The Great Joys and Many Compromises of Shooting a Minox Spy Camera

The Great Joys and Many Compromises of Shooting a Minox Spy Camera

3000 1688 James Tocchio

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.

Images from the Minox aren’t as massive or detailed as ones made with a 35mm film camera. I say this only in case it’s not obvious. The negatives are tiny, the lens can flare, and depth of field is fairly massive. But images from a Minox do have a certain style, an artistic, gritty quality that hints at the best popular romantic retellings of the Cold War era.

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.

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James Tocchio

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 Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
29 comments
  • Great to see some images from this little camera. I have one in my sub-miniature camera collection, but I’ve never used it. I was more at home with the larger negs from my 16mm cameras. It does feel extraordinary in one’s hand something, perhaps, to do with its all rounded edges, heft, and diminutive size.
    The history lesson is not a problem for me. Visiting many military cemeteries in France and Belgium, one cannot overlook the “Lest we Forget” found on many headstones. If we do, history is sure to repeat itself.

  • Really interesting review. It’s articles like this that I like to see, weird and wonderful and slightly unusual cameras, that make me come to this site. Also despite what some readers may say i.e. “I’ve had some readers tell me that they don’t like this sort of historical context included in the articles on Casual Photophile.” Please don’t stop doing exactly that, historical context is incredibly important when it comes to telling the story of anything, it reminds us that the world changes, people evolve and that the world we see through our eyes when we handle one of theses cameras has not only changed but that we’re incredibly lucky to live in such a time. Plus it would do a huge disservice to the brilliant minds who came up with such items.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Thanks for the excellent review and the historical context.
    You may want to check out the Rollei A110. Super high quality 110 camera (!) with a Tessar lens. Perhaps the most expensive 110 camera made.
    About the same size as the Minox, but with a bigger negative. Zone focusing lens, AE exposure with a SPD cell. And it takes currently available batteries!
    I like mine so much I bought a spare!

    • I agree, the Rollei A110 is a beautifully made camera, and its somewhat boxy shape is quite appealing, too, with its rounded edges. And, yes, it does have a larger image area, 17x14mm compared to the Minox 11x8mm, but the fact is it is still far too small for quality imaging, despite the engineering behind it. The 110 format was dumbed down for a gullible public and those not really interested in photography. Despite this, some manufacturers made cameras that, technically, far outstretched the capability of the format. The A110 is one, others being the Pentax 110 and Minolta slrs, and the brick shaped Canon with its f2 lens and coupled rangefinder. Some of the top end Agfa’s are high quality, too, with the 4 element Solinar lens, although they seem less robustly made.

      But providing one can source the relevant film cassette, more fun can be had with true 16mm cameras, as 16mm film in bulk lengths is still available, and invariably these cameras are either manual, or can set a proper ISO for the film being used and which invariably can’t be done with 110 cameras.

  • For those in Europe, Paul o”Sullivan at MS Hobbies https://mshobbies.co.uk keeps a wide variety of Minox films, both B&W and colour. He also processes, scans and prints. I have dealt with Paul for many years and he provides a first class service. He also sells Minox cameras from time to time.

    For those using Minox C cameras, I believe the exposure control circuitry in these does not include a voltage regulator, so to mimic the voltage of the now unobtainable PX27 5.6V mercury batteries, you need a PX27 replacer with a voltage regulator circuit to use 4 x SR44 or SR43 (there are different varieties of adapter) silver oxide button cells. Beware – there are some unscrupulous far eastern sellers offering these on eBay and Amazon Market but they have no regulator, unlike what they advertise. I have been given to understand that the later TL and TLX cameras are voltage regulated and can use an unregulated adapter but I would check with someone like Paul o’Sullivan or the Minox Historical Society on this, as if there is no regulator in the camera, you will get incorrect exposures. I have only used my Minox C cameras in recent years, so always use a Small Battery Company Ltd PX27 regulated replacer.

    If you are considering getting a Minox Digital either the 8 x 11 clone or the Leica/Contax Classic digital – don’t bother! The image quality is like that of a 12 year old mobile phone or even worse. They are complete rubbish. The lenses are totally different to the very sophisticated lens in the “proper” 8 x 11mm film cameras and are junk that make Lomography lenses look like Leica.

    Wilson

    • Indeed, Paul is a proper gentleman. He is ever so kind in answering your questions, and prompt too. I have had a Minox B for less than a year. I met up with him in London and dropped off some film and bought some more. He ships to Australia which is a bonus. And he also sells and develops Disc film. Excellent service!

  • I have one of these I’ve been putting off buying film for because of the price. This article will probably push me over the edge. You noted that you can get 50 exposures to a cassette, but all the blue moon films seem to be 36 exp. do you have another source for 50 exp. cassettes?

    • I’ve got about twenty original rolls from about two decades ago, but yeah I think BMC spools are 36 exposures only these days.

  • I have a minox b that I bought with xmas money one year. it came with the little flashgun attachment, cases, boxes and manuals too the only catch is after sitting for so long I think the shutter may be jammed. I only had film in it one time and the images were really cool. I actually vaguely remember bhphotovideo still sold mailers and film maybe only 10 years ago. maybe a little longer but I remember it.

  • Great article James, I personally like the historical part, as you probably already know. I have a few subminiature cameras myself, and only just receive some spliced film to use. After reading this, I am really looking forward to having some fun prentending to be a spy!

  • Great article.
    The thing to add to your article is the chain… the holding chain. It has notches. Facilitates focusing onto documents or subjects at a close distance.

    • This was mentioned.

      • I over looked at the article. I will correct myself. My apologies. The flaws of fast reading.

        “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.”

        Thank you

  • I have a B and it’s a prized possession. Thank you for putting up the picture of Walter Zapp. Also the historical notes about Latvia, the Nazis and Russians. I’m really pleased Walter had a long life, he was a remarkable man.

  • The expense related to film is easily overcome through a bit of patience, and practice. All one needs is a dark bag, a pull through slitter, and a roll, any roll, of 35mm film. One can slit a roll of 35 mm film, cut the two rendered strips into 2, each, strips of thirty six exposure lengths and one 24 exposure length (rendering a total of four 36 exposure lengths and two 24 exposure lengths) of minox size film strips. The individual lengths of film are then rolled up individually and stored in the film canister ( if it is black, i..e. not a fuji or kodak canister) that previously contained the 35mm roll. Once this has been done, the individual strips can be, as needed, manually rolled and loaded into the Minox film cassettes with nothing more than your fingers. Once the roll has been installed in the film storage side of the cassette and storage chamber cap installed, the entire thing, leader extending from the now filled storage side of the cassette, can be withdrawn from the dark bag, allowing you to- in full daylight- attach the film leader to the cassette take up spool with a piece of scotch tape, install the now attached spool into the take-up chamber of the film cassette. I, using thing tape, take the measure of then securely taping the cassette film chamber caps into place. The filled cassette is now ready to go into the camera.

    Once you have done this a few times it is really no more bother than loading an exposed roll of 35mm film into a processing reel. it is a breeze, requiring no more manual dexterity than what it takes to load the 35mm film into the reel.

    One the processing:

    Nikor used to make stanless reels for processing Minox film. the Nikor reels occasionally show up on Ebay for around $20.00. I have had better luck with the Nikor reels.

    Additionally, use of the Nikor reel avoids submerging the entire casssette in fluid (Minox processing tank) which saturates the cassette light trap felt in water and processing chemistry……..Which extends the re-usability of the cassettes.

    Go for it.

    • As for home processing, if you have any developing tank (I use a standard stainless Nikkor) that can accommodate a cardboard middle from a used roll of 2” packing tape, that’s all you need. Just protect the outside cardboard from liquid with a single wrap of tape, then in the dark attach one end of the Minox film, emulsion out, to one end of the outside of the tape roll. Keep winding the film in a spiral (barber-pole style), and tape the other end down when you get to the end. Process in the tank as you would with any other spiral, and then toss the cardboard roll when done. The roll doesn’t absorb much of the chemicals at all, nor fall apart. It works fantastically well. I have been doing this for decades with no problems. I do the same with short 16mm film as well – b&w or color, etc.

  • Thank you for the great review! I loved the historical background, kudos to you for putting this little jewel (I own two, an Imperial and a Metric distance scale model) into a human and historical context.

  • While the review is good, that line made me cringe:
    “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”
    It sounds like almost implying that 25+mln of Soviet people killed by Nazis were of no importance and could not potentially create something similar were they alive.

    • I don’t agree with you at all. The entire point of that paragraph was to remind us that the millions of people you referenced were not as lucky as Walter Zapp in escaping that terrible fate.

  • After more than 35 years I’m dipping my toes into Minox photography again. Back then Minox processing was readily available, as was the film. Once returned, I received a set of prints, while the negs were cut into strips and returned in a single transparent plastic card, along with a contact sheet, and at a relatively affordable price. Today there appears to be only one firm that provides developing and printing: Blue Moon in Portland OR. Film costs $20/roll and I just bought a coupon for prints at $40, and that was a one-time sale price. Add in shipping, both to them, and for the returned prints, just shooting one roll costs a fortune. This doesn’t include the cost of batteries needed for electronic Minoxes and flashes. But I’m set to go and shoot sparingly so as not to waste a single frame, unlike when shooting digitally where each shot costs nothing to make, easily allowing for 250 shots before recharging the camera and downloading the shots to my computer. Before I decide if to continue shooting with any of my four different model Minoxes, I want to see the results of my efforts. Then I’ll decide if my little jewels will get further workouts, or will remain in storage, never to be used again!

  • what is the 35mm equivalent of the minox 15mm complan lens? it appears to be a little longer than a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera.

  • The film is not hard to make one 35mm film makes four 8×11 the cassettes are becoming hard to buy but Jimmy makes them in brass well worth buying a dark bag and a film slitter and sticky tape is all you require films cost when making your own £2.50 and the developer about the same.

  • Avatar
    Paul O’Sullivan April 26, 2020 at 12:52 pm

    In 2020, we (M.S Hobbies Limited have designed a new aluminium reusable cassette for Minox A,B, EC and early Minox C cameras. We have a prototype and are testing. If there is enough interest from customers, we may start production this year.

  • great write up! really enjoyed the whole piece

  • Damn, this is very sleek. Such a beauty, I thought it was 110mm film cartridges.

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James Tocchio

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 Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio