Thursday, August 25, 2016

Zeiss Ikon Maximar A

The Maximar line started off in 1914 under the ICA banner prior to the merger of that company into the Zeiss Ikon conglomerate. The model A version in the 6.5 x 9 cm format was produced up to the outbreak of WWII in 1939. There were two larger format versions produced by Zeiss Ikon, and several other distinct lines of compact double-extention plate cameras as well. All of these cameras had the same basic features, and one has to look rather closely to distinguish one from another, or even between those from other manufacturers. For instance, the Maximar closely resembles the Kodak Recomar.

The Maximar was not quite so nicely built and finished as it's Kodak competitor, but it did feature the same big Compur shutter with a 1/250 top speed. Like the Recomar, the Zeiss camera also had three viewing/composition options including a wire frame finder, a magnified reflex viewfinder with an attached bubble level, and a ground glass focusing back. The backs for the Maximar and Recomar are interchangable, so the same plate and film holders and rollfilm adapters can be used in both. Lens speed and focal length were an identical f4.5/105mm in the Kodak and Zeiss cameras, but the Recomar had a Kodak Anastigmat, while the Maximar A featured the superlative Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar.

Though it arrived with a lot of battle scars, my Maximar's crucial components including lens, shutter and bellows were all sound. The one worrisome aspect was a front panel that did not fully fold down; that meant that the lens standard was canted back and the lens axis was not parallel to the film plane. It seemed not unlikely that someone had tried to close up the camera without fully retracting the bellows, causing some misalignment. When I removed the lens/shutter assembly, I was able to move the bellows back to reveal the attachement of the struts to the camera body, and I could see that the anchoring posts were in an off-center mount. I got a firm grip on the post heads with some pliers and twisted the mount about 10 degrees so that posts were closer to the front of the camera. The bed dropped into position, making the proper right angle with the back. After a little lens cleaning and reassembly, the camera was ready for action.

With its double-extension bellows, multiple viewing systems and film or plate back options, the Maximar and its many relatives provided photographers of the 1920's and 1930's with very capable and versatile photogaphic systems in an extremely compact package. It is not hard to imagine why these cameras were sold in the tens of thousands. In addition to offering the convenience of a conventional folding camera or the utility of a press camera, the Maximar's ground glass focusing capability permitted high-precision focusing and framing for close-up work that produced a near 1:1 ratio of subject to image at the film plane. Fully realizing the potential of the little Maximar requires a level of skill and discipline that can be challenging, but also uncommonly rewarding for 21st Century photogaphers.

Some images from the Maximar:

Minolta Minoltina AL-S

The sleekly compact Minoltina AL-S appeared in 1965. The camera featured a fast f1.8, 40mm Rokkor-QF lens, a full range of shutter speeds from 1 to 500 plus B, and a coupled, match-needle selenium exposure meter. I found mine in an El Paso junk shop a few years ago. When I pointed out to the sales clerk that the shutter was jammed, she opted to take my $10 offer for the camera. Back home, a little lighter fluid swabbed on the shutter blades brought the shutter back to life. The selenium meter was one stop off in its readings; setting the ASA one stop higher than the film rating produced results identical to my hand-held Sekonic meter.

On running a couple rolls of film through the camera, I could easily see that the six-element Rokkor was a fine performer. However, the results I got from the camera were rather inconsistent, and it was clear that there was some further work needed to fully restore the little Minoltina. Somehow, I got distracted from the task and the camera sat on a shelf until a short time ago. When I finally got around to examining it more closely, I discovered that the camera had two issues with focus that needed correction.

I was surprised to find that the lens was not properly collimated; that is somewhat unusual in a unit-focus design in a fixed-lens camera. I was a little apprehensive about dismantling the whole lens and shutter assembly to make the necessary correction, but it turned out that was not required because of the repair-friendly construction of the camera. Removing the two screws that held on the striated focus button let me slip off the thin band at the base of the lens to reveal a ring underneath with four tiny screws. Loosening those screws permitted a rotational adjustment of the lens' infinity setting. I first set the lens to an accurate infinity focus using Mike Elek's system, and then I rotated the ring to the stop point, after which I retightened the four little screws.

The horizontal alignment of the rangefinder images also required correction. It wasn't until I got the top off the camera that I realized I could have adjusted the rangefinder just by removing the black plastic bumper/cover underneath the advance lever; that permits access to a locking screw and a notch for making coincident image corrections. No matter; the top came off very easily with the removal of two screws and the rewind button. After a light cleaning of the viewing optics and adjusting the rf image, the top went back on without incident. The final step was to make a small adjustment to the position of the thin outer band on which the distance scale is located. This is made possible by the fact that the screw holes for the finger button in the band are actually slots which permit the band to be rotated slightly so that the indicated distance setting matches the rangefinder distance.

Some images from the Minoltina:

The Minoltina AL-S user manual is available on line at the kyphoto site.

Kodak Retina IIc (Type 020)

Prior to the appearance of the Retina IIc, the Retina family of cameras looked more to the past for design inspiration, incorporating the best of what went before, but not really breaking much new ground. The IIc is still clearly a member of the family, but it has many design innovations which point to future developments.

The Retina IIc features a more rounded, streamlined appearance, the outside finish is greatly superior to earlier models, and all the moving parts have a feel of solidity and precision. The bigger and brighter viewing system has a brightline frame. The biggest change is not evident in the appearance, but becomes immediately obvious in use; the quiet Synchro Compur shutter has dispensed with the stiff little pre-tensioning spring which made shutter speed setting a little awkward in older models. As a result, the photogapher will be much more willing to leave the shutter at the 1/500 setting, even in the cocked state, for prolonged periods.

In spite of obvious enhancements in materials and design, the IIc probably did not seem like a step forward in some respects to users of earlier models. The IIc is a little bigger and heavier, and does not slip so comfortably into the pocket as its predecessors. The rangefinder, though probably more reliable and precise, now lacks parallax correction. The EV system, which couples shutter and aperture settings, seems like a real design error, though it was one that many other manufacturers indulged around the same time. The speed/f-stop settings can be uncoupled by slightly depressing the aperture lever, but this does slow the shooting process a bit.

Minor complaints aside, the Retina IIc is a pleasure to shoot, and the f2.8 Xenon lens is every bit as sharp as the faster f2 lens on the older models. The bottom-mounted film advance lever is fast and smooth in operation. The solid feel of the camera and the responsiveness of the controls inspire confidence for capturing any kind of subect under any conditions. Beyond those practical considerations, the IIc design also provides a glimpse back into the critical transitionary period after WWII when the world began to rebound from the ravages of the war to embrace a new vision of modernity.

Some pictures from the Retina IIc:

Kodak Retina IIa

I like all the Retinas, but the IIa model is my favorite because of its easy handling and compactness. To me, the camera seems ideally designed for candid and low-light work. The fine f2 Xenon lens is very sharp, even at large apertures. The Kodak designers packed a lot of functionality into a very small space, so the contruction is somewhat more complicated than earlier models with its coupled range finder and auto shutter cocking.

I've done some shutter cleaning and range finder adjustment on mine, but I've never attempted a full cleaning and adjustment on this one for fear of getting in over my head. However, these cameras are not as hard to work on as some others of the same era, and there are competent repairmen around who can get the job done. A very large number of Ia and IIa cameras were sold in the 1950's, so the cameras can be had for very reasonable prices in spite of their high quality. The most vulnerable parts are the frame advance spring and the shutter cocking rack. Those parts are interchangeable between the Ia and IIa models, and not terribly difficult to find.

In the unlikely event that I ever needed to choose just one camera to keep and use from my collection, this one would likely be it.

Some sample photos from the IIa:

The Retina IIa Manual is at the Butkus site. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Kodak Retina II (Type 014)

In the first half of the Twentieth Century, Kodak was to cameras what Microsoft was to computers in the second half. Both companies achieved dominant market presence partly by snapping up smaller rivals with innovative products. One of Kodak's early coups was the acquisition of the Nagel Company in Stuttgart which had just developed the daylight loading 35mm film cartridge and cameras to use it. What followed was a series of finely crafted compact 35mm folders marketed as the Kodak Retina.

My Retina II is a post-war model with a 50mm f2 coated Schneider-Kreuznach Retina-Xenon lens. Speeds on the Compur-Rapid shutter range from 1-1/500 second; it is very smooth in operation and nearly noiseless. The size of the camera is only fractionally larger than the contemporary pocket cameras like the Vito II and the Ikonta 35, but this Retina has a coupled rangefinder which corrects for parallax.

In operation, the Retina II is a little slow to use because it had a knob film advance and manually cocked shutter, unlike later models which featured lever winders with automatic shutter cocking. The swing-to-the-side door on the Retina II, as with all the retina folders, interferes slightly with the right hand grip and makes single handed operation nearly impossible. With the lens aperture scale inscribed on the bottom half of the lens, the camera needs to be tilted back 90 degrees to see and set the f stops. None of these features turns out to be very significant once one becomes fully accustomed to using the camera, and any shortcomings really pale in comparison to the outstanding images which are produced by this precision instrument.

I was at first disappointed in the performance of my Retina II because it had an intermittent severe light leak. The camera back made a little popping noise when pushed on; assuming that was implicated in the leak, I packed light seal strips all around the perimeter of the back. That got rid of the slight movement and pop in the back, but not the leak. The only possibility that seemed to be left was a problem with the bellows. In fact, when I extended the lens and looked very carefully, I found that one side of the bellows was completely detached from the inside of the film compartment. I daubed on some Pliobond glue and closed up the camera to let the joint dry overnight. The light leak was gone after that. However, my inexpert repair skills left a slightly bumpy seam at the base of the bellows which can be seen along the left border of my images when I print the full frame including a small portion of the surrounding film -- I kind of like it.

Most of the shooting I have done so far with the Retina II has been on city streets. Knowing I was working with a reliable, quality camera having a lens of extraordinarily high resolution gave me a lot of pleasure and self confidence in the shooting experience, whether I was taking quick hip shots or making more carefully composed compositions of architectural detail. The Retina II is not as thoroughly documented on the the Internet as are later models, but it can be acquired for less than what you will pay for the later IIa and IIc models and the image quality is every bit as good.

Some pictures from my Retina II:

The Retina II Manual is at the Butkus site.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Kodak Retina I (Type 010)

The original Retina, introduced in 1934, was the first camera to use the modern 35mm film cartridge. The Retina I appeared in 1936 and the line continued on for two decades with a series of model changes. My camera is a Type 010, built in Kodak's Stuttgart plant between 1946 and 1949; it is distinguished from the pre-war Type 148 by the presence of a barrel-shaped focus knob rather than the small conical one on the earlier camera. The lens mount is a unit focus design in which the entire lens and shutter assembly moves in and out when the focus ring is rotated. The Retina I cameras had Compur or Compur Rapid shutters and were equipped with either Xenar or Ektar lenses. Without a rangefinder, focusing was by estimation. A circular depth of field calculator on the base of the camera could be consulted to determine depth of focus at different apertures.

My Retina I was originally equipped with the Schneider Kreuznach Retina-Xenar lens, but it was badly fogged. I bought a junker of the same model but with the Anastigmat Ektar lens and used it to replace the damaged lens on the camera. That turned out to be something of an ordeal as the whole lens and shutter assembly has to come out in order to fine-tune the infinity focus. The only way to check the accuracy of the infinity adjustment is to reassemble the camera, so I felt fortunate to only have to go through procedure twice before getting it right. I probably would not have tackled the job at all were it not for the availability of some excellent instructions provided on the web site of the Retina expert, Chris Sherlock.

I have several models of the Retina line; the Retina I is the oldest and simplest, and it is a bit slower to shoot than the others because of the manual shutter cocking and the knob film advance. The basic simplicity of the Retina I is part of its charm, however, and the high-quality design and construction makes it a pleasure to handle. The Retina I is similar in regard to features and quality to the Zeiss Ikonta 35 and the Voigtländer Vito II from the same post-war era. I would find it impossible to distinguish photos shot by one from the others, or to pick a favorite among them.

 Some photos from the Retina I:

Monday, August 22, 2016

Kodak No.2 Folding Autographic Brownie

There are several cameras in my collection that I like very much, but none have taught me more about the art and craft of photography than this modest little Kodak No.2 Folding Autographic Brownie. I acquired two of them some years ago. Up until that time, I had very little interest in the old Kodak folders that seemed rather awkward looking and unpromising in terms of capacities. The first one I got was a gift from a friend who had lost his home, most of his cameras and his life's work in photography in a fire. The Brownie survived the fire in a shed, but only barely; when I got it, the outer case was falling apart, and the insides were covered with rust.

Oddly enough, the Brownie's lens, shutter and bellows seemed fine. I cleaned up the thing as best I could and put a roll of 120 film through it. I had little expectation of getting interesting photos from it, but I thought my friend might like to see something come from one of the few surviving cameras. To my surprise, the images were quite sharp and had a great depth of tonality. A close examination of the outer rim of the lens showed it to be a Rapid Rectilinear. That was a lens popular early in the Twentieth Century with the f64 Group, and used by people like Adams and Weston. While the uncoated lens does impart a particular character to the tonal quality of images, I decided that the large 6x9 negatives were probably the main influence on the richness of the tonality that came from the camera. I had seen something approaching that from some of my previous box camera images, but the combination of tonal range and sharpness from the Brownie was a real eye opener.

One thing that took me a while to understand was that the aperture values on the shutter were not what they seemed. It is a rather odd progression: "U.S. 4 8 16 32 64". It turns out that is the Uniform System used on some of the early Kodaks. The present-day standard for aperture stops expresses them as a ratio of aperture to focal length; so we get something like 8, 11, 16, 22, 32 with each increment indicating half or twice the exposure. In the Uniform System, the "16" expresses the same exposure value as the "16" in the current f-stop system, but the numerals above and below are simply doubled or halved to indicate the corresponding exposure change, rather than the proportional or ratio expression of the current system. The relationship between the two systems is perhaps most easily understood by looking at a comparison table like the one available on the Kodak Classics site.

Another oddity of the exposure values on the shutter's face is the wording attached to the numeric values, terms like "Clear", "Brilliant", "Distant View", "Marine", "Clouds". This was Kodak's Autotime Scale, an exposure system intended to assist the amateur photographer in choosing the proper time and aperture settings based on lighting conditions and subject matter. The system depended on the fact that film speed choices were very limited in those days, and it seems now to be more quaint than practical. In any case, once you understand the relationship of the Uniform System exposure values to present-day usage, it is possible to ignore the wordy jumble and proceed as you might with any camera.

Since the top shutter speed on the Brownie is 1/50th of a second, a tripod is good insurance, though not absolutely necessary if you are careful not to jiggle the camera during the exposure. Even when hand-holding the camera, I have found it useful to use a cable release in order to avoid the need to manipulate the release lever out on the end of the long bellows. Given the large negative format, there is no real penalty in terms of grain in using 400-speed film which permits small f-stops and good depth of field, along with superior tonal rendition.

My friend's Brownie wasn't really a very practical shooter because of the damage it had sustained, but I decided I needed to do something to to further explore its capabilities. I therefore purchased a nearly identical camera on line for about five bucks that had a simple meniscus lens. It was no great feat to transplant the Rapid Rectilinear and its ballbearing shutter to the newly acquired camera body. It took me a few rolls to sort out the best ways of using the Brownie, but in the end I got photos from it which I think are among the very best I have made over the years.

I have since acquired a fair number of Kodak and other folders with more advanced capabilities and more complex lenses than that on the Brownie, but I don't honestly think they have made better pictures for me.

Some sample images from the Kodak No.2 Folding Autographic Brownie:

Kodak Monitor Six-20

I don't know if the Kodak designers had the old iron-clad fighting ship in mind when they named their camera The Monitor. There does seem to be something of a family resemblance in the boxy lines and metal top deck. Still, it is a handsome camera and somewhat better built than its predecessors. Like most of the other Kodak mid-century cameras, my Monitor was made to take 620 film, and it yields a 6cm by 9cm image.

The lens on my Monitor is the 101mm f/4.5 Anastigmat Special; it is front-focusing, with four elements in three groups. The shutter is the No. 1 Supermatic with speeds from 1 sec. to 1/400 sec. and B. I have the same lens and shutter combination on my Vigilant, so much of these notes also apply to that camera. The main difference from the Vigilant is the metal top plate which houses a film advance and double-exposure prevention mechanism. There is also a pretty little dial-type Depth of Focus scale similar to those found on the Retina I. My Monitor arrived with a new-looking and light-tight bellows, but I think that is rather unusual.

Servicing the lens and shutter is relatively easy on the Monitor. Removing the front lens requires that the little post that stops the focus travel be screwed out. Then, you just unscrew the lens and focus scale; be sure to note the point at which it comes loose so you can get it started right when you go to put it back in.
    The next step is a little trickier. The rim of the central lens group projects only a small lip above the surface. This kind of thin-walled brass housing is easily deformed, so it is important to keep pliers and other dangerous tools well away from it. A good tool for getting a grip on the rim of the center lens mount is one of the Flexiclamp wrenches sold by Micro-Tools. I used a 1 3/16" size. Before you start unscrewing the center group, it is a good idea to make a mark crossing the rim to the body so that you can put it back without over-tightening. Also, you will want to note that the group housing comes loose in about one full turn. A friction tool made from a dowel and a piece of rubber will also work.
    Once the center lens is out, you can lift off the face of the shutter and get easy access to the internal levers and gears for cleaning with something like Ronsonol lighter fluid. I also removed the back lens group with a lens spanner so as to not get debris on the lens. The whole thing should go back together pretty easily.

With the lens and shutter clean and reassembled, you are ready to shoot pictures, as long as you are comfortable with re-spooling 120 film onto a 620 metal reel. The Kodak engineers went to some trouble to design a camera that will not permit the use of film on a modern 120 spool.  I experimented with using trimmed 120 reels in a film carrier from an old Agfa folder, but am happier just re-rolling 120 to 620.  There is also a version of the camera which was built for 616 film.

The Monitor user manual advises that the film initially be advanced until the number "1" is just visible in the red window. You are then supposed to move the little lever from "wind" to "1-8" and slightly turn the advance knob which activates the double exposure prevention and moves the "1" into the center of the film frame window. From there you can just crank the knob until it stops without opening the red window for positioning each frame. I initially had some problems with frame spacing but taking off the top, cleaning the mechanism and adding a little lubricant got things straightened out.

The Monitor's sleekly modern design and the nice eye-level finder will propel the user toward camera technique appropriate to a more compact camera. However, that is probably a mistake as the long 101mm lens really demands a thoughtful approach suitable for any of the older medium-format folders. A tripod and a cable release will enhance the chances of success with this camera. It is also important to ignore that pretty depth-of-field dial on the top deck as it is completely inaccurate; hard to imagine what Kodak's engineers were thinking with that feature. Luckily, there are a number of good depth-of-field table gnerators available on the web including a particularly nice one at

Below are some images from the Monitor Six-20 shot at The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque:

And one from the War Eagles Air Museum at Santa Teresa:

A manual for the Monitor Six-20 and Six-16 models is available on line at the Butkus site.