Alpa - the unRF/Alpa - the unSLR

Local time
1:03 AM
Jun 6, 2009
SLRs - the unRF
"For those of you who must talk about SLRs, if only to confirm they are not RF."

I was in two minds about whether to post this in the SLR forum, or in one of the rangefinder ones instead.

In either case, as they do not appear very often at all, I thought some members might find them interesting to see. It's late now, but I'll post some more photos later on in my today hopefully, or failing that, certainly in the next few days.


L to R: Alpa Prisma; Alpa Alnea 7; Alpa Reflex

My late uncle, an avid photographer, had a series of them. I think he'd trade his current Alpa for whatever the newest model was. Some day I'll get one, maybe! Though I gather they're rather delicate, and finding someone to fix them may not be easy.

Something like your Alnea Reflex, with a Kern Macro-Switar, might be just the thing.
This is rather timely , just last night I was looking through a Photo magazine from 1951, and holy crap were those things expensive , over $450 with their faster lens . Peter
ps: as a point of reference a new Chevy Bel Air cost $2100 .
There is a bit of a story behind these cameras. They are part of a collection of classics that recently turned up in my home city. It includes a number of different Alpa models, accessories and lenses but also some other types of cameras, such as a Rolleiflex Automat and a couple of Contaflexes. The Alpas include an 11si SLR and various other types. The 11si has the famed 50mm f/1.9 Macro Switar apochromatic. There's an Alpa tripod in the assortment, too, and I was not aware they even made those.

I had the good fortune to visit the business that was asked to consign them and surprised the owner by (A) actually having heard of the Alpa reflexes and (B) knowing just a little about them. I've been quietly keeping an eye out for an Alpa 7 for a little while. The Switar lenses have a lot of appeal, of course, but it has as much to do with their design, because I just find the whole idea of a hybrid rangefinder/SLR fascinating, and eventually curiosity got the better of me.

I made some reasonable observations about how best to approach selling the items, and my ears pricked up when it was mentioned that these included a 7. So I've agreed to assist with their disposal as part of the terms for acquiring the 7 in the image above (post 1).

At the same time I was really excited to have an opportunity to handle some of the company's older models. I'd read a great deal about Alpas online and in several of my reference books, but never actually seen one in real life. It's been wonderful to take a closer look at the pictured trio which all share the (unique?) Alpa feature of having both reflex focusing and coupled rangefinders. Not all of their models did: in fact, most did not, and it was a feature common to only the original Reflex, the Prisma and the 7/8 series to the best of my knowledge.

I've also pointed out that very few dealers or sellers of collectible equipment go to the trouble of exposing a test film through their items these days, and that, in the interests of getting the best price for the seller this would be one way of making them really stand out. No prizes for guessing who is going to be doing that. :)

Not all the cameras are functional, or fully functional. Alpas, it has to be said, do not seem to be known for aging particularly gracefully. But I have a date with an 11si and Macro Switar next week and, whilst it's a pairing I can only dream of owning at this time in my life, I'm delighted just to have the opportunity to run a film through one as it's something not many people can say they've done. I can include some photos of it and some of the others in due course if people would like to see them, too.

It's also been instructive to compare the earlier cameras with the 7. They have a few common design cues, but also some fundamental differences, the schematics of the early v late rangefinder installation being one of the most notable.

The earlier ones are also substantially lighter than the 7. A lot of that has to do with the solid Switar lens as opposed to the positively miniscule Angenieux collapsibles fitted to the Reflex and Prisma, but part of it must relate to the substantial alloy casting that makes up the 7 body instead of the pressed metal approach taken with the Reflex and Prisma. The older models are prettier, though, in my eyes at least, and they have reasonably usable non-coincident rangefinders on the left of the body with the separate viewfinder to the right of the reflex one.

But their reflex viewing experience leaves me in no doubt as to where the Alpa reputation for dim viewfinders originated. To be fair, they'd probably improve a bit after dismantling and cleaning, not at all surprising after around seventy years of course. At one stage I had been vacillating between looking for a Prisma instead of a 7, however I now appreciate that the earlier ones seem better viewed as an occasional shooter with a usable, but not brilliant, rangefinder and a reflex prism that's definitely less than stellar. If I can get into the knack of keeping my fingers out of the way of the 7s rangefinder window (it's sort of like an inverted Contax in this respect) it's going to be a pretty serviceable image making device using either focusing system when it is working again.

Yes, because I will need to repair the 7 before I can use it, since its shutter curtains are looking rather pious these days. And it's not the only one I've heard of to be so afflicted. I have to assume that whatever material Pignons used simply doesn't age very well at all. But as it's a 7 I can afford to own that's OK with me, because it's turned up in the most unlikely location, when least expected, and I've actually got one.

The Prisma and Reflex are both in pretty fair cosmetic condition for their age but they also need some work. The Reflex is completely locked up at present—why, I don't know—and its mirror system may have suffered some damage at some point (probably as a result of someone stowing the collapsible lens without first using the mirror lifting lever). Early Alpas are not very forgiving of those who do not know how to use them. That lever for lifting the mirror takes the form of the small tab handled protuberance on the top covers at the front of both the Reflex and Prisma on the wind side, forward of the shutter release button. You can see it on each one in my photograph. Gently depressing it and then pushing it forward ever so slightly will lock the reflex mirror in the up position, so that the collapsible may be retracted without bodily shunting the mirror into the shutter curtains which will have, sadly, very predictable results if it's overlooked.

The Prisma in my original image, on the other hand, is in rather better condition. It's mechanism sounds good and it is smooth and basically working on all its speeds, although most of them are running slow(ish), and it's capping completely on 1/1000 and also on one second (but not on any of the other slow speeds, interestingly). But it is doing its best to work at seventy years young, so I think that after some dismantling, cleaning and adjustment it will be very good--after all, many no longer work at all, as found any more, so, it is a better starting point than some. The early models are going to be sold as is and like the rest of the items in the collection, will probably end up on eBay over the next few weeks. As I've had the chance to appreciate these unusual, but beautiful, cameras for a short while, I thought that others might also like to see them, before they depart to destinations unknown. ;)

Thanks for the very informative write up, Brett.
My pleasure Larry. I should also have noted above one key point differentiating the early models from the Alnea and subsequent types—they use a smaller version of their bayonet mount that is not compatible with the lenses made for the later Alpas. It's important to be aware of which lenses were made in which mounts as the dimensions of the bayonet itself vary from early to later Alpas and they can't interchange lenses. I'll try to get a photo of the two versions alongside each other in the next few days to demonstrate this.
A camera make made in Switzerland, with incredible lenses.
The Alpa were made by Pignon, who made gear wheel for watch industry.
The 50mm Macro-Switar, the 1st retrofocus wide angles by Agineux.
I was offered a system owned by one of the richest woman in South Africa.
The camera and lenses were filthy, covered in mud, dust and debris.
The need for specialist servicing sent me far away from the deal!:bang:
That was in late '60's.
Good luck using and enjoy.
The lenses were not necessarily that remarkable. Yes, the best of them (Switar/Macro Switar) were very good, but probably not as good as the best from other manufacturers (Leitz, Nikon...)

But the Alpa was more than the sum of its parts, and that's true even today for the 12-series of rollfilm cameras. Alpas are, without question, touched by magic. But the magic is built on a solid foundation of brilliant engineering, wanton eccentricity, superb finish and a refusal to believe that just because everyone else is doing things a particular way, that is always the best way to do things.


Fascinating, Brett, thanks for this. So the 7 has a rangefinder? I only see the one window on the front, which made me think it was only a viewfinder.

Have a great time with these -- keep us posted on your 11si/Macro Switar outing, and your repair work.

(And I finally figured out your use of "pious" -- synonym for "holy," or is it "holey"?)
Fascinating, Brett, thanks for this. So the 7 has a rangefinder? I only see the one window on the front, which made me think it was only a viewfinder.

Have a great time with these -- keep us posted on your 11si/Macro Switar outing, and your repair work.

(And I finally figured out your use of "pious" -- synonym for "holy," or is it "holey"?)
The RF on the 7 is vertical, with the RF window at the bottom of the camera. But what would you expect from a company where the rapid wind lever was on the front of the camera and was swung backwards with the index finger instead of forwards with the thumb?


Oh yes, there it is. Thanks. Well, seems to me the Lordomat and the Agfa Karat also had one of those "backward" advance levers too. Let's just say Alpa was (is) not tied to conventional approaches.

The company, Pignons, also made Hermes typewriters, which are highly regarded but, like their camera cousins, don't age particularly well.
Very interesting post--I've known of Alpa for many years but have never seen one in person. Definitely would be curious to sample one someday!
Here are my pair I have owned for about 50 years !! How frightening is that.
One of the attributes they had was the extensive support for macro and micro work, I have a brochure somewhere with the Macrostat system which uses names as obscure as Leica or Ikea.


This is a photomicrograph using an Alpa Microfix on a Watson microscope with Leica lenses and Tungsten balance reversal film with polarised light I made it in 1978:


Of course the 50mm Kern Switar is one of the stars, here it is paired with Kodachrome in 1989:


They still are in use, here is a B/W from 2015, I have left as scanned as another characteristic is the two notches in the frame similar to Hasselblad, top of the frame here:


FP4+ XTOL on the 50mm f1.8 Switar

Edited I remembered I had a shot of the Watson, on the Alpa, this was for a competition, wordplay the theme EGG - Egzamine, there were others, equally bad.

Kodachrome 64

One service each in the 50 years, seem robust to me!!