The irony of bringing a Kodak Retina to Kodak’s home city of Rochester, New York is that this particular Kodak camera has only a tentative tie to the city in which the bulk of Kodak’s manufacturing took place. The entire Retina line was designed and produced by Kodak AG in Stuttgart, Germany, not in Rochester. Knowing this, I felt a funny sense of purpose as I drove around the city looking for interesting things to shoot with the Retina. I wanted to show it where the Kodak Company came from, to bring it to its ancestral home and explore the city together.
I discovered the Kodak Retina later than most people – more than 65 years later, in fact. In early 2016, a friend and I trekked about two hours south of where we lived to a tiny shop in southern Vermont looking to expand our camera arsenals. We found walls lined with classics, all priced to sell. I had very little experience with cameras, having only started shooting film a few months before. I had no idea what I was looking for. Then I saw it. The Kodak Retina IIIc unfolded on a shelf, with the light glistening off of its Schneider Kreuznach 50mm f/2. All the other options melted away, and I walked out with a brand new friend.
Fast forward to today, and I’ve used the Retina in a very specific way. It’s a camera that tends to sit unused on my shelf for six to eight months out of the year before becoming the only camera I use for long stretches of time. It’s the only camera that accompanied me on a road trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and it’s the only camera I could think to bring with me when I visited Kodak’s home city of Rochester this past Christmas.
The Retina IIIc is ready to explore. Weighing only 680 grams, it’s about as heavy as the extremely small and light Pentax ME Super with its equivalent 50mm f/2 lens attached. The Retina, though, has the distinct advantage over similarly specced SLRs of being foldable. With the Kodak’s lens retracted and the door closed, the camera is only 47mm thick, and easily fits in my back pocket. It’s this feature that makes me want to take the camera on road trips since it can fit nearly anywhere; a car’s center console, a backpack side pocket, even a purse if you’re so inclined. Wherever you want to go, the Retina will go.
But the main draw of the Kodak Retina has to be its Schneider Kreuznach Retina-Xenon C 50mm f/2 lens that’s paired with a whisper-quiet Synchro Compur leaf shutter. The way the shutter mechanism works will be no shock to Hasselblad users, but the aperture ring is mechanically coupled to the shutter speed adjustment ring, meaning that changing one setting automatically changes the other (resulting in proper exposures at any speed/aperture as measured and originally set by the uncoupled selenium meter). This requires the user to press a tab to change where the aperture or shutter speed individually. This system, understandably clunky to some, is one of my favorite things about the Kodak Retina, as it allows me to change settings quickly in conditions where the light isn’t changing to a great degree. It gives the photographer access to every combination of shutter speed and aperture that will give proper exposure. From there, it’s up to the photographer to choose which combination of speed and aperture (depth-of-field) suits the scene creatively.
It’s a system that takes a while to learn, and one that I didn’t take full advantage of for the first two years of owning the camera. Now that I’ve embraced the system, it feels completely fluid and intuitive.
Walking around Rochester during Christmas is a wholesome affair. At night, the buildings light up in green and red, and during the day people walk the streets and participate in free public ice skating at the ROC Holiday Village. This concentration of activity and street vendors forms a warm center for a city that could otherwise be very, very cold in December.
Raising the Retina to my eye to capture some ice skaters, I find what is truly a small, dark rangefinder patch. The rangefinder patch is a moderately-large diamond shape, and mine retains quite a bit of contrast, making focusing a breeze under normal lighting situations. But in dim lighting, things quickly become difficult. This is especially disappointing considering that the Retina IIIc was released in 1954, the same year as another German-made rangefinder with the number “3” in its name. The Leica M3’s famously contrasty, large, and bright viewfinder/rangefinder is galaxies ahead of the tiny and dim versions found in the Retina. Adding to the difficulty is the fact that the rangefinder patch is of the reverse-contrast type, meaning the focusing aid is actually lighter than its surroundings. This does improve low-light focusing, but at the cost of lowered detail.
The next quirk I notice is the lack of a winding lever in the normal position on the top right of the camera. That’s because Kodak’s German engineers must have been bored one night and wanted to see what the weirdest place to put the winding lever would be. They ended up placing it on the camera’s bottom, forcing photographers to take the camera away from their eye and flip the camera at least 45 degrees forward to get leverage on the otherwise beautifully-constructed lever.
It’s also worth noting that the Kodak Retina IIIc features interchangeable front elements, and can accept other Schneider optics like a 35mm f/4 whose wider field of view probably could have helped me capture the obelisk-like black Xerox building that dominates central Rochester. The bread-and-butter 50mm is more than enough, though, and the lens door can’t close with the accessory lenses mounted. Sort of defeats the point of a folding camera, right?
This six-element Xenon lens produces images that are, as expected from Schneider-Kreuznach, incredibly sharp. It’s not the most contrasty lens, but it can produce some wonderful colors when paired with one of Kodak’s professional film offerings, like Ektar. The coatings do a better job of reducing flares than we might expect from such an aged lens, and the quality of out-of-focus areas isn’t too busy to be distracting. I find the transition from in focus to out of focus to be quite pleasing, but I’ve always been biased towards more fun, interesting bokeh rather than the perfectly smoothed obliteration of backgrounds most shooters seem to prefer these days. I’ve noticed very little distortion and not much diffraction at narrow apertures. Overall, this camera has been a secret weapon of mine for years and the lens is a big reason why.
I felt fulfilled bringing the Retina into George Eastman’s former home and showing it Kodak’s museum of cameras, both in the museum and the Kodak Center. Although I sensed some sadness that neither collection contained another IIIc, an older Retina did make an appearance alongside Kodak’s revolutionary (and gigantic) original digital backs, space cameras, and Nikon’s wonderfully rotund 6mm non-Ai fisheye lens. With the lens wide open and the shutter tip-toeing the edge of the danger zone, museum lighting was a big challenge for the Retina.
Film selection is where some gripes with the camera come up. I’m sure it was the industry standard in 1954, but having the meter register 320 and 640 ISO instead of 400 and 800 is a little funky, and can lead to some improper exposures even though the meter is uncoupled.
The meter’s High/Low settings, and what kept the selenium meter from going dead after all these years, tends to cut off in normal light situations. What I mean is that around EV 13 the reading is slightly too low for the low setting, and slightly too high for the high setting. This wouldn’t be an issue if EV 13 wasn’t a very common setting for partly cloudy days, or for those in northern latitudes where the sun isn’t as strong.
As I work through roll after roll with the Kodak Retina, my pointer finger begins to get sore in a way that doesn’t happen with most other cameras. The culprits lie directly next to the meter in the shutter and frame counter. The shutter is tall, narrow, and sharp. Not sharp enough to cut you, but sharp enough to dig a bit. It doesn’t matter how quiet the leaf shutter is if I’m saying “ow” every time I trigger it.
The frame counter is rounded, but also the cause of its fair share of annoyance. It’s uncoupled, meaning it doesn’t reset when the camera is opened. The photographer is responsible for resetting it with every new roll, and that requires pressing a button and then sliding a circle on the back of the camera to the right about twenty times to cycle through and back to zero.
Where this becomes an issue is when you forget to reset the counter, it counts to zero even though you’re only halfway done with the roll, and the camera refuses to fire. The shutter locks up and acts as if something is wrong, and can only be freed by resetting the counter. Why they chose to couple the frame counter to the transport mechanism but not fully pair them is a mystery beyond my paygrade, but its caused me a number of headaches, especially in low light situations where I can’t see the counter and end up thinking that my poor old friend has finally bit the dust.
But as with all cameras, the true allure of the Retina all comes down to the photos, and thats what keeps me coming back. When I do pick it up, even with the annoying quirks and questionable design choices, the photos I create are more consistently pleasing than almost any other camera I’ve owned. I’ve taken some of my favorite photos with the Retina, and this trip to Rochester is no exception.
My foldable friend showed its versatility, capturing everything from Wegmans-sponsored ice skaters to the iconic Little Theatre with an enthusiasm that can only come from a homecoming. The Kodak Retina IIIc will never be my only camera, but it’s one with a special place on my shelf and one whose presence conjures up just as many good memories as the photos it’s taken.
If you’re looking to get a IIIc of your own, it may be most cost effective to look for the “small c” version rather than the “big C” version, differentiated by the “small C” including a metal cover over the selenium meter which turns the meter into a dual range system. Aside from this, the only important difference is that the “Big C” has frame lines for the auxiliary lenses as well, something most users won’t need. The cameras are often mislabeled by unwitting sellers, driving prices down a bit and making this camera quite a good deal. At least, quite a deal for fans of compact rangefinders featuring class-leading German optics. That’s everybody, right?
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