The Kodak Retina 1b

This is one of the first of the renowned German Kodaks, produced between 1954 and 1957. This is an early model, so has no rangefinder. It has a lovely heft though, and the lens opening is a joy of smooth cuckoo-clock movement. The focus action is also beautifully smooth, which is really unnecessary as this is a scale-focus camera so you are not going to be holding it to your eye and adjusting the focus. Even so, this thing feels like class and fine engineering. The source for it was my surprise box of cameras.

The lens is a Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar of 50mm and f2.8, which is basically a Tessar. It glides out when you press the button on the cover panel but must be set to infinity before it will close.

Retina 1
The rangefinder is useful but not standard

The wind-on lever is on the bottom of the camera, which looks like it would be difficult to use. It actually works quite well if you point the camera downwards after shooting.

Retina 2
Winder and rewind release on the right, with the film door release under the arrowed tab on the left.

It’s a little fiddly to set the aperture. It’s on the bottom of the lens and requires that the pointer is pulled out to set. In use it locks the combination of aperture and shutter speed together so they change in sync.

Retina 4
The green thing sets the flash sync. The cog on the right is the focusing tab.

Making the lens retractable adds complexity and weight for a possible gain in portability: with the lens shut it’s a flatter package that would fit better into a bag or large pocket.

Retina 3
There is a cute bellows hidden inside the lens arrangement

Ken Rockwell tried and wrote about the precursor to this, the 1a. He seems to hate cameras that scale focus and don’t have meters, but he liked the lens.

So basically, unless you want to guess, you need to carry or fit a rangefinder and a meter. It also has a quirk in the way the frame counter works: it counts down from the maximum size of the film and locks the camera after frame number 1 has been shot. This may have been a protection from the heavy-handed, but it’s a pain to a frugal photographer. The trick is to start the counter above the maximum frame count to get that last frame or two off the film.

In use it’s a bit like a miniature view camera, to the extent my darling partner asked if I needed to put a cloth over my head when I was using it. You open the camera, check and set the focus, check and set the exposure, then shoot. Using this will definitely slow you down: it’s a measured performance. This is not the camera to carry around for quick snaps. The lens is sharp though, so it could be a good way to do the slow and mindful photography thing. The fact that it folds up could also make it a contender for the sort of camera that you would throw into a rucksack, if it wasn’t so heavy. If I wanted a folder I would take a medium format one and get bigger negatives, or an Olympus XA which is smaller and lighter. So it’s a mechanical marvel with all the ease of use of a large format camera and all the quality of a smaller negative. So what makes this camera less attractive than the equally-fiddly Mercury? Mostly it’s the looks of the Mercury – it’s a steampunk delight. I forgive it being awkward because it’s fun.

So would you want one of these? It is very quiet in use and it’s a mechanical joy to handle. It might also be perfect for learning how the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and focus works with 36 (or more) shots on hand. I’m not so sure about the folding thing though – that feels more like they did it because they could, than for any real reason.

Wheldrake, Retina 1b
Works well enough

While the lens is sharp, the lack of a coupled rangefinder means that you can’t really use it for close work. But then, that’s probably what most people would have wanted a camera for anyway: groups and landscapes. There was a IIc model that did have a coupled rangefinder, so you could look for one of those if you really needed the focusing.

So the verdict is: nice lens in an awkward package.

Author: fupduckphoto

Still wishing I knew what was going on.

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