The Minox spy camera is a near-perfect analog to the romantic myth of the charming spy. The idea of this tiny film camera is one of sophistication and luxurious style. But like the fictitious spooks of novels and films that people have loved for more than half a century, the idea is sexier than reality. The truth of spying is poring over paperwork and tedious meetings, not car chases and casinos. And shooting a Minox in real life is more compromise and conundrum than elegant exposures.
But that’s not to say that owning and shooting a Minox camera (in my case, a Minox B made in Germany) is without its share of joys. It’s a really fun camera to use. I’ve owned my Minox for about three years now, and I’d never sell this unique and historically important camera. But let’s also be clear – making great images with a Minox spy camera can be as prickly as running a thirteen hour SDR, in Moscow, in January.
What is a Minox Spy Camera
Okay, I’ve leaned pretty hard into the spy narrative here. But maybe that’s not entirely fair to the Minox subminiature camera, as it’s officially known (the “spy camera” nomenclature came about unintentionally when the tinier-than-most Minox camera was picked up by various intelligence services the world over). Earned reputation or no, today it’s hard to think of the Minox without imagining a shadowy hat snapping pilfered documents in a darkened, upstairs office during an embassy dinner.
But before the camera became a standard tool of Cold War intelligence services, and well before it appeared in the Bond flick On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the Minox was impressing photo geeks with its incredible compactness and jewel-like build quality.
The Minox B that I own is the most popular and plentiful Minox subminiature camera ever made. It’s a tiny, aluminum-bodied machine made to fit in the closed palm of any photographer. At just 98 x 27 x 15mm, it’s about the size of a cheap cigarette lighter. It exposes film through a 15mm F/3.5 high-quality lens that’s capable of making extremely detailed images on impossibly small negatives.
Its general functionality is the same as any Minox – open it up, insert the proprietary Minox film cartridge, close it and shoot. The plunging action of closing and opening the entirely mechanical camera advances the film to the next frame and cocks the shutter. Fifty exposures (8 x 11mm frames) can be made on a single roll of film.
Settings are controlled via two dials on the top, one for shutter speed, and the other for focus distance. Shutter release is handled via a tiny button on the top of the camera, and there are two built-in filters (green and neutral density) to improve contrast and allow shooting outdoors when sensitive film is loaded.
Shutter speeds range from a slow speed of 1/2 second to a high speed of 1/1000th of a second, with Bulb mode for long exposures. Focusing requires use of scale focus – guess our distance to subject and set the dial to the appropriate number. Parallax compensation occurs automatically as the focus dial is turned. The minimum focus distance is 20cm (eight inches), impressively close, and the accessory chain attachment has metal markers on its length that correspond with the distances marked on the focus dial. The entire length of the chain is 60cm, and when shooting at this distance a standard A4-sized document fits perfectly within the viewfinder’s frame.
The Minox subminiature camera is an incredibly sophisticated machine, a marvel of old-world ingenuity. It’s beautiful, and useful, and smart. It’s a gorgeous gadget that forces us to turn it over and over in our hands and ask, “How’d they come up with this?”
The man who made the Minox
The Minox camera was invented by Walter Zapp, a Baltic German born in Riga, Latvia in 1905. Zapp began developing his subminiature camera in 1932 while living in Estonia, first producing models made out of wood, and later a functional prototype in 1936. By 1937 he’d signed a development and production agreement with the Latvian VEF (Valsts Elektrotehniskā Fabrika, State Electrotechnical Factory), and in 1938 his Minox camera entered production, quickly becoming a must-have luxury item. VEF produced some 17,000 Minox cameras before world events would force a change.
In 1939, representatives from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a secret agreement known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, a document that promised non-aggression and delineated spheres of influence between the two powers. Critical to our story of the Minox, it was agreed in this document that Latvia and Estonia would fall under Soviet control. Walter Zapp was suddenly a minority ethnic German living in a Soviet-occupied territory.
Upon the insistence of Adolf Hitler, the transfer of all ethnic Germans living in Estonia and Latvia to areas under German military control was to begin at once. The first round of these population transfers occurred in 1939 and carried into 1940. Under this program, Ethnic Germans like Walter Zapp would be compensated for their lost belongings and property, and resettled in Nazi-annexed Poland. This program, headed by the thoroughly deplorable Heinrich Himmler, was designed to Germanize the territories that the Nazi’s had recently (and illegally) annexed. Resettled Baltic Germans would inherit the vacant homes of Poles and Jews whom the Nazi’s had arrested and deported months earlier.
Walter Zapp did not answer Hitler’s call to return to Nazi Germany or its new territories.
In the following year, 1941, Hitler once again decreed that all ethnic Germans living in Soviet-controlled areas should return to the Reich. He established another resettlement program to encourage this. At the same time, Soviet forces had been busy arresting ethnic Baltic Germans who had remained in Estonia and Latvia, en masse. It was becoming more and more common for Baltic Germans to be summarily executed or sent to gulags in Siberia. Those who managed to escape back to the Reich were often greeted with intense suspicion, treated as traitors, and sent to German filtration camps. If they weren’t already, by 1941 ethnic Germans living in Soviet territories, like Walter Zapp, were now decidedly anxious for their safety. Many finally decided it was time to flee.
In early 1941, Walter Zapp (along with about 17,000 other Baltic Germans) abandoned his home, his business, and his country, and moved to Berlin, Germany.
Two months later, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact would disintegrate with the commencement of Operation Barbarossa, a Nazi military operation that began with the invasion of the Soviet-controlled areas of Poland and continued well beyond.
For the duration of World War II, Walter Zapp was occupied with the development of electron microscopy at AEG (Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft AG, General electricity company) in Berlin. Immediately after the war, he founded the Minox GmbH in Wetzlar, Germany. This company would produce the new iteration of his Minox camera beginning in 1948 (this company still exists, coincidentally, and produces optical and photographic equipment).
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Walter Zapp continued to improve his subminiature camera design, adding to the more than eighty patents issued in twenty-four countries that he earned while working with the VEF factory. His final invention was the Minox T8 Pocket Telescope in the 1990s.
Walter Zapp died in 2003, aged 97, in Binningen, Switzerland.
I’ve had some readers tell me that they don’t like this sort of historical context included in the articles on Casual Photophile. Some people want to read camera and lens reviews, and not be weighed down by the brutal world in which some of these cameras were conceived. If you’re one of those people who only cares about cameras, I apologize and offer a suggestion. Imagine how many cameras would’ve been invented had their inventors not been killed between 1939 and 1945. Imagine how many unmade lenses I’d be able to write about. Imagine the fun things we’d all have if people stopped warring.
Walter Zapp didn’t die in a camp in Siberia, the standard penalty for the crime of having an ethnic background different from that of his would-be executioners. But many other people did, and I don’t mind writing at least a paragraph or two for those people.
Shooting, developing, and living with a Minox in 2018
In the real world of 2018, loving a Minox B is both a pleasure and a chore. There’s no other machine quite like it in feel and function, which means that owning and shooting one is a truly unique experience. But this also means that buying film, developing film, and scanning the negatives made by a Minox are tasks that are far from simple (though with effort and cash, these hurdles can be cleared).
First, we’ll need film, and the best place to buy it is from Blue Moon Camera in Portland, Oregon. It’s not cheap, but approximately twenty bucks will get us thirty-six shots on hand-spooled black-and-white or color film (they even occasionally produce special runs of interesting emulsions, like Lomochrome Purple). Once our shipment of film has arrived, it’s time to load up the cartridge and make some images.
Shooting the Minox is fun. Slick and dense, the camera is weighty and precise like a mechanical watch. The action of opening and closing the body to advance the film and cock the shutter is delightfully mechanical (but beware, the film advances whether an exposure is made or not – later cameras fixed this). The settings dials rotate with a perfect resistance that just feels right. Shutter release is smooth and silent, with virtually no noise or vibration carrying through the camera. In loud environments, it’s difficult to confirm whether an exposure has been made or not (there’s a visual marker on the shutter that indicates whether it’s cocked or fired).
My Minox B’s built-in selenium light meter still works (and its honeycomb pattern is a visual delight for those of us who get excited about finely made things), but I tend to ignore it and simply meter by eye.
Sample shot in the gallery below were made by Stephen Byrne, published with permission.
Once we’ve blasted through fifty exposures, it’s time to develop and scan. The easiest way to do this is to send the exposed film back to Blue Moon Camera. Their expert lab techs are the most experienced Minox processors I’ve worked with, and while this is once again not an inexpensive proposition, the results are as good as we’ll find. Scans from BMC are accurate and detailed.
Alternatively, these tasks can be accomplished at home. The best way to do this is to hunt down one of the original Minox daylight developing tanks. I have one, and I love it. An ingenious design perfectly executed, the tank is as wonderfully niche and as cleverly made as the Minox camera itself. Operation is simple – attach the end of the negative strip to the base of the tank spiral, seal it up, pour in development chemicals and agitate by plunging the included Minox thermometer up and down. A short time later, we’re rewarded with a tiny strip of properly exposed negatives.
Digitization of the negatives is the next challenge. I use a pretty obtuse setup, and I’m sure there are better ways to scan these negs. For me, this works – I use a Sony a7II fitted with a macro bellows attachment and a slide copying stand. A square of slide glass holds the negative flat, a soft box lights the frame from the opposite side, and the macro bellows and 50mm lens ensures I get shots that are detailed enough to see the film’s grain at full resolution. Good enough.
A pal of mine, Stephen Byrne, shoots a Minox camera and he found his own fix for the problem of scanning. After originally buying a 3D-printed Minox Epson film holder and finding that that solution wasn’t a solution at all (the film wouldn’t stay properly flat), he came up with his own idea. A piece of non-glare museum glass cut to fit an Epson V700 secures the negatives flat onto the scanner bed. Problem solved.
Overcoming the many challenges of shooting a Minox isn’t so painful. Yes, even photo geeks currently shooting and home-developing 35mm film will have to buy some new gear. And scanning brings its own unique set of hurdles to overcome, if we’re not willing to pay someone else to do the work.
But even so, occasionally shooting a Minox is worth the trouble. It’s not going to replace a 35mm film rangefinder or a new mirrorless Nikon, but neither of those machines will replace the Minox either. It’s a totally unique camera, and for me, that’s what this hobby is all about.