Since its inception in 1932 the Minox subminiature camera has been the essential spy camera. Its compact design, sturdy construction and mechanical shutter have transformed the Minox from a photographic curiosity to a legendary spy camera.
Designed in 1932 by Walter Zapp the Minox was first produced in their Latvian factory VEF (Valsts elektrotehnisk? fabrika) until 1943. After World War II Zapp began producing them in Germany. The first versions of the Minox have become know as the ”Riga”, since they were produced in Riga which is also the birthplace of Zapp.
While working as an engraver Zapp met Nikolai ‘Nixi’ Nylander and Richard Jürgens, who would become involved with the design and production of the first Minox. Production ran in the Riga VEF facility from 1937 to 1943. During this time Zapp acquired patents for his design in at least .18 other countries. After WWII Minox began producing cameras in their new facility Minox GMbH near Wetzlar, Germany.
This new model, the A model was made with an aluminum shell which reduced its weight and production cost. The Minox continued to grow in popularity and developed a niche market in many countries including the US. During this time they also began to develop an accessory light meter to work in tandem with the Model A, since it had no built-in meter. Eventually more models were introduced such as the B, which had a light meter, C which also had a light meter but the internals are electronic instead of mechanical and many others, including special edition gold and platinum models. Although primarily the models came in two colors, bare aluminum or black (Private Eye).
A large part of the allure of the Minox camera is that it is simple to operate with little to no photographic knowledge. At its core there are two essential controls, shutter speed and focal distance. The model A, which came in four variations; A, AII, AIII, and AIIIs, had shutter speeds from T, B, 1/2s to 1/1000s and a focal scale measured in feet or meters ranging from infinity to 8 inches or .2 meters. To make focusing close-up easy it came with a measuring leash with notches on it for distance. The leash is 24 inches long with four notches. One thing to be aware of with models A and B is that it advances the film every time you open and close the camera. Not until model C did it make it so that it advanced the film only if you operated the shutter, so if you open the camera, take a picture or waste the frame.
The model B is the first with a light meter, a selenium cell meter that has its own window that was either a lattice or honeycombed patterned. The accessory meter for the Model A is also a selenium cell meter that had various scales on different models. The older meters were not serialized and did not have the Minox logo, instead they had Mino Six on the face of the meter. The Minox B has become it’s most popular model, both today and during its production run from 1958 to 1972.
The C was the first model to have an electronic shutter. With the two standard settings dials for shutter speed and focal distance the C introduced a film speed dial. Changes to this model included a new light meter, a CDs meter, and shutter speeds that included an Automatic setting and manual speeds from 1/15s to 1/1000s both powered by a single 5.6v PX27 button battery.
Regardless of which model the camera is, if it’s a mechanical or electronic shutter, imperial or metric distance scale, Minox cameras are nothing without the amazing lens that came standard on all models.
The Riga was designed with a three element flat film plane lens that was exceptionally sharp. The short-lived Minox II (1948-1951) was designed with a new five element Complan lens whose final element rested directly of the film when the pressure plate was engaged. Customers complained of scratches on the film, so the lens was replaced with a curved field compensating lens.
Subsequent models (AIII to B) were equipped with a lens designed by a former Leica lens designer, Albert Seibert. This new Complan lens is a four element three group with a curved film plane. Later models from the late model B to the TLX use a 15mm f/3.5 four element three group flat-field Minox lens. The advance was attributed to a new rare-earth element, high index, low dispersion optical glass becoming available. This was noted by Rolf Kasemeier in his book Small Minox Big pictures in the 1971 edition.
The results of this research and development over the years and models was to produce an incredibly small negative that was exceptionally sharp and able to be enlarged. Minox also built into their cameras a way to differentiate negatives taken with the early lenses and cameras and the newer models by the way of a distinct edge code. This was important when using the Minox enlargers as some of the early lenses used a curved film plane, and not the newer flat film plane lens.
Another nice feature that compliments the lens is the built-in filters. Depending on the model, Minox cameras come with a red/green, orange/green, orange/neutral density or just a neutral density filter. The filter is moved into place by a small ridged slide to the right of the lens and just above the viewfinder window. The combination varies per model and iteration, but every model comes with a built-in filter.
Regardless of the model, using a Minox is pretty much the same experience. Some models have light meters, while others use batteries, but when it comes down to just making pictures you just slide the camera open and take the picture. At its heart the Minox is a tiny rangefinder, and you frame the image accordingly depending on how close to the subject you are. It will take some time to get used to framing the picture, since it doesn’t reflect the focal length or image shift when your subject is closer than infinity.
Sliding the camera open cocks the shutter so you are ready to fire while closing it advances the frame. As mentioned before, Minox models A and B advance the film regardless of whether or not you fired the shutter, so be aware of that while shooting these models. The model C is one of my favorites since you can set it to automatic and just let it figure out your exposure, but the downside is that it’s the largest of the Minox models. The BL is probably the best of the bunch. It has an upgraded meter and doesn’t advance the film unless you fire the shutter.
The biggest obstacle you’ll have to using the camera is acquiring film and processing it. If you shoot black and white you can get the Minox daylight developing tank or reels (which are harder to find), but color really requires a commercial proccessor (unless you’re feeling fairly adventurous). Fortunately for me I live close to Bluemoon Camera and Machine in St. John’s, just outside Portland, Oregon. Bluemoon sells several film types and processes the film on premises.
In reality, the biggest issue I had is making sure my freakin fingers were’nt in front of the lens. The finder has its own window, so you won’t know until you get the film back. With or without a meter, the Minox is the simplest camera I own to use and carry. I take one with me wherever I go. One other thing though. no double exposures, if that’s your thing you’re out of luck here.
There are a couple of ways to look at Minox cameras. You can look at them as a collector and you can look at them as a photographer. If you’re interested in them because they’re cool and you want to have a wonderful camera in your pocket all them time, it’s an easy thing to figure out – just buy one and see how you like it. I would recommend starting with a model B. Not because of the meter (its old and may not work), but because they are easy to find and won’t cost a ton of money. Take your camera and go have fun.
It becomes a lot more complicated as a collector. There are several models (and variations within those modesl), and some of those models have versions/changes made along its production run. Some models are rare and expensive (a black, or Private Eye model A for example), and some of those versions are hard to find. Information about Minox cameras, however, is not hard to find. Submin.com has the best reference for Minox cameras, as well as other sub-miniature cameras, so I would start there.
The best advice I can give you is just buy one. They’re not expensive, film is pretty easy to find, and they are amazing little contraptions. Minox built these little cameras to be used, so use one. You can’t get new ones anymore, and honestly I’m not sure they would be affordable if you could, but out of the hundreds that I own, my favorite is a black Model B and it goes everywhere I do. So just go for it. You won’t regret it.
Minox Model A, B, C
Type : Rangefinder
Lens Mount : fixed
Shutter : curtain Shutter
Shutter Speeds : B -1/1000s
Remote Shutter Release: No (accessory needed)
Self Timer : no
Mirror Lock-up : N/A
DoF preview : No
Flash Mount : Accessory shoe
Flash Sync : 1/50s
Multiple Exposure : No
Filter Size : Built-in/snap on
Strap Lugs : Custom leash clasp
Battery : N/A
Production : 1938 – 1972
Weight : 90g – 117g
Case (various colors and styles)
Black, Brown, Tan, Reg, Green
Viewfinders (3 versions)
Reflex finders (2 versions)
Flash B-C (multiple models)
Flash B4/C4 (cube type, several versions)
Tripod head (several versions)
Enlarger (various models)
Binocular Mount (several versions)
Film & Film tins
Film loupes & Cutters
Minox slide mounts
Minox Models & Production Dates
- UR Minox: 1936
- Riga: 1938 – 1945/1946 – 1948
- Riga: 1938 – 1940 (stainless/brass)
- Soviet Minox: 1940 – 41? 1945 – 46?
- Swastika Minox: 1941 – 1944?
- AII: 1948 – 1950
- AIII: 1951 – 1953
- AIIIs: 1954 – 1969
- B: 1958 – 1972
- C: 1969 – 1976
- BL: 1972 – 1973
- LX: 1978 – 1995
- EC: 1981 – 1995
- AX: 1992 – 1998 (limited to 250 each)
- Chrome: 1992 – 1993
- Black: 1997 – 1998
- Gold: 1992 – 1993
- Gold II: 1994 – 1995
- TLX: 1996 – 2005
- CLX: 1998 – 2005
- LX 2000: 2000 (LX Millenium Edition)
- Aviator: 2001 (limited to 300)
- ECX: 1998 – 2004
- Minox : Variations in 8 x 11 – Hubert E. Heckmann ©1995
- Minox Germany : Classic Camera Collection – Verlag Rudolf Hillerbrand ©2001
- Minox Pocket Companion – Joseph D. Cooper ©1962
- Minox Guide : How to get the best out of Minox (7 editions) – W.D. Emanuel ©1957
- The Minox Manual – Joseph D. Cooper (3rd Edition) © 1961
- Spy Camera : The Minox Story – Morris Moses & John Wade (2nd Edition) ©1998
- Small Minox Big Pictures – Rolf Kasemeier ©1959 (revised) ©1964