Kodak Retina I (119)

I have purposefully been avoiding Kodak cameras. There are just too many of them and they are mostly towards the bottom end of the market. Kodak seems to have had an obsession with introducing new models – both camera and film. You would think that three or four film formats would suffice but Kodak introduced 36 different film sizes in roughly a century – a new format every eight years. Most of these were only slightly different from each other – sometime only the spool differed not the film, as with 120 and 620. Kodak were the same with their cameras.

Kodak Retina I (119)
However, the Retinas are special. Firstly, they were not designed by Kodak. When Kodak wanted to break into the serious amateur market they bought a German camera manufacturer (Nagel Kamerawerk) and had the good sense to keep Dr Nagal on as the chief designer. Retinas were made from 1934 to 1969 in Germany and this model (Retina I 119) was made from 1936 to 1938. I have used serial numbers to try and get a more precise date of manufacture.
The lens was made between September 1935 and May 1936 according to my Schneider serial number list and was engraved with a serial number on 8 January 1936 according to Dave Jentz of the Historical Society for Retina Cameras (The shutter was made between 1935 and 1939 and the serial number is towards the end of that five year range so mid 1938 is my best guess. This means that the camera must have been made in 1938 and so one of the last model 119 to be made. More accurate records of serial numbers are not available from German companies – mostly because records were lost in the bombing in WWII. Dave Jentz has offered to more accurately date the camera body from the body serial number and when I have that information, I will update this blog with it.
This Retina I is very similar to good folding 120 cameras of the day (mid 1930s) and surprisingly similar to Zeiss Ikon’s Ikonta 35 of 15 years later (it is also very similar to Balda’s Baldina of a few years later).  Hubert Nerwin of Zeiss Ikon claimed to have spent the war years thinking about the design of the Ikonta 35 but I think he just had a quick shifty at a Retina.
Kodak Retina I (119)
Retina 1938
Kodak Retina I (119)
Ikonta 1949
The camera is made from a single aluminium alloy casting. It is covered with black leather (rather than leatherette) which, on this camera, is in excellent condition. The back has the word ‘Retina’ embossed in the leather in italic script. The exposed parts of the aluminium are enamelled in black. Kodak produced these cameras is twin series – the 119 (this camera) was enamelled in black and the 126 was chrome plated. Otherwise they were identical.

Blog copyright by John Margetts, 2014


Retina I (119) back view
The controls on the camera (as opposed to the shutter housing – details later) are nickel plated as is the hinge and catch for the back. As new, this will have looked very good – the soft-blueish nickel against shiny black. Unfortunately, the previous owner stored this camera in a damp place. The nickel plating has corroded leaving a blue/green deposit and some pitting of the metal. On the hinge and catch – both of which are steel – corrosion has allowed the under-laying metal to rust. This has ended with the hinge being rather stiff although it is already getting freer. The controls have cleaned up quite well with Brasso wadding with the exception of the knurled milling on the circumference of the film advance and film rewind knobs., although even those are now much improved.
The one part I find rather strange – finish wise – is the depth of field calculator on the base of the camera. This is made from steel – I would have expected brass on a camera this well designed – and the nickel plating has completely worn off from the edge exposing the steel which is now rusty.
So much for the cosmetics. The controls are what you need on a 35 mm camera. On the right hand end of the top is the film advance knob. Just below this is a clutch lever to allow the film advance to be disconnected for film rewind. Next to the film advance knob is a recessed frame counter. This is not connected to the film advance. Rather, when you press the small button to free the film advance to turn to the next frame, this button also advances the counter by one.
Slightly to the left of centre is the very small viewfinder. This is a reverse Galilean finder and too small to use while wearing glasses. On the left hand end is the rewind knob.
On the base are two items – a tripod boss (the modern standard 1/4 inch Whitworth thread) and a depth of field calculator together with the release button for the lens door.
Retina I (119) – base of camera showing the focusing knob and aperture knob.
There is no connection between any of these controls and the shutter, so the camera can only advance the film one frame, so no wasted film, but cannot prevent double exposures.
This is a folding camera so the lens/shutter are hidden behind a door. This is released by a button on the base. A spring will open the door about halfway and the user has to open the door fully. The lens/shutter come forward on struts to their operational position. There is a short bellows which are made of lacquered cloth rather than leather – the more durable option. In this case they seem to be light proof but the test film will show for sure.
Retina I (119) lens door open
The lens and shutter are mounted on a square nickel plated plate which is much more attractive than the system used by Zeiss Ikon and Voigtlander. To close the lens door, you have to depress two studs – one on top and one below the square nickel plate. You also need to make sure the lens is focussed on infinity as there is insufficient clearance to close the door is the lens is focussed any nearer.
The lens is a Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar – a four element Tessar copy – which is not coated. Lens coating was around when this camera was made (1938) but was only used on really high end cameras. This lens was very dirty and did not come clean using ROR lens cleaner. As the lens is not coated an was very dirty I took the extreme step of cleaning the glass with Brasso wadding. This was both the external front face of the lens and the internal back face. The glass is now as good as new.
Retina I (119) –  close up of Xenar lens and Compur-Rapid shutter

The lens is mounted on the nickel plate as already mentioned and this means that the camera can be focused by moving the whole lens and not just the front element. this bodes well for image quality. Rather than turning the lens, there is a knob at the bottom of the shutter housing which moves over about 100 degrees to focus the lens. This is easily done by feel with the left hand. Kodak have thoughtfully provided two focus scales, one in black and one in red. The black scale is easily visible when using the camera in portrait mode and the red scale in landscape mode. I have never seen this before and it is very useful. Incidentally, the focusing scale is in feet.

The aperture is also adjusted by a knob at the bottom of the shutter housing and this can be distinguished from the focusing knob by feel. This also has two scales making this camera very easy to use. The aperture range is from f3.5 to f16 – a very usable range. I do not care about having a fast lens as I usually stop down to f8 or f11 and very rarely go as wide as f5.6.

Being a Compur shutter, the cocking lever moves clockwise  (down in this case as it is on the left). As with the focus and aperture scales, there are two shutter release buttons. Kodak have managed this is a very simple and effective way – there is a very short cable release screwed into the cable release socket – by very short, I mean 1 cm in length (see the picture above). I think this is intended to give a reachable shutter release for the right hand in both portrait and landscape positions but it also means there is a convenient release for a left handed person.

The Compur-Rapid shutter offers speeds to 1/500 seconds although received wisdom is that it is nearer to 1/350 in most cases. I have no way of checking and I do not really care – the 1/500 speed is useful and usable and that is what I care about.

Inside is fairly uncluttered. The film cassette goes on the left, there is a single sprocket at the top of the sprocket shaft and there is a fixed take-up spool.  The camera’s serial number is stamped into the metal of the door close to the hinge.
Retina I (119) inside view.
The only other thing to describe is the depth of field calculator on the base. This is quite simple to use. You rotate the outer ring until the distance you are focused on in against the central mark and then read off the furthest and nearest in-focus distances on the inner ring against the aperture you are using. To me, this is useful to find the hyperfocal distance of the lens at various apertures. To do this, align the infinity distance against the aperture you want to use and read the hyperfocal distance off the central mark – at f16, the hyperfocal distance is 13 feet, so I would focus at 13 feet and have everything between infinity and 8 feet in focus.
Depth of field calculator

The following is an advert from the British journal of Photography Almanac of 1936:

1936 001

Using the Camera (16-6-2014)

I have enjoyed using this camera with the test film. I am still waiting for the lab to finish developing the film as I managed to get the leader oily by over-enthusiastic lubrication on the film advance mechanism – they wanted permission to sacrifice the first two frames to get an oil-free piece of film to attach to the developing machine.  I should get the processed film in the morning and I will update this essay with the pictures on Thursday, all being well.
The controls are, for the most part, ergonomically placed and easy to use. The one control I found difficult  nearly impossible to use is the aperture control. Basically, this is too close to the focusing knob and it is too easy to move both accidentally. In practice, I found it easier to adjust the aperture by moving the pointer on the aperture scale.
What made this camera really easy to use is the provision of two shutter releases. Dr Nagel’s intention, I am sure, was to make the camera as easy to use in portrait orientation as it is in landscape orientation. I found it easiest to fire the shutter left-handed even though I am essentially right-handed. For a left-handed person it must have been the best camera around by far.
The viewfinder is very small, as I mentioned above. It is the standard size for viewfinders from all manufacturers until the mid-1950s. It seems strange to me that it should be so. The folding viewfinders on my Zeiss Ikon and Agfa cameras are larger and easier to use and my Zeiss Ikon Icarette has a relatively enormous (glassless) ‘sports’ finder which is a large (6 x 9 cm) wire frame positioned at the lens’ node  with a large enough frame as the eye-piece of the viewfinder. this move in the mid-1930s to enclosed reverse Galilean finders made the cameras significantly harder to use than their predecessors. having said that, the viewfinder is usable once I have removed my glasses – even if I have to compose by shape and line rather than by detail. Or is that an advantage – preventing me from being carried away by the detail?
The need to advance the frame counter before advancing the film soon became second nature and moving the clutch lever from Advance to Rewind before rewinding the film was obvious enough not to cause me any problems.

As I mentioned above, the camera had been stored in a damp place which has caused the cast aluminium body to corrode. An unexpected consequence of this was that, with very little handling, the leather covering came off the body. This was not a failure of the glue (almost certainly shellac) but the disintegration of the metal surface that the leather was glued to. This is not a problem – an application of emery paper to both camera and leather has allowed me to re-glue the leather (with modern plastic glue rather than shellac).

Test photographs:

(All copyright John Margetts)
As usual, these are all from around Lincoln. All the pghotographs are a bit on the bright sie (I have Gimped the version here) which suggests that the shutter is running a bit slow. The shutter is 76 years old so some speed variation is to be expected, perhaps, but the photographs are all exposed within the film’s latitude so the camera is quite usable.
The first picture (Silver Street, Lincoln) shows the effect of using a film in a dirty camera.  I did clean the inside of the camera before loading the film, but as you wind on the film, a very small amount of static electricity is generated – enough to attract any dirt inside the camera onto the film. It is visible in this picture as dark specks. Only this frame was affected.
First frame with statically attracted dirt.
Lincoln railway station

This next picture has needed to be adjusted for parallax faults – the verticals were converging towards the top of the picture – a lens fault.

The Strait, Lincoln
Lincoln Exchequergate
Southern African buskers in Lincoln’s St Benedict’s Square

This next shows one of the very few bridges left in Europe with shops on them. In the Middle Ages, this was usual.

High Bridge, Lincoln.

Author: John Margetts

I am a keen photographer who also collects cameras. I am retired with about 50 years photography experience.

4 thoughts on “Kodak Retina I (119)”

  1. I have a 119 from 1936 and it is remarkable how sharp it is if your range calculation is accurate. Exposures seem a bit brighter than indicated, but understandable, as these lenses are measured in f-stop, not t-stop. I really love my little 119. Thanks for the info, really enjoyed the read.


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