Classic Cameras; Exakta Varex IIa; An Adequately Complicated Classic Page 2

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You'll also have the pleasure of using a descendant of the oldest commercially successful 35mm SLR in the world: the Exakta is to SLRs what the Leica is to rangefinder cameras, which was first introduced in 1936. The original 35mm or Kine Exakta was in turn derived from the VP Exakta, so called because it used 127 or VP (Vest Pocket) film; that was introduced in '35. The 35mm Russian Sport SLR claims to be earlier but it is disputable, to say the very least, whether it entered series production before the 35mm Exakta.

The film knife, halfway through a film. You may just about be able to see the rubber roller in the top of the feed chamber that drives the wind-on/rewind indicator.

The Exakta II ('49) offered interchangeable finders with the option of a penta-prism and was followed by the Varex in '50. The Varex VX ('51) introduced a hinged (instead of removable) back, and the option of working cassette-to-cassette. The VXIIa (illustrated) appeared in '57 with three PC-type flash sockets (Bulb, FP Bulb, X), and was further updated in '61. Then came the IIb in '63; the VX1000 in '67 (with an instant-return mirror, at last); and finally the last trapezoidal classic Exakta, the VX500, in '69. The Exakta name was subsequently hijacked for Praktica-derived cameras.

As a general rule, the earlier the camera, the better it is made and finished both internally and externally. Over the years, for example, hobbed gears gave way to stamped, and quality control declined: after '45 the part of Germany in which the camera was made became the German Democratic Republic, and quality control was never a strong point with communism. The IIa or possibly the IIb are the last really confidence-inspiring Exaktas.

I've already covered a lot of the camera's features, but there are plenty more. The lens mount is a tiny three-claw bayonet with external locking: the throat is just 38mm in diameter, with even this modest bore encroached upon by the bayonet lugs. The diaphragm linkage is external, too: the front-mounted release is operated via the lens, in a way that is easier to illustrate than to describe. There's a wonderfully simple shutter release lock, a hinged door that covers the release so you can't press it.

Also on the front plate, between "Jhagee" and "Dresden," is the vertically sliding catch to allow prism interchange. Early Exaktas had fixed waist-level finders, though an ingenious add-on eye-level prism was later made available sitting on top of the focusing hood. Most hoods also had a "sports finder" with a small aperture at the back of the hood and a big one at the front; the latter was normally closed, and had to be pushed open by a fingertip. The metered prism shown on my camera is unusual: most had a smaller, non-metered prism. The addition of the viewfinder (50mm only) is an interesting idea.

On the top plate, there are the obvious controls--wind-on and shutter-speed dials--but there is also a film reminder (DIN 6-23, ASA 25-400, plus C and NC, presumably slide and negative, in both red and black, probably for daylight and tungsten); a rewind clutch (behind the wind-on lever--push it down to allow rewinding); a geared manual resetting knob for the additive film counter, with a helpful arrow engraved to tell you which way to turn it; and a wind-on indicator. The last is a tiny window beside the film reminder, over a rotating wheel driven by a rubber roller that bears upon the take-up spool. When the film is wound on or rewound you can see little stripes moving under the window.

The right-hand shutter-speed dial also serves as a self-timer. If you set the red numbers instead of the black ones, you will get a 12-second delay plus either the marked speed on the right-hand dial (if the left-hand dial is set to B or T) or the speed set on the left-hand dial. The marked red speeds are 1/5 sec, and 1, 2, 4, and 6 seconds with 3 and 5 seconds represented by dots.

On the base of the camera there is a rewind knob on the right, next to it, the film cutting knife. Unscrew the small knurled knob, pull down, and a small, lethally sharp blade slices through the film just outside the feed cassette. You can then wind off the exposed film into the second cassette, or if you are using a bare take-up spool, you can remove the film in the darkroom. The screw-lock serves as a safety feature to make sure that the knife isn't actuated accidentally.

At the other end of the base is the back lock, which you pull down (hard!) to unlock the back door. Twist the knob and the back is locked open. There's a dimpled pressure-plate and the shutter is revealed as a horizontal run cloth design.

As for the lens, there have been full-manual, semiauto, and full-auto options, and the 58mm f/2 Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar on my camera is semiauto, as noted earlier. A very wide range of lenses was made for Exaktas, including many by independent manufacturers: focal lengths as short as 20mm were offered (the f/4 Flektogon, '66) and with longer lenses, the sky was the limit. The best were pretty good, though rarely excellent, and the worst were truly awful. The Biotar is one of the better ones; the 58mm f/1.9 Meyer Primoplan, the other common high-speed option, was pretty dire. The 58mm focal length was essential in order to clear the flipping mirror with fast lenses: flange-to-film register is approximately 45mm.

Value? Very hard to say, and depends on the lens(es) and where you're buying. In July 2005 I paid 3990 Czech Crowns for mine at Foto Skoda in Prague, about $165, with a 10-day (!) guarantee. You could easily pay twice that, even from a private buyer, especially if the camera had a full service: my usual repairer in England quoted GBP 60 for a service, about $110. These cameras are significantly more common in Europe than in the US, where they were much less widely imported.

Results? Well, obviously, a lot depends on the lenses, and few if any lenses widely available for the Exakta were of the quality of Leitz or Zeiss Oberkochen. What is more, increasing numbers of Japanese manufacturers made ever-better lenses, so while the Zeiss Jena lenses were pretty good for the '50s, by the '60s and '70s they were for the most part falling behind their Japanese rivals. As far as I recall, the best widely-available lenses made for Exaktas came from Topcon. These really were world-class in their day, but I have never owned one.

The camera body, on the other hand, is of the utmost quality (especially the older models) and if the shutter has been cleaned and adjusted it should turn in perfectly respectable results to this day. On mine, the slowest speeds are fast--12 seconds comes in at more like 7 seconds, 6 seconds at 3--while the fastest speeds are slightly slow: about 1/2 stop out at 1/1000, falling soon to 1/3 stop. I would expect a competent CLA to remedy this.

In any case, the camera is so magnificently idiosyncratic that you would really have to love it in order to want to use it in the 21st century. For me, it's one of those cameras I use occasionally, mostly when I want to be reminded how much easier things are nowadays--even with all the multifunctional buttons on my D70!

For further information on the art and craft of photography from Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz, go to www.rogerandfrances.com.

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