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Kodak Retina Reflex - 1957
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• Kodak's first SLR

• $215 in 1957 ($1668 in 2010 dollars)

This is a Kodak Retina Reflex Type 025, Kodak's first SLR, made at Kodak's factory in Stuttgart, Germany in late 1957 or 1958. The Reflex was an SLR follow-on to the Retina folders that they had been making since 1934.

In those days the major West German SLRs had leaf shutters. With the Retina Reflex you could change the front part of the lens for different focal lengths, while the rear part and the shutter stayed on the body. (See photo below.) Only a small part of the lens got changed, severely limiting the freedom lens designers had to introduce new focal lengths, as you can see from this photo:

The leaf-shutter West German Zeiss Ikon Contaflex (shown in this app) was first introduced a few years before the Retina Reflex, but not yet with interchangeable lenses. Kodak apparently rushed the first Retina Reflex to market to beat Zeiss with interchangeable lenses, judging by the Modern Photography review (below). The Reflex was a modification to the Retina rangefinder, and even took the same lenses.

Leaf shutters were more reliable than focal-plane shutters, for the West German makers, anyway, and opened fully at any speed, so they synchronized with flash at any speed, even electronic flash. Focal-plane shutters opened all the way only at lower speeds; at higher speeds the rear curtain starts moving across the film before the front curtain has finished. The problem with that is that when the flash fires some of the film is still covered.

But, from a system point of view, a focal-plane shutter is a better choice because you really want to change the whole lens, not just the front elements. You don't want to pay for a shutter with each lens, either. Perhaps most importantly, as cameras advanced and the shutter began to be integrated into the exposure-metering system, it became increasingly complicated to interface the camera body to a leaf shutter in the lens.

An in-between choice, used on later Retina Reflexes, was to put the leaf shutter behind the lens. That way each lens didn't have to have its own shutter, but the the design still limited how far the lens could extend into the body.

Leaf shutters added complexity because, since the shutter was between the lens and the mirror, it had to be open for viewing and focusing. When the shutter was pressed, the leaf shutter had to be closed before the mirror went up and, usually, a baffle opened, or else the film would be fogged. Then, once the mirror was out of the way, the shutter opened and closed to make the exposure. Winding the film (no quick return mirror) brought the mirror back down, closed the baffle, and opened the shutter. By contrast, focal-plane shutters were behind the mirror and therefore didn't interfere with viewing.

So, while leaf shutters may have been a good technical choice in 1957 for the West German makers, who weren't afraid of complex mechanics, they were a long-term dead end. Zeiss Ikon introduced the focal-plane-shutter Contarex (shown in this app) in 1958, but by then it was too late to catch the Japanese. Kodak never did make a focal-plane-shutter SLR, and stopped making 35mm SLRs altogether in 1968. The last Reflex (shown in this app), for 126 film, ended production in 1974.

Well, what I said above is right, but theoretical, and written close to when I bought my Retina Reflex in July 2009. Today, just over two years later, I finally decided to take it out and shoot with it, for the first time.

I wasn't even sure it was functional. I played around with it a bit and it seemed to be working, even the meter, which read the same as my Gossen meter (bought new only a year or so ago). Leaf-shutter SLRs are very complicated, with much to go wrong, as I said above, but indications were that all was OK.

The meter is completely decoupled. You match the needle, read off the LVS number, and then set the lens to correspond. That locks the aperture and shutter speed rings together so you can choose the aperture or shutter speed you want without varying the exposure you've set. The viewfinder is very bright (f2 lens) and the rangefinder is crisp—very easy to frame and focus. The feel when I fired the shutter was mushy, but I think that was only because a lot had to happen (close shutter, close diaphragm, raise mirror, open shutter, close shutter). The viewfinder blacks out when you take the shot; winding the film lowers the mirror (blocking light to the film) and opens the shutter and diaphragm, setting everything for the next shot.

Time to load up and try it out. Turned out it was working just great, as you can see with the three photos below.

I like this camera!

Kodak Retina ReflexKodak Retina ReflexKodak Retina ReflexKodak Retina Reflex
Ad from Modern Photography, July 1958Ad from Modern Photography, July 1958Review from Modern Photography, Dec. 1957Review from Modern Photography, Dec. 1957
Review from Modern Photography, Dec. 1957Review from Modern Photography, Dec. 1957Review from Modern Photography, Dec. 1957Review from Modern Photography, July 1958
Living above the wine shop (taken with Kodak Retina Reflex)Reflections in a thrift-store window (taken with Kodak Retina Reflex)Old car in repair-shop back lot (taken with Kodak Retina Reflex)

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