Subminiature Cameras  –  Vintage Camera Type

Typical Subminiature Camera Traits

Construction: metal / plastic
   
Lens Quality: low to high
   
User Controls: minimal to moderate

Subminiature Camera Characteristics

Unlike other classifications, subminiature cameras are idenitified solely by the physical size of individual exposures that they made. Back in the early days of photography, full-frame 35mm film was already considered ‘miniature’ so when even smaller film formats eventually came to market, they received the designation of “subminiature.” Since these subminiature films naturally lacked the image quality of larger formats, they were generally considered to be only for casual photography. Because of this, most subminiature cameras were designed to be more affordable and user-friendly than anything else.

Although subminiatures first came on the market during the 1930s in the form of cameras such as the Coronet Midget and the original Minox spy camera, they wouldn’t become truly popular until after the end of the Second World War. The most famous subminiature is arguably post-war Japan’s Toyoca Hit and the many variants and clones that it spawned. These simple, tiny cameras (which were made for 17.5mm film and typically featured a fixed focus lens, single aperture setting, and primitive shutter) proved to be immensely popular in the United States where they were treated as novelty toys and even Christmas tree decorations.

After a year or so, the trend of Hit-type cameras began wearing off as 16mm film took over as the format of choice. Photographers began turning to companies like Minolta, Mamiya, and Rollei for well-made “spy cameras” designed for their own proprietary 16mm film cassettes with painfully unoriginal names like the Minolta-16, Mamiya-16, and Rollei-16. Then, in 1972, Kodak changed the rules by introducing the wildly popular 110 film cartidge which quickly became the standard 16mm film for still cameras. With all the different manufacturers adopting 110 film, more and more subminiatures began arriving on the market. While most of them were cheap, basic models like those in the Kodak Pocket Instamatic line, some of them—like the Rollei A110 and Minox 110S—are of exceptional quality. Another noteworthy type of subminiature at the time were larger cameras like the Yashica Rapide which used regular 35mm film but only exposed half of each frame at a time. However, these “half-frame” cameras were typically more expensive and didn’t have the same mass appeal as the physically smaller 16mm cameras.

As the years went on, the appeal of subminiatures began to fade as full-frame 35mm cameras became smaller and more affordable. With differences in size and price becoming negligible, more and more consumers were lured away by the vastly superior image quality of 35mm film. Kodak attempted to revive the market in 1982 by debuting disc film (a thin cartridge containing a rotating piece of film that could accommodate 15 8x11mm frames) as well as disc cameras such as the Kodak Disc 6100. While slim and convenient, poor sales due to lackluster image quality put an end to the disc format. By the mid 1990s, most major manufacturers (including Kodak itself) had ceased production of subminiature cameras entirely.

While many subminiatures like the Kiev 30 are essentially pocket cameras shaped like tiny bricks, others take on all sorts of forms and functions. The Pentax Auto 110 is basically a scaled-down 35mm SLR complete with a system of interchangeable lenses and accessories, the Tasco 8000 is permanently attached to a pair of binoculars, the Secam Stylophot is vaguely shaped like a pen, and the Concava Tessina had a watchband accessory so you can wear it on your wrist. KGB operatives during the Cold War regularly concealed the KMZ F-21 Ajax using specially-designed coat buttons, belt buckles, cigarette packs, briefcases, and purses.

Interested in starting or growing your own collection of subminiature cameras?
Check eBay to see what’s available.
References:

McKeown, James M. and Joan C. McKeown’s Price Guide to Antique and Classic Cameras, 2001-2002. (Grantsburg, USA: Centennial Photo Service, 2001), 73, 152, 161, 314, 337, 357, 386-387, 446-447, 471-473, 585-586, 606, 630, 639, 706.

“Hit-type cameras,” Camerapedia, http://camerapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Hit-type_cameras

“Disc film,” Camerapedia, http://camerapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Disc_film

“110 film,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/110_film

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