Until fairly recently, I had one camera body, my trusty Canon 70D DSLR. It was an upgrade from a much older 350D and I was well set up for the usual camera gearnerd progression path of incrementally better bodies and a ballooning collection of glass. Recently though, my selection of cameras has expanded dramatically. Right now, I could grab any one of over twenty different cameras sitting on shelves in my apartment. Almost all of these are enthusiast or ‘prosumer’ level machines and most of them cost me less than $50.
Let’s start with a bit of history and an overview of the Soviet camera industry. Before WWII, the camera industry in the USSR was not well-developed. Mostly the factories producing cameras made very primitive view cameras in field or press camera formats. Here is my Fotokor 1 from 1931.
Compared to the output of German and American camera producers of the time, it was way behind the technology curve. The Soviets looked at the new 35mm Leica cameras and figured that they could do the same. So they did. By literally copying the design exactly. Well, almost exactly. It turns out that getting largely unskilled peasants to assemble precision optics in an orphanage (really!) doesn’t work as well as the highly-trained German workforce in their lovely, modern factories could manage. So the designs were modified over time to allow for the much looser tolerances and much less complex mechanicals. The first Soviet 35mm camera was the FED, which was made in Kharkiv in 1934 and was the first of many that were straight copies of Western equipment (in this case, the Leica II).
The end of WWII put a real shot in the arm of the Soviet camera industry. A lot of German industry was in the East of the country and all of that was now Soviet controlled. The USSR gained access to all kinds of designs and patents as well as engineers, tools and manufacturing facilities. A lot of these were shipped off to the main centres of optical production in the USSR, the big camera factories at Krasnogorsk, Leningrad, Kharkiv and Kyiv all benefited from this captured tech. The Carl Zeiss facility in Jena, East Germany especially provided very advanced camera and lens technologies that were swiftly packed up and sent to Arsenalna and KMZ for local production.
It’s important to note that Soviet brands aren’t necessarily the products of different factories. Nor are cameras of the same brand necessarily made by the same company. The KMZ factory near to Moscow for example, produced cameras with the Zorki, Zenit and Krasnogorsk brand names. But some Zenits were also made at the Vibrator factory in Leningrad and at the FED factory in Kharkiv. It’s possible to tell where a camera or lens was made because factories had their own symbol that was applied regardless of the brand-name. These two Mir lenses for example were each made in different factories. The one on the left is a 45mm f/3.5 lens for a Kiev medium format camera and was made at the Arsenalna factory in Kyiv. The one on the right is a 37mm f/2.8 lens for the m42 mount and was made at the Vologda factory in NW Russia. In both cases the factory mark can be seen at the 12 o’clock position of the lens. There’s an excellent overview of all the factory marks at Alfred Klomp’s website.
So, after the war, the Soviet photography enthusiast had a surprisingly wide range of options available. Copies of the Leica II rangefinder were being produced by FED and Zorki – the two cameras were identical apart from branding at first but later designs diverged. In Kyiv, the Arsenalna factory was making copies of the Contax rangefinder as well as medium-format cameras copied from the Hasselblad 1600, and the GOMZ factory in Leningrad (which had previously been known as VOOMP and would later be called LOMO) was making copies of the Rolleiflex TLR and pseudo-TLR cameras under the Lubitel brand name.
While the Soviet industry relied heavily on copied Western designs at first, they certainly made their own innovations and later models deviated significantly from the original. The KMZ factory took one of their Zorki rangefinders and stuck a prism on top, a mirror in the lightbox and moved the lens mount forwards to allow for enough clearance from the mirror to make it into a 35mm SLR. That camera was the original Zenit which spawned an incredibly successful range of well-regarded SLRs.
The main 35mm brands and the most commonly encountered are FED, Zorki, Kiev and Zenit.
FED cameras were made in an orphanage in Kharkiv for the most part except for a time during the war when the city was under German control and production moved to Krasnogorsk and a site in Siberia. The factory was set up specifically to copy the Leica II rangefinder and rangefinders were their main product until camera production stopped in 1997. Incidentally, the name FED is from the initials of Felix E Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the NKVD (the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, later to become the KGB). Think for a moment about that visual. The guy who created the NKVD put orphans to work in a factory making copied Nazi cameras. That’s the kind of thing that Dickens would think up then go ‘Nah, they’ll never buy that’ and start again. Most of their cameras used the Leica 39mm mount and usually shipped with either Industar or Jupiter lenses.
Zorkis were produced at the KMZ factory at Krasnogorsk near to Moscow. Just as with FED, the brand started out producing copies of the Leica II and was associated primarily with rangefinders until production ended in 1978. The product line was much closer in general layout to the original Leica that spawned it when compared to the evolution of the FED.
The Zorki was such a good copy of the Leica that it’s often used as the basis for fakes. This ‘Luftwaffe Leica’ is actually a Zorki with a gold-coloured top plate and lens cap.
Kiev is far better known for their medium format cameras but the Arsenalna factory also produced rangefinders and SLRs as well as 16mm subminiature cameras, plus lenses for 35mm and medium format cameras under the Arsat, Volna and Mir brand names. The Kiev rangefinders were all derivatives of the Zeiss-Ikon Contax and the SLRs came from outer space. I own several 35mm Kievs, here’s a Kiev 10 from 1965. Look at this thing!
I’ve seen several of these but the metal fan shutter blades (this is the only 35mm SLR with a fan shutter in the world), are very prone to breaking and finding one in working order is rare.
Finally Zenit. These are probably the most common Soviet 35mm cameras. Millions were produced and many were exported too. The day I brought my Zenit-E home with me, I showed it to my concierge and he said “Oh, I’ve got one of those too!” They are everywhere. They were made in the KMZ factory along with the Zorkis and originally they used the same Leica 39mm lens mount. The Zenit E, introduced in 1965 used the m42 mount and this became the standard after that point. The last 39mm Zenit was the 3M which was produced until 1970. I have two Zenit Es and it is far and away my favourite Soviet 35mm camera. It’s a real joy to use and the Helios lens that was standard on many models is a really high-quality piece.
Not 35mm Stuff and Oddballs
Probably the most well-known Soviet cameras are the medium format Kievs, the 60
and the 88. These are still very popular today because they allow an entry point to medium format photography at a fraction of the price of a Hasselblad or Mamiya body. The Kiev 88 is a copy of the 1948 Hasselblad and the Kiev 60 is based on the layout of the Pentacon Six but is quite different internally. Both were still in production until the Arsenalna factory closed in 2008.
After the Kievs, the best known medium format Soviet cameras are probably the Lubitel TLRs. These were made at the GOMZ factory in Leningrad. The factory was later renamed LOMO (Leningrad Optical-Mechanical Union) and this is why low-fi hipster stuff is called Lomography. The cameras were originally direct copies of the Rolleiflex and didn’t evolve very much from there. They were produced in huge numbers and show up regularly in flea-markets and vintage stores. Finding a good one will be hard because they were not well made even by Soviet camera standards. The bakelite casing of the earlier ones is prone to breaking and the metal parts on all models were not well protected against corrosion. Later versions included a lever and mask to switch between 6×6 and 6×4.5 frame sizes and that was about the limit of the innovation. Lubitel means “hobbyist” and these were intended as low-end, easy to use cameras. They aren’t especially easy to use however. The 120 film isn’t as user-friendly as 35mm cartridges and the focusing glass isn’t as convenient as a rangefinder window. In addition, everything has to be done manually, advancing the film doesn’t cock the shutter (or vice-versa) and setting the aperture and shutter speed is very fiddly.
A stereo version of the Lubitel was made called the Sputnik. It was produced in large numbers
in the 1950s and 60s and shows up regularly in markets. The same problems exist with the regular Lubitel however, it is prone to corrosion and the bakelite shatters easily. I’ve looked at around half a dozen or so and not seen one that was in workable condition. Also, while accepting that Soviet retro-photography is a bit gimmicky already, Soviet retro stereo-photography is super-gimmicky.
Kievs and Lubitels weren’t the only game in town for medium format enthusiasts. Factories in Leningrad and Krasnogorsk made large and medium format cameras of all types. The Fotokor camera I showed earlier is one such, and production of folding bellows cameras continued well after the war at the KMZ factory using the Moskva (Moscow) brand name. Mine is a Moskva 5 and can switch between 6×6 and 6×9 formats.
The Arsenalna factory also produced subminiature cameras from 1959 until
around 1990. The first Kiev Vega was a silver coloured, all metal camera that originally used the Minolta 16mm cassette then the Vega 2 and the Kiev 30 diverged from the original more and more until the cassette was no longer compatible with the Minolta 110 standard, instead you had to spool film into the cartridge yourself before loading it into the camera. Because nothing says user-friendly like having to cut 35mm film to size and then fumble film and tape into a tiny plastic case in total darkness.
So Why Should I Care?
Here’s the thing about Soviet cameras. They are cheap, really, really cheap compared to contemporary Japanese or European cameras. The most expensive camera in my collection is the Kiev 88 which I bought new from a company that rebuilds and upgrades the unsold factory stock. The cheapest one that I paid for (some were gifts) was about $5 and that was for a working but tatty Zenit that I bought for spare parts. Mostly the 35mm cameras cost me about $25-$40 each. I have never paid more than $40 for a lens.
The cameras are mechanically very simple, which means that a brave soul with a set of jewellers screwdrivers and a lens wrench can probably fix any problems short of complete structural failure. It should mean that they are less prone to breaking but that’s actually the opposite of true as we’ll discuss later.
Despite the low cost, there is some seriously good kit available. Especially in lenses. The Helios 44-2 lenses in particular have a cult following because they are based on the Carl-Zeiss Biotar system. This has the well-known side effect of producing swirly bokeh.
Jupiter lenses for the M39 mount are also well regarded amongst vintage glass buffs and Arsat or Mir lenses are great medium format options. Some companies even offer Soviet medium format lenses with Canon, Nikon, Micro 4/3rds etc tilt-shift mounts to produce cut-price TS lenses for modern bodies.
Adapters to use M42 or M39 lenses on modern cameras exist for a few dollars each, they are just mechanical adapters with no optical elements. Similar adapters exist to let you use older Kiev lenses on your Pentacon-6 or Hasselblad mount medium format camera. And let me tell you the prices for Arsat lenses are a lot friendlier than for Hasselblad glass.
You can see my test rolls from 35mm cameras in the gear pages for those cameras..
Even on pro-level Soviet stuff, the quality control was notoriously poor. Sitting in a damp attic for 30 years won’t have improved it any either. A lot of the Soviet gear I look at is practically useless. Quite often I see misaligned gears that have stripped themselves, seized controls or lens elements that rattle audibly when you try and focus. Light sealing is often patchy even on cameras in very good condition. Even when they were brand new, many cameras just plain didn’t work out of the box.
There are many fairly hefty design flaws that don’t get corrected from model to model. Most Soviet cameras can be broken in a fairly terminal manner if you try to change the shutter speed when the shutter isn’t cocked for example. Also, I own about 8 lenses for m39 and m42 mount cameras and every goddamn one of them has a different filter thread size.
Almost nothing is automated. Even by the standards of their time, the Soviet cameras were generally a long way behind the curve on technology. On many cameras cocking the shutter and winding the film on are separate actions. Quite a few have no automatic film counters and none that I know of have automatic winders. Self-timers are clockwork even on newer bodies and so are slower shutter speeds. Most cameras that have integrated lightmeters at all, have uncoupled lightmeters. That means you have to set the lightmeter and then transfer the settings to the camera manually. Or you would if the lightmeter worked. Most of them won’t any more because they are selenium based and the selenium degrades after about 10-15 years. When I shoot with mine, I tend to use my DSLR to meter the scene or just guess from the ‘sunny-16′ rule. On the plus side, this all means you’ll be saving on batteries.
I’m very lucky because I have lived in places where this stuff is plentiful, I can browse flea-markets, the used rack at camera stores and OLX (Russian eBay) for bargains. Usually I can check it out thoroughly before parting with money and many of the people I buy from will give me a good deal because they know me. Given the quality issues mentioned above, it’s really important that you have the opportunity to return anything you buy that isn’t working. Some of the stuff is cheap enough that you might not care too much, but still it’s easy to end up with a collection of paperweights rather than working camera gear. If you’re buying by internet, make sure that you are dealing with someone you trust to honour a returns policy and that you can see the exact thing you are buying in any photos. Incidentally, you can usually verify the date of Soviet equipment from the serial number. Commonly, the serial number was 9 or 10 digits with the first two being the date of manufacture. It’s not a universal rule and sometimes manufacturers changed their serial numbering schemes at intervals but if it looks like it could be the case, then it probably is.
If you are after medium format cameras and equipment, I personally recommend Arax Foto. This company is one of a few that bought up all the unsold stock of the Arsenalna factory when it closed and rebuilt the better-made examples for a more consistent level of quality. In addition Arax installs a number of upgrades such as a mirror lock-up system, titanium shutters to replace the cloth originals and flocked interiors. They also rebuild Arsat lenses and multicoat the elements. I bought my Kiev 88 from there and I’ve been very happy with the camera and the service from the owner. Note that although the Kiev 88 is based on the Hasselblad, parts aren’t interchangeable between the two. So there’s no digital back that will fit it and film magazines aren’t compatible either.
A lot of Soviet camera gear did get exported so it’s not unusual to see more common stuff like Lubitels or Zenits in antique stores or thrift shops in countries outside the former USSR. Sometimes brand names were changed for export versions but usually these will still have the Soviet factory logos that will match the original name.
If you can buy directly in-person then take more than the usual amount of care in inspecting stuff before you buy. You’ll want to actuate everything several times to check that it moves smoothly. You’ll want to take the lens off and see what state the shutter is in and you’ll want to fire it a few times on a slow or bulb setting to see that it’s properly aligned. Lightmeters probably won’t work or will be way out of calibration. There’s not much to be done about that, maybe you feel brave enough to take your camera apart and try to fix it. Maybe you’ll just do what I do and forget that it exists at all. If you are a member of the Something Awful forums then this good-looking and extremely reliable poster will be happy to obtain and ship photo gear to you.
Enjoy your new obsession. It really is worth it.
Tell me about your Soviet gear. Or ask me about mine. Or ask me to buy some for you. Or whatever, I’m not your boss.