Classic Cameras
Kowa Rollfilm SLRs

"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 course.

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.

Body Parts
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.

Leaf Shutter
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.

Jamesleon's picture

Kowa Rollfilm SLRs are famous because of its top quality service to its customers.