Thom Hogan does a film camera site. Wow. That's so counter-intuitive. But talk about niche-ing the market...

One of the few 35mm cameras whose build quality made Leicas M's look like mass market trash.

Thom Hogan is stirring the nostalgia bucket with a new website dedicated to great film cameras of yesteryear that can still be well used today. If you are interested you might want to give his new site a spin:  http://www.filmbodies.com/  Thom is a good writer with an amazing depth of knowledge about photography. He comes from the techno/engineering side but his reviews and articles have a good left/right brain balance. And, remarkably, he also likes to write about the business of cameras. 

But all his new site did for me was to rekindle my lust for fun cameras from yesteryear. While I still have Nikon F's and F2's and F3's and an F4 rumbling around in one of the equipment cabinets I'm much more of an elitist snob that Thom so I dug out what may have been the ultimate in camera construction in all of the twentieth century to ruminate about. Yes, it's the Alpa 9d, individually hand built in Switzerland by a company that also made precision parts for the premier watch companies. 

While Leicas are very nicely built and probably are the ultimate expression of assembly line cameras nothing out there beats a camera made by hand, by Swiss craftsmen, using thick and rugged alloys like surgical steel for critical parts. When I hold a Leica M in one hand and an Alpa 9d in the other one feels "well made" and the other one seems like absolutely alien inspired, bulletproof, indestructible and timelessly crafted.  The Pignon company started making cameras in the 1940's and stopped in the late 1970's and, in all, produced fewer than 40,000 cameras of all kinds, total. Very clean copies of any Swiss Alpa (Cosina made a modern version but it never sold well) go for insane prices at auction. These were cameras with shutters that could be set very precisely, and in third stop increments, in a time when other maker's fully mechanical cameras had shutter that could only be calibrated down to one stop increments.

But as great as these single lens reflex camera bodies were the icing on the cake was the selection of apochromatic 50mm and 100mm lenses they had made (Also by a Swiss company). Photographers routinely dismissed the lenses from any serious competition because they were very expensive and they ruined the grade curve. They were that good in their time.

"The Kern Macro Switar lens was a 50 mm lens at F1.8 or F1.9. It was an apochromat, and is still highly regarded as possibly the best standard lens ever offered." --Wikipedia

Pretty much the gold standard for ultimate 35mm image quality in the 1960's was a roll of Kodachrome 25 film, a Kern-Switar lens and an Alpa precision crafted body. The example in these photos is of my favorite Alpa 9d, because it's the one I own. I am in the middle of restoring the cosmetics and I've stripped off the peeling, 40 year old leatherette and am trying to order replacements (yes, someone still does it...). The camera itself still functions flawlessly. Since there were so few made and so few sold in the U.S.A. I've never seen one at a photo walk or on a Flickr forum. Or for that matter anywhere outside a collector's glass cabinet.

 The entire camera bottom and back must be removed to load film or extract it. Every part is, at least, handcrafted steel alloy. You think your camera is weatherproof? This one is volcano and earthquake proof. And like a Bugatti engine the fittings are so precise and finely machined that it seals without the need for gaskets. You think a Leica is tough? This camera invented tough.

Is it fun to use? Now that's an entirely different question....


  1. Well, is it fun to use?

  2. Don't they still make MF cameras? I think Michael Reichmann was full of praise for these because you can shim the sensor so that it's absolutely plane to the ground glass. And yes, according to these guys, that *does* make a difference. If you invest for a 80MP Phase One back which costs as much as a middle class Mercedes Benz, you probably want that much of precision still today.

  3. Sorry; make that LF cameras of course...

    1. You are right, three partners bought the Alpa name and are producing medium format, field style cameras of great accuracy. And they are kind of a cross between single sheet, large format and MF. I'm assuming you could even order one that would take film...wild, yes?

    2. Yeah, somehow that's cool - for those who can afford it. Too bad that I'm no Salgado or such... ;-)

    3. Me either. I picked up that 9d at a garage sale for $200 about twenty years ago..

    4. As far as I know (iirc he mentioned it in an interview long ago), Sebastião Salgado shoots with Canon equipment, film in the old days and more recently digital, of course.

    5. Salgado used Leica R, then later Pentax medium format before moving to Canon digital because of the film transport security problems. The printing is (or was, before the current 'Genesis' project) made via an imagesetter inter-neg, so the final output still goes on to traditional silver-based paper.

    6. That lens should be usable on mirrorless (if not other systems). Considering its most likely true Apo lens, that might be really interesting..

      200 USD is bargain, lens alone go to thousands.

  4. While handmade stuff by the gnomes of Zurich is always a neat thing to here, in this day and age you probably want machines making your camera, not people.

  5. I remember being fascinated by Alpa in the 70's while in high school. The model at the time was the newly (relatively) introduced 10D. What astonished me was the enormous range of lenses they claimed to have. Pop and Modern photo regularly listed a focal length range from 1.8mm (!!?) to 1600mm. I never got an answer on the lower end but the number of lenses was astounding and the quality , as mentioned, of the normal 50 was stellar.
    BTW, you just blew up the value of any remaining copies.

  6. Hi Kirk,

    I had the honour of using one from my early 10 years of age till the mid 80's. Mine is black finish and yes, that macro switar 1.8 was a joy to use (made by Angenieux), and everything moved as smooth as could be. They were so solidly built one could hammer a nail to the wall and not find a scratch!!! Unfortunately, the cloth shutter curtain broke and since then I have not found anyone who can fix it, not even in Switzerland (by the way, they were made in Pignon). Anyone knows who, where?
    Very nice and nostalgic article, and nicer to learn there are still a few left who appreciate truly well manufactured pieces of "functional" art.


  7. Ah yes, I used to gaze moonily at the Alpas back in high school, along with the Questar telescopes. Thanks for the memories!

  8. Where does one find the back/bottom piece to a Alpa 9D? I have a camera body but it is missing the back/bottom piece.


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