"You don't actually
use that thing, do you?" This was a question one reader asked
me when he saw a picture of my Kowa/SIX in one of my books or magazine
articles (I forget which, now). And the answer is that yes, I do, and
increasingly often at that.
The original Kowa/SIX (it's written like that on the front of
the camera) was introduced in 1968 and was the first Japanese leaf-shutter
rollfilm reflex. A potted history of its successors appears in the sidebar.
The Super 66, introduced just six years later, was the last camera that
Kowa ever made; they are still renowned for their spotting scopes, of
My wife Frances Schultz and I inherited the SIX from her father, Artie,
who died in 1995. At first we thought it didn't work: we didn't
know that it had to have a film in it in order to work properly. But
one day--I forget why--we tried loading it with a scrap film,
and it worked perfectly.
A Functional Find
It is not a handsome camera: "functional" would be the kindest
verdict. But the more you use it, the cleverer it looks. It can accept
both 120 and 220 via a repositionable pressure plate and switchable
counter (12/24 exposure). The waist-level finder slides out forward,
and is interchangeable with prismfinders, including one with a through-lens
meter. The focusing screen lifts out, though not outstandingly willingly;
the release button for both hood and screen is on the left, beside the
focusing hood, as you hold the camera.
The right-hand wind-on is a combined knob/crank design (the crank folds
into the knob) and a full turn advances the film, lowers the mirror
(which is not instant return), and cocks the shutter. It also opens
the diaphragm to the preset aperture. If there is no film in the camera,
the initial 3/4 turn lowers the mirror, cocks the shutter, and opens
the diaphragm, but it then continues to spin freely for as long as you
rotate it. This is why we thought it didn't work. The shutter
release (which is lockable with a rotating collar, and needs to be,
because it is awfully easy to fire accidentally) sits naturally under
your middle finger whether you hold the crank 'twixt finger and
thumb or in the web between first and middle finger.
The focal plane is marked with a line and circle on the side of the
camera. There are two sets of strap lugs, according to whether you want
to carry the camera lens-forward (ready for action) or lens-down (more
compact and better protected). They are of the "post" type
for a camera-specific strap, though I suspect they are interchangeable
with some other medium format cameras. The tripod socket in the base
of the camera, next to the key for opening the back, is the internationally
agreed standard of 3/8", not the 1/4"/0 BA that the British
and Americans insist on using. I keep a 3/8 to 1/4 adapter in mine.
The back is L-shaped, which allows a smoother film path than average:
the film goes through one 90Þ angle before the film plane, instead
of two acute angles as is normal with most designs. The back is removable,
though there seems no great advantage in this (then again, the back
door of an M-series Leica is removable, too). There is a long accessory
shoe on the left with a threaded socket in it. The shutter release is
threaded for a standard tapered PC cable release. The only other control
on the body is a lever on the left side of the camera which I think
is probably a lens mount lock, though it seems to have no function on
my camera (the lens mount operates whether you push it or not). The
body on its own is a weighty piece of kit at 1700 gm (60 oz or 3 lbs,
12 oz); the standard lens adds another 500 gm (17 oz). Later bodies
were progressively heavier: the Super 66, last of the line, weighed
1900 gm (67 oz, over 4 lbs) complete with film magazine.
Focus And Lens
The lens mount is a breech lock, theoretically (and in many practical
ways) the finest approach to interchangeable lenses. The lens can only
be mounted or removed when the shutter is cocked. The standard lens
is an 85mm (not 80mm) f/2.8 consisting of five glasses in four groups.
It is not an outstanding performer but with a 6x6cm negative it doesn't
really need to be. Working forward from the body you have the breech-lock
ring; the focusing ring, down to a remarkably close 0.8m/29",
with a combined feet-meter scale; depth of field scale, with only 2.8,
8, 16, and 22 marked (f/2.8 on the infinity side appears to be the IR
index, as it is red instead of black); an equally spaced aperture ring,
with half-stop clicks from f/2.8 to f/22, operated by a handy pair of
lugs on opposite sides of the ring; and a shutter speed dial.
The leaf shutter offers speeds from 1 sec to 1/500 sec, plus (unexpectedly)
T but not B. The T setting holds the shutter open until the camera is
wound on or the shutter speed is reset to T. The latter carries less
risk of jarring. Also on the lens are a stop-down lever (on the right
as you hold it); a standard PC flash synchronization nipple; and (on
the bottom) a lever offering V (delayed action) X sync and M (bulb)
sync. If you set V and press the release, the mirror goes up immediately
and the shutter fires about 10 seconds later. At least, it's around
10-12 seconds on mine. It may have been a little less when the camera
was new, 30 and more years ago.
The other lenses are a 19mm (!) f/4.5 fisheye, which weighs a truly
impressive 2.18 kg (77 oz), plus seven rectilinear-drawing lenses: 35mm
f/4.5, 40mm f/4, 55mm f/3.5, 150mm f/3.5, 200mm f/4.5, 250mm f/5.6,
and 500mm f/8. An "Automatic Optical Image Magnifier" (tele-converter)
was available to give 300mm f/7, 400mm f/9, 500mm f/11, and 1000mm f/16
with the longer lenses. Other accessories included a macro lens, extension
tubes, close-up lenses ("diopters" in popular parlance),
a lens cradle for supporting long lenses, and more.
Use And Results
All in all, it is one of the best thought through 6x6cm SLR systems
of its era, and still remains quite impressive to this day, a quarter
of a century or more after it was discontinued; so what is it like to
use, and what are the results like?
I'll answer that in reverse order. The standard lens is very good,
but it isn't an 80mm f/2.8 Zeiss Planar. Then again, a lot depends
on what you are looking for. It knocks spots off anything 35mm can deliver,
simply because an 8x10" print is a 4.5x enlargement instead of
8.5x and an 11x14" print is 6.4x instead of 11.6x.
Just about any photographer, using almost any film and almost any developer,
should be able to get a good print from a 4.5x enlargement. By 6.4x
(11x14"), it's a good idea to use a moderately fine-grained
film-developer combination, but there's no need to go mad about
it: Ilford HP5 Plus in Ilford Perceptol should be perfectly adequate.
But the 8.5x and 11.6x that are needed from 35mm for the same degrees
of enlargement are unlikely to deliver tonality that is anything near
as good. Overexpose a little for improved tonality, and 6x6cm takes
an even bigger lead.
In other words, 6x6cm allows a much wider margin for error, personal
idiosyncrasy, or even downright incompetence, than 35mm. It is easy
to forget that this is one of the prime reasons for the continued existence
of roll film. Where 35mm can easily fall below an acceptable standard,
roll film is likely to fall above it. The Kowa may therefore be a slight
disappointment if you are already used to working to the very highest
standards with 35mm and want to make really big enlargements, but in
anything like normal use, it is very good.
Now, usability. An awful lot depends on what you expect. If you are
used to auto everything, forget it. This is auto virtually nothing.
All right, it's auto-stop-down; shutter cocking and film wind
are interlinked; there's built-in double exposure prevention;
and you don't have to put the lens cap on when you're winding
on. That's about it. Focus is completely manual and unless you
have the TTL metering prism, there's no metering at all.
If you are used to manual cameras, on the other hand, it has considerable
charm. Everything is where it should be, and apart perhaps from the
lock for the viewfinder and focusing screen, you can work out all the
controls for yourself. Wind-on could be smoother, but it's not
rough, just distinct: you know when you have cocked the shutter and
winched the mirror down. Loading is pretty average for a 120 camera,
with Box Brownie-style pullout spindles to retain the film and take-up
spool: certainly not difficult.
Perhaps the highest tribute I can pay it is this. Maybe 20 years ago,
I sold my Hasselblad because I didn't like the square format.
The Kowa tempts me back toward buying a Hasselblad again. If the Kowa
dies, I may well replace it with a Hasselblad.
SIX, MM, Super 66...
The original SIX appeared in 1968. An improved version appeared in 1970
with an easier-to-fold focusing hood and "adjustable" eyesight
magnifier: I suspect they meant "interchangeable" (it's
a translation from the Japanese, which I don't read). I think
this is the model I have, though without an original SIX for comparison
it's hard to tell. The SIX MM of 1972 had a pre-release (mirror
up) and multiple exposure capability: MM referred to Mirror up and Multiple
exposure. There seems to have been a SIX II (or possibly 66) with an
interchangeable back, but the definitive Super 66 appeared only two
years after the MM, in 1974: rapid evolution indeed. The Super 66 offered
an optional 645 format back (16/32) as well as a Polaroid back.