Cameras, Miniature

Cameras, Miniature


Intelligence operatives frequently have a need for cameras that can be concealed, and while small size is not the only means to protect a camera from detection, it is certainly a significant one. Hence the value of small cameras such as the Minox, which could easily fit into the palm of a person's hand, as well as extremely small models no bigger than a thumb. During the years of World War II and the early Cold War, an age when cigarette-smoking was common, many spy cameras were designed to look like lighters, matchboxes, or cigarette packs. Some were made to photograph documents, others to photograph persons and buildings, while a special variety of cameras was applied to the copying of miniaturized photographic images via microdots.

Concealment and Miniature Cameras

Concealment is often a concern for intelligence operatives using cameras. Sometimes a camera larger than miniature can still be concealed—even when in plain view. For example, the lens cap may be in place, so that observers would not think the camera was even taking pictures, but in reality the operator could be shooting exposures through inconspicuous holes in the lens cap, using a concealed shutter release. Or the apparent lens of the camera might be a dummy, and the real lens could be off to the side, at a 90-degree angle to the apparent lens.

The Soviet Tokya 58-M, while not miniature, was smaller than a pack of cigarettes, and made to be concealed behind the user's necktie. The agent would wear it strapped to his body, with the lens concealed behind a special tie pin. In order to ward off suspicion, the agent would make it a point to be seen often wearing an identical tie pin; then, when it was necessary to discreetly snap photographs, he could put the camera into place. The camera itself snapped pictures in almost complete silence, such that the sounds of a dinner party or a busy office

An Israeli miniature video camera of the 1980s. ©JEFFREY L. ROTMAN/CORBIS.
An Israeli miniature video camera of the 1980s. ©

would be enough to conceal what little noise it made while operating.

Despite the variety of techniques for concealing cameras that are of ordinary size or very nearly so, in some instances it is preferable for an intelligence operative to carry a miniature camera. Some of these are small, and some very small: therefore it is common to speak of "miniature" and "subminiature" cameras. The distinction is a subjective one, however, and in both cases, the camera in question is so small that it must be constructed using principles somewhat different from those of a typical consumer camera.

Design and Optics of Miniature Cameras

A miniature spy camera is almost completely lacking in the "frills" that one might expect from a camera built for ordinary use. Because of the size (and the need, in many cases, to prevent the camera from looking like a camera), there is almost never any viewfinder. The user must therefore be highly experienced at photography, so as to know when an image is in focus without being able to actually see how it looks through the lens.

It is unlikely that a miniature camera, particularly those of the pre-digital cold-war era, would use color film, since this would simply constitute another frill and hence a complication in obtaining clear images. The film itself was usually smaller than 35mm: sizes ranging from 16mm all the way down to 9.5mm or smaller are typical of miniature and subminiature cameras.

Lenses and light. Virtually all cameras have at least one glass lens, and one with a zoom or telephoto lens typically has three: front and rear convex lenses, with a concave one in between. Though zoom lenses clearly have an application in the world of espionage, miniature and subminiature cameras are usually for photographing images at close range. Typically they would have only a single lens, perhaps with a coating to reduce reflections or glare.

An unusual example of miniature camera optics was the Soviet pinhole camera from the 1980s. One of the Soviet strengths in technology was the use of extremely simple, sometimes almost primitive, design to create extremely functional equipment that often outperformed its more complex and temperamental Western counterparts. Such was the case with the tiny camera, which was actually based on principles pioneered in the nineteenth century.

In place of lenses, a pinhole camera uses tiny apertures, or openings, so small that they are known as pinholes. The value of a lens lies in its ability to focus and thus photograph distant objects or ones close by, depending on the settings. By contrast, the value of a pinhole camera is precisely the fact that it does not have lenses, and therefore can produce images of distant and nearby images equally well.

Neither the faraway nor the closeup images produced by a pinhole camera have a very high degree of photographic resolution, and a photograph taken using this nineteenth-century technology will probably look like an old daguerreotype. But where clarity of image is not as important as versatility, quietness, and simplicity of design, a camera such as the Soviet model—so small it could be worn unobtrusively on a key chain—would be ideal.

The Minox camera. One of the great triumphs of miniature and ultraminiature design, applied for espionage work on both sides during the Cold War, was the Minox subminiature camera. Originally produced in 1938, it was the first significant and widely used miniature camera of the twentieth century. Small and flat, it could easily be concealed in the hand, yet for its size, it was exceptional in both its speed and the quality of the pictures it produced.

The designer of the Minox was Walter Zapp, a Latvian engineer who set out, not to make a tool of espionage, but rather to produce a camera that could be easily portable yet capable of producing photographs both quickly and accurately. A Baltic German living in the Latvian capital of Riga, Zapp began producing his camera just before the Soviets annexed his country as an outgrowth of the 1939 non-aggression pact with the Nazis. Because of his German heritage, Zapp opted to move to his homeland, but it appears that the Nazis did not make use of his design. Therefore seven years elapsed between the production of the Riga Minox in 1938 and the founding of the Minox GmbH company in Germany. The latter produced more than 1 million cameras in its first half-century, and a 90-year-old Zapp was on hand for the company's 50th anniversary in 1995.

Uses for espionage. In the meantime, the Soviets, having appropriated Minox technology after capturing Riga, began producing their own miniature cameras. Among the Soviet spies associated with the Minox was John A. Walker, Jr., who used one given to him by his KGB handlers for photographing sensitive U.S. Navy and National Security Agency documents. After his arrest, Walker demonstrated for authorities how he used a Minox, along with a measuring chain to ensure that the camera was held a proper and uniform distance from the documents.

Western intelligence also recognized the value of the Minox, and its operatives continued to use them into the 1990s. Popular among both civilians and intelligence operatives was Model B, produced from 1958 to 1972, which was the first Minox with its own built-in light meter. It required no batteries, and therefore could be kept in hiding for many months until it was needed. As time passed, the resolution quality of Minox film improved dramatically, along with the enlargers used to make prints from the minuscule negatives produced by the camera. There were also improvements in the technology of developing film: thanks to a developing tank, it became possible to produce pictures without a darkroom, even in broad daylight.

Other Notable Miniature Cameras

Today miniature and subminiature cameras are available for sale to civilian consumers via the Internet, but once these were virtually the sole province of intelligence services working on either side of the Iron Curtain. Today's designs for consumers—a jealous spouse, or an employer suspicious of employee malfeasance—are typically based on these old cold-war models.

As for the photographic technology utilized by today's espionage services, that information is unavailable to the general public. However, it is a safe guess that the technological gap between the equipment used by intelligence services and that used by amateur photographers is at least as great as it was in the middle of the twentieth century.

Wristwatch cameras. An example of a civilian product with a design related to that of a camera used in espionage is the Tessina, still produced and sold by Concava SA of Switzerland. Unlike most tiny cameras, the Tessina, which is made to fit on a watchband, uses 35mm film, though this is loaded into special cassettes to make frames that measure just 14 x 21 mm. The Tessina was reportedly designed by Rudolph Steineck, whose Steineck ABC wristwatch camera is a classic of compactness in the service of espionage.

First produced in 1948, the Steineck ABC resembled a wristwatch, though it was not disguised behind a watch face. In fact, nothing about the Steineck looked like a watch except the size and the fact that it was attached to a watchband. Yet it bore such a close resemblance to a watch from a distance that it seldom attracted attention as a camera. The Steineck was capable of producing eight exposures, each about 6mm across, on a film disk that measured 25mm (some sources say 24) across.

Cameras disguised as smoking paraphernalia. One variety of Tessina used in the realm of espionage was a 35mm model, the smallest motor-driven camera of its kind in the world, which was designed to fit inside a cigarette pack. The shutter could be pressed from outside the pack, with very small holes on the exterior letting in just enough light to take pictures. The Tessina could shoot up to 10 exposures before it required manual winding.

Ingenious as this Tessina model was, it simply fit inside a cigarette pack. By contrast, the Soviet Kiev 30 16mm model was actually designed to resemble a metal cigarette case, complete with dummy cigarettes. By moving one of the cigarettes, the user advanced the film and snapped pictures through a lens at the side of the pack.

During World War II, Eastman Kodak designed for the Office of Strategic Services a 16mm camera that was as small as a matchbox, and could be disguised as one simply by affixing a matchbox label. The lens opening was on the side, in a small hole on the striking surface, and the shutter release was at the end.

An early example of postwar Japanese technology was the Echo 8 cigarette lighter camera, which first appeared in 1951. It was even more authentic than the Soviet cigarette case or the American matchbox, because the lighter actually worked. In order to photograph the subject, the user simply flipped the top, revealing a viewing port and other equipment for a camera. It was a simple task to light a cigarette while snapping a picture from the side of the lighter. The "8" in its name referred to the 8mm film, made by slicing 16mm film down the middle.

Microdot cameras. Microdots were a specialized application for which certain cameras were used during the Cold War. This was particularly the case during the 1950s and 1960s, though microdots—tiny photographic images that require magnifying to be viewed—have been a fixture of intelligence work since the mid-nineteenth century. Microdots were ideal for passing messages between East and West Berlin, for instance, a situation in which it was virtually impossible for agents to cross sides and pass documents without attracting attention. Instead, they could simply send mail containing microdots, which were so small that they would, in most instances, evade detection.

The East Germans designed a microdot camera about the size of the end joint on an average man's thumb. It could produce microdots smaller than a typical letter or character in a book. East German designers also created an ingenious microdot viewer that could be concealed in a fountain pen. Additionally, German intelligence services of both the Nazi and communist eras were known for their microdot concealment devices, which included a man's ring used in World War II (with the microdot hidden in a secret chamber atop the ring), as well as a postwar coin designed with a secret chamber.



Babington-Smith, Constance. Evidence in Camera: The Story of Photographic Intelligence in World War II. Newton Abbott, England: David and Charles, 1974.

Melton, H. Keith. The Ultimate Spy Book. New York: DK Publishing, 1996.

Pritchard, Michael, and Douglas St. Denny. Spy Camera: A Century of Detective and Subminiature Cameras. London: Classic Collection, 1993.


Photographic Resolution

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Cameras, Miniature forum