TESSINA AUTOMATIC

The Tessina is without question one of the strangest 35mm cameras ever made. It is a motor-drive twin-lens reflex giving 14x21 mm frames on standard film loaded into non-standard cassettes taking 36-41 cm (14½ to 16½ inches) of film: the cassette is so small that film thickness affects the length of film you can fit into it. Based on a number of 1950s patents filed by Dr. Rudolph Steineck and (in the case of the 1958 patents) co-filed with Paul Nagel, prototypes and possibly cameras for sale were made from about 1957 onwards, though the camera appears to have been introduced officially at photokina in (as far as I know) 1960. It was in series production by Siegrist in Switzerland until maybe 1996. 


 

The sliding lens cover protects both the taking lens (upper right) and viewing lens (lower left).


Thereafter, intermittent batches were built, possibly exclusively from leftover parts (some of which still seemed to be available in 2018) or possibly incorporating some new parts: Siegrist was (and still is) a manufacturer of watch parts. Steineck's company,  Concava SA, shared its address with Siegrist during the series production of the Tessina, but claims on the cover of the instruction manual that the camera was “precision built in Switzerland by Concava SA” are disputable. You can find a copy of the instruction book here

Several have asserted that this same Paul Nagel was the designer of the Kodak Retina, but this was August Nagel (1882-1943). His son was called Helmut; I have not been able to find out whether Paul was a relative, but he certainly didn't design the Retina. Nor, as far as I can discover, did he have any hand in Walter Zapp's Minox, another assertion which can be found on the internet. 

A friend of mine who spoke with the manufacturers of the Tessina in the 1960s or 1970s said that they had been disappointed with what appeared to be a low level of interest at photokina but that when they got back to Switzerland they had some difficulty in opening the front door because of the drift of letters behind it. These were from assorted air attachés, naval attachés and other spies. The Tessina's negative area of 294 sq. mm. is well over three times as great as the 88 sq. mm. of the 8x11 mm negative of the Minox, which was of considerable value to the quality-conscious spy. 

Neither the Tessina nor the Minox appears to have been designed primarily for the espionage market, though allegedly both sold well to spies. As an aside on spy cameras, an actual spy of my acquaintance favoured Rolleiflex TLRs, on the grounds that if you were searched they were as likely to find a Minox as a Rolleiflex, and at least with the Rollei you could plead innocence as no-one but a fool would pretend they hadn't noticed they were carrying it. He spoke from experience, having stolen, photographed and returned classified documents as part of an exercise designed to show up security failings. But let us return to the Tessina. 



From the back: the lens end and the rewind, spring wind and lots more.


It's 69 x 54 x 29 mm between flats with the small magnifying finder in place (which adds 4 mm), and it weighs 168g, again including the small magnifying finder (which adds 5g) but without a film cassette; which alas I can't weigh because I no longer have one. I sold my original Tessina decades ago and this one belongs to a friend who inherited another one (or possibly, very indirectly via intermediate buyers, the same one). For the unmetricated, those measurements are 2.7 x 2.1 x  1.1 inches and 5.9 ounces (all rounded to one decimal place). There are all actual measurements of the camera in my possession, made with a vernier calliper; the 2½ x 2 x 1 inches that are commonly quoted are even more generously rounded.  

Where to start? At the front, maybe. There's a sliding cap to protect both the viewing lens and the taking lens, and a shutter release which won't operate unless the hood is fully retracted. The shutter release is threaded for a cable release, but unfortunately the tripod socket is an accessory (which I've never seen). The coated taking lens is marked as a 25/2.8 Tessinon: the viewing lens is described in the instruction book as the same, but is uncoated, at least on this sample. 


A 25 mm lens on this format equates near enough to 45 mm on full-frame 35mm. The fact that the film and the lens are at 45 degrees to one another is taken care of by a surface-silvered mirror, which means that the images are mirror images and must be printed emulsion side up in a conventional enlarger. This means that the camera is a twin-lens double-reflex.

Next, the top. On the left there is an aperture dial, continuously variable from f/2.8 to f/22. Improbably, there are two (hard to see) index marks, one at about 4 o'clock and one at about 8 o'clock. One registers only from f/2.8 to f/16; the other, from f/5.6 to f/22. The aperture itself is square. 

In the middle of the aperture dial is the manually reset, additive frame counter with a red dot for start and running up to 22 (23 if you include the red dot). To its right is the focusing wheel, from 1 foot to infinity, with a depth of field scale in the middle. Different models of Tessina have different close-focusing distances: the Tessina 35 and Tessina L reputedly focus to 9 inches (23 cm) instead of one foot (30 cm). There appear to be both metric and imperial versions. 

Immediately below or behind the focusing wheel is the interchangeable viewfinder. Both my original Tessina and this one came with a domed, slide-in magnifying finder. I am not sure whether this or the folding optical finder shown on the cover of the instruction book is standard. As well as these two, there is a (rare) 4x pentaprism and an (even rarer) 8x “chimney” finder. This camera came with the latter but I've never seen another.

To the left of the finder is a “cheat sheet” for exposures at 1/125 second for three (slow) film speeds, ASA 20, 40 and 80, in undemanding light: sunny, cloudy bright and overcast. These are however marked on a removable aluminium plate in a unique-fitting accessory shoe which could also take a tiny exposure meter or a rectangular-faced watch, neither of which I have ever seen in the metal. Apparently some models of exposure meter coupled (via the aperture dial) with some models of Tessina. 


The extremely rare 8x finder is completely unmarked: you have to know what it is. Many have probably been thrown away. The "cheat sheet" can be replaced with a meter (rare) or a watch face (even rarer)


Now for the back. On the left is the pull-out rewind knob, thoughtfully marked with an arrow and an R. Next to it is the 3-way flash selector: M (20 ms delay), F (5 ms delay) and X (0 ms delay). The synch socket – standard Prontor-Compur PC – is immediately beneath. 

Slightly left of centre is the shutter speed dial – ½ to 1/500 second, plus B – which  can be turned anticlockwise only, so if you want to go from ½ second to ¼ you have to go almost all the way around again. The shutter movement is reputedly jewelled, like a high-quality watch. Under the shutter speed dial, slightly on the right, is the rewind release, a tab to flick up with a fingernail. Then on the right-hand end of the camera is another pull-out knob, this time for winding the clockwork mouse that advances the film. Again it's marked with an arrow; again it goes anticlockwise. There's no positive stop, so stop winding when it starts to get stiff. A single wind will operate an empty camera for about 10 shots but from memory you would be lucky to get 8 with a film in the camera. 

On the back there are four little posts with broad tops, and a spring-loaded button: I'll come back to these in a moment. To remove the back, there is a stiff slider running almost the full length of the right hand side of the camera. Push it all the way towards O and you can lift that side of the back and unlatch it from the two little pins on the left. 


Line up the red dots to put the camera on its strap.


So: what are the four little posts on the back for? Well, on this particular camera they are used to locate the wrist strap. Align the red dots, and align the ends of the posts in the holes on the strap so that they poke through. Push down and sideways, and suddenly the function of the little button becomes evident: it locks the plate in place. You can now wear your Tessina like a (rather bulky) watch: as it says in the instruction book, “a unique method for motorists, climbers and other sportsmen, as well as for candid photography”. Gentlemen spies would of course be expected to wear generously cut French cuffs with proper cuff-links. While I was writing this, I wore the Tessina on its strap for a while and provided you don't make any sudden movements it is hardly noticeable. 

The other accessory that can be mounted on the posts is a tripod plate, which in addition to the socket has lugs for a neck strap; if you can face it, the official Tessina chain, which looks like one of those snake-chains that torture you gently but exquisitely by pulling at the tiny hairs on the back of your neck. 


Both the rewind (clockwise, left) and the spring motor wind (anticlockwise, right) pull up for ease of operation. The rewind clutch is released by lifting up the little tab behind the shutter speed dial.


In use, the Tessina is about what you would expect: great fun, but not really all that useful if you want the best possible pictures. Nor is it outstandingly convenient, even on the wrist strap. It's about half the size of my Olympus Pen W, but the Pen takes standard cassettes and gives you 48 or 72 pictures instead of 23, and at 18x24 mm each picture is almost 50% bigger than the Tessina's 14x21 mm. The 25/2.8  6-glass lens on the Pen is sharper, too, and equates to about a 35 mm on full-frame 35 mm. On the other hand, focusing and framing with the Tessina are both more accurate; assuming, of course, that you can face fiddling with the tiny controls, and can see the image on the (rather dim, low-contrast) ground glass. Composition is easy enough but scale focusing is probably easier. 

The shutter is very quiet indeed, but the wind-on makes a sort of bzzz-zip noise which could be noticeable in many environments. A rare “silent” version uses nylon gears to reduce the noise: one of these was apparently used by the “Plumbers” during the Watergate break-in. I have read that there were non-motorized versions too, presumably wound on with the wind-up knob, but the more I learn about Tessinas, the less inclined I am to believe all that I read. This is why I have used the words “reputedly” or “allegedly” so often in this article. 

One unexpected problem I had with mine was static. I've often heard of this, but never seen it elsewhere. It is caused by a build-up of static electricity on the film as it moves past the velvet lips of the cassette, especially in cold, dry weather, and here it took the form of a straight line with a sort of tree-shaped flash at either end. In the example given, it looks as  if the unfortunate person talking to the policewoman has been struck with the beam from a ray gun; a Space Outlaw, perhaps. 


From the first roll I ever shot with my own Tessina, over 40 years ago. On the left: full frame. On the right: a sectional blow-up to give some idea of the resolution. I'd probably have done better with slower film and more generous exposure. Even so, in the original you can read the policewoman's number on her epaulette.


What killed the Tessina? Probably not static. Allegedly it wasn't outstandingly reliable, though I've had no problems and I don't know anyone who has; it was indisputably expensive; it's extremely fiddly; and when it comes to film loading, non-standard cassettes make it very inconvenient. Even before digital cameras (especially those built into telephones) removed its principal raison d'etre, it was increasingly sought by collectors rather than photographers, but it remains a gadget par excellence, and an entirely usable camera. 

All right: what's it worth? Prices are all over the place, but at the end of 2018 they seemed to be in the range of 300 to 600 pounds, dollars or euros, with the higher end of the range reserved for cameras that come with a cassette; those at the bottom of the range are often non-functional. The ones in fancy finishes – painted black or black crackle, or anodized red, blue or gold – go for considerably more, as do the “silent” versions; but they're all pretty rare. 

Individual cassettes seem to go for at least $20 (call it £15 or 18€) and the other accessories can be pricey: $100-300 for the 8x viewfinder (with one advertised new, in box, at over $400, or £300/350€); around $100 for the tripod plate, normally with free neck-chain thrown in; $50-100 for the wrist strap, though I paid 25 pence for mine in about 1980 in a camera dealer's junk box. Outfits soon reach significantly higher prices – $1000 is commonplace - and although they are often claimed to be “complete” they rarely are, at least in the sense of coming with all the accessories named above or shown in the instruction book, let alone the film loader for loading Tessina cassettes from normal 35mm cassettes, the brown leather camera case or even a tripod plate. 


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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2018