Favourite Cameras: Kodak Retina IIIc

As anyone who has Googled “Kodak Retina” knows, they were pretty much the only cameras Kodak ever made that aspired to be of the highest quality. There are many, many models and variations.

The Retina IIIc in Supercool mode with optional viewfinder attachment and 80mm auxiliary lens.

To read chapter and verse about the whole Retina family, have a look here . Go ahead, I’ll wait. Done? Okay, on with the evaluation . . .

I have to admit that I’d had a love/hate relationship with the Retina IIIc. I bought one a while ago, but ultimately sold it off. I just never really got on with it. That would have been the end of the story had another Retina IIIc not landed in my lap thanks to a donation from a generous friend. (It was one of those, “Hey — you still use film? Hmm. I think I have my dad’s old camera lying around somewhere. You want it?” situations.) This Retina came fully equipped with the auxiliary lenses and matching viewfinder. Handling it again I remembered why I thought it was so appealing in the first place. And the passage of time had muted my memories of why I didn’t keep it. But, this donation wasn’t really in good working order. The slow shutter speeds laboured badly and the mechanics were stiff — the usual results of “lying around somewhere” for too long. So, with a little trepidation, I boxed it up and shipped it off to New Zealand so that the expert hands of Chris Sherlock could give it an overhaul.

When the camera returned it worked like new, or at least what I imagine a new Retina IIIc was like. The camera was made years before I was born, so I have no way of knowing for sure what a factory fresh sample must have been like. That said, it’s hard to imagine a new one being more silky smooth to operate.

The top view of the IIIc. From left to right: film rewind knob, accessory shoe, frame counter, shutter release button, and light-meter.

Bottom view. From left to right: film-advance lever, rewind release button, and back-opening switch surrounding the tripod socket.

When closed, the camera has a thin profile and slips into a coat pocket with ease.

The camera has a dual-range, non-coupled light meter. While it's accurate enough, the match-needle window can be difficult to see.

The Retina IIIc's standard lens is a very sharp, 50mm f/2 optic.

Before going further, let’s back up a step and talk a little about what a Retina IIIc (lower case “c,” as distinct from the later IIIC) is. In a nutshell, it’s a folding 35mm camera with a coupled rangefinder focus and built in (non-coupled) light meter. The camera comes with a 50mm f/2.0 lens, but you can change out the front grouping to achieve focal lengths of 35mm and 80mm. The IIIc’s were made in Stuttgart, Germany, between 1954 and 1957. As as near as I can tell, this particular one was made at some point between July 1956 and February 1957 — towards the latter part of the model’s production run. Serious collectors can probably pin it down better than that, but I’m neither serious nor a collector.

So how am I getting on with the second coming of the IIIc? Very well indeed. I fell back in love with it when I developed the first roll after the restoration. The results were fantastic. The image quality is stunning — sharp as can be. The shutter speeds and meter must be working well because all my shots came out properly exposed. I love the camera’s mechanical precision and reassuring solidity. I particularly like the way the camera folds into a 1¾-inch-thick package. It really makes a difference not having the lens sticking out from the camera body when you’re wearing it on a strap over your shoulder. And, if you don’t mind the weight, you can even slip it into the back pocket of your jeans. The IIIc has become one of my main 35mm cameras.

As I continue to use the camera, I’m becoming reacquainted with its many quirks and shortcomings. But before I delve into these, I want to emphasize that they’re a small price to pay for the quality of photos the camera delivers. With that out of the way, here are the camera’s weak points:

#1: The camera is fiddly. There’s just no other way to describe it. Mostly that’s due to the light meter. The trouble is the meter is difficult to read in dim conditions. Even when the lighting is quite good, I need to put on reading glasses to see the meter’s little needle.

#2: It’s heavy. It’s no tank, but the Retina IIIc tips the scales at 680 grams. That means it weighs 60 grams more than my compact Pentax ME Super (with 50mm f/2 lens) and more than my Agfa Isolette II medium format camera. That said, it’s not a tremendous burden and I don’t leave it at home because of that.

#3: The auxiliary lenses. Talk about a mixed blessing. The good news is they add flexibility to the camera, the bad news is they’re a bit of a pain in the arse to use. For example, let’s say you want to use the 35mm lens. First, you remove the 50mm lens and attach the 35mm. (Actually, that’s easier said than done because you need to find some place to put the 50mm lens while you attach the other one — three hands would be useful for this operation.) Next, you affix the “optical multiple finder” to the accessory shoe. You use the camera’s rangefinder to focus, read the distance off the focus scale, then transfer it to a second scale on the underside of the lens, making sure to line the distance up to the correct tick mark — there’s one for the wide-angle lens, and a different one for the 80mm lens. Now, set your shutter and aperture, making sure not to select an aperture less than f/5.6 (or, f/4 for the 80mm lens), which would result in under exposure. Finally, if you want to be precise about your framing, dial in the distance on the auxiliary viewfinder so that it corrects for parallax. Now take your picture, sighting through the accessory finder. Got it?

Okay, in practice it isn’t as time consuming as all that. I do use the 35mm lens quite a bit and often my subject is at infinity (or near enough), and infinity is infinity regardless of which lens you’re using. And it has to be said, the IIIc kitted out with the 35mm lens and accessory finder looks pretty damn awesome. The main problem is that the camera folds only with the 50mm standard lens in place.

There are a couple of things that I’d describe as quirks rather than problems. For example, the film advance lever is on the underside of the camera. Odd at first, but you get used to it pretty fast. The film counter is of the countdown variety and you have to manually set the count to 36 or 24 (depending on what you’re using) at the start of a fresh roll

In summary:

Pros
Super sharp lenses
Rangefinder bright and easy to see
Compact folding design
Doesn’t need batteries. Ever.
Built to last forever
Flash sync to 1/500 second
Can still be serviced
Doesn’t need a case

Cons
Relatively heavy
Fiddly
Need glasses to read light meter
Auxiliary lens system complicated and cumbersome
Film Advance lever somewhat awkward
Counter has to be manually reset

As you can see, the “pros” outnumber the “cons,” but more than that, the main pro is the most important thing — great results.

Metal petals. Victoria airport. (Camera: Kodak Retina IIIc; Film: Kodak Ektar 100)

Mooring ring sculpture, Victoria, B.C. (Camera: Kodak Retina IIIc; Film: Ilford XP2 Super 400)

Truck stop, outside Osoyoos, B.C. (Camera: Kodak Retina IIIc; Film: Kodak Ektar 100)

Click here for more Retina IIIc sample images.

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3 Responses to Favourite Cameras: Kodak Retina IIIc

  1. Jim Grey says:

    Wow, great results from your IIIc. The accessory lenses do sound like an awful pain. But what other choices were there in the 50s for interchangeable lenses?

  2. Hey Gary, thanks for the article on the IIIc! I bought one of these from my local repair guy when I was fresh out of college. I loved the feel and quirkiness of it and soon found, as you did, that the optics and accuracy of the camera are exceptional so I’d often take it on shoots with me alongside much more quick/modern cameras like my Nikon FM series where it fit in just fine. About 5 years ago, I accidentally got the 50mm lens stuck crooked on the mount while swapping it back from the 80mm and it sat unused but not forgoteen until a few days ago when I was taking some other cameras in for repair. My repair guy was able to remove the 50 and today I have it with me, taking photos again. I am excited to work it into my rotation again and hopefully, now that I have been using Leica’s for several years, to put this top notch, fun little rangefinder to better use! Here are just a few photos I took with it previously.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/johnnymartyr/sets/72157674573757576

  3. Hello,
    I love my RETINA IIIC. I am a swiss photographer and I bought it some years ago for 50 francs. The lens XENON is GREAT !!!!! I use it for concert photos…..
    it is very difficult to change the speed and apertures in low light context but you must be ready before going in the place…..
    Great camera, Great design, I thin the lens is better than my leitz !!!!!

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