Star 25, kindly loaned by Stuart Heggie.
Robots are probably the most
underrated and underpriced world
class cameras on the used market today. They are built to at least the
same standards as Leicas and Contaxes--actually, they're
tougher and more reliable--and yet you can buy a usable classic
like the Star 25 illustrated for under $200, or a World War II model
engraved "Luftwaffen Eigentum" (Luftwaffe property) for
under $400. They tend to be more common in Europe than in the US, and
prices are slightly lower in Europe as a result; but they are still
not hard to come by.
One reason for their relative unpopularity is that the format of all
but a few Robots is 24x24mm, and another is that early models do not
accept standard cassettes: if the Robot cassettes have been lost (as
has often happened, in the course of half a century or more) you can't
use the camera. But I'll tell you: the only reason I didn't
buy the camera illustrated, from Stuart Heggie's shop in The Borough,
Canterbury, is that I like to use my classic cameras and I have too
Joint Effort Construction
The Robot was designed by the ubiquitous Heinz Kilfitt. The earliest
patents date from 1931, though intriguingly, what most people regard
as the signature feature of the Robot, the spring-driven film wind,
was added by Hans Heinrich Berning. Berning, with a little help from
his father, founded Otto Berning & Co. in Schwelm (Westphalia),
with production in Duesseldorf from about 1934. This was the original
"vollautomatischer Kleinbildapparat" (fully automatic small
The stainless steel body was made by WMF in Geislingen a.d. Steigen;
the spring film wind by clock manufacturers Bauerle from the Schwarzwald;
the shutter by Gauthier of Calmbach; and lenses came mostly from Schneider
and Zeiss. Two particularly unusual features of the original Robot I,
of which about 30,000 were made up to 1938, were the swivelling viewfinder,
which could be turned to allow shooting at right angles to the line
of sight, and a built-in yellow/green filter that could be switched
in and out. Weirder still was the (manually set) 24-exposure frame counter
with non-consecutive numbers: as it rotated about half a turn with each
shot, the sequence begins 1-14-3-16-5-18 and ends 21-10-23-12-1.
The shutter is a rotary-sector type, owing a good deal to movie camera
design: speeds (from 1 to 1/500 sec) are set on a dial on the front
of the camera, at about 7 o'clock beside the lens mount. In order
to keep the size of the camera down--and Robots really are tiny--the
shutter aperture, just behind the lens, is only about 16mm (3/5")
Where you would normally expect to find the shutter speed dial is the
huge winding knob for the spring drive, though a few late models such
as the Star 25 built it into the end of the camera, as illustrated.
Single-spring models--the majority of Robots--are good for
about 24 or 25 exposures per wind, and the shutter must be pressed and
released for each exposure: there is no "serie" option to
keep firing as long as the finger is depressed. I have hit as much as
6 fps in my younger days, but most people reckon that 4 fps is more
This shutter is also what limited the format to 24x24mm, and why, if
you use lenses longer than about 150mm, the corners are vignetted. At
least, so I'm told: I've never tried. On the other hand,
the vast majority of Robots are used with 30-40mm lenses, some as fast
as f/1.9 (I've never seen any faster) and the longest lenses normally
encountered are 75mm. Equally, I've never seen anything wider
than 30mm: I suspect this is because a Retrofocus (reverse-telephoto)
design would be required. The lens mount is tiny: a 26mm screw (one
inch is 25.4mm).
The lenses are scale-focused, but the very short focal lengths mean
that depth of field is considerable, so this is seldom a problem: a
30mm lens on 24x24mm is roughly equivalent to just under 35mm on full
frame 35mm. Given that they were some of the best lenses of their day,
and that they are simple, non-Retrofocus designs, the postwar coated
versions can still deliver quite remarkable quality even by modern standards.
The II (1938 or 1939) omitted the swing-in filter and swivelling finder,
and (for no apparent reason) used a different unique cassette design:
this camera is the one that is quite often found in Luftwaffe guise,
usually with a double-height winding knob that (logically) accommodated
a double spring and allowed 40-50 shots on a single wind.
Not until the IIa (1951) could you use a standard feed cassette, and
even then, you still needed a Robot take-up cassette, though the 1952
Star also permitted rewinding. The Junior (1954) is similar to a IIa
but accepts only standard feed cassettes (the IIa and Star take both).
As far as I know, a Star 25 is one of the last amateur-use cameras.
Over the years I have owned, at various times, both Robot I and Robot
II models (including Luftwaffe models), but for use, I'd recommend
one of the postwar models which take standard feed cassettes: loading
Robot cassettes is a hassle, as is finding more than one of them.
An entirely separate range of Robots, with conventional shutters, coupled
rangefinders, and a different lens mount, existed for a while in the
late 1950s and maybe even into the early 1960s. The 24x36mm model, the
Robot Royal 36, is much sought after; its 24x24mm brother and their
cousin the Royal II (a Royal 24 with no rangefinder) are not quite so
glorious. These all offered "serie" (continuous) shooting
as well as "einzel" (single shot).
"Classic" Robots with the 26mm lens mount are still in production,
as far as I know, but they are used mainly as surveillance cameras and
the like: at one time (possibly to this day), they were what German
speed cops had in their Porsches. Many have no viewfinders, and some
have eschewed the spring drive for electric drive; solenoid releases
are common, too, which makes for impressively ugly cameras.
Today, with modern films, an old Robot is still a very usable camera,
and great fun. The cameras from the 1950s or later are obviously more
convenient, though earlier models are still excellent, especially if
you can find a postwar lens. If I didn't already have what I regard
as the perfect compact, high-quality "notebook" camera,
my Olympus Pen W with a 25mm f/2.8 lens, I'd be very seriously
tempted to buy another Robot.
Stuart Heggie is normally at his shop in The Borough in Canterbury,
England, behind the Cathedral, on Fridays and Saturdays. His phone is
+44 (0) 1227 470 422.