The first coupled Rangefinder: Kodak No. 3A

Great things have small beginnings, but in this case an even big start. Let’s dive back to 1916, the year of the No. 3A Autographic Kodak Special. The ‘Special’ was an understatement, since it changed photography significantly. The huge medium format took 8×14 cm pictures. On a roll! We found and happily can review it, this masterpiece of 105 years old.

The Kodak No. 3A Special is indeed special, since it is the first coupled rangefinder camera model ever made, with a production start in 1916. What is a coupled rangefinder? Actually, we know the term from the Leica cameras, which still make rangefinders today.

It works typically with a split-image : a way of focusing precisely where two small mirrors projects two images of the same subject, one of which moves when a calibrated wheel is turned; when the two images coincide and fuse into one, the image is in focus. It is coupled when the calibration wheel is mechanically rotating or moving the lens as well. Only with the SLR a new method was introduced by projecting the image of the lens directly into the viewfinder through the mirror. With an uncoupled rangefinder, you only measure the distance which is then manually transferred to the lens. Many (cheaper) Zeiss-Ikons, Voigtlanders, Agfa’s work this way, just the more expensive models were equipped with a coupled rangefinder and then soon added Super or Extra in the naming of the model. But how did the very first coupled rangefinder work? In 1916! The rangefinder on the Kodak is attached to the front at the bottom of the lens and consists of a small rectangular metal box with small mirrors. On the right side is the viewfinder. With the eye, you are looking at two separate images. In the center, you look at the moving mirror that uses a small focus knob to move the lens from back to front. On the middle mirror you see the effect of rotating the knob. You should preferably look at lines (or walls, branches of trees, people) that should overlap in both images to create a sharp image. You focus from infinity to close that way.

The Kodak is equipped with Kodak Anastigmat 135 mm/F. 6.3 lens and a Kodamatic shutter with speeds from 1/2 to 1/200 sec. plus bulb and time mode. Its smallest aperture is F. 45! At that time apertures were not yet uniform.U.S. 4 means F8 in Europe, U.S. 8 is F11, U.S. 64 is F32. To make things easier to choose the appropriate shutter times, the light conditions (dull, gray, clear and brilliant/sunny) are also indicated on the aperture ring. In addition to the rangefinder, focusing can also be done with estimated zone focusing. For this purpose, a distance scale (2 meters till infinity) is included on the metal plate next to the extendable bellows. Attached to the top of the lens is the bright Brilliant viewfinder that we know on almost every medium format camera of the time. Attached to the top of the lens is the bright Brilliant viewfinder that we know on almost every medium format camera of the time. It can be rotated horizontally or vertically for portrait or landscape mode.

I myself am fortunate to have access to the film version for which Kodak had specially designed the A122 film. 122 film is a roll film format introduced in 1903 and discontinued in 1971. Its image size in inches is 3 1/4 X 5 1/2 inch or 8.25x14cm (!). That means huge, almost panoramic negatives. You can however use and load 120 film in your vintage Kodak 122 film camera by using the special spooladapters from e.g. CameraHack. The A in A122 has a special meaning. The name ‘autographic’ for this camera means you can make notes on the negatives with a Stylus pen. The special A122 film consisted of a tissue-like carbon paper sandwiched between the film and the paper backing. Text was entered using a metal stylus, and would appear in the margin of the processed print. The system was common on early consumer cameras but became unpopular in the 1920s, and was discontinued in 1932. The stylus is attached on the back of the camera. There is also the flap to open the access to the paper to make notes per photo. The ‘red peeping’ glass indicates the negative number on the roll. These rolls of film no longer exist and if you were to open the cover with a 120 film, your film would immediately be overexposed, so be warned! When using color film, it is also necessary to tape the red viewing window. In contrast to b/w film, color film is sensitive to red light.

The shutter consists of a small button on the side of the lens. At the time, however, it was more common to work with a cable shutter. Fortunately, the kodak shutter is of high quality, so all times run neatly like clockwork. Cleaning the lens parts is also not difficult. Front and rear elements can be unscrewed from the front or through the back with bellows retracted.

The No. 3A Autographic Kodak Special was rightfully the top model in 1916. It contained all the special features imaginable for a medium format camera at the time. A new, extra-wide film roll for large enlargements, annotation on the negatives, focusing via a linked rangefinder. A dream for any serious photographer who could afford it at the time.

From the original manual

And now it is one of my finest acquisitions from that era. It is not easy to find a good working 3A special. They are scarce. If you want to enjoy such a top model without a rangefinder, you should go for the more readily available ‘ordinary’ 3A which in many cases are equipped with beautiful red bellows! But anyway, it adorns your collection. And you can still take fantastic pictures with it in 2021. With a little patience and a lot of love.

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