We Shoot the Kiev 60 TTL, a Medium Format Monster from the Soviet Union

We Shoot the Kiev 60 TTL, a Medium Format Monster from the Soviet Union

1970 1108 Jeb Inge

“If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” How many times have we heard the tired cliché? Often it’s uttered in reaction to some unwanted change. 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 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, auto-focus, 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 Nikon 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.

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Jeb Inge

Jeb Inge is a Berlin-based photographer and writer. He has previously worked in journalism, public history and public relations.

All stories by:Jeb Inge
  • The Pentacon 6 predated the Pentax 67 by 13 years.

    • An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Pentax 67 design influenced the Pentacon 6 (it was likely the other way around). We’ve updated the error. Jeb, the writer of this post, has been sent to a highly secure re-education camp where he will no doubt become a better, more perfect comrade.

  • My favorite 6×6 medium format camera. First time I shot with it I was already in love. Enjoy !

  • I know these are just shots taken around town, but they constantly remind me why I shoot film, They just look so good.

    I take umbrage (!) to this statement:
    “The F5 can take better pictures without a second thought”
    No way can a 35mm camera take better pictures than a 120 or larger format camera. The F5 can take easier pictures w/ a second thought.

    As for cost, a better way for someone on a budget to get into 120 is by buying a Rolleicord or Yashicamat. Similar money, but more likely to work, and work w/o performing any voodoo rituals between each shot. But I get the lure of these Soviet tanks. You can’t pick one up and not be impressed by the sheer ridiculous presence of it!

  • Excellent article. Very informative with just the right balance of humor and technical info, without sounding technical. I am kinda wishing I hadn’t read it though because now I want one!

  • Fantastic article – informative, funny, and great photos. This is why I keep coming back to this site. The only downside is that every review I read makes me want a new film camera.

  • My god there are two Keiv’s in Richmond sounds like it is as much fun to use as my holga.

  • I really enjoyed this review. The pictures are super. I have this camera, and although I haven’t used it much, I really like it. As you hinted at, just getting any images at all makes you feel like a badass.

  • Beautiful pictures, absolute tank of a camera. Might have to keep an eye out for one…

  • I have a Kiev 60 and I love mine. A quick correction though, the Arsenal factory never made Arax cameras. Those are a product of the period after the factory closed. A guy called Gevorg Vartanyen bought all of the unsold Kiev 60 and 88 cameras and parts, hired a bunch of the former techs, and set up a new line selling upgraded versions of the original stock under the Arax name.

    I bought my Kiev 60 at a flea market on the Andriivskii Descent in central Kyiv. It was still in the box with all the accessories still wrapped up in plastic. Even the batteries for the lightmeter were still in their plastic blisters. It had never been used and the serial number said it was made in 1991. The guy wanted $400 for it but the lens was full of fungus and the winding lever made a horrible crunching noise so I got it for $50. I handed it to Mr Vartanyen (I knew him since buying an Arax 88 a few months earlier), and for a very reasonable fee he gave it a complete CLA. Now it’s a perfect camera and one of my favourite things to shoot with. I don’t know why you’d ever want to use the metered prism though when you have that wonderful waist-level finder available.

    Mine is here. http://www.serialforeigner.photo/gear/kiev-60/.

    • Right you are Iain. I actually bought some accessories from Arax last winter. The strap in particular was a very necessary purchase!

  • Hello!

    I really enjoyed this review, and soon after reading this review I got myself a Kiev 60 TTL for a decent price. Loaded two film rolls; Lomography 400 and a TMAX 400 (expired 2017) went out and took some shots with mostly relying on my smartphone’s light meter app. The only thing I worry now is that should I wind the film past the arrow indicator or align it with the camera’s red-dot film indicator?


    • Hi Randy. There’s a lot of stuff out there regarding frame spacing on this and other eastern MF cameras. Because they don’t have pressure plates, it’s really important to keep the film as taut as possible when loading. So you can load it normally, with the arrow on the film corresponding to the dot on the camera, just don’t let the film hang loose, or you’ll have issues.

  • Hey, nice article – I know I’m a bit late. I also love my Kiev 60, it’s my main portrait workhorse, got the whole kit with leather case for about 150€ in 2014. And also having a Pentacon 6 to compare it to I must say the Kiev 60is easily the better and much more reliable camera, just not the prettier one. I think it simply got all the bad reputation from it’s big sister, the Kiev 88, which really has many problems.
    The only issue I have with it is that it probably needs a grease job someday, during the winter months the shutter gets out of sync and I end up with half-exposed frames, but inside or during the warmer seasons there’s no issue. I also prefer the Volna lens over the Zeiss Biotar – the Volna appears equally sharp and has a nice, creamy background blur – the Biotar has more swirl, which is sometimes cool but not always welcome. The main point is the closest focus distance though, the Volna allows you to get much closer to the subject.
    And of course the Pentacon ended up having the dreaded 1/125th issue which plagues the series, so it’s basically only a decoration anymore. But soviet machines are built to last.

    Oh right, and as for the frame spacing, the trick with lining up the arrow with the spool works just fine for me – for some reason on all film types but Fujifilm Acros… must be voodoo.

  • Julie M Vlaminck January 3, 2020 at 9:36 am

    Hello.. I also have a Kiev-60 with the TTL viewfinder. How does the lightmeter that is powered by the 3 batteries work? Bought new batteries and trying to figure it out. Thanks for your input.

    • Julie. Turn it on with the dial on the left side (the two red dots should line up when it is on) Then go to the triple dial on the rop right. The innermost wheel is for your film ISO, the middle one is for your aperture, and the outer one is for your shutterspeed. Set those, look through the viewfinder window, and push the button on the front right of the prism. There are two lights inside. If the top light is lit, you are overexposed, if the bottom one is lit, you are underexposed, if they are both lit then you are correctly exposed. Adjust the shutterspeed and/or aperture on that dial until you get both lights lit up. Remember to press the button on the right each time to activate the meter reading. Once you’ve done that, transfer those settings to the camera controls, the lightmeter is uncoupled so it doesn’t use the camera settings directly

  • I wasn’t impressed by the photos you posted from the Kiev 60. They all appear not in focus: the foreground is not in focus, the main subject isn’t in focus, and the background isn’t in focus. Nothing is sharp, even though it should be.

    • Click through to the full res images. They’re sharp. What you’re seeing is the gallery plugin that we use softening the images on the site. I have to go through every article and reformat the images, as we’re changing to a system which doesn’t soften the images in the galleries.

  • I had a gyroscopic stabilizer from a company called Ken Labs. It is run by a large battery/inverter combination. I had a Kiex 60 that had been reconditioned, and added flocking on the inside with a guarantee of no light leaks. Used it both aerial photography assignments from the oil companies in the Gulf of Mexico with magnificent results. Some were published in posters and brochures. But I would never do something so risky again. Better to let autofocus and autoexposure do the work, and take shots in burst mode. I also used it for a bikini photoshoot, and then the developer ruined all the film because, well, using film is a dying art. Especially medium format.

  • Oh no! I just finished my first roll with my new old Kiev 60. You wrote, “…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.” Please don’t tell me I was supposed to push in the metal slider on the lens… that my 8 images were shot at F2.8!! I asked the guy who GAVE it to me and he said that it was a preview function. Guess I’ll be finding out very soon! (Nice article and pics… thanks!)

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Jeb Inge

Jeb Inge is a Berlin-based photographer and writer. He has previously worked in journalism, public history and public relations.

All stories by:Jeb Inge