In this entry I plan to deviate from my normal writings on urban settings and will be covering my small collection of subminiature cameras.
In the 1960’s it was the height of the cold war. It was a time of spies, and espionage. James Bond films were in the theaters, and TV was inundated with spy shows. Shows such as The Man from Uncle, Mission: Impossible, The Avengers, The Prisoner, The Saint, and the spy spoof show, Get Smart. In all of these enactments special spy tools of the trade where depicted. Wrist watches with lasers, recording devises embedded in the heal of a shoe, and of course, the spy camera.
My first introduction to a subminiature camera was in 1968. My family and I were living in England, while my father was on Sabbatical studying New Towns throughout England and Europe. During this time my father traveled with a former college classmate, who happened to own a Minox subminiature camera. I was fascinated with the miniature size, the sleek modern look of this small tool, and the cost of something so tiny. In 1968 the Minox was approximately $170. In 2020 that would be equivalent to $1,289. Quite a high price for a camera that only used 16mm film.
My second sighting of the Minox camera was in 1969, when I went to see the James Bond film, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” starring George Lazenby as Bond. In the movie Bond uses a Minox A/IIIs camera, as seen in the two photos below. Bond uses the subminiature camera while destroying Blofeld’s lair atop Piz Gloria. In both images George Lazenby is seen holding the camera upside down. A slight faux pas, which could be interpreted as one of the many mistakes that led to George Lazenby’s one and only time playing James Bond.
A subminiature camera is a class of camera that is very much smaller than a “miniature camera”. The term “miniature camera” was originally used to describe cameras using the 35 mm cine film as negative material for still photography; so cameras that used film smaller than 35mm were referred to as “sub-miniature”. The smallest of these are often referred to as “ultra-miniature”. Lipstick cameras and other small digital cameras are not included, because they don’t use film. The smaller subminiature cameras, called ultraminiature cameras, particularly Minox, are associated with spying.
Although there are many subminiature cameras, in this entry I will focus only on the six subminiature cameras in my collection.
- Steky II, 1950
- Mamiya Super 16, 1951
- Minox B, 1958
- Mamiya 16 Automatic, 1959
- Minolta 16Ps, 1964
- Yashica Atoron, 1965
The Steky is a series of 16mm cameras introduced in Japan after WW2, made by Asahi Musen. At that time film and processing costs were expensive so 16mm cameras were very popular. Most of these 16mm cameras were of low quality and not much more than toys. The Steky was a step up and came with interchangeable lenses, variable shutter and aperture speeds in a very robust camera. The Steky was supplied with an interchangeable three element fixed focus Stekinar Anastigmat f3.5 25mm lens, fully variable stopped down to f11. Shutter speeds for B, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100. Both telephoto, with viewfinder correction, and wide-angle lens where manufactured.
The 16mm film is for 24 exposures of 10x14mm and loaded into a pair of identical cassettes. The film is wound on the take up spool travelling around a large and a small pulley which results in the take up cartridge having the film slot pointing up and rotated 180 degrees to the feed cassette. A small lever moves the back plate away to make loading the film easier.
The Mamiya Super 16 was introduced in 1950. This model has a focusing 25mm four-element (f3.5-11) lens controlled by a sliding bar on the top of the camera. An engraved scale on the top of the camera allows focusing from 0.3 meters (1 foot) to infinity. The logarithmic scale has marks at 03, 0.5, 1, 2m (1,1.5, 3,6 ft), infinity and a hyperfocal point. It is the focusing lens that distinguishes the Mamiya range from that of Minolta, where only the 1972 QT has a focus scale. The 25mm lens is also very sharp. The view finder has parallax scale is marked 1Ft or 0.3M. The shutter speed increased with markings of B, 1/2. 1/5, 1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/200 s.
It has a slot to load the round filter. A little lever on the front of the camera slides the filter in and out, while a tiny trapdoor on the bottom allows the filter to be changed. Available filters included yellow, green, red, skylight, 85B, and neutral density.
Early versions are engraved “Made in Occupied Japan”. Later versions include the small window showing a pattern that moves when the film is advanced. This does not work on the later single piece cassette where the film is not loaded on a spool.
This model also introduced a flash synch with a proprietary socket that also had an accessory insert to convert to a standard PC connector. The flash contact screws into the bottom of the camera, inside the tripod socket.
The Mamiya Super 16 was produced for six years. It is engraved “Super 16” and can be distinguished from the Mark II by only having three of the f-stops labelled f3.5, f5.6 and f11. Later Super 16 models have all the f-stops labelled. The focus scale is engraved on the top plate. On the Super II and Super III the scale is a label stuck in a recess oblong retaining the flush finish of the surface. A few of the earliest, in 1951, Model I cameras are marked “Made in Occupied Japan” on the back of the camera and later ones have a serial number.
In 1951 Mamiya improved on the Mamiya 16 by expanding its range of shutter speeds to 1/2 – 1/200 sec. plus B. The location of the focus lever also moved to the front of the camera. Like the Mamiya-16, the aperture scale only labels every other F-stop. The slide-out frame finder includes marks for parallax adjustment at different distances. A very clever and nicely made subminiature camera.
The Minox is the brainchild of Walter Zapp, a Latvian photographic dealer, who was among the first in the Baltic States to receive samples of the Leica in 1925. Fascinated by miniature cameras (which the Leica was considered to be at that time), he began working on plans for something even smaller.
Taking the name from the way many camera names ended in the letters “ax” or “ox.” He added “min” for miniature and came up with Minox. The camera was built by Valsts Electro-Techniska Fabrika (VEF) in Riga and launched in 1937. Today, that first model is referred to by collectors as the Riga Minox.
The Minox-B is an analogue high-quality subminiature camera that is small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. It was built by Minox in Germany as the successor to the post-war Minox A. For Many years it was the world’s most famous and widely used camera for espionage photography right until the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Production started in 1958 and ran to 1969 when it was replaced by the improved Minox C, which never surpassed the popularity of the Minox-B.
Like its predecessor, the Minox-A, the body of the camera is made of aluminum. When closed, it measures just 97 x 27 x 15 mm, allowing it to be concealed easily, e.g. in the palm of a hand or hidden somewhere in the operative’s clothing.
The camera is operated by opened by pulling it outwards from both ends. When closed, the film is advanced to the next position. The image on the right shows a Minox-B camera ready for use. A chain, that also acted as a measuring device, could be attached to one side of the camera, allowing it to be affixed to the user’s clothing.
The negatives have a frame size of 8 x 11 mm. The Minox-B is fitted with a very high-quality lens. When used in combination with high-grade film, it allowed black & white images with enormous detail to be obtained from the small negatives. The non-perforated film strip is 9.2 mm wide and is stored on a supply spool inside a small cartridge that can hold 50 images. In later years, color film became available for the Minox-B, but it had significantly lower detail than the B/W film.
The Minox-B was always ready for use. It was the first subminiature camera with a built-in light meter that did not require batteries. Based on a selenium cell, it converts light into electricity, and drives the meter directly. As a result, the camera is 15 mm longer than its predecessors, the Minox Riga and Minox-A. The Minox-B was by far the most popular of all Minox subminiature cameras, with 384,327 units manufactured between 1958 and 1969.
On the Minox, you must adjust the shooting distance (the left-most dial on the photo). The chain is a particularly useful accessory in this case. The small grains seen on the chain are spaced respecting the distances appearing on the wheel. Thus, to take a picture of a sheet of paper, at a distance of 20 cm, it suffices to position it at the first grain of the chain. There is a metric chain, and a US system, depending on the geographic origin of the device.
The Mamiya 16 Automatic is a subminiature viewfinder camera taking 10x14mm images on 16mm film. It was made in Japan by Mamiya, introduced in August 1959. It has a collapsible optical miniature viewfinder and also has a built-in selenium meter combined with a manual analog calculator with ASA selector for exposure settings from 1 sec to 1/200 sec that is coupled to the aperture. Other selectors are the shutter speed thumbwheel, the film type reminder, the distance setting shifter, and a shifter to set a yellow filter in front of the lens.
The subminiature camera Minolta-16 Ps was introduced in 1964 for Minolta‘s 16mm instant-load film cartridges, with three-element 1:3.5/25mm lens. It is the two-speed version of the Minolta-16 P which had been launched 4 years earlier together with the Minolta-16 that used the same sort of film but had another conception.
The Minolta-16 Ps has a metal body and a black plastic front panel. In the bottom it has an internal thread to make it usable on a tripod. On top it has the shutter release, the exposure counter, a thumb-knob to choose the film speed and a window through which the actual aperture value is shown by a pointer, together with the selected ASA value and weather symbols which change their position towards the larger aperture values when a slower film speed is chosen. The thin thumb wheel located near to that window in the camera back is the aperture selector. Correct aperture is given when the pointer in the window points onto the aperture value next to the symbol of the actual weather situation: bright sun, hazy sun, cloudy bright or cloudy dull. Beside that thumb wheel is the opening shifter for the film chamber and the thumb wheel for film advance and shutter cocking. The viewfinder consists of two simple rectangular windows, one small in the camera back, the other on the opposite side, in the front panel. In the middle of the panel is a switch lever to set the shifter-shutter’s speed from daylight speed 1/100 sec. down to 1/30 sec. . This second speed is flash-synchronized. The lens opening lies deep in the panel. That helps to keep sidelight away from exposures. The lens cover opens just for exposure.
Optional accessories were close-up lens sets for 1 meter or 0.5-meter minimal distance, and filters.
(In the YouTube video above, note the sound of advancing the film, and pressing the button to take a photo. @ 2:01 minutes)
There are two basic models in the Yashica 8×11 range, the Atoron and the Atoron Electro.
The Yashica Atoron range was also sold in Europe (particularly Germany) under the brands Foto-Quelle Revue and Photo Porst. A number of accessories are also found under these brand names. Although not so highly rated as the Minox cameras the Atoron and Atoron Electro have good lens and are usually to be found in working order.
Yashica Atoron was made by Yashica (Kyosera, now) in 1965. The camera uses Minox film cassette 8x11mm format and is equipped with auto exposure selenium meter. Slightly larger than its contemporary, the Minox B and has a smooth satin matt finish, variable aperture and shutter but fixed focus.
The later, and slightly larger model Atoron Electro with a mirror black finish, was launched in 1971 with Cds meter and automatic shutter. Close focusing to 0.6 meters was now possible and it has slow speed, 8 seconds to 1/350 sec. of CDS program with X contacts. The noise from the shutter release is much reduced compared to the Atoron. Like the Minox C it is fully automatic, variable focus, with aperture and shutter being set by the film speed and meter.