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The world's smallest subminiature photo camera

The PETAL is the smallest subminiature photographic camera in the world. It was manufactured in 1947 or 1948 by the PETAL Optical Company of Japan (St. Peter Optical Company) [1] and was intended for inconspicious photography. The camera can take six exposures onto a film disc that could be inserted in daylight, but was difficult to operate due to its size and fixed shutter speed.
The PETAL camera was introduced in late 1947 or early 1948. Being slightly larger than a 2 Euro coin, it was the smallest camera in the world at the time, and this is still the case today. It can take six circular exposures of 6 mm each onto a 25 mm film disc which is pre-loaded in a special cassette that can be inserted in full daylight.

The image on the right shows a typical round PETAL. As the inscription suggests, it was made shortly after WWII, during the occupation of Japan (1945-1852) [2]. The camera fits the palm of a hand and is smaller than the Minox Riga.
PETAL subminiature camera

The camera has a fixed focus 12 mm (f/5.6) lens. The required exposure (1 of 6) can be selected by rotating the rear half of the body of the camera. The numbers 1 to 6 are engraved in the rear half, and should be lined up with a dot on the front half, where it 'clicks' into place. When shooting pictures, the small viewfinder at the top can be used as an aid.

The complete PETAL kit consists of the camera, usually with a red ribbon through a hole aside the viewfinder, an instruction sheet, a leather storage case, a film cartridge and a wooden box. In most cases, the manual and the wooden box have been lost over time. In additon, there were some nice accessories, such as the (rare) film cutter and a film holder that was used for handling the film in a developing tank. A good description of the camera is given by Jerry Friedman [1].

In the late 1940s and the 1950s, the PETAL camera became a hot item for Private Investigators (PI) in the United States. Having a PETAL, raised your profile as a successful PI [3]. At the time, the PETAL was sold for approx. US$ 10, which was about a week's pay back then.
PETAL inside the leather storage case PETAL inside... PETAL camera aside the leather storage case PETAL subminiature camera PETAL camera upside down Holding the PETAL in the palm of a hand Exposure selection Made in Occupied Japan

Operating the PETAL must have been a real nightmare. First of all getting and loading the film was difficult. If original film cartridges could not be obtained, it was possible to use a special (rare) film cutter to make the 25 mm film discs needed for the camera. Once the film was loaded, a very steady hand was needed to shoot a picture as the camera has a fixed shutter speed.

The camera has two shutter settings that can be selected with a small rigged dial at the front. It can be set to I (instant) or B (bulb). In the latter case the shutter is open for as long as the release button is depressed. The latter needs an even more stable hand that the 'I' setting.
About the size of a 2 Euro coin Smaller than the Minox Riga Smaller than the Minox Riga Viewfinder seen from the rear Access to the film cartridge by unscrewing the back Filmcasette, PETAL camera and back panel Rear view of the film cartridge with a novel shutter Taking a look inside the camera

Loading the film
The camera can be opened by unscrewing the rear panel after which the film cartridge becomes visible. After removing the cartridge, the interior of the camera becomes visible. The cartridge itself has the shape of a coin and can be unscrewed itself, after which it can be loaded with fresh film. A novel shutter, at the front side of the cartridge, protects the film against daylight.

A pre-loaded PETAL film cartridge could be loaded easily this way in full daylight. It was loaded with panchromatic film by the manufacturer. If pre-loaded film cartridges were not available, it was possible to load them yourself, by stamping a 25 mm circular disc out of a piece of standard film, using a separately available film cutter. As loading the cartridge with panchromatic film had to be done in complete darkness (the film is sensitive to any light), one would commonly use orthochromatic film, as it can be handled under red light (the film is insensitive to red light) [1].

Once the film is loaded and the back of the camera is closed again, the exposure selector (i.e. the rear half of the camera) should be turned one or two full revoltions clockwise, until the number '1' is lined up with the red dot. This is necessary in order to guarantee that the window of the film cartridge is lined up with the camera's lens, and that the shutter of the film cartridge is open.
Unloading the film
When all six images have been taken, the exposure selector will be at '6'. Before opening the rear of the camera, the exposure selector needs to be turned back (i.e. counter clockwise) two positions in order to close the shutter of the film cartridge again. When the selector is at '4' again, it is safe to open the rear of the camera and remove the film cartridge.
The following PETAL models are currently known:
  • Round PETAL
    This is the original version of the PETAL. It has a circular (round) shape and is the most common version found today. The camera was first introduced in late 1947 or early 1948 and was made in occupied Japan by the PETAL Optical Company (St. Peter Optical Company of Japan).

  • Sakura PETAL
    This version appeared shortly after the round Petal. It has an octogonal shape and was manufactuered by the Sakura Seiki Company. At the front the words Sakure and PETAL are engraved. Apart from its shape, this version is identical to the round PETAL.

  • Everax A
    This version was introduced approx. one year after the initial model. It has the octogonal shape of the Sakura, but was made by the PETAL Optical Company again. At the front it has the words Evarax. A. and PATENTS, plus the image of a flower engraved. Apart from these differences it is identical to the previous two versions.

  1. Jerry Friedman, The Petal
    1997. Last updated October 2003. Retrieved April 2013.

  2. Wikipedia, Japan
    Retrieved April 2013.

  3. PI Mall, Pivate-Eye Vintage Gear!, The Petal Camera
    2006. Retrieved April 2013.

  4. John Wade, Cameras in Disguise
    ISBN 0-7478-0637-3. P. 32.

Further information

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