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Love Letter to my Workhorse

On my old, now lost Squarespace blog I already did a long comparison between the Kiev 60 and the Pentacon Six, both very similar cameras sharing the same lens mount and basically SLRs on steroids, maybe a little bit like the East European version of the Pentax 6x7 - when it comes to the body style, they're both 6x6 cameras. I probably won't go as much in dept this time, I just feel like sharing how and why I came to love this camera so much.

So, as a Photoshopper in the mid 2000s I scanned a lot of high end medium format film and was always drawn to it, more so than to digital. However, given my experience with these files I developed some sort of minimum quality standard. I'm no snob, but Holgas and plastic lenses just won't do it for me, I like somewhat sharp pictures and open apertures. But at that time, like I said in an earlier post, I didn't really care much for being a photographer, so never did much more than admire the pictures.
When I started getting interested again in taking analog photos, medium format was pretty much the first thing I wanted to try.  But being on a tight budget it seemed totally impossible, as I said, no interest in plastic lenses.

After dismissing all the well known brands (Hassy first, Pentax later, Bronica last from very expensive to somewhat expensive), I found the Pentacon Six to be in my ball park if I caught a good deal. Well, I would've prefered 6x7 by far, but it had to do, at least it has a lens system and it's even a good looker with it's art deco elements. My second concern though was a TTL prism. I couldn't get my head around using this camera without a built in light meter, so dismissed all ebay offers without the prism. What remained was the usual - either overpriced, or without lens, or "as is" (probably not functioning), and I wasn't in the mood to gamble.
On my search for infos about the Pentacon I sometimes stumbled over the Kiev 60, it's uglier stepsister from the Ukraine. Pretty much every American site dismissed it as a commie camera with poor quality.

 

One website though recommended a repair/used Pentacon specialist shop in my city here, so I thought to myself, maybe just see if I can find a PSix offline. One afternoon I went there, I think I even had to ring a door bell and after an eternity a guy with east european accent opened, apparently shocked to see a customer in the flesh. When I asked him for a PSix he shrugged and told me he doesn't sell them anymore, instead handed me a Kiev 60 - "those are better". I looked at the beast, and after he told me the price with a prism I quickly excused myself and went home. Well, yes... it was serviced and all, but it was double the price I was prepared for.
However, I started searching ebay for the Kiev, as well as reading up on it, and finally found a complete set with prism and suitcase and all for a good price, so bid and won.

When it arrived, the first thing I noticed was how heavy it is... but besides that, it all seemed to be in decent, actually pretty good condition. First things first, batteries into the prism! Then film. Then shoot.
My first shooting experience was... sobering. First, since the meter isn't coupled, it takes an eternity to meter, then copy all the dial settings over to the camera. It was actually a pain in the a... Furthermore, from my first roll only 2 photos turned out okay. And if that wasn't enough, I had overlapping frames. Oh boy, should've bought a Pentacon Six. I was sure all the shutter times are completely off and the camera needs a service to readjust them and the film advance...

At that time I did a bit of camera testing with my then-girlfriend in my garden and we ended up in a little bit of camera talk with my neighbor upstairs. At some time I mentioned that I was hoping to find a Pentacon Six somewhere, but how hard to get they are, and he said "Oh, really? I think I have one in the attic, it was a gift from a photographer I've known, never used it".
So up to the attic we went, he pulled out a big box containing also a Revue SLR which my girlfriend immediately took interest in, and I got to test the Pentacon for as long as I want (actually, in the end my girlfriend got to keep the SLR and I traded the Pentacon for a symbolic bottle of Gin).

Now, the only problem with this wonderful Pentacon was, it still had no prism/light meter. And the few I found on ebay were horribly overpriced. So... I didn't really know what to do with the camera yet. For some reason back then although I knew about the sunny 16 rule, I never trusted myself on using it.

A few days later I went to a meeting with some local photographers, got offered a good light meter, bought it and started using the Pentacon on some model shoots.
And I found some problems. First, the images appeared slightly soft. Not that much, just compared to the few I took with the Kiev that turned out okay. Even though the PSix is said to have the better lens (Carl Zeiss Jena 85/2.8). Then, a lot of the pictures in sunlight appeared overexposed. And then I noticed the camera has the dreaded 1/125 problem.
The 1/125 problem is simply the shutter curtain not closing at 1/125 sec., a sure sign of a failing camera, and all the times shorter than 1/125 are off. So the camera was basically unusable at everything faster than a 1/60.

So basically I had two broken medium format cameras now and no idea what to do with them, so I started to test which one was "more" broken. I still had a lot of film rolls so loaded the Kiev with one and did a test trying different shutter speeds, this time using the handmeter because I had become used to it. One day later when I got the film back from the lab... you probably guessed it, it was perfectly fine. The problem wasn't with the shutter at all, it was simply that stupid light meter in the prism being way off, maybe even because I used the wrong battery type...

And here began my love affair with the Kiev. Once I figured out the mechanics are okay I quickly figured out the problem with the overlapping frames - USSR film was thicker and to use thin "normal film" the easiest method to use is to simply ignore the red dot that you line up with the "start" position of the film and instead line it up with the taking spool. All fixed.
Now I started to see the good sides: The waistlevel viewfinder of the Kiev is much brighter and clearer than the Pentacon's. The Prism, even without meter, is super comfortable to look though, it's like cinema. The camera is much less prone to accidental damage (with the Pentacon you can seriously damage the camera by letting the film advance lever snap back). The Volna Lens is a much better portrait lens than the Zeiss lens, mainly due to the closer minimum distance, but it's also equally good in quality.

 

All in all, I love this camera and it's a joy to use, it's my main portrait camera and I probably don't need anything else as long as it keeps functioning. I also found out by using it that I actually like the 6x6 format much more than 6x7 now, and that a handmeter is always a good thing to have. The only remaining problem I have with it is that it probably needs a proper grease job... in the cold the old stuff gets sticky and my winter photos mostly show a half-closed shutter curtain. A service though costs probably as much as the whole camera, so I live with it for now. Still, I'd never trade it for a Pentacon Six, it's the far superior camera and all the bad reputation it has is mostly untrue. I think it was a tradition in the west to look down on "commie cameras", not all of it was completely wrong but far exaggerated - like the build quality depending on the vodka rations in the factory. Another factor might be that it's sister - the Hasselblad clone Kiev 88, is indeed a very problematic camera prone to failure, but none of it's issues apply to the 60. From Pentacon (Praktica) cameras it's known that the quality assurance was better for the export versions, but since my Kiev has cyrilic lettering it's apparently not a factor here. Or maybe I was just lucky and spend too much time justifying it.

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