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Angenieux prestige press adAn introduction to
Angenieux lenses

by Paul Gates, Ducey, France

Many of the great French optical manufacturing houses such as Darlot, Hermagis, Boyer and Krauss had their roots in the nineteenth century, or even earlier. Angenieux was an exception.

Pierre Angenieux, was born in July 1907 at St. Heand in the Loire Region, did not establish his optical company until 1935, and so may be considered a relative, if subsequently very successful, newcomer to lens manufacture.

Although enjoying satisfactory levels of business from an early period, the name Angenieux really came to international prominence from 1950 on, following the introduction that year of the Angenieux type R. I. Retrofocus. This was a reversed telephoto design whose effective focal length was less than its backfocus (the distance between the rear lens element and the image plane). This allowed for the first time, the design of wide-angle lenses for single-lens reflex cameras, where the clearance necessary to allow free movement of the mirror prevents the use of conventional wide-angle lenses of short back focus. The now generic term ‘retrofocus’ was originally an Angenieux trade name for this particular lens. It had a maximum aperture of f2.5 and an effective focal length of 35mm – not very wide by today’s standards, but a real breakthrough in its time for the SLR user. Not only did Pierre Angenieux see his trade name for his lens pass into common usage as a generic term for all SLR wide angles, but he also witnessed his pioneering design forming the basis for all subsequent development of the type by many manufacturers. Such is often the lot of those ahead of their time!

Optical layout of two fine prime long-focus Angenieux lenses

The company did, however, enjoy several years of international commercial success with this product, and the Angenieux R. I. Can be found with fittings for Alpa, Exakta, Leica, Rectaflex and Contax D/Praktica M42. It was manufactured until 1968.

In 1953 a 28mm f3.5 version of the Retrofocus was introduced, followed in 1957 by a 24mm f3.5; these later introductions were also issued in most of the aforementioned fittings. Throughout this period, Angenieux also developed a series of Retrofocus wide-angle lenses for 8mm and 6mm movie cameras.

Basic layout of R.I./Retrofocus W/A lens of 1950

From 1957 onwards, Pierre Angenieux directed his design and development efforts mainly in the direction of zoom lenses. Although not the pioneer in this field, his products won considerable acclaim in the movie and T. V. camera lens markets. They were perceived as top-of-range optics (and priced accordingly!) and were often offered as standard on the best equipment of the day. Although late in introducing a zoom design for 35mm still cameras, when Pierre Angenieux did so, he did it in style, producing in 1968 an f2.8, 45-90mm zoom lens of extremely high optical quality for no less than E. Leitz of Wetzlar! A major achievement by a non-Leitz, non-German manufacturer.


Full-page ad from July 1950 ąPhoto Revue’ promoting the Kodak 620 Special, which shows the Angenieux lens but does not mention it in the body copy. In view of the prestige of Angenieux optics, an additional marketing opportunity may have been missed.

Aside from the exotica of retrofocus and zoom lenses, he also produced prime lenses which, if not such ground-breaking items as zooms and retros, nevertheless represented the highest standards of design and engineering. The company also routinely produced a variety of ‘bread and butter’ three and four element triplets which were fitted to a large number of French made cameras as well as to certain models imported from Germany, Canada and the U. S. A. during the decade following world War II. At that time, the high import duties imposed on photographic goods entering France induced Kodak to set up manufacturing facilities in that country.

Initially, they bought lenses from both Angenieux and SOM Berthiot, but following an agreement between the former company and Kodak, Angenieux became sole supplier for a number of years. Angenieux lenses may thus be found fitted to a range of the more popular middle-price Kodak cameras of that period that included the 620 rollfilm models as well as 35’s such as Retinettes and Pony 35’s. These lenses, often mounted in French made ATOS shutters, were usually of the three element type of f6.3 f4.5 and f3.5 maximum aperture, although some four element f3.5 designs were offered for the top models. The earlier folding-body Kodak Retinettes were finished with the f4.5 versions, whilst the latter rigid body models featured the faster f3.5 lens.

Angenieux lenses faded from the general photographic market in the 1970’s as the company responded to Japanese competition by concentrating on the more specialised (and less cost-sensitive) military, medical and space-program markets, where it won considerable distinction.

The Kodak Pony Flash of 1953 was, like the 6x9cm, folding models, manufactured entirely in France at Kodak’s own facility. It featured an Angenieux 45mm f3.5 ‘Kodak Anastigmat’

The Kodak Pony Flash of 1953 was, like the 6x9cm, folding models, manufactured entirely in France at Kodak’s own facility. It featured an Angenieux 45mm f3.5 ‘Kodak Anastigmat’

1982 was to witness an unexpected and splendid late flowering of the marque with the introduction of firstly a 35-70mm f2.5-f3.3 zoom lens, then a 70-210mm f3.5, followed by a magnificent 180mm f2.3 prime lens, all available in Leica R fitting. Finally, there appeared an AF 28-70mm f2.6, which remains to date the only French-made autofocus still-camera lens. All this late series of lenses were state-of-the-art in both optical design and mount engineering, featuring polycarbonate barrels and in the case of the 180mm f3.5, internal focussing derived from zoom lens practice which ensured a constant barrel length regardless of focus setting. Sadly, European production and marketing costs meant that all these lenses had to be priced far higher than the competition. Moreover, the brand name now meant little to younger photographers. Manufacture ceased within a short time and the collector will have to search hard for examples today.


Anything which may have interested you in the foregoing is largely due to Patrice Herve Pont whose article on Pierre Angenieux published in ‘Photographica World’ No. 89, Summer 1999 provided much useful information.

Other references

L’Objectif Photographique. R. Andreani, Publications Photo Revue 1951.

‘Histoire des appareils francais’ B. Vial, Maeght Editeur 1991.

‘A History of the photographic lens’, R. Kingslake, Academic Press Inc. 1989.

‘Photo-Cine Review’, July 1953

‘Photo-Cinema’, Dec 1961

If an example of an Angenieux lens appeals to you, by far the easiest and most economical solution is to seek out one of the French-made of French assembled Kodak popular cameras of the 1950’s of 1960’s. For something more exotic – and for rather more money – try the specialist collector dealers (no names mentioned!) or the camera fairs. Should you happen to be an Alpa, Contax D, Praktica, Leica, Exacta or Rectaflex owner, you may even find an Angenieux lens fitting you can use. Not only would you enjoy a lens which, if clean, will yield results comparable to many of today’s new offerings; you would also be helping maintain a small piece of European history.

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