The Kiev Kronicles -- Part 3
The Ups And The Downs

Here is my Kiev arsenal--Kiev Polaroid back; Kiev 6x6 automatic back; Hartblei 1006 Studio Master with 80mm Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar; Jupiter 250mm f/3.5; Pentacon 6 and Kiev 60 bodies; 120 f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar; 180 f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar; 45mm f/3.5 Mir; 30mm f/3.5 Arsat Fisheye; 45mm f/3.5 PCS shift lens; 50mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Jena Flektagon.
Photos © 1999, Jay Abend, All Rights Reserved

This month we close the book on our three part Kiev camera series. If you read Parts 1 and 2, you know that Kiev cameras are made in the Arsenal Factory in Ukraine in the former Soviet Union. Rough-edged cameras reminiscent of old Hasselblad and Pentacon cameras, they nevertheless offer the least expensive means of getting involved in medium format photography.
You may think that it's a bit silly for a professional photographer like Yours Truly to even bother with notoriously cranky equipment like Kiev 88s and 60s, but as we learned in the earlier installments of this piece, there are some very interesting bodies and lenses being cranked out for incredibly reasonable prices.

After receiving boxes full of Kiev gear from all over the world, I went out and bought a bunch of clean Carl Zeiss Jena lenses intended for the Pentacon 6, as well as a handful of Ukrainian lenses that I found used at a variety of photo shops. Now that I had the world's finest collection of questionable photo gear in the world, it was time to see what these cameras could do. The first step was to give everything a thorough hands-on test. Just to see if everything was working I pulled an ancient brick of Kodak Plus-X from the freezer and sacrificed it for the good of science. I loaded a roll in each camera and fired off frame after frame on "B" with no lens mounted, then marked each frame with a Sharpie marker while the mirror was up and the shutter open. Once done I pulled the film and had an accurate blueprint of each camera's frame spacing. The Kiev 88's came through with flying colors, offering perfect frame spacing. The Kiev 60's were hit and miss. One camera was fine, while the other had the frames dangerously close but not overlapping. Both Exakta 66 and Pentacon 6 bodies showed no frame spacing problems at all. To try out a little bit of trickery that had been passed on to me by a Kiev fan, I placed a small 1x2" piece of black gaffer tape on the paper leader of the next roll of film and ran it through the Kiev 60 with the frame spacing problems--voila, nice big real estate between frames. Problem solved. This works because Kiev 60s are built on the assumption that Russian Smena film will be used, and this film has a thicker film base and backing paper than other 120 films. The gaffer's tape creates the necessary extra thickness.

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. A must-have.

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 lens.

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 lenses.

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 decent pictures.

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. Good luck.

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Russian Camera Exchange
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