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The U.S. Minicam Boom

October 1, 1936, 6:00 AM UTC
Fortune magazine cover October 1936 issue
Fortune/Time Inc.

IT WAS during the depression years, when people were supposed to be thinking up ways to save money instead of spending it, that a new and costly hobby made a place for itself in American life. The new hobby was photography with the miniature camera, and the event that touched it off was the importation from Germany in 1925 of a diminutive and remarkably precise picture-taking machine.

The machine was called the Leica. It took thirty-six pictures the size of a special-delivery stamp on a roll of movie film. It was priced at $145. That was a lot of money for a camera, but the Leica sold from the start. What is more remarkable, it continued to sell through the very worst of the depression years, sales doubling each year despite a steady rise in prices, until today there are some 25,000 U.S. Leica owners.

If that sales record impresses you, turn now to a still more surprising fact. While the U.S. (one of the less camera-conscious countries) was acquiring its 25,000, the rest of the world was buying no less than 185,000 Leicas—with Germany, Japan, Great Britain, France, and the South American republics taking most of them. Even so, there are something like 100,000 miniature cameras in the U.S. today (for there are now, besides the Leica, at least thirty other makes). They are known, for short, as minicams, and they have involved the U.S. in what can only be called a minicam boom.

You see signs of it in the display of high-priced German minicams crowding the windows of camera dealers, opticians, sporting-goods stores. In the increasing number of exhibitions of amateur photography (Leica’s last annual show in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center lasted two weeks, lured 25,000 people). In the growing amount of candid-camera work reproduced in magazines and newspapers. In the fact that Willoughby’s, on Manhattan’s Thirty-second Street, largest retail camera outlet in the U.S., now sells nine times as many minicams as large cameras. In the disposition of some theatre managers to designate nights when minicam addicts may run wild, snap stage action to their hearts’ content. In the fact that every large U.S. newspaper now provides at least two minicams for its photographic staff in addition to its regular battery of Speed Graphics. But most of all in the number of devotees you see with a Leica dependent from their shoulders or a Rolleiflex strung around their necks or a Kodak Bantam stuffed in their pockets. And in the fact that almost everyone nowadays has some friend into whose system the virus has dug deep, whose leisure hours are spent endlessly snapping pictures or endlessly developing them, whose home is cluttered with minicam paraphernalia, and whose bathroom has become a darkroom—someone who talks, reads, eats, drinks, and sleeps photography.

AND this is very clear: that the minicam bug is oblivious to social distinctions and recklessly crosses party lines. It does not save its bite for the mechanical-minded or the habitual gadgeteer. It bites the poetic as well as the practical, the haughty as well as the humble. The celebrated are not immune; almost any headline name you think of is likely to be a victim. Samples are: King Edward VIII, George Bernard Shaw, Paul Whiteman, Jean Piccard, Eddie Cantor, Commander Hugo Eckener, Fred Astaire, Charles A. Lindbergh, Jascha Heifetz, Fay Wray, Alfred A. Knopf, Bobby Jones, Rockwell Kent, Ginger Rogers, George Gershwin, Carl Van Vechten, Peter Arno, Godfrey and William A. Rockefeller, Rudy Vallee, Igor Sikorsky. And many a U.S. businessman: President William S. Paley of Columbia Broadcasting System; G. R. Ford, Director of Libbey-Owens-Ford (glass); Publisher Richard L. Simon of Simon & Schuster; Producer Delos Chappell; President George Washington of the G. Washington Coffee Refining Co.; Duncan H. Read of Manhattan’s Fiduciary Trust Co.; Vice President George D. Simon of Franklin Simon & Co.; John J. Raskob; Hunter S. Marston, former President of Bancamerica-Blair Corp.; Vice President Owen B. Winters of Erwin, Wasey & Co., Manhattan advertising firm.

The minicam has also its serious scientific side. Librarians are using minicams to photograph old manuscripts. Dentists and doctors are pointing minicams at their patients, recording their ailments. Biologists, bacteriologists, and physiologists are clamping minicams to their microscopes, and minicam-armed explorers are coming back with more and more pictures to sell to the travel magazines. The minicam has been used by commercial artists, and there are at least two instances of noncommercial artists who have taken it up. One is Levon West, U.S. etcher. Mr. West assumed a camera name, Ivan Dmitri, has just written a book called How To Use Your Candid Camera. Another is Remie Lohse, who gave up painting in Denmark, joined a U.S. advertising firm, and then took up the camera.

How shall we explain the minicam boom? The list price of the Leica with the standard F/3.5 lens is now $198, of its archrival the Contax II, $245.* As we shall see presently, the price of your camera is only the first in a long list of expenses to which you are subject if you go in for minicam work with a will. Why should so expensive a hobby have started at all and why should it have continued through the depression years to spread and worm its way into the mores of the U.S.?

FOR its beginning, we must certainly hold accountable the late Oskar Barnack, German inventor of the Leica camera. Nobody is entirely unmoved by a gadget, and Herr Barnack’s invention was the gadget supreme. People were proud to display this sleek article with so many mysterious knobs and handsome trappings; its gadget value quickly gave it a vogue, and to sport a Leica speedily became the smart thing to do. And it was the Leica that first acquainted the world at large with the astounding fact that with a very small camera one could make very big pictures. A one-foot picture from a one-inch negative—that was black magic, and the effect of this magic on the imagination of the buying public is hard to exaggerate. Leica window displays took pains to capitalize this by featuring a big enlargement with a tiny contact print pasted in the corner: the oak and the acorn. Then, in 1928, Dr. Erich Salomon, who had seen what another German, Dr. Paul Wolff, had done with his Leica since 1925, gave a public demonstration in Berlin’s Illustrierte Zeitung of the Leica’s ability to do “candid camera” work. The phrase was coined by the London Graphic when in 1930 it first published Dr. Salomon’s intimate, often irreverent portraits of statesmen, and in 1931 his work was brought to the U.S., first by FORTUNE and then by TIME. Candid-camera photography may be defined as the photography of people when they don’t know they are being photographed; and since the minicam can be whipped into action so unobtrusively it was a natural for candid work.

In 1932 the Leica publicity campaign began to roll over the U.S. with an eight-year momentum behind it. Meanwhile the film researchers had added a contribution: they succeeded to a large extent in overcoming one of the chief bugaboos of miniature photography, which is grain. This is the microscopically mottled texture produced by the minute grains of silver bromide that form the sensitive coating on all photographic film. It can never be utterly banished, but by changing the ingredients of the solutions in which miniature film is developed, the researchers learned how to reduce the effect of grain with the result that today enlargements can be made 200 times the area of a miniature negative without looking grainy.

There seems, then, to be no one reason for the minicam boom. But if we choose to dig deeper we come up with a subtle and perhaps significant fact: that by a very large number of people the Leica was not bought as a camera. Many a man who had owned a Kodak for years without feeling any impulse to see what he could do with it if he applied himself fancied that in the Leica he was finding a new invention that defied the laws of optics and would give him good pictures with no light to speak of and no effort save that of pressing the button. The Leica didn’t even look like a camera. No bellows, no bulk, no focusing hood; you shot from the hip, so to speak, and got your man. Beginning in 1932 the Leica traveling exhibitions in Germany gave added encouragement to the tyro in this wishful thinking. Featuring the masterly enlargements of such experts as Dr. Wolff, they gave him the impression that for a couple of hundred dollars he could turn out stuff just as good. True, to display the best camera work of artists like Wolff and Salomon and Hoffmann and Aikins and McAvoy as the product of the Leica is something like pointing to sketches by James Montgomery Flagg as samples of the work of the Venus pencil. But as promotion it was a jim-dandy idea. And to encourage Americans further in the useful notion that the Leica was not a mere camera, Leica publicity brains even coined a new word to take the place of photography. The word was Leicography.

THE more closely you examine it, the more clearly you see that there was no one outstanding new thing about the Leica. Candid photography is not new, though Dr. Salomon made fresh use of it; Dr. Arnold Genthe was doing candid-camera work in San Francisco’s Chinatown long before the earthquake. And the idea of taking small pictures is not new either; it goes back to the 1880’s when a canteen-shaped camera called the Stirn appeared. This could be strapped around the body under the vest, with the lens peeping through a buttonhole, and it took six round pictures about the size of a silver dollar. In 1905 the Victrix came in from Germany, and during the next nine years still other undersized cameras were brought out. But none of them survived the bugaboo of film grain. You may think that the Leica was the first still camera to use movie film; yet as early as 1914 this idea was first tried out—though with little success—in two U.S. cameras called the Tourist Multiple and the Simplex Multi-Exposure.

It was in the same year that Oskar Barnack made his first Leica. He made only two, one for his own use and one for Dr. Ernst Leitz Sr., now President of Ernst Leitz of Wetzlar, who tried it out when he visited the U.S. just before the War and found it a promising thing that “should be kept in mind.” Herr Barnack, whose enthusiasms had successively switched from landscape painting to astronomy to adding machines to nature photography (he had tried before to make a small hand camera), had turned to cinematography, and the 1914 model of the Leica was little more than a test camera for determining the correct exposure for his motion pictures. After the War he was canny enough to think that the Leica, if it could be perfected, might well put him on easy street and to his own mechanical improvements he added a new lens, the Elmar, designed by Leitz’s Professor Max Berek. The result convinced President Leitz. In 1924 six Leicas came out of the factory, and by the end of 1926 almost every German dealer was handling them. In 1928 Leica began to ride the big commercial waves along with all the other luxury items, and kept going right through the bottom of the U.S. depression without once selling less cameras than the year before. Starting with Model A, Leitz improved and improved upon it, now has a Model G. And in the last year and a half Leitz claims that it has not been able to keep up with the demand.

Competition, for a while, was almost nonexistent. Then other German manufacturers began to get out minicams, among them Franke & Heidecke’s Rolleiflex, of which some 120,000 have been sold to date, Plaubel’s Makinette, Zeiss’s Kolibri and Ikomats, and later Ihagee’s Exakta. Presently Eastman came out with its Vollenda and Retina and Bantam (for a representative list of current minicams see the box on this page). Still Leica’s supremacy continued in spite of the fact that it cost a good deal more than its rivals. But in 1931 Leica acquired a new competitor, and a tough one. In 1931 the Contax was quietly launched by Zeiss-Ikon, Zeiss’s camera subsidiary and the world’s largest camera-manufacturing company, which offered it to the U.S. public in the following year. Minicam fans have since looked upon it with favor; its lenses bear the magic name of Carl Zeiss, and it has certain structural differences, as in the focal-plane shutter and range finder. To date some 40,000 Contax cameras have been made, about one-quarter of them sold in the U.S. The Contax is bulkier than the Leica, but this has made little difference inasmuch as neither, despite the small size of the negative, is a camera that can comfortably be carried in the pocket.

There is no official definition of the minicam but it is now agreed by the fraternity that any camera taking pictures two and a quarter by three and a quarter inches or smaller may be considered miniature. Small film size means small film cost. Actually your film expense may be much greater than the old-style camera fan’s since you will soon get into the habit of snapping pictures of everything and at the end of a month you may have run off six or more rolls, or more than 200 pictures. As a matter of fact this is part of minicam technique; you can afford to make a lot of exposures in order to get the best possible picture. If the moving-picture camera is the machine gun of photography, the minicam seems to be the shotgun.

But the miniature camera has a technical advantage to offer the photographer that is more important than the somewhat illusory advantage of film economy. This advantage is called, in the vernacular, “depth of focus” (see diagram on page 126). The pictures on page 125 show the same subject taken by two different cameras: in the picture by the large camera the middle ground and background is out of focus, but the minicam got the whole picture sharp. This attribute of greater depth of focus is one of the reasons why the minicam deserves its success, for it means that under identical light conditions the man with the minicam can often come home with a picture in which all planes are sharp from foreground to background, while the man with the bigger camera may have secured sharpness in only one plane.

Strictly, the definition of a minicam negative includes your old vest-pocket Kodak and a large number of the other 20,000,000 U.S. cameras that each year click out some 500,000,000 photographs. But most of these, even if the picture size is small enough to qualify, fail to interest the minicam enthusiast as they are not the precision instruments that Leica and Contax are. He insists on getting a negative in which the image is so wire-sharp that it is susceptible of enlargement up to eleven by fourteen inches or so without apparent loss of detail; enlargements from Contax and Leica negatives have been made up to eight by five feet. It takes a precision instrument to do that. Shutter and film contribute to this end, but vastly more important are a good anastigmat lens and a device for focusing it accurately, not roughly in feet, but virtually to the inch.

You focus your new Leica or Contax by sighting the subject of your picture through a window in the range finder of the camera. At first you see two overlapping images; as you turn the lens barrel these images come closer together, and when they are exactly superimposed you know that your camera is exactly in focus. Range finders have been used for over fifty years—in the World War they were used in connection with field artillery to calculate the distance to the target. Zeiss and Leitz were making separate range finders, for cameras ten years ago. Zeiss built one into the Contax in 1931; Leitz put one on top of the Leica the same year. Eastman’s new bid for the high-priced miniature-camera trade, the Bantam Special, is similarly equipped. There is another precision type of focusing device, found in minicams of the reflex variety; first successful minicam of this type was the Rolleiflex. You look into the top of your camera and see the picture on a translucent glass screen; the image has passed through a lens and has been reflected upward to this screen. You twiddle the focusing knob connected with the lens until the image on the screen is sharp, and then make your exposure.

CRITICAL sharpness being so vital, most camera manufacturers have taken pains to equip their minicams with well-made lenses of the anastigmat type. There is nothing new about the anastigmat lens; there are many varieties, of which the first was designed in 1890 by Zeiss’s optical scientist, Dr. Rudolph, in a successful effort to eliminate the kind of optical distortion you probably first heard of from your oculist: astigmatism.* This feat Dr. Rudolph accomplished by cementing together several lenses of different diffracting and refracting power. The most famous formula of all was, and is, Rudolph’s Tessar, designed for Zeiss at Jena in 1902. When patents on this design expired some twenty years later the photographic industry clasped the Tessar type of construction warmly to its bosom, and the result is that a large proportion of the anastigmat lenses on the market today were cooked up according to Rudolph’s recipe. The more complicated ones, like those in the Leica and the Contax, are usually a series of four to seven lenses, some single and some cemented together in pairs. By varying the size and arrangement of the elements, lens designers found that they could increase not only the sharpness of lenses but also their “speed”—the amount of light that the lens would admit to the film.

The speed of a lens is measured by the relation between the diameter of the lens and its focal length, which is roughly the distance between the lens and the film. The smaller this relationship the faster the lens. Thus a lens two inches across with a focal length of four inches will have a speed relation of four to two, which is expressed as F/2 (the F stands for focal ratio). Fastest minicam lens is Zeiss’s F/1.5, which is used on the Contax and which costs $192.50. The next fastest is Leica’s F/1.9 but it is very likely that Leitz will bring out an F/1.5 lens before long. The difference between the speeds of lenses can be figured by comparing the squares of their focal ratios; thus the fastest Contax lens is to the present fastest Leica lens as 2.25 is to 3.61, or approximately 60 per cent faster. This means that a scene requiring an exposure of one-thirtieth of a second with an F/1.9 lens can be snapped in one-fiftieth of a second with an F/1.5 lens, which might be a decided advantage if there is action in the picture or if the fight is poor.

You will hear a busy babble of talk from most minicam addicts about the speed and sharpness of their lenses, and dealers are naturally not above pandering to their eagerness to hear of some new magic that the lens grinder has coaxed into some new lens. Unfortunately, the larger the aperture of the lens and the greater its speed, the shallower is the plane in which objects will be sharp. Thus many a minifan buys himself an F/2 lens, then, to get greater sharpness, closes down the iris of the lens to F/4.5 or F/6.3, which latter is the speed of most good Kodaks.

There are times when in the hands of the skillful the magnifying power of a lens may mean the difference between success and failure, and for these occasions Leitz and Zeiss have provided a bewildering assortment of special lenses that the minifan can, if he wishes, attach to his camera. They range from the standard F/3.5 lens of two-inch focal length for $57 to the long-barreled telephoto lenses for close-ups of distant objects, with focal lengths of 200, 300, and 500 millimeters for $258, $336, and $462 respectively—the last two being Zeiss products. Leitz and Zeiss will also sell you wide-angle lenses and close-up lenses for shooting anything from flowers and bugs to eyeballs and teeth: to say nothing of stereoscopic attachments for taking double pictures if one picture does not seem enough.

To minifans, lenses and their properties are an utterly entrancing subject. In fact, so ungovernable is their appetite to talk about lens speed, focal length, range finders, critical focus, and all the other nomenclature of the minicam that they have banded together into clubs. Here to their heart’s content they may talk the almost unintelligible jargon that has been born of their passion for the chemistry and mechanics of photography. Here they will use such words as reticulation, gamma, superpan, Newton rings, agitators, latitude, fogging, dodging, density, metol, spotting, toning. And emulsion speed, resolving power, spherical and chromatical aberration, undercorrection and overcorrection, gelatin filters, Scheiner. And bromide, chlorobromide, and chloride papers, exposure meters, ferrotyping tins, D-76, changing bags, parallax.

It is a question whether the late George Eastman himself would be able to follow all the general conversation at a miniature-camera-club meeting of today, though to the inoculated the language seems simple enough. There are fifty or sixty such clubs, scattered across the country all the way from Boston to San Diego, where in 1931 the first U.S. Leica club was born. Most of the crop of clubs that followed used the Leica label at first, then dropped it, and today there are only two Leica clubs, one in Boston, the other in Washington, D. C. The Washington club, formed in 1933. still thinks that it is the first U.S. Leica club, in spite of San Diego’s evidence. Most of the minicam groups use the title, Miniature Camera Club of Such-and-such-a-town; it is longer but more accurate, since probably less than 20 per cent of the club members own Leicas. Big club memberships are to be found in Detroit (400), New York (157), Philadelphia (150), Boston (87), San Francisco (75), and Chicago (50). The average membership of all the remaining miniature clubs has been estimated at around forty and very likely is a good deal less than that, with dues running anywhere from $4 to $15 a year. All in all, the big clubs are pretty much alike, having their courses in composition, pictorial photography, developing technique; their exhibitions of members’ pictures, their guest speakers, their holiday outings.

But the membership of the minicam clubs is no sure index of minicam interest, for besides these organizations any number of informal groups have sprung up with no dues except the cost of a biweekly or monthly dinner. Such an organization is the Circle of Confusion,* which meets in Mike’s Restaurant down in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village every other Monday night. It numbers among its members some of the best minicam men in the field, such as Rudolf Hoffmann, Harold Harvey, Dudley Lee, and Henry Lester, all professional photographers. There are three Leitz representatives, U.S. President Wolfgang H. Zieler, Vice President Alfred Boch, and Leica Sales Promoter Willard D. Morgan; two Zeiss men, Camera Sales Manager Arthur Barth and Sales Promoter Frank Dorner: two in the film business. N. F. Oakley of Du Pont Film Manufacturing Corp. and Leo Pavelle, whose shop on Manhattan’s Forty-second Street is the largest minicam developing and printing plant in the U.S.; Authors Manuel Komroff (Coronet, Waterloo), who hatched the title for the club, and John W. Vandercook (Black Majesty); Lawyer Havens Grant (Davis, Polk, Wardwell, Gardiner & Reed): Physical Director John A. Davis of the Stevens Institute; Artist Konrad Cramer; Orchestra Conductor Fritz Reiner; Radio Recorder Glenn Pickett; Chemist John L. Davenport; Designer John T. Moss Jr.; Aerial Photographer John P. Gaty; Nicholas S. Ransoholf and William P. Eckes, New York doctors; three Bell Telephone Laboratories men, James M. Leonard, Arnold Bailey, and Ole M. Hovgaard; and L. C. Nichols of the Weston Electrical Instrument Corp.

Thus the group has plenty of professional and technical background. At their meetings around Mike’s big table there is a lot of bantering on the subject of Leica vs. Contax, but commercial boosting is barred. After dinner they plug in a couple of floodlights and take angle shots of each other across the table, discuss the work of their contemporaries, try out new lenses. Afterward they may retire to Dudley Lee’s studio and take more pictures of each other, discuss more minicam problems. Membership in the Circle of Confusion is limited by the system of vote and blackball, and ability with the minicam is only slightly more important to a candidate than his rating as an agreeable associate. Most of the members use the Leica, but Mr. Barth, Mr. Dorner, and Mr. Pavelle are stanch enough Contax men to even up any arguments.

LAST year New York minifans had four chances to use their cameras freely inside a theatre. Details were arranged by The Camera, popular photographic monthly, and one July night in 1935 more than 800 minicam enthusiasts with 600 of their friends poured into the Winter Garden to shoot scenes from Earl Carroll’s Sketch Book revue. They overran the place, stalking up and down aisles, climbing to the edge of the stage, standing on their seats. The management, astounded to find so many who would buy seats at from $2.20 to $3.85 on a hot July night just to take pictures, threw open the theatre again to them in September, and a few days later the managers of the Radio City Music Hall let minifans attend a dress rehearsal of one of their gargantuan stage pageants. And for four weeks previous to the opening of Jumbo at the Hippodrome minicamists were allowed to prowl around rehearsals; but the management grew sick of their climbing, prying ways and the scheduled camera night never came off.

But any lack of scheduled theatre nights will not bother minifans very much. For the minifan no dearth of material is conceivable. People working and people playing and people just loafing; boats and airplanes and locomotives belching smoke; dogs and horses and a litter of kittens learning to walk; mother and father and Aunt Emily and grandpa puffing at his pipe; bridges and steel mills and chimneys and skyscrapers; surf and sand and sea and sky; and, most popular minicam shot of all, children.

There is, however, a technical phase that all addicts must pass through and that some never come out of. These become so engrossed in the question of what filter they should buy next or what new developer will still further reduce the grain in their negatives that they never get around to making good pictures. For them the means has become more important than the end. This is the reason why some of them will spend hours window-shopping or talking with a dealer, and will sometimes spend more in a month for their camera supplies than for food.

THE U.S. minicam boom has produced a handsome little business. What it amounts to in dollars and cents, probably nobody knows exactly, but 65,000 miniature cameras in this country probably cost their owners an average of about $30, with the 25,000 Leicas and the 10,000 Contax cameras averaging somewhere around $200. This would make a total of $8,950,000 spent on miniature cameras in the last eight years, the minicams sold before 1928 probably not amounting to more than 10 per cent of the present total.

In addition to the cameras themselves, U.S. minifans spend money for books and magazines about photography. Answers to the questionnaire that is sent to each new member of the Miniature Camera Club of New York show that several of them spend as much as $5 a month for the literature of photography, Willoughby now sells about 3,000 copies of the photographic magazines a month (four years ago they were selling only some 1,700), Altogether there are over two dozen different publications for the camera fan, the most popular ones in the U.S. being American Photography, The Camera, and Camera Craft.

Then there are the camera accessories, which run all the way from the high-powered and high-priced telephoto lenses down to a $6 filter or a sixty-five-cent lens cap. The list of accessories for the Leica and the Contax is appalling—Leitz, who so far has more gadgets to sell than Zeiss, listing some 336 items. Sunshades, view finders, masks, self-timing devices, rapid winders, cable releases, spirit levels, lens caps, plate back adapters, and of course tripods and leather cases. Both Zeiss and Leitz will even make special lenses for the range finder to help out those who are near- or farsighted. One dealer has a customer who buys every new device as soon as it appears, takes it home, and waits for the next development that will give him a chance to trade in the superseded item at a considerable net loss to himself. Here again it is impossible to say how much money passes over the counters for these supplementary gadgets, but the questionnaires mentioned above reveal that fans are apt to spend $10 a month for them. As for developing and enlarging equipment, Leitz lists seventy-nine things these amateurs can choose from; and according to the questionnaires, fans think nothing of spending $5 for them monthly.

But one camera accessory has become almost essential to minicam users: the exposure meter. With it you can tell how much light is reflected by your subject and adjust your lens opening and shutter accordingly. There are two types in general use: the so-called extinction type, which costs anywhere from $2 to $12, and the $22.50 variety, which you point at the subject, then take the reading indicated by a meter hand operated by a photoelectric cell. For the amateur as well as the professional photographer, these meters are perhaps the biggest boost toward getting good pictures that has come along for years. Zeiss has already taken the next inevitable step by building an exposure meter right into its supercamera, the Contaflex, and last August the Contax III came out with the same feature.

The film used in a minicam is relatively cheap, especially if your camera uses the thirty-five-millimeter movie film. One roll capable of taking thirty-six pictures costs from seventy cents to ninety cents depending on the kind you prefer. If you use a lot of film and are skillful at loading the film magazine in the dark you can buy thirty-five-millimeter film in lengths of 25, 50, 100, 200, 400, or 1,000 feet at about five cents a foot, which will make your pictures cost about three-fifths of a cent a shot (one foot will take eight pictures) compared to two cents a shot if you buy the seventy-cent roll, ready for loading.

DEVELOPING, printing, and enlarging mean more expense. Suppose you are one of those minicam owners who do not develop their own films—less than half of them don’t. You can have it done for thirty cents a roll, which is cheap enough considering the trouble it saves you. But contact prints, i.e., prints the size of a minicam negative, are too small for much use, and the expense begins to mount up as soon as you have enlargements made; usually ten cents for each three by five and a half inch postcard-size print, thirty cents for the five by seven inch size, and fifty cents for the eight by ten inch size. Most customers ask for the postcard size according to Leo Pavelle, whose men print around 5,000 negatives a day. Out of thirty-six pictures taken, the average order will call for twenty-five prints, which at ten cents each would bring the film-finishing bill up to $2.80 per roll.

But having someone else do your developing and printing is the surest way to forfeit your standing with the miniature-camera enthusiasts, because to them it is half, if not a good deal more than half, the fun. What is more, satisfactory fine-grain commercial finishing is hard to find outside of the big cities. Thus, though you may have had no intention of going in for darkroom work when you bought your minicam, you may be forced into it in order to get the results you want. In that case, you will have to choose from among a dozen or so fine-grain developers, and twenty-five different printing-paper surfaces, each to be had in four different grades of contrast; other raw materials will include fixing and hardening solutions. By the time you really begin to get excited about the business, your monthly bill for these items may come to something in the neighborhood of $12.

If you are thrifty you will probably buy your supplies in stores which—like Willoughby’s or Medo’s or Abe Cohen’s Exchange in Manhattan or the Central Camera Co. or Burke & James in Chicago—do a booming business in secondhand cameras. Many of these cameras have been traded in by fans who have passed on to higher and more complicated mechanisms on their way up toward a Leica or Contax, or who, conceivably, have become really proficient and turned to a bigger camera, athirst for the kind of technical perfection these cameras can give. If you see any new Leicas and Contaxes for sale at secondhand prices there is a good chance that they are “refugee cameras.”

In the last two years the refugee-camera business has gradually increased. The reason is to be found in the fact that since 1934 people leaving Germany have not been allowed to take their German marks with them and so they invest them in small high-priced items that they can sell for U.S. dollars when they get over here. The Leica and Contax fit into this barter plan very nicely, and U.S. dealers are generally able to buy the most expensive models for about $125, sell them secondhand for about $160.

WHETHER or not you pay the full list price for your Leica or Contax depends mostly on how hard your dealer has been pressed by the last six years of price cutting that has riddled the camera business. To keep a customer, some of the larger dealers are now often forced to slice off as much as 20 per cent from the list price, a practice that is also distressing the importers, who fear they will in turn be compelled to give abnormal discounts to the dealers. Many minifans are aware of this and send in their orders by mail to large dealers rather than pay the catalogue price. The importers like Leitz and Zeiss, of course, won’t cut the price at their New York showrooms but they don’t expect to sell many direct and, in fact, do not. Furthermore they refuse to sell to any dealer who advertises his discount. Thus Manhattan’s Macy’s gets no cameras from either Zeiss or Leitz because of its publicized 6 per cent saving to the customer. So Macy’s buys elsewhere.

The profit on one of these high-powered German cameras is still big enough, in spite of the dealers’ discounts. For example, take a $375 camera. In Germany this camera would sell for around $235 or about 40 per cent less than the U.S. price, and the U.S. price on some models may be as much as 90 per cent higher than the German retail price. Thus from the factory in Germany to the U.S. customer the value of a $375 camera might grow something like this:

Manufacturing cost $70
Factory markup to importer 47
Duty (45 per cent of price to German dealer) 64
Excise tax (10 per cent to U.S. dealer) 25
Total cost of placing camera on the importer’s stockroom shelves 206
Importer’s markup (overhead, profit, etc.) 44
Cost to U.S. dealer 250
Dealer markup (overhead, profit, etc.) 125
List price $375

In other words, approximately $305 is added to the cost of making the camera, of which the factory gets 15 per cent, the importer 15 per cent, the government 29 per cent, and the dealer 41 per cent. And since he gets the biggest slice of all, the dealer can occasionally afford to knock one-fifth off the list price.

SUCH towering prices would appear to leave a wide margin for U.S. camera manufacturers. But for several reasons none of them has tried to market a miniature camera to compete directly with the Leica and the Contax. In the first place, they are wedded to mass production, and a precision instrument like the Leica must be made largely by hand. Secondly, assuming that they had both the will and the skill to manufacture an American prototype of the Leica, U.S. wage standards would probably make it impossible for them to market it at a competitive price so long as the tariff is not jacked up further. But the most obvious reason for the absence of a top-notch U.S. minicam is that manufacturers in this country believe they can make more money by selling film than by selling high-priced cameras; through the sale of film and other photographic supplies they are already getting the lion’s share of this increased interest in photography. Eastman is well content to supply all camera addicts with the means to fine negatives and prints: the fine-grain films and papers without which lenses peer and shutters click in vain. The more converts to photography, minicam or otherwise, the better Eastman likes it, whether it has any rival for the Leica or not. Eastman’s newest contribution to minifans is Kodachrome, the color film it has hitherto been supplying only to the home-movie fans. The idea of colored snapshots may seem attractive, but no one has yet found a satisfactory way to print color on sensitive paper and Kodachrome negatives must be either projected on a screen or held up to the light.

But Eastman does have minicams. The three medium-priced models—the Vollenda for $25 and $44.50, the Retina and Duo Six-20 for $57.50—are German cameras imported from the Nagel plant at Stuttgart, which Eastman purchased four years ago. The latest Eastman minicam, the $110 Bantam Special, with a new F/2 lens, is U.S. made throughout except for its German Compur shutter. It is agreeably light to hold, and if it proves that it can match the performance of the best German cameras it will be a lot for the money. It uses Eastman film giving eight exposures per roll, and although the film cannot be turned as deftly as in the Leica, many minifans like the shorter roll, which obviates waiting for thirty-six shots (as in the Leica) before seeing the results.

As for the inexpensive so-called miniature cameras like the Argus ($12.50 and $15) and the toylike Univex (fifty cents to $2.50), their contribution to the minicam boom is something like that of a manufacturer’s sample. The man who buys one and gets into the picture-taking habit becomes an excellent prospect for a more expensive minicam. If he happens to get one or two good enlargements, he may very possibly go right on buying cameras until he reaches the Leica or Contax level. Three-year-old Univex has already sold its four-millionth camera (see “Off the Record” story on page 48) and some 38,000 Argus cameras have been sold since they came out in January. The effect of such a wholesale introduction to photography may be pretty startling in the next year or so.

BUT most of the camera profits from the minicam boom are falling into the laps of Leitz and Zeiss. Both concerns started out in Germany about ninety years ago as small microscope workshops, both built-formitlable reputations. The differences between them are first those of size. Leitz is smaller (2,800 employees, $1,200,000 capitalization—all stock held by the Leitz family) and, except for the Leica, has stuck to microscopes; Leitz is still the world’s largest manufacturer of these instruments. On the other hand, Zeiss and its subsidiary Zeiss-Ikon (a 1926 merger of four instrument firms) are giants in their field; Zeiss makes the lenses and scientific instruments, hires 6,000 men; Zeiss-Ikon also hires 6,000 men, is capitalized at about $5,000,000, and makes a long list of items including barometers, adding machines, movie projectors, safety locks, as well as the bodies for the twenty-six Zeiss-Ikon cameras (only nine are minicams). It is therefore apparent that the Leica is far more important a corporate vertebra to Leitz than the Contax is to Zeiss, and in fact over half the Leitz plant is now devoted to the Leica.

Thus Leitz has made a big point of publicity ever since the Leica appeared to be its bonanza. Pamphlets, exhibits, monthly magazines, handbooks, have issued in a steady stream to make and keep the customer aware of Leitz’s contributions to photography. And The Leica Manual, edited by Leitz’s Willard D. Morgan and Cinematographer Henry M. Lester, is the most complete and authoritative work on what you can do with your minicam. In comparison, Zeiss publicity has been quieter but no less successful considering that it has been active for only four years. And until a year or so ago there weren’t enough Contaxes in competent hands to make a Contax exhibit possible. But in 1935 Zeiss held an exhibit in its New York showrooms, sent it traveling around the U.S. five weeks before the first U.S. Leica show; and this year the Zeiss show in New York attracted some 12,000 people.

WITH both Leitz and Zeiss firing at him, the minifan is left to answer for himself the question of which of these two cameras is the better. The claims and counterclaims are about equal. The Leica is smaller. Owners like the way its rounded corners fit the hand. And the Leica is lighter to carry, the standard model weighing 21 ounces around your neck against 26 ounces for the Contax. With eight years’ start. Leitz has more accessories to offer (to some this would seem a dubious advantage but it has helped to boost Leitz sales). And Leitz offers a slight saving in price. On the other hand Zeiss points to mechanical features like the removable back; the combined jarproof range finder and view finder; the Zeiss name on the lens; the slow and fast shutter speeds controlled by one knob; the feature of not having to rewind the film after it is all exposed; the focal-plane shutter made of metal slats. Dealers differ as to which camera is selling faster. Some say that the Leica is still outselling the Contax; others hold that the Contax is now first choice. But the average opinion seems to be that sales are about fifty-fifty with Zeiss now perhaps a shade in the lead with its two new models.

Of course if you want the real fact, there is no difference between the Leica and the Contax. That is, there is no difference in their picture-taking ability. In that all-important respect there is little to choose between any one good camera and any other. As Dr. Genthe has shrewdly said. “The lens is less important than the eye behind it.” Photographer Cecil Beaton, though he possesses an ample stock of high-priced cameras, still makes exquisite pictures with the ordinary Kodak with which he first made his international reputation.

Will the minicam boom last? There is every reason to think that it will, but with a decreasing emphasis on the paraphernalia and an increasing emphasis on the end product, which is pictures. In making pictures of a certain kind, pictures that capture the unconscious, unposed moments of people in the work and play and general hurry of a fast-moving age, the minicam is a matchless medium. It will continue to be used as such, cease to be used so much for work it cannot do so well.

In the pictures that he makes the minifan is finding his lasting satisfaction, and that is as it should be. He may seem to enjoy being buried alive in his darkroom but he will not continue to enjoy it unless now and then he comes out with a really thrilling picture. Picture making is a new thing to him, a very exciting and therapeutic thing. It is a perfect antidote for his otherwise matter-of-fact life, and whether he realizes it or not, it is doing things to his psyche. While occupied with his minicam he is experiencing the curious thrill that comes from craftsmanship. In his leisure hours, at least, he is learning to be an artist.

*There are five models of the Leica and three of the Contax, and the price of each model varies according to the lens you buy with it, so that you can buy a Leica for as little as $98, or a Contax for as much as $376. Prices have crept up about 30 per cent since 1932 to make up for the devalued U.S. dollar and last July they were jacked up another 25 per cent to offset a 25 per cent jump in the U.S. tariff. The added tariff was taken off in August after the German Government promised to stop giving subsidies to German exporters. But camera manufacturers’ prices have not gone back where they were, because now these firms must absorb the loss due to the devaluation of the U.S. dollar, a loss that the subsidies have been helping them to avoid for three years.

*Astigmatism is an inability of the eye to focus equally on all axes of an object’s surface. Thus vertical lines may appear dim when horizontal lines are sharp or vice versa. It is due to differences in the curvature of the front surface of the eyeball (cornea); e.g., if the vertical bulge is greater than the horizontal bulge, the light rays from vertical lines will converge to sharp focus before they reach the retina, produce a blurred image.

*The phrase is a technical term applied to the tiny disk of dispersed, aberrated, and diffracted light that a point of light becomes after passing through the lens into the surface of the film. With the best minicam lenses it is about 1/800 of an inch across or approximately one-eighth as large as the smallest detail that will register on the human retina at a distance of ten inches.


One a month is probably a conservative guess as to the number of miniature cameras that have come out in the past four years. Below is a partial list of the minicams that are now sold in the U.S.



Kodak Vollenda $ 25.00 and $ 44.50

Kodak Duo Six-20 57.50

Kodak Retina 57.50

Kodak Bantam Special 110.00

International Research

Corp.: Argus 12.50 and 15.00

Folmer Graflex: National

Graflex 82.50


Leitz: Leica $ 98.00 to $279.00


Contax 195.00 to 376.00

Ikomat 19.75 to 66.00

Baby Ikomat 48.50

Super Ikomat 85.00 to 140.00

Nettax 185.00

Super Nettel 110.00

Icarette 84.00

Ikoflex 36.00

Contaflex 650.00


Superb 100.00

Brilliant 12.50 to 39.50

Franke & Heidecke:

Rolleiflex 112.00 to 135.00

Rolleicord 75.00 and 85.00


Perfekta 75.00 and 85.00

Perle 45.00 and 72.00


Exakta 120.00 to 292.50

Parvola 36.00 to 135.00


Makina (with outfit) 260.00 and 300.00

Makinette ” ” 110.00


Dolly 18.50 to 85.00

Dollina 50.00 to 95.00

Woldemar & Beier:

Beira 85.00

Rafix 55.00 and 65.00

Rudolph: Roland 147.50 and 152.50


Foth Derby 27.50 to 95.00

Foth Flex 60.00 and 72.50


Baldax 45.00 and 52.50

Baldaxette 90.00 and 97.00

Baldina 43.00 to 52.50

Guthe & Thorsch: Pilot 59.50 to 127.50

Minifex: Minifex 22.50 to 112.50

Curt Bentzin: Primarflex 175.00 to 630.00

Berning: Robot 159.00 and 179.00


… on his hobby than most U.S. motorists do on their cars, and $1,500 is not an unusual sum for an expert’s investment. Below is a list of the items a Leica or Contax owner will probably possess at the end of a year if he goes into miniature photography seriously. Once established he will add and add to his equipment, and the column on the right shows what he will probably buy before long. It is likely that he will buy two or three more lenses and another camera or two for special work. The cost of developing and printing the 1,800 negatives here estimated as the active minifan’s annual crop will vary tremendously, depending mostly on how much printing paper he uses. General practice is to use 8″ × 10″ sheets, cut them up into smaller sizes; and counting the bad and unused negatives and the duplicate prints made of the good ones, the average comes to about one sheet of printing paper per negative. If he is a halfhearted fan and has his films finished commercially, his costs will be at least twice as high: developing costs thirty cents per roll and out of 1,800 possible negatives probably only some 1,250 will make good prints. Half of these he will want enlarged to the popular postcard size, 3″ × 5 ½”, 475 to the 5″ × 7″ size, and 150 to the 8″ × 10″ size, at ten cents, thirty cents, and fifty cents respectively, making his yearly film-finishing bill around $280.

*For picture taking:

Leica Model G camera with speeds from 1 to 1/1,000 second (without Iens) $141.00
Lens—Summar F/2, 50 mm. 114.00
Optical near-focusing device 33.00
Collapsible sunshade 5.40
Filter, light or dark yellow 5.40
Leather carrying case 9.90
Exposure meter 22.50
4 roll film magazines @ $3 12.00

For picture making:

Developing tank 9.75
Enlarger 54.75
Enlarging easel, 11″ × 14″ 7.50
3 enamel trays, 8″ × 10″, for developing, short stop, and fixing baths @ 750. 2.25
Tray 5″ × 7″ for making small prints .45
Tray 16″ × 20″ for washing prints 2.75
2 blotter rolls for drying prints @ $1.50 3.00
Trimming board 15.00
Timer, clock for timing exposures 5.00
2 viscose sponges @ 750. 1.50
2 negative storage boxes @ $2.70 5.40
2 safelights @ $1.75 3.50
3 filters for safelight @ 250. .75
Thermometer 1.20
Contact-print frame .60
Chromium Ierrotype tin for glossy prints 3.00
Squeegee for rolling glossy prints 1.25
2 graduates for solutions @ 700. 1.40
4 dark glass bottles for solutions @ 200. .80
Scales with weights 4.50
Funnel .50
Film spooling rod 1.00
Film trimmer guide 1.50
Negative clips, stirring rods, print tongs, scoops, etc. 2.00

One year’s running expenses:

Floater insurance premium on camera equipment $ 6.86
Photographic magazines and books 15.00

50 rolls of 35 mm. film, 1,800 negatives:

5 rolls of infra-red film $6.75
100 feet of Super X “Pan” film 6.00
50 feet of Finopan film 4.00
100 feet Panatomic film 6.00
Developing and fixing chemicals for film and paper 25.00
1.800 sheets 8″ × 10″ paper, 4 grades 112.50
Contact-printing paper 5.00
TOTAL $659.66

*Probable additions for picture taking:


Hektor F/6.3. 28 mm. $75.00
Elmar F/4. 90 mm. 83.50
View finder for 28 mm. lens 22.50
View finder for other lenses 26.70
2 filters @ $6.00 12.00
Leather carrying case 19.50
Tripod 7.05

Probable additions for picture making:

Homemade motor-driven agitator $ 8.00
Set of lights with photo-flood bulbs 15.00
Foot switch for enlarger 8.75
Syphon for print washing tray 5.00
Additional insurance 4.93
TOTAL $287.93

*If a Contax II camera with an F/1.5 lens and similar equipment are used, this part of the budget will be about $144 more, the probable additions about $11 more. The rest is of miscellaneous manufacture and will be about the same for both cameras.