Cameras, Photography

Kodak Signet 40

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Let me be clear: I don’t need any more Kodaks. It’s not that I don’t like Kodaks, but I already have plenty in my collection. My camera wish list includes certain Olympuses and Yashicas and Konicas and Pentaxes, but I keep not buying them because I blow my vintage-camera budget on Kodaks. They’re just so easy to come by!

So not long ago I made a pact with myself – no more Kodaks! And then almost immediately I came upon this lonely Signet 40 for ten bucks. Clearly, my self-pacts aren’t very effective.

Kodak Signet 40

It was dirty, so I cleaned it up – but unfortunately with a little too much enthusiasm. See the outer ring surrounding the lens barrel? It contained a depth-of-field scale. Notice how I used the past tense there? I scrubbed with a little too much vigor and it came right off. Argh! I was so mad at myself that I bought a broken Signet 40 for a couple bucks with the intent of swiping its unmolested depth-of-field ring. Just you watch, I’ll never get around to it. That’d be just like me.

Kodak Signet 40At any rate, on the Kodak scale the Signet 40 is a pretty decent camera. It doesn’t rise to the level of the Retina line in build quality, but it is substantial and well assembled of plastic and aluminum.

The Signet 40’s 46mm f/3.5 Ektanon lens also doesn’t compare to the Schneider-Kreuznach lenses typical of Retinas. As best as I can piece together the Signet 40’s lens is a three-element design. The circled L on the lens surround announces that the lens is “Lumenized,” which I gather is Kodak-speak for a magnesium fluoride coating. This lens is also radioactive, as its glass contains thorium oxide. Curiously, this is a unit-focusing lens – the entire lens moves in and out as you focus, rather than just the lens’s front element.

The Signet 40’s Kodak Synchro 400 shutter allows shutter speeds from 1/5 to 1/400 second – pretty speedy for a camera of this caliber. You have to manually cock the shutter, though.

Up top is a frame counter, a film-type reminder wheel, and a very large rewind knob that gives tips for shooting with Kodak films available at the time. The rewind lever is on the back in the upper right. The shutter button is on the front, right of the lens barrel as you hold the camera.

Kodak Signet 40

The Signet 40 was produced from 1956 to 1959. At $65 when new, which is equivalent to about $528 today, the Signet 40 was a major purchase. But its features and reasonable build quality suggest that it would be a capable performer in the hands of a motivated amateur.

My Signet 40’s shutter was sticky, but I just kept cocking and firing it and pretty soon it loosened up. So I dropped in a roll of Kodak 200 and started shooting. This camera was reasonably pleasant to use. The controls all worked smoothly, especially the focusing ring, which operated with a single finger as I lined up the viewfinder and rangefinder images. The rangefinder’s image was on the dim side, which sometimes made it hard to use; perhaps a good cleaning would help it. I shot Sunny 16, which placed the aperture selector right next to the cocking lever. Several times I moved the aperture selector to f/22 when I meant to cock the shutter.

I met a friend for breakfast the morning I loaded my Signet 40. This ’64 or ’65 Plymouth Barracuda was in the restaurant’s parking lot. The hair in the upper right is a gift from the camera shop that scanned the negatives.

Ooh, Barracuda

I take a lot of test photos around my house. This wall is my next-door neighbor’s. I’m really happy with the warmth I got out of these colors.

Brick and blue

These are the doors to my shed. That’s precisely my shed’s shade of blue.

Barn door

These are some neighborhood boys I found climbing the maple tree in my front yard. I wish I had moved in closer.

Neighborhood climbers (crop)

If you look closely in the photo above, you’ll find a bicycle lying on the ground. I moved in close to photograph this wheel. The composition isn’t all that great, but I think it shows how well the lens captures detail all the way out to the corners. Well, the bottom corners, anyway. I managed to get a little depth of field (which isn’t easy when shooting Sunny 16) and some bokeh shows up in the upper corners.

Bike tire

Another afternoon my dog and I drove over to Holliday Park, one of my favorite places to test an old camera. I found this AMC Jeep in a parking lot there. You don’t see too many of those anymore.

Renegade

I lined this up carefully in the viewfinder to test how “true” it is. It’s not bad. I had this perfectly centered in the viewfinder, but it’s shifted slightly left in the image. The negative shows a little more on the right than the scanned image does. Over the Jeep’s left fender you can see a little bit of The Ruins, which I photographed more extensively with my Minolta Hi-Matic 7.

Seven Slots

I’ve made endless trips to Holliday Park but had never noticed this in the landscaping before.

Indiana

And so I found that the Signet 40 is a capable performer. I got better shots from it than I got from my Kodak Retina Ia and my Kodak Retinette IA – but it helps that I’ve learned a lot about using a camera and framing a shot since then. Maybe I should dust off those cameras and give them another whirl.

Do you like vintage cameras? Then check out my entire collection!

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34 thoughts on “Kodak Signet 40

  1. ryoko861 says:

    Was this one of Kodak’s higher end cameras? Did all of Kodak’s cameras use thorium oxide? Would that account for the great picture quality?

    What a cute find. At least it works despite your enthusiastic cleaning. It’s still a great little camera.

    Of course, I can’t end without commenting on the Barracuda. SWEEEET! True, you don’t see many Renagades either.

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    • It was a pretty expensive Kodak for its day. Kodak’s mission was photography for the masses, so they sold a lot of inexpensive fixed-focus cameras. The thorium oxide was present in only a few of Kodak’s lens types, and was not used at all in their inexpensive cameras.

      The Barracuda was a remarkable find, especially out here in rust country. Those modern tires look kind of funny on the car, as if it were wearing shoes two sizes too big!

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      • ryoko861 says:

        I have A-LOT of those fixed-focus Kodaks! Now I have something ELSE to check into at garage sales! Thanks! No, really, thank you!!

        Were those Craigers on that car? It does look a bit funny with those wheels.

        Like

        • They do look kind of like Cragers, but I don’t know for sure. I like my old cars restored to original, so when I see mods I kind of gloss over them.

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  2. Lone Primate says:

    I like that shot with INDIANA poking through the grass. :) Any idea how they keep that clear? That’s the kind of thing I’d expect to be overgrown and lost in the soil in just a few years…

    Like

    • LP, it’s in a landscaped area — kind of a flower bed that gets mulched annually. So it appears to get enough maintenance to keep it from disappearing. There are two other pieces of this, I think they say “National” and “Bank,” as they were on the former Indiana National Bank building.

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    • Thanks Cindy! It was fun shooting with this camera. I had more fun with my Zeiss-Ikon Contessa LK recently, and as soon as I get the film developed I’ll share about that camera, too!

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  3. kali says:

    I just found my grandpa’s old Kodak signet 40. I am excited to use it. The range finder is way to dirty to even see through it. Any suggestions for a beginner to try and clean it?

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    • Hi Kali — unfortunately, I haven’t tried taking my Signet 40 apart. I hear that Kodak published a service manual for this camera and that they sometimes pop up on eBay; perhaps you could look for one.

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  4. Andre says:

    Thanks for your review! I have the same camera. I usually don’t buy Kodaks, but could not resist with this Signet 40. It looks very cool.

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  5. I got a used Signet 40 from my grandfather in 1980…in those days flash units and other accessories were easy to come by at flea markets, and you could still get 5B flash bulbs at Kmart. I took a lot of great shots with that camera.

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  6. Jaideep Sidhu says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for the review.

    I too recently purchased this camera and it is not very clean. I was wondering how did you clean the metallic exterior? Also, the viewfinder is dusty and dim, any recommendations?
    Thanks.

    Like

  7. Ashley says:

    Hi! Great blog- I just bought the signet 40 at a garage sale. Picked up some 35mm film and was ready to shoot. However, I can’t see thru the viewfinder… It’s just black. I have the lens open. Any advice!? Thank you!!

    Like

    • Ashley, the viewfinder isn’t coupled to the lens. If you can’t see through the viewfinder, the viewfinder is simply broken, I’m afraid. I’m struggling to imagine just what could be wrong. Maybe something inside wiggled loose and is blocking the view.

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  8. David Keyes says:

    I bought my Kodak Signet 40 in 1956 for a wholesale price of about $40 (my father worked for a distributor of Kodak cameras). I used the camera exclusively for over 20 years and got many of my best pictures from it. The camera has been sitting in my closet since then, together with it’s flash attachment and the large and small flash bowls. I even have some of the bulbs left over. I think my light meter has long since disappeared. I am thinking of getting the camera back out of the closet and using it with some rolls of film, just for fun. I think the camera is still in virtually mint condition–no fading of the depth of field scale or anything else. But when I get it out again, maybe I will see deterioration from storage. I’ve since used everything from compact cameras to lots of SLR’s and DSLR’s, with lots of lenses. Somewhere along the way, I got lazy and mostly started using automatic exposure settings and taking lots of shots hoping to get a few good ones. I think my photographer skills were better with the Signet 40 and its predecessors that I used going back into the 1940’s. To this day, I am most comfortable with its 46mm focal length–a rare length in today’s market, and I really notice the difference when I use either a 35mm or a 50mm. I could get to about 46mm with a zoom, but like many people, I tend to zoom either all the way in or all the way out, and maybe back off just a little. So your blog on the Signet 40 brings back memories . . .

    Like

    • I encourage you to dig out your Signet 40 and shoot with it again. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised — both by the nostalgia of using it again, but also by how you view it now after so many years using SLRs and DSLRs.

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  9. Gabe says:

    Hey there,

    I was jut wondering what you would consider a reasonable price for a Signet 40. The place down the street from me, dealing mainly in estate auctions, wants $40. Does that sound steep?

    Like

    • Sounds high. I’d want it for under $20. The best way to find out what an old camera is worth is to go to eBay and search for it, and then check the box for “closed listings.” It will show you recent auctions for that item plus the prices they sold for.

      Like

  10. Bob Cardwell says:

    This was a fairly expensive camera in its day. I wish my family had used such a good camera to take all are family photos on. Most of the family pics are on a cheap “camera for the masses” and are never clear or clean. I have several of the Signet model cameras. I have yet to find a Signet 80 I can afford. I have several dozen cameras in my collection, including three Retinas, but this model is my favorite. I once took a great photo of my Dad that was just perfect with color and focus. Nothing about the photo said antique. I enjoy your blog. It seems I visit many of the same areas as you. I am a Hoosier too.

    Like

    • What I find to be interesting is how many people bought DSLRs before the camera phone took over. It seems disproportionately high compared to the proportion of people who bought similarly expensive cameras 50-60 years ago. It seems like more people settled for the simplest snapshot cameras then.

      The Signet 40 really does do a nice job — if you can figure out exposure. Not everyone can, which might be why the snapshot cameras ruled then. Today’s DSLRs are auto-everything, which delivers great quality with very little thinking needed.

      Like

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