viewfinder frame. As other writers have supposed, it’s likely that the manufacturer made use of a stock viewfinder for a full-frame camera and adapted it for half-frame use. Why redesign something just for this camera when an existing off-the-shelf part is already available?
It’s also a little odd to see a vertical framing in the viewfinder while holding the camera horizontally and vice versa, but I got used to that quickly. I had no problem seeing the entire frame with my prescription glasses on.
The camera’s flash requires one AAA battery, but you can certainly go without it and use the camera without the flash. To turn it on, you simply turn the dial around the lens. It has an old-fashioned high-pitched whine as it warms up. The sound reminds me of my very first camera, an inexpensive point-and-shoot Vivitar I had as a kid in the 1980s. Some reviewers online have complained that the flash stays on after turning the dial to the off position. On my example, I never found this to be the case.
All of this is somewhat of a moot point, however, because the flash doesn’t really work all that well to begin with. I tried several nighttime interior shots with the flash, and the illumination it provides doesn’t really seem to reach very far. I found the flash failed to provide sufficient illumination even with somewhat forgiving ASA 200 film. For my purposes, this wasn’t all that big of a deal because I hate using flashes anyway.
The shutter sound is a very quiet and unassuming “click” sound that is barely audible. After having put a handful of film rolls through the camera, the shutter button began to feel a bit spongy and worn. I don’t have high hopes that this camera will last a long time.
Consistent with the overall build quality of the camera, the film advance wheel feels cheap. It has a dry “click-click-click-click” sound as you work it. I found that, especially toward the end of the film roll, I had to work my thumbnail into the teeth of the advance wheel in order to get it to turn.
The frame counter runs in increments of four that are hard but not impossible to see. If you’re used to a precise counter that points exactly to individual numbers, you’ll be lacking that feature on this camera.
Upon reaching the end of your film roll, unloading the camera first involves turning the flimsy crank while holding down the rewind button. As you rewind, the camera makes a “click-click-click-click” sound that, again, sounds super cheap. With the film wound back into its canister, my attempt at pulling the rewind knob out before extracting the film cartridge underscored the matter. It feels like I could pull it straight out of the camera and potentially break it. Luckily, I was able to work the film canister out of the camera without having to pull the rewind knob out.
Getting to the point of unloading the camera takes time. True to the very nature of a half-frame camera, it takes forever to get through a roll of film! Depending on how you look at it, that’s either a good thing—a single roll of increasingly expensive film will last twice as long as it would in a conventional camera—or a bad thing—you have to keep using the thing to get to the end of the roll before developing it and finally being able to see the images you took. Ironically, the main selling feature of a half-frame camera can feel like a liability.
Since shutter speed and aperture are set, the only point of control you have with this camera is the type of film you load into it. What film stock you use thus becomes a critical question, more so than what a fully-featured camera with shutter speed and aperture controls entails.
At the time of writing (early 2023), I’ve used three film stocks with my Kodak Ektar H35: Agfa APX 100 (black and white), Fujifilm Fujicolor 200 (color), and Arista.EDU 200 (black and white). All were developed with no special instructions at Citizens Photo or Blue Moon Photo and Machine, both in Portland.
With developed film back home, I scanned the following sample exposures using my Plustek OpticFilm 8200i SE film scanner. When I did any kind of correction, I present images side by side: the original unedited scan on the left or top and one corrected simply using Paint.NET’s auto levels on the right or below.
The Ektar H35’s two-element 22mm f/9.5 lens, which the manufacturer says is made of optical grade acrylic, has rather severe performance issues especially around the edges. You can either grouse about that or use it to your advantage as a creative tool.
I took all of the following images during winter months when the sun is at its lowest in the sky.
Agfa APX 100
Agfa APX 100 is normally one of my bread-and-butter film stocks that I’ve grown fond of using in my Nikon F. It has a wonderful range of tonality, is very forgiving, and has the classic look of film photography from generations ago. But I was a little disappointed in how this film stock performed in my Ektar H35. Perhaps this is a sign that I need to save this film for my better camera.
This image was clearly overexposed but salvageable:
This image was slightly underexposed:
The Ektar H35’s exposure settings were pretty well suited for this lighting scenario:
In spite of my expectations, I encountered overexposed images much more so that I expected upon seeing my results with Agfa APX 100. This confounded me: how was this possible with a relatively slow film stock?
Fujifilm Fujicolor 200
Fujifilm Fujicolor 200 seemed to offer the best balance for most lighting conditions ranging from sunny afternoons to deeper shadows. The former results in overexposed images and the latter in underexposed images, but I still found the negatives to be useful.
Here is a sample of an underexposed image (both the original and the corrected version):
On the same walk that I took the above image, I also managed to capture this neat diptych of two similar forms through pure serendipity. It underscores creative possibilities that you can achieve through a half-frame camera:
This sunlit scene of the St. Johns neighborhood in Portland is clearly overexposed (again, both the original and the corrected version):
This image of a sidewalk scene in shadows is rather underexposed but still usable:
Here is an overexposed image of another sidewalk scene directly across the street from the above. Incidentally, it’s actually Blue Moon’s storefront on North Lombard Street in the St. Johns neighborhood in Portland:
This scene of downtown Portland was more in the ballpark as exposed by the camera, and it required minimal corrections:
Here is another shot that was pretty well exposed but just needed a touch of correction:
Another slightly overexposed but still usable image:
All in all, I found Fujifilm Fujicolor 200 to work nicely with this camera.
Another ASA 200 film stock to work quite well in the Kodak Ektar H35 is one that, by all accounts, is a rebranding/respooling of Fomapan 200 Creative. Arista.EDU 200 film is available from various online retailers for a great price, and it seems fitting for use in a toy camera.
After trying it with my Nikon F, I confess to having been a little down on Arista.EDU 200. But the results I got from that film stock with my Ektar H35 make me rethink its usefulness. In the cheaper camera, it offered excellent contrast and exposure quality. I got many more usable negatives than what I got out of Agfa APX 100 even though I tried both under similar lighting conditions. Perhaps this is a good black and white version of what Fujifilm Fujicolor 200 offers in color when used with this camera?
This was a decent exposure that I felt did not require any correction:
This shaded scene was very much underexposed:
In the following image, note the edge performance of the lens—again, you can look at this as a poorly-performing lens or as something that offers creative possibilities:
Another somewhat underexposed image (original on left and corrected version on right):
This shaded sidewalk scene wasn’t a bad exposure (again, with original and corrected versions):
Across all film stocks, the Ektar H35 definitely offered hit-or-miss results in terms of whether an image was underexposed, overexposed, or in the ballpark.
I grew reluctant to load anything faster than ASA 200 film into the camera because, since it took me forever to get through a roll of film, I found I would inevitably want to use it outside on a sunny day when lighting conditions would completely overexpose the film. The slower film speed seemed to strike a happy balance with this camera.
The biggest benefit I got out of owning a Kodak Ektar H35 half-frame camera is the way in which it taught me how forgiving film is as a medium. As I mentioned above, using a toy camera with a set aperture and shutter speed under a variety of lighting conditions underscored how much flexibility I often have with film photography. Unlike the surgical precision that digital cameras offer when it comes to exposure, shooting with an exposure time set to 1/100 sec., an aperture set to f/9.5, and a roll of film with forgiving latitude boosted my confidence with shooting my other film cameras without the aid of a light meter. To be sure, there’s no substitute for getting exposure right. But as I exercise my skills with meter-less film photography, I know I have a little wiggle room in terms of deciding what shutter speed and aperture to use.
More broadly, I had fun using the Kodak Ektar H35. There’s something to be said about a more carefree approach to film photography without having to worry as much about running out of exposures as you would with the more traditional full-frame format. Half-frame cameras like the Ektar H35 double the number of exposures you can get out a roll of film, and you can just snap away.
But there’s a flip side to the number of exposures this camera gives you to play with. There may be a given subject one may find in a given lighting situation for which the combination of poor optical quality (soft edges, etc.) and the set shutter speed and aperture may be very well suited for the creative intent. The trouble with the Ektar H35 is that you have to have 48 such instances with a 24-exposure film roll or 72 with a 36-exposure roll. With any camera, I rarely if ever go through a whole roll of film shooting the same kind of subject matter.
After using it for a number of months, the Ektar H35 left me with a lukewarm feeling. I ultimately decided to sell it only five months after it arrived at my doorstep.
Is the Kodak Ektar H35 half-frame camera for you?
On one hand, if you want to avoid spending a lot of money on a film camera and want to experiment with something unique, the Ektar H35 will certainly deliver. If the poorer optical quality of a plastic lens offers an aesthetic that you’re seeking to accomplish in your photography, this camera will fit the bill, too.
But if you’re after a high-quality modern-day version of a classic like an Olympus Pen F half-frame camera, this camera won’t do it for you. If you get frustrated with lacking control over shutter speed and aperture, the Ektar H35 certainly won’t do it for you, either.
I’ll admit it: I’ve been spoiled. For me, shooting with my Nikon F is a joyful experience. The results I consistently get out of that iconic camera and its excellent Nikkor lenses only further underscore the shortcomings of a cheap toy camera like the Ektar H35.
I realized that I could live with the poor optical quality of the 2-element optical grade acrylic lens or with the lack of control over exposure via adjustable shutter speed and/or aperture. I could live with one of these flaws or the other but not both.
After I had my initial fun shooting with the Ektar H35, I grew frustrated with those two major shortcomings especially after I sat down and scanned the negatives I got out of it. Seeing the poor image quality this camera produced, I eventually got to the point where I found myself reluctant to load more film into it. I began feeling that doing so would be a waste of film, developing chemicals, and the time it takes to scan.
To be sure, my Nikon F cost a lot more than the Ektar H35. But the $50 that one might put into the Ektar H35 could be far better put toward getting a better camera even if it’s something more basic like a Pentax K1000.
Yes, $50 will get you a brand new, functional camera straight out of the box. That amount is significantly less money than the $300-400 it often takes to buy a camera body (lens not included) and send it off to a repair shop where it will sit for weeks if not months while it waits for a CLA. Some folks on the internet say $50 is nothing especially where camera purchases are concerned. I don’t know about you, but that amount still feels like a lot of money to me.
In the final analysis, is it a good value to spend $50 on something that will offer some cheap thrills but whose sheen quickly wears off? Would that $50 be better placed toward something more enduring, something that will remain in use for many years and deliver good results?