The Kodak Retina is a camera that holds a certain amount of mystique. It was made by a company that by the 1930s was more focussed on manufacturing film and generally created cameras to support that and the multiple formats they were introducing. Kodak never seemed to aim for or achieve anything above a second tier camera manufacturer, but the Retina was different. It was an attempt at a quality 35mm rangefinder, to compete on camera sales rather than just a supporting role.
The Retina IIa is a 35mm folding rangefinder bellows camera, which fits well into a coat pocket, although it has a fairly solid, yet fiddly, construction. It does mean your coat pocket will pull down on you due to the weight, in other words, it is metal and not plastic. This format and size does lend it to being a “carry with you” camera and handy for family functions as well as for travel. It does also lend itself to street photography.
With a profile as a convenient but high quality camera, it is no surprise there are collectors that specialise just on collecting Retina cameras. Their work is cut out, as there are what seems like a limitless number of variations. So let’s find out a little more about the Retina IIa and how it performs.
Kodak is the most well known photographic company in the world. While now they are a shadow of the size they were when they dominated the industry with Fujifilm and Agfa, the name is still synonymous with photography. Kodak, while never intending to make cameras for anything other than to support the film business, in 1934 started selling the German made Retina cameras, which were made to quality measures competing with dedicated camera makers.
The Retina cameras were made until 1969, by which time they had been redesigned to a non-folding model. There is a fantastic write up about the Retina history and the link with the 35mm format in Mike Eckman’s write up of the Retina IIa here. He covers the history in quite detail and well worth the read. Mike also has a great review of his experience with the camera.
In brief, Kodak knew they could not compete with the dedicated camera makers, and in 1931 acquired the Nagel-werke company, who had many years of manufacturing high quality cameras. The subsidiary was called Kodak AG and were the manufacturers of the Retina cameras, which were manufactured in Germany. The Retina was designed by Dr. Nagel who stayed with Kodak AG after the acquisition.
Kodak AG manufactured 3 series of Retina cameras, differentiated by the numbering system, where the Retina I is a scale focus camera, the Retina II a rangefinder and the Retina III which was a rangefinder with a selenium meter. A numbering system was also used to cover versions of the models, which if you are able to understand it helps determine exactly when the camera was manufactured and its specifications.
The Retina IIa in this review is numbered a Type 016, and based on the serial number on it was produced towards the end of the production of the IIa. This was from 1951 through to 1954. In 1951 when the Retina IIa was first sold it was priced at US $168 which translated to 2018 figures is roughly US $1610! This was really aimed at the top end.
The Kodak Retina IIa (Type 016) is a 35mm folding fixed lens rangefinder, made in Germany in the early 1950s. The front door opens from the side and is unlatched with a button from the bottom of the camera. The camera can only be closed when the focus is set to infinity and is closed by holding in the black marked releases at the top and bottom of the lens assembly. The camera is mostly assembled from metal.
This particular camera has the Schneider-Kreuznach Retina-Xenon 50mm f/2 lens. The smallest aperture available is f/16 and apertures are selected by a little lever at the bottom of the lens. It has a 29.5mm filter thread or if preferred, 32mm push on filters can be used. The lens is coated and made up of 6 elements. It sits on the front of the foldable bellows assembly.
Focus is achieved through a black and chromed knurled knob lever on the left of the lens. Infinity is at the bottom, and as mentioned, it must be set there to close the camera. The mechanism is all linked back to the rangefinder in the camera through a complex set of levers and gears, which is considered by some people as the weak point of the camera. It does lend itself to misalignment. Focus is from 3.5 feet to infinity, which indicates that this particular camera was aimed for the UK market as it does not have EK in front of the serial number, which were for the US imported cameras. There are markings on the lens to determine the depth of field through the focus scale.
The Synchro-Compur Leaf shutter has a range of 1 to 1/500th second and Bulb. 1/500th of a second can only be selected if the shutter has not been cocked, so the film has not been advanced forward, as they linked. Shutter speed can be selected by a lever on the top of the lens. The only other item near the lens is a switch to the right which selects X or M for flash.
On the top plate is the ornate knurled film advance lever with incorporated film frame counter which also cocks the shutter, the shutter release with a standard tripod thread, a cold shoe and knurled film rewind with film type reminders marked on top. One other item on top is film release button, a rather strange inclusion. In the manual it specifies it is used in rectifying any jamming (which lends to the argument this has a complex mechanism which is prone to jamming), but it’s main purpose is to allow changes of film part way through the roll. It allows you to advance the film without having to fire the shutter.
The film advance is single stroke, and returns back. It will advance the counter in the process, but in reverse. When you load the camera you set the counter to 36 (or whatever length of film you have) and it counts backwards. While convenient in that it tells you how many frames you have left, it does have a gotcha. It stops and does not allow further photos to be taken if you reach the number 1. So for the thrifty photographer there is no extra frames. It is also one thing to watch out for, as the spring is known to break on the counter which then renders the camera inoperable.
Loading the film is generally easy. The canister is loaded from the left and across to the right. The leader is threaded through and when closed the counter is manually reset. Release of the film tension is controlled by a button at the bottom of the camera allowing rewinding at the end of the roll.
I came across the Retina IIa in a lot sale online, with an Agfa Karat. As a deal for both, it was very worthwhile, so I put in my order and looked forward to trying out the camera which has so much talked about it. When I got my hands on it, I must admit I quite enjoyed having a closer look at it. It is a very well crafted camera. The ornate script, the knurled knobs and the metal construction really make it a pleasure to hold the camera. The viewfinder is not big and bright, a little small, but functional.
A few weeks later we were planning a visit to a local national park on the coast, so I loaded up some Portra 160 film and put it into my coat pocket. Unfortunately I started to hit a few issues with it on that first outing. While I was enjoying a brilliant rainbow in the horizon I noticed that I was not able to focus properly. I eventually worked out the rangefinder was not working, so I swapped over to estimating the distance so that I can capture some photos. I was also to find out later that the shutter speeds were off, which did cause some issues in the captured photos, but luckily I was still able to retrieve some decent pictures when scanning.
I dropped by my regular repair technician and gave him the camera to align the rangefinder and perform a CLA on it. A couple of months later it was back in my hands and I was really keen to take it out. I did mention to the technician that the rangefinder still felt very sluggish, he made a quick adjustment and it was a lot better. I must admit though, it is still sluggish now, but usable, so I have let it be. I grabbed some Tri-X out of my fridge and loaded it quickly, and back into my coat pocket it went.
It seems I might have been a little too quick in loading, as it seems that I may have threaded the film through too much and it fully jammed up. My online friends got a quite a chuckle when I posted the picture of what had happened with the concertina film jam.
I managed to recover the rest of the roll by cutting out the damaged first 12 frames and cut a new leader. From that point on I was hoping the camera would perform, and it did. It is a pleasure to use this camera. It is nice and small, and I found the controls quite easy to use. Someone with bigger hands may find it a bit fiddly, but for me it was great.
The rangefinder patch was quite easy to see, albeit a little annoying waiting a half second for the alignment to move into position. I am sure that is not normally the case though. There is no frame lines but this is not an issue considering the fixed lens. Obviously close focus would not be advantage with no parallax correction marks.
I did hit a snag, in that I was not aware that you could not select 1/500th second if you had cocked the shutter which had me head scratching for a bit. After I worked it out, I found it a bit annoying as I am in the habit of advancing after each shot to prepare for the next, which meant that 90% of the time I could not select that top shutter speed.
What I really did enjoy with the Retina IIa is that it was always there for me to use. Easy to carry, when you get used to it, fairly easy to use. It feels like a quality camera and great to hold. The bit I was most interested in though is how does that Xenon lens perform?
Now, this is what has won me over, the quality of the results are truly good. The contrast in the negatives is well defined, with a nice detail level. Sharpness is across the negative with very little fall off, especially from f/4 onwards. No noticeable vignetting which is the advantage of a fixed lens camera.
The photographs have a particular timeless look to them. Very clean lines, but at the same time they look real and have depth. The 50mm view, being one of my preferred focal lengths gives a true world view to the photographs. I also found the way the foreground separates from the background is very nice and smooth and very pleasing to the eye.
While the results were very pleasing, I must admit I have not connected with this camera as much as I thought I would. This should not deter anyone from trying out a Retina IIa, they are a decent and good quality camera that can be had for a very reasonable price. Especially since it offers a great lens, is very portable and produces great results it is a purchase few regret.