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.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

A Visit to the Camera Heritage Museum

There are not many museums devoted entirely to cameras, and I have only been to less than a handful of photographic history museums: Eastman House in Rochester, NY; The Argus Museum in Ann Arbor, MI; The American Photographic History Museum in Pittsburgh, PA, and now, the Camera Heritage Museum in Staunton,VA. Two of these museums are dedicated primarily to products of a single manufacturer - Kodak  (and of course, so much more) for Eastman House, and Argus, of course, at the Argus Museum - which has the distinction of being also at the site where the cameras were made.  The latter two museums are of wider representation, and of these, the Camera Heritage Museum by far, has the most diverse and comprehensive collection of cameras that I have seen.  

I stopped in Staunton last year, unaware of there being a camera museum there, and because we arrived late in the day, it was closed.  However, I knew that I would be passing by Staunton again, as it is off Interstate 81, not far from Lexington, VA, and on my way to the Film Photography Project HQ in New Jersey. On May 2, I was able to stop and spend a good deal of time before I had to hop back on the highway to NJ.  I met David Schwartz, the curator, and the person who has amassed a mind-blowing collection of cameras starting in 1968.  Located in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Staunton is a charming place to visit with a lovely downtown with lots of shopping and dining options.  The Museum, which started out as a camera store, is open to the public, and a small fee gets you a self guided tour of the collection, and an Andrew Jackson gets you the curator-led tour, by Mr. Schwartz.  I opted for that, which also comes with a packet of information.  At the outset, I informed David of my experience with the world of vintage photography and intentions of doing a review.

David Schwartz, curator

The Camera Heritage Museum houses close to 7,000 cameras as well as photographs, advertising materials, vintage products and supplies, and other ephemera. There are numbered stations that feature items of importance in the history of photography, and David was of course, well-versed in all of them.  I did learn some things that I was unaware of that had to do with local involvement in the growth of photographic technology, and to see certain cameras that were previously owned by famous photographers was a treat.   While initially overwhelmed by the sheer number of cameras, I soon saw the organization by type and era, and amid all the glittering chrome, I found many wonderful examples of cameras that I had never previously seen in person.  The whole gamut of the history of analog  photography is represented -- from Daguerreotype cameras and images to the end of the development of film cameras.  

My images show - every case is chock-a-block with cameras.  Among those I saw a beautiful, mint-condition Kodak Ektra - the most complex and expensive 35mm camera made by Kodak. American manufacturers were represented by Argus, Kodak, Conley, Ansco, Univex, Perfex, Graphlex, Ciro, Falcon, etc. The German camera makers -- Leitz, Zeiss Ikon, Rollei, Ihagee, and lesser-known firms was well represented, as well as the Japanese Nikon, Canon, Miranda, Topcon, Minolta,Pentax, Ricoh, Olympus, and others.  Stereo cameras from 16mm to 5x7, spy cameras of all sorts, miniature cameras, large format, medium format, wet-plate, dry-plate, Polaroid, folders, box, underwater, and toy cameras. About the only aspect that was under-represented was cine cameras.  However, aside from the Kodak Brownie 8mm cameras, they had an Arriflex that was used by Leni Riefenstahl to shoot movies of the 1938 Olympics and Nazi propaganda films.

Exhibit 13 - Arriflex

It was interesting to see how many different models of the same Kodak camera, such as the Holiday Brownie, were made in the USA, Canada, Brazil, England, France, and Spain. Of course, the many colorful examples of the Art Deco Kodak Beau Brownie were on display, as were the multitudes of Kodak folders, box cameras, Instamatics, and two examples of the fantastic Kodak Ektra 35mm rangefinder.  If you are interested in Twins Lens Reflex - there are plenty to see.  I really got a thrill at seeing an actual Graflex KE-4 combat camera, which took 70mm cassettes.  It looks much like a GIANT Contax II camera, and was sometimes referred to as "Gulliver's Contax."  A Folmer Graflex "Big Bertha" is on display - and at 40 inches long and over 30 pounds, it's hard to imagine using it to photograph baseball games, but it did.  I could go on - there are many examples of famous cameras, and anyone with a love for things photographic will find their favorites at the Camera Heritage Museum.  

I think their exhibit of miniature cameras -spy cameras, such as the various Minoxes, Ricoh 16, Riken Steky, Secam Stylophot, Suzuki Optical Echo-8 (KGB spy camera), Minolta-16s, and a Tessina - is quite comprehensive, as is their collection of stereo cameras.  Whether your interest is in large wooden bellows cameras or the smallest spy camera, or anything in between, you'll enjoy the Camera Heritage Museum.

The Camera Heritage Museum is a 501 C3 non-profit corporation, and while the collection has been growing since the late 1960s, it became a non-profit museum in 2011.  Its location in Staunton, VA meshes with the local history of photography, which goes back to 1847.  There are a number of other historical museums in the area, and of course, the Shenandoah Valley is full of history.  The current building certainly is filled to the brim with photographica, and as a former museum professional, I can see that it will take some money to make the exhibits more attractive to a wider range of visitors.  I really enjoyed talking with David Schwartz, and hope that the museum is able to secure funds to ensure its perpetuity.  It's more than a small regional museum, as it encompasses the history of photography, and has a world-wide collection.  If you have any interest in photography, the museum is definitely worth the visit. The museum accepts donations of photographic items as well as monetary donations. Excess inventory, duplicates, and items that don't fit with their mission are sold on their eBay store - camera-and-palette, which is definitely worth looking up.

The Camera Heritage Museum is located at 1 West Beverley St., Staunton, VA. Take exit 222 off I-81 into the historic downtown. Museum hours are M-F, 9-5, and Saturdays, 9-2.  Phone number is 540-886-8535. Its web address is  www.cameraheritagemuseum.com  Admission is $5 - $20, depending on whether you want a self-guided tour, or a curator-led tour.