Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Some Fun with the Topcon Uni SLR

A little over a month ago, a Topcon Uni landed in my hands,  and I thought that I should at least give it a try.  About a decade ago, I owned one that had some exposure problems, and mentioned it in my
previous RCB post about leaf-shutter SLRs.  Generally, I am not a fan of leaf-shutter SLRs because just about every single one that I have tried has not aged well, due to the shutters not holding up over the last 50+ years.  Don't even get me started about the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex series of leaf-shutter SLRs.  So many bad vibes with those!  Topcon, the brand from Tokyo Kokagu, was generally considered to be a very good SLR, and despite the likes of Asahi Kokagu and Nippon Kokagu, the Topcon RE Super was the first TTL SLR in 1963, beating both Nikon and Pentax to that achievement.  The Topcon line of SLRS had excellent lenses, and to this day, a Topcon Super D is still a nice camera to use, and finding one cheaply on eBay is pretty difficult.  However, one knock against Topcon was the use of an Exakta lens mount that due to its small throat diameter, prevented faster lenses such as those made by Pentax, Nikon, Canon, and Minolta.  As the company reached the mid-70s, it could not compete with the other major camera companies, and stopped sales of 35mm cameras in 1980.  Cameras such as the Topcon Uni, Unirex and Unirex EE did not use the Exakta lens mount, but what has been termed the Topcon UV lens Mount.  These lenses for this mount do not contain an aperture control, which is instead dialed in on the body of the camera.  The cameras are lens-shutter cameras, with a Seikosha shutter behind the lens.

While the Topcon Uni is certainly not a top-of-the-line SLR, it was certainly good enough to suit the intended audience of the casual photographer back in the mid-late 1960s looking for an SLR with some automation (shutter priority) and ease of use.  


  • Seikosha Shutter with B, 1- 1/500 sec speeds
  • Shutter Priority and Manual exposure
  • PC flash socket, cold shoe on top of camera
  • self-timer
  • ASA (ISO) settings from 25-400
  • 1.35V PX-625 Mercury cell for meter
  • front-mounted shutter release
  • tripod socket

In use, the Topcon Uni may feel like a different experience from your normal focal-plane shutter SLR.  In a focal-plane shutter, the mirror flips up and the shutter curtain does its thing, and the mirror returns for the next exposure.  All the while, the aperture typically opens to the desired value as the press the shutter and the shutter curtain is opened.  With the Topcon Uni, it's a bit different. The aperture and shutter are wide open when the camera is not making an exposure, but the mirror prevents any light from reaching the film.  As you press the shutter button, the shutter closes, and as the mirror flips up, the aperture opens/closes to the desired value, the shutter opens and closes, and then the mirror flips back down, whereupon the shutter and aperture return to the open position.  A lot happens, making this complex dance between the shutter, aperture, and mirror prone to  problems down the road.  On top of that, the CdS TTL meter sets the aperture from the chosen shutter speed.  It's also just a bit noisy and not as smooth-sounding as a typical SLR, such as a Spotmatic.  

I took the Topcon Uni on a short drive and photographed with it in Burnsville, NC. It's the seat for Yancey Co., and at 2825 ft, is located in a valley surrounded by the Black Mountains to the E and the Blue Ridge to the S and W. The highest peak East of the Rockies is Mt. Mitchell, just a few miles away from Burnsville.  It's a nice town with cafes, restaurants, some wilderness outfitters, and a local brewery.  There is a closed theater, the Yancey, which deserves to be open once again, but I don't know if it will ever reopen.  The town is named for Otway Burns, a naval hero in the war of 1812, and a statue honoring him is at the town square.  The oldest building in town, the Nu-Wray Inn dates to the 1830s, The Inn is being refurbished and should open in the near future.  There are a number of shops in the center of town that are worth a visit if you are there.

The Yancey theater.  Image from Canon EOS M5

I loaded a roll of Eastman 5231 (a cinema version of Plus-X), which has become one of my favorite films.  Although I placed a PX-625A cell in the camera, I didn't trust the metering, and mostly shot in manual mode, using my intuition (informed sunny-16).  The 53mm f/2 UV Topcor lens prformed well, and overall, I was pretty happy with the photos that I took.  Development was in D-96 for 7 minutes.  Using the camera is pretty simple, and after I shot the roll of film, I realized that if I'd set the ASA to 1 stop lower than the actual film speed, the additional voltage in the P-625A would then give me a fairly accurate reading for the actual film speed.  I should have realized this upfront.  

There's a lot of information on Topcon cameras, and the Camera-wiki is a fantastic resource if you need to find more information in one place.  There's a wonderful post about Topcon on 678 Vintage Cameras. Getting a manual from the Butkus site is recommended, and so is making a donation for the manual.  It's a lot of work to maintain the site and scan the manuals.  And they are free.

Some results from my day in and around Burnsville, NC.

I shoot a info page on my computer screen.

Yancey Co. Building

Yancey County Public Library

the Nu-Wray Inn

Otway Burns at center

Rock and wood, of which there is a lot of in the Blue Ridge Mts.

Main Street tables

This old building always pulls me with a camera

Not sure about "Munch Box"

Chestnut Grove Baptist Church, near Little Switzerland

Hard to beat the views along the Blue Ridge Parkway!

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

The 35mm Folding Camera

Kodak Retina I, type 126, with vintage Kodak 35mm film cassette

In the early days of 35mm cameras, the Barnack Leica was considered to be the epitome of a  quality compact 35mm camera. However, what are often overlooked are the Retina series of cameras, made by Kodak's German factory, Nagel Werke in Stuttgart, which became Kodak A.G.  Retina cameras were manufactured there from 1934 - 1969, and included the renowned Instamatic 500.  Kodak acquired Nagel-Werke in 1932, and the Vollenda, shown below, looks a lot like a Retina camera, but it uses 127 roll film.  

1933 Kodak Vollenda - a very compact folding 127 film camera 

The Retina cameras are a somewhat bewildering adventure, as different models, such as the Retina I has many different versions, called types, that were produced in different years, with different finishes, lenses, and so forth.  To dig deep, there are several books on Kodak Retina cameras, but the McKeown's Guide is a great starting point.  The first Retinas arrived in the US in 1934, and were priced around $50 – a substantial sum for the time, and the US was still in the grips of the Great Depression.  Nevertheless, these optically superb, mechanically precise, and easily carried cameras gained a following.  

What makes the Retinas special is that starting with the original Retina to the Retina IIIC, the cameras featured a folding bed, with the lens on a very short bellows, which makes them easy to carry with no protruding lenses. The front pops open which releases the lens to be able to shoot.  All of the folding Retinas feature Compur leaf shutters with the lens helical, shutter speeds, and apertures around the lens all on a front panel.  The Retina I cameras were guess -focus, unless you had an accessory rangefinder that fit into the accessory shoe on the top deck.  Rangefinder focus didn't start until the Retina II was introduced.  

All models had fixed lenses, until the IIc appeared, and removable front lens elements allowed different focal length lenses from 35-80mm to be used. Due to the small throat diameter of the lens mount, fast lenses were not available, with 50mm f/2 being about as good as one could get. Of course, you could not retract the 80mm lens into the camera, so it had to be open all the time if it was attached.

The folding Retinas feature shutter speeds from B, and 1-1/500 sec (early Retina I models had a max 1/300), and typically have Schneider Xenon lenses, which are as good as anything from the Leitz factory.  Later iterations, such as the IIIc, incorporated built-in uncoupled exposure meters. My personal favorite is the Retina IIa, which was manufactured from 1939-1954, and has a Retina Xenon 50mm f/2 lens.  It exemplifies the sturdy mechanics and straightforward control of manual cameras.  The closed camera can easily fit into a jacket pocket.  Depending on the model and type, the film advance is a wind-knob on top (Retina I), an advance lever on top (Retina IIa Type 016), or an advance lever on the bottom (Retina Ib, IIc, IIC, IIIc, and IIIC).

Film advance lever on the bottom

Later Retina versions, such as the IIc feature Exposure Value (EV) with linkage of apertures to shutter speeds.  For example, if your EV was 11, then any combination of aperture and shutter speed corresponding to that EV would be linked.  Changing the aperture also changed the shutter speed. You can find the same system on Hasselblad lenses. A simple form of automation that works quite well.  The non-coupled Selenium meters were accurate at the time, but today, finding one that works accurately is improbable.  


If you have a Retina IIIc, THIS lens, the 35mm is the one to find.

The rigid-bodied Retinas started appearing in 1959, with the end of the line folding Retina IIIC being made until 1960.  There were also Retina Reflex SLRs that incorporated a similar removable front-element lens.  I posted here about one of the solid-bodied Retinas a while back.

The Retinette line of cameras were designed to be cheaper folding cameras with Kodak Anastigmat f/6.3 lenses and no meters or rangefinders.  They were made from 1939-1954, and other Retinettes were solid-bodied.

Folding Retinas: Within the designations are many types, pre-WWII and post-war models with the same name, but a different “type” and you’ll need to see a reference on the variants in a book like McKeown’s Cameras 12th edition.

    • Kodak Retina (1934-36)

    • Kodak Retina I (1936-50)

    • Kodak Retina Ia (1951-54)

    • Kodak Retina Ib (1954-60)

    • Kodak Retina II (1936-50)

    • Kodak Retina IIa (1939-54)

    • Kodak Retina IIc (1954-57)

    • Kodak Retina IIC – (1957-58)

    • Kodak Retina IIIc (1954-57)

    • Kodak Retina IIIC (1957-60)

Kodak 80mm Longar for the Retina IIIc


But, hey, imitation is the best form of flattery, right? The Agfa corporation came out with the Karat series of 35mm cameras. Originally designed to use the Agfa Rapid Cassettes, these cameras featured a short bellows that held the lens and shutter (Compur-Rapid). They did not have a cover over the lens like the Retinas, but the design is quite similar.  The cheaper models had Agfa Solinar or Igestar lenses, but the more expensive models have Schneider Xenon or Heligon f/2 50mm lenses.  The Karat 36 used standard 35mm cassettes, so that's the one I recommend if you are looking for one. Under the Ansco name, it is called the Karomat.

Zeiss Ikon

The Zeiss Ikon Contessa 35 (1950-55) and Contina I (1951-55) and Contina II (1952-53) are also 35mm folding cameras. The Contessa 35 features a rangefinder, uncoupled exposure meter, along with a 45mm f/2.8 Tessar lens.  It’s a fantastic little folder, and certainly in the same league as the the better Retinas.  


Certo, in Dresden, produced a lot of roll-film folder, but only a few 35mm models – Dollina (1930s), the Durata (1949) and Durata II (1951).  


Balda, in Dresden, Germany, produced a folding 35mm camera in 1950 named the Baldalette, which looks a lot like the folding 127 roll film cameras that were produced pre-war.  One that stands out is the Jubilette (1938) – a very non-Balda name, which came about for the 30th anniversary of Balda-Werk.  Later 35mm folders were called the Baldini, Baldinette, Super Baldina, and Super Baldinette.  I can only speculate that the Balda did not sell well in English-speaking counties, because damn, those stupid names!  Of course, I have a follicularly-challenged friend that enjoys his Balda folder.  


Beier, also from Dresden, produced the Bierette in 1939, and the sleek design is much different than all the other 35mm folders listed here.  I should note that most of the Dresden-based companies became part of VEB Pentacon in the 1950s.  


Welta, another German company, produced 35mm folding cameras that are similar to the Retina I from Kodak – named the Welti, which first appeared in 1935, featured several different iterations with 50mm lenses, Compur-Rapid shutters, and either an f/2.9 Cassar, an f/2.8 Tessar, an f/3.5 Xenar, or an f/2.4 Xenon lens.  Other Welti models followed, and were made into the early 1950s. The Weltini and Weltix are also folding 35mm bodies.  The folding 35mm cameras from Balda and Welta are not common on this side of the Atlantic, and certainly are not well-known.  Again, Welta doesn’t look like a great name in the English language.   Weltini sounds like the name of a circus performer.  "The great Weltini will amaze you with his Compur-Rapid shutter. " 


Voigtlander, which made a dizzying array of camera models, released the Vitessa in 1950, and those cameras have a “barn-door” opening, and feature a big plunger to advance the film and cock the shutter.  The Vitessa models are interesting, but like many (but NOT all) 1950-60s Voigtlander cameras, they are prone to be mechanically problematic. You will find them with either Color Skopar f/2.8 50mm or Ultron f/2.0 50mm lenses in Synchro-Compur shutters. An earlier 35mm camera known as the Vito lacked a rangefinder, but is more similar to a Retina I. The Vito III is a beautiful rangefinder camera that commands pretty good prices to match.  

Buying your 35mm folder

The beauty of these folding 35mm cameras is their compactness when the lens is retracted, and in the case of the any camera NOT Agfa/Ansco, a front door protects everything behind it.  If you are looking for a classic manual rangefinder camera that does not start with the letter L, many of these folding 35mm cameras are excellent alternatives.   One of the modern shoe-mount digital light meters makes the perfect accessory.  

The prices for most of the Retinas on eBay are pretty low, especially compared to something from Leitz.  A nice Retina IIa typically sells in the $50 range, which is a steal for such a wonderful camera.  Other models such as a IIIC can sell for a bit more, but generally, they are undervalued in today’s market.  A model such as the Welta Weltini II can sell for about $100, but they are uncommon, which adds to the price.  Cameras from Balda and Welta are more common in European markets.

I should add here that I once owned a Retina IIa that was previously owned by Harold Edgerton of MIT, who developed the Xenon flash for cameras. Hence, that's why it is called "X" sync.   I picked it up at estate auction of  a Detroit area engineer who must have purchased it from Edgerton.  I wrote about it in 2011, when I used it with of course, a flash unit.

My choice for anyone wanting to find a Retina, is to look for a IIa, as it does not have a light meter, and it's very compact with a wonderful lens that will produce excellent images.  For about $50, you'll have a wonderfully compact 35mm rangefinder camera.

Retina Resources

I consider my post to be an introduction to the genre of 35mm folding cameras.  Aside from printed resources, check out these links for more Retina and folding 35mm information:

Monday, May 23, 2022

The Samoca 35 IV - a diminutive gem.

I've seen Samoca cameras only a few times in the past 20+ years, and always at either a thrift store or a camera swap.  The small size, and oddball appearance didn't do much for me at the time, and they stayed on the seller's shelves.  However, a Samoca IV recently came my way, and I was intrigued.  The earliest models from Sanei Sangyo K.K. in Japan are much smaller than your typical 35mm camera, and appeared in the early 1950s as the optical industries in Japan were recovering from WWII.  By the mid-1950s it was known as Samoca Camera Co. Ltd., and the cameras were all  named Samoca, followed by the model designation.  If you are collecting vintage cameras, Samoca isn't a brand that you are likely to encounter, as they ceased operation by the early 1960s.  The logo is a set of three As in a stylized mountain shape.  According to McKeown's Cameras, there were less than 20 different cameras manufactured, and the last ones were released in 1962.

The Samoca 35 through 35 IV models are compact Bakelite-bodied 35mm viewfinder cameras with metal top and bottom plates and a front panel that contains the lens and shutter mechanism. They all have a cold shoe, Ezumar 50mm f/3.5 lens with a minimum f/22 aperture.  The shutter speeds are B, 1/25- 1/200.  The Samoca 35 IV was produced in 1955 and features a PC flash sync.  Focus is scale focus (guesstimate), not rangefinder.  The shutter is cocked by pushing down a plunger on the left front, and the shutter release is on the right.  A strange little camera, but wait, there's more!  

The back of the camera is removed  to load the film and watch out for the film take-up spool, as it will easily fall out. A chrome film pressure plate must be flipped upwards before loading film - just like a Rollei 35.  The standard 35mm cassette is loaded on the left, and once the film on the take-up spool has been engaged, flip down the pressure plate and reattach the back.  

To advance the film, press down on the shutter cocking post and turn the knob until it stops.  Now, you can focus, set your shutter speed and aperture (all manually, of course).  I just used sunny-16 and had good results.  Press down on the shutter button and the very, very quiet shutter does its thing. The Samoca 35 IV features 5 shutter speeds besides B: 1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, and 1/200 sec.  The Ezumar lens is a triplet and coated.  The rewind the film, you can either hold down the shutter cocking plunger while rewinding, or push in the metal flange behind the plunger.  I found that a bit of washi tape was essential in holding the end of the film in the take-up spool.

When you look at the small Samoca 35 cameras up close, it's apparent that they are actually quite ingenious in operation and are constructed quite well. While not as complex as say, a Canon IIF of the same era (a Leica copy), their simplicity and diminutive stature really makes them stand out among other 35mm cameras.  Compare them with contemporary US-made Argus cameras, and it's obvious how innovative the Samoca cameras were.

I loaded my Samoca 35 IV with an old roll of Svema 100 b&w film.  I made some exposures around our yard, and then took it with me to the Asheville River Arts District (the RAD).  The RAD is always a great place to test a camera, as it's interesting, and only a 10 minute drive from my house.  I used Sunny-16 to assess my exposures, and guess at the distance.  However, on a sunny day, I was using an aperture of f/11-f/16, so distance estimate did not have to be precise.  I developed the Svema 100 in HC110 dilution B.  As I hung up the negatives to dry, I could see that the camera performed well.

Some examples from the negative scans- all done on my Epson V700 scanner:

Overall, the Samoca 35 IV did very well, and it was easy to use. There's a whole bunch of interesting 35mm cameras from post-war Japan and Germany that don't sell for crazy prices.  Samoca is certainly not a well-known brand, and if one wanted to pick a manufacturer that is an interesting one to collect, Samoca would be a good choice, as most of their models don't sell for exorbitant prices, and there are only a few that are really rare, commanding prices close to $500.  Most of the 35 series sell for less than $50. To find out more about the Samoca 35 series, this site is a great place to begin.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Don't do this...

 I was recently processing a bunch of cameras for the FPP donation program, and brought back some problematic cameras to see if I could figure out what was wrong with them.  I often run across these Mamiya/Sekor DTL 1000 and DL500 SLRs in donations, and at one time, they were fairly reliable M-42 screw mount SLRs with spot and average metering.  Unless you have a manual,  you may never figure out how to turn on/off the meter (pull the film advance out towards you and to turn it off, press the top of the base of the advance lever and that retracts the lever back to the body).  Anyhow, about half of the time these cameras have non-working meters, although they work fine without a battery for fully manual shutter speed/aperture functions, and you can use sunny-16 or a separate meter. 

This particular camera is pretty much dead, with a seized shutter. However, as soon as I pulled it out of the box, I figured something was odd about it, as the Vivitar lens is a much later model that is commonly seen on k-mount cameras like the Vivitar V3200.  As I looked closer, I could see that the lens was epoxied to the lens mount.  Whoa.  I pried the lens off with a small screwdriver, and it lifted asway fairly easily. Yes, some previous owner had gone through the trouble of filing off the K-mount back end and then epoxied it to the M-42 mount face.  

The crazy thing is, M-42 lenses are cheap and plentiful, and I am not sure why anyone would go through all this trouble t put a cheap lens like the Vivitar on an old M-42 body.  Maybe it was a very specific hack to give that result, but I really suspect it was a mess to begin with.  Needless to say, this one is a parts camera.

I previously reviewed a DTL 1000 in 2012 - and you can read it here. These cameras are under-appreciated today, but they were quite good in their day.  As someone that appreciates the M-42 SLRs, I find the Mamiya/Sekor DTL 1000 to be not as well-built as a Pentax Spotmatic, and more similar to a Minolta SR camera in features and ergonomics, as well as build.  

Mamiya went through a series of 35mm SLR designs, but were never able to duplicate their success in 35mm as they did in medium format.