Of all the branches of the greater Eastman Kodak empire, their German subsidiary, Kodak AG was responsible for some of Kodak’s iconic designs and cult cameras. And despite existing before World War Two, they became one of the many camera manufacturers who were propped up by the allies to rebuild the shattered German economy in the post-war reconstruction. One of the best-known cameras out of Kodak AG is the Retina line of cameras. And while the Retina existed pre-war, it expanded into one of the more confusing lines of cameras in the companies history. And while the Retina is more associated with viewfinder and rangefinder cameras, but they also produced a line of leaf-shutter SLRs, the Retina Reflex. Now, before this review, I had a vague knowledge of these cameras. I remember finding one in an antique store in Crown Point, Indiana. But it was jammed, and I thought it took 126 film. In hindsight, the jam was probably due to the counter is at the end and I needed to rewind it manually, and it was not the Instamatic version of the Retina Reflex. And yes, Kodak did release an Instamatic version the Instamatic Reflex that saw production from 1968-74. Thanks to James Lee for loaning out this genuinely unique camera out for review.
Make: Kodak AG
Model: Retina Reflex III
Type: Single Lens Reflex
Format: 135 (35mm), 36x24mm
Lens: Interchangeable, DKL-Mount
Year of Manufacture: 1960-1964
The 1950s brought a rise in the popularity of the SLR form factor for cameras. It was the release of the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex that saw Kodak AG (the German arm of Eastman Kodak) begin to develop their SLR. Rather than design one from the ground up, they decided to take an existing camera system and modify it to become an SLR. Much like what Nikon did with the original Nikon F. Kodak used their popular Retina IIIc camera as the base of the camera by removing enough parts to add a mirror box and prism finder. To make it all the more inclusive, Kodak included interchangeable lenses using the same lens mount as the Retina II and III cameras. The original Retina Reflex saw production from 1957 to 1958. In 1959 Kodak released their second version the Reflex S, which saw several major redesigns from the original model. Based around the Retina IIIS, the camera featured the shutter in the camera body rather than the lens, providing for better and faster lenses to be mounted. Production lasted for only a year when the improved Reflex III saw release. The III featured a larger selenium light meter with the match needle system viewable from both the top plate and in the viewfinder. The shutter release was also moved to be next to the lens mount, a popular design choice of the era. The Reflex III saw production for the longest of all the Reflex camera with it lasting until 1964 when the Reflex IV was released. The entire line ended in 1967 when production of the IV ceased.
The Reflex III is one of the unique cameras I’ve had the pleasure of review, if not one of the most complex. Like most of the cameras out of Germany and the age, it is insanely over-engineered. The body is a brick a heavy alloy body, chunky prism finder, and a strange layout. If you’re familiar with the Retina line, then the layout may make sense. For me, as a user of mostly Japanese SLRs, having the film advance on the bottom threw me off. Another item that throws me is having the shutter release about mid-way down the body next to the lens mount. Most of the controls are in strange places that only after a bit of time figuring out how to hold the camera only made sense. Although I got somewhat used to the layout, the settings proved equally annoying. I’ve worked with similar setups where the aperture and shutter speed dials are linked, but at least in some cases, it’s easy to separate the settings and do things independently from each other. Not so on the Reflex III, you have first to set the shutter speed, then use the setting dial to adjust the aperture. Confusing, yes, especially when you’re using an external meter. The camera does have a built-in meter, a selenium based system built by Gossin, which using a match needle system and it is coupled. However, on the example I have, the meter has been long dead.
If I had one word to describe the operation of the Reflex III, that word is awkward. If I had to choose one awkward camera to work with again, it would be an Exakta. Yes the Reflex III is that bad. It doesn’t help that much of the controls are not where they are located traditionally, the advance on the bottom, the strange adjustment methods for the exposure controls. I’m sure if the camera had a working meter, it wouldn’t be as difficult, but with an external meter, you’re fiddling way too much. At least the viewfinder is decently bright and has a great split prism, so focusing is accurate. However, I was fumbling with latching onto focusing knob and was more often reaching for the shutter speed leavers. At least the camera didn’t weigh too much so even without a strap it was decently comfortable to carry around. Loading the film is decently easy, nothing weird there. But for the rewind, you have to keep the knob close to the body which can be hard being so close to the prism. And you have to manually reset the counter, which also runs down, not up. Also if you get to the end and go to reload the camera without resetting, the camera jams up.
This is where the Reflex III shines. Kodak has always been known to have amazing optics on both their American made cameras but their German cameras leveraged the German optical industry. And no the Reflex III does not have Zeiss glass, rather they use both Schneider-Kreuznach and Rodenstock lenses. The lenses used on the Reflex III (along with the S, IV, and Instamatic) and these will also mount on the Retina IIIS. Most of the S-K lenses are based around the Xenar and Xenon lens models ranging from a 45mm f/2.8 to even a fast 50mm rated at f/1.9. Wide-angle 28mm and 35mm lenses are out there, and even a long 200mm Tele-Xenar. The Rodenstock offering doesn’t have the same range, but still not bad with lenses ranging from 30mm to 135mm. Now it is important to get lenses that are for the Reflex III as the lenses from the original Reflex are not compatible. Optically both lens offerings do a good job and produce sharp images. For the most part, it’s best to ensure when you buy a Reflex, you get at least one lens with it, as some fetch a high price on the used market.
Don’t get this camera if you want one to shoot with, seriously you’ll spend money and then get annoyed if you’ve never worked with any Retina before. At least the camera is fairly inexpensive on the used market, with almost all models (Reflex, S, III, and IV) running between 50-100$. Although some examples are selling for between 150-200$, which in my opinion is crazy. Now, you also have to realise that all the cameras are getting on in age, and the Reflex III especially is insanely over-engineered, so repair is almost out of the question. That said, there is one repair person, Chris Sherlock from Retina Rescue. Chris has been able to get a Reflex III running like new. And when I shot the first roll through the camera, the shutter died after a couple of shots. Thankfully I managed to get it working again without messing the camera up too much, but it died again, thankfully this time after shooting through most of the roll. That said, if you are into Retina cameras, the Reflex III is a fine camera and probably the best out of all Reflex line next to the Reflex IV, only be careful when buying, you might not get what you expect.
Don’t just take my word on the Retina Reflex III, you can check out the reviews by other awesome camera reviewers!
Down the Road – Kodak Retina Reflex III Review
Last Best Photography – Kodak Retina Reflex III Review
Simon Hawketts’ Photo Blog – Retina Reflex III Review
Beacon 225 – Kodak Retina Reflex III Review