Camera Reviews

A second look at the Kodak Retina Ia

Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime. Here’s one of my oldest camera reviews, from when I was just learning photography.

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. 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 cream-of-the-crop Leicas and Voigtländers and Zeiss-Ikons. 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.


Do you like vintage cameras? Then check out all of my reviews!


2 thoughts on “A second look at the Kodak Retina Ia

    • It’s the classic problem with viewfinder cameras. The finder isn’t in the same place as the lens and it’s challenging to line them up. However, I look for the maker of a fine, expensive camera to take the time.

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