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Retinette 1A Review – A compact piece of Kodak History – Guest review by Carlos Argott

Retinette 1A

Kodak is no longer a household name, but for a long time, if you spoke about photography, most people would’ve thought about them, such was the success of their push to bring cameras to the masses.

While photo journalists were recording history using Leicas, and Hasselblads were going into space; Kodak was more comfortable living in every living room in the US, tasked with the more mundane but no less important job of capturing all those kodak moments” that would end up in the family photo albums, and  eventually become a great record of the golden age of the middle classes.

Introduced in 1939, the Retinette was one of these cameras, designed to be a cheaper alternative to the more famous Retina series, it is still a very capable camera and much more compact than its more expensive brothers.

The particular model that I own – discovered in a long forgotten box in my father’s closet after his passing – is the 1A Type 042. By this model, the bellows of the pre-war Retinette cameras had been retired for a much more durable solid body design (built in Germany no less). As was the design in those times, the shutter is integrated into the lens so the controls are in a somewhat unusual position for anyone used to more modern compact cameras, but in exchange, you get a very nice setup in which you can adjust all your settings with a single hand without having to move it away from the lens.

Portrait taken with Retinette

Being able to operate without looking at the controls, allows for some good candid shots

The Lens

Speaking of the lens, the 45mm Reomar (three element design, instead of the more common Tessar four element of the Retina models) is actually closer to a normal lens for 35mm format than the usual 50mm more commonly used nowadays, this makes for a very natural looking perspective in most photos that really show its family life documentary purpose. The lens holds 3 different rings for the three main functions, these are from front to back: focusing, shutter speed and aperture. 

Focusing the Retinette

The Retinette focusing ring is nice and smooth on my copy, with a long throw of over 180 degrees and very clear engraved markings in the front. This is useful since there’s no rangefinder focusing on this camera, it is all done via zone focusing, made easier by the three dot” system on the focus ring. This includes clicking stops at 6.5 feet, 10 feet and 30 feet, which roughly equate to portrait, everyday scene and landscape (30 feet being hyperlocal distance at f/4).

This system allows for very quick rough focusing in most conditions and allows for finer focus once you’ve developed the feel for distance estimation, with practice, you can achieve pretty good and consistent results. The lens also includes very clear zone markings, with a special marking for f/4 where the lens is at its best. 

Example of Retinette Bokeh

Bokeh is very nice wide open

The aperture

The Retinette’s control for aperture is the ring closest to the camera body, and includes a metal tab to recognize it without having to look at it, it’s marked in full stops, though the manual states that intermediate points can be used safely.

The maximum aperture of f/2.8 is good for a compact camera of it’s time, and should allow plenty of versatility in general use, though you’ll have to be more careful with your focusing when going wide open. You will also notice that the results are less crisp than at f/4, but still very usable and with experience, even allow you to melt the background away into a very soft creamy bokeh.

At the other end of the scale, at f/22, this lens stops down far enough to allow you to just drop in your Tri-X film and walk around ready for most conditions, even if you decide to push it to 800 (like I did for the shots in this roll). 

Street photo of a sculpture taken with a Retinette

Fully stopped down, enough to use on a sunny day even with 800 film

The shutter

The third component to the Retinette’s lens is the shutter speed ring; nested between the aperture and the focusing ones, it is the hardest of the three to use. This is mostly due to this being a fully mechanical shutter meaning you’ll be winding and unwinding the spring as you move it around, if you listen closely you’ll hear the wonderfully old-school sound of the timing spring as you adjust the shutter speed (the manual does state that it’s safe to adjust speeds with a tensioned springs, unlike other cameras of the time).

The available speeds go from 1/250 to 1/30 in full stops and a bulb mode. Also note that for the shutter speed, Kodak advises against using intermediate stops unlike the apertures. 1/250 might not be very fast, but it should be enough for most uses, and the small amount of possible values, mean that the timing tends to be very good, even on very old models, since the mechanism is somewhat simpler than on other cameras (I’m looking at you Nikon F2).

Picture of a tree taken with a Retinette

Though small and simple, the lens can be very sharp if used well

The self timer

The controls on the Retinette’s lens is rounded out by a self-timer lever on the bottom of the lens, that give you a 5 second timer for the shutter. In my particular camera, it tends to stick so I’ll have to get it cleaned at some point, but I rarely use this functionality.

One thing of note here, is that since the film advance is coupled to the shutter button, but not the shutter itself, if your self-timer ever sticks without you noticing, the camera will allow you to advance the film even if the shutter didn’t actually fire, (happened to me once), so that’s just something to watch out for.

Street photography with the Retinette

The finder might be small, but it’s good enough to get decent framing

The film Advance

The Retinette’s film advance mechanism is located on the underside of the camera instead of the more usual top, it seems to make for a great conversation starter when people see you wind it. It’s still a fast wind mechanism, so it only needs one stroke, and even in this old camera that hasn’t been CLA’d in a long time, the spacing was precise between every frame.

Right next to the lever, is the film release button, even though it is located right next to the lever, I never found myself pressing it by accident, so you don’t need to be too careful when winding. On the other hand, the back release button located on the left underside of the camera does feel like it might be in a riskier position, though when using the leather half case, it’s nicely protected, so I’d recommend using it with the case.

Close up motorcycle shot with Retinette

With some experience, close focusing is possible

The top plate

Rounding out the top of the Retinette, you have on the far right, a frame counter, this one is a decreasing type, so that’s slightly uncommon, but perhaps clearer, since it always tells you how many frames you have left. This camera doesn’t auto reset the counter though, so when loading your film, you’ll have to reset it to the starting diamond sign. As a quirk of the time in which the camera was designed, the second diamond mark is for a 20 frame roll and not the more modern 24. 

The far left of the top plate is your film rewind knob and a very crude film type indicator, usually I don’t even bother with it, but I guess there might be some people which might enjoy the novelty of it.

The camera does have a built in cold shoe, and since the lens includes a flash terminal, you could use a flash, but that seems like more trouble than it’s worth, and I would instead prefer to have either a light meter or a rangefinder mounted there instead. 

The Shutter button

The final feature of the top of the Retinette is your shutter release button – this one is oddly under-designed compared to the rest of the camera, just a little tube on the top of the camera. It is threaded if you want to use a cable release, and the action itself is nice and pleasant, with enough resistance to prevent accidental shooting, but not enough that you’ll be afraid to shake the camera when you press it. This makes it very usable at even the slowest speed of 1/30, especially since the lens shutter means there’s no detectable shutter shake and almost no noise.

Low light street photo taken with Retinette

The three dots allow you to focus quickly…just remember to actually stop moving before taking the shot

The viewfinder

The last important part of the Retinette, is the finder. It is positioned in line with the optical axis, which has the great advantage of reducing the parallax error by not having any horizontal displacement and only vertical, which I find easier to correct for anyways. The finder is not large by any means, but good enough for the purposes of this camera, and the lines are bright and clear. It even includes a parallax correction marker at the top of the frame that you’re supposed to use when shooting close subjects! The finder on my camera is somewhat dark, but this is understandable given the age of the camera. Given that there’s no focusing mechanism in there, it’s not really a problem even when shooting in low light conditions. 

Backlit image shot straight into the sun

Surprisingly good when shooting straight into the sun

Final thoughts

All technical aspects aside, the Retinette is very fun to use, it gives you a very portable very capable film camera that forces you to be involved with the photo by making you operate every setting every time. It’s elegant design make it a pleasure to hold and I’ve found it’s retro look is one that people will feel inclined to ask you about. Add to it the quality construction, and you’ve got yourself an excellent compact 35mm camera for those that aren’t afraid to take photographs without any automation based help from the camera.

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12 Comments

  • Reply
    Jim Grey
    May 28, 2017 at 1:17 pm

    You got some nice results from your Retinette!

    • Reply
      C. Argott
      May 28, 2017 at 3:17 pm

      Thanks Jim! I was also surprised by how well the little camera has stood up the test of time and got better images out of it than I originally expected.

  • Reply
    Mick
    May 28, 2017 at 5:30 pm

    Carlos the Retinette is a wonderful little camera. Your shots with Tri-X are as better than 95% of those taken with a $15K Leica.

    It is the photographer not the machine. I found recently some slides from a 70’s trip to NYC taken with my Mom’s Kodak 126 Instamatic. I was amazed by the lifelike qualities.

    Time allowing I might write a piece on my Retina I typ 119 from the 1937.

    • Reply
      C. Argott
      May 28, 2017 at 6:07 pm

      Thank you for your kind comment Mick! And what you mention about finding slides is another that I really like about film; the wonder of running across some old negatives, some forgotten slides. Every now and then, as I go through all of my father’s belongings I find a couple of frames of film tucked here and there, and it’s a really nice experience to discover those, something that doesn’t happen with digital as easily.

  • Reply
    Richard Williams
    May 28, 2017 at 8:16 pm

    Lovely review thanks. There is (or at least was) one of these in a charity shop in town, but it was a tenner and I’ve bought enough cameras recently. I do have a lot of fun shooting with a manual Voigtlander viewfinder camera though, so I get what you mean by being involved in the photo. Love these old 50s and 60s cameras!

    • Reply
      C. Argott
      May 30, 2017 at 5:27 pm

      Yeah, I get what you mean about having bought too many cameras Richard hehe; I have the same problem, that’s why I try to avoid looking around old camera shops or ebay, waaaay too tempting.

  • Reply
    Andy Collins
    June 9, 2017 at 2:25 am

    Very nice review of a very special camera. I inherited my late father’s Retinette 1A just a few years ago. It was the camera that recorded our family’s life until he bought a Vivitar 220/SL sometime in the 70s, but he kept the Retinette. That was the camera that inspired me to take pictures and as a child, it seemed like such a complex machine. I guess it was alongside my Kodak Instamatic X-15 in the mid-70s! Over the years my gear has grown pretty sophisticated but for me the Holy Grail of cameras has always been my dad’s Retinette 1A.

    • Reply
      C. Argott
      June 9, 2017 at 4:57 am

      Glad to hear that there’s other Retinette’s being passed down generations out there and being used still instead of being relegated to being just decor pieces or trashed!

  • Reply
    Dan
    June 14, 2017 at 7:38 pm

    Well well, what a coincidence… add me to the “passed on from my late father” Retinette 1A list! My mother only just found it and gave it to me since I’m the ‘camera guy’ in the family. Just took it out for a spin and got similar results to you, Carlos, on Ilford HP5. Wish I could post a couple here. Also came with the original leather case which was pretty cool. It’s the memories that make these little cameras special.

    • Reply
      C. Argott
      June 14, 2017 at 7:42 pm

      Well, it seems these cameras have a tendency to be passed down the paternal line. Maybe they’ll make it to the next generation yet!

  • Reply
    Peter Boorman
    January 21, 2018 at 1:15 pm

    Just to keep the them going – I have a Retinette IIa that was my father’s too. I know it’s somewhere in the house and every now and then I have another unsuccessful hunt for it… It’s probably hanging out with that 6×9 Voigtlaender folder and a couple of Agfas that I also can’t seem to find!

  • Reply
    Jenny Kinnear
    March 5, 2018 at 3:57 am

    I am so glad to have found this lovely website. I have just acquired a little Retinette 1A in beautiful condition, and can’t wait to try it out.

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