The Kiev Kronicles--Part 1
Communism Falls, But The Ukrainian Cameras Keep On Coming

The Kiev Chronicles

The Beauty and the Beast--The gorgeous Hasselblad 202FA with stunning 60-120 zoom vs. the rude, crude Kiev 88TTL. Difference in price? A cool $6500.

This is a story I had to do. Like you, I've been seeing those little ads in the back of Shutterbug touting cameras made in the ex-Soviet Union. A whole setup with normal lens, body, two film backs, waist-level finder, and filters for an amazing $500? How could they do it so inexpensively? Could the cameras be any good? Who would fix them? Should I buy one?

Well, like the Kiev story itself, the answers are a bit confusing. Here's how it started for me. Some time ago I read Bob Shell's piece on the Kiev 88. Funky but useable, and priced like no other medium format camera. Now understand, I have a full selection of cameras in my business, so I didn't need another camera. I was intrigued with the possibilities of an inexpensive back-up camera, perfect for keeping in the trunk of the car for impromptu medium format sessions. Like some Hasselblad owners, I assumed that the Kiev lenses and backs would fit. Turns out that Kievs are very strange beasts, marching to the beat of a 50-year-old drummer.

The years rolled on and I kept checking out the prices on Kiev stuff. I saw a few at the table of a Russian fellow at a photo show in New York, but they seemed so crude that I passed. Then things changed in the photo world and in the financial world. The last few years have seen a trend toward very wide angle photography. Clients have asked for a fisheye look a lot, and I've had to respond. My widest lens is a 50mm, so I've rented the big and awesome 30mm Distagon when I needed it. (Buying one will set you back a sobering $6K.)

Here's the Kiev USA cameras up against the inexpensive Kiev body. The smooth Kiev 88CB (L) features cloth shutters, Pentacon lens mount, and the indispensable rapid wind crank.

While this was happening on the artistic side, the exchange rates got all crazy, and the price of goods from the former Soviet Union began to plummet. When I began to see Kiev bodies and lenses, especially the Ukrainian fisheye drop from around $600 to just a few hundred dollars, I figured that it was time to leap. I checked out the ads in Shutterbug and a few other sources. I chatted with owners on usenet groups, spoke to importers in California and Georgia, and e-mailed Kiev resellers all over the world. I began to educate myself about these odd cameras, and it became a little hobby of mine. I looked at the Kiev 88 and the big Kiev 60. I took the plunge and grabbed a bargain priced fisheye with an 88 body to go along with it and began to shoot some film. How good was it?

First the Kiev story. All of the cameras and lenses branded with the Kiev name are manufactured in Kiev Ukraine, at a factory called Arsenal which also makes military equipment. These aren't Rus-sian cameras at all, but in fact Ukrainian cameras. While the Kiev 88 looks a lot like an old Hasselblad, the Ukrainians claim that Hassys and Kievs were copied from a secret Zeiss prototype for military use. The monstrous Kiev 60 looks a lot like a Pentax 67 hit with an ugly stick, but it's really a beefed up Pentacon 6, and only shoots a 6x6cm frame, not 6x7. Some Ukrainian lenses are made using old Zeiss lens formulas. An old Zeiss lens for a Hasselblad is still a good picture taker, so the Kiev glass can be quite good. The Kiev 88s have a focal plane shutter with a 1/30 sec flash synch. The stock Kiev 88 comes with a bronze colored corrugated stainless steel focal plane shutter.

The Hartblei cameras from Kalimex in Prague are nicely reworked. The beautifully machined rapid wind crank is near Hasselblad quality, and the lens mount and film back mounting plates are also well machined.

What about Hasselblad compatibility? No dear friends, the lenses, film backs, and bodies are not compatible with Hasselblad cameras. The prisms and finders are interchangeable, and a lot of Hasselblad users have done just fine with Ukrainian prisms.

To find out if these cameras were any good at all Shutterbug contacted a number of Kiev resellers to provide test cameras and lenses. For the cheaper than cheap, totally untested, you-buy-it-you-own-it cameras we turned to Mikhail Fourman in Atlanta and Gennady Kaplan in Los Angeles. For totally rebuilt and thoroughly guaranteed Kievs we looked to none other than Saul Kaminsky of Kiev USA in Connecticut. For reasonable prices, excellent inventory, and a warranty there's Russian Camera Exchange in Berkeley, California. For customized, rebuilt, and fine-tuned Ukrainian dream machines we contacted Kiev hot-rodders Kalimex in Prague, Czechoslovakia. (Who says Shutterbug doesn't go the extra mile?)

The first Kiev product through the door was a basic Kiev 88 kit from our man in L.A., Kaplan. Once I popped open the brown shipping carton and fished through the peanuts I found the Kiev display box. Within I found a rather complete medium format kit. A Kiev 88 camera body with bronze colored corrugated metal shutter, an Arsat B 80mm lens, two 6x6 manual load 120 film backs, and a waist-level finder. To his credit, Kaplan included an English Owners Manual, but the overall quality of the packaging was pretty poor. The camera itself was just as confusing. It wasn't as bad as I had feared, but a Kiev 88 is a very rough beast. Rough is a good word. Crude is a good word. Inexpensive is a good word. Inexpensive? Yeah, the kit that I now held in my hands carried an invoice with the amazing price of $250, for an interchangeable lens, interchangeable back medium format camera with two film backs.

Here is my assortment of lenses. Imagine owning this entire arsenal of Ukrainian glass for around $1300.

My enthusiasm perked up, I loaded the little guy with some film. I was weaned on manual advance backs in the '70s, so the archaic film loading system was nothing new to me. I had been warned about uneven frame spacing and other maladies, so I followed Kaplan's Owners Manual exactly. Once loaded and mounted on the camera I took a few test shots with daylight. The shutter release felt OK, but cranking the first frame through there was the distinct sound of crushing walnuts. Uh-oh, what did I do wrong? Well, nothing...that's just the way they sound. I shot a few rolls of film with this camera and an identical 88 sent from Fourman in Atlanta. Fourman's camera was the TTL version, which features the 45° prism with the uncoupled meter. His 88 made the same walnut noises, but they both sort of worked fine, for a while.

After three rolls one of the bodies jammed. I mean jammed dead solid, with no way to budge the crank. I had heard about this from some Kiev users, so I was prepared for it. I had heard that the parts inside the Kiev 88s were mostly made from inexpensive steel, and many parts that wear against each other are not polished at all. The result is that the parts don't glide smoothly against each other, and ultimately jam. To see if I could fix it I removed the lens and back, took the body firmly in my right hand and banged it against my desk firmly. (I'm not kidding.) To my utter amazement, the camera worked fine after that. After the jamming incident, I wound the film smoothly and s-l-o w-l-y, and had no further problems.

Here's our test stable. Clockwise from top left: remarkable Arsat 30mm fisheye, bare bones Kiev 88, Kiev 60, Kiev USA 88, Kiev USA 88CB TTL, Kiev Polaroid back, Hartblei 1006 Master.

The meter in the TTL prism isn't exactly sophisticated, but it works. Two CDS cells and an uncoupled dial and that's it folks. Straight out of the box the meter was off by four f/stops. Amazingly, it appears that these cameras are inspected neither at the factory nor in the States. While Kaplan and Fourman offer limited warranties, their only recourse is to send you a new one, since they maintain no repair or adjustment facilities. Of course, calibrating the Jurassic-era meter is simple enough; just get out your 18 percent gray card and a good light meter, get a correct exposure from the handheld meter, then loosen the outer dial via the three set screws, and tighten when the numbers are lined up. Now you are the proud owner of a reasonably accurate uncoupled Ukrainian prism finder.

While the lack of any US repair facilities and the limited warranty makes buying from the discount guys a decided crapshoot, their prices make it awfully enticing. As we went to press Kaplan was offering the Kiev 88 kit for a modest $250, and the complete 88TTL kit for $335. Lenses and backs were just as reasonable. Fourman had fisheyes for a stunning $175, 45mm wide angles for under $185, and monster Jupiter 250mm f/3.5 lenses for an eye opening $200. If affordable is what you want, you can't beat these guys. Their products are untouched from the factory, so even the new lenses often have slow diaphragms, rough focusing mechanisms, and misaligned elements. Fortunately, both are decent and seemingly honest guys, and have built up a good track record of replacing defective items quickly.

The bronze metal shutter on the left is a poor choice of materials. The more expensive cloth shutter on the Kiev 88CB is smoother, more accurate, and much quieter.

OK, we've found the world's most inexpensive medium format cameras, but with their appearance, limited warranty, and total lack of service you might be wondering if it's really worth the risk. For the casual user, the bargain guys seem like a decent way to go. According to some Kiev experts I spoke with, bodies made after 1991 are far superior to the earlier bodies. The serial numbers begin with the year numbers, so look for bodies that start with '92 or later, same for backs.

A $250 system may be a good deal for a casual user, but what about for someone like me, who uses his equipment hard and always expects it to work? For us there is always Kiev USA. Kaminsky has assembled a small group of Russian camera repairmen who methodically disassemble every body, fix the funky stuff, polish the rough parts, and even replace some weak parts with custom-made pieces made from stronger stuff. Word on the street is that they also routinely disassemble and align the elements of lenses and fix the sometimes sluggish diaphragm springs. Kaminsky sent us a couple of cameras to look at, a bare bones Kiev 88 with the aforementioned metal shutter, and a high-end Kiev 88CB. The CB is an interesting camera, since it combines the inexpensive Kiev 88 body with the lens mount from the Kiev 60 and a black cloth shutter assembly. The lens mount means that you can buy a Kiev 88CB and a Kiev 60 and interchange lenses, and you can also use the Zeiss Jena lenses originally designed for the Pentacon 6 cameras. The cloth shutter not only gets rid of the flare problems, but it is much, much quieter.

Here is our Kiev 88TTL kit as it arrived from Gennady Kaplan in Los Angeles--body, two backs, TTL prism, filters, 80mm Arsat lens, and a strap. Not bad for under $350.

While the two Kiev USA cameras arrived in a fancy little Cordura bag, if you're expecting a much slicker looking camera forget about it. Kaminsky and his troops work on the guts of the camera and leave the exterior alone. The basic Kiev 88 looks just like the $250 item from Kaplan, but loading some film and shooting a few frames reveals the difference. The walnut crushing noise is gone, and the camera operates smoothly and predictably. The fancier 88CB is even nicer, with a smooth shutter release, a nice Hasselblad-style winding crank, and as smooth a film advance as you'll find anywhere. Using this camera is effortless, and the ability to use Zeiss Jena lenses makes it a real professional tool. Kaminsky does pretty good work here, but his service and his iron-clad guarantee add to the price of ownership. His base Kiev 88 is a reasonable $499, but the tempting 88CB is a more sobering $1285. While these prices seem totally out of whack with the mail-order guys, remember that these cameras are rebuilt and bullet-proofed, so you'll not only save on repair charges but on blown rolls of film.

Is there really $900 difference between a mail-order 88TTL and Kaminsky's slick handling 88CB? The answer is yes and no. To get a Kiev 88TTL with cloth shutters and Pentacon lens mount you'll need to pay the inexpensive guys about $750 and wait several months. For your $750 you'll get a camera with no rapid wind crank, no final testing, and no repair warranty. (The rapid wind crank is a near necessity.) Since Kaminsky will upgrade your mail-order camera to a 88CB for $775 and then add a couple hundred bucks for the crank, you're right back where you started from. All of Kaminsky's cameras operated flawlessly, though the meter in the TTL prism was off by 1.5 stops. Of course with their full warranty, Kiev USA will adjust the meter to your satisfaction.

The 250 f/3.5 Jupiter is a fast, affordable decent lens. Even with strong backlighting, this shot is tack-sharp, contrasty, and exhibits the gorgeous color that most of the inexpensive Ukrainian lenses are known for.
Photos © 1999, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

While the Kiev USA cameras offer reasonable build quality, a strong warranty, and a still palatable sticker price, I had still been hearing about another outfit in Europe that was making hot-rodded Kiev 88s. The firm, Kalimex, is located in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Kalimex not only offers Kiev cameras, but they also have a European camera rebuilder named Hartblei who strips and rebuilds Kievs to produce Hartblei branded cameras. Kalimex provided a small sampling of their wares for us to examine, and opening this box was quite a surprise. Inside of small Cordura camera bags we found a whole array of Kiev 88 bodies reworked with brown snakeskin print leather coverings; black, chrome, and gold hardware; and beautifully machined rapid wind cranks. Kalimex calls their version of the 88CB the Hartblei 1006 Master (though they also offer a Kiev-branded camera for hundreds of dollars less), and it shows that a decent shop can really polish up a bare bones Kiev. This camera is a really nice handling camera, and feels the most professional of the bunch. It too features a Pentacon lens mount and cloth shutters, but they have gone to great lengths to re-plate and re-machine every inch of the camera.

Perhaps best of all, the Hartblei cameras have a redesigned film mounting flange and film backs, which are totally compatible with Hasselblad cameras. This means that you can use your existing backs and Polaroids with Hartblei cameras, or pick up a few spare Hartblei backs for back-up with your Hassy system. Kaminsky also sells the Hasselblad-compatible film backs.

Kalimex also sent us a few lenses to check out. Branded as Hartblei, the 45 f/3.5 PCS and 65 f/3.5 PCS lenses were the nicest surprise of this review. Both are multi-coated and well finished and feature a modest 10mm of shift. Since I shoot a couple of dozen corporate exteriors a year, I really need a PCS lens. (By shifting the lens up instead of tilting the camera up, you can prevent that "falling down building" syndrome.) I have been using my ancient Canon 35 PC lens on an old F1, but the 65mm PCS Hartblei lens has now become my favorite.

Bob Shell and I are big fans of the Ukrainian made Kalenar 150 lens. With a fast 2.8 aperture and gorgeous color, it's a nice choice for medium length portraits like this poolside shot.

The prices quoted by Kalimex are just out of this world. While a brand-new Hasselblad Arcbody and 45mm lens might set you back around $5600, and a 75mm shift lens for a Mamiya RZ runs around $3000, the 45 PCS from Hartblei lists for $525. The 65mm lens is an astounding $450. How they can offer these nicely made lenses for this kind of dough is beyond me. The pro-quality 1006 Master comes complete with the TTL prism finder (which was spot on, by the way) for a reasonable $870. Kalimex also sent Shutterbug the top of the line $900 1006 Studio Master camera, but it hadn't arrived by deadline time. With these reasonable prices and some decent cosmetics, the whole deal seems too good to be true, but then you realize that these guys are in Czechoslovakia. While shipping costs do add to the price, the biggest problem is the risk. You've got to send these guys your money ahead of time, and it can take months to get the product from them. In fact, the gorgeous 45mm PCS lens came through with a defective diaphragm, so what to do? Send it back to Prague, wait two months and then ask Kalimex to reimburse you for your freight expenses? (They promise to do so.) Repair it here (if anyone will touch it) and hope that they'll pay for it? The Hartblei cameras are certainly the nicest looking Kievs around, and the quality of their fit and finish is very close to a modern Mamiya or Hasselblad. While they seem like a good bunch of guys, you've got to be motivated to fire off a couple of grand to Prague when the local camera store has a used Bronica SQ for $1000 on the shelf, but if you're looking for the ultimate Kiev experience, this may be it.

If your Kiev breaks, you've only got a few places to turn. Most repair shops will not service them. Rebuilt cameras like the Kiev USAs are a different story, and of course Kiev USA operates a thriving Kiev repair business. There are also a handful of expatriate Russian repairmen in the New York area who work on these cameras, and several of them advertise in Shutterbug. Since even a simple jam will cost a few hundred bucks to fix, if you plan to shoot a lot of film, you might be tempted to splurge and buy a Kiev USA model or buy into Kaminsky's upgrade package.

Most Kiev shooters bought a body to use the spectacular 30mm fisheye. True to form, the 30mm Arsat that I received from Kaplan in Los Angeles was clean as a whistle, sealed in its archaic Ukrainian foam packaging and fully multi-coated. I have used this lens on a couple of dozen assignments, and it is absolutely great. Sharp, saturated, and displaying excellent multi-coating, I can shoot this thing straight into the sun and get good results. I paid well under $300 for this lens, and consider it one of the best bargains ever. After my good experience with the fisheye, and hearing rumors of problems in the Ukrainian factory (more on that in Part 2) I set out to buy every Ukrainian lens I could get my hands on. I wound up with 30, 45, 65, 80, 120, 250, and 300mm lenses for my Kiev. The total price tag for all of those lenses (some used, some new) was $769. Since I consider one of the great luxuries in life is taking a long New England car ride in the fall with a case full of medium format cameras and lenses and a brick of Fuji Velvia, the value of the pricey reworked 88 bodies becomes clearer.

In the months that I've been working on this piece I have come to really like a few of these Ukrainian bargain lenses. The 30 of course, the excellent Hartblei shift lenses, the sweet Kaleanar 150 f/2.8, and the long Jupiter 250. I also went out and bought a bunch of Zeiss Jena lenses from Shutterbug advertiser Mid-west Photo. They set me up with some excellent bargains on Zeiss lenses originally designed for the Pentacon cameras. For under $1000 I wound up with a Zeiss 50mm Flek-togon, 80mm and 120mm Biometar, and 180 Sonnar. While these lenses are also optically excellent, they have the slick finish and smooth focusing qualities of expensive medium format lenses for a fraction of the price. It's a compelling system, my little rig, and if it weren't for the tremendous disadvantage of the 1/30 sec flash synch I would use it even more. With a $150 Polaroid back and a few extra 6x6 film backs it is a real pro system with a case full of lenses, all for the price of a basic medium format camera from a name brand company.

Be sure to join me next month when I explore the Kiev 60/Pentacon 6/Exakta 66 connection.


Havanska 131/14
17000 Prague 7
Czech Republic
fax for US: 1-305-6750186

Kiev Camera (Mikhail Fourman)
2907 Aspen Woods Entry
Atlanta, GA 30360
(770) 409-0026

Kiev USA
248 Mill St.
Greenwich, CT 06830
(203) 531-0900
fax: (203) 531-6229

Russian Camera Exchange
1408 Josephine Street
Berkeley, CA 94703
(510) 559-7707

Russian Plaza (Gennady Kaplan)
7910 Hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
(323) 650-9393
fax: (323) 650-8232