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
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
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
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
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.