I’m a FED collector, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. These compact, basic and finicky rangefinders have become my loyal camera companions, and their interesting history makes them all the more fun to collect. Plus, they come in fun colors.
My first FED was saved from an outlet box. Much like my Zeiss Ikon Nettar, this blue FED-2 was slated to be sold for parts at a bargain rate because of mechanical issues deeming it not worth fixing.
But I just couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was so small, so devoid of features, so mysterious, and so blue. The blue doesn’t show up very well in photos but I promise it’s there.
I rushed it over to a Russian coworker who confirmed why it was in the outlet area to begin with. FEDs aren’t very well-regarded cameras. They don’t sell for much, even in working condition. This camera’s slow speeds were off, as was the rangefinder calibration, so off it would go, probably to someone willing to fiddle with it until it worked properly.
That someone wound up being me, as I took it home along with the Jupiter-8 lens screwed onto it.
The FED and its history
Okay, so the slow shutter speeds aren’t accurate. Honestly, that’s never stopped me from buying a camera before now. I’m going to handhold the camera anyway, so anything between 1/500th to 1/100th of a second is just fine. The only other options available are 1/50th and 1/25th of a second, anyway. No skin off my back, I’ll leave it broken anyway.
The rangefinder, then. Okay, yeah, that’s really off. Vertically and horizontally. A quick Google search revealed how to adjust it, and within ten minutes I had it aligned well enough to its Jupiter-8 lens.
It wasn’t perfect, but neither is the FED’s finder. It’s a small, dim reverse-contrast finder with a green field and a yellow focusing patch. It’s bigger and brighter than my Kodak Retina IIIc’s finder, but that’s not saying much.
I might be upset about the small viewfinder that’s clearly only meant for 50mm lenses, but I only shoot 50mm anyway. And an external viewfinder isn’t the most annoying thing in the world if I ever change my mind.
One neat thing is the camera’s diopter adjustment, which lets you get the tiny finder perfectly in focus. It’s just a little lever arm coming off of the rewind knob. It’s a nice touch for a camera coming from a region not known for cameras with nice touches.
So the rangefinder was aligned well enough. I assumed that trying to critically focus with this finder would be nearly impossible under the best of circumstances, so I gave it a shrug and the “good enough” seal of approval and got back to admiring the camera.
It has a smooth, silver finish with four knobs on the top plate along with the classic FED insignia. The wind, rewind, and shutter speed knobs are covered in little knurls that are… sharp to the touch.
This doesn’t seem like a problem until you actually try to use it. When you finally do, you will feel the skin cells being torn from your hand as you rewind the film. I can imagine my Russian coworker telling me it builds character, or something like that. In Soviet Union, camera winds you anyway.
The FED’s shutter speed knob is barren with only five shutter speeds, plus the bulb setting. It’s one of those Soviet shutters that shouldn’t be adjusted until the camera has been wound because something something alignment pin, something something might brick the camera. I didn’t pay much attention to it, and mine still works.
Now, I had never used a Soviet camera before. I had used the Jupiter-8 before on other LTM cameras, but had never held a camera body manufactured in the USSR. I had heard horror stories online (even some here on Casual Photophile) so I decided to do some additional research.
As with many things from the Soviet Union, details available to me were sparse and contradictory. Some people say the camera was made by children and criminals, some disagree.
The camera was certainly made in the FED factory, named after Polish immigrant-turned Bolshevik revolutionary Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky. This factory was in Ukraine, and was originally an children’s labor commune.
In 1934, the factory set to work producing clones of the much higher quality cameras from Leitz Wetzlar in Germany. Production ceased from 1941 until 1946 after the Nazi army destroyed teh facility during Operation Barbarossa. Even after production resumed in 1946, it wasn’t until 1955 that the second iteration of the FED was released.
This FED-2 added a longer rangefinder base, a combined rangefinder/viewfinder, a self-timer, and some other small “quality of life” features. (I have no idea if children were involved in the production of these cameras or not, but it’s an interesting story regardless.) This model stayed in production, with minor revisions, until 1970, when more advanced cameras like the FED-3 and FED-4 had been designed and released. Both had much nicer viewfinders and external selenium-based light meters, which were a true luxury in their time.
What you have at the end of the day is a line of cameras, made in the image of an early Leica and with some changes that make shooting the FED even a bit easier than the Leica’s they copied. The rangefinder was a welcome addition in the FED-2, even if the viewfinder still left much to be desired.
Playing around with something new
My colorful comrade became my everyday carry. It fit nicely in my bag, and I didn’t feel too bad being rough with it. The camera was already well-worn, with rust in places and scratches aplenty. I continued shooting it as the autumn in Central Finland turned to winter. The falling snow was a welcome reprieve from the doldrums of November and December, where hours of daylight can be counted on one hand and most of the light is absorbed by the concrete.
At least with snow on the ground, the precious little light we do have acts as a massive reflector. You might be surprised by how much that helps with photography in this time of year.
One of the first big trips I took with my FED-2 was after a fresh snow and headed to the north. It was the first fully sunny day we’d had in nearly two months, and I intended to capture the glory as much as possible. I brought my Fujica GM670 outfitted with a Doomo Meter D as a primary camera and the FED as an afterthought, something mechanical that would probably work in the cold.
It was a beautiful day, and driving along the winding roads of Finnish countryside reminded me of when I lived in Vermont and the many snow-dusted farmlands that dot its landscape. It’s nice to feel nostalgic in a place you’ve never visited before.
The FED was a good companion to my Fujica. I used the same meter for both and took many of the same shots, eager to see how the Jupiter-8 would compare to the much-larger Fujinon S.
One thing I’ve learned while shooting the FEDs is hyperfocal focusing. After metering, if I’m given f/8 or f/11, I can set infinity focus at that number on the depth-of-field scale and suddenly have nearly everything in focus. It’s a side effect of, and compensation for the subpar rangefinder, but it forced me to learn something and develop some photographic resourcefulness.
Towards the end of the day I noticed that the shutter speed on my FED was turning freely. Oh no, I broke it. It’s gone forever and with a half roll of film left. So with no idea what my shutter speed was, I finished the roll and set the camera down.
When I got home, I tried to play with it. I was able to change the speeds, despite the dial having no relation to the actual speed in-camera. Once I got the camera back to bulb mode, I rotated the shutter speed dial to match and then used a pocket knife to tighten the screws around the shutter speed dial.
Believe it or not, that little trick worked. Every so often I need to tighten that screw, but the camera still works and I didn’t have to make my own tools or pay huge repair costs like I would if I owned a Leica, Rolleiflex, or some other camera much fancier than my little FED. I didn’t even have to go to the store and buy an eyeglass repair kit.
Now that is orphan engineering at work.
I Love You to Jupiter-8 and Back
I wasn’t expecting much from the FED I found abandoned in a bargain bin. Like the unwanted runt of the kitten litter, it was left to whoever was ambivalent enough to give it a home. It was going to be basically given away to a good home, like an unwanted litter of kittens. I was the one to give it a chance to shine, even though it’s three times my age with the scars to prove it.
Regardless of the camera’s qualities when I first saw it, I consider its Jupiter-8 lens the camera’s saving grace. Each copy of this lens that I’ve used in the past has been wonderful, and its Sonnar design is one that I trust. It’s even become a nickname of mine around my office, since the “C” sound in Finnish is always an english “S.” So, Connor becomes Sonnor, which becomes Sonnar. It’s not the worst nickname I’ve ever had.
I loaded a roll of Kodak Gold as a warmup, but later switched to Kodak Portra 400 and, with the sun high in the sky and a crisp, fresh snow covering the ground, could finally see what this lens could do. Boy, did it ever deliver.
Colors were rendered beautifully, especially when the lens was stopped down. I probably even lost some sharpness due to diffraction, but the results were absolutely beautiful.
I shot directly into the sun and wasn’t too disappointed with the results. Despite the inevitable flaring there’s still quite a bit of detail and contrast even with the harshest lighting conditions.
The intricate details of coniferous trees contrasted with the sleek, smooth snow to make an environment that produced results I was really pleased with. The shadows cast by the trees showed up brilliantly, and the texture of the snow was not lost even with the effects of diffraction setting in around f/16. In many situations, I even preferred the FED’s shots to those of my GM670.
Considering the camera’s cost, build quality, size, and weight, the FED absolutely knocked it out of the park.
I was proud of the shots from both rolls of film. The limitations of the consumer film and the cloudier days showed more flaws in the lens and camera, but I expected as much.
The lens isn’t clinically sharp, but the color rendition is quite nice and has surprisingly good contrast considering the less-than-stellar reputation of some Soviet lenses.
Images from the roll of Kodak Gold did show a bit more softness, but that’s also because the lens wasn’t stopped down as much as it had been with the Portra. I also noticed some ghosting or flaring in weird spots, like when I looked up towards the treetops.
One more thing was some small bright dots on the frames. Since they’re in the same location on each image I think there must be a few holes in the shutter curtain. It’s not too big an issue and I could always remove them in Lightroom if it was. My Russian colleague was impressed, saying that I had “made the most of the FED.” With a little positive reinforcement, shooting this camera felt like a duty in addition to being a joy.
Starting a Collection
You probably noticed the other FED in the photos above, and my mention of forming a FED collection. It’s true, I’ve added a green-wrapped body as well.
A few months after getting big blue, my coworker approached me with the jolly green giant. This time the shutter speeds were spot-on, the curtain was intact, and the rangefinder was clean and accurate. It also came with the spicy Tessar-copy Industar-26m, which was the normal lens that came on most FEDs.
Like a cherry on top, it even came with the leather ever-ready case with a lush green suede interior! The question wasn’t whether it belonged in my collection, but whether it’s even possible to say no.
I kitted it out with a rainbow camera strap to signify my commitment to collecting the different colors and a Reveni light meter that I had been testing. The FED has a weirdly-recessed cold shoe that makes attaching accessories difficult, but the Reveni’s ultra-compact footprint makes it a perfect fit.
The green FED is just as sleek as the blue one, and may even stand out more. The blue tends to look black in most situations, especially when the light is dim while the green is a bit brighter. This second FED also seemed to function much better. The shutter was snappier, and everything seemed a bit sturdier. Key word; seemed.
After developing the first few rolls, it became clear that this FED had some sort of shutter issue that wasn’t reported to me. I was losing half the frame to curtain timing issues. I’m not 100 percent sure what happened, but I ruined about three and a half rolls of film because of my overconfidence.
It’s a shame that I’ve now had mechanical issues with both FEDs. Is it excusable because of the cameras’ cost? The answer lies in the few photos I was able to properly capture.
I find that the Industar lens is nowhere near as sharp as my Jupiter. I’ll probably use the Jupiter-8 from now on. The contrast of the Industar’s design, though, is quite pronounced. It certainly has a signature look.
Whether that’s a good thing is subjective to the user. I took the FED to Yyteri, a beach in Western Finland, to let it stretch its legs a bit. What was properly exposed came back colorful and punchy, so much so that I even turned down the saturation on the scans.
Conclusions: You’re Gonna be an InduStar, Kid
So it isn’t all roses with the FEDs. When they work, they’re excellent cameras that get the job done. They’re also great vehicles for some surprisingly-great Soviet optics.
Even with the mechanical issues I had, I think I can add “collector of curious Russian cameras” to my list of personality quirks. It’s really only a matter of time before I complete the trifecta by adding a red FED to my collection.
My time with the FEDs hasn’t always been smooth, with technical issues, necessary repairs, and the occasional strange noise, but it’s a camera with character to match its interesting history.
Its barebones set of features has made me focus on what I can control, and taught me things about photography I didn’t previously know. Even if I’m learning these lessons to circumvent the limitations of the camera, I’ve come to appreciate the creativity this allows me.
It also makes me twice as proud when a shot comes back that I like, since I know I worked hard to make it. It doesn’t feel quite the same if the camera does everything for you, like a lot of the other cameras I’ve reviewed.
There will always be a place in my bag for compact, automated cameras like my Agfa Optima 1035, but the FED has piqued my interest. I’m interested not just as a photographer chasing great shots, but as a student looking to learn by doing and as a historian seeking out interesting stories.
The other side of that coin, though, is that the FED, especially bought secondhand from a stranger, may not be reliable without maintenance. If, like me, you aren’t comfortable doing more than the most basic repairs, your FED may develop terminal problems.
It’s up to you to decide if this ride is worth the low cost of admission. There’s a unique frustration that comes from achieving a 12 percent success rate over three rolls of film, especially when it was the camera’s fault.
If you can find a FED that works, or feel up to the task of repairing one, this is a no-brainer. You get an exceptionally quirky light-tight box able to hold a few awesome lenses. It’s a simple, restrictive camera that you won’t feel bad about throwing around with aplomb.
Whether that’s because they’re robust or easy to replace, though, I’m not entirely sure.
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