The Alpa 10D – Hand-Made Mechanical 35mm Film SLR from Switzerland

The Alpa 10D – Hand-Made Mechanical 35mm Film SLR from Switzerland

2200 1238 James Tocchio

I’ve been shooting an Alpa 10d for a year now, and every camera geek I’ve shown it to has asked the same question. “What’s that?”

This is no great surprise. Today Alpa makes cameras that are extremely niche; highly specialized products that the Swiss brand describes as “precision tools, made with passion and skilled craftsmanship for a small group of connoisseurs.” Even during the 1960s and ’70s, a time when Alpa was building more easily recognizable cameras, most people hadn’t heard of them. Alpas were hand-crafted machines paired with premium optics from some of the best lens-makers in the world. They were often built to order, and this exclusivity brought with it a price that placed Alpa cameras out of the reach of most shooters.

The 10d is among the last truly classic Alpas (after the 10d and 11, Alpas were Japanese-made Chinon cameras of lower quality, with a new lens mount that failed to capitalize on the premium optics of earlier Alpas), and it’s a focused and quintessential Alpa. Its spec sheet is modest, but its execution is incredible.

The all-manual, 35mm film SLR uses a horizontally-traveling cloth shutter capable of speeds from 1/1000th of a second down to 1 second, with bulb mode available for long exposures. It features a metering system employing three CdS cells (one that compensates for light entering through the viewfinder), and this reading is displayed via swing-needle readouts both on the top of the camera body and within the fixed-prism viewfinder. It’s got depth-of-field preview, flash sync at 1/60th of a second, gold-plated electrical contacts, a precise bayonet lens mount, and a tripod socket.

All of that doesn’t read as being much different from a Pentax K1000, right? But spec sheets don’t tell the whole story.

Over-engineered in nearly every way, the Alpa 10d is deliberately robust and incomparably precise. It’s also delightfully peculiar.

Take, for example, the 10d’s film rewind mechanism, a component so unique that Alpa felt the need to give it a name. This “high speed parallelogram rewind crank” was made in an era where nearly every camera in the world used one of two generally identical mechanisms (a flippy crank that extends from a circular knob, or a knurled knob with no crank). Not good enough. The Alpa’s rewind mechanism instead pulls vertically from the camera body by a generous 1.25 inches, where it’s supported by two rigid, metal posts that pivot to create leverage unmatched by any other camera.

Is this necessary? Not in the least. Is it a true selling point? Not really. Is it interesting and appreciated? Certainly, by those of us who are real camera nerds or enthusiasts for anything mechanical.

And this camera is very mechanical, indeed. Made of hearty chunks of brass and steel, the only plastic to be found is in parts of the film take-up spool, and even this is overbuilt. The Alpa’s innards are among the most industrial I’ve seen in a camera, with fasteners and screws that are easily four times as large as any I’ve seen in a Nikon camera, and a gleaming film transport spindle that’s so beautiful I want to frame it. There’s even an engrave-able brass plaque on the top of the machine to receive the owner’s initials.

Equally interesting and hearty is the camera’s film advance lever. This large chunk of milled metal is positioned unusually and employs a similarly unusual methodology. Extended forward from the camera body, it’s actuated via the shooter’s index finger rather than the thumb. This isn’t entirely unique in the world of vintage cameras; Nikon’s Nikonos III (to name just one) uses a similar type of advance lever. But this design choice is uncommon enough (and some would say, annoying enough) to be noteworthy.

The advance lever’s action offers pronounced resistance not found in most other SLRs of the era. But if advancing the film (which also cocks the shutter and advances the film frame counter) is a workout for the digits, it’s at least a quick workout due to its incredibly short throw of just 160 degrees.

Shutter release is achieved via a front-mounted button, again eschewing the typical design of most traditional SLRs, which have their shutter releases placed on their top plate. This button is like the rest of the camera’s controls, deliberate and intense. Pressing it requires unusual (though not prohibitive) force. The halfway mark of its action stops down the lens’ aperture and activates the camera’s metering system. Once adjustments are made to shutter speed or aperture to achieve a correct exposure, a full press flips the mirror and triggers the shutter. It’s even possible with a very precise hand to press the release to a midpoint between stop-down and release in which the mirror flips up but the shutter doesn’t release. This eliminates mirror-slap vibration, helpful when shooting long telephoto lenses.

All of these odd control positions and the extreme robustness of the camera’s components results in a machine with sometimes strange and punishing ergonomics. Buttons, levers, and dials all require more exertion to actuate than those found on cameras from Nikon, Leica, or Rollei, brands that are commonly lauded for their high build standard. Things with the Alpa aren’t so intense as to ever become uncomfortable or annoying, but there will be an adjustment period for anyone who’s never experienced these quirky, Swiss cameras.

Once this adjustment is made, however, things start happening in a beautiful and directed way.

Shooting a 10d is a wonderful experience. Like driving a forty-year-old sports car, it lacks much of the nonsense that clutters cameras made yesterday or even film machines made in the seventies and on. There are no gimmicks, no tricks, no annoying function locks or unnecessary flourishes. It’s a basic camera made to an incredibly high standard.

But it’s not a fast camera. It’s a deliberate and thoughtful machine that rewards shooters who possess (or train themselves to possess) a steady hand and a careful eye. This is easily exemplified in the previously-mentioned shutter release button. This isn’t a camera that ignites LED displays and metering systems with a feather-light finger placed on a touch-sensitive release button. It’s a camera that requires you to remember with every shot, “Okay, squeeze slowly, slowly, hold steady, don’t move.”

This will irritate those who’re used to blasting away with a Contax G2 or the latest Sony A. But for those shooters who want to hear their camera click and ratchet and feel their camera fire, there’s no better machine.

Alpa sourced its lenses from some of the best lens makers in the world. Kern, Kinoptik, Schneider, and Zeiss, among others, produced lenses for Alpa cameras. These were rigorously scrutinized, the result being that only the finest lenses could be fitted to an Alpa. Some of these lenses, such as the apochromat Kinoptik and the more common Kern-Macro-Switar, are legendary even today for their incredible rendering and unique character.

Shots in the gallery below were made with the Kern Switar 50/1.8 AR, using Ferrania P30 and Fuji Superia 1600.

But not all is blissful. The 10d’s viewfinder is a bit dim, and focus can be something of a pain in certain situations where the diagonal split-image focusing aid isn’t well-suited. Additionally annoying is the fact that the ISO control is poorly designed as a built-in control within the shutter speed selector dial.

We adjust the set ISO by very slightly pressing down on the shutter speed dial and twisting. This changes the ISO without changing the selected shutter speed. Which is great. Except that the amount of necessary force to adjust the ISO is very light. Which means that every time I wanted to change shutter speed I had to consciously remind myself to grip the dial with finger and thumb, lift slightly, and then twist, otherwise the dial would simply spin to a different ISO without changing shutter speed.

Another irksome development is that the 10d was originally powered by a now-discontinued battery. This forces shooters today (who want to use the camera’s meter) to hunt down an adapter. This isn’t as difficult as, say, ascending an alp, but it is another small barrier to ownership that may discourage some. Luckily, the camera fires just fine without battery power.

It’s also hard to ignore the fact that the Alpa 10d is a very heavy camera. While comparable in heft to something like Leica’s Leicaflex, it’s easily bested in portability by smaller SLRs from Olympus, Pentax, and Minolta. The 10d is thick and chunky, and made out of giant slabs of metal, and for travelers or shooters who need a compact camera, this is not the right machine.

And lastly, Alpas are expensive. Built originally by hand and in small quantities, they’ve become something of a rarity, and it can be a challenge (both logistically and financially) to acquire one or have one repaired. This has largely relegated the Alpa brand to collector circles and auction brochures. Which is a shame, because these cameras are a real joy to shoot.

There are few camera that feel as impressive as a classic Alpa. Though their ergonomics can be challenging at first, the quality of their build and the brand’s rich history make working through this challenge a worthwhile task. World-class lenses that render in a unique and pleasing way make an even more convincing argument for splurging on a classic Alpa.

With its incredible build quality, simple operation, and lower-than-most-Alpas price point, the 10d is a great Alpa to own.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • Nothing in this world would force me to use this item. Aye, it’s something unique (quite often the only thing the film camera actually needs to stand out), but it is also hideous and ergonomics look questionable. My hands are already used to something else. Sorry.

    • I have a 9d that has seen so much action that there is practically a groove through the film pressure plate, and it is still as accurate and as reliable as any camera I’ve ever owned. The ergonomics are actually very easy to get used to and it takes magnificent photos. The 9d is probably much lighter than the 10d going just by looks, and I absolutely love shooting it. The 10d does look pretty clunky by comparison. But what a great piece of engineering!

      • Vince: many thanks for your most helpful reply. I’m currently considering the purchase of a 9F, same as yours but sans meter. If your camera has had so much use and wear but continues in service, that’s some recommendation. Now some years back, when in a Peak District town walking along the river bank, carrying my trusty Rolleicord Va, a lady on a bench piped up “excuse me, is that a box brownie?” Now if I were carrying an Alpa 9F , what would same lady say this time: “excuse me, is that a Praktica?”

        • Well mine is also sans meter so we would basically have the same camera!

          I have the 50, 90 and 180mm lenses, and the images they create have a special warmth and tonal range that is truly beautiful. If you get that camera and it’s in good working condition I think you’ll love it. Like I said they seem so very well made as to be almost infallible aside from the built in meter, which was a fairly new technology back then. The action of the film winder and the shutter are unlike any other camera out there in their design and function and are delivered with accuracy that reflects the camera’s reliability, all thanks no doubt to some high level Swiss engineering and manufacturing standards.

          As for the lady next to you, if she even knows what a Praktica is she may just be worth striking up a conversation with!

    • Wow, Michael you need to get out more.
      These cameras are works of art, built like tanks and have some of the best optics available.

  • For the first time I saw this camera my thought were a little like
    Wow just another ugly and overpriced easteurope looking camera
    Till I hold one in my hands and was surprised by the outstanding build and exact working mechanics
    Swiss Made like Sinar and Bolex it is a Perfect Tool made to work for decades without any fails or problems
    Kern Switar lenses are known for their quality and I would say on the same level as Leica or Zeiss

  • William Sommerwerck March 21, 2018 at 10:10 am

    I’m over 70, and well-remember reviews of the Alpa in Modern Photography. (I’ll refrain from the obvious wordplay.) It has never been a camera that appealed to me, At the risk of being unkind, I have to say that a badly underexposed photo of a backlit subject does not enhance the reputation of a camera that’s supposed to reward thoughtful photography.

    Modern DSLRs are not unlike the Alpa, in that they sometimes require multiple parameter adjustments to force the camera to give you the kind of picture you want.

    • I don’t think the badly underexposed image nullifies the opinion that the camera rewards thoughtful photography. Actually, I think it reinforces that assertion, since the shot in question was made in approximately two seconds while my wife was packing our second kid into the stroller. Shooting an ISO 80 film was limiting, the light was challenging (note the blown highlights), and I’ve never been a very good photographer. If I’d thought a bit more, perhaps I’d have gotten her to turn the other way, but kids are seldom so malleable.

    • I LOVE that photo. It was the first one that caught my eye, and short of HDR tricks or flash (yuck) you’re never going to get a perfect exposure out of that shot anyhow. I’d say James nailed it, and I love the highlights in the fuzzy hat and the fact that you can still make out her face while also getting a good feel for the background setting without it being all blown out as it would be with more exposure.

    • My sentiments exactly, regarding the photographs.
      I’m reading the review of the camera, and I’m thinking “Wow, cool, another precision machine!”
      Then I look at the sample photos included…. badly exposed (either over- or underexposed), out-of-focus…. they honestly look like they came from a disposable film camera.
      So Alpa is a hard pass for me.

      • To be fair to the camera, I occasionally just have bad days when I can’t take a good photo. I admit that the poor sample photos in some of my reviews are personal failures, not equipment failures. Blame me, I guess, is what I’m saying. When another Alpa comes through the shop I’ll be sure to give it another try and update the article at that time.

        • Ich besitze ein Alpa 10 d mit Kern Macro Switar. Den Umbau für die Batterie hat mir ein Mechaniker, welcher nach dem Konkurs der Firma ALPA Pignons SA sich auf Reparaturen dieser Modelle spezialisiert hatte, vorgenommen.

          Nun möchte ich die Kamera verkaufen. Selten gebraucht!

  • I agree that whilst each individual element appears beautifully crafted the overall impression is pretty ugly. Still I love that Alpa have such faith in film and craftsmenship. Good for them!

  • Per Kristoffersson March 22, 2018 at 2:48 am

    That rewind crank… Minolta reused that design on the 9000AF. Very cool. Does this one also act as the rear door release?

    • It doesn’t. Alpa has a release knob similar to Leica on the bottom, but only one, in the middle. That piece also has a tripod mount.

  • The Alpa kinda reminds me of the Reflex camera on the kickstarter campaign. Or is it the other way round?
    It also makes me think of my Zenit 12SD for some reason (updated version of the TTL). Talk about two complete opposites on the economic spectrum!

    Alpa vs Zenit. A to Z. Do the shootout!

  • I have more than forty cameras of all types and from all eras, and my battered Alpa 11si — found in a London camera shop after decades of searching — is far and away my favorite. The f/1.9 Kern-Macro-Switar is a big part of the reason why, but I also love its lumbering, ungainly, stubbornly idiosyncratic charm. Nice review.

  • I used to sell them, back in the late 1960s to early 1970s. Wonderful cameras, but Leicaflex owners had more lenses to choose from.

  • HI

  • Even more interesting was the Alpa 8 with a 45 degree reflex finder PLUS a separate single eyepiece finder with an RF focusing patch and 3 selectable magnification views by simply turning a small wheel near the eyepiece. Each magnification also had a unique tint to differentiate magnification for a corresponding lens since there was no auto frame indexing. No parallax correction marks in the optical finder since it can be checked by simply looking through the reflex finder. The front small RF windows are located at the top plate and base as opposed to the top left and right. Magnificently ambitious and idiosyncratic to the nth degree, it was quite an interesting camera in it’s approach and is a camera geeks dream. Obviously, the lenses had to have a focusing cam to use both of these features so it limits potential lens availability to just a handful. I saw one once many years ago at camera fair or antique show and it left quite an impression from an engineering standpoint. If you ever find one in decent condition, buy it if you are a collector of rare cameras.

  • The Alpa Model 7 is similar to the rarer Model 8 described above except the 8 has a split image focussing aid in the reflex finder. Just like the Leica M2, the auxiliary finder accommodates Alpa mount 35, 50 and 90 mm lenses.

  • Correction about comment on the Model 7 or 8, the auxiliary finder only RF couples to the 50 mm lens. The other selectable focal length are 90 and 135. The RF patch disappears when the 50 is removed and it acts as a simple sports finder showing the approximate framing for the 90 and 135. Focusing and precise framing is performed through the reflex eyepiece. Given that the crown jewel of the Alpa system was their 50, the set up is not surprising.

  • Purchaed one for 350 in the late 70’s – loved the lenses couldn’t get on with the wind on and shutter release – sold it for a handsom profit – so its a thumbs up for Alpa – (big smile) – Ian

  • I’ve always wanted an Alpa ever since I saw one in 1974. I think it’s the most beautiful slr ever made. I haven’t taken any photos with one, but handled a couple in camera stores. The feeling of quality is evident to anyone who has picked one up. I agree with the review here that part of its charms is its peculiarities, such as the film wind, rewind, and shutter button. The camera and most lenses made for it are very expensive, but you can get an adapter to use Pentax thread-mount lenses on it, so that would make many inexpensive lenses available. The last Alpa 35mm cameras were made in 1989 and the last model was the Alpa 11si.

  • Dark alley, dodgy geezer, says “wanna score an Alpa 9f. One toke on this baby and you will never go back.” I say “my good Sir my fingers are unsullied by any thing but the purity of a Contarex” . “Aw common just a little go, a click and a wind , what harm can it do?” So I now have an Alpa 9f . Its an addictive camera all those weird things like the forward facing wind lever, after a shot or two feel smooth and normal, and that Macro Switar lens is one of the all time Leica , Zeiss rivalling greats. In terms of using joy more than equal to a Leicaflex or a Contarex, and in terms of walk around coolth unbeatable. Seriously Alpas are great cameras……oh you want to take pictures get an F6.

  • Amazing cameras. Compared to other classic cameras, I have seen more broken than working ones.

  • I remember Alpa’s advertising from the 70’s and have held a few over the years but never owned one as I enjoy Leica rangefinders to reflex cameras generally. With that said, I recently purchased a second-generation Alpa (from the new Alpa company) for medium format photography and while virtually everything about my Alpa 12 S/WA is different from the original Alpa, quality, precision engineering and superb lenses remain the hallmark of the brand. If you are in New York and want to look at a 12 S/WA for a follow-up review let me know.

  • Multiple phots exhibit lens flare. Were you not using a lens hood?

  • Too much expensive for what if gives. Much better a Leica, Rollei or a Nikon film camera!

  • Where can I get one restored? And get the adaptor for the battery?

  • I have 5 Alpa’s at the moment, and I’m sure I’ll have a few more as time goes by.
    These are some of the best and well made cameras ever to exist.

    • Bob Gorlow, you don’t say where you are. However, a classic camera dealer in London, Peter Loy, has a 5 and a 10f with three or four lenses in at the time of writing. He might have suggestions. In the USA, DAG and Sherry Krauter both work on the Leicaflex so I’d certainly make tentative enquiries. I’m a big fan of the original Leicaflex and the Leica M3 so wouldn’t consider an Alpa, purely because I went into the Leicaflex a few years ago and my boyfriend sold my Nikon F/F2 gear off for me. Best of luck with getting your cameras repaired.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio