Kodak Retina I Type 141

2009/07/02

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the camera I used to capture the photo displayed therein is a Kodak Retina I Type 141. The Retina series was Kodak’s first line of cameras to use the 35mm format, as well as the line that introduced the 135 film format; the 135 format introduced the ubiquitous daylight loading canister that are now commonplace in all 35mm cameras. See below for a photo of the camera itself.

Retina-I_Type141

Unlike contemporary system 35mm cameras, such as the Leica or Contax models, this camera has more in common with the earlier medium format folding cameras, incidentally also originally designed by Kodak. As such, this camera has a fixed lens attached to a extendable plate that may be pushed back into the camera body when not in use; the lens to film plane path remains light-tight by means of flexible, collapsing leather bellows. [1] This being the case, most of the camera itself is relatively non-complex; apart from the complex shutter mechanism, there are relatively few other complex moving parts. Kodak also produced a parallel line that featured a rangefinder coupled to the lens focus mechanism, but this particular model is not one of those.

As for using the camera, since it does not have very many complex moving parts, it has held up quite well for its age. Despite being quite intricate, the Compur shutters tend to age well, so I had no trouble with the shutter speeds, or the integral aperture, either. [2] Unlike the original Type 117 (the first Retina model), the wind and rewind knobs are raised well above the top plate of the camera, making it easier to operate them. Due to their size and location, it can be difficult to operate the shutter cocking lever and the release lever; the latter is less of a concern due to the coupled plunger on the top plate of the camera that can release the shutter like a more traditional button one would find on a modern SLR. Having the shutter cocking lever on the front of the camera is not necessarily a bad idea, though, as it makes accidental exposures less common. [3][4] Like the contemporary Contax rangefinder cameras, one can open the entire back of this camera, making film loading and unloading a relatively simple matter. Unlike the Contax, however, this camera’s back is fully attached to the body by a hinge, which keeps the back in place while you’re loading or unloading film; one drawback of the Contax design is that once you remove the back, you’ll have to put it somewhere out of the way while you’re unloading or loading film. It is also clearly an advantage over the contemporary Leica series, in that the latter must be loaded after removing the bottom plate of the camera, and sliding the film and take-up spool into the body blind. While this camera’s optics are American-made (by Kodak), the Ektar lenses are often considered to be the high point of Kodak optical quality; the type of lens used in this camera is similar to the 4-element Tessar lenses originally designed by Carl Zeiss, and while I am sure that few people would argue that the former is up to the high standards of the latter, the lenses for the Retina series are generally well regarded. [5] Since the lens may be withdrawn into the camera body, once folded up, the camera is quite easily portable, and takes up even less space than either a Leica or Contax camera, and, as such, much less than a modern SLR. The folding coverplate also protects the lens from damage when in place, meaning that the camera will be well protected when not in use. Additionally, between the small size of the leather bellows and the lensboard struts that deploy and retract the lens/shutter assembly, the bellows themselves are relatively well protected when deployed, so if you find one whose bellows have not deteriorated from age alone, it is likely that the camera will still be useable (assuming, of course, that the shutter still works).

There are a few downsides to using the camera, as well. Probably the most notable is the lack of interchangable lenses; this is not so much a failing of Kodak’s, as their primary goal was not to produce the best possible cameras, but the best possible cameras to appeal to the widest range of customers. This necessarily means that the cameras were made simpler and less complex than those demanded by professionals and advanced amateurs; the same practice is seen today in the difference between point-and-shoot digital cameras and digital SLRs (although the distinction is blurred somewhat by so-called “bridge” cameras). As such, while the camera performs well for general shooting, there are certainly some specialized applications for which this camera would be inadequate (portraiture comes to mind, as does telephoto shooting). The fixed 50mm lens does an excellent job of recreating normal human vision, but obviously, it is less useful when one might like to capture a panorama or a zoomed-in shot. Since all the settings are adjusted by controls on the shutter body, this camera is also not well-suited to fast shooting, unless you’re doing so using a fixed combination of settings that are adjusted beforehand; even so, the small viewfinder is also a liability for this sort of shooting. For that matter, the viewfinder is quite small, even for a camera of this size, so it is somewhat difficult to compose shots; additionally, as the viewfinder is offset from the focal path of the lens, the camera will suffer from some parallax error. [6] I haven’t noticed this too much, but as with most subjective matters, YMMV. The aperture range is also not very wide, but the Compur-Rapid shutter and the wider available range of film speeds offset this deficiency somewhat. Also, as the camera does not have its own built-in light meter, you’ll have to provide one of your own, meaning that you’ll either need to carry an additional piece of equipment (thus offsetting the space savings from the smaller camera body) or memorize an exposure chart for reference in the field. [7]

That said, this camera does perform well within the limits of its capabilities, and as I’ve mentioned before, I always enjoy getting results from a 70 year old camera. See below for another example of the results one can get with this camera:

Retina I - NickysTree03

If you’re interested in seeing additional examples of shots I took with this camera, see the set on my Flickr site. [8] I also have a set devoted to the operation of this camera, so if you are interested in using one yourself, feel free to check it out; [9] please feel free to contact me if you have any questions regarding the operation guide. Enjoy.

Notes:

[1]: As with all cameras that use these, the leather bellows are a weak point for this camera, particularly when one considers its age (at minimum, the “youngest” Retina I cameras are at least 50 years old). Not only are the bellows themselves relatively fragile even in pristine condition, they are also prone to deterioration over time, particularly when the camera is not stored in an ideal environment.

[2]: On leaf shutters such as these, the slow speeds tend to be the ones that fail; conveniently enough, they are also the easiest to verify, as it is difficult to differentiate between a 1/500 and 1/100 setting by sound alone, but one can count out the proper timing for a 1 second or 1/2 sec. setting easily enough. Unlike modern SLRs, one need not worry much about the aperture blades, so long as they move properly; in modern SLRs, the aperture remains open until the shutter release is pressed, thus admitting as much light as possible through the eyepiece. As such, the aperture blades need to be “snappy,” so that they can quickly close down to the proper size. In non-SLR cameras, since one does not view the scene through the lens while composing the shot, it is not necessary for the aperture blades to snap into place; so long as the blades still form the proper shape, i.e., a small, round hole, and move smoothly when the aperture setting is changed, there is no need for concern.

[3]: On cameras where the shutter cocking mechanism is linked to the film advance mechanism, it is possible to trip the shutter and expose the film accidentally, if the camera does not have a double exposure prevention mechanism. Conversely, this also makes overlapping exposures easier, as well, since the film may be wound (or not) and the shutter cocked and tripped separately from each other.

[4]: Note that a potential hindrance here is that if the shutter is cocked, the lens cannot be retracted into the camera body, since there is very little clearance between the outside edge of the shutter body, the front standard, and the hole in the camera body to accommodate the shutter assembly. Also beware that trying to force the shutter assembly back into the body may cause damage to the shutter mechanism, if the cocking lever is set.

[5]: See here for an article on the various lenses produced by Kodak under the Ektar moniker (Camerapedia article). In point of fact, the lens on this camera does resemble contemporary Schneider Xenar lenses, but regardless, it produces good results, so I don’t much care who made the lens.

[6]: The simple explanation for this is that since the viewfinder does not show exactly what the lens “sees,” there may be some discrepancies between what one sees in the viewfinder and what ends up on the film. See here for a more detailed explanation (Wikipedia article).

[7]: See here, for example, if you’re interested in trying this method (from Fred Parker Photography). If you’re intellectually challenged like me, however, this may not be very useful for you.

[8]: Flickr set with additional photos available here.

[9]: Flickr set with operation instructions available here.

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3 Responses to “Kodak Retina I Type 141”


  1. […] written about a Kodak Retina camera before, so I’m not going to re-tread that ground this time; Kodak’s Retina series cameras […]

  2. Jorge Says:

    HI
    So I found a Retina 141 at a antique store and it seems to be in great shape. I just bought film and will test it tomorrow. The lens seems to be foggy and I cleaned it well but I wanted to ask you if you know of a place that fixes lenses or if there is a replacement out there. Thanks

    • seeker312 Says:

      Sorry, but no, I don’t know anyone who does repairs. I once tried to get another camera repaired by a shop, and after almost a year of waiting, I decided to just find a working replacement, and give up on the repair. Given the shortage of spare parts and knowledgable repairmen these days, it may just be easier (and possibly also cheaper) to just find a working camera.


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