Well, it’s about time to write about the camera that’s visible in my header image: the Kodak Retina IIa. My Retina IIa was manufactured sometime between January and March 1951, making it 59 years old (unless you are reading this a year from now, in which case it’s 60 years old!). The camera is a fold-able rangefinder with a small, dim viewfinder and a fixed 50mm f/2 lens. The viewfinder is better than most digicams, but not by much. For those of you not familiar with rangefinder cameras, I’ll explain a little about the difference between a rangefinder and an SLR.
In an SLR (Single Lens Reflex), the image formed by the lens is sent to the viewfinder by reflecting off of a mirror in front of the film/sensor which must move out of the way before taking the picture. This means that you see exactly what the film is going to see…almost. In order to keep the view as bright as possible for SLR users, the aperture on the lens is left wide open until the moment the picture is taken. What this means is that the image in the viewfinder will potentially have a shallower depth of field (DOF) than the captured image. In contrast, a rangefinder viewfinder shows everything in focus while the captured image may have a much smaller DOF. The rangefinder is used to aid in focusing the lens. When you look through the viewfinder, you will see a double image in the center of the frame, as shown in the left half of this picture. You then adjust the focus until the two images line up, as shown in the right half of the picture. The major benefit to rangefinders is size. Without the mirror, the camera body can be smaller. The drawback is that the image through the viewfinder may not match what the film sees. This is called the “parallax effect,” and it gets worse the closer you are to your subject. The rangefinder vs. SLR debate of the past has been replaced by the optical vs. electronic viewfinder debate emerging now with the introduction of large sensor mirrorless cameras. In both cases, the choice usually comes down to a matter of taste and shooting style.
The Retina has no built-in metering, so it is not a camera for beginners. In fact, the camera doesn’t have auto anything. It’s manual focus, fixed focal length, no meter, and most importantly of all, NO BATTERIES. Cue Tim Allen’s monkey noises. The camera may not be great for beginners to pick up and use, but it is a fantastic teaching tool. Every variable involved in capturing an image must be deliberately controlled by you. Outdoors, figuring out the exposure is pretty easy. It just takes a little bit of math and book learnin’. Look up the Sunny 16 rule if you’re interested in manually setting exposures. Indoors, guessing exposure is much more difficult, and I can’t do it. Even if you don’t plan on becoming a full-manual, film-only shooter, using a camera like this will improve your photography skills.
With that out of the way, how fun is the camera to use? Answer: very fun, but not perfect. The metal construction and physical knobs and levers are great to use and are far superior to the menu-based systems most digicams employ. The camera fits in my pocket, so I can bring it anywhere and it’s always a conversation starter. It’s easy to load and once you learn the controls, it’s a breeze to use. That said, I do have some complaints. The camera controls seem like they were designed for baby’s hands. I kind of feel like a giant when I try to adjust the focus (no, feeling like a giant is not a positive thing). Also, the viewfinder, although decent for its time, is just not very good. It’s tiny and I have to squint to see much through it. I struggled with the parallax effect and cut off more heads than Henry VIII the first time I used the camera. I also end up always putting my finger over the rangefinder window, preventing me from being able to see the double image and focus correctly. All consequences of being raised on digital cameras, I’m sure.
The 50mm f/2 Retina-Xenon lens is wonderful, even by today’s standards. It’s uber-sharp, with very little distortion. The lens gives a slight warm tone to pictures, but I like the look it provides. In general, the lens on the Retina IIa has that special “something” that sets it apart from modern slow zoom lenses. You can tell just by looking at the pictures that they were taken with an old camera. That’s not always a good thing, but in this case I like it.
Overall, the camera was a great eBay purchase. My only regret is that I don’t use the Retina IIa often enough. It gets trumped too often by my newer digital cameras which are easier to use because of their built-in metering and auto-focusing. If you’re interested in learning a lot more about this camera and other classic cameras, I’d recommend this link.