Diminutive, Dapper, and Delightful - The Kodak Retina Type 141

Some of the best stories start out wherein one or multiple parties had been partaking of some mind-numbing intoxicants. And some of these same stories carry with them a degree of regret afterwards. 

I've had a few such occurrences of this, none of which need repeating here, aside from my very last one.  In this case, the intoxicant was a second glass of egg nog (Ok, so I'm a light weight!) during the week after Christmas, and the result of this imbibing was a new addition to my collection.  When the buzz had worn off, I wondered if I had made a mistake that I would regret, but it was one of those things of which only time would tell.

For a few weeks, I had been contemplating picking up a Kodak Signet 35 rangefinder camera, as I had read some good things about it.  However, given my recent experiences of the only borderline pocket-ability of the Kodak Retinette, I was a little leery about adding another camera that was wasn't fully portable to my collection.  As I looked through listings, I ultimately put in "Kodak 35" as my search term, and a page or two down, I was smitten by what looked at first glance to be a great deal: A "Kodak Regina (sic) Camera" that looked tiny and sparkling.  It was $30 to buy, and I suddenly wanted it.  Within 15 minutes, I was now a Retina owner.

I'd certainly heard of the Kodak Retina line of cameras from looking at various film camera collecting forums, and yet I had never considered one seriously.  Part of this was due to the fact that most of the Retinas I had seen showcased were later examples of rigid body cameras that didn't look to be the compact wonder that this little guy was, while nearly all Retinas of any vintage that I had seen listed for sale started at $50 and up, or so I thought. Yet, here was a clean example of a folding Retina complete with an Ektar lens for $30.  I couldn't resist.  I figured I had better snap this up before someone else did.

I can't say there was a full borne feeling of "morning after regrets" to follow these actions, but I was a bit nervous in wondering if I was getting anything resembling a working camera, as this just seemed a little too good to be true. As I awaited for its arrival, I did a bit of research to try to determine just what I had bought.

A review of a number of "Retina resources" would reveal that my new Retina was a type 141 dating from between 1937 and 1939, made in the early days of this camera's production. Despite the Kodak name, which previously elicited connotations of basic American made box and folding cameras, the Retina was of German make, produced beginning in 1934 when Kodak purchased the Nagel Camerawerks in 1931.  It was certainly a different breed of Kodak. 

The Retina's history would last for decades, though nearly each successive model would get larger and larger, first to incorporate a rangefinder, and later to abandon the folding design, while also adding in a light meter. Fortunately, since mine is of an early vintage, it remains stellarly svelte.

My worries of a bad decision began to evaporate, most notably when the camera actually arrived.  There before me was a glistening mechanical jewel, completely functional and ready for film.  My only lingering worry was that there was some haze in the 75 year old lens that I worried might impact contrast.  As such, I elected to load the Retina with a strong contrast film, Rollei Retro 80S to try to impart some additional snap to the images. 

The footprint of the Retina when folded is pretty amazing.  It's not quite the tiny device that my Bantam 828 camera is, but it comes remarkably close - certainly far more so than the bulbous Retinette cameras I had previously picked up.   

Unlike the Bantam, whose very simple and straight forward design I find quite refreshing, the Retina invokes engineering eye candy in nearly every bit of its diminutive form factor.  It has the look and feel of a precision instrument, replete with dials, indicators, as well as a few classic flourishes that complete this package.  At first glance, the little camera packed with dials, levers, and settings is a little daunting, even to someone who is fully accustomed to manual cameras, but ultimately, the result is a very logical and comprehensive camera that really does pack a tremendous amount of punch into an amazingly compact package.

The design elements of the Retina I Type 141 are lovely display of bold circular geometrics clad handsomely in nickel, leather, and black enamel.  It is readily apparent that not only is this not a cheaply made instrument, but also an instrument to which a lot of attention and detail went into designing and creating.  On the bottom of the camera, a lovely depth of field scale assists the photographer, as seen below.  Here, it shows that a focusing distance of just under 25 feet will get all subjects in focus between about 10 feet and infinity.

The circles continue on the top of the camera.  The Type 141 was the first of the Retinas to have a body mounted shutter release, and here it is cleverly inlaid into the frame indicator dial.  The film advance wheel is nicely engraved as well, while the tripod mount, seen below, even cleverly indicates where this lovely beauty was manufactured.

Using a Retina Type 141 is admittedly a bit intimidating at first glance, particularly on the heels of using a much less feature packed camera.  There seems to be a dial, indicator, setting mechanism, or writing everywhere you look.  It is refreshing to know you have such a breadth of exposure options at your control, and when you consider its size, it is nothing short of amazing that this small instrument can be capable of so much.  In fact, the Retina is one of VERY few cameras that can pass the "shirt pocket" test with no problem.  The Bantam f/4.5 had managed to pass this test easily, helping to make it a frequent companion on work days, but the Retina also makes it, albeit by a smaller margin.  It is also a heavier camera than the Bantam, but not annoyingly so.  As such, it certainly has the potential to be a daily companion that doesn't add excessive heft.   

Is that a Retina in your pocket or are you just happy to.. oh never mind, bad joke - wrong pocket.

Control of the Retina is a bit trickier than the Bantam, but only slightly so.  The Retina lacks the most of the swinging dial indicators seen on the Bantam, instead having a pointed indicator above the Kodak badge for shutter speed.  One rotates a metal bezel to bring the speeds in line with this indicator.  Inside of this is a non-moving black ring, which is marked (TWICE!) with aperture values, and the user simply rotates these linked indicators to coincide with the desired aperture value.  Somewhat less intuitive is the focus ring that sits just beyond the lens board.  It also contains two scales, one of which is in feet, the other in meters.  One must rotate this ring to align the focusing distance with an unmarked while line on the same black ring that has the aperture scale.  Thankfully, this extremely compact set up takes little time to get acclimated to.  Once a user has their desired settings chosen, they cock the shutter to the right using the lever over the "B" setting, and release it using either the camera mounted release, the lens mounted release, or using a cable release that can be screwed into an opening in the black lens ring. 

The most jarring thing I discovered in my examination of the Retina was the viewfinder.  It is tiny to the point of being almost non-existent.  If I were to describe the size of it in relational terms, I would say it is the size of two uncooked grains of rice laid side by side.  It is visible in the shot below, with a regular size paper clip nearby for size comparison.  The distance between the inner coils of the paper clip appear to be more that that between the top and bottom of the viewfinder glass. Despite this, the viewfinder actually works surprisingly well.  I had no issues framing shots once I lined my eye up with this tiny piece of optical engineering.

Film advance on a Retina of this vintage is also somewhat unconventional compared to later standards used in 35mm models.  After shooting a frame, one must stroke the lever next to the viewfinder to the left once.  This advances the frame indicator and resets an interlock that then allows the winder to advance the film one frame.  All this must be done with the film direction lever set to "A" for advance.  When the film has been completed, one simply slides the film direction lever to "R" to release the tension on the film winder and then use the supply knob to rewind the exposed film back into the cartridge.

All told, I really didn't have many issues with using the Retina, despite my initial intimidation by its feature set.  The controls are generally pretty logical, and the capabilities of this small camera are outstanding.  With only modest fidgeting, I could easily figure out how to unfold and fold the camera, as well as to open the film door.  Within 10 minutes, I felt like I had the camera figured out, and set out to shoot my first roll.  Below are some of my best results, in which I tried to use the camera generally to its fullest.  Enjoy! 

My concerns of getting shots back with limited contrast and definition due to the slight haze evident in the lens quickly evaporated when I saw photos like this.  Not only is there good contrast in the shot but exceptional sharpness as well.  The cannon is perfectly defined and has great gradation on the Rollei film stock.

Though slightly overexposed, this shot works pretty well, showing off a scene at the Best Farm on the Monocacy National Battlefield.  

Shot wide open, some softness is evident in this shot, but still, the results work pretty well.  Focusing distance is roughly at the tree in the foreground. 

Shot under full sun with Retro 80S, the Retina actually yields a little bit too much contrast.  This shot works well though there is some blow out of highlights in the truck.  

The happiest of accidents occured when I failed to advance the film between a second shot of the scene above and a foreboding abandoned mansion in the next shot.  The result is this treasure that creates a really effective amalgam.  This is one of those interesting aspects that you sometimes get with analog photography. 

Shot at about 15 feet away, this shot yielded excellent detail, albeit with a big punch of contrast and blowout in the highlights.  

Taken on an overcast day, and focused on the limbs in the foreground, this image shows a very good sharpness on the fine grained Retro 80S film.  

The War Correspondents Arch at Gathland State Park as seen from the other side as the view taken on the Kodak 1A Autographic.  A little bit of dreamy haze around the top of the stonework, but expected due to pretty strong side lighting. 

Even in shade, the film and camera picked up outstanding detail, as seen here.   

Antietam National Park provided this view on a frigid Sunday morning.  The Retina rendered the elements with quite a bit of sharpness. 

More a challenge of contrasty film than a faulty camera, shadow area in this shot gets lost in darkness, but the rendering on the little Retina is certainly sharp enough!

However, the fully lit facade here still shows the marbling as well as its detail work.  The Retina made this a pretty easy shot to grab and go.

Honestly, I didn't know what to expect from the little Retina, but I can at least say in retrospect that whatever those expectations may have been, they were shattered.  The Retina was largely rather easy to use as I took it from one location to another, and having it nearby was a snap thanks to its portability.  The Ektar lens, while perhaps not as fast as the bulk of more recently made camera lenses, provided adequate speed for most shooting situations I encountered as the Retina tagged along with me, and certainly delivered sharp and pleasing shots.  

With its portability and its capabilities, this camera will certainly be a regular companion for me, particularly for having a camera along with me on my daily commute that I can reach for pretty quickly.  It seems to be free of any real issues, and continues to me to be a marvel of compact engineering.  It is perhaps the best decision I've ever made while enjoying a buzz. Cheers!