Classic Cameras
Pentacon sixTL; A Classic 6x6 Page 2

To my surprise, even before repair, the frame separation was very good except between two of the negatives, where the edges were maybe only 2mm apart. A corollary to the unreliable film transport is unreliable frame spacing, apparently even to the point of overlap, but as this is widely held to be a result of poor loading technique I loaded and tensioned the film very carefully, and even with a defective film counter, spacing was not at all bad.

Composing images on 6x6cm for subsequent cropping to rectangular formats is always something I have found difficult: in fact, with my other 6x6 SLR, the KowaSIX, I often compose square pictures. It's a consequence, I suppose, of having started with 35mm, where you have to compose to the edges of the frame. For some reason, I found it unusually easy with the Pentacon to compose in one dimension only, to the edges vertically or horizontally, but leaving my options open in the other dimension. I also appreciated more than ever before the way in which you can simply crop out the bottom of the image to give an "instant rising front."

Then again, it's been years since I used a "giant 35" rollfilm SLR with an eye-level prism, and even then, it was a Pentax 6x7 which has to be held either in "portrait" or "landscape" to obtain a particular picture orientation. I surprised myself with my tendency to hold the Pentacon in one orientation for those pictures I planned to print "landscape" and in the other for the pictures I planned to print "portrait." With a square format there is no sense at all in this, but I found myself doing it automatically.

Something else that surprised me was the frequency with which I used the stop-down lever on the lens. This was partially to judge depth of field--the depth of field scales are hopelessly generous--but far more, it was because it gave me a good idea of the arrangement of tonal masses, light against dark. This is a superb camera for "fine art" black and white photography. As Geoffrey Crawley says, one of the great things about black and white is that you can make pictures out of nothing, or at least, out of subjects that would be completely worthless in color. I'll probably keep the Pentacon just for this reason.

The breech-lock lens mount. You can also see the sync socket and one of the unusually placed post-type strap lugs on the mirror box; these require a strap designed for the camera. This was before I stuck down the peeling leather on the bottom.

You can afford to compose very tightly, though, because while the image is about 56mm square, the focusing screen is only about 48mm square, which is rather under 75 percent of the image area. When you add the prism, it covers an area only about 45mm square, or slightly under 2/3 of the image area.

Apart from this (and the frame counter, which had to be repaired, and remembering to brake the wind-on lever) I found the camera amazingly easy to use. Like many rollfilm SLRs, the mirror isn't instant-return, so when you fire the shutter the image blacks out until you wind on again. The lens is only semiautomatic, too: it stops down automatically, but then stays stopped down until you wind on. This is hardly a problem as the mirror is up anyway. For following action, you may do better with the frame finder built into the plain focusing hood rather than going to the expense of a prism, but for me, the prism makes focusing an awful lot easier. It is surprisingly bright, too.

The shutter-speed dial on the left of the camera is marked in the international sequence from 1-1/1000 sec, plus a "lightning bolt" symbol between 30 and 15 for a rather leisurely electronic flash sync speed of 1/20 or so; the late TL has only the one sync nipple, though earlier models also accommodated bulb guns. The shutter itself is a horizontal-run fabric type.

The 45Þ release on the front of the camera is easily the most comfortable of its type that I have ever encountered; it is equipped with a concentric rotating lock which is very positive when engaged, but mercifully difficult to engage accidentally.

Loading is about as easy as 120 gets: the spindles on the bottom of the camera pull down, and lock if they are twisted. With short, "inching" movements of the lever you advance the arrow on the backing paper to the start line; close the back; wind on fully four times (you never use the "inching" movement for normal film advance) and you are on frame 1. The camera apparently accepts 220 also, without moving the pressure plate, which leads to concerns about film location; but as 220 film is now very moribund, this hardly matters. The counter locks at 12 and again at 24; a tiny lever on the right top deck of the camera unlocks it.

The only other controls on the body are a non-cancelable self-timer (no independent release--don't use it unless the camera is wound on and cocked and ready to fire, as apparently this can damage the shutter, too) plus the lens-locking ring. The lens mount is a breech-lock type where you engage the three-tab lens bayonet in a three-jaw hole and then twist the locking ring to hold it in place. The great advantage of such a mount is, of course, that the mating surfaces do not move relative to one another, so register cannot be affected by wear.

The prism locks on to four posts on the camera body: two locks on the side of the prism slide backward to unlock. A bulky, uncoupled through-lens metering prism was available, hence "TL," but working examples are ever rarer today. The waist-level finder, with magnifier and optional frame finder, has a separate locking button on the camera body. Focusing screens are fixed but can be exchanged by a repairer: Rollei screens are apparently a popular option.

On the lens, working backward from the front, you find a focusing ring; an aperture ring; and a stop-down lever. Focus is clockwise from infinity to the closest distance of 1 meter or approximately 40" and there is a combined "feet-meter" scale with the feet in red (after infinity, 100, 50, 30, 20, 15, 12, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5.5, 5, 4.5, 4, 3.5) and the meters in white (infinity, 30, 15, 10, 7, 5, 4, 3.5, 3, 2.5, 2.2, 2, 1.8, 1.6, 1.5, 1.4, 1.3, 1.2, 1.1, 1).

The total focus movement is over 300Þ, which is precise but rather slow if you are used to, for example, the 90Þ of modern Voigtländer Bessa lenses. Apertures on the Biometar are equidistant--always a sign of quality--and click-stopped at half-stop intervals from f/2.8-f/22. The stop-down lever is quite fierce and has to be pushed upward, which is not as easy as downward but it's a lot easier if you use the index finger of your left (focusing) hand rather than the middle finger of your right (camera-holding) hand.

The bottom line is that while the Pentacon sixTL is an almost unbelievably cheap entry into medium format, there's a good reason for those low prices. The cameras need to be in good order to start with, and then they need to be "babied" quite a bit to keep them reliable. If at all possible, buy from a dealer who rebuilds the cameras before sale; or is brave enough to give a guarantee; or at the very least, from someone who will let you return the camera if you are not happy with it. Or buy a Kiev. But if you can get a good one, as I did; well, it's hard not to fall in love with them.

Praktisixes, Pentacons, And Kievs
Many people will tell you that the Ukrainian-built Kiev is the same camera as the Praktisix/Pentacon. It isn't. It looks similar, and shares the same lens mount, but it is a more modern, stronger, and more reliable design. If you have a choice, the Kiev is almost always a better buy unless you can get a late Pentacon sixTL with a guarantee--and even then, the Kiev is a better long-term buy, especially if you buy from one of the specialists who advertise Kievs in Shutterbug. Saul Kaminsky (Kiev USA) offers them serviced and fettled to working order; buying a Kiev over the Internet from an unknown seller is a bigger gamble than I would take, and buying a Praktisix/Pentacon the same way is an even greater gamble.