The Kodak Ektra was the finest consumer camera that Kodak ever manufactured, though it had its mechanical faults. Designed in the late 30s, it employed a number of technologies that Kodak had pioneered and offered a feature set that German and Japanese camera makers did not equal until the late 50s. Comparison of early design features of the Contax challenges this claim, however. The Ektra was introduced in 1941 and production was ended in 1948 and totaled about 2000.

There is much legend about the creation of the Kodak Ektra, some apocryphal. One tale suggests that, in the late 30s, Kodak was given a large grant by the federal government to develop the Ektra to insure that there would be a precision miniature for military work if Germany was aligned against the U. S. This story appears to be apocryphal, since another manufacturer contracted a bid with the U. S. military to supply cameras made from U. S.- based Leica parts . Another story has Kodak importing German designers from its Retina branch to introduce European design principles to this new model; while this idea is plausible, even likely, I've never seen it stated from a reliable source. Yet another story describes a Japanese spy photographing Pearl Harbor with an Ektra shortly before the Japanese attack. Since much of this occurred before I was born, I have no clear recollection of the details, but you may be interested in an article at the Chicago Photographic Collectors Society site.

What is clear from the elaborate book that Kodak published to introduce the Ektra is that this was a major project at Kodak, who were clearly interested in besting the German and Japanese competition, regardless of the political alignment of the countries. This was Kodak's only domestic foray into the interchangeable lens market until the Signet series in the 1960s, ignoring products by Graflex which Kodak had owned decades earlier, and some of the early folders. If the Ektra proved to be less than commercially successful, that failure could not rest with the camera's design, except perhaps that the complexity of the design placed production cost beyond market demand.

The Ektra was one of the earliest system miniatures. Kodak designed six lenses and produced five of them ranging from 35mm to 153mm. The lenses were coupled to the Ektra's wide-based rangefinder system . It had a focal plane shutter--the camera's only weak element--that was ingeniously coupled to a system of interchangeable backs, allowing the user to change film types mid-roll. When Leica, Nikon and Canon users were still using thumb and forefinger to turn conventional knobs to advance film, Ektra owners were rapidly advancing theirs with a lever attached to each film back; this lever action also tensioned the shutter. The Ektra viewfinder showed the field of view for each lens, not by sets of frame lines, but by an optical arrangement that zoomed from 50mm to 254mm. It had parallax correction and an adjustable rear element to compensate for the optical differences among individual users. The separate rangefinder had its own diopter adjustment. Three of the five lenses produced have dual range capability that can focus to 12 inches. The standard view/rangefinder was supplemented by a close range/viewfinder attachment that was parallax corrected. In addition, Kodak offered a high-low and a right-angle finder and a removable ground-glass focusing back for critical close focusing. Though I am not aware that Kodak offered a microscope connector, everything was there to allow for an aftermarket or home-grown arrangement.

The camera was designed to complement the Kodak Precision Enlarger. The lens board of the enlarger head accepted the Ektra lens mount to allow the 50mm lens to be used for enlarging. The enlarger's bellows and condenser assembly was attached to the enlarger's mast with an arm that used a knurled knob with a tripod socket thread, so the enlarger bellows could be removed and the Ektra could be mounted on this arm for copy work. The supplemental ground glass back could be used for critical focusing in this arrangement.

Ektra Lenses

Kodak Ektra - The Prospectus (ca 1941) How to Use the Kodak Ektra (1945)  
Prices Kodak Ektra, its lenses, accessories and related products
January 1941
Kodak Ektra Registration Card (ca 1945)  
Contemporary correspondance about the Ektra Scans of pages in Kodak publications relating to the Ektra  

Patent application for Kodak Ektra shutter
    Ektra Internals  


12/30/2010 16:20