As I’ve said before I love weird old cameras, and the Kodak Retina Reflex III is a real beauty. Handsome (if unusual) styling coupled with German craftsmanship and extreme complexity combine to make this a real one of a kind…
Kodak began selling cameras under the Retina name in 1934. They were built in Germany by Nagel Camera Works, and were made in a variety of styles over the years with folding, non-folding, rangefinder, and viewfinder models available at different times. They were all well made, and featured handsome black leather and chrome finishes.
In 1957, Kodak apparently saw the future of 35mm photography coming in the form the SLR and they were actually slightly ahead of the curve–they beat the Nikon F and Canonflex (the first Canon 35mm SLR) by two years. Only the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex and Pentax Asahiflex came before it. The idea of a single lens reflex camera is actually much older, but it wasn’t applied to small format photography until the 1950s…
Anyway, the Retina Reflex is the result of a somewhat unlikely marriage of a Compur leaf shutter, and a reflex mirror/pentaprism–offering eye level, through the lens viewing and focusing. The downside to the system is a level of complexity that must have aggravated even the Germans who built the camera, and along with it a lot of added expense and fragility. It was expensive (around $1800 in todays dollars), complex and fragile, but performed well enough (and was popular enough) to be produced until 1966 which was well into the era of modern mechanical SLRs.
So that’s some of the history…hows it handle? The shape and design of it feel much more like a medium format folder than a typical SLR, but it feels good in your hands. It’s heavy, and feels very solid. The controls are smooth, and it feels like a precision instrument. The controls do feel a bit awkward–the winding lever is on the bottom of the camera, and the shutter release is on the front.
Shutter speeds are controlled via a ring on the front of the camera, and aperture is controlled with a “control wheel” on the bottom of the camera. Once set, the two can be turned together which gives you an effective AV and TV modes, depending on whichever you want to use.
It has a Gossen selenium meter built in, visible in the viewfinder or through a window on the top of the camera. The one in mine is still working and is accurate enough to use (though it sticks sometimes). In use, it actually works pretty well–set your shutter speed, then look through the viewfinder and turn the “adjustment wheel” to find an aperture that will put the meter needle in the middle of its bracket. It’s relatively fast for a camera of this vintage. The viewfinder is a nice rectangle with rounded corners, and has a split image focusing screen. Mine is yellowed and kind of dim…probably the result of age on the balsam cement used in the pentaprism. I’ve heard others say theirs were bright and clear, so I assume that’s how they looked new. The frame counter is on the bottom of the camera, and unlike most cameras counts down instead of up. You have to manually set it to how many frames are on your roll before start shooting.
The lenses for the system are excellent German made Schneider glass, and they were actually one of the strong points of the system. There was a wide angle 28/2.8, 35/2.8, normal 50/2.8, fast 50/1.9, telephoto 85/4, 135/4, and 200/4 . It’s a pretty complete set. Only thing you might ask for is a faster 85mm option for portraits, but really that’s about it. I have all them but the 84mm f4. They’re well made from aluminum, and feel nice and solid. The 200mm is a huge chunk, but the wide angle lenses are surprisingly small and light. They also have moving depth of field guides on them…an unusual feature of the Dekel mount they use, which is pretty nice. They’re easy to mount and dismount from the camera via a release on the bottom.
Here’s the 200mm:
Shooting it was fun, and “different”. The viewfinder is a bit on the small side, but definitely useable. Focusing was difficult, but mostly because my viewfinder is yellow and hazy, which is no fault of the camera. The split image focusing screen works the same as any other. The controls take a little getting used to, but are perfectly functional. For this test I loaded it with some old Agfa Vista 200…figured German film was appropriate for a German camera . I used it to chase my kids around the woods, and it performed well enough. The lens was sharp at the apertures I was shooting at (f5.6-f8)…didn’t get a chance to shoot it wide open (hey, the shutter tops out at 1/500th ). Love the colors of this old Agfa film…sort of subdued, with great flesh tones. Wish they were still making film! Chasing kids with it was…challenging .
I really like this one–I let our five year old run around with my 40D and take some pictures…we took a shot of each other with our cameras. Funny how the two cameras were looking at each other across more than a half century…
He doesn’t look very enthused here, but he really was having a good time…just caught him at a bad moment .
Overall I like the Retina Reflex system. It’s a funky different design with some really nice glass. It was an evolutionary dead end…a sort of delicate, elegant Neanderthal of photography. At the time it was made, the writing was on the wall…the focal plane shutter 35mm SLRs were just starting to take off and would dominate photography until the coming of the digital age. Mine will probably see very limited use and be retired to my “Emeritus Collection”…the shutter failed to fire on 10 of the 24 frames I took, and given the fragility of the mechanism I don’t want to have it turn into a complete decoration by using it too much. A fun and interesting piece of history for sure!