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Subminiature 35mm spy camera

The Tessina 35 is the smallest miniature camera with standard 35 mm film ever built. It is even smaller than the compact Minox 35 and can be worn on the wrist, just like a watch. The camera was patented by Austrian chemical engineer Dr. Rudolpj Steineck in Lugano (Switzerland) and was manufactured by Siegrist in Grenchen (Switzerland). The camera was introduced in 1957 and was distributed by Concava SA; Steineck's company in Lugano. It remained in production until 1996.
The camera is extremely compact and measures just 65 x 50 x 20 mm, only slightly larger than a matchbox and small enough for virtually any type of concealment like a pack of cigarettes or a women's handbag. It could also be worn on the wrist, as shown further down this page, by using the optional wrist bracket with leather straps.

The camera was available in a variety of colours, such as red, gold and black, but the most common version was chrome (aluminium). Gold is arguably the rarest colour, but as it is rather shiny, it is less suitable for inconspicious work.
Tessina rear view

At the back of the camera are four attachment notches, allowing the camera to be attached to a chain assemble or a leather wrist band. A spring-loaded stub acts as a lock and prevents the camera from falling of the wrist mount. The wrist band was available in brown and black leather.

The Tessina has two 25 mm f/2.8 lenses: one for taking the picture and one for the viewer and projects the image onto a standard 35 mm frame (14 x 21 mm) by means of an internal 45° mirror. The camera accepts standard 35 mm film, but uses a different - smaller - film cassettte with less exposures in order to save space. In the past, pre-loaded film cartridges were available for the camera, such as Adox KB 14, 17 and 21, Kodak Tri-X black/white film, and various colour films. Production of these proprietary format has stopped a long time ago (see below).

The Tessina has always been a special camera. At the time it was - and still is today - the smallest Twin Lens Reflex camera in the world. The camera remained in production until 1996 and was only stopped because of the increasing manufacturing costs. The price of the bare camera in 1996 was approx. EUR 1000. For an excellent and far more complete description of the camera (in the German language), please refer to Peter Lausch's pages about the Tessina [5].
Tessina rear view Tessina with folding viewfinder down Tessina front view Opening the folding viewfinder Close-up of the focus shutter speed settings Tessina in the palm of a hand Using the Tessina from the wrist Tessina film cartridge
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Tessina rear view
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Tessina with folding viewfinder down
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Tessina front view
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Opening the folding viewfinder
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Close-up of the focus shutter speed settings
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Tessina in the palm of a hand
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Using the Tessina from the wrist
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Tessina film cartridge

The Tessina has controls on all sides of its body, except for the bottom where it has a universal mount. The image below shows the camera from both sides, with all visible controls highlighted. Please note that the camera can only take pictures when the lens cap (left image) is fully open.

Camera in disguise
As the Tessina was so small, it was suitable for inconspicious photography and could be hidden in a variety of ways. It could easily be incorporated into a piece of furniture or a lady's handbag. Althoug the Minox subminiature camera's were smaller, they were less suitable for observations.
The image on the right shows one of the most popular ways to hide a Tessina camera: inside a normal pack of cigarettes. When the viewvinder and the flashlight socket are removed, the camera fits nicely inside a standard cigarette pack, leaving room for some fake cigarette tips.

It was also possible to operate the Tessina from within the cigarette case. This was done by drilling tiny little holes in the side of the case, enough to allow the camera lens to 'see through it' [7]. It allowed a spy to smoke a cigarette, whilst at the same time photograph a person.
Hiding the Tessina inside a cigarette pack

The camera was also very popular for observations during the Cold War with the Stasi, the secret police of the former DDR (East-Germany). They developed a variety of manners to hide the Tessina in handbags, cigarette packs, etc. [8] Although the Tessina was larger than the Russian Robot and the F-21 (Ayaks), two other clockwork cameras, they preferred the Tessina because of its smaller size. It was louder than the F-21, but could be modified by installing nylon gears to reduce the noise. In addition, Concava made a fully silent version of the Tessina as well [8].
Another popular discuise was the use of a wrist bracket. A spy could then walk around with the camera hidden in the sleeve of his coat, just like if it was a large watch. The wrist mount consisted of a metal bracket and two leather straps. The metal bracket could be fitted to the four stubs at the bottom of the camera, with a spring-loaded stub to lock the camera in place.

The camera could be used with or without the folding viewfinder. When used from the waist level, the viewfinder was commonly left off and - when available - replaced by the 8x magnifier.
Tessina carried on the wrist, like a large watch

The Stasi not only disguised the Tessina camera as a pack of cigarettes, but also as a key wallet, with fake keys sticking out at the top of the wallet. Or an eye glass wallet, with fake binoculars. They even constructed a tiny little motor winder that was bolted to the side of the camera.
Tessina and Minox Riga side by side Hiding the Tessina inside a cigarette pack Barely visible inside the cigarette pack Tessina and wrist bracket Removing the black instruction plate and replacing it by the wrist bracket Tessina carried on the wrist, like a large watch Tessina camera disguised as a key wallet, with fake keys sticking out at the top Tessina camera with motorwinder, made by the Stasi (copyright unknown)
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Tessina and Minox Riga side by side
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Hiding the Tessina inside a cigarette pack
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Barely visible inside the cigarette pack
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Tessina and wrist bracket
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Removing the black instruction plate and replacing it by the wrist bracket
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Tessina carried on the wrist, like a large watch
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Tessina camera disguised as a key wallet, with fake keys sticking out at the top
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Tessina camera with motorwinder, made by the Stasi (copyright unknown)

The Stasi was not the only agency to use the Tessina for espionage. During the Watergate break-in on 17 June 1972 in the US [9], FBI investigators found a black Tessina camera on one of the so-called 'plumbers' [10]. It was confiscated by the police and kept as evidence for a later trial [8].
The Plumbers were a secret group which, under US President Nixon, had the task to find sources of information leaking, such as the Pentagon papers, to the press and other news media.

Members of the Plumbers however, were later found to be breaking the law themselves when they branched into illegal activities while working for the Committee to Re-elect President Nixon. These activities included breaking-in at the DNC (Democratic National Committee) head­quarters at the Watergate offices in Washington DC, which eventually evolved into the Watergate scandal [9].
Watergate office complex where the DNC was housed. Photograph via Wikipedia [9].

Several people were involved in the Watergate break-in, including E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, James McCord and CIA Liason John Paisley. In recent years, the involvement of the latter has led to speculation that the CIA had a greater hand in the operations than originally thought. One of the Plumbers, Howard Hunt, used a Tessina camera that was issued by the CIA, to photograph Dr. Fieldings office on 25 August 1971 [11 p.16] on the first of their illegal activities.
Loading the camera
Before the Tessina can be used, it needs to be loaded with black and white or colour film first. In the past, suitable film cartridges were made by various manufacturers, including Kodak and Adox, but such films are no longer in production. Tessina cartridges can be loaded with standard 35 mm film however, using a special Tessina film loader, or manually in a fully darkened room.
The camera can easily be opened by sliding the rigged knob at the side towards the O-position (Open). The rear panel can then be removed.

At one side is take-up spool that cannot be removed. The film has to be wound back into the film cartridge at the other side, before opening the camera. The film cartridge can be removed after pulling out the R-wheel all the way up.

At the center is the actual 'dark room'. A 45° mirror projects the image from the lens at the front of the camera onto the horizontal film.
Tessina camera with the back panel removed

In order to use a Tessina camera today, standard 35 mm film can be cut to the desired length and loaded into the camera using a dark room. Alternatively, the special (rare) film loader can be used to do this in full daylight [5]. Depending on the thickness of the film, a maximum of 44 cm film, suitable for 24 exposures, is allowed. When using thicker black and white film, the maximum film length is approx. 38 cm, which is suitable for 18 exposures [5].
Opening the camera Tessina with back panel removed Pull-out before removing the film cartridge Tessina camera with the back panel removed Tessina film cartridge Tessina film cartridge Take-up spool inside the camera 45 degree mirror
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Opening the camera
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Tessina with back panel removed
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Pull-out before removing the film cartridge
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Tessina camera with the back panel removed
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Tessina film cartridge
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Tessina film cartridge
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Take-up spool inside the camera
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45 degree mirror

  • Tessina Automatic 35 mm
    Minimum focus range: 30.5 cm (12 inches)

  • Tessina 35
    Minimum focus range: 23 cm (9 inches)

  • Tessina L
    Minimum focus range: 23 cm (9 inches)

The Tessina 25 has a number of viewfinder options. First of all it is possible to use the rectangular screen on top of the camera directly. The image in front of the lens is projected upside-down on this screen. Next, there are three viewfinders, some of which are optional:
  1. Folding viewfinder
    The folding viewfinder was standard suppied with each Tessina. It can be used in two ways: as a straight-ahead viewer, looking through both lenses of the viewfinder, or at waist level looking onto the screen and using the black side panels of the folding viewfinder as a dark box. There was an (optional) sports version without the optics.

  2. Prism viewfinder
    This is the best viewfinder, but it is also the larges one. As it is rather bulky (compared to the camera) it is less suitable for inconspicious photography.

  3. Magnifying waist level finder
    This is simply a rectangluar magnifying glass that slides into the viewfinder frame. When the camera is held at waist level, the magnifying glass enlarges the image.

  • Folding viewfinder (standard)
  • Folding viewfinder (sports version without optics)
  • Pentaprism viewfinder (6x)
  • Magnifying viewfinder (8x)
  • Chain and tripod adapter
  • Hotshoe adapter
  • Film loader
  • Exposure meter
  • Flash gun
  • Leather belt carrying case (brown or black)
  • Wrist bracket (for inconspicious photography)
  • Slide-on mechanical watch
  • 35 mm (standard) film (needs loader)
  • Frame size: 14 x 21 mm
  • Dimensions: 25 x 68 x 53 mm (2.5 x 2 x 1 inches)
  • Twin Lens Reflex
  • Main lense and viewer: 25 mm f/2.8 Tessinon
  • Viewer: ground-glass on top of the camera
  • Aperture: variable down to f/22
  • Shutter speed: 1/2 to 1/500 sec, plus B
  • Film advance: spring-loaded clockwork (5 - 8 exposures)
  • Brushed, painted or anodized aluminium
  • Black (aluminium)
  • All black
  • Red
  • Gold
  1. John Wade, Cameras in Disguise
    ISBN 0-7478-0637-3. P. 23.

  2. Camera Quest, The incredible Swiss Tessina 35mm Twin Lens Reflex
    Website. Retrieved April 2013.

  3. Wikipedia, Tessina
    Retrieved April 2013.

  4. Keith Melton, Ultimate Spy
    1996-2002. ISBN 0-7513-4791-4. p. 74.

  5. Peter Lausch, Die TESSINA der CONCAVA S.A.
    Website 'Kameras' (German). 9 February 2006. Retrieved April 2013.

  6. M. Butkus, Tessina Auto 35, User Manual
    Scanned manual in PDF format. Retrieved April 2013.

  7. Spy Museum, Tessina Camera and Cigarette Case Concealment
    Retrieved April 2013.

  8. Kirstie Macrakis, Seduced by Secrets, Inside the Stasi's Spy-Tech World
    2008. ISBN 978-0-521-88747-2. p. 233.

  9. Wikipedia, Watergate scandal
    Retrieved April 2013.

  10. Wikipedia, White House Plumbers
    Retrieved April 2013.

  11. The New York Times Magazine, The Plumbers
    22 July 1973. pp 13-16.

Further information

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Crypto Museum. Created: Thursday 21 March 2013. Last changed: Tuesday, 13 June 2017 - 09:10 CET.
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