What would you get if a high end Swiss precision watch maker suddenly decided to design and build a reflex camera? Well back in 1939 Pignons S.A. asked that very question and jumped head first into the emerging 35mm film camera market. With that they went on a 50 year journey that ended with the same amount of camera bodies that could be produced today in a factory over the course of a few weeks and bankruptcy.
Alpa cameras are an anomaly in the film camera world. Extremely well built with hundreds of individually hand crafted and hand assembled parts. Extremely expensive when new and even more expensive used today. Extremely durable with a ridiculously high build quality that surpassed that of Zeiss, Schneider and Leica. And extremely rare and sought after by a select few out there who would like you to think they know something that you don't.
So what's the whole fuss about? Well for starters the camera is solid. So solid you could use it as a hammer and risk damaging the nail before you would break the camera. More importantly though is the lenses. Alpa never made their own glass. Instead they went to the heavy hitters of the time; most notably Kern who had been making optical glass in Switzerland since 1819. Thus the Kern Macro-Switar 50mm F1.9 was born. Just mentioning this lens to the right person will make them weak in the knees.
But is it worth all the hype? Well yes and no. While it is definitely a well built piece of engineering and optics the overall design and operation is awful. The shutter release mechanism is on the front of the camera just to the the right of the lens which then mounts over top of it with it's own little shutter button thingy. This made it one of the most awkward camera I've ever operated. I kept hitting the shutter dial expecting to take a photo. The whole point was to allow you to stop down before firing to see your depth of field. Pretty clever except that most other cameras did this with a lever in the same spot. There was no need to put the shutter release there. I don't know whose hands this camera was designed for but it was not mine.
The results were great. Even on expired Kodak 200 Gold film (I have a freezer full of the stuff) detail comes through beautifully, colour contrast is wonderful, and the enormous focusing throw allows for extremely sharp images even wide open and f1.9. Overall it was a lot of fun getting a chance to use the camera for the weekend but if given the opportunity to own one I would have to pass.
All photos taken on the Alpa 11si with a Kern Macro-Switar 50mm F1.9 lens with Kodak 200 Gold film excluding the first photo which was taken by Erik Juhasz.
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We have a similar camera up for auction here: http://www.ebay.com/itm/ALPA-11EL-CHROME-CAMERA-BODY-USER-/291801631384?
Gear mentioned in this article can be purchased here:
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