Beauty shot of the equipment I'm reviewing.
Rangefinders (Fixed Lens)

Kodak Retina IIIC – Back into Film with a Charity Auction Find – By Stewart Waller

January 31, 2022

I recently fell for analog cameras, especially vintage ones. It feels like a rabbit hole much of the time, chasing that elusive, cosmetically beautiful, functionally accurate, 60+ year-old technology  (and expecting magic when I find it).

Although I learned photography in journalism school around 1990 and shot for the local paper, I largely stayed within my comfort zone with my trusty Nikon FM2 and a few cheap lenses. I first adopted digital in 1999, and was fully digital by 2002 as a corporate art director and photographer, with professional state-of-the-art digital Nikons (think DCS 760, D1-X). So, knowing next to nothing about this quirky world of aging treasures, I embarked on a buying binge.

And now I own a lot of old broken cameras. But like any treasure hunt, sometimes you find gold or a diamond in the rough. Such was the case with this Kodak Retina IIIC (Big C) I spotted in a lot at a charity auction Website, with its gorgeous leather case and Rodenstock 50mm f/2.0 lens. Introduced in 1957, this was Kodak’s last and best in a long line of folding Retina rangefinder cameras, designed in Kodak’s Nagel factory in Stuttgart, Germany, to compete with Leica, Contax and other German cameras.The Retina is a beautiful design, but shares more of its aesthetics with the past Art Deco era than emerging Mid-Century Modern trends at the time. And thanks to the Nagel factory Kodak bought, it’s also a testament to precision engineering and optics that have stood the test of time.

When I received the camera, inspected it, tested it without film—and briefly researched its potential value—I felt it was good enough to send off for a complete CLA. I sent it to Zacks Camera Repair in Rhode Island. Weeks later it returned, in perfect working order, hopefully for another generation to enjoy.

Using the Kodak Retina IIIC

And then the magic happened. I found the original manual online (at Michael Butkus’ excellent website), and learned the basics of how it was supposed to work. 

Camera makers were adding selenium light meters to their cameras at the time; many were inaccurate, and most have died from prolonged light exposure over the decades (The Retina IIC is identical but lacks the meter, and is gaining value among collectors because of that). I kind of like the honeycomb look and history of these, though, and as long as they aren’t required for the camera to function, no problem. Because this Kodak Retina IIIC was likely enclosed in its leather case for the last half century, the meter still works.  But that doesn’t mean it’s user friendly.

This on-camera metering system does not work like modern ones. Back then, photographers were measuring light with Exposure Values, which you would read off of the meter, and then dial into a complicated, mechanically coupled f-stop and shutter speed assembly on the lens barrel. This is all slow work, especially considering I wear reading glasses—so to do all this I had to keep putting my glasses on, then taking them off again to focus the rangefinder. (I’m convinced human eyesight has greatly deteriorated in the last century, as the older the camera is, the smaller the inscriptions are.) I tried this EV method and quickly gave up. Fortunately, the dials can also be set independently, so I did that and metered with a handheld iPhone app, or just guessed using the “Sunny 16” rule. My Kodak Retina IIIC also came with its original incident light diffuser tucked into the top of the case—which I will never use.

Front and top view of my Kodak Retina IIIC with a 50mm Rodenstock lens and period KENKO UV filter.

I loaded Kodak Portra 400, and I’m glad I did because it let the excellent Rodenstock Heligon lens shine. Retinas came with Rodenstcok or Schneider-Kreuznach lenses, and the bayonet mounts are different. The Rodestocks were supplied less to begin with, and were mostly distributed in Europe, so they are very rare here in the US. Loading the camera was straightforward, except for setting the film counter manually. The film advance lever is on the bottom right of the camera, which I found easy to get used to. But the ergonomics in general aren’t great, mainly due to the folding door opening out so far to the right that my normal camera grip wouldn’t work. But I got used to holding and focusing with mostly fingers and thumbs, and the leather ever ready case also adds more to hold onto.

Bottom view with film advance lever of my Kodak Retina IIIC with a 50mm Rodenstock lens.

The Kodak Retina IIIC viewfinder is big and bright, with helpful lines showing the field of view for the 35mm, 50mm and 80mm interchangeable lenses (I have only used the standard 50mm so far). I have read some people don’t like the visual clutter of the viewfinder lines, but I always shoot with a grid in modern cameras anyway to help me compose and keep horizons level. Of the older rangefinder viewfinders I’ve used recently, this one is my favorite. 

The shutter release button is top right, where you would expect, and the focusing ring has a convenient knob on the left for focusing with just a finger. The focus action is smooth but a bit stiff for easy one-finger use. The five blade leaf shutter is very quiet.

In the End

Because I still work full time in a corporate studio, I took the Retina IIIC out on afternoon lunch breaks mostly in Raleigh, NC, so the contrasty light was never optimal. Still, the lens handled almost all situations well—from the nearby nature preserve with dazzling fall foliage, to the oft deserted indoor mall with plenty of natural light, to the Toyota showroom where I was getting an oil change. My final shot was on a tripod at a favorite spot along the Eno River in Durham, NC, which I shot alongside a Kodak Medalist 1 and a Voigtländer Vitessa L. I’ll have something to say about those when that film comes back. 

Overall, I really enjoyed using the Kodak Retina IIIC—and the images exceeded my expectations—so I will certainly use it again with different films in a more serious way.

View of the lake and trees at Durant Nature Preserve in Raleigh, North Carolina, Fall 2021

Scenic shot of fall foliage.

Autumn leaves and the lake at Durant Nature Preserve in Raleigh, North Carolina, Fall 2021.

Focusing on the foreground of autumn leaves.

Interior of the food court at Triangle Towne Center Mall in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Interior of the mall food court.

Shot from above of lunchtime diners at Triangle Towne Center Mall in Raleigh, NC.

Shot of lunchtime diners at the mall food court.

1970's Toyota Celica in a Toyota dealership showroom in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Front end of a 1970’s Toyota Celica displayed in the dealership showroom during an oil change.

Scenic view of the Eno River in Durham, North Carolina.

Tripod shot of a favorite spot along the Eno River in Durham, North Carolina.

Thank you for reading my first vintage camera review! You can find my photography online at Facebook, Instagram and stewartwallerphotography.com.

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23 Comments

  • Reply
    Martin Siegel
    January 31, 2022 at 11:25 am

    Thanks for a pleasant read, Stewart. The autumn colours a dazzling, I like perspective of the 2nd mall shot and a vintage car is always an eye catcher. The scene by the river is very calming and I can understand why it is a favorite spot of yours.

    Every one reading this and downloading a manual from Mike Butkus – please don’t forget to donate the 3 Dollars, it’s not much but helps a lot in keeping the site going.

    • Reply
      Stewart Waller
      January 31, 2022 at 12:33 pm

      Thank you Martin! I own multiple different Retinas and just wish I had more time to shoot them in more interesting places. And I second that everyone should donate to Mr. Butkus! His is a great service.

  • Reply
    John Tarrant
    January 31, 2022 at 11:51 am

    Many of the Kodak 35mm cameras were real works of art! I have played with a number of them, but ultimately the tiny engravings for the controls defected me! A great pity as the fooling Retinas had the potential to be perfect pocket cameras.

  • Reply
    Dave Roberts
    January 31, 2022 at 12:19 pm

    They are fantastic cameras. The Rodenstock lenses are superb. I shoot both the IIC and IIIC often loading colour in one and BW in the other, they are small enough that carrying both is never an issue.

  • Reply
    Neal A Wellons
    January 31, 2022 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks for a great overview. I really enjoyed it since a Retina IIIc and Retina Ia were my last two cameras before I became aware of Barnacks. If you ever wan to give them a try, the Canon III series are the best bargains I have found. CLA’s are easy to find if they need it too. I went nuts and now just use Barnacks for 90% of my photography and have a collection of them.

    I got some great shots with the Retinas and also used them a lot for infrared images. But they just didn’t feel right and I didn’t like the size,weight and EV linkage of the IIIc. The Ia was better in those areas but had no rangefinder which was OK. Still, I didn’t like the feel of it compared to the Barnacks.

    • Reply
      Stewart Waller
      January 31, 2022 at 1:04 pm

      Thank you Neal! I like learning and shooting many different cameras so far. I have a Canon IVSB with three Canon lenses (and the original flash gun), but haven’t had a chance to shoot it yet. I’m intimidated by the film loading, but your recommendation will move it up my list!

  • Reply
    John Bennett
    January 31, 2022 at 2:26 pm

    Nice! There is an active Retina group on Facebook:

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/KodakRetinaRetinetteLovers

  • Reply
    Lee
    January 31, 2022 at 2:52 pm

    Those photos are quite nice. I especially like the photo of the front corner of that vintage Toyota Celica. I think it highlights the fact that the Rodenstock lens renders image contrast very nicely. As you said in your write-up, most of the IIIc or IIIC models I’ve seen, have the Schneider lens. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve read reviews of these cameras and sometimes the author will say that the Schnieder lenses are superior to the Rodenstocks, but I guess I wouldn’t trifle over that, having seen your images. I’ve been casually shopping for one of these at the right price, either a IIIc or IIIC, and you can still easily find them for under $100. But I already have too many cameras that I don’t use as much as I should, so I think I need listen to my head instead of my heart on this one. Great article and very nice photos!

    • Reply
      Stewart Waller
      January 31, 2022 at 11:10 pm

      Thanks Lee! I get all my cameras in auctions at shopgoodwill.com. Here’s a nice IIc (but don’t hold me to it; they always might be broken). Don’t bid early, wait util the last 5 seconds, and bid half again what’s on the table. Many go for under $100.
      https://shopgoodwill.com/item/138209532

  • Reply
    Daniel Castelli
    January 31, 2022 at 2:57 pm

    Dear Stweart,
    A nice article. In this day and age, we forget what a giant Kodak was in the photography business. I taught graphic arts and (litho) printing. The depth of products and support Kodak offered to the printing industry was legendary.
    The Retina camera line appealed to the high-end amateur photographer. The concept: a pocketable ‘folder’ producing first rate photos still has a strong following today.
    I followed your link to Zack’s Camera repair and have contacted them about a repair. Thanks for mentioning them.
    Wishing you a lot of success with the camera.

    • Reply
      Dan Castelli
      February 1, 2022 at 12:28 am

      Oops! My apologies. I thought I typed in Stewart..

  • Reply
    Paul Tranto
    January 31, 2022 at 4:28 pm

    Great story and lovely images. The Retinas are super fun to shoot with, and several of the models will leave you wondering why you didn’t try a “bargain” rangefinder before. I have noticed some differences in the Schneider and Rodenstock versions, YMMV, but we’re also talking about Very Old Copies, so please get both and have fun testing them. Also, they fold up into teeny weeny little things that fit beautifully into the pocket of your winter coat. Finally, they have a hot shoe so you can put one of those nifty little meters on them : ) Enjoy!

    • Reply
      Stewart Waller
      January 31, 2022 at 11:02 pm

      Thank you Paul! I have plenty of Schneider versions I look forward to shooting—likely a nice little IIa next. I also have a post-war Retina I with a Made in USA Ektar lens I look forward to trying—that lens is said to be the best made at the time. But where will I find the time?

  • Reply
    JAMES LANGMESSER
    January 31, 2022 at 4:58 pm

    Neal, wonderful story. I have over the years acquired Retinas from the very first models in the 1930’s through the IIIC. I remember taking out the IIIC with us to visit a local winery here in Northern Virginia. The light was so autumnal perfect, the colors so rich I took the picture almost in a trance. It captured the mood perfectly. I sent a print of the picture (early 2000’s) to the winery and they liked it so much they used it on a label for one their wines. You could say Retinas are in our family. My late father-in-law had a IIc he bought new in the early fifties (over a Leica…he said for him the Schneider optics were better). My wife showed me pictures of him taking flower pictures, showing my wife’s sister how to use the camera. Thanks for triggering some great memories!

    • Reply
      Stewart Waller
      January 31, 2022 at 10:58 pm

      Thank you James! You meant “Stewart,” but no worries. I love your story. I worked in marketing for Whole Foods Market for eight years, and spent my final time with them as their national photographer. I visited and photographed my share of wineries, and they can make for wonderful subject matter at the right time of day. So cool they used your image on a label!

  • Reply
    Steve Ember
    January 31, 2022 at 8:13 pm

    Thank you for this excellent article, Stewart. Like you, I have a great fondness for the build quality of cameras such as this one, as well as the more deliberate shooting techniques they engender – a welcome part of the film-shooting experience.
    It was also encouraging that you found a competent repair shop for such equipment in Zack’s. And, while I have a fairly sizable collection of film SLR’s, your description has moved me several steps closer to pulling the trigger on a Retina III-C to – really – slow down the shooting process, especially after viewing your sample photos – I especially like that first autumn landscape.
    Hopefully, I can find one in as lovely condition as yours seems to be. Nicely photographed, by the way!

    • Reply
      Stewart Waller
      January 31, 2022 at 10:54 pm

      Thank you Steve! I have always been a deliberate photographer, hauling a tripod around and using slow shutter speeds, etc.— so these types of cameras suit me more than the point and shoots I’ve also been playing with. It’s fun learning how all the different old cameras work!

  • Reply
    Jim Hanes
    February 1, 2022 at 2:54 pm

    I send mine in for repair, about one Vintage Treasure per month. That way the expense isn’t overwhelming and when I get them back, clean and working perfectly, it’s like Christmas!

  • Reply
    Stefan Wilde
    February 1, 2022 at 8:35 pm

    Hi Stewart,

    great story, great shots! I have shot a vintage TLR mostly now, bug you have inspired me to finally try out that Retina Ia I inherited from my uncle. Just a question: I was told lately that Selenium cells actually do not deteriorate noticeably from exposure to light. They seem to be affected by oxygen and corrode, when the seals on the cell break. Do you happen to know if that is the case?

    • Reply
      Stewart Waller
      February 1, 2022 at 11:01 pm

      Thanks Stefan! I’m so glad you asked this question, because just last night I was in a rather long and lively Facebook exchange about a couple questionable statements in my article, this being one of them. A knowledgable person claimed nearly the same theory that you’ve heard, which he voiced more as fact, but that the corrosion came from (I think?) moisture. A minute later another knowledgable person chimed in and said his take was that it’s not the cells at all, but the wires behind them failing, because he is able to read just as much juice off a supposedly dead cell. Keeping in mind that correlation is not causation, my own experience—and the experience of some others more knowledgable than I—is that covered cells, whether electric eye lenses with caps or meters kept in cases, tend to work far more often than those that aren’t covered. So, I’ll just happily say I don’t know, and that there is currently no definitive, factual answer to this until someone presents clear evidence. (The other actually erroneous statement I made was that the IIC and IIIC are identical except for the meter. The truth is, the IIIC has a 2.0 lens, while the IIC has a 2.8).

      Hey I’m curious, what lens is on your 1a? I’m thinking about shooting that one next myself!

      • Reply
        Stefan Wilde
        February 2, 2022 at 4:04 pm

        Hi Stewart, thanks for this interesting reply! Personally, I have no first hand knowledge of what it is that actually kills and I certainly agree that it is probably best to cover them! Exposure to light deteriorates many things, so better be safe than sorry… My Ia has a Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar f:2,8/50mm on it which does look crystal clear. I don’t know how it compares to other lenses but for me it is more important that it was my late uncle’s camera than how it performs. So far I’ve only played around with it a bit to give the shutter some exercise, but now I’ll run actual film through it. Is there any way of telling in advance whether the bellows is still tight?

        • Reply
          Stewart Waller
          February 2, 2022 at 11:30 pm

          My lens is the same as yours. The way I test bellows for light leaks is to extend the front, open the back and go into a dark room and shine a small flashlight through the back while inspecting the front. But I haven’t even bothered with my 1a yet (nor my Voigtlander Vitessa L I just finished a roll in!). I guess I should. Thanks for mentioning it!

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