When the Leica was first marketed in 1925 it was without competition. It was an entirely new concept, not seen before. Thus it was not surprising that the camera immediately became a huge success with competing companies struggling to offer something similar. Soon Zeiss entered the market with the Contax, as did others, including Kodak with the German made Retina, but none ever had the success of the Leica.
This success continued after being interrupted by WWII, with the first post war model, the Leica IIIf and then the incredible M3 which lives on in its basic concept even today with the Leica M10. Of course there were cameras from competing companies as well, the continuation of the Zeiss Contax as the main competitor. Kodak too tried to get a hold on the 35mm rangefinder market with their incredible Ektra, but Leica remained on top.
This success continued even far into the new 35mm single lens reflex camera market which rapidly gained popularity. This brings us to an interesting concept from Switzerland, the Alpa Reflex.
Alpa was an offshoot of the Pignons S.A. company, which made specialty parts (pinions) for Swiss watches. In the late 1930s, Pignons invited engineer Jacques Bolsky to design a camera for them. This resulted in the Alpa-Reflex in the 1940s. As did most everyone else, he took a close look at the Leica, but also at the emerging single lens reflex cameras (SLR). As a company involved in the watchmaking industry, the Alpa camera turned out to be an incredibly well made piece of equipment, mostly hand made with extremely tight tolerances.
What set the camera apart from virtually all cameras at the time is the fact that the camera was a hybrid, offering rangefinder focusing as well as single lens reflex viewing. A closer look, especially at the lens, definitely reveals the influence of the Leica. Because of the very high quality of the camera, production was low, but quality and prices were high. Even these days, collectible Alpa cameras can fetch quite high auction prices.
The original Alpa Reflex
Alpa was quite innovative with other features too. There is an ongoing question concerning which camera company was first with such innovations as the quick-return mirror, through-the-lens metering cells in prism housings and the bayonet lens mount. Alpa was a contender for being first with each of these innovations and several others.
Soon after the introduction of the Alpa Reflex, a new model was introduced. While the Alpa reflex sported a waist level viewfinder, the new Alpa Prism Reflex was one of the first SLR cameras with a prism viewfinder, but it also maintained rangefinder focusing.
Not only did the Apla cameras stand out because of their very high quality, this continued with their lenses as well. They did not make their own lenses, instead they had them made by some of the best lens makers, Angenieux, Kern, Kinoptik, Schneider, and others. They were the only company to guarantee optical quality of the lenses they sold. 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 one of the best standard lenses ever offered. Other apochromats offered by Alpa included the 100 mm F2 and 150 mm F2.8 Kinoptik lenses. The company retained the same lens mount on the Swiss made cameras from 1942 until they ended production. The back focus of the body was the thinnest of any 35 mm camera, and as a result, it was possible to make adapters to use lenses designed for almost any other 35 mm SLR on an Alpa. Adapters offered included Exakta, M42 (automatic diaphragm and manual), Nikon (auto and manual), Leica R, T-mount, and Contax.
Just as the combination of rangefinder and reflex focusing was a definite deviation from the norm, Alpa continued to be different with follow up models as well. For instance, the initial film winding knob was replaced with a lever wind, as was the case on other cameras. But instead of using the common counter clockwise, thumb activated winding lever, Alpa decided to do the opposite. Their winding lever stuck out from the front of the camera and it was activated by pulling it with the right index finger. Alpa also continued to use the camera release via a knob on their lenses which also activated the auto stop down of the diaphragm, a system apparently taken over from Exacta.
Alpa 9d with 50mm f/1.8 Macro Switar
The reverse wind lever and shutter release on the lens are clearly visible
One of the strangest accessories for the Alpa was without a doubt the motor drive. While everyone would attach the motor to the bottom of the camera, Alpa decided to put it on the top. The motor attached by being fastened to the screw fittings normally used to attach a neck strap. Right above the advance lever a pin stuck out from the motor which, when activated, actually moved the advance lever as it would normally be done by the index finger. The shutter release was in the back of the motor which necessitated a short cable release in front of the motor to be connected to the normal shutter release on the lenses.
Unfortunately, Alpa did not have the resources to keep up with the technological advances that the mainstream camera companies were introducing in the 1970s and sales began to decline. It is not clear whether the lack of technological "innovation" was due to lack of money, or actually a choice made by the company against the automation brought about by other companies.
In 1990 the company could no longer compete with other manufacturers, especially from outside Europe. The fatal blow however was delivered by problems within the company. Pignons SA declared bankruptcy. The last ALPA model produced by Pignons SA was the ALPA 11.
In 1996 Capaul & Weber from Zurich acquired the world-wide rights to the brand-name ALPA. The new owners aimed to continue the tradition of quality established with the classic 35-mm ALPA reflex cameras and to enter into the field of medium-format cameras which resulted in the Alpa 12 camera currently on the market. Just recently Alpa joined forces with Phase One. They now offer the Alpa 12 with the new, 100megapixle Phase One digital back.
As Leica enthusiast we should be able to understand a certain resistance to market trends.The insistence on doing things their way brought considerable financial hardships for Leica, especially their less than lukewarm embrace of digital photography.Fortunately, with the help of Dr. Andreas Kaufmann, the direction of the company changed and today Leica is once again one of the major players in the high end camera market.
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