Thursday, June 17, 2010

Living with older Retinas - Kodak Retinas, that is

Kodak Retina cameras go 'way back in my family. My dad spend a puddle of cash and bought a Retina Reflex camera outfit back in the early 1960's. A WWII veteran, he liked the combination of German technology and American marketing. That Retina was treated it like a precious gem. A special case, routine and gentle cleaning, and it was never exposed to inclement weather.

Dad's gone, but that Retina lived on with my brother as part of a camera collection he had started. The theme of his collection? What else, Kodak cameras, especially Retinas.

Well, it came to pass that my brother died quite young of a freak infection to the lining of his heart. His collection passed over to me. I could have just stored the many examples of his cameras, but no. Apparently, camera collecting is also infectious. But it turns out a good kind of illness to catch. I was hooked and on my way.

My idea of a camera collection is much wider in scope than my sibling's. As I have told many folks, "I have a low level of appreciation." Just about anything photographic is interesting to me. I've been involved with marketing and engineering for decades, so I can appreciate objects from many angles.

Recently, I found a nice Retina I (010) 35mm camera and its original leather case. The camera is post-war, about 1947-47. I know this because of the plentiful and accurate Retina data Chris Sherlock keeps on his web site.

The model I bought features a slower-speed Kodak 50mm f/3.5 Ektar lens, which also looks a bit on the small size when set in the Compur-Rapid shutter. Retinas could come with a variety of lenses, I suppose depending on how the supply chain went after the war.

This model has no rangefinder, you view your subject directly with a very small eyepiece. What's amazing is how large the image appears with this small viewfinder. You'd swear it was an Olympus OM-1 viewfinder, the image is so big and clear. Without the rangefinder assistance, you guess your best for focusing the lens. All distances are marked in meters, no feet. That's OK, I'm pretty sure you could be off a bit and still get an accepable image.

Taking a photo with this Retina is a deliberate event. You must set everything yourself; shutter, f-stop, film-counter number, lens focus distance: everything. So, you tend to compose a shot long before you prepare to cock the shutter and let the light shine through the Ektar. Using this camera is a lot of work. But that's what makes the Retina a joy to use.


I know, in our digital age, we can easily snap shots as fast as our camera's buffer can go and for as long as the batteries hold a charge. Pow, pow, pow. It's great.

The Retina is photography at a much more stately pace. You observe and regard at first. Then, if sufficiently interested, you capture the image after carefully preparing the instrument. You and your image are completely engaged prior to releasing the shutter. It helps to have a gin and tonic first before taking a stroll with the Retina. Settles the nerves and soul a bit

Now I'm hooked on Retinas (again). Kodak's German camera arm was famous for a variety of slight variations to every design. This makes them endlessly fascinating to collectors. There's so much to learn, sooooo much to acquire! Just figuring out or remembering the three-digit code for the model numbers is a great stretching exercise for the old brain-box (is this camera a (010) or a (013)?). 


Sunday, June 6, 2010

Semi-Minolta II, a rare treat

I don't have a great affection for eBay. Kind of a necessary evil for camera collecting. Don't like Paypal either, and I'm kinda scared of some of the "don't know much about cameras" postings (if it's broken, just tell me). Once in a while, I find something interesting and take a stab at it.

A few weeks ago, I saw a blurry photos of something listed as "Old Minolta". Vague description, but offered from a more than occasional seller. One photo showed a closed case, the other an image of the opened camera, a folding camera. I knew it was one of the very first type of Minolta cameras made and expected it to go for a decent chunk of change. I put in a bid and waited for the outbid notice to arrive in my mailbox. I got it. Very surprised.

Less than a week later, I opened the box shipped to me and was delighted to hold what I could finally tell was a Semi-Minolta II from around 1937. It is surely the rarest item in my camera collection.

First impressions regard the size and quality of the camera. The Semi-Minolta II is a die-cast body folding camera that uses 120 film (hooray, I can still get that!). The image size is the 6 x 4.5cm format, which makes the camera body much smaller and far more pocketable than the full 6 x 6cm cameras of its day. This camera is the first model series badged with the name Minolta. Prior to that, the badge was the "Molta Camera" company. This is a mark II due to the faster 75mm f/3.5 lens as compared to the original f/4.5 lens.

Lens openings are marked in a distinct series, different from modern cameras: 3.5, 4.5, 6.3, 8, 12.5, 18, and 25. The little Coronar lens (Nr. 87207) is clear and fungus-free even after 70+ years probably in someone's closet. The viewfinder is the direct type with guess-your-best focusing settings for the lens (all in meters).

Let me come back to the size of the camera. It is wonderfully compact, rivaling the small size of modern digital point-and-shoot cameras! For its day, it must have been about the equivalent of a "miniature" camera build. This would be a fine camera to have taken on vacations, outings or other personal uses.

The leather is missing here and there on my example. I don't care. It only adds to the charm of the camera. The way wear appears on the Minolta, it looks as if whoever owned it, used it. That adds more value in my book. To know that I'm the rest home for a camera that participated in someone's life connects me to the instrument in a personal way.

I'm off to find some 120 film. Before this beautiful Minolta lives out its last days on my shelves, I'll put one last roll of film through it. In honor of its proud Japanese heritage, it'll be exposed to the colors of a nearby flower garden and maybe a family portrait or two. The Semi-Minolta II is a rare find for me at a ridiculous low price. It skirted just under the radar of the cigar-chomping, griseled old camera collectors out there. So I imagine. Truth is, I got lucky. For me, it's a rare find of something even rarer; a fun afternoon outside in the sunshine quietly composing images.