The Contessa Nettel Piccolette, a 127 format, compact, strut-and-bellows folding camera, was first made in 1919. If that doesn’t seem all that long ago, perhaps recall that Penicillin wasn’t discovered until 1928, and that a 1923 medical textbook written by the world’s leading authority in the teaching of modern medicine was still recommending bloodletting to fight infection.
Yes, 100 years is indeed a long time.
And yet the 100-plus-year-old Contessa Nettel Piccolette still works. I shot it last week. And although it demanded many compromises (it’s obtuse in its operation, imperfect due to age, and the film is uncommon and expensive), it did what it was made to do. It made photos. Imagine that.
A Brief History of the Contessa Nettel Piccolette
In 1912, Kodak invented 127 film and a camera to shoot it. The Vest Pocket Kodak was a simple camera sized to fit into the average person’s pocket. It sold well, and in 1915 Kodak released a second model which they marketed to a world suddenly at war as “The Soldier’s Camera.” This camera sold 1.75 million units to soldiers and civilians alike, an unprecedented sales success. True to the marketing, it seems many American soldiers did indeed carry them through Europe.
This sudden influx of Kodak’s best-selling camera no doubt influenced many German and European camera companies, and in 1914, a German camera company called Nettel began selling a compact 127 film camera known as the Piccolette.
This early Nettel Piccolette was a folding bed camera, rather than the strut-bellows design of the later Contessa-Nettel Piccolette, the difference being that a folding bed camera hinges open with a lens assembly sliding forward from the camera body, where a strut-bellows folding camera has a lens mounted on a panel which extracts directly from the body.
In 1919, a merger of Contessa Camerawerke Drexler & Nagel and Nettel Camerawerk formed a new company, Contessa-Nettel AG Stuttgart. This company specialized in stereo cameras, roll film folding cameras, and focal plane shutter cameras (something rare in those days). They also created a new and tiny strut-bellows version of the Piccolette. Incidentally, this is the version that I shot last week.
In 1926, Contessa-Nettel merged with three other companies to become Zeiss Ikon. The Piccolette survived this merger as well, and was produced largely unchanged under the Zeiss Ikon brand until 1930 or 1931.
What is a Piccolette?
Though the Piccolette is no doubt a loose copy of the Vest Pocket Kodak, significant differences between the two cameras do exist. To start, the Piccolette has a fully-developed film carrier where the Vest Pocket Kodak does not. This ensures that the Piccolette can be loaded with film more easily and with fewer problems, such as film tearing or sticking. In addition, the film panel of the Piccolette has an elegant curved end, which makes the camera more stable when shooting it from a propped stationary position. (The Kodak has an articulating leg for this purpose.)
Two models of the Contessa-Nettel Piccolette exist. The first (known as Model A) fails to incorporate the Brilliant viewfinder of the second model (known as Model B). This viewfinder is the traditional silvered prism found on many cameras of the era, and it rotates 90 degrees to be used with the camera in either landscape or portrait orientation.
Both models are fully manual cameras. The photographer must set the lens aperture and shutter speed manuals, cock the shutter, compose the photo, and trip the shutter to take a picture. Nearly all Piccolettes are focus-free cameras, though two models exist with manual focusing lenses.
Film is advanced by hand using a little crank. By peering through a red-film window on the back of the camera we’re able to see when a full frame has been advanced, and another photo can then be taken.
The earlier Model A Piccolette was offered with just one lens, this being a Meyer Goerlitz Doppelanastigmat Citonar 7.5cm f/6.3. The later Model B Piccolette, however, was offered with a number of lens and shutter options in Germany. Additional variants existed in Britain and France. This vast choice of lens and shutter combinations was continued with the final Zeiss Ikon version of the Piccolette.
Available Piccolette lens and shutter specifications:
- Achromat 7.5cm f/11 in Acro shutter (25, 50, 75, B, T)
- Berthiot Olor f/5.7 in Compur shutter
- Citonar 7.5cm f/6.3 in Compur, Derval, or Pronto shutter
- Contessa-Nettel Piccar 7.5cm f/11 in Piccar shutter (25, 50, 75, B, T)
- Contessa-Nettel Nettar Anastigmat 7.5cm f/6.3 in ACG Derval shutter (25, 50, 100, B, T)
- Anastigmat Hermagis f/6.3
- Meyer Goerlitz Nettar Anastigmat 7.5cm f/6.3 in ACG Derval shutter (25, 50, 100, B, T)
- Contessa Nettel Doppel Anastigmat Taronar 7.5cm f/5.4 in Compur shutter
- Anastigmat Perfect / P.P. f/6.3 in ACG Derval shutter (25, 50, 100, B, T)
- Anastigmat Photo-Hall 7.5cm f/6.3
- Anastigmat Splendor f/6.2 in ACG Derval shutter (25, 50, 100, B, T)
- Trinastigmat 7.5cm f/6.8 in Derval shutter
- Roussel Stylor 7.5cm f/6.3
- Zeiss Tessar 7.5cm f/4.5 in Compur shutter
- Zeiss Tessar 7.5cm f/6.3 in Compur shutter
- Zeiss Triotar 7.5cm f/6.3 in Compur shutter
- Front Cell Focusing Zeiss Tessar 7.5cm f.4.5 in Compur shutter
- Front Cell Focusing Zeiss Tessar 7.5cm f.6.3 in Compur shutter
Piccolette 100 Years Later
Never accidentally hold a beautiful camera. You’ll want one forever.
I’ve wanted a Piccolette since 2014 when a vendor at an annual camera sale in Boston made me accidentally hold one. At that time I didn’t know what 127 film was, what a Contessa was, or what a Piccolette was. I only knew that it was beautiful and that I would eventually own one.
And here we are.
I knew that the only way to properly write about the Piccolette would be to do so after shooting it. So, I needed to find some film. But, as Jeb so eloquently put it in his article on 127 film written in 2019, 127 film is “nearly dead and all but forgotten.”
And he was right. It’s hard to find. Kodak, the very people that invented the stuff, haven’t made any since 1995. And while film photographers and small companies have kept 127 film production going, it’s not like we can walk into the local camera shop and grab a roll or two.
To buy 127 film today we must be prepared to shop online and to spend more money than we’re used to for a single roll of film. B&H Photo does indeed stock brand new 127 film. This film is made from 120 format stock which has been cut down and spooled onto 127 film spools. A roll of Kodak Portra 400, which in the Piccolette will make 8 exposures, costs $34. A roll of Kodak T Max 100 black and white film costs $30 (a 36 exposure roll of the same film in 35mm costs $10.99). That’s not cheap.
B&H also stock Rerapan black and white film at a much more affordable $12.99, though that’s still only 8 exposures. We’re getting close to Polaroid economy.
Instead of buying new film I made a dumb decision, as I have many times before. I decided to shoot a 30-year-old roll of film through my 100 year-old-camera (because it was free). Casual Photophile is, after all, operating on a very tight budget (you could help expand that budget by subscribing to the site here…).
I had pretty low expectations for my chances of success. I’ve shot really old film before. When it works, it works great. But it rarely works. Pair these disappointing experiences with using a camera made before the first ever American radio station existed, before television, before sliced bread (seriously), and my expectations were low indeed.
I gathered my daughters and we went to the oceanside park that has so often been used for testing cameras. They screamed in the cold wind (we’re in month six of Massachusetts’ ever-lasting winter), posed for the camera, tolerated my promises of “Just one more, hold on…” as I fumbled my way through shooting photos with a hundred-year-old relic.
Adjusting shutter speed and aperture is easy. Shutter speed is controlled by a dial on the front of the lens board, and aperture is controlled by a lever below the lens. Beyond this, there’s nothing to do but frame and shoot.
The viewfinder is a mirrored prism, and peering down into its tiny square of silver it’s easy to get turned around. Up is down, left is right, and keeping the camera level is a massive challenge. A pop-up wire “sports finder” allows the Piccolette to be shot like a more standard camera, one with a viewfinder through which we’d look directly. But it’s highly inaccurate. What do we expect from a rectangle made of metal wire?
I shot eight shots in ten minutes, expecting nothing, and sent the film to my friend’s photo lab. A week later I received from him a text message.
“We have pictures!”
And we did. Though they’re not the sort of photos I’d frame and hang on the wall, or describe as “good”, or want to look at for more than a moment. But, hey, they are photos. And they were made by a hundred-plus-year-old machine! That’s not bad.
I suspect some of their low fidelity comes not from the camera, which has a beautiful lens and a nice accurate shutter, but from the fact that I once again foolishly used old, expired film. I’ll try to fix that and update this article when I can afford to shoot some brand new $34 Portra.
Buyer’s Guide and Final Thoughts
Photo nerds interested in buying their own Piccolette should be aware of a few notes.
Don’t buy a used Piccolette from some random weirdo on the internet, unless it’s being sold for under $40. The chances are too great that something will not be working correctly.
Instead, buy your Piccolette from a reputable camera shop, or at least from someone on eBay who professes to know something about the camera’s working condition.
Things to look for: that the shutter works, that the bellows do not have light leaks, cracks, or other obvious damage, and that the film transport works correctly.
If the lens is fogged or dirty, don’t worry. This is quite easy to fix. Unscrew the lens assemblies and clean them as we’d clean any other lens (the front lens assembly simply unscrews, and the back lens assembly can be accessed by removing the film information window panel on the back of the camera and reaching through to the rear lens assembly). Make sure to understand which lens goes where, and in what order (and don’t flip the elements around).
Do I think the Piccolette is worth owning? I do. It’s a beautiful camera, and a historically interesting machine. I like that they’re simple, and that they (usually) work just the way they’re supposed to after so many decades. In fact, I’ve placed an order for fresh film hoping that my next batch of shots will be a bit more… good. Stretching my budget, again.
Though the cost of shooting a Piccolette, or any 127 film camera for that matter, is higher than shooting the average film camera, shooting a Piccolette isn’t something that a photographer will engage with every day. Like shooting film, generally, shooting the Piccolette is an experience, something to be slowly enjoyed. In that sense, the Piccolette is lovely.
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