How many times have we heard the tired cliché, “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”? Often it’s uttered in reaction to some change with which the bereaved doesn’t agree. And just as often, businesses have proven the utterers right. Coke debuted New Coke. Playboy stopped publishing nude photos. Heinz made ketchup in colors other than red. Apple killed its headphone port. Windows 8.
In most of those instances, the blunders were corrected after massive public outcry (the idea of clear ketchup is only good in your mind). The motivation behind these corporate fumbles is simple – companies with profitable products are under constant pressure to innovate and sell more units. Companies in the photography industry are no different, and that’s mostly a good thing; it’s how we got coupled metering, automatic exposure modes, autofocus, and digital cameras.
In capitalism, this rapid turnover is the name of the game. But what about in a communist system?
Consider the Kiev 60, a medium format SLR camera produced by the USSR in the Ukraine. Huge. Heavy. Loud. Ugly. It looks like a relic of the sixties, the era of manual-everything. So imagine my laughter when I learned that the first Kiev rolled off the assembly line in 1984, with the final example (nearly identical to the first) shipping out in 1999. The all-metal, mechanical, manual-focus Kiev was produced virtually unchanged for a fifteen year period in which the photo industry elsewhere was exploding with electronic innovation and automation. Think about that – the Kiev 60 is a contemporary of the Canon EOS 1 and Nikon’s F5.
I know that old adage “Russian machine never breaks,” but this camera felt like a true photographic anachronism. All of this in mind, I set out determined to understand this machine.
And to understand the Kiev 60, we must try to understand its birthplace. The Arsenal factory in Kiev was established in 1764 and for the next couple hundred years served as a major production center for the Russian Empire, and later the Soviet Union. Employing tens of thousands of people, Arsenal produced war material during World War Two and specialized in optical components for Soviet military and space programs during the Cold War.
In the eighties, the Soviet regime was throwing around words like perestroika, and its effect was being felt at Arsenal. In the back of the factory, a small camera operation was producing 35mm and medium format camera bodies, copying the designs of Nikon, Zeiss Ikon, Hasselblad and even East German manufacturer Pentacon. And even though camera production was just a small scale concern relative to the output of the works at large, Arsenal would eventually produce nine rangefinders, nine 35mm SLRs, nine subminiature cameras, and ten medium format cameras under the brand names Kiev, Arax, and Salyut. But among the many cameras produced by Arsenal, the Kiev 60 is possibly the most notable. So let’s take note.
The first thing I noticed when I got my hands on the Kiev was its outrageous weight and size. At a downright ridiculous 4.3 lbs, operating the Kiev 60 requires two hands.
The second thing I noticed was that it didn’t work.
All Soviet cameras have a mostly-deserved reputation for unreliability, and the Kiev 60 is no different. Its design is loosely based on the skeleton of its German cousin, the Pentacon 6. But while the Pentacon 6 design is known for having issues, the Kiev 60 is known for having more of them. Later production years reportedly benefit from greater quality control, and therefore less breakdowns, but mine was made in 1994 and it was most certainly broken.
Later that night, I looked up how much a mint or recently overhauled Kiev body would run me, and was shocked to see price tags less than $100. Bodies with lenses were between $100 and $250. If I wanted to splurge I could get a rare all-black body for $200. And for just $350 I could get a “new” body with kit lens in its original packaging!
These low prices make the Kiev the absolute cheapest way to get into medium format photography – cheaper even then the Pentax 645 and Mamiya RB67. Yes, there is a reliability difference between a Mamiya and a Kiev, and some would argue a quality gap as well. But if you’re interested in medium format photography, specifically with 6 x 6 negatives, there’s no cheaper way to dip your toes than this. If it breaks, just buy another one. If it doesn’t break, put some money into awesome East German glass.
Lucky for me, the ghosts of glorious workers visited me in my sleep and exorcised whatever gremlins had temporarily gummed up the clockwork of my Kiev. When I woke up the next morning the camera worked and was ready to shoot. A lucky break.
Like most mechanical medium format cameras, controls are spartan. The Kiev has a shutter speed dial on the left capable of speeds from 1/1,000 to 1/2 second and bulb, an uncoupled ISO selector within the film advance lever, and a DOF preview lever positioned next to the lens mount. It also has a PC sync socket with a sync speed of 1/30 of a second, strap buttons and an older 3/8” tripod socket. Most beautifully, it has the shutter release positioned on the front of the body, which is ideal considering the camera’s weight and 6 x 6 negative.
The Kiev uses a breech-lock Type-C lens mount, the same as those used on Pentacon cameras. That’s a nice mount to have, and it opens the system to all kinds of interesting Carl Zeiss Jena lenses. Purchased new, it likely would have come with the Arsenal Volna-3 MC 80mm f/2.8 lens, equivalent to a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera, and with an aperture range from f/2.8 to 22.
It’s said that the lens has an automatic diaphragm, but very little about my experience felt automatic. I had flashbacks to the Zenit-E, which I reviewed earlier this year, when I realized that the most effective way of shooting is by composing with the lens wide open, then setting aperture and remembering to push the metal slider to ensure that the aperture actually stops down accurately during shutter release.
The Kiev also comes with a TTL viewfinder that houses an uncoupled light meter powered by three LR44 batteries. For the life of me I still don’t know how it works. There are dials representing shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, and after setting these parameters we’re supposed to push a button which in turn illuminates one or two lights in the viewfinder. Two lights means you have achieved correct exposure. I have never seen two lights.
To test the camera, I walked along the James River and historic Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, snapping shots with the help of a cell-phone light meter app.
Even when I brought along the camera’s bulky case, I always kept the Kiev out and in my hands. I love heavy cameras and have never found a strap that I preferred over carrying a camera in my hands. But carrying the Kiev made two things immediately apparent – that it’s as heavy as guilt, and as inconspicuous as the annexation of a portion of one country by a neighboring country. You can’t hide a Kiev 60, and everyone (even people completely uninterested in photography) was interested in the Kiev. I’m not even sure they knew it was a camera at first. Maybe it’s because I’m in a place completely unfamiliar with Russian optical equipment, but part of using this camera included answering questions.
The Kiev was loaded up with Portra 400 and 800 shot at 200 and 400 respectively. A YouTube video instructed to wind the film past the arrow indicator to compensate for the Kiev’s peculiarities, so I wound about an inch and a half beyond what the camera asked for. After getting scans back, that advice may have been incorrect as spacing between frames was an issue. Some of those issues were of my own making. On a number of occasions I noticed that I didn’t quite achieve the 220 degrees required by the advance lever. Going back to push the lever all the way felt like it gave additional advancement to the film resulting in my spacing issues.
But even before getting these first scans back, I knew that I was in love with the Kiev because the shooting experience was more enjoyable and memorable than that provided by most other machines. The glorious viewfinder (with and without the TTL prism), the challenge of composing in a square, and the thunderous sound of the shutter, make the Kiev something special and unique. There’s something quite attractive about a camera as deliberate and absent of pretense as the Kiev. It’s a piece of equipment that has a job to do, and it has no qualms about doing it loudly.
Shots in this gallery were made with Kodak Portra film.
I expected the Kiev to make photos similar to those created by the Zenit-E – punchy contrast, light leaks, and lots of vignetting. After getting my scans, I realized that these two cameras are worlds apart. The Kiev images were subdued, with incredibly pleasing contrast and subtle tones. They were without serious vignetting and absent of leaks. It had been months since I was really in love with a roll of negatives, and yet here I was drooling.
Part of that I chalk up to self-satisfaction. I like these images more than most because I had to work harder for them. Just like with the Zenit, the Kiev required extra patience and care. I had to take my own light readings without relying on the camera to do the leg work for me.
All of this noted, my mind continuously wandered back to what must be the most surprising Kiev 60 factoid; that this particular camera was built in 1994. While Canon and Nikon were releasing increasingly innovative and groundbreaking cameras, Arsenal was still turning out heavy, manual cameras that felt 25-years-old from birth. The F5 can take better pictures without a second thought, but is that better than taking great pictures that require thought?
I understand and appreciate the opportunities presented by advancements in technology. No matter how much I love film, there’s always the underlying fear of failure that makes me keep a digital camera around. My soon-to-be-married friend asked me to shoot his wedding. Knowing my love of film he haltingly inquired whether I was shooting his special day on film only. And I didn’t. I was too worried about not delivering, and the Canon 6D made me feel more secure than I’d have been with a Minolta XD.
But I worry less after using the Kiev. Its minimal approach is the photographic equivalent to jumping into the deep end of the pool. If drowning is the alternative, you’ll learn to swim pretty quickly. I’m still no Michael Phelps, but I now swim less like Forrest Gump.