The Periphery of Pocketable: The Kodak Retinette

I doubt there is any "perfect" camera out there, though in my recent experience with a Kodak Bantam, I had an interesting chance to get a glimpse of something that surprisingly embodied a sense of perfection in its ability to create some great images in a pretty wide range of scenes, all in a package that is incredibly portable, slipping easily into the pocket of my jacket; a pocket designed for an MP3 player, mobile phone, or other similar portable device.

But even with all of these things going for it, the Bantam had one challenging drawback: it's film format.  Don't get me wrong - I actually really love 828 format, as well as the fact that I can cut down any 120 film of my choice to create a roll of double-length 828 film, but I have a growing number of film stocks only available in 35mm format that I want to try, and for putting these emulsions to the test, I want to use a 35mm camera rather than trying to plaster the film stock to 828 backing paper in the dark and hope it is lined up correctly.

I have a wonderful and quite capable 35mm camera in the form of the Exakta VX, but as great as it is, it is a bulky monster, and as such, it will never be a camera that I can simply carry along at pretty much any time.  Knowing this, I decided that I would look for a "135 Bantam" of sorts, one that used 35mm film, but was similar in features and size to the beloved Bantam.  Sadly, Kodak did not make a 35mm version of the 1940's design of the Bantam, leaving me an interesting challenge of finding something that could possibly equate to the Bantam for the 135 format.

My list of must-haves, based upon the most likable traits of the Bantam were as follows:
  • Compact Form Factor
  • Full Manual Control
  • At least 4 shutter speeds plus a bulb setting
  • A good (preferably coated) 4-element lens with and f/4.5 or better maximum aperture
  • A slightly wide focal length.
  • An affordable price tag.
The availability of a rangefinder or metering would also be nice, but not essential.  I spent some time perusing sites, and found some possible candidates on Mike Eckman's Camera site that piqued my interest.  I had all but settled on an Agfa Karat and found one on ebay at a low bidding price and put a modest bid in, given the risks of a non-functioning shutter or a seized focusing ring.  The bidding went over my very modest bid, so I let it go.

Without doing much in the way of research, I spotted another camera on a reasonable buy-it-now price, and decided it was worth the modest cost to give it a shot.  From the photos on the listing it seemed to fit most of my list of must-haves. It was at least worth a roll of film, and it certainly seemed more travel-friendly than the Exakta.  And this is how I became the owner of a Kodak Retinette, okay two Kodak Retinette cameras.

Two Kodak Retinettes, a ca. 1959 Type 030 on the left, and a ca. 1962 Type 042 on the right, with some other goodies tossed in for size comparison.

Prior to the arrival of this camera, I did some of the research I should have done prior to the purchase.  Ahh, well, sometimes it's nice to throw a little caution to the wind.  I also read some of the limited amount of internet user testimonials of using the Retinette, and nearly all seemed favorable, so I was enthusiastic about getting started.  Though equipped with just a triplet lens, the Reomar was very well regarded, so I was certainly interested in what I could do with it.

So why did I get two Retinettes?  Well, that I can't honestly answer, only to say that after buying the first one (a type 030) I saw the later model, a "Retinette 1A" (type 042) on another listing for dirt cheap, and in my small wave of enthusiasm, determined that having two such cameras might be fun.  The two of them cost me under $25 combined. 

Looking at the Retinettes head on, the resemblance is pretty similar, though the later version, the Retinette 1A Type 042, has an extra window that helps superimpose framing lines in the viewfinder.  Neither of these cameras is equipped with a rangefinder.

On arrival, I noticed that both the Retinettes appeared in generally good condition, though the earlier model had some lag in the slow shutter speeds as well as some surface degradation in the outer chrome plate.  The other thing I immediately noticed was that these rigid body designs were not nearly as compact as the strut folding body of the Bantam.  Still, they were still much more svelte and lightweight than the Exakta, and, with some caution, could be toted along for day-to-day shooting, even if they were more obtrusive than the diminutive Bantam.

The other noticeable thing upon looking at these two cameras that struck me was that despite both having a nearly identical form factor and being made within a few years or each other (ca. 1959 for the 030 and ca. 1962 for the 042), the fittings of each camera, and more importantly the shooting experience of both cameras were very distinct from each other. 

The top view of the two cameras show a similar layout, with the protruding viewfinder replaced by a flat top in the later version.  The film dial, while not terribly useful, is a bit more novel on the earlier model from the geekery perspective, in listing the varieties of Kodak film available in 35mm format at the time.

The Retinette Type 030 feels solid and substantial, with a wide range of shutter speeds at the ready.  The metal film wind lever on the bottom feels like it is up the role of doing its job, and the release to open the film compartment is innovatively concealed behind a cover that one rotates to then push the release button and open the camera.  Though a range of "multi second shutter speeds" can be seen printed in green on the shutter speed dial, these are merely there as a guide, with Bulb being the furthest the dial will turn.

And herein lies the biggest quirk with the Retinette Type 030.  The shutter speed and aperture dials are actually "aligned" using the concept of a "Light Value." So for instance, if you set your initial settings at "f/16, 1/60" the dials are already aligned with f/11 sitting astride the 1/125 setting.  And when one makes their initial setting, these alternate settings with the same EV are linked, so that one can merely turn the entire ring to change speed and aperture values in a similarly lit scene and have the exposure value be identical.  In many ways, this is great for the photographer who is shooting many shots in the same outdoor scene and who wants to vary their settings, either to capture action or to maximize or minimize depth of field.

Nice idea, but with troublesome execution.  The aperture and shutter speed dials are "linked" to make setting changes a one-step process for multiple photos in the same lighting situation.  Uncoupling this link requires the user to push the tab on the aperture ring towards the camera body with one hand while then rotating the shutter speed dial with the other hand.

The problem is that switching the aperture and shutter speed to an entirely different combination can be a particularly cumbersome operation on the fly. If seconds count, this can mean missing the shot.  When a photographer takes a photo in low light the previous evening and then wants to get a grab shot the following sunny afternoon, they have to push the linkage of these two rings inward to allow them to move independently while then rotating the settings to the new desired values.  It is very tough to do with one hand, and then even trickier if one is wearing gloves.  It is a very valuable concept that had great potential, but its execution leaves something to be desired.  That said, it is hardly a deal breaker for my style of shooting.  

The Retinette ("1A") Type 042 is certainly the snazzier of the two cameras, with its gleaming chrome having stood up to the decades far more impressively than that of the 030. Add in that it has a faster f/2.8 lens than the f/3.5 lens of the 030, and it would seem the obvious winner between these two cameras.  However, aside from the metal finish, there is an obvious downgrade in build quality in the 042.  The bottom film advance lever is made of a not too impressive plastic.  As well, the rear door release, cleverly concealed on the 030 is left wide open on the 042, and can be easily depressed by accident.  In addition, the lens on my copy wobbles badly in its mount opening.  

Usage of the 042 is also something of a challenge compared to the 030.  The camera adds some potentially nice features such as superimposed viewfinder framing, as well as a first for me with scale focusing cameras, gently providing stops at 6.5, 10. and 30 feet to provide best guesses for portraits, group shots, and general landscapes.  Gone is the awkwardly applied "Light Value Scale" linkage, allowing the user to freely rotate aperture and shutter speed settings.  However, these shutter speed settings have been reduced just 5 on the 042 model (B, 30, 60, 125, 250) while the aperture values ARE REVERSED from their arrangement on the 030, so that one has to move both rings in opposite directions for the same exposure value.  

A nice enhancement on the Retinette 1A is the use of three click stops on the scale focusing ring.  Here, the two dots at 10 feet denotes an ideal best guess distance for small group shots. 

While the Light Value linkage is a little wonky on the Type 030, the use of aperture and shutter speeds are require one to pay close attention on the newer model.  For starters, the aperture values are reversed from the earlier model, so one can't slide the values simultaneously.  This may be deliberate in the design though, as you will note that the shutter speed value ring doesn't rotate at all, but is rather denoted by the knurled red marked ring that rotates to the desired shutter speed value. The "60" value is always front and center, even if it is not the value selected.  This is something to be very mindful of on this camera.

Downgrades.  The Retinette Type 030 (bottom) has a metal wind knob on the bottom, as well as a tab that nicely obscures the button that releases the film door.  The 1A Type 042 (top) has switched to plastic, and lacks the cover, leaving this button vulnerable.  

Results from both cameras were a pleasant surprise on many exposures, as I took shots at a healthy range of settings to see how the camera handles low light, shallow depth of field, and sharpness rendering, as well as to get a feel of how usable each camera feels in the field.  I used what film I had on hand, electing to use Fomapan 200 in the Type 030 and trying out Polypan 50 in the faster f/2.8 lens equipped Type 042 Below are some of the test shots from both cameras. 

If I had to choose one of these two cameras to shoot with, I would side (barely) with the Retinette Type 030.  Despite a slightly slower lens, and the cumbersome Light Value settings, the camera does provide more in the way of shutter speeds, and its build quality provides me more confidence that I can get a good shot.  That's not to say that the Retinette 1A is not without its merits.  Ideally, it would have been nice to see an amalgam of these two affordable cameras in a single body.  

Even if such were the case however, the rigid Retinette build designs of the late 1950's and early 1960's are not quite the portable wonders that I was hoping for in a 135 camera, so neither will be an every day companion for me to grab shots on the fly in the way I had hoped.  Still, the quality of some of the results was certainly such that I will have no problem using either at times to have some fun with new types of film, and I still have to give each a shot of color film to see how the coated Reomar lenses render the full spectrum of the world. 

Ca. 1959 Kodak Retinette Type 030 (Fomapan 200 Film)

Despite a slower lens than its successor, the earlier Retinette could manage to do pretty good with low light shots.  This image was taken wide open at 1/30 of a second, and managed to do a commendable job at creating a very good image.  Fortunately, I had a pillar to lean upon when taking this shot.

Another slow speed shot shows that the guess focus on the Type 030 is pretty accurate from what I can see.  I focused at about 15 feet for this wintry image. 

Yet another successful guess at focusing distance to try to test the focusing accuracy and get a little bit of bokeh in the final image.  The camera does a surprisingly good job with just a triplet lens. 

Stopped down, the results offer more sharpness, while still having just a little bit of desired fuzziness in distant objects to make the nearer objects stand out sharply. 

Vignetting of the Reomar is only modest, and actually pleasing in the results I am seeing.  A shot of an Abraham Lincoln statue taken on a grey day projects a sullen mood on the Fomapan 200 film.

A bulb shot taken after dark with challenging lighting came out OK from the exposure perspective, but the elements are crisp and in focus.

Distant object shots portrayed nicely on the camera while the 45mm focal length works well for slightly wider shots. 

A tripod mounted shot taken in fading light came out focused and exposed well, but I could swear I framed it in the viewfinder to crop out the distracting towers in the distance. 

Ca. 1962 Kodak Retinette 1A Type 042 (Polypan 50 Film)
The light exposure at bottom stems from this being the very last shot on the roll.  That notwithstanding, I was pretty amazed at how I not only got my desired focus nailed on the near lantern, but also got such an out of focus result from the distant lantern.  

I totally meant to focus on these branches near to the camera to frame the out of focus monument in the distance.  Sharpness on this Reomar is particularly impressive.

Speaking of that monument, it seems only fitting that I should feature a sharp shot of that as well, as it memorializes Louis Daguerre, regarded as one of the fathers of photography.

A distant shot stopped down shows good definition to the lines and details on this sunny day image.

I focused on the distance to the street light, but the depth of field carried throughout the entire scene. 

Taken wide open, there is a certain fuzziness to this image, but with the Polypan, it portrays a very dreamlike rendering. 

Focused on the near trees, the details here are a tad mushy, but the backdrop is nicely muted as desired. 

A grab shot seems to have been focused to too far a distance.  I had hoped to have the sharpest area be the shield, but it looks like the flag mount above it is the point of focus instead.