Camera Reviews

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.


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.


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!