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Kodak Retina II / IIa / IIc


0. General Characteristics of Kodak / Nagel Cameras

Before the World War II, Kodak began contracting with Nagel of Stuttgart (well, buying them) to produce compact 35mm cameras. The (now-rare and $$$) Nagel Retina was the ancestor of all of the Kodak Retinas. The original 1934 Retina was the first camera to use the modern daylight-loading 35mm film canister. The Retina II as we know it know was a postwar invention. On Retina II boxes, of any variety, you can find the inscription Kodak Stuttgart-Wangen, which is where postwar production took place.

All Retina cameras are built around 35mm film cartridges and #00 leaf shutters.

You can have a field day with all of the various Retina configurations, years of production, and see pictures of them at the Clayton Rye web site, but I am going to stick to the ones I have owned, with operational notes. Doing an article on the Retina II series is rather arbitrary in selection, since the Retinas (at least the real ones) are a continuous evolution from the Nagel Pupille to the III-big-C, but these three seem to be the most related.

1. Kodak Retina II (type 014)

Although the Retina II model 011 (uncoated lenses) was made up to 1939, most Retina II examples you see today are postwar (1949-1950), with coated lenses. The Retina II is considered the ugly stepsister to the Retina IIa, but it has some redeeming features which I will describe below.

Configuration: the camera is a tiny package that folds flat. The lens is mounted on a flat board mounted to leather bellows and the front door (which, looking from the front, opens to the left side. The door serves as something of a lens shade. Chassis is a brass stamping with an aluminum alloy back door (and very poorly primed black paint edges). Top and bottom covers are chromed brass. Film advance is through a top-mount knob wind (with knob rewind); shutter cocking is through a lever mounted on the face. There is an interlock between the two, and it is released by the movement of the film across the sprocket wheels (a la the Zeiss Contessa). The exposure counter is a thumb-wheel coupled to a button, which you reset manually. I could never quite figure out how to do this. The shutter release is a tall cylinder, and there is a separate cable release socket. The overall body shape is angular.

Viewfinder/rangefinder: The combined viewfinde/rangefinder has a BL of about 50mm and a magnification of about 0.7x. There are no framelines, and the entire assembly pivots to correct for parallax. These finders are pretty squinty and yellowish, which is really too bad given the lens quality. The upside is that these are very tough finders, being mounted in aluminum tubes inside the top cover (like Super Ikonta Bs).

Lens: The Type 014 features a 50mm f/2 coated lens, either a Schneider Retina-Xenon or a Rodenstock Retina-Heligon (both 6 elements in 5 groups, in the popular Zeiss Planar configuration). The Heligon is more collectible, but in my experience, the Xenon is better - really a worldbeater, sharp and contrasty. The lens is helicoid-mounted, and you focus by moving a little thumb tab.

The one thing about the Schneider lenses (which appear to be vacuum-coated, rather than coagulation-coated) is that they sometimes develop tiny "stars" in the front element coating. This has no effect.

The filter thread is 29.5mm, although Kodak called this size 32mm. Kodak made filters in yellow, green, skylight, and salmon. The lens shade is a rubber screw-in type. Kodak and Walz thin filters will close under the clamshell front cover. Hoya made a number of filters, which are optically superior, but none of which will allow the front to close.

Shutter assembly: The shutter is a Compur Rapid-X #00, with speeds from 1-1/500 sec. Flash attaches via standard PC socket on the shutter face (mounted at an inconvenient 7 o'clock position). Multiblade aperture activated by a little blade-type aperture selector (which stops in detents at whole stop increments). Like most Compur postwar shutters, this one will slow down unless it is CLAd with modern lubricants.

2. Kodak Retina IIa (type 016)

This was the 1951 follow-on to the Retina II, and a very small number carried over the Compur Rapid shutters. It is identical to the Retina II, with the following exceptions:

Configuration: the IIa has a top-mounted single-stroke lever wind that both winds the film and cocks the shutter. The interlock that requires film in the camera is gone. The shutter release is a shorter shaft into which you can screw a cable release. The frame counter is coaxial with the wind lever, is manually reset, and counts down. When the camera hits zero, you cannot wind it. Both of these features are susceptible to malfunction (the cocking racks break and the counter springs go bad), which makes me like the II a little more in the reliability department.

Shutter assembly: The shutter is a Compur Synchro-MX #00, with speeds from 1-1/500 sec. It has both M and X synch, but is otherwise mechanically identical to the Rapid. Flash attaches via standard PC socket on the shutter face (mounted at an inconvenient 7 o'clock position). Same issues with lubricants.

Accessories: other than the lens shade and filters, the big thing was the Retina meter, a jewel-like selenium meter that fits on the top, with a blind-type incident attachment.

3. Kodak Retina IIc (small C, type 020)

This in turn was the replacement for the IIa. The Retina IIc can be best thought of as the forerunner to the famouns Retina IIIc - just without the meter and projected framelines. Although the viewfinder/rangefinder stayed the same as the IIa, a lot of other things changed:

Configuration: the biggest change with the IIc is that it went to a bottom-lever wind. This turns out to be a lot easier to use if you are left-eyed. It also allows for a much more reliable top-mounted frame counter and a less-fragile shutter-cocking mechanism. The rewind remained by knob. All camera surfaces are rounded ("streamlined,") and the front door is not latched on the bottom, but rather on the edge that opens. The top and bottom, as well as the sides, are rounded, leading to a more pleasing feel in the hand. One at least cosmetically significant difference is the use of an aluminum lens board that wraps back where you would have seen bellows on the IIa. This is largely superficial, since there are real bellows inside it.

Lens: Big change here. The IIc has a 50/2.8 Schneider Retina-Xenon or Rodenstock Heligon (which I believe to be the same as the 50/2.0 lenses, but with an aperture limiters in them). I have not observed the Schneider Xenon to be as sparkling as the 50/2.0, but this may be due to the interchangeability issue, which I believe adds new tolerances to the mix.

The front elements of these 50mm lenses are held into the shutter with a three-prong bayonet. When you bayonet out the front of the 50, you can interchange it with front parts for a 35/5.6 or an 80/4 (Scheider or Rodenstock, depending on what your camera originally came with). These lenses are huge, and none too easy to use. You focus with the rangefinder, and then you convert the distance. There is a squinty 35/80 Retina accessory finder to match. While these are of interest to collectors, they are hard to find in an un-separated state and not really worth the money or trouble for use (although they are neat).

The problem that interchangeability injects is that you may end up with a IIc (or IIIc for that matter) with the front of one 50mm lens and the rear of another. This is not a huge problem, but you will need to have the lens recollimated. The way you can check for danger is to match the lens serial number on the front lens element to the one on the shutter to the one on the back ring inside. Some people make it out to be the end of the world if all three don't match. It's not. Retina guru George Mrus (RIP) was very good at recollimating these lenses. I would recommend skipping a camera where these rings do not match, unless you can test it. Of course if the front and rear rings of the lens match each other, but not the shutter, it is really only a sign that the shutter was replaced at some point. A good repairman would have recollimated it.

Shutter assembly: The shutter is a Compur Synchro-MX #00 EVS, functionally identical to the one on the IIa, but with both settings visible on the top. One big difference is that it has the LVS system, which locks shutter and aperture together (both rings turn together). LVS is pretty useful for fill flash (see article) but is not that much fun for ambient light photos. The LVS disengages via a little lever on the bottom. Of all the Retina shutters, this seems to be the least problematic and the most jewel-like in its finish.

Accessories: The IIc and IIIc shared a neat line of accessories. The ne plus ultra was a brown bakelite box with 3 low-profile filters, the 50mm bayonet-on hood (rectangular) and the snap-on parts for 35 and 80mm hoods. The bayonet hoods are a boon, and a lot easier to deal with than the hard rubber screw-ins. Filter size remailed 30.5mm, so there is some backward and forward compatibility.

4. Which Retina II?

Really good question. All are equally at home in a display case as in your glovebox or pocket.

In action, all of them have equally poor finders. This, of course, has nothing to do with the result.

Compared by optics, the Schneider Retina-Xenon 50/2.0 is the best lens (but not by a big enough margin to override choosing a IIc if you liked the gestalt better — and it goes without saying that you would have to know what you were looking for). That would mean a II or IIa.

When it comes to reliability, I lean toward the II and IIc. The IIa is a nice camera, but I have broken more than a couple of them through pretty unexceptional use. If you can handle it with the utmost care and have it properly CLAd (bad or no lubrication on the main shutter bearing is a big cause of the broken — and expensive — cocking racks), it is a really fine piece.

In terms of sheer beauty, mechanical precision and fit and finish, the IIc simply wins. It was perhaps the apex of Kodak camera quality.

Maybe the bottom line is bang for the buck. The Retina II is almost completely ignored, every bit the equal of the IIa in terms of on-film performance (after all, it has the same rangefinder, lens and pretty much the same shutter) and half the price. The winding isn't quite as smooth, but at the end of the day, who cares?