Just in from Kaplan in L.A. and Kiev USA, film backs for
Kiev 88s that actually wind to frame one without peeking
in the little window, and seem to space the frames just
fine. In the Bronica SQ style the film insert comes out
for easy loading from the rear of the back, not the side.
Running outdated film through
the cameras revealed the build quality of the respective outfits. The
stock Kiev 88s were really difficult to handle. It's not bad enough
that they make that famous walnut crunching sound as the film is advanced,
but the round film wind knob is nearly impossible to turn unless your
hands are warm, dry, and strong. These cameras may be inexpensive, but
they're a handful to shoot with. On the other side of the coin,
the Kiev 60 operates quite smoothly. Film advance is simple via the plastic
tipped film wind-lever. Its 220° advance throw is a lot, but not unmanageable.
The same can be said for Exakta and Pentacon cameras, but the heavy-duty
rubber finish on the Exakta makes it really easy to hold, and it looks
quite excellent as well.
With their eye-level finders, easy film winding and Pentacon 6 compatible
lens mount, you would think that the Kiev 60 would be the best choice
for the entry-level medium format shooter as well as the advanced amateur
or pro. I found the Kiev 60 a pleasure to use, but the lack of interchangeable
backs--especially Polaroid backs--makes it less than perfect. If a bargain
camera that offers real pro features is your goal, then there are only
a couple of sources. Saul Kaminsky at Kiev USA in Connecticut and Hartblei
in the Ukraine offer hot-rodded Kiev 88s that fit the bill quite nicely.
Both cameras offer the desirable Pentacon 6 lens mount instead of the
Kiev 88 mount, as well as smooth operating cloth shutter curtains, mirror
lockup options, and beefed up film winding gears. Kaminsky's 88CB
had the silkiest, smoothest film wind of the bunch, and frankly was the
only camera we tested that never jammed, hung up, or seemed sticky.
The Hartblei cameras remain an interesting story. We initially contacted
Kalimex in Prague, Czechoslova-kia, at the time the only source for Hartblei
cameras. They provided us a gorgeous array of snakeskin covered Hartblei
cameras and a couple of sweet Hartblei PCS shift lenses. All was not well
for long, as the 45 f/3.5 PCS lens arrived with a defective diaphragm,
and the Hartblei 1006 Master camera exhibited any number of faults during
my several weeks of testing. Since I had fallen in love with the excellent
Arsat 30mm fisheye lens, I chose to use the Hartblei camera from Kalimex
on a commercial assignment, the cover of a mail-order catalog. While the
lens performed flawlessly, the camera got weirder and weirder. First the
image in the viewfinder was sharp but Polaroids looked totally out of
focus. After a dozen Polaroids I gave the camera a good thump with the
palm of my hand. (Referred to in my studio as a "Kiev Korrection.")
Problem solved. Apparently the mirror was not seating itself properly
after each shot. Probably some small piece of junk had vibrated out of
the camera and gotten in the way. Hardly confidence inspiring.
Kalimex admitted that the camera I had was an early prototype of their
top of the line model, and that production versions had eliminated the
problems I was experiencing. If I had laid out $600 or $800 via a wire
transfer to Prague I would have to send this camera back and wait for
a replacement. Since these were only review cameras they sent out a replacement
several weeks later. The camera they sent me unfortunately had the Kiev
88 mount rather than the Pentacon mount, so I couldn't test my lenses
on the camera. However, it functioned perfectly and accepted my Hasselblad
backs with no problem. For whatever reason Hartblei chose to finish this
camera in smooth shiny black leather. Camera manufacturers use the pebble
texture leather to hide the minor bumps and lumps present on the metal
shell of a camera body. By using thin smooth leather this Hartblei reveals
every imperfection under the surface. This makes this otherwise excellent
camera look even worse than a stock Kiev 88. (Kalimex says they have since
changed over to standard pebble texture leather.) Since you can easily
order the camera with the stock vinyl covering, this shouldn't be
a problem, and this camera really seems to have all the bugs worked out
of it. Kalimex claims that by the time this article hits the newsstands
the fully debugged Hartbleis will be in stock, but I would contact them
directly and ask what's up.
The Hartblei 45 PCS lens Kalimex supplied got me terribly excited. It's
a 45mm lens with a full 10mm of shift in any direction. While I don't
shoot that much architectural work, I do shoot very wide in cramped spaces
like offices and computer rooms. With the shift lens I can level the camera
to prevent wide angle distortion, then shift the lens up and down to center
the frame. It's tack-sharp, finished beautifully, and perhaps the
greatest lens bargain in the free world with a price under $800.
While I was waiting for the new Hartblei to arrive from Prague, I heard
that Hartblei cameras were now available from a U.S.A. source, our pal
Gennady Kaplan in Los Angeles. Not only were they available, but he had
the whole kit for a steal--$595 for the 1006 Studio Master camera body,
two backs, the 80mm normal lens, and the PV-45 prism with the slick hot
shoe and battery check LED. Of course I ordered mine immediately. A few
days later I was pretty disappointed to see the same old dirty blue and
gold Kiev 88 box, this one with a little "Hartblei 1006SM"
sticker on it. Inside was the standard Kiev 88 kit, but with a Hartblei
body, lens, and prism. While this camera didn't have the funky snakeskin
or elegant black finish, it looked pretty good. Oddly enough, this camera
accepted standard Kiev 88 film backs, not Hassy backs as with the other
Hartblei. If you don't have a Hasselblad it's not a big deal,
but it was a problem for me. Anyway, the camera once loaded up with film
seemed like a fairly well debugged camera. While not as slick winding
as the Kiev 88CB from Kiev USA, it wound film reliably, and the shutter
release and nicely machined film wind crank worked perfectly. For whatever
reason, this Hartblei has a re-machined lens mount flange, and Pentacon
mount lenses bolted on very smoothly, something that can't be said
for many of the other Pentacon mount Kiev 88 bodied cameras.
OK, enough about the bodies, what about the pictures? I had the opportunity
to fire off lots of film with every lens, and I can give you the following
brief capsulation of each piece I shot with:
A 30mm f/3.5 Fisheye--Wow! This is a well made lens that has produced
really outstanding results. This is clearly the best Ukrainian lens out
there, and it makes it worthwhile to buy a Kiev camera just to use this
A 45mm f/3.5 Mir--This is the poorest lens in the Kiev catalog. Cosmetically
it's a mess, with no multi-coating, fuzzy lettering, and black parts
that look orange. Sure it's inexpensive, but wide open it's
just plain soft, improving to tolerable at f/8. If you must use a wide
angle and can't find a Zeiss lens, you can probably get some OK
results with this lens.
A 50mm f/4 Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon--This is a truly outstanding lens,
especially the later multi-coated versions. I tested a late model all
black multi-coated lens and was blown away--super sharp, excellent resistance
to flare, and even quite good wide open. A bargain at any price under
$500. (Find the newest one you can, even if you have to pay more.)
A 65mm f/3.5 Mir--A weird focal length that I've grown to love.
This is a hard lens to find, but it's actually one of the better
Kiev lenses. My example was purchased used for $100 and is not multi-coated.
Nevertheless it's excellent, sharp, and contrasty and focuses very
smoothly. If you can find one grab it.
An 80mm f/2.8 Arsat--This is the normal lens in every Kiev kit, and it's
a mixed bag. Results at infinity are actually OK, about on par with an
ancient Hasselblad lens. Up close it falls apart, since light can leak
in through the stop-down lever's cutout. This is a chronically poor
design, and I've covered mine with black electrical tape.
An 80mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar--The normal lens on Pentacon 6
cameras. I have three different versions of this lens, and they're
all pretty good. The old-fashioned all silver lenses tend to flare out
a bit on really high-key scenes. The silver and black lenses are single
coated but do a decent job, and the later black lenses have excellent
multi-coating. A Kiev body with a black Zeiss Biometar makes a nice beginner's
outfit. Highly recommended.
A 120 f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar--This is a delicious little lens.
A nice length for portraits or tabletop product shots, the later all black
versions of this lens feature great multi-coating and silky smooth focussing.
My late 1980s example is very, very sharp and handles beautifully.
A 150 f/2.8 Kaleanar--This lens has been tough to find, but Kaplan in
L.A. now has them in a single coated version and Kaminsky at Kiev USA
has the multi-coated glass. It's a big, heavy lens with average
finish quality, but terrific pictures. I've used mine for a bunch
of handheld corporate headshots with the Exakta 66, and the resulting
images are just perfect. With care to keep direct light off of the face
of this lens you can produce superior results.
A 180mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar--A monster of a lens with its own
tripod mount. I found a late model lens in perfect condition at Columbus
Camera, and have used it on about a dozen commercial assignments bolted
to an Exakta 66. To have a long lens like this that is so fast is a tremendous
luxury, and for environmental portraits it's a tough optic to beat.
My results have been great, easily on par with my pricier German and Swiss
A 250 f/5.6 Telear--A small relatively affordable tele with modest performance.
A 250 f/3.5 Jupiter--Large heavy lens with built-in shade. Remarkably
fast for a long tele, but construction quality is only fair. Nevertheless,
results on film are outstanding. Avoid heavy backlighting and this lens
will perform decently.
In addition to these commonly available lenses there are also the fine
Schneider optics for the Exakta 66 cameras, as well as many oddball older
Carl Zeiss Jena lenses, modified Hartblei lenses, and various P-6 mount
lenses from various eras. Remember that the Pentacon lenses will only
fit the Kiev 60 and Kiev 88s that have been specially modified, since
the stock Kiev 88 mount is not compatible. In general, you'll find
optical and mechanical quality roughly on par with most early to mid-70s
SLR cameras--crude by today's standards but still capable of taking
I was able to really give these lenses the acid test on assignment recently.
I was hired to shoot some architectural interiors and people shots in
Florida, so I packed up my complete lighting kit. In addition to my standard
medium format gear I packed my Pentacon mount lenses, an Exakta 66 body,
and a Hartblei 1006 Studio Master as backup. As luck would have it, my
main camera developed a winding problem and there was no way to rent anything
in time for the shoot. Against my better judgment I was forced to use
the Exakta and Hartblei for nearly 30 rolls of Fuji Provia over three
days of shooting. The Hartblei backs were the only hitch. Since the Kaplan
sourced Hartblei did not accept Hassy backs I could only use the rough
Kiev backs. I noticed that the Kiev backs were winding the paper backing
unevenly, and the film was coming out of the camera with the paper all
bunched up at one end of the spool. I was sure that I was fogging all
of the film and used the Exakta where possible. To add insult to injury
I dropped one and it broke instantly rather than withstanding the impact
the way a real quality piece of metal would. Now I was down to one back.
When the 40 some odd rolls of film came back from the lab I held my breath.
I was fairly sure that a large part of the job would be ruined, but I
felt that I had shot enough film to cover the shots the client needed.
Imagine my surprise when I was greeted with 40 near perfect rolls of film.
Not just perfect mind you, but some of the best sharpness and color fidelity
of any job I've shot. It's not that the Exakta/Kiev/Hartblei/Pent-acon
gear was any better than the big name stuff, but when used carefully it
isn't all that much worse. Now that Kaplan is offering an upgrade
to the excellent Kiev automatic film backs for only $65 for the pair,
you'd be nuts not to upgrade.
My thumbnail synopsis of the three-day shoot with this gear is that the
good lenses performed well, and the camera bodies didn't let me
down. The Arsat fisheye performed spectacularly, and I got some excellent
shots with the 50, 120, and 180mm Carl Zeiss Jena lenses. Even the lowly
Kiev lenses looked great. I shot a few with the 65mm lens and the film
looked excellent. I used the 250 Jupiter for some long executive portraits
and they were tack-sharp. In general, I was quite pleasantly surprised.
As a back-up system this seems like a relatively inexpensive way to go.
To conclude our three-part series, I'm still left with as many questions
as answers. I know that a Mamiya RZ67 or a Hasselblad 202 FA is a solid
investment. I know that Pentax and Bronica lenses will produce sharp results,
and I know that Rollieflex and Fuji medium format gear is expertly engineered
and has state of the art electronics. What I don't know is whether
my Kiev camera will work correctly on the next roll of film. While there
are ways to ensure that a Kiev will function as well as it can, namely
the services of Kiev USA and their staff of Kiev experts, you really do
get what you pay for. I can enthusiastically recommend the lenses, with
few exceptions they're very good and inexpensive. The bodies are
another matter. For sheer reliability and a somewhat modern appearance
there is only the Exakta 66 Mod III. For inexpensive thrills and a relatively
robust body there's the tank-like Kiev 60. For ultimate versatility
and questionable reliability there is the Kiev 88 family, and for your
most usable feature set there are the Hartblei and Kiev USA modified cameras.
If I were starting out in photography I would still stick with a used
Hasselblad, Bronica ETRsi, or Mamiya RB67, or break the bank and go for
the slick Exakta 66. For occasional weekend use and for the photo hobbyist,
this is a very inexpensive way to build a little medium format system.
I think that I have conclusively proved that these can deliver the goods.
Some of the lenses are flat out great, while others are so-so. The bodies
are all usable, but most seem to need some sort of adjustment or repair
right out of the box. All of the re-sellers will offer some sort of warranty,
so if you're really dedicated you can get one of these that actually
works. Whether you can make them perform for you is another question.
Cambridge Camera Exchange,
119 W 17th St.
New York, NY 10011
fax: (212) 463-0093
17000 Prague 7
fax for US: 1-305-6750186
Kiev Camera (Mikhail Fourman)
2907 Aspen Woods Entry
Atlanta, GA 30360
248 Mill St.
Greenwich, CT 06830
fax: (203) 531-6229
Russian Camera Exchange
1408 Josephine St.
Berkeley, CA 94703
Russian Plaza (Gennady Kaplan)
7910 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
fax: (323) 650-8232