Ask ten photo-geeks to make a list of their favorite rangefinders and you’ll likely find ten pretty varied lists. We can assume that most will place the Germans at the top, the Japanese at the bottom, and there may be a few wacky Eastern Europeans thrown in for variety. But even considering the typically eclectic tastes of photographers, I’d be willing to wager that none of these lists would mention the uncommon names Kuribayashi or Petri.
But the machine I found myself holding a few weeks ago was proudly engraved with these very names; Kuribayashi and Petri, two names with which I was entirely unfamiliar. I started out with low expectations. After all, if it were any good wouldn’t I have heard of it? Reining in this sudden surge of pompous arrogance, I loaded a roll of film and started shooting.
By the end of the day, Kuribayashi’s Petri F1.9 Color Corrected Super rangefinder had won me over. This relatively uncelebrated gem from a lesser-known Japanese manufacturer, while not perfect, has enough going for it to make it worthy of any photophile’s collection.
The Kuribayashi Camera Industry, as it was known at its conception, was founded around 1907. This makes it one of the earliest camera companies to ever come from Japan. Kuribayashi would later change their name to Petri, to capitalize on consumer recognition after their Petri camera achieved great sales success.
For some time, cameras made by Petri were well-regarded and sold strongly in a crowded market. Unfortunately for the small company, they were unable to compete with the marketing and popularity of the high caliber German rangefinders (Leica’s M3 would arrive just as Petri was reaching their peak), and the incoming wave of technically superior Japanese SLRs were leaps ahead of Petri’s cameras in features and brand recognition. These factors would signal the end of Petri’s ability to compete, and the company would finally file for bankruptcy in 1977.
While they weren’t technically the best, the cameras made by Kuribayashi (and the later Petri) were made to a very high standard. This emphasis on quality construction has helped to ensure that the Petri legacy lives on. Models made over half a century ago are still working flawlessly. This longevity is a testament to the engineers and designers who strove to create these wonderful, under-appreciated machines.
The model featured here, the Petri F1.9, was produced around 1958 and existed in a series of revisions for approximately four years. What it is, is a fairly simple 35mm film rangefinder camera with a relatively fast maximum aperture and a mostly-capable leaf shutter. What’s not readily apparent by its specs, is just how nice it looks, feels, and shoots.
One of the more interesting moments while testing the camera was the discovery of a sticker on the inside of the film door. This sticker embodies everything that’s so great about experiencing vintage photography gear; the small surprises that make one pause and imagine a simpler time in which quality and reliability were more highly prized than gimmicks and trends. The words on the sticker stand as a telling reminder of the confidence Kuribayashi had in their product. Their cameras were guaranteed not to break, and if they did, Petri would fix them; no questions asked.
At the time of its release, the aesthetic of the F1.9 would have been inauspiciously typical of what the Japanese were creating in the world of rangefinders. Today, it’s a striking minimalist design made all the more exciting by contrast against the ever blander offerings in modern consumer-grade cameras. It’s practically dripping with retro-chic styling. More industrial than its German, bauhaus counterparts, it’s a serious, mechanical beast in a compact, businesslike package. This thing is slim, purposeful, and timeless.
Mechanical in looks and mechanical in nature, the Petri F1.9 is, as expected, entirely mechanical. The camera uses no batteries and there’s also no built-in light meter, which may serve as a liability to some shooters. But this also means there are no batteries to replace, no need to carry spares, and no risk of acid leaks. Most importantly, the entirely mechanical nature of the camera means there’s no old circuitry to degrade and fail as the camera ages, a common problem in vintage photography. This lack of gizmos and user aids requires the photographer to understand photography, demanding all settings be adjusted manually without assistance from electronics. This camera, like the old Leicas and many others of the era, is all about the purity and essence of photography.
The Petri F1.9 uses a 45mm f/1.9 lens featuring six elements in four groups. The aperture is a step-less affair, and runs from f/1.9 to f/16. The Copal shutter is capable of speeds from 1/500th of a second to 1 second, as well as Bulb mode. The slow maximum shutter speed may lead to difficulty using the relatively fast aperture in bright light, though lens filter threads do allow for mounting of neutral density filters. And besides, you’ll likely want to shoot this thing stopped down a bit to coax the sharpest images possible.
The “orikkor” lens gets the job done, but it lacks the sharpness that some shooters can’t live without. Even with the aperture stopped down the camera produces images that aren’t super fine when compared to some other, more expensive rangefinders. It’s not a severe malady, but photographers who need clean, razor sharp images may find themselves disappointed. It also seems that this camera’s optical coatings aren’t as good as some might be accustomed to, with flaring and ghosting being an intermittent issue.
Then again, this lack of clinical perfection has its charm. Sharpness isn’t the most important thing in the world, and the Petri lens renders things in a way that many will find ambiguously pleasing. The ten-bladed aperture helps to produce decadent bokeh, and stopped down things remain delightfully imperfect. There’s a nice, soft tone to images captured by the F1.9. Prints come back looking warmer and gentler, as if the camera sees things through the comfortable haze of memory, rather than documenting cold reality. Perhaps it’s because of this optical nebulousness that the Petri has found cult popularity among enterprising street photographers.
Ergonomically the Petri presents a very nice package. The film advance lever and shutter release button are well-positioned and offer satisfying throws. The aperture ring, shutter speed selector, and focus mechanism are all concentric rings surrounding the lens. Additional lens-mounted controls are for the flash synch speed (M and X), and self-timer mechanism. Focus actuation is nice and smooth, and appropriately short for a rangefinder. It’s easy to quickly focus in on a subject without too much trouble or wasted time.
Niggling design problems are few, but comprise a self-timer lever that is positioned in such a way as to accidentally engage, causing unexpectedly delayed shutter release. Additionally troublesome is a film rewind button that needs to be continually depressed as the film is rewound. Being careless may result in damaged film. These are small issues, and don’t affect much once the photographer has become acclimated to the machine.
The top plate includes a cold shoe, as well as a visually interesting wheel to indicate the type and speed of film loaded into the camera. The shooter sets the wheel to black-and-white or color, and then sets ISO speed for a reminder of the film in the camera.
At 680g the camera is solid, but not heavy. With full-metal construction the Petri is a robust machine that can handle abuse. This is a camera that doesn’t need to be coddled. strap lugs are solid and well-positioned to avoid the awkward swinging that’s often the result of less thoughtful designs. Its fully manual nature makes single-handed operation unlikely, though if one is so inclined, scale focusing can be used to snap some surreptitious street shots on the quick.
The rangefinder and viewfinder windows are tiny. This can lead to trouble in low-light situations. Still, frame lines are visible enough, and the rangefinder patch is deeply contrasty. If shots are out of focus it’s likely not the cameras fault. A common and easily solved issue with these cameras is that the viewfinder and rangefinder windows can easily become dirty due to their tiny, recessed openings. Simple use of a Q-tip and some rubbing alcohol will have the finder optics immediately returned to like-new brightness.
One of the most impressive facets of the Petri is the cost. Holding this machine in the hand one would expect to pay hundreds. The way the camera feels, the way it operates, and the photos it takes place it in the same class with some of the more expensive vintage machines. Certainly it’s not a Leica, but it’s also not priced like a Leica. This fantastic camera, in perfect order, will cost less than $80. This is one of the great deals of the photographic world, and it’s difficult to think of a reason to pass it over.
The F1.9 is from that exceptional class of cameras that are mechanical in the most basic sense of the word. It comes from a time when electronic technology wasn’t the dominant force in photography. Build quality often trumped everything, and Petri knew how to make them. This camera harkens back to an age when manufacturers assumed their customers would practice a certain level of expertise; the camera requires a shooter to have knowledge of what makes a good photograph, and rewards those who respect the craft and hone their abilities. For budget-conscious photographers who are looking for a manual rangefinder of impeccable quality, the Petri F1.9 is pretty close to perfect.