Wednesday, February 22, 2023

This camera is a mutt

... and I love it. It's also a camera with history.

As a user of vintage cameras, there was a time when I wanted an older Leica. The Leica name is synonymous with excellent build quality (and stratospheric prices). But, as time went on, I became aware that all was not necessarily perfect in Leica land. Those prized, early, Barnack Leicas, had issues that made them less than perfect working cameras. Nice to keep on the shelf perhaps, but not so nice to be taking photos with. (See here for a rundown of the issues:

In 1930s  Germany though, there was a camera specifically designed by Zeiss Ikon to out-Leica the Leicas of the time. The Contax was designed to be everything a Leica was and then some. While the first Contax suffered from being somewhat rushed to market, it was the Contax II from 1936 that delivered the goods, beating Leica with an integrated viewfinder/rangefinder, better shutter mechanism, faster shutter speeds, better film loading, and a significantly more accurate rangefinder. 

The original Contax II from 1936

The Contax II became a much sought-after camera for working professionals, especially press photographers, who needed a small camera which delivered great image quality and was able to take the punishment dished out in daily use. Production of the Contax in Dresden survived the war years and continued post-war until the Russians dismantled the factory and moved the manufacturing plant and most of the German engineers to Kiev in Ukraine.

Production of the Contax continued in Kiev using the same machine tools and technicians as in the Dresden factory. Nothing changed except for the name - Contax was dropped in favour of the name "Kiev" after the city in which it was now produced. Some of the early Kiev cameras still had "Contax" embossed on the inside of the front plate.

My copy of the Kiev 4a - the flash sync port was a later addition.

Production of Kiev cameras continued largely unchanged for the next 40 years. They progressed from Kiev to Kiev2, Kiev3 and Kiev 4 with only minor changes until production was finally terminated in 1987. During the 1980s, the quality of the Keiv cameras started to suffer as a result of ageing machine tools and the loss of all the original Contax staff. It is rumoured that, in the 1980s, whole batches of Kiev cameras were dumped because they didn't pass quality control. 

The Kiev 4a - opened for loading film

As a camera from 1977, the Kiev is not very impressive - most cameras of the era were much more sophisticated. But, as a camera designed in 1936, it was already streets ahead of its Leica contemporaries and makes a very useable camera for anyone who knows their 'f' stops from their shutter speeds. I took it for a walk around our local school to test it out and came away impressed.

Kiev 4a, f8 @ 1/125, Ilford FP4

So, my replacement for the Leica which I can't afford is a Kiev 4a. Basically, a 1936  camera designed by Contax in Germany but built in Kiev in 1977. If this camera were a dog, it would be a mutt.

(Support Ukraine; buy an old Russian camera.)

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