Our Five Favorite Cameras Not Made in Japan or Germany

Our Five Favorite Cameras Not Made in Japan or Germany

2000 1125 Jeb Inge

Like many of you, the Casual Photophile team is mostly stuck at home while we wait for our cities and towns to reopen. In the social distancing era (which we hope will be short-lived), we’ve found it a challenge to get out and shoot the cameras and lenses we’ve been planning to write about. To stave off cabin fever, the writers and I have been engaging in all sorts of obtuse photographic thought experiments. Today’s article was born from one such exercise.

In a conversation last week amongst the crew, one of our lot posed the question: What are your favorite cameras made outside of Germany or Japan? It had us thinking. Is it an interesting question? Sure. Is it worthy of an entire article? Probably not, in normal times. But we’re doing our best to keep you stimulated. And maybe you’ve never thought about this? 

Take a poll among photographers and camera nerds asking them to list their top five cameras, and it’s likely that the lists would be completely dominated by cameras from Germany and Japan. All it takes is a quick mental accounting of camera manufacturers to underscore the outsized role these two nations have played in the industry. Minolta, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Ricoh, Leica, Zeiss, Rollei – these are big names that prove the capitals of the photographic world have long resided in places like Wetzlar, Tokyo, Jena, Osaka, and Dresden.

But there have been camera producers elsewhere in the world, and many of them have been responsible for some truly excellent and interesting products. Today we take a look at five of our favorites.

Give it some thought and tell us yours in the comments.


Polaroid SX-70

The opening sequence of Wim Wenders’ Alice in the Cities, finds its protagonist traveling through America on assignment to write an article describing the country to Germans back home. Eventually he shows up at the magazine’s New York office with only a pile of Polaroids taken with his SX-70. The editor’s shocked that there aren’t any words accompanying the shoebox of instant images. 

Anyone who’s taken a Polaroid understands the writer’s dilemma: There’s something uniquely indescribable about an instant photograph, and within instant photography, no brand is more iconic than Polaroid. In fact, outside of Kodak, no other company came close to defining the American photography industry. 

No Polaroid camera is as iconic as the SX-70 folding SLR. Polaroid produced a nearly endless number of instant cameras, almost all completely plastic and automatic. The SX-70 is a different beast, at once more elegant and svelte than any of the company’s other cameras. James’ article on the SX-70 captures the romance and nostalgia the camera exudes.

There is nothing cheap feeling about this camera, made from metal, leather, and glass. The care and dedication that Edwin Land put into its creation shows in its design and functionality. It could take instant photos faster than anything else on the market, and once the photographer was finished, he or she could fold the camera and fit it into a jacket pocket. Unlike the plastic lenses typical to most Polaroid cameras, the SX-70’s four-element 116mm f/8 lens was all glass and engineered to be a big cut above every other instant camera lens. It was also an SLR camera, with a newly engineered mirror system, as well as a new auto-exposure system and creative flash control. 

That the engineers at Polaroid were able to fit all of this groundbreaking work into the SX-70 made the camera a revelation in its day. It really was a modern marvel. But in translating Land’s vision for the camera, they also succeeded in creating a masterpiece of unmatched industrial design and technical capability, all without losing the spontaneity and magic that makes the instant image such a magical experience.


Hasselblad 500cm

Swedish companies have proven a number of universal truths: that Volvos will run forever if allowed to; Ikea Kallax shelves are the best shelving for a record collection; Spotify has continued proving that customers will always sacrifice quality for convenience. While the jury is still out on the case of Italian vs. Swedish meatballs, there’s no question that Sweden has a deserved reputation for dependable and innovative product design. For a while, this extended into the camera industry.

Hasselblad’s reputation for quality is so widely accepted that it’s more of a maxim than it is a myth. The Hasselblad has been the epitome of high quality in medium format photography for more than seventy years. How many other cameras are of such a high calibre that they’ve snapped photos on celestial bodies other than Earth?

Born from one Swede’s desire to take better pictures of flowers, the Hasselblad V series is a modular camera system designed to take different lenses, film backs, and other accessories. Each component of the camera can be removed and swapped with something else, and this versatility made the series popular with pro photographers. Other manufacturers took note and the modular system became the gold standard for medium format professionals who enjoyed the ability to switch lenses and film stocks on a whim, both in the studio and on location, even if the location is on the surface of the moon. While other modular systems, like Mamiya’s RB67, caught on in popularity, none could match the prestige of Hasselblad’s system. 

Of all the variants in the series, the 500cm was most ubiquitous, being produced from 1970 to 1994. As Aaron explained in his article on the V series, the M in the name indicated the ability of the end user to modify the camera, instead of requiring a technician. With the 500cm, photographers could easily swap focusing screens based on need. The twenty-four-year production run is enough to speak to the camera’s quality, but it also means that the used market for the camera can be treacherous. Like that IKEA futon you had in college, these cameras were workhorses, and treated as such. 


Alpa 10D

Choosing a camera from Switzerland may seem like cheating, as it’s in the DACH countries (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) that make up the German-speaking world, but ask any German or Swiss and they will assure you that they are not the same people. To get a feel for the distinctive Swiss industries, just take a walk through Geneva, where nearly every business is either a bank, a watch retailer or a cheese and chocolate specialist. The Swiss concept linking all of those is a penchant for specialized, high-end products.

Specialized and high-end are perfect descriptors of Swiss camera manufacturer Alpa. It could be argued that Alpa makes cameras so niche that only a handful of camera nerds even know the brand exists. (We do and have written about them.) In a manner that would even make Leica fans blush, today’s Alpa describes its cameras as “precision tools, made with passion and skilled craftsmanship for a small group of connoisseurs.” The 10D was one of Alpa’s final cameras made in Switzerland before the company started outsourcing production to Chinon.

Alpa cameras are all mechanical, made with generous amounts of metal and accented dollops of brass, including a small rectangle where the owner could engrave their initials. In his review of the 10D, James highlighted some of the camera’s quirky design features, including a reversed film advance lever, three-cell metering system and unique rewind system. He likened it to a forty-year-old sports car, an apt analogy when you consider the bespoke lens mount that only allows for some of the world’s most incredible glass. In spite of its quirks, the 10D is a straightforward machine, a camera that emphasizes necessity over convenience. 

It’s a basic camera with a spec sheet not dissimilar to a Pentax K1000, but it’s made so brilliantly and with such care for detail that the two cameras seem to live in different universes. And in a sense, the Alpa does stand apart from everything else: it’s an expensive, deliberate machine, made to order by people with a love of proper industrial design and not bound by the demands of accountants or the market. In that sense, it’s a wonderful camera, and a wonderfully Swiss creation.


Kiev 60

Each of the previous cameras have shared the common thread of being uniquely well designed and constructed. The fourth camera on this list takes things in a different direction – a more eastern direction. It really would be irresponsible to not have Russian, or Soviet rather, representation on a list like this. Names like Zenit, Zorki, Kiev, and others released dozens of cameras that today are incredibly cheap and usable. While their quality control doesn’t quite match up with names like Hasselblad and Alpa, Soviet cameras are still relevant today, and even gave birth to modern brands like Lomography.

When the Kiev brand (it’s not really a company per se) moved into medium format cameras, its first entry, the Kiev 88, was a forgery clone of the Hasselblad 1600 F. The likeness was so identical that it was nicknamed the “Hasselbladski.” Even more unfortunate was the 88’s reputation for low quality and its unique lens mount that didn’t allow for using other lenses like the superb-by-comparison offerings from Carl Zeiss Jena. The next camera, the Kiev 60, was a completely different approach, an SLR instead of a modular system, modeled loosely off of the East German Pentacon Six and including that camera’s C-mount. The 60 also holds up much better today than the 88, especially as a budget-friendly entry point for medium format photography.

The Kiev shares many of the characteristics typical to cameras made in the U.S.S.R. It’s a massive rectangle, weighs heavy on the scales thanks to its metal construction, is basically designed to be cheaply repaired, and looked twenty years old on the day it was released in 1984. These aren’t necessarily bad traits. The camera’s simplicity of design and abundance make it extremely affordable and easy to replace. It looked dated when it was released, but it doesn’t really look any older thirty-six years later. It came with an 80mm f/2.8 Arsenal Volna-3 lens, prone to flaring but completely without distortion, and also allowed for shooting the entire gamut of lenses made for the Type-C mount.

Medium format cameras rarely come covered with bells and whistles like a 19th century field marshal. They’re often just light-tight boxes that only allow for the changing of shutter speeds and maybe the setting of a timer. They are typically geared toward professionals, or at least those capable of doing in their mind what other cameras do with circuitry. In the end, it’s all about that fat and juicy 120 negative in the back of the camera and the epic glass that sits on the front. And in that sense, the Kiev 60 fits the bill. You can create stunning images with this camera. What’s even better is that it can be bought for pennies on the dollar compared with its contemporaries made in Germany and Japan.  


Intrepid 4×5 Mark 4

Now for another left turn. The final entry on the list is both the newest camera, and the one using the biggest, most expensive film of the five. No one has yet created a digital sensor that matches the resolution and quality of a large format negative. But with great format size comes a greater price tag, and the cost per frame of 4×5 and 8×10 film is exponentially higher than smaller formats. Then add the expense of the camera and the lenses with all the accoutrements and the price gets even steeper. So for many of us, myself included, large format photography remains our version of the mashed potato mountain from Close Encounters. Something we can’t get out of our head, but can’t seem to fully realize. 

But the Intrepid company has achieved something of a modern miracle by creating a series of cameras that are relatively cheap and portable, two words seldom associated with large format photography. Based in England, Intrepid is currently on the fourth version of their 4×5 and second version of their 8×10 field cameras. The cameras are made from birch plywood, rust- and oxidation-proof aluminum, 3D-printed plastic derived from plant starch, with bellows made from nylon with a special lightproof interior casing. The choice of materials makes the cameras extremely light compared to other field cameras (the 4×5 weighs 2.6 pounds, the 8×10 5.5 pounds) and the design puts a priority on portability. The price is also refreshingly low for a newly made field camera. The 4×5 Mark 4 costs 280 pounds, or $350 and the 8×10 Mark 2 costs 480 pounds, or $598. The comparatively low cost also comes with the knowledge that a real, existing company is available for support. 

Getting into large format photography can be an overwhelming idea. It’s not just the negative that’s bigger, it’s the potential, the demand for precision and the fact that each shot costs bills and not coins. Everything is slightly different and the process is much slower. By offering an affordable and portable camera, Intrepid gives photographers an easier entry point into what can be an incredibly rewarding photographic experience.


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Jeb Inge

Jeb Inge

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

All stories by:Jeb Inge
20 comments
  • My favorite in this category is my Kiev 2a with a Jupiter 3. Great lens, nice wide-based bright rangefinder, and I like the focus wheel. And the rather pneumatic sound of the shutter.

    Another favorite in the Kiev 10 slr, with a Mir 20mm. I love its retro-futuristic design and innovative fan shutter, and the Mir 20 is a great poor man’s Flektogon.

  • I’ve been playing with the Graflex Speed Graphic and the smaller Miniature Speed Graphic cameras. They’re simple machines that allows you to use just about any lens as long as it projects an image large enough to cover the film and sits far enough to allow room to focus (super wide angle lenses don’t work well with these). I have been using mostly a Miniature Speed Graphic with enlarger lenses, scavenged folding camera lenses, large format lenses, and even a photocopier lens or two. I am using a 120 rollfilm back but I also have film holders so I can shoot Instax film in it as well as cut down sheet film. It’s quite versatile and made in the USA.

  • Great article, and obviously hard to keep it down to just five!
    If it was 10, I would suggest the Horizon 202 panoramic camera. I’ve owned a bunch of Wideluxes, the fancier U500/Lomo Perfekt version, and the Noblex 135, and it is much better than the first two and almost equal to the Noblex. For about $100 used.

  • Don’t sleep on The Steel Colossus of Rochester, the Kodak Medalist! Mike Eckman’s great review is full of interesting trivia and helpful information. I’ve got color film in my Medalist II for the first time, eager to see how Wisconsin spring color looks like on Ektachrome through an Ektar lens!

    https://www.mikeeckman.com/2015/12/kodak-medalist-1944/

    • The Medalist seems like an excellent camera, though I’ve never used one myself. But that 620 format really hurts it’s spot on any list. Still, it seems like a real beaut.

  • Avatar
    leicalibrararian May 8, 2020 at 4:50 pm

    I would add the British built version of the Leica IIIb, the Reid and Sigrist, who were aircraft instrument makers. They are beautifully made and finished, with even tighter tolerances than Leica. They were originally designed for the British military in the late 1940’s but later also sold in the civilian market in very small numbers. With their usual and excellent Taylor-Hobson 2 inch (50mm) f2 lens, they were slightly more expensive than the equivalent Leica. I have maybe the last one ever made in 1963/4 with a body serial number of P3499, which was assembled by an R&S engineer for his own personal use. They fetch a multiple of times the price of the equivalent Leica, due to their rarity of only 2500 ever made, across 5 models. Sadly the Taylor-Hobson lenses have not lasted as well as the cameras and many have a fogged rear element, so are even more expensive in good condition. I use a Taylor-Hobson designed but Leica built 50mmf/1.5 Summarit on mine.

  • Bit obscure this, but I would like to mention the original French underwater camera, the Calypso in 1960, which only became Nikonos when Nikon took over production from a French manufacturer called Atom.

    The concept and design of the Calypso were by Jacques Cousteau and Jean de Wouters, a Belgian aeronautical engineer.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calypso_(camera)

  • ….and on the Hasselblad question, yes, Swedish meatballs are better.

    • I have a Swedish friend that tends to agree with you but I know too many Italians to take a stand on the matter.

  • I own two of the cameras in the list (the last two — does that say something about how much I’m willing to pay for cameras?).

    The Kiev 60 is surely the photographic equivalent of the AK-47, robust and unsubtle, I call mine “the beast from the east” as I got it around the time the storm of that name hit the UK. It’s mass means that even though it has a big mirror it can be hand-held to quite slow speeds — I’m more willing to hand hold 1/30 or even 1/15 with the Kiev than any other SLR.

    It’s also worth noting in respect of the Intrepid that for Ilford films the price per unit area is very similar across formats (taking 1 roll of 35mm = 1 roll of 120 = 3 sheets of 5×4), and Fomapan is actually cheaper in that reckoning at 5×4 (Kodak & Fuji are another story).

    • Some interesting points here, and I love the “beast from the east’ moniker. I almost thought about including the bit about the shutter at slow speeds, you’re spot on regarding that. And that’s interesting about the Intrepid re: the Ilford stuff.

  • I just reread James’ review of the Argus c3 and i’m a little surprised it didn’t at least get a mention. As noted above 5 is too few.

    • I thought about it briefly but in the end it just wasn’t something I could see using for a long period of time. I kept the five to cameras that could be used as a “daily” and the Argus just didn’t get there for me.

  • Avatar
    shootfilmridesteel May 10, 2020 at 10:15 am

    I’ll second the above comment about the Kodak Medalist. I’ve had one for a while now, wrote my own review of it. The images that it produces are magic, almost three dimensional. They seem a portal to another world. It’s only downside is the 620 curse.

    I have owned a Kiev 88CM for almost 10 years now and love it. uses the P6 lenses from Zeiss Jena like the 60 can. It’s about as reliable as anything else, the only malfunction I’ve had was one of the backs developed a light leak, and it has not been babied. Heavy as it is, I’ve still hiked with it. It has the typical shutter requirements of most Eastern Bloc cameras, but as long as you respect it, it’s bulletproof. I got one of my favorite shots with this camera: http://shootfilmridesteel.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/shoot-74.jpg

    • Awesome shot. Considering the amount of eastern bloc stuff I’ve shot, I think I owe it to the 88 to give it a shot.

  • Mixing Austrians and/or Swiss into the same pot with Germans is not the right thing to do. And then only fishing the Swiss out again.

  • That was fun. Now, can I be cheeky and nominate the made-in-Singapore Rollei 35? Mine is a TE, of which I don’t think any were made in Germany, and the nudge-up-nudge-down LED meter is a feature not found in any German camera that I know of.

    Stretching a point, I know, but it was either that or the Zenit E…

  • Avatar
    Edoardo Battistini May 14, 2020 at 9:46 am

    Don’t forget the made in Italy Rectaflex: the first camera,before the Contax S, with a pentaprism

  • Don’t forget the Czech Flexaret TLRs.
    Or the Chinese Seagull and Shanghai TLRs…
    As well as Minolta MD mount Seagull 35mm SLRs and the folding 6×6 rangefinder they made as well.
    And modern Chinese Fotoman and Gaoersi large/medium format cameras.

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Jeb Inge

Jeb Inge

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

All stories by:Jeb Inge