Kodak invent modern 35mm photography.


Kodak Retina Type 118

From the outset, this legendary company understood the importance of convenience and ease when designing cameras. Convenience and ease were the keys to the overwhelming success of so many different lines of Kodak cameras. They reinvented mass market photography on more than one occasion with innovations such as the Brownie, the instamatic and the digital camera to name three.

However, I believe Kodak’s biggest contribution to photography was the introduction of the 35mm film cassette; a convenient length of film safely wrapped up in a light tight cylinder that could easily be loaded, exposed and rewound back into the cassette again. The 35mm cassette appeared in 1934. The rest is history.

Kodak Retina in portrait orientation

The long story of the Retina began in 1931 when Eastman Kodak acquired the German camera manufacturer Dr Nagel-Werke. The new business was established in Stuttgart-Wangen with Dr Nagel as its managing director and chief designer with a remit to produce a quality 35mm camera at a cheaper price than rivals.

Why is the Kodak Retina a landmark camera?

1: The first camera designed for the 35mm film cassette.
2: Kodak’s first 35mm camera.

The User Experience

The Look

Looking through twenty first century eyes, the Retina looks somewhat old-fashioned, but it would have been in keeping with the fashion of its day and would have been perceived as a smaller version of medium format folding cameras. My Retina is a Type 118 from 1935, introduced a year after the original Type 117. It is the most scarce of the pre-war Retinas, with a production of 9144 copies.

Knobs and nickel

This version differs slightly from the original by having the film advance release lever on the back of the top housing instead of having the release knob on the top of the cover between the advance knob and the viewfinder. The exterior is leather with some chrome, but mostly nickel. The nickel gives a duller but warmer appearance to the body. Kodak switched to chrome a few years later with the introduction of the type 126. I particularly like the embossed leather pattern on the body which also bears the name of the camera.

Kodak Retina

The Feel

I grew to like this camera when I appreciated its small size, particularly when folded. The leather is sufficiently grippy that I can carry this solid little block for hours in one hand in its folded position. It has been a convenient companion for long walks locally and in the hills. It is small enough for me to turn over and over in one hand as I walk, a habit I should probably try and break. If I tire of carrying, it slips into my trouser pocket or fleece breast pocket without the dragging sensation of an object too heavy for a pocket.

Sir Edmund Hillary’s famous photograph of Tenzing Norgay taken at the summit of Everest with a Kodak Retina Type 118.

To the roof of the world

Sir Edmund Hillary certainly appreciated the Type 118’s portability and convenience when he took one all the way to the roof of the world in 1953 and took the magnificent photograph of Tenzing Norgay on the summit of Everest.

It has been a convenient companion on long walks locally and in the hills.

Kodak Retina from above

In Use

The Retina is a well-featured camera, affording the user a good deal of control over exposure. The lens barrel is where all the action is on these early models. The shutter is cocked and released via a lever and release respectively both placed towards the front of the barrel. A rare advantage goes to left-handed photographers, for this is the side with the cocking lever and shutter release. At the very front of the barrel is the shutter speed dial, with speeds of 1 to 1/500th second from the Compur-Rapid mechanism. The dial closest to the lens body controls focus with a scale in meters. Between shutter control and focus control is a black aperture scale and a silver pointer to indicate the chosen aperture from f/3.5 to f/16 of the super Schneider Xenar lens (there is a version with a Tessar too).

Top of the Kodak Retina with large rewind and film advance discs.

Moving to the top of the camera body, the tapered viewfinder serves to only frame the image. The Retina is not yet a rangefinder camera. You have to approximate the subject distance and set the focus accordingly. It takes practice, but it gets easier. The top of the body is dominated by two large nickel discs at each end, serving as film advance and rewind. A small lever at the back and directly underneath the viewfinder releases the wind knob after each picture so that the film advance knob can be used. It also advances the circular frame counter

Before rewinding the film be sure to turn the dial inside the wind knob from the letter A to the letter R. This is a good 300+ degree turn to release the clutch within the wind spool.

Front of the Kodak Retina with the folding door closed.

An open and shut case

Of course, none of these instructions are any good if you can’t work out how to unfold the lens in the first place!

To open the front cover, you press a silver knob next to the large depth of field scale on the bottom of the camera. You can then use the metal lever with the Kodak name engraved to pull out the lens and extend the bellows until a click is heard.

To fold the camera, press two silver buttons by the lens plate (one on top and one underneath) and push it back into the body until another click is heard.

This camera really charmed me and got under my skin. Well-made, reliable and with a particular modus operandi committed to muscle memory, I have bonded with this camera like no other. It’s a little joy.

Top view of the camera folded illustrating its compactness.

Photographs taken with the Kodak Retina

These certainly aren’t the technically best images I have taken with the Retina. Prematurely opening the camera back which fogged many of the images. Then I concocted my own caffenol developer, which can make for interesting results! Anyway, they were taken on an immensely enjoyable and long walk in the English Lake District during the summer of 2021.


FURTHER READING:

Retina Rescue
Camera Collector Pages
CJ’s Classic Camera Collection