Even in a city replete with architectural marvels, Berlin’s Gendarmenmarkt stands apart. Created in the late 17th century, it’s a large public square centered by the Konzerthaus Berlin and flanked by the German and French cathedrals. In front of the Konzerthaus is a large statue of German poet Friedrich Schiller. It’s an incredibly impressive public space and a must-see on the list of anyone visiting the German capital. That’s why I’m embarrassed to report that until this past week, I had never been there.
There’s no real excuse for that fact. Read any article on “must see” locations in Berlin and you’ll find Gendarmenmarkt. But for one reason or another, I hadn’t ever seen it. Even though it’s just a few blocks from the historic Unter den Linden, I never veered toward it in my many walks down the boulevard that leads from the Brandenburg Gate to the Berliner Dom and Alexanderplatz.
In an unspoken penance for this cultural crime, I’ve been there four times in the last week since my first random visit. For the first three visits I brought my humble Nikon D700, a good tool to quickly (more economically) determine how to photograph city landscapes. But no matter how wonderfully the RAW files came out, I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied until I lugged a big analog beast and shot Gendarmenmarkt the right way.
Unfortunately, the cosmic river of experiences seemed to be flowing against me from the first extension of my tripod.
Even though Gendarmenmarkt is blessed with a scarcity of trinket and tchotchke peddlers, it still attracts a good amount of tourists. Each one protruding an arm with which to take endless numbers of low-res, poorly lit selfies. All of them happy to stand in front of my camera to get that #blessed photo.
Then there was the woman in the normcore outfit — her boyfriend setting up his or her cell phone in a little tripod while she posed in a way that made it look like she was unaware of having her picture taken. I shuddered with the realization that I was looking at that lowest of denominators, the Instagram Influencer. Influencers may be the logical evolution of social media culture, but it’s also an early symptom of a massive societal flu. Almost sensing my thoughts, the boyfriend ambled over and put the tiny but tall tripod not five feet in front of my camera as he gave this Caroline Calloway-in-training directions on looking simultaneously profound and ambivalent.
In need of a quick battlefield triage, I flick my lighter with one hand and put in my earbuds and flick through Spotify, quickly settling on the same playlist I do every time: “bizarre new wave triangle.” The nicotine and synthesizers begin their work while I settle down to wait for a break in the humanity, hoping I’ll eventually get a nice dusk image.
Soon my chance happens, though not as I planned it. I had my shot centered on the Konzerthaus and the statue of Schiller. It was lined up perfectly, with the shutter cord in my hand just waiting for the right moment. Then the song changed, moving abruptly from Pet Shop Boys to “Shake Off the Ghosts,” the final track on Simple Minds’ seminal masterpiece, “Sparkle in the Rain.” As the song accelerated to full swing I looked to the left and saw a breathtaking scene — the German Cathedral, now with its lights on backdropped by a sunset that gave the light blue sky streaks of pink that would fit more appropriately in a Renaissance painting than in this reality.
At first I forgot that I had a camera whose use was my sole purpose for standing in that spot. Even as someone with a practiced cynicism, my mouth opened at the sight. Recovering my wits, I quickly recomposed, took a light reading and snapped off two exposures, all soundtracked by the ornate and lush New Wave instrumentalism. Only two minutes after the sky broke into its tapestry, it receded and quickly faded to night. I was in the right place at the right time with the right tools. I looked down at the Pentacon Six and thought, simply, “thank you.”
One week later, I still haven’t developed that roll of Provia 100F. Part of me wants to leave it unexposed, wary of allowing the film and its limitations (or my own) to taint the memory of shooting it. It was one of those rare moments that make photography a uniquely rewarding experience.
I have used the Pentacon Six for two months after pining after one for more than five years. Something about its retro design, lens offerings and history had kept it in my mind for that long. Shipping prices were too high when the destination was the United States, but after moving to Germany my excuses for not having one quickly fell away.
Finally, I got one of my own. And then I shot a lot of film with it. So I’ll tell you a bit about the camera. Despite the absurd length of this article, I can’t call it a proper review but rather a series of impressions.
A very brief history of the Pentacon Six
Learning the history of German optics in the immediate post-war history is like reading a book that’s slightly smarter than you are. You frequently find yourself re-reading sentences multiple times to understand their meaning.
In all other countries, the history of cameras in that same era is linear and clear. But Germany being split into two parts complicated matters. Manufacturers and workers that geography assigned to the Soviet sector of occupation watched as the victorious Red Army began disassembling German factories and moving them much further East as spoils to the victors of the worst theater of war in human history. Those works that were left behind, manned by the Germans who hadn’t migrated westward, quickly became state-owned operations and part of the East German planned economy.
In the late 1950s, a number of camera manufacturers were consolidated and renamed VEB Pentacon Dresden. Interestingly, the company initially trademarked the name Pentax before changing to Pentacon, eventually selling the rights to the Pentax name to the Asahi Kogaku Company of Japan.
Just before the merger that created Pentacon, one of the subsidiaries had released what it called the Practisix, an SLR camera that took square 6×6 images on 120 film. In the mid-sixties, upgrades were made to the Practisix and the camera was renamed the Pentacon Six. VEB Pentacon Dresden would continue to manufacture the Pentacon Six until the company’s dissolution after German reunification. To learn more about the history of the Pentacon Six, visit the Pentacon Six website maintained by “TRA.” This resource is encyclopedic and exhaustive in detail, not just about the company, but also the various forms of the Pentacon Six cameras.
The Pentacon Six came standard with a waist-level finder but metered and non-metered prisms were also available. Aside from its typical function, the camera’s waist-level finder also has a smaller “cheat” window that when opened shows the photos center behind the finder’s magnifying glass. This magnifier is especially useful on this finder, as the focusing screen of the P6 is notoriously dark. The camera is constructed of metal and pleather with a design that’s surprisingly Art Deco for a product of the Socialist Realist school of design. The company’s logo sits on the finder just above the “PENTACON six” badging on the front plate. The finder is flanked on the right by the film advance, frame counter and uncoupled ISO indicator knob.
To the left of the finder is the shutter speed dial with a speed range from 1 second to 1/1000th of a second plus bulb mode and, weirdly, a flash speed setting between 1/30th and 1/15th of a second. On top of the shutter dial is a film type reminder dial with settings for black and white and color films in 120 and 220 rolls. The shutter button is wonderfully located on the front of the body on the right side like it should be on every camera. Underneath the dial are two knobs for locking the shutter button. Toward the bottom of the front is a self-timer and a flash sync port on the lens housing. The tripod mount is smartly located on this mounting, which reduces strain on the camera body when using shorter lenses (hilariously heavy telephotos for the Pentacon Six come with their own tripod mounts).
The only disappointing design feature of the camera is that the two knobs on the bottom plate for controlling film reels are longer than any other part of the camera bottom. This means that the camera always slouches forward onto the lens when it’s not in its case. In the Pentacon’s case, the camera case is an important investment, not just for balancing it’s bottom, but for protecting your film. The small latch to open the film door is sensitive and can be accidentally opened with ease.
The camera uses its own proprietary lens mount on which we can mount a number of lenses, including excellent ones made by Carl Zeiss Jena, adequate ones manufactured in the Soviet Union and (later) incredible offerings from Schneider Kreuznach. The standard lens to come with the camera, and the one I bought to go with mine, is the Carl Zeiss Jena 80mm f/2.8.
My experience with the Pentacon Six
I’ve had a remarkably Goldilocks-ish experience with medium format cameras. My first, a Mamiya RB67, was cheap and had great lenses but weighed as much as a child and was impractical in almost every application. This one is too heavy. My next attempt was with a Pentax 645, which while blessed with technical features and portability didn’t do much for me in the lens department. This one is too boring. Next, James sent me a Kiev 60 to review, and it surprisingly ended up being my most-used medium format camera for a year or so. But every time I looked at it, a part of me died. The cameras heft didn’t help either. This one is too ugly.
Even though I had wanted a Pentacon Six before I bought my RB67, it seems now to borrow the best parts of those three cameras without their liabilities. It’s lighter and prettier than the Kiev, gives access to awesome lenses like the RB67, and is relatively portable like the Pentax 645. This one is just right.
The Kiev 60 is the easiest to use for comparison as it exists in the extended universe of the Pentacon Six. While not a copy of the P6, it uses the same lens mount and generally the same feature set. And while it offers entry to medium format photography at a bargain entry price, the Russian “design theory” behind it quickly throws into doubt its financial benefits. It produced film spacing issues even with the film wound as tightly as possible. Everything about it is loud, from winding the film to the shotgun-esque shutter sound. Its standard Arsat 80mm lens could be described as completely devoid of personality, except for its obsession with flaring. I swear this lens would flare in a black hole. And there’s no getting around appearances. Even the most dour photographer will blanche at the sight of this turd.
The Pentacon Six was a remedy to all of the Kiev’s nagging issues. It’s a more beautiful design, is much quieter in operation, is noticeably lighter and its multi-coated lens is more resilient.
The only word I can think of to describe its practical use is natural. Compose your shot using the waist level finder, take a reading on a light meter (or use Sunny 16 if accuracy ain’t your thing), adjust your shutter and aperture dials, check focus and fire away. It’s the same steps as used by thousands of other cameras. The mirror remains in its upward position until the film is advanced when it drops down again.
After shooting twelve images, a lock falls into place to stop the film advancing any further, telling the photographer that the fun has ended. Just slide the lever on the top right side of the camera and the advance lever can move forward. Use the final thirty degrees of the winder to push the rest of the film across the camera.
Walking around with the P6 slung over my shoulder feels much like carrying around a Nikon F4, if only by weight. And the Pentacon more than not feels like shooting a normal SLR, outside of the waist level finder and the size of the film being exposed. That’s what I always wanted with a medium format camera, something that feels like an SLR in practice, but delivers the awesome resolution and size of medium format negatives.
It’s going too far to call this camera discreet — I’ve gotten more looks walking around Berlin with this camera than any other camera I’ve carried in public. Some are people who were born after this camera stopped production and are baffled by its existence, while others seem to look at it with a hazy remembrance of decades past. Or maybe they’re just interested in it — it really is a beautiful camera.
Most importantly, the Pentacon Six both slows down the process of photography and gets out of my way while I’m trying to perform that process. The very nature of the camera, from the smaller number of exposures compared to 35mm to the extra time needed to compose and focus without a prism, makes me think about my composition a few seconds longer. Each exposure costs me more, so that’s a good thing. As such, a higher percentage of shots-per-roll are of quality than they are with a 35mm cartridge.
Frequent gripes about the Pentacon Six
I was aware of several popular criticisms of the P6 and purchased mine in spite of them. The top concern seems to be the film spacing issues that also haunt the Kiev 60. Film spacing on the Pentacon Six (and every other camera) depends on the tightness of the film stretching from reel to reel. Loose film will almost guarantee irregular spacing and can ruin otherwise good exposures. After doing some research, I learned that the simple solution to this is to simply make sure the film is wound tightly. By holding the film cartridge, and using only the final thirty degrees of the advance lever to line up the start arrow to the corresponding red dot, spacing issues disappear. In the six rolls of film shot specifically for this article, only one image had spacing issues (I’ve included it) and I remember that it was my fault that it happened.
One genuine criticism of the Pentacon is it’s viewfinder. As dim as 3 a.m. in January, bad lighting can make focusing quite difficult and shooting at night is nearly impossible at anything closer than infinity. Fortunately the bright-by-comparison Kiev 60 screens can be modified to fit a Pentacon Six and allegedly make life much easier.
Other criticisms of the camera, all centering around the Pentacon’s reliability, seem to be mitigated through careful use. This isn’t a camera Kalashnikov. It can’t be buried in the mud for weeks, dug up and be expected to function perfectly with the mud still dripping off. And frankly, if you purchased a thirty year old camera, it’s within reason to expect that it might require some servicing. Mechanical cameras are remarkable resilient, and regular servicing makes them last far beyond what their creators envisioned — including those at VEB Pentacon Dresden. When it comes down to it, criticisms of this camera seem to be partly borne out of stereotypes regarding Socialist manufacturing and a photographer’s unreasonable expectation that things should work perfectly forever without any sort of maintenance investment.
Cost and Conclusions
Cost is a measure in any camera’s value, especially on the used market. This is another strength of the Pentacon Six. I bought my P6 camera body for 150 euros. It looked barely used, without a scuff or scrape on it and performs flawlessly. The Zeiss Jena 80mm lens was another 100 euros, and was in a similar quality to the camera. It would be easy for someone to buy a complete kit (body, wide/normal/telephoto lenses) for less than $750. And that’s with three of the best lenses ever made in a Soviet-bloc nation.
I spent many years building up the Pentacon Six in my imagination as the camera that would raise my photo-taking experience to the next level. Then I bought it and it completely validated every hope that I’d had. Take that for what it’s worth regarding my credibility and objectivity.
Having said that, this is a great camera — completely capable of producing outstanding images. With the right amount of care, safe handling and commitment, there’s little to suggest the camera won’t continue to be reliable for decades to come. I didn’t buy my Pentacon to place it on a shelf and look good, but as a tool for taking photographs. I didn’t expect to enjoy it so much that it goes with me on most days. Somehow, the impossible happened and a medium format camera has become my daily shooter.
Consider that this camera was made in its various forms for more than forty years. Yes, it was made in a planned economy and faced little competition from anything west of Berlin, but they weren’t cheaply made to take advantage of their captive market. These cameras continue to function as truly excellent cameras decades into their lifecycle. It wasn’t built with planned obsolescence in mind, but to last years after its contemporaries had been abandoned in favor of newer, flashier models.
One final note…
One thing I haven’t talked about but bears mentioning is the Exakta 66. I’m not sure what to call this camera exactly. It’s not a successor to the Pentacon Six, because it wasn’t made by Pentacon and was produced partially while the P6 was also being made. But it literally is the Pentacon Six, for all intents and purposes. Even the serial numbers weren’t changed from those given in the Pentacon factory in Dresden.
Long story short, a man in West Germany bought a bunch of Pentacon Six cameras manufactured in the mid-eighties and started outfitting them with more modern materials such as leather coating and a better film winder. He also started producing Schneider Kreuznach lenses for the Pentacon Six mount. And he charged thousands of dollars and D-Marks for what was now branded a luxury item and was available for hundreds across the wall.
East German propaganda would have had a field day with the Exakta had it not been focused on the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Even to someone born in the heartland of America, the Exakta is a shameless capitalist cash-grab. And it warms my heart to know that the Exakta undersold expectations while the Pentacon continues to enjoy its cult-favorite status in the film community.