Automatic exposure control on a Kodak Retina? You bet, and it was about time. Yet some of the Retina cognoscenti look down their snoots at these, the Retina Automatics. They decry the whole series as a cheapening of the line.
Kodak produced Retina Automatics in its German factory from 1960 to 1963. The Automatic III, which debuted in early 1961, sat atop the line and featured a coupled rangefinder. It also packs a four-element 45mm f/2.8 Schneider-Kreuznach Retina-Xenar lens set in a Compur leaf shutter that operates from 1/30 to 1/500 second. The Automatic II was largely the same but for lacking a rangefinder. The Automatic I was further decontented, stepping down to a lesser lens and shutter.
Through the 1950s, photographers aspired to well-made rangefinder cameras. The Retina was Kodak’s entry into that competitive market. But by 1960 the 35mm SLR was supplanting the rangefinder camera atop the heap of aspiration. Kodak surely added automatic exposure to the Retina as a way to keep photographers buying just a little bit longer.
The Automatics’ usage is a little wonky compared to the modern autoexposure standard, but I expect that 1961 buyers weren’t bothered as such things were yet far from settled. There is no in-viewfinder exposure display — it’s only on the top plate. Having to move the camera away from your eye to check aperture is a pain. Fortunately, the Automatics won’t let you fire the shutter when it can’t get good exposure at the selected shutter speed. So you only need to check the aperture when you’re concerned about depth of field. These are also shutter-priority cameras, which feels odd today when aperture-priority autoexposure clearly won that battle (but, of course, lost to programmed autoexposure).
If you don’t like messing with any of it you can set exposure the old-fashioned manual way — this is a fully mechanical camera, after all. Given that these all use selenium exposure meters (made by Gossen; look for the name embossed in the glass), your chance is better than even that the meter has given up anyway. When buying a camera with a selenium meter, look for one that’s always been stored in darkness or with its meter covered. It increases your chance of success. This Automatic III was so stored, and its meter reads accurately enough.
That said, when my test roll (Kodak Gold 200) came back from the processor I ended up reducing exposure in Photoshop by a half stop on most images, as super sunny summer days washed things out. I blame the blisteringly bright days because I shot two other rolls of color film in other cameras at about the same time and got similar results from all of them. Regardless, this was a perfectly pleasant and functional Retina.
This camera’s design is common to German camera makers of the time, down to the giant, knurled shutter button perched aside the lens board. I haven’t enjoyed using those on other cameras for being awkward to reach and having too much travel, but this one was fine on both counts. It operated smoothly, too.
Downtown Fishers, Indiana, is heavily under construction. I wonder if 20 years from now someone will come upon this post and be astonished by seeing these then-stalwart buildings unfinished.
This was a perfectly delightful camera to take on a photo walk, even though I carried it in my hands the whole time. (I left the leatherette case, to which a strap is attached, at home. I find them to be cumbersome, and so use them only for storage.) And as downtown Fishers transforms from sleepy little village of single-story homes into a modern, dense city center, there’s always something new to see when a camera is in my hand.
I’ve always lived in well-established cities with all of their problems. I admit to a little prejudice against shiny, new cities like Fishers, flush with tax revenue from its upper-middle-class residents. It’s easy to build to a grand vision with that kind of money. Given how many of those residents choke I-69 each morning on their drive to work in well-established Indianapolis, I wish some of their taxes went to restore the crumbling infrastructure of the city whose existence frankly allows Fishers to thrive.
Oh! Sorry, this is a camera review, not a screed against wealthy suburbs. Let’s move from Fishers to my Indianapolis front yard and its blooming garden. My gardens are no longer blooming, so it’s nice to see this image from just a few weeks ago as blooms were still popping.
Any Kodak Retina is a reasonable camera to use in this modern age simply because the lenses are so wonderful and the usage isn’t too complicated. One, maybe two test rolls are all you need to learn any Retina and then make great images forever.
What it is about Retinas that make me want to use them to shoot family gatherings? For the most part I use only auto-everything cameras for such duties because they’re fast and easy to use. But every time I have film in a Retina I seem to get it out when the family is around. Someday I’m going to learn to choose slower shutter speeds and smaller apertures so I get enough depth of field to cover my focusing sins, as in this photo. There’s my wife Margaret and my son Garrett, who does not look rapt as Margaret weaves her tale.
I focused better for this photo. There’s my son Damion and my dad, who is taking his turn telling a story, as Margaret listens.
To see more from this camera, check out my Kodak Retina Automatic III gallery.
Just as I shook my fist at wealthy suburbs, I also shake my fist at anyone who looks down upon these autoexposure Retinas. They’re fine cameras. And they go for very little compared to the better-known folding Retinas. I got mine for under $40 shipped. A Retina Automatic is a fine way to dip your toes into the Retina waters. If you do, I wager you’ll like it and buy more Retinas.