Photographica Pages

An online guide to collectable cameras and related stuff

Alpa (S.A. Pignons)

In 1933 S.A. Pignons decided to branch out from their main business, which was supplying pinions to Swiss watchmakers. They invited Jacques Bogopolskyto develop a 35mm still camera for them to manufacture. Bogopolsky, who also went by the names Bolsky, Boolsky or Bolsey, had previously designed a 35mm cine camera, the Cinegraph Bol, and a 16mm cine camera, the Bolex.

The initial product was the Bolca series, occasionally found marked Bolsey A. As the cameras were introduced in 1942, few were produced and sold. As Pignons was located in neutral Switzerland, production was not impeded by the war. Sales were likely low however, due to shortages of film and the fact that all of the major markets for the camera were involved in the war.

In 1944 the Alpa Reflex was introduced, marking the first use of the Alpa name. The Alpa (and the Bolca I/Bolsey A) cameras were very unusual that they combined reflex viewing with a coupled rangefinder, allowing the best of both worlds. The reflex viewing was particularly useful in close- up/scientific photography, and with longer lenses. Reflex viewing was fairly dim at that time, and the prism had yet to be introduced to cameras, which provided eye level viewing. The rangefinder allowed the camera to operate quickly at eye level, and focusing to be accomplished under poor lighting conditions. All of the Alpas have a cloth focal plane shutter.

Alpa cameras were all hand made until 1977, when the company began to market cameras manufactured by Chinon in Japan. These “Japanese Alpas” are not of the same quality as the Swiss cameras, and are generally regarded with contempt by Alpa collectors. The company closed in 1991, but the name was later purchased and revived in 1996 by Capaul and Weber on a line of high quality medium format cameras.

Alpa cameras were very well made, and quirky in design. From the earlier models with built in rangefinders or viewfinders, to the odd array of models and finishes available later. No camera manufacturer has produced more models of rare cameras, many with odd formats and even odder collection of features (or lack of features). The lever wind cameras wind with a lever that sticks out towards the front. The shutter release is on the front of the body, and auto diaphragm lenses use an arrangement much like Exakta used. All metering was done stopped down. Many models were designed for scientific or medical purposes, and it’s interesting that the model with the highest production was a post camera, designed to photograph utility meters.

Pignons was not an optical company, and never made any pretensions about being one. The cameras were supplied with lenses from the best of makers. Most were supplied with Kern lenses, a respected supplier to the motion picture industry, but they were also supplied with Angenieux, Schneider, Kilfitt and Old Delft. Kinoptik and Zoomar also produced lenses in Alpa mount. The camera had a short film to flange distance, so adapters were available in many popular mounts, often with auto diaphragm.

The camera was also backed by an impressive array of accessories, from electric motor drives that wind the camera using the wind lever, to bulk film backs that hold a standard 100 foot load (the film can be cut after exposure at whatever point is needed), to a comprehensive set of close-up equipment.

The early camera all shared an early style of bayonet mount. Information available on these models is vague, and sources often contradict each other.

Alpa Cameras