Camera Reviews

Kodak Retina Ia

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One of the things I enjoy about collecting cameras is that good-condition examples of quality vintage glass and steel remain, and average people like me can afford to buy them. However, I’m inclined to think that an excellent supply of Kodak Retina Ia cameras are available in top shape because of disuse. The Retina Ia offers no help to the photographer, who has to guess at the right aperture, distance, and shutter speed for each photo and hope for the best. Cameras that helped you with the settings were readily available, even within the Retina line – the Retina II series had a rangefinder, and the Retina III series had both rangefinder and light meter, although it came after the Ia stopped production. I can hear the Retina Ia owner after running a couple rolls of film through: “Crimony. This guess-focus stuff is for the birds. Think I’m gonna buy a Retina IIa.”

Although Kodak’s mission was to crank out millions of inexpensive, low-quality cameras to make photography accessible to the masses, Kodak really invested in its Retina line when they introduced it in 1934. Made in Germany of German components, including excellent German lenses, the Retina was supposed to compete with, or at least carry some of the cachet of, the Leicas and Voigtländers and Zeiss-Ikons, the cream of the crop. I don’t know whether Kodak hit those heights, but the Retina did become Kodak’s most celebrated camera.

The Retina Ia was made from 1951 to 1954. Mine comes with the Synchro-Compur shutter and a coated Schneider-Kreuznach Retina-Xenar f:3.5 50mm lens. When closed, you can put it in a coat pocket. Try that with an SLR! But be ready for your coat to hang funny, because this camera is heavy.

Kodak Retina Ia

A defining and endearing feature of the Retina through about 1959 is that they all folded open and closed. You can almost make out the bellows in the image below.

Kodak Retina Ia

There was no mistaking that this is a Kodak Retina; the back cover makes it pretty obvious.

Kodak Retina Ia

I ran a roll of film through my Retina Ia last weekend. I have little idea what I’m doing with f-stops and shutter speeds; most of my photographic experience has been behind a cheap point-and-shoot or my all-automatic Kodak Z730. But armed with the Sunny 16 rule, which says that on a bright, sunny day, set the camera to f/16 and the shutter to about the inverse of your film’s speed, I went out and snapped some photos. They turned out all right. I uploaded them to my Flickr space, but here are the images I liked best. This one is from the golf course behind my house. I stepped over my fence and right onto the golf path.

Golf path

This shot is from the cemetery behind my church, which was founded in 1839 on that patch of land.

North Liberty Christian Church Cemetery

My dogs are always easy subjects. This is Sugar, my 11-year-old Rottweiler, who’s been an outstanding dog. I was trying to center Sugar in the frame, and I had, as far as the viewfinder was concerned. It didn’t turn out that way. I can’t tell whether the shot suffered from parallax error or from the itty-bitty viewfinder’s vagaries. Whatever; I cropped it.


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8 thoughts on “Kodak Retina Ia

  1. Ryan, isn’t it interesting in that shot how the grave markers appear to be in black and white while everything else is in color? These markers are from the early and mid 1800s and are of original settlers in this part of Marion County. They formed the church in 1839.


  2. jef says:

    very nice. stumble upon this site when im searching more info about retina Ia.. so this is a scale focus retina.. :) how did you get a good focus with your dog? nice shots!



  3. Jef, thanks for dropping in. I mostly lucked out getting good focus on my dog. I used the Sunny 16 rule to set the aperture and shutter, and guessed at distance.


  4. Barry says:

    Hi Jim,
    Last weekend,I was ‘scrunging’ aroun the gararge (full off every thing
    you could imagine, except the car) And there in a shoe box ,was my old
    Retina 1a.
    I bought this back in the mid 60’s. Used it for ‘slides’ ,most of them used
    as ‘ back’effects with mirror balls etc, at local dances and ‘hops’. Basically this
    camera was ‘all right’ with slides,but photo snaps , well.
    The camera is still in ‘good nick thou. Its been in that shoe box since the beginning of the 70’s. Bought a Nickon F with all the goodies and accesories
    Still has its leather case, and I think the instruction book is somewhere in that
    Garage.I never knew its history or pedigree.Bit of a “moo cow” putin’ the film in.

    Barry….(rock on:>)


    • Hi Barry! I hope you’ll run a roll of film through your Retina now that you’ve found it. That’s the fun of owning old cameras! I’ll bet your Nikon F was a lot of fun and a lot more versatile, though.


  5. eppaar says:

    Some comments about the Retina 1’s.

    With the Retina series Kodak would tweak the design without changing the model number. The differences were indicated by Type. Yours looks like a Type 015. The Retina 1 started in 1936 and was made until 1950. Then Kodak made a major change and thus used a different name. The Retina 1a used a lever instead of a knob to advance the film. The same action also cocked the shutter which was a separate action in the Retina 1. The 1b moved the lever to the bottom of the camera and the 1B added a meter and, at least in America, frame lines in the view finder.

    Before auto focus came along in the 1980’s most of the time photographers (of which I was one) depended on the hyperfocal distance rather than a rangefinder. A rangefinder was fine for static subjects but was useless for anything that moved. The lack of a rangefinder made the camera more affordable and remember these were expensive cameras.

    If you didn’t want to use the “sunny 16” rule you could invest in a light meter (in America this would have probably have been one the Weston Master units). Even though I had a Retina IIIc I found that I could get more accurate results using a Weston Master III.

    As far as reputation is concerned Leica and Contax (Zeiss) were the top of the heap. Voightlander and Kodak were second tier.

    Give the Retina another chance, the lenses on all of them are excellent.



    • I gave this camera away last year after buying a Retina IIa. Its bigger viewfinder and its rangefinder made it a much more practical camera to use.

      Seriously, that Ia’s viewfinder was so small it was almost useless. What a way to hobble an otherwise great camera.


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