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.
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.
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
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
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.
Click here for more Retina IIIc sample images.
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