I’ve always been fascinated by those so-called tiny spy cameras….I guess my first intro to them was via my favorite movies of James Bond!
In those days, and I’m talking about way back in the 70s, money was tight, and I was a forlorn student, eking out an existence in shared digs in a dingy old house in Finchley, London, sometimes having to live on nothing more appetising than baked beans on toast, or if I was feeling more adventurous, Marmite on toast! But this is a partial lie, as I did have enough money to eat properly….as a student, you tend not get too involved in what you eat, so anything that filled me up was game…we had a guy studying math, who seemed to live on nothing else but Coke, or Coca-Cola as it was called in those days!
Anyways, as cash was not king at the time, all I could do was just look and fantasize about these cameras. I did visit a few camera shops in London at the time, pretending to be a buyer of such a camera, which gave me the chance to actually handle one. The first time I held one, I was smitten….I had to have one. The price tag in those days made my eyes water….more than £200….suffice to say, it was unaffordable.
Fast forward 25 years or so, and I was finally able to indulge in my fantasy! It still held the same fascination….feeling like a solid, intricately engineered lump of metal, rather like a Swiss watch.
It took tiny rolls of 16mm film, which also cost a lot to process, but by then I had my own darkroom set up and was busily experimenting with different chemicals and films, so developing 16mm was no bi g deal.
The results it gave were disappointing. I was expecting really fine prints, but anything bigger than postcard prints were heavily grained.
Then I had a brainwave…I made use of the fact that the camera produced so much graininess in its photos, that I took to using it for street shoots, where the results were magnificent….shed loads of grain in my monochrome shots, giving them a mystical quality…eureka!
Nowadays, that same camera is available for around £50….a fraction of the original cost, and, if you are a hard-headed film nerd like me, well worth buying!
I still have one or two suppliers who stock the film, but for how much longer, who knows! Let me know if you need some.
Another much cheaper and more affordable one is the Minolta 16 II, which uses the same film and is just a few mm’s bigger than the Minox. It has a very sharp lens which goes from f2.8 to f16 and a good spread of shutter speeds from 1/30s to 1/500s. So if you’re interested in this niche, try the Minolta…they call it the poor man’s Minox!
I’ll leave you with my favorite spy camera, often classed as the absolute Rolls Royce of the genre….the Rollei 16S.
It is generally acknowledged that this was built to even greater precsion than the Minox camera, whihc is saying something indeed.
The lens on this beauty has never been surpassed, on a sub-mini camera that is…a fab 25mm f2.8 Zeiss Tessar. It was able to take both wide and tele lenses, as well as tiny little filters, too.
Again, this camera was very expensive indeed when it was introduced….now the price has plummeted and it can be had for around $150 at some auction places online.
It was made famous not only by its quality, but also by a TV character called Kolchak The Night Stalker, a series about a Chicago newspaper reporter.