Kodak Retina IIa Camera Review

An Affordable, Foldable, Pocketable, German-Made Mechanical Rangefinder

9 min read by Dmitri.
Published on .

Kodak Retina IIa foldable rangefinder cameras were part of Kodak’s venture into high-quality optics and design. They were meant to compete with the likes of Leica (on price and quality ambitions), designed by German engineers using some of the best glass and mechanics in the 1930s and the post-war era.

Retina IIa is one of the smallest mechanical rangefinder cameras ever made. It fits in a jacket pocket or a small purse when folded though it is on the hefty side, weighing a solid 568g/1.12lb. But that’s easily forgivable once you realize that all copies were built over fifty years ago from solid metal, glass, and leather components.

A brief history of Kodak’s “Retina” brand.

It’s been over a decade since most, including professional photographers, switched to digital cameras, and the era of generative AI is upon us. I routinely get asked if they still make film (they do!), yet, most know who Kodak is. It’s a monumentous business that’s been the leader in the field of photochemistry for over a hundred years. In 2023, they still make and sell more film than any other brand or factory.

But Kodak does not carry nearly as much clout when it comes to cameras. To get to the top of the film manufacturer mountain, they sold cheap, toy-like boxes to the masses while focusing on the key integral component — film. This is not to say that Kodak does not make best-in-class emulsions that are still unsurpassed. Still, their focus remains on film, whereas the cameras were just a tool to generate adoption.

Kodak’s Retina brand, however, was an exception.

Kodak Ektar with Kodak Retina IIa.

To make some of the best cameras of the time (and to catch up with the competition), Kodak approached August Nagel, a German camera designer who was instrumental in founding the famous Zeiss brand. By then, he was already running his own factory, Nagel Camera Werks AG, and in 1931 it became Kodak’s property as Kodak AG – Dr. Nagel Werk.

From 1934 to 1969, Kodak AG – Dr. Nagel Werk made rangefinders, viewfinders, and SLRs, known as some of the better-made cameras of the time.

Retina IIa was a part of that lineup, featuring a folding design and a coupled rangefinder. It was also known as Type 016 due to Kodak’s incredibly confusing branding for their Retina cameras:

The Roman II meant that the folding design included a coupled rangefinder, I was a viewfinder-only, and III came with an uncoupled exposure meter. Second-generation Retinas had an “a” appended to the Roman numerals. Later versions had lower-case “b” and upper-case “B” for the newer, “premium” versions, then “c,” finally concluding with Retina IIIC — Kodak’s latest, most-featured, and most-prized foldable rangefinder.

If you think that’s confusing, check out the Wiki page for Retina cameras and weep. I’ve omitted a lot of insanity here just so that we could get to the actual camera review.

Kodak Retina IIa with its lens out.

Kodak Retina IIa specs and controls.

Retina IIa sports a standard top-tier spec list of the time, which includes a fast 𝒇2.0 Schneider-Kreuznach Retina-Xenon 50mm lens with a close focus of 3.5’ or just over 1m. It has a whisper-quiet leaf shutter that fires between 1s and 1/500s + Bulb.

Without film, the camera weighs 565g (1.25lb). It measures (roughly) 12cm × 8.5cm × 4.5cm (4.7” × 3.3” × 1.8”) when closed.

Its coupled rangefinder combo has a small window at the back that helps you focus using a tab on the lens; the lens has to be set to infinity to fold the camera. Folding the lens needs it to be unlocked with two small round buttons on the top and the bottom of the lens square frame; unfolding is done by first unlocking the door with a small button next to it at the bottom of the camera.

The frame counter counts the frames down from 36; it’ll need to be adjusted by hand after loading the film — you can do this by rotating the wheel on top of the film advance lever clockwise (it clicks with every frame).

Opening the film door is done by pulling the tab on the side; the film-loading process is relatively simple on IIa. You can advance your film a few frames without releasing the shutter by pressing a shorter button next to the film advance lever instead of the taller shutter button each time. Once you’re done with your roll, you’ll need to unlock the winder by pressing a small round button on the bottom plate opposite of the film advance lever; then, you’ll need to rotate the knob on the left counter-clockwise.

Other features of this camera are a cold accessory shoe, a PC socket for flash sync at all speeds, a tripod hole, strap lugs, and a useless film reminder ring (since the film names etched on it are no longer made). If you’d like a memo for the film you have in your camera, I suggest using the Film Log app instead.

Kodak Retina IIa in use.

These cameras look deceptively small. They can fit in a jacket pocket, but Retina IIa’s have a lot of sharp angles and weigh quite a bit, so they will not sit there comfortably. It’s best to keep one in a bag or use a wrist strap and carry it in hand.

If you know your Sunny 16, this camera is quick to ready after some practice. It took me a bit of time to get used to its tiny aperture lever and a small rangefinder window — but they both work fine.

Note that the viewfinder on these cameras has no parallax correction, meaning you need to aim your camera slightly higher when taking landscape-oriented pictures up close. That, and the fact that you have to set the lens to infinity before folding the camera, is not ideal. But the only folding rangefinder of the era that fixes those issues is Voigtländer Vitessa — one of my all-time favourite cameras.

Kodak Ektar with Kodak Retina IIa.

Schneider-Kreuznach Retina-Xenon 𝒇2 50mm lens image quality.

Retina IIa’s lens is well-corrected for aberrations, though I didn’t find it as sharp as the best glass of the era. I thought it was somewhat soft throughout, showing more blur in the corners. This improves when the lens is stopped-down — but never to the point when it can be as sharp as Vitessa or Retina IIIC. Maybe that’s just my copy.

Kodak Ektar with Kodak Retina IIa.

I also found that the glass has coloured my photographs in slightly warmer tones than I’d expect to see with a modern lens. This may be exactly what you’re seeking in a vintage camera — or, again, this could just be my copy. It certainly has a character.

To its credit, the lens can produce decent contrast — particularly when shot with high-contrast stocks such as Kodak Ektar. But don’t expect your Retina IIa to create results as crispy as a modern camera would. That’s not where its strengths are.

Being a fast 50mm lens, Retina-Xenon can render nice bokeh with a noticeable swirl and soft cat-eye balls. It’s hard to pass judgements on the quality of lens distortions as it’s a personal preference, but I can certainly say that to my eye, Retina IIa can be a worthy choice if you’re looking to create an undeniably vintage feel that won’t overpower your subject or take away from the story being told.

Kodak Ektar with Kodak Retina IIa.

Kodak Retina IIa build quality.

Retina IIa cameras are solid, well-built gadgets, many of which will still be usable a century after being manufactured. However, they are known to have two major flaws:

Zeiss bumps, which are small button-like bulges at the back of the camera. They form due to rust pushing out the leatherette in places where the metal parts were joined. This is not a big deal and can sometimes be repaired.

The other issue is the film advance, shutter, and film counter mechanisms. This is easy to diagnose but not as easy to repair on your own. Luckily, these cameras are relatively cheap, so you can always find spare parts for your technician or a “new” camera to make things easier.

Kodak Retina IIa vs Kodak Retina IIIC.

Kodak Retina IIIC features several improvements over their earlier IIa design. It has a more rounded shape that feels better in hand, it lets you use interchangeable lenses (though it is a pain to do so), and it has a significantly larger viewfinder window.

Its other features, such as a built-in uncoupled light meter, are less important in my opinion but I must say that it is an overall better-made and maybe even better-looking camera. The IIIC’s tend to weather the time better — I haven’t seen a single one with Zeiss bumps, and the version I had still had an accurate light meter.

There were many versions of lenses and, given how long ago these cameras were manufactured, many variations in how well they held up. But in my experience, Retina IIIC made sharper images with more accurate colours.

Still, the IIIC is bulkier and heavier than IIa; it is trickier to figure out how to operate without a manual and significantly more expensive.

How much does Kodak Retina IIa cost, and where to find one.

As of this writing, Retina IIa cameras can be found in decent supply, priced between $30 and $250, with most pieces costing around $60. Naturally, film-tested, CLA’d or recently-repaired cameras will be priced higher. If you’re looking for one to be used daily, ask the seller whether they at least tested its shutter, frame counter, film door, rangefinder patch, and film advance mechanisms.

While not perfect (what is?), Retina IIa is a solid camera for everyday photography if you like the results and don’t mind the weight.

By the way: Please consider making your Kodak Retina IIa camera purchase using this link  so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!