Kodak Retina IIIc Review
Kodak Retina IIIc
To see images shot with this camera, click the category link at right.
This is a great little 35mm folding rangefinder camera. Kodak is generally not known for high-quality cameras – their strategy seemed to be to get low-quality, low-priced, mass-produced cameras in the hands of millions of Americans, thus consuming a lot of Kodak film. There are some exceptions even in the American-made Kodaks, but their real standout cameras were made in Germany after Kodak purchased the Stuttgart camera maker A. Nagel. The Retina IIIc sold for $150 in 1956, the equivalent of more than $1200 in today’s dollars. This is not your typical mass-market Kodak camera. It was competing with the Leica rangefinders of the day, and though not as sought-after today as those old Leicas, it’s a very capable shooter with a fantastic lens (at a fraction of the price).
- My particular camera was made in 1956 (serial #662610)
- Made in Stuttgart Germany at Kodak AG Dr. Nagel Werk
- 35mm film (135 cartridge)
- Coupled rangefinder focusing
- f:2.0/50mm Schneider-Kreuznach Retina-Xenon C lens
- 1 sec to 1/500 sec (plus B) Compur Synchro shutter
- Uncoupled selenium light-meter
In the early days of 35mm cameras, the film (which was re-purposed 35mm cinema film) had to be loaded into a camera in a darkroom, and later Leica (Leitz) introduced reusable cassettes that a photographer could load ahead of time in a darkroom, then load in the camera in daylight. In 1934, Kodak introduced the pre-loaded 135 daylight-loading cartridge and a new camera designed to use this new film – the Kodak Retina (though the new film also was designed to work in the existing 35mm Leicas and others). Both the new 135 film cartridge and the Retina camera were invented by Dr. August Nagel of the Kodak AG Dr. Nagel Werk company that had been purchased by Kodak in 1931. This is the same 135 cassette still manufactured today, commonly called 35mm film.
Dr. Nagel had founded Contessa Camerawerke in 1908, and in 1926 merged with three other camera makers to form Zeiss-Ikon, before founding Nagel-Werk in 1928. One of Nagel’s earlier standout cameras was the Kodak Duo Six-20, introduced before the Retina.
From 1934 to 1960 there were 11 major models of folding Retinas produced, with many minor sub-types within each model. In 1936 the Retina II was introduced with a rangefinder. The Retina Ia and IIa introduced in 1951 added flash synchronization and winding levers instead of knobs. In 1954 the IIIc was introduced, which added a selenium light meter (all of the II models have rangefinders, and the III models have rangefinders and light-meters). The final models (IB, IIC and IIIC) were introduced in 1957 and the last folding Retina was made in 1960.
Retinas are known for their high-quality lenses, but I was still surprised when I got my first rolls of film developed and high-res scans made. The image quality and sharpness really surprised me. The photos are sharp edge-to-edge, corner-to-corner, and there seems to be no distortion and no vignetting (darkening at the edges or corners of the image). Ken Rockwell has a great image comparison on his site using this exact same camera and comparing the image quality to a high-end DSLR.
In use, the camera is a real joy. Image quality is one thing, but a camera has to be somewhat easy and hopefully some fun to use. The Retina IIIc is both. The camera is built solidly and has a top-quality feel in your hands. The folding lens mechanism is great. The lens slides out on a metal frame unlike earlier models that used flexible bellows, and the lens is absolutely solid when it’s opened.
I like carrying it around in just the bottom half of it’s nice red-velvet-lined case, with the lens cover closed and the camera much more compact than an SLR, and lens solidly protected by the metal cover. Then when I’m ready to shoot, the cover is easily opened with one finger and the lens slides right out as you open the door, ready to use faster than a digital camera from a few years ago took to start up.
The viewfinder is nice and bright, with the diamond-shaped rangefinder focus area in the center of the viewfinder easy to see and focus. Unlike some viewfinders, this one works quite well while wearing glasses – I can see the whole image area perfectly. The leaf shutter is virtually silent when you shoot.
I love the way the camera looks sitting on my desk, and how it feels in hand. The only part of the design that I don’t think looks right is the light-meter dial on top of the camera. The rest of the camera is so nicely designed, but this piece looks like it was an afterthought, designed by someone uninvolved in the rest of the camera design. It functions fine, but the look of it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the camera. Plus the one on my camera is a little loose, so it doesn’t have the precision feel of the rest of the camera. That brings me to a nice little story. When I got the camera that light-meter dial was loose, and I thought that maybe it just needed to be tightened using that screw in the center of it. Using my split-ring pliers, I tightened it a bit and ‘snap’, I broke the top off of the screw. Luckily I was able to extract the screw with a sharp awl, but I didn’t think I’d be able to find another screw. After much searching online, and contacting a couple of repair folks who work on Retinas, I figured I was going to have to buy a non-functioning IIIc just to get that screw — I watched ebay and had a hard time finding even a parts camera for less than $50. Then I posted a message on the Classic Cameras Forum at photo.net, and within a short time a nice guy named Tim mailed me the screw from an old non-functioning IIIc he had laying around. I was absolutely thrilled. There really are some darn nice people out there.
Read the original camera manual: http://butkus.org/chinon/kodak/retina_iiic/retina_iiic.htm