“It is not so much a camera with some eccentric features built in, as a collection of eccentric features with a camera hiding somewhere behind them.” So wrote Roger Hicks and Frances Schultz about the Exakta Varex IIa. And the same could be said of the Ihagee Exa: a simpler and cheaper (but equally eccentric) sibling of the Exakta.
The Ihagee Exa is a fully-mechanical, interchangeable-lens 35mm SLR. But that’s a bit like saying the Volkswagen Beetle is a flat-four engine, two-door compact car. We get the facts, but not the essence of the thing itself. To better understand this weird and wonderful camera, let’s start with Ihagee, the company that made it.
Ihagee : The Early Years
A few years ago, when I had only a passing interest in vintage cameras, I don’t think I had even heard of Ihagee. Nevertheless, the company has an important place in photographic history.
Ihagee (pronounced Ee-haa-gay) was founded in 1912 in Dresden, East Germany by a Dutchman named Johan Steenbergen. Steenbergen’s father, a prosperous draper, wanted him to join the textile trade, but young Johan was more interested in photography. At the age of just 25, he founded Industrie und Handelsgesellschaft mbH, with his mother and himself as shareholders. The original company name, as you may have noticed, does not roll easily off the tongue. It was soon shortened to Ihagee, which is how the initials IHG are pronounced in German.
In its early years, the company made plate cameras and accessories, and subsequently, roll-film cameras. One of their early designs was the bizarre Ihagee Patent Klapp Reflex of 1925 (Jason Schneider in Camera Collecting calls it “an unfolding enigma”).
But the camera which Ihagee is most famous for is the Exakta. The Kine Exakta, unveiled in 1936 at the Leipzig Spring Fair, is arguably the world’s first 35mm SLR (the other contender being the Russian GOMZ Sport). In many ways, the Kine Exakta was an astonishingly modern camera. It had a focal-plane shutter capable of 1/1000 sec, lever film-wind with auto shutter-cocking, and a bayonet lens mount.
Ihagee : WWII and Aftermath
But dark times were ahead. In 1940, Steenbergen and his Jewish wife Elizabeth Nussbaum were interned by the Germans, and their property was confiscated. Thanks to Elizabeth’s status as an American citizen, the couple were able to flee Germany, but Steenbergen never saw his beloved factory again. In February 1945, Dresden was firebombed by Allied forces – one article describes it as “apocalyptic … a fury of devastation that beggars the imagination”. The Ihagee factory, like the rest of this once-beautiful city, was left in ruins.
Fortunately, the surviving Ihagee workforce had managed to salvage some machines and materials from the debris, and set up a new facility in a rented building. Production of Kine Exaktas was resumed immediately after the war. The Exakta Varex of 1950 – lauded by Aguila and Rouah as a “sensational innovation” – was the first 35mm SLR with an interchangeable viewfinder.
The 1950s have been described as “the golden years of the Exakta family.” The Exakta was a true “system camera” with interchangeable lenses, finders, focusing-screens, stereo adapters, close-up attachments, flash units and many other accessories. Crucially, with few other SLRs on the market, they also had little competition.
But Japanese manufacturers were starting to gain ground. The Asahiflex IIb of 1954 had an instant-return mirror (though it was not the first: that honor goes to the Hungarian Gamma Duflex). The Exakta only got this important feature in 1967; earlier models suffered viewfinder blackout until the film was advanced. The revolutionary Nikon F was released in 1959, and four years later the Topcon RE Super introduced TTL metering, a feature which no Ihagee camera – not even much later models – could boast. By the mid-1960s, the Japanese ascendancy was complete.
Meanwhile, through the mid-to-late 1960s, Ihagee was gradually absorbed into VEB Pentacon (Volkseigener Betrieb, or People’s Enterprise). The last “true Exakta” – that is, manufactured by Ihagee and compatible with the Exakta family of accessories – was the Exakta VX500 of 1969. However, various other cameras have borne the Exakta name. These include the Pentacon-made Exakta RTL 1000 (1969), the medium-format Exakta 66 (1984) – apparently a stateless entrepreneur’s “vanity project” – and even a compact digital camera(!) from 2004.
So where does my little Exa fit into all this history?
Ihagee Exa : Little Sister of the Exakta
The Exakta Varex was a beautiful and feature-rich camera, but not everyone needed all the features, and in post-war East Germany, not everyone could afford it. A 1/1000 second shutter speed? In this economy? Camera manufacturers in the 1950s had not yet started using the term “entry-level,” but that’s essentially what the Exa was – a simpler, cheaper version of the Exakta largely compatible with Exakta-mount lenses and interchangeable viewfinders. It had a limited range of shutter speeds, no self-timer, and a very unusual shutter (more on that soon).
The original Exa was introduced at the Leipzig Spring Fair of 1950 as an inexpensive alternative to the Exakta. In the marketing literature, its very simplicity was promoted as a virtue. “Not every purchaser can fully utilize all the features of the Exakta Varex,” said a 1950 leaflet, “he wants a simpler, but not less reliable, SLR at a low price.”
The German ad says, “The happy dad will appear more often in the family album, now that mom has her own camera, the little Exa […] It is cheap and easy to use. Perfect for mom!” (Before we roll our eyes at mid-century advertising, it’s worth reflecting that sexism remains widespread in the photography industry even today.) The article by Ivor Matanle (Amateur Photographer, 17 September 2005), suggests another reason to buy an Exa – as a second body for a photographer who already has an Exakta.
Ihagee Exa Variants
Introduced in 1950, the Exa remained in continuous production for the next 37 years. Nearly 1.4 million units were produced by the factory in Dresden, and briefly, Sömmerda. Unsurprisingly given its long production run, the Exa went through numerous versions, much to the joy (or despair) of collectors.
I am a user, not a collector. So in this section I’ll limit myself to a brief overview of the versions, focusing on the differences which are likely to matter from a user’s perspective. For a full-fledged “collector’s classification” I refer you to Wrotniak and PhotoButMore.
There were three main classes of Exa cameras: the original Exa (1951–62); its successor, the Exa I (1962–87); and a separate, concurrent line, the Exa II/Exa 500 (1960–69). The nameplate on the camera is the easiest way to identify which class it belongs to. On an original Exa, the nameplate simply says “Exa”, while the later versions have a suffix indicating the specific model.
All are fully-manual SLRs with no light-meter. All have an Exakta bayonet mount, except the Exa Ib and Ic which are M42 screw mount. All have a left-handed shutter-release (I did warn you, it’s a quirky camera).
The original Exa models, as well as their successor, the Exa I class, have interchangeable viewfinders and a unique “guillotine shutter” which I will talk about shortly. This shutter design does not allow for an instant-return mirror, and also limits the top speed to around 1/150 sec (some very early versions have a nominal 1/250 sec, but apparently this was not achieved in practice).
The original Exas have a lever to set the shutter speed (they are sometimes also called “gear-shift Exas” because the lever looks like a stick-shift). In the Exa I, this lever was replaced by a more conventional dial. Early models have knobs for advancing and rewinding film. The Exa Ia was the first to get a film-advance lever, and the Exa Ib got a rewind crank.
Chronologically, as you can see from the production years above, the Exa II overlapped the Exa and Exa I lines. All Exa II models have a non-interchangeable, eye-level (prism) finder, and a more conventional focal-plane shutter allowing for top speeds of 1/250 or 1/500 sec. Like the later Exa I models, they have a shutter-speed dial and a film-advance lever. The Exa IIa was the first to get a rewind crank, and from the Exa IIb, they also have an instant-return mirror.
My own model is the final variant of the original Exa (version 1.6 according to Wrotniak’s classification), produced from 1960–62. In the rest of this review, this is the camera I’ll be focusing on. Some of what I write also applies to other variants, but version 1.6 is the only one I have personally used.
Why I Bought the Exa
So far in this review, I’ve stuck to the facts – history, variants, and so forth. From here on in, it gets more subjective. But before talking about the camera itself, I want to briefly talk about why I got the Exa and how I use it. Since my review is not very objective, I figure I should at least give some context.
A couple of years ago, I became interested in ultra wide-angle (UWA) prime lenses for film cameras. Specifically, I was eyeing a 20mm MD lens for my Minolta SLR. But they are rather expensive, and I soon realized that I could instead get a Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon 20mm f/4 plus an Ihagee Exa body, and still have some cash left over.
Moreover, I am a sucker for pretty cameras, and with its compact size, uncommon trapezoidal shape and classic styling, the Exa is very pretty indeed. Apparently, not everyone agrees. In a hilariously defensive section titled “¿Quién dijo feas?” (Who said ugly?) a Spanish review noted, “There are those who dare to say that the Exas are ugly, and even those who have come to describe them as ‘chubby’. But there are few, if any, who can deny the pleasantness of their character and appearance.”
I like the Exa’s cute form factor, and its steampunk aesthetic, with nickel plating, knobs and levers. Most collectors prefer the older versions (1.1 to 1.5), which have silver nameplates with calligraphic lettering. But I was specifically looking for version 1.6; I like its black silk-screened plate with cursive silver script.
In actual use, the Exa is undeniably an oddball. But I like oddballs – and if you’re reading this review, I guess you do too. Besides, the Exa was never going to be my main camera. I got it as a special-purpose, “fun” camera, mainly as a body for the wonderful 20mm Flektogon lens (though I later added a Meyer-Optik Domiplan 50mm f/2.8). For that reason, I can tolerate – even enjoy – its many quirks.
So let’s talk about the quirks.
The Many Quirks of the Ihagee Exa
Film cameras come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes – from tiny to humungous, from simple to complex. But if you think about it, manual-focus 35mm SLRs are largely similar. The Exa is the exception that proves the rule.
I counted at least six ways in which the Exa is different. Next up I’ll talk about these quirks, and what impact they have on practical use. For each quirk, I’ve also noted an unexpected advantage. You may or may not agree with the ‘advantages’ – I did say I’m biased!
Quirk 1: Guillotine shutter – When it comes to shutter type, almost all film cameras fall into one of two categories: focal-plane shutter or leaf shutter. The Exa and Exa I models are an exception; they have a very unusual “guillotine shutter” (The Exa II models, however, have a more conventional focal-plane shutter).
Most English websites use the term “guillotine”, but I think the German term klappenverschluß (flap- or hatch-shutter) is a better description. In this design, the SLR mirror itself forms part of the shutter – the first curtain, so to speak. When you press the shutter release, the mirror flips up, exposing the film. Immediately afterwards, a metal plate swings up, blocking the light path and ending the exposure. Marc Rochkind has a more detailed description of how it works.
Advantage: The more sophisticated Exaktas had a focal-plane shutter made of cloth, and were thus capable of faster speeds. However, with the passage of years, the cloth has proved susceptible to pinholes and light leaks: a known issue with Exaktas. For all its other limitations (see quirks 2 and 3), the Exa’s guillotine shutter seems more durable.
According to John Margetts, the shutter also has no need of lubricants, so it can be used in very cold conditions. And it’s pretty quiet, if that’s something you care about. One Popular Photography article (Dec 1963) described the Exa as “the quietest and smallest full-frame SLR around”, while another (Feb 1958) called it “quiet as a mouse”.
Quirk 2: Viewfinder blackout – The later models in the Exa II line have an instant-return mirror, but on all other Exas, including mine, that is not the case. When you press the shutter, the mirror flips up… and stays up. Consequently – and somewhat disconcertingly – the finder goes dark. Visibility is restored when you advance the film, at which point the mirror is automatically lowered in preparation for the next shot.
Advantage: On some other cameras, I have been known to press the shutter, but nothing happens because I forgot to advance the film. This never happens with the Exa: if you haven’t advanced the film, you can’t see through the finder. At least in this one respect, it’s foolproof.
Quirk 3: Shutter speed – On my Exa, made in the early 1960s, the fastest shutter speed is 1/150 sec. The Exa 1c – last of the series (1985–87) – goes to 1/175 sec, but that’s only a quarter-stop faster. By comparison, the Nikon FM2 of 1982 had a top speed of 1/4000.
The shutter-speed selection is very limited in general – a consequence of the guillotine design. Mine has just four speeds: 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/150 (plus Bulb). With a normal lens, shooting handheld at 1/25 sec, you run the risk of camera shake. So you’re basically limited to the three fastest speeds – a range of only 1.5 stops. Moreover, the times don’t follow the conventional sequence (1/30, 1/60, 1/125…), so if you’re using a standard light meter, you may need to adjust accordingly.
Advantage: If you’re flexible with your choice of aperture, you can generally make do with the limited selection speeds. You could even argue that it simplifies matters. With the Exa, I often think in shutter priority mode; for example: “With the film and light I have, what aperture will give me 1/100 sec?”
This system is more flexible than you might think. Rather than explaining in the abstract, it’s easier to see with examples.
The art gallery photo was in not-so-bright indoor light, using Kodak Ultramax 400. At f/4, the 20mm Flektogon’s widest aperture, my phone meter indicated 1/15 sec. I went with 1/25 sec, the Exa’s slowest shutter speed. With a lens this wide, handholding a steady 1/25 sec is not too hard. The photo is slightly underexposed, but usable.
The sculpture was another indoor-light photo on Fuji Superia 200. At f/4, my phone meter suggested 1/4 sec which is not available on the Exa. No problem. I simply stopped down to f/8, switched to Bulb and made a 1-second exposure. I avoided camera shake by resting the camera on the parapet, but you can see motion blur on the person on the right – an artist who was sketching the sculpture.
The photo with clouds was on the same ISO 200 film. I wanted detail in the sky, and to emphasise the shape of the canopy by rendering it as a silhouette. It was a bright day, but by using the Exa’s fastest shutter speed (1/150) and the smallest aperture on the 20mm Flektogon (f/22), I was able to achieve both these aims. Another alternative would be to use an ND filter, which I don’t have.
The black-and-white portrait was shot on Oriental Seagull 400 on an overcast afternoon, with the 50mm Domiplan. I wanted to use the widest aperture, f/2.8, for shallow depth of field. My phone meter indicated 1/400 sec, which is not available on the Exa. I just went with 1/150 sec – a 1.5-stop overexposure, but most negative films can handle that, especially in a low-contrast setting like this one.
Quirk 4: Left-handed shutter – The position of the shutter-release is weird in two ways. First, it’s on the front of the body, like on some Praktica cameras. But unlike the Prakticas – for that matter, unlike almost every other camera known to humankind – the shutter-release is to the left of the lens. Thus the Exas and Exaktas are among very few 35mm cameras where the shutter is operated with the left hand. (The Kodak Ektra is the only other one I know of.)
What was the logic behind this design choice? I have no idea. Wrotniak puts it down to the “German ‘I know what’s right for you regardless what you think’ attitude … Focusing is a responsible task: it must be trusted to the right hand, therefore the shutter release has to be on the left.” The theory may or may not be accurate, but I find it amusing.
Marco Kroeger theorizes that it could be a holdover from older Exakta cameras for 127 film where the film transport was from right to left. Some say that Karl Nüchterlein, designer of the original Exakta, was left-handed, but I’ve never seen a reliable source for this claim.
Advantage: I suppose if you’re left-handed, it might be an advantage. I’m right-handed, but I got used to the Exa fairly quickly. Though I should say, I’m pretty flexible when it comes to cameras. If photography forums are to be believed, some people find a left-handed shutter almost impossible to work with.
Quirk 5: Film loading, transport and rewind – These are a little quirky, but not exceptionally so. The Exa has a removable take-up spool for film loading (prone to getting lost, so if you’re buying one, check that the spool is included). It has milled knobs for film advance and rewind. I must say I’m not a fan of these knobs; I prefer the “modern” film-advance lever and rewind crank. But it is what it is.
The film-counter doesn’t reset automatically when you open the camera back. When loading a new roll, you turn a milled ring to manually reset the counter to zero. The manual reset does not bother me as such, but the ring is a bit fiddly and annoying to use.
Advantage: The take-up spool can be replaced by an empty film cassette. Attach your film leader to an empty cassette, and save yourself from having to rewind the film. I must confess I’ve never tried this myself; the rewind knob is not ideal, but it doesn’t bother me that much.
Quirk 6: Viewfinder – The Exa is largely compatible with Ihagee’s wide array of finders and focusing screens (Wrotniak has a good overview, including a section on finder/body compatibility). Of course, this is not a limitation in itself. Quite the opposite; such choices are usually only available on “pro” SLRs. The limitation (or quirk) stems from the fact that apart from the Exa II models which have a non-interchangeable prism finder, most Exas tend to come with a waist-level finder.
With these, you hold the camera at waist-level and look down at an image projected on a ground-glass screen. The image is reversed left-to-right, which takes some getting used to. If you’ve used a TLR, you know what it’s like. But on a 35mm camera like the Exa, the screen is a lot smaller than on a medium-format TLR.
Focusing is tricky at waist level, especially at wider apertures. Ihagee finders have a built-in pop-up magnifier which helps with critical focus, but deploying the magnifier and raising the camera to your eye are extra steps which can slow you down. Bear in mind, too, that many of these cameras are almost 70 years old, so the mirror and ground-glass screen are not as pristine as the day they left the factory (mine certainly aren’t). In short, to focus and compose, you’ll be looking down into a small, relatively dim screen with a laterally-inverted image.
Advantage: For starters – and here’s the nice thing about a “system camera” – you can get a prism finder, which is probably what I’d do if the Exa were my main camera. But as I said, I got it as a fun camera for occasional use, and the waist-level finder was actually one of the things which drew me to it. Because for all their disadvantages, these finders have a certain charm. Even people who are not otherwise into cameras are fascinated by the ground-glass image (my friend said, “Whoa, an analog LCD”). When taking portraits, you can maintain eye-contact with your subject. And some shooting positions are easier with a waist-level finder, like if you want to place the camera on the ground. The finder can be folded down when not in use, making the camera even more compact.
In the photos below, you can see the how the finder folds out, as well as the pop-up magnifier. I’ve also shown the set-up for an actual photo, and how it turned out on black-and-white film.
Simply by describing its quirks, I find that I have said pretty much all I had to say about the Exa. There are just a couple more things to add for completeness. The camera has a typical 1/4″ tripod screw at its base. It has no hot-shoe (nor cold-shoe, for that matter) but it does have two PC sockets. The X socket is for electronic flash, and the F for old-style magnesium flash bulbs (which the Exa manual charmingly calls “regular flash”). The fastest sync speed is 1/50 sec for electronic flash and 1/25 sec for flash bulbs.
The shutter-release button has a thread which accepts a standard cable-release. There is a cute little lock right above, which can be swivelled down to prevent accidental shutter actuation. And that’s pretty much all there is.
Like many East German cameras, the Exa is well-made and feels solid, even if some of the controls don’t feel highly refined. Sure, it has limitations. But one major advantage of a fully manual camera is that you have total control over the three most important parameters: aperture, shutter speed and focus. Another advantage is that there are fewer things which can go wrong. Work within its limitations, and the camera delivers.
Exa cameras have a bayonet-type Exakta mount (other than the Exa Ib and Ic which, as mentioned, have an M42 screw mount). There is a vast range of used lenses available for both Exakta and M42 mounts, many of which are very reasonably priced. In this article I’ll focus on the Exakta mount.
There are three generations of Exakta-mount lenses: manual, preset and automatic. This categorisation is based on how the aperture is set. On most SLRs, regardless of the selected f-stop, the aperture remains wide open while you focus and compose, giving you the brightest possible viewfinder image. When you press the shutter, an internal coupling mechanism instantaneously closes the aperture down to the selected f-stop. This is such a common feature that we hardly give it a second thought. But that was not always the case.
With first-generation (manual) Exakta lenses, you focus and compose wide open, then manually stop down to your desired aperture before pressing the shutter. This is a slower procedure, and depending on how far you stop down, the viewfinder image when you actually press the shutter may be significantly dimmer.
The second-generation (preset) lenses are slightly more convenient. They have one ring to pre-select the f-stop, at which point the aperture remains wide open. Then just before pressing the shutter, you turn a second ring, closing the aperture down to the preset f-stop. This method of stopping down is faster, and can be done without taking the eye from the finder (the second ring turns till the preset aperture and then stops). But it’s still an additional action to perform.
The third-generation (automatic) lenses have a spring-loaded external plunger which stops down the aperture to the selected setting. When the lens is mounted on the body, this plunger couples with (and doubles up as) the camera’s shutter-release. Pressing the plunger simultaneously stops down the aperture and releases the shutter. This is an unusual solution but, as Wrotniak says, is effectively “as convenient as any solution using internal coupling”.
If you are buying an Exa for actual use (as opposed to collection or display), I would recommend looking into automatic lenses, easily identifiable by the plunger on the side. Manual and preset lenses are not necessarily cheaper; in fact, some collectible versions are more expensive. And using the Exa is already quite tricky, so why make your life even more complicated? But that’s just my recommendation, nothing more. We are all different, and if you wanted a simple life, I guess you wouldn’t be using an Exa at all.
Exakta-mount Lens Selection
As far as I know, there was only one Ihagee-branded lens – the Exaktar 54mm f/3.5 (actually a rebranded Meyer Primotar). However, a mind-boggling array of lenses was produced for the Exakta mount by other manufacturers – mostly German (including Carl Zeiss Jena, Meyer-Optik, Schneider-Kreuznach and Steinheil), but also French (Pierre Angénieux), Japanese (Taika) and various others. The lenses run the gamut from ultra-wide to tele; from cheap and plentiful (like my Domiplan 50/2.8 which was only £11) to rare and expensive; from “characterful” to “clinical”. Some of the chrome-finish Angénieux and Steinheil lenses, in my opinion, are among the prettiest lenses produced by any manufacturer, for any system.
If you’re interested in the multitude of other Exakta-mount lenses out there, Wrotniak has a good overview, Captain Jack has descriptions and photos of his vast lens collection, and Hugo Ruys has a list of over 2,500(!) Exakta-mount lenses.
Many of these lenses are undeniably tempting, but if, like me, you use an Exa with a waist-level finder, think twice before splurging on an exotic ultra-fast lens like a Biotar 75mm f/1.5 or a Harigon 58mm f/1.2. Due to the relatively small screen, I sometimes miss focus even with my Domiplan 50mm f/2.8. Fast lenses with shallow depth-of-field would be even trickier.
Another important caveat is that lenses longer than 100mm will vignette on the original Exa and Exa I models. This is due to their guillotine shutter, so the Exa II and Exakta models don’t have this limitation.
So far, I’ve only used two Exakta-mount lens: the Flektogon 20/4 and Domiplan 50/2.8. I hope to review these two lenses someday, but meanwhile, here are some more sample photos.
In the review I quoted at the start of this article, the authors concluded that the Exakta’s many limitations and quirks “add up to a camera that you can’t really use alongside anything else: it is Exakta or nothing. For most people, this relegates the Exakta to curio status.”
Compared to the Exakta, the Exa is even more limited, and even more quirky. But for me, it’s no curio or shelf queen. My collection of vintage cameras is a small one, but they are all in regular use – and so it is with the Exa.
So just how much quirkiness are you prepared to tolerate in a camera? At what point does it go from being charming to actively annoying? How many features do you really need? Can you cope with a left-handed shutter? These things – indefinable, subjective – are what will ultimately determine whether you get on with the oddball that is the Ihagee Exa. Personally, I love it. It’s not my main camera, but I use it more often than I expected to. I like it for its history, for its incredible selection of lenses, and for how pretty it is. And let’s face it, I like for its quirks.
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