Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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During the holidays I used the time to locate the camera I learned photography with. While technically the first camera I ever used was Box camera, there wasn’t really much to learn about it other than triggering the shutter. So the first proper camera I used came a few years later and it was the first camera my dad had bought himself back in the 1950s:

Kodak Retina

It’s a Kodak Retina IB (although some seem to call a different model Ib and a model looking like this one IIIc) complete with a leather case, a lens that folds into the camera itself, a light sensor, fully manual settings and probably one of the smoothest triggers ever. It is a viewfinder camera and you have to focus by measuring or simply guessing the distance.

I took pretty decent photos with the camera in the past and you can bet that I’ll take more soon! But apart from all those niceties, the nostalgia and the fact that it will be a perfect place to use those old-tech ADOX films in, just playing with it also made me realise that it’s the perfect camera to learn about photography with.

In the photo courses I took there were also people who started off with no clue whatsoever about things like ISO, exposure times and f-stops – let alone how they are related. This may be partially do to the ‘complicated’ maths (inverses, exponentials) involved in those number games. But I started thinking that modern automatic cameras should take part of the blame as well. As they do their best to hide the meaning of those numbers and their relations by displaying a few digits only.

So let’s see how photos were taken half a century ago. Obviously you needed a film – and apparently the Retina series (which one site claims were the only decent cameras made by Kodak because they were made in Germany) was the first one to use the 35mm film we know and love today. So the film itself was easy. Of course you had to remember its ISO and set it up on the camera’s built-in light-metre with scales in the linear ASA and logarithmic DIN scales (America and Germany playing together here, I guess from those acronyms) – going from 5-1300 and 9-33 respectively.

DIN/ASA scale on the Retina, built into the dial for the light-metre

And this is built right into the light metre: The thin white needle indicates the current brightness of the light getting into the sensor at the front. Then you use the easily reachable outer ring to turn the yellow arrow into the same position as the white needle and will have the red arrow pointing to a number. It’s brilliantly simple and all done in solid mechanics.

But of course you aren’t done that. You’ll have to remember that number and then set it on a scale at the bottom of the lens:

Setting up the number from the light metre at the lens

The little indicator used to set this up actually does nothing but move the black ring you see on the inner side of the silver ring with the scale on it. I.e. it does nothing but change the relative position of the black ring against that of silver ring. And when looking at the top side of the lens, we see that the black ring carries the f-stop numbers while the silver ring carries the exposure times:

Upper side of the lens with the exposure time and f-stop scales.

All you have to do with this setup is choose an exposure time by rotating the silver ring. And the relevant f-stop will just move with it. You’ll also have to focus with the ring at the back of course and then you’re ready to shoot.

I think this setup is excellent, well thought through and easy to use. In particular, just by using it, it becomes absolutely clear to you that the f-stop and the exposure time you’ll most likely want are linked. You’ll even see how they are linked and it’s just another small step to just ‘see’ how this is related to the brightness levels. So this is as automatic as it could be at the time – and without using a battery – while also giving you a good impression about what is going on and leaving you in complete control to manually alter settings to deviate from the standard ones.

How many modern high-tech cameras offer all this in such a simple way?

Back cover of the Retina

Another cool thing about this camera is that it has the film winder at the bottom of its case. That makes the top less cluttered and could even be slightly easier to use:

Bottom of the camera with the film winder

Oh, and of course it has other stuff too. Ranging from the ability to do multiple exposures per image, to being able to attach a flash (using a wire), to a timer for auto-exposures, to triggering exposures remotely via a mechanical cable and using a bulb setting and putting it on a standard tripod. I read that there even were alternate lenses on offer back in the days and you can swap them reasonably simple (but I only have one and don’t know how to do that. Finally – pentagonal aperture with slightly rounded blades:

View through the Retina's open aperture.

January 17, 2007, 0:05

Tagged as photos.


Comment by Gareth Wonfor: User icon

Ref: ‘It’s a Kodak Retina IB (although some seem to call a different model Ib and a model looking like this one IIIc)’

Kodak made a number of these folding Retina cameras - The Retina Ib (small b) you mention was the direct predecessor to your camera, essentially the same camera (same lens and shutter) but with a much smaller viewfinder.

The IIIC (big C) looked very similar to the IB you have but had a range-finder and came with a ‘better’ f2 xenon lens (there is some debate about whether it is actually sharper than the f2.8 xenar on the IB).

The IIIC also allowed lens swapping for 35mm and 80mm lens; these weren’t compatible with the rear set on the ib/IB.

July 19, 2012, 1:36

Comment by Narjas Carrington-Windo: User icon

I was looking for this very camera! Also the one MY Dad bought in the 50s for himself, his first camera – which he then let me use to take my first ever photos with when I started using cameras for the first time. Will you mind if I link to your blog post and use one of your camera photos (credited) within my own story?

I was specifically googling for old cameras from the 50s and knew I would spot the one we used to use. This is it! I remember ever detail of it, every line, bump, down to the cute little button-clip that shuts the lens back in with a satisfying ‘pop’.

Lovely to find this. Narjas

March 22, 2014, 10:00

Comment by ssp: User icon


Cool that you found the camera you’ve been looking for. Feel free to use the photo and link.

The button-clip’s »pop« is indeed satisfying!

March 23, 2014, 17:03

Comment by Lindy: User icon

Can you describe how to set the ISO/ASA? I see all of the settings on the light meter, but cannot figure out how to actually change the ASA. Thanks!

March 27, 2016, 22:51

Comment by ssp: User icon


You can rotate the inner bit of the light meter dial by using the tiny metal knob between the »DIN« and »ASA« text. Try to rotate that and the black triangle will point to a different ASA value.

March 28, 2016, 11:16

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