Monday, 7 May 2018

Kiev 4 / Kiev 4A

Hutter-buxtable hellosay today the Kiev 4, a rangefinder camera from long ago and far away. Hey dol! Merry dol! Ring-a-dong-dillo! I'm going to write the rest of this post in the style of Tom Bombadil, the jolly forest man from Lord of the Rings, although he was left out of the films because he's bloody irritating. Ring-a-dong! Hop-along! Fal-lal the willow!

J R Tolkien could not have known that dong would eventually become a naughty word. Come, merry dol and I'll stop it. It was a bad idea. It was a bad idea. I'll stop it. It's just that I'm nervous because this is only the second paragraph. I've only just got started. It takes a while for the nerves to settle. Takes a while for the nerves to settle.

About a year after writing this post I took my Kiev to the Goodwood Revival. Because it's roughly from the correct period (1940s-1960s). That's why.

Rangefinder cameras are surprisingly practical for car races. There's no mirror box blackout and no shutter delay, and if you prefocus on a spot, stop down, select 1/50th or so all you have to do is track the car through the rangefinder window and press the button.

On the negative side long lenses for the Contax/Kiev mount, or for that matter rangefinders in general, are very rare, which is one of the reasons sports photographers switched to SLRs as soon as it became practical. Furthermore you have to time your roll changes carefully and the Contax/Kiev never had a motor drive.

Russian Rangefinders
During the 20th Century the Russian camera industry exported three rangefinders to the West. That's a terrible first line. Three cameras in total? The Russian camera industry exported just three cameras? It exported three models of rangefinder camera. Not three individual cameras. The Fed and Zorki were clones of the pre-war Leica II. They used a variation of the Leica M39 lens mount that was almost but not totally compatible with Leica lenses. They were launched in the pre-and-post years respectively and remained in production until the late 1980s, at which point the Soviet Union's economic model collapsed and the Soviet camera industry was swept away by floods of cheap cameras from Japan, if that hadn't happened already.

My impression is that by the 1980s the Fed et al were viewed as sad old jokes in the USSR. The irony is that just as the Russian camera industry died off, Western hipsters fell in love with the cameras, although ultimately there were so many in circulation on the used market that it probably wouldn't have kept Fed or Zorki in business even if they had been hip to the latest trends. Thus although actual Russian people probably grew up lusting after the Nikon F4, Generation Y grew up dreaming of Holgas* and Horizont panoramic cameras.

* Technically the Holga is Chinese, but they all get lumped into the same mish-mash.

Early models of the Fed and Zorki resembled the Leica II. Later models of the Fed had an updated, ugly body; the Zorki generally remained Leica-looking throughout its life and fetches a higher price on the used market because of this. Not a particularly high price. A lot of old Zorkis were tarted up with black paint and fake Luftwaffe markings because there are a lot of gullible people out there.

The cameras had a combined viewfinder/rangefinder window with a 50mm field of view, which means that if you wanted to go wide or long you had to use a shoe-mounted viewfinder. Shoe-mounted viewfinders look awesome but are awkward. Russian rangefinders are of course manual everything although later models of the Fed had an uncoupled lightmeter.

I've never been keen on old Russian Leica clones. I don't have a bag of Leica lenses. If I did, I would be tempted to buy a used Leica body to go with them. Only a handful of Russian rangefinder lenses are widely available - the 35mm f/2.8 Jupiter 12, the 85mm f/2 Jupiter 9, and various 50mm standard lenses, generally 55mm f/2.8 for the Feds and 50mm f/2 for the Zorkis. Add on the bulk that comes with an accessory viewfinder and a lightmeter, plus nagging reliability issues, and it just seems like a lot of fuss for little reward. Will a Zorki lubricate the moral restraints of young women and/or cause other men to respect me? I doubt it.

When I was young I had a book by W E Johns called Now to the Stars. Apart from Biggles he also wrote sci-fi. In the book the heroes visit a planet covered in ice; they could look down into the ice to see a civilisation frozen in time. That's how I imagine photograph-world. It's a world in which everything and everyone is trapped in transparent glass, fixed at the moment of catastrophe.

The Kiev is the odd one out. The other two are based on the pre-war Leica, but the Kiev is based on the Contax II/III, a completely different camera that was originally launched by Zeiss in the 1930s. Throughout its life the Contax was Leica's arch-rival; it had a faster shutter, a longer rangefinder base, a more versatile lens mount, in-body lens focusing and, on the Contax III, a lightmeter, which was a big deal in the 1930s. There was a wide range of lenses of at least equivalent quality, but the system was more expensive and the original Contax I was apparently very unreliable.

The Contax/Kiev has an unusual lens mount. Standard 50mm lenses go inside the mount and engage with the focusing wheel. They don't have a focusing mechanism of their own; instead the entire lens rotates inside the mount.

Other lenses use the external bayonet mount. You can see the prongs at the 12 o'clock, 4 o'clock, and 7 o'clock positions. 

Bayonet mount lenses have their own focusing mechanism and focus in the traditional way, by turning the front of the lens.

The focusing wheel. It only works properly with 50mm lenses. In practice I found it easier to focus by turning the lens. The little tab unlocks the infinity focus lock, which was a thing in the 1930s. The old collapsible Leica lenses had infinity locks. I'm not keen. I suppose the theory was that you could lock the lens at f/8 and infinity and forget about focusing, in which case a thirty-feet-lock would have given the photographer more depth of field. You're supposed to change lenses at infinity so perhaps there was a good reason for it after all.

Sadly for the world in general and Zeiss in particular the Second World War broke out during what should have been the heyday of the Contax. The Zeiss factory was based in Dresden, which ended up in the Soviet zone of occupation. Immediately post-war the Soviets restarted production of the Contax using the original factory tooling and even spare bodies that had been stockpiled during the war. Contax production also restarted in the West a few years later, with the reformed West German Zeiss launching the updated Contax IIa and IIIa, so for a few years there were both East and West German Contaxes on the market.

West German Zeiss pulled the plug on the Contax rangefinder in the early 1960s. The Contax name re-emerged in the 1970s with the Contax RTS, a range of essentially rebadged Yashica SLRs with terrific Zeiss lenses. In the 1990s Yashica launched the Contax G, an autofocus rangefinder system that in retrospect was a few years ahead of its time; the Contax name is currently dormant.

The Nikon S rangefinder of the 1950s and 1960s was a copy of the Contax IIa, with the same lens mount, and a few third-party manufacturers made Contax-mount lenses, but not many. On the whole Leica was more popular. Leica remains in business and still sells a 35mm film rangefinder camera, making Leica technically the winner of the 1930s rangefinder wars.

So, people of the 1930s, it was Leica. Leica won. Are you listening? Hello?

You can't talk to the past. What's the Kiev like? Annoying and slightly disappointing. Only slightly because my expectations were low. I'm not a camera collector. If a camera doesn't bring something to the table I sell it on. Each of the cameras I have kept does something well. My Mamiya twin-lens-reflex has lovely bokeh and makes me feel like a god because medium format film does that; my YashicaMat is easier to carry than my Mamiya; my Olympus OM-2n has a terrific viewfinder and never gets the exposure wrong; my Fuji S5 captures clouds without blowing them out, etc. The Yashica Electro I owned ages ago is conceptually similar to the Kiev but the viewfinder was a lot nicer and of course it had automatic exposure. The big problem with the Kiev for me in 2018 is this:

It's an Olympus XA. Half a century newer than the Kiev, so comparisons aren't fair, but neither is life. The XA has a smart little 35mm f/2.8 lens with aperture-priority autoexposure in a tiny body that fits into a pocket. It also has a surprisingly large viewfinder, and although the rangefinder base is minuscule I've never missed focus yet. Switching aperture is simple with the XA, awkward with the Kiev because you have to hold the lens still and find the aperture ring. The XA has less control than the Kiev but I'm willing to sacrifice a degree of control for immediacy and speed. Lens-wise the Jupiter-12 has more distortion and the corners never seem to sharpen up, but I'm wary of comparisons given that the Kiev and lens are very old and have never been serviced.

In comparison the Kiev is the size and weight of a small SLR, surprisingly noisy (not SLR noisy, but not XA quiet either), and of course manual everything. It's not dreadfully inconvenient to pop out a lightmeter now and again but it just adds one more thing to the list of things that get between the intention and the act of taking a picture. Of course in the 1930s the Contax probably wowed people, although from what I have read it was controversial even when it was new. It works better as a history lesson and mantlepiece ornament than an image-making tool.

The Jupiter 9 has several aperture blades. Fifteen aperture blades. The lens was also released for SLR mounts and is commonly available in a black-painted M42 version.

The Jupiter 9 is a big chunk of metal and glass. The Kiev is chrome-plated whereas the Jupiter lens is more nickel-y, which is why it has a slightly warmer colour.

Ergonomically the Kiev is a mixed bag. The single-knob shutter speed/wind-on/shutter-cock control is pretty good, and although it takes ages to rewind the film at least the rewind knob isn't painful. The in-body focusing wheel has a lock at the infinity mark, which kept catching me out - you have to push down the little tab to unlock it - and the rangefinder window is positioned precisely where your fingers hold the camera, so you have to adopt the famous "Contax hold" in order to clear the window. The viewfinder is fairly dim, but perhaps it was lovely when it was new.

The extra width of the rangefinder might be useful if you take a lot of close-up photographs at f/1.5 but is otherwise of questionable worth. It's notable that both Nikon and Contax moved the rangefinder window inboard an inch post-war and no-one complained.

The other issue isn't really the Kiev's fault. My two bodies were built in the 1960s and 1970s and presumably haven't been serviced since then; the 4's slow shutter speeds don't work very well, but servicing them in Britain in 2018 is basically impossible and even if it wasn't it would be uneconomical. The rangefinder in both cases seems to be accurate although the dim viewfinder makes focusing difficult in low light.

The most widely available Kievs nowadays are the 4 (lightmeter), the 4A (no lightmeter, better-looking because of it) and the 4M/4AM, a modernised version from the 1980s with some plastic components that's apparently not as well-made as the earlier models. The takeup spool in my two Kievs has a non-standard film slot, so I have to chop off part of the film leader to get the film to take, although beyond that I've had no issues with film transport. The frame spacing is inconsistent but not wildly off, not enough to confuse my scanner anyway. The entire back of the camera comes off to load film.

Ultimately I didn't warm to the Kiev. I didn't expect to. I first became aware of Russian rangefinder cameras twenty years ago; it took me twenty years to build up the enthusiasm to own one. It's not so much the Kiev's foibles that put me off. I got used to keeping my finger away from rangefinder window, and infinity lock isn't an issue with non-50mm lenses. It's because the concept of an SLR-sized manual-everything rangefinder doesn't appeal to me. It doesn't have a niche. It's too big to put in a jacket pocket without ruining the jacket's lines, it's not especially cheap on the used market, the need for a separate viewfinder is awkward, and the wide rangefinder base slows things down if you want to go from close to far focusing quickly.

The advantage of the Kiev's interchangeable lens mount is nullified by the general lack of available lenses on the used market. The Contax ceased to be a thing seventy years ago, and even then it wasn't the biggest thing, so Contax/Kiev/Nikon-mount lenses are hard to come by today. The more extreme lenses are still very expensive because they're prized by fans of the Nikon S. Unlike the Canon 7 with its 50mm f/0.95, the Contax/Kiev didn't have a killer lens that isn't unavailable in another lens mount. The lenses can be mounted on modern mirrorless cameras although the same is true of contemporary M39 Leica lenses, which are more widespread; Soviet-era Kiev lenses were generally made for M39 as well, so that they could fit the Fed and Zorki.

In summary the Contax/Kiev is an interesting historical relic made obsolete by subsequent developments. It's more gimmicky than the pre-war Leica and thus easier to write about, and the chunky, rectangular body is less sissy than the Leica, but on a rational level - I am a rational man - it is perhaps inevitably out of step with the times.