I’ve been shooting an Alpa 10d for a year now, and every camera geek I’ve shown it to has asked the same question. “What’s that?”
This is no great surprise. Today Alpa makes cameras that are extremely niche; highly specialized products that the Swiss brand describes as “precision tools, made with passion and skilled craftsmanship for a small group of connoisseurs.” Even during the 1960s and ’70s, a time when Alpa was building more easily recognizable cameras, most people hadn’t heard of them. Alpas were hand-crafted machines paired with premium optics from some of the best lens-makers in the world. They were often built to order, and this exclusivity brought with it a price that placed Alpa cameras out of the reach of most shooters.
The 10d is among the last truly classic Alpas (after the 10d and 11, Alpas were Japanese-made Chinon cameras of lower quality, with a new lens mount that failed to capitalize on the premium optics of earlier Alpas), and it’s a focused and quintessential Alpa. Its spec sheet is modest, but its execution is incredible.
The all-manual, 35mm film SLR uses a horizontally-traveling cloth shutter capable of speeds from 1/1000th of a second down to 1 second, with bulb mode available for long exposures. It features a metering system employing three CdS cells (one that compensates for light entering through the viewfinder), and this reading is displayed via swing-needle readouts both on the top of the camera body and within the fixed-prism viewfinder. It’s got depth-of-field preview, flash sync at 1/60th of a second, gold-plated electrical contacts, a precise bayonet lens mount, and a tripod socket.
All of that doesn’t read as being much different from a Pentax K1000, right? But spec sheets don’t tell the whole story.
Over-engineered in nearly every way, the Alpa 10d is deliberately robust and incomparably precise. It’s also delightfully peculiar.
Take, for example, the 10d’s film rewind mechanism, a component so unique that Alpa felt the need to give it a name. This “high speed parallelogram rewind crank” was made in an era where nearly every camera in the world used one of two generally identical mechanisms (a flippy crank that extends from a circular knob, or a knurled knob with no crank). Not good enough. The Alpa’s rewind mechanism instead pulls vertically from the camera body by a generous 1.25 inches, where it’s supported by two rigid, metal posts that pivot to create leverage unmatched by any other camera.
Is this necessary? Not in the least. Is it a true selling point? Not really. Is it interesting and appreciated? Certainly, by those of us who are real camera nerds or enthusiasts for anything mechanical.
And this camera is very mechanical, indeed. Made of hearty chunks of brass and steel, the only plastic to be found is in parts of the film take-up spool, and even this is overbuilt. The Alpa’s innards are among the most industrial I’ve seen in a camera, with fasteners and screws that are easily four times as large as any I’ve seen in a Nikon camera, and a gleaming film transport spindle that’s so beautiful I want to frame it. There’s even an engrave-able brass plaque on the top of the machine to receive the owner’s initials.
Equally interesting and hearty is the camera’s film advance lever. This large chunk of milled metal is positioned unusually and employs a similarly unusual methodology. Extended forward from the camera body, it’s actuated via the shooter’s index finger rather than the thumb. This isn’t entirely unique in the world of vintage cameras; Nikon’s Nikonos III (to name just one) uses a similar type of advance lever. But this design choice is uncommon enough (and some would say, annoying enough) to be noteworthy.
The advance lever’s action offers pronounced resistance not found in most other SLRs of the era. But if advancing the film (which also cocks the shutter and advances the film frame counter) is a workout for the digits, it’s at least a quick workout due to its incredibly short throw of just 160 degrees.
Shutter release is achieved via a front-mounted button, again eschewing the typical design of most traditional SLRs, which have their shutter releases placed on their top plate. This button is like the rest of the camera’s controls, deliberate and intense. Pressing it requires unusual (though not prohibitive) force. The halfway mark of its action stops down the lens’ aperture and activates the camera’s metering system. Once adjustments are made to shutter speed or aperture to achieve a correct exposure, a full press flips the mirror and triggers the shutter. It’s even possible with a very precise hand to press the release to a midpoint between stop-down and release in which the mirror flips up but the shutter doesn’t release. This eliminates mirror-slap vibration, helpful when shooting long telephoto lenses.
All of these odd control positions and the extreme robustness of the camera’s components results in a machine with sometimes strange and punishing ergonomics. Buttons, levers, and dials all require more exertion to actuate than those found on cameras from Nikon, Leica, or Rollei, brands that are commonly lauded for their high build standard. Things with the Alpa aren’t so intense as to ever become uncomfortable or annoying, but there will be an adjustment period for anyone who’s never experienced these quirky, Swiss cameras.
Once this adjustment is made, however, things start happening in a beautiful and directed way.
Shooting a 10d is a wonderful experience. Like driving a forty-year-old sports car, it lacks much of the nonsense that clutters cameras made yesterday or even film machines made in the seventies and on. There are no gimmicks, no tricks, no annoying function locks or unnecessary flourishes. It’s a basic camera made to an incredibly high standard.
But it’s not a fast camera. It’s a deliberate and thoughtful machine that rewards shooters who possess (or train themselves to possess) a steady hand and a careful eye. This is easily exemplified in the previously-mentioned shutter release button. This isn’t a camera that ignites LED displays and metering systems with a feather-light finger placed on a touch-sensitive release button. It’s a camera that requires you to remember with every shot, “Okay, squeeze slowly, slowly, hold steady, don’t move.”
This will irritate those who’re used to blasting away with a Contax G2 or the latest Sony A. But for those shooters who want to hear their camera click and ratchet and feel their camera fire, there’s no better machine.
Alpa sourced its lenses from some of the best lens makers in the world. Kern, Kinoptik, Schneider, and Zeiss, among others, produced lenses for Alpa cameras. These were rigorously scrutinized, the result being that only the finest lenses could be fitted to an Alpa. Some of these lenses, such as the apochromat Kinoptik and the more common Kern-Macro-Switar, are legendary even today for their incredible rendering and unique character.
But not all is blissful. The 10d’s viewfinder is a bit dim, and focus can be something of a pain in certain situations where the diagonal split-image focusing aid isn’t well-suited. Additionally annoying is the fact that the ISO control is poorly designed as a built-in control within the shutter speed selector dial.
We adjust the set ISO by very slightly pressing down on the shutter speed dial and twisting. This changes the ISO without changing the selected shutter speed. Which is great. Except that the amount of necessary force to adjust the ISO is very light. Which means that every time I wanted to change shutter speed I had to consciously remind myself to grip the dial with finger and thumb, lift slightly, and then twist, otherwise the dial would simply spin to a different ISO without changing shutter speed.
Another irksome development is that the 10d was originally powered by a now-discontinued battery. This forces shooters today (who want to use the camera’s meter) to hunt down an adapter. This isn’t as difficult as, say, ascending an alp, but it is another small barrier to ownership that may discourage some. Luckily, the camera fires just fine without battery power.
It’s also hard to ignore the fact that the Alpa 10d is a very heavy camera. While comparable in heft to something like Leica’s Leicaflex, it’s easily bested in portability by smaller SLRs from Olympus, Pentax, and Minolta. The 10d is thick and chunky, and made out of giant slabs of metal, and for travelers or shooters who need a compact camera, this is not the right machine.
And lastly, Alpas are expensive. Built originally by hand and in small quantities, they’ve become something of a rarity, and it can be a challenge (both logistically and financially) to acquire one or have one repaired. This has largely relegated the Alpa brand to collector circles and auction brochures. Which is a shame, because these cameras are a real joy to shoot.
There are few camera that feel as impressive as a classic Alpa. Though their ergonomics can be challenging at first, the quality of their build and the brand’s rich history make working through this challenge a worthwhile task. World-class lenses that render in a unique and pleasing way make an even more convincing argument for splurging on a classic Alpa.
With its incredible build quality, simple operation, and lower-than-most-Alpas price point, the 10d is a great Alpa to own.