Camera Reviews

Another Kodak Retina IIa

I gave my first Kodak Retina IIa away as I tried to thin my herd of cameras to just those I’d use a lot. I liked my IIa fine. But at the time I thought I liked my Retina IIc a little better, and that’s the Retina I kept.

Later, some remorse crept in. Then a reader offered to send me a Retina IIa he’d come upon but did not need. Oooh yeah baby. Here it is.

Kodak Retina IIa

My first Retina IIa was an early one, because it had a Compur Rapid shutter. Those were made only in the first three months of this camera’s run, starting in 1951. This one has the more common Synchro Compur shutter of later IIas. Kodak stopped making the Retina IIa in 1954. The serial number on this one identifies it as from late in the run, April, 1954. Even though its focusing scale is in feet, the serial number doesn’t identify it as a US export camera. It was probably sold in a military PX overseas.

Kodak Retina IIa

This one got some heavy use. Some of the exposed metal on the body is a little chewed up. The winder feels like grinding sand, and at the end of the throw you have to push it a little extra to fully wind and cock the shutter. The focusing ring is stiff, and there’s a spot where it catches and you have to push a little harder to get it through. The rangefinder patch is dim. A good CLA should restore it to full functioning, but some of the cosmetic damage is probably permanent.

Kodak Retina IIa

This IIa comes with the 50mm f/2 Schneider-Kreuznach Retina-Xenon lens. I hear you could get a IIa with a 50mm f/2 Rodenstock Retina-Heligon lens, but I’ve never seen one. The lens stops down to f/16. The Synchro-Compur shutter operates from 1 to 1/500 second. I do like shutters with 1/500 because then I can shoot ISO 400 films in them more easily.

The raised button on the bottom plate opens the camera. To close it, first focus the lens to infinity — the camera won’t close unless you do this. Then press in the chrome and black buttons on the top and bottom of the lens board, and push the cover closed.

When you load film, twist the knurled ring atop the winding lever to set the film counter to the number of exposures on your roll. If you forget, and the counter reaches zero before you’ve finished the roll, the shutter won’t fire. If that happens to you, just twist the ring to a nonzero number and keep going.

If you like Kodak Retinas, by the way, I’ve reviewed a bunch of ’em: the Retina Ia (here), the Retinette IA (here), the Retina IIc (here), the Retinette II (here), the Retina Automatic III (here), and the Retina Reflex IV (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.

I was delighted to get this camera. But when I pushed a roll of Fujicolor 200 through it, I didn’t fall in love. I know what a joy a well-functioning Retina is to use, and this IIa’s balky winder and sticky focusing ring held the joy at bay.

I took this Retina IIa to Carmel, a northern suburb of Indianapolis, on a day off from work two weeks before the coronavirus confined us all to our homes. Statues like these are all over Carmel’s downtown — and they’re just weird. This is the least weird one. It made my favorite photo on the roll.

Sculpture

Later, the images came back from the processor — and each one was thick with fog and haze. I hung my head. I know that when I get an old fixed-lens camera of unknown provenance, I need to inspect the lens before putting film into it. Half the time the lens is dirty. A quick swab with isopropyl alcohol clears everything up and I avoid hazy photos. I know this. I KNOW THIS. Yet I fail to do it nearly every time, and half the time I get haze.

Bub's

Thankfully, Photoshop made most of the images useful. It cleaned up this photo of Bub’s perfectly. If you’re ever in Carmel, do get a cheeseburger at Bub’s. They’re mighty good. There’s a Bub’s in Zionsville, where I live, too.

Downtown Carmel

Many of the photos still show some residual haze. Oh well. I’ve done the best I can with them.

Greenway

I remember shooting my first Retina, a Ia, in 2008. I really stumbled and bumbled my way through those first couple of rolls. I’ve gained a lot of experience with old gear since then. It’s nice to be able to pick up a camera like this now and be able to just get to work with it. I metered with an app on my iPhone. I shot the whole roll at 1/250 or 1/500 sec. because you never know about an old shutter’s slower speeds.

Downtown Carmel

I made a day out of shooting this Retina IIa (and a Pentax Spotmatic F I also had along). I had lunch at an Irish pub on Main Street and then drove over to Broad Ripple in Indianapolis for more shooting.

Broad Ripple

By this time I was used to this particular Retina’s quirks and shot it fluidly. Even a battle-weary Retina can be a pleasant enough companion.

Monon bridge

I revisited subjects I’ve shot many times, including the Monon bridge and this periwinkle storefront. There’s something comforting about returning to familiar subjects.

Periwinkle

I finished the roll in my neighborhood.

Free throw

This was the only (partly) sunny moment any of the times I had the Retina on my hands. I love how the fence fades off into the distance.

Foreshortened fence

See more from this roll — heck, see everything I’ve ever shot with any Kodak Retina IIa — in my Kodak Retina IIa gallery.

It’s been a long time since I used a Retina IIa, and I forgot the one thing about the camera I dislike: rewinding. The knob is short and hard to grasp, and the accessory shoe gets in the way as you twist it. Rewinding is a long session of short twists. You also have to press and hold the recessed button on the bottom plate the whole time. Yecch.

I’m likely to pass this Retina IIa along to a collector who will give it the tender loving care it deserves. I don’t know that I’m the man for the job.

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14 thoughts on “Another Kodak Retina IIa

  1. My grandpa had a Retina IIIc for his main camera. While well-made, the camera seems to be nothing but a collection of dubious ergonomic choices and frustrating design sensibility. Consider what was being made by Leica and Canon at the same time! I’ll use the Retina because it’s a family heirloom but I doubt I can ever love it.

    • I’m pretty sure the Retina line was at a lower price than Leica or Canon, which probably helped make them popular. I’ve gotten used to the Retina’s quirks and at this point can get good photographs from one. But yes, these are quirky cameras.

  2. Christopher May says:

    The internet seems to love the Retina IIa. While I like mine, I wouldn’t say that I’m in love with it. The form factor is nice, the lens is pretty darned good, it certainly evokes that lovely German feel.

    However, in use I find it a bit awkward. The viewfinder isn’t the best for glasses wearers like me. The focusing tab doesn’t have an intuitive feel to it. And like you pointed out, rewinding the film is kind of a pain.

    If I had to pick a favorite “quirky” rangefinder, I’d probably go with my Voigtlander Vitessa. Granted, I still need to finish the first roll of film in mine but I can tell already that I like the feel of it more. Additionally, the Ultron on it is related to the Xenon on the Retina but is supposedly even better (though I’ve always found “better” to be somewhat subjective when it comes to lenses; I’m positively allergic to some lenses that are supposed to be good and have found others that I love that the all knowing internet hates).

    The advance mechanism on the Retinas is one area where they’re prone to fail. Chris Sherlock in New Zealand is the Retina expert and offers great service and, if you’re more adventurous, plenty of YouTube videos on Retina repair. Not sure if a CLA’ed Retina IIa would make for a more fun camera for you to use but I’ll probably send mine to Chris one of these days.

    • I don’t have the experience with other compact rangefinder cameras, except the Voigtlander Vito II, which I didn’t love. But I do guess that other compact rangefinders can be delightful. So far I’ve not been willing to lay out the dough to find out. I do enjoy the look I get from the Retina lenses at least!

  3. tbm3fan says:

    Oh my, so many little quirks in cameras that get to you. You might have driven Ansel a little batty back in the days.

    • After this many years of collecting cameras, I have found a few that just fit me like a glove. It makes the quirky things on other cameras stand out all the more to me!

  4. hi Jim, one of the things I found disconcerting after trying to shoot film again after a 30 yeaer hiatus, is that with the exception of ISO, the resultant images lack metadata. Where was this image captured? When? What time of day? What aperture and shutter speed? Which lens?

    • Well, yes. That’s true. I do add stuff to the metadata — camera, film, sometimes location — in post. As for aperture/shutter speed I almost never care to remember what that was so that’s all good.

  5. Wayne S. says:

    In regard to meta data another vintage tool(s) may be in the order known as…pencil and paper…👍😂

  6. Great images, even with a hazy lens. I have a Retina 1a in really nice condition that was given to me. The Retina Guru, Chris Sherlock is right here in New Zealand so I am thinking of sending it to him for a service, too good a camera to leave sitting on the shelf I think!

    • A Ia was my first Retina. I found its itty bitty viewfinder to be challenging, but otherwise it was a nice camera!

      I may send my IIc to Chris even though it’s halfway ’round the world. It’s in good condition but I’d like to have it last the rest of my life.

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