Kodak’s Retina IIIC (Big C) is the best — i.e., the most-featured rangefinder the iconic American brand has ever produced. It was built in the 1950s by German engineers and housed German optics.
The Retina — which came over half a century before the modern Retina displays — is a versatile, manual-control foldable film camera with interchangeable front lens elements and a kit 50mm 𝒇2.0 Retina-Xenon C produced by Schneider-Kreuznach. Versions of this camera can also be found with Rodenstock Heligon C lenses — which are not interchangeable with the Xenon model.
The size of the letter “C” that follows the “III” on this camera matters — greatly. Kodak’s confusing naming of the camera places the IIIc, with the small “c” below the IIIC in terms of the rangefinder combo quality and the unit price.
Retina IIIC specs and varieties.
As you know, the letter “C” looks the same in upper- and lower-case; but worry not: the “Big C” Retina camera looks substantially distinct from its “lower-c” counterpart. It features massive rangefinder and viewfinder windows at the front that are hard to miss. The IIIC also has a circular rangefinder patch and a larger selenium light meter sensor with no flappy door.
Aside from Kodak’s remarkable ability to confuse its camera users for over half a century, their Retina cameras sold well and were also made well. They were created using the best tech available at the time, with the top engineers Kodak could hire at the German Nagel Werk camera factory in Stuttgart. Retinas were made to compete with the best of the time: Leica, Voigtländer, and Zeiss.
Kodak’s top-level rangefinder-type 35mm film camera features a sharp 50mm 𝒇2.0 Retina-Xenon C/Heligon C with a close-focus distance of 0.8m. It has a silent leaf shutter with a top speed of 1/500s and a selenium light meter that works with film ISOs of 10-3200. Its film winder is mounted on the bottom plate, and the viewfinder is remarkably comfortable. Retina IIIC weighs 640g (1.4lb) without film and measures roughly 13cm × 9cm × 5cm (5” × 3.5” × 2”), which makes it “pocketable” in its closed form — but only if you’ve got a large coat or a heavy jacket. Additionally, the camera comes with a cold accessory shoe, a PC flash socket, strap lugs, a standard tripod hole and a shutter remote port.
IIIC is the final iteration of Kodak’s foldable Retina cameras. It is the predecessor to their Retina SLR series — which the company shut down later in the century and has never made a top-quality camera product since.
Ambition and spec-wise, Retina IIIC is Kodak’s topmost offering, at least when it comes to 35mm rangefinders. But it’s not the only good camera Kodak made — there are many Retinas that preceded IIIC, many of which are preferred by photographers, such as the IIa. Nevertheless, IIIC brings the most advanced features, including its unusual interchangeable-lens system that lets you shoot a selection of 35mm, 50mm, and 80mm lenses.
Retina IIIC controls and ergonomics.
Retina IIIC is an old fancy puzzle box. I’ve used dozens of vintage cameras over the years, yet it’s Retina that got me confused enough to venture online for help. Loading film and manually resetting film counter takes over a dozen moves. The coupled aperture/shutter speeds, along with the peripheral distance scales at the bottom of the lens (for the 80mm and 35mm attachment), are somewhat fiddly and perplexing at first. Confused? Read my quick start guide below.
I don’t like the film winder at the bottom plate. It’s awkward to use with my right thumb, and it’s still awkward with my right middle finger.
Awkward setup, metering, and film advance aside, Retina IIIC is reasonably practical. The shutter button is well-placed and well-balanced, which makes sharp hand-held shots at 1/15s possible. The focusing knob on Retina IIIC is somewhat slow; my model shows stiffness due to aged lubricants.
Few mid-century camera makers could match the comfort and the informativeness of Retina IIIC’s finder. With bright lines for 80mm, 50mm, and 35mm, it’s perfectly usable with glasses on for most situations. The eyepiece looks large and inviting though its frame is made of metal that can scratch your spectacles over time. The eyepiece is surrounded by a groove which you could theoretically use to attach a 3D-printed rubber cushion.
The rangefinder patch is round and isn’t as contrasty as Retina’s top mid-century 35mm competing folder — Voigtländer Vitessa. It works well with the native 50mm lens and becomes a distraction with the 80mm and 35mm attachments, as it’s no longer functional with those lenses.
The selenium light meter on my Retina IIIC is still functional — sixty years past its manufacturing date — and it requires no battery. However, its accuracy drifts in full sun and deep shadows.
Overall, Retina IIIC is decent in use, though you should know that I am often eager to trade ergonomics in for fancy looks and top build quality. But I am less willing to give up my image quality, especially on a camera that sells for over $500 in mint condition.
Retina-Xenon C by Schneider-Kreuznach image quality.
Retina IIIC’s 𝒇2.0 Retina-Xenon C, which most users agree is virtually identical to the Rodenstock Heligon C variant, features top-tier coating and correction according to the 1950s. The technology of the time prevented it from retaining edge-to-edge sharpness at its widest aperture and couldn’t correct the swirly bokeh balls — which many photographers seek in a good vintage lens.
Stopped-down, my Retina-Xenon C showed no noticeable aberrations, rendering scenes sharply (almost) corner-to-corner. This lens also manages to correct vignetting exceptionally well at all apertures.
Retina IIIC renders scenes with mild contrast; it can also flare considerably in some situations. I think it shows a lovely character with a decent amount of realism for everyday shoots and leaves enough room to be pushed toward surrealism for moodier images.
Retina IIIC may not match the Leica rangefinder’s minimalist monolith perfection or the brilliant clean lines of Voigtländer Vitessa A, but it’s not far off.
The camera is very well built with a top-notch finish and remarkably-precise tolerances all around. It feels sturdy, solid while still maintaining the reasonably-compact factor. The camera looks expensive, especially in mint condition. The manufacturer gave a lot of attention to detail — whether it’s the barely-noticeable yet delightfully minute branding stamps on the leatherette or the cleverly-placed multitude of toggles and buttons of various sizes bejewelling its mix of polished and brushed aluminum surfaces.
Despite existing years well beyond my own, IIICs can still be found in excellent condition. I have no doubt that these artifacts may survive another hundred years, with many remaining in working condition with minimal maintenance.
The interchangeable lens elements on Retina IIIC.
Retina IIICs’ upsides, obvious through use and handling, are balanced with its designers’ feature-packed brief that forced Kodak to beef up the shell with awkward controls and volume. This is the bulkiest model in the foldable series — all to appease the customers’ demanding wishlist. And one of the checkboxes on that list was the ability to attach various lenses.
By design, lens mounts add weight and complexity. This runs counter to the foldable/pocketable camera paradigm, which Kodak engineers resolved by creating a system of attachments that replace the front element of the IIIC’s lens with various bayonet-mounted glass elements while keeping the rear lens undisturbed.
As one would expect, the unique and fantastical ability to switch focal length on a bellowed 35mm film camera comes with significant drawbacks. First, you must double-check that your lens attachment matches your Retina’s lens type (Xenon does not work with Heligon attachments). You also should make sure that your lens element matches the measurement units — my camera body used meters, whereas the 80mm attachment I bought used feet, which made focusing challenging. And finally, even if you’ve made the right purchase, you’ll need to prepare to spend at least a few seconds extra to focus and to deal with the annoyance of your rangefinder patch turning into a useless distraction.
And, of course, your IIIC will lose its ability to fold with all but the native 50mm front lens elements.
Retina IIIC quick start guide.
Retina IIIC is a tricky beast; I had to go online to learn the setup procedure before my first shot. If you haven’t yet solved how to operate this camera yet, pay close attention to the next 5 paragraphs.
1. To unfold, pull the metal knob on the lens door towards the door’s hinges and continue the motion until the lens fully extrudes and clicks into place. To fold the lens back in, ensure that it’s is set to infinity (see below) and press the two shiny metal buttons located at the top and bottom of the metal base — they will unlock the lens retract retraction.
2. The lens focus tab is on the left-hand side when you hold the camera; it shows the distance scale in meters on my model at the top and includes two additional scales at the bottom with marks that look like “T” and “▼”. The bottom scales are only important when you use your IIIC with a 35mm (▼) or a 80mm (T) lens attachment.
3. The shutter speeds on Retina IIIC are coupled to apertures so that transferring readings from the light meter needle is easy. For anyone new to this type of camera, attempting to use its light meter: set the ASA (ISO) value on the meter by rotating its topmost inner wheel using a small metal bump that’s in-between the “DIN” and “ASA” labels; then point the camera at your scene and rotate the large light meter wheel until the yellow pointer ▲ matches the needle; your final task will be moving the metal tab on your lens so that it points to the same red number as the light meter’s value indicated with a red triangle 🔺.
4. Opening Retina IIIC’s film door is tricky. At the bottom of the camera, rotate the tabs around the tripod hole in the direction of an engraved arrow ⤵. The arrow will reveal a small shiny button, pressing which unlocks the camera’s back.
5. Loading film from here on is no different than on any other 35mm film camera. However, Retina IIIC’s film counter runs backwards, thus, you’ll need to reset it with each new roll manually. To do so, hold down the shiny button next to the film counter’s ¼-doughnut window (right behind the shutter button) while advancing the film counter using a thumb toggle at the rear of the camera. There’s a black engraved arrow that points towards → the thumb toggle and away from the viewfinder eyepiece. The goal here is to set the film counter to 36 or 24, matching your film’s total number of frames.
6. Rewinding film on Retina IIIC is done with the wheel on the top panel marked with “Color/Color” in the direction of the hard-to-see engraved arrow right next to it. You will need to unlock your film transport before doing so by pressing the metal button next to the film advance lever at the bottom plate.
Retina IIIC is a puzzle when it comes to setup. But thanks to the incredibly tactile and responsive feedback of its crafted controls, you’ll need to learn this just once; the task becomes second nature thereafter.
Where and how to find a good, working Retina IIIC camera.
Retina IIIC is not a difficult-to-find camera in 2022. There are plenty of copies available online. Spare parts are possible, and repairs are doable as there are no irreparable electronic components. Today, these cameras can be found on sale for $150-500 depending on condition and cheaper if you’re willing to downgrade to the IIIc.
As always, check for lens fungus and damage, ensure that the shutter works and that the rangefinder patch has sufficient contrast.
❤ By the way: Please consider making your Kodak Retina IIIC (Big C) camera purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!