Growing up in the USA during the late 70s and early 80s, my mindset regarding the Soviet Union would have been summed up nicely by movies such as War Games, Red Dawn, The Day After, and just about any Bond flick. Communism was evil, and I was convinced the Soviets wanted nothing less than world domination. The only thing keeping them from achieving that – and my subsequent requirement to stand in line for bread and anything I needed to live – was the guy in Washington with his finger on “the button.” I was also keenly aware of a guy in the U.S.S.R. with his finger on a similar button.
I can’t remember how many essays I wrote in high school that dealt with the subject. But, if it wasn’t all of them then it was most. It was on all our minds. Sting even recorded a song about it. I was certain that global thermo-nuclear war was how it would all one day end. And if you had told me that in just a few short years that the USSR would collapse, and the Cold War would be over, well, I wouldn’t have believed it.
But here we are in 2016, and there just aren’t many reminders around of that time. But I’ve got one – a genuine Cold War artifact manufactured in the heart of the Soviet Union: a Kiev 6C medium format camera.
I remember reading about the Soviet cameras, such as the Kievs and the Zorkis, and about how they were just cheap knock-offs of great cameras. The Kiev 88 was a cheap clone of a Hasselblad – albeit the focal-plane shutter model that Hassy killed off back in the ‘50s. The Kiev 3 was a Contax rip-off. And the Zorkis were assumed sub-par clones of the old Leicas. I would later come to understand that these Soviet designs were really the spoils of war – German patents and factories that Russia collected upon the close of WWII.
But there were a handful of cameras produced in the USSR that weren’t quite based on someone else’s existing designs. The Kiev 6C (and later the Kiev 60) is one of them. It’s a true Soviet camera. The closest thing to it was another Eastern Bloc product – the Pentacon Six. They both resemble giant SLRs, shoot the same format, and share a lens-mount. But that’s really where the similarities end. They have completely different designs…and reputations.
I picked up my Kiev on Ebay a couple of years ago. I’d always wanted to try one, and the bidding was right around my budget. So, I set my alarm for 4 AM the morning it was to end just so I could out-maneuver the competing bidders. And 15-minutes later I had a big old Soviet camera on its way to me straight from the Ukraine. This was the genuine article, folks.
When it finally arrived I was happy to see that it looked to be in great cosmetic shape. It was clean and appeared to have been well cared for. The lens – a Vega 12B 90mm 2.8 – was also in great shape – clear glass and no fungus. The camera also came with a waist-level finder as well as a metered prism finder. I don’t know what type batteries the meter finder was designed to use, but they must not have had them in the Ukraine. When I opened it up two button-cells and a handful of small coins used as spacers fell out. “Cool”, I thought. “Soviet money”. There was also a nice-looking leather case that smelled a bit funky.
I loaded it up with HP5 and spent the next few days searching for worthy subjects. In addition, one of my office colleagues volunteered to pose for a few portraits. So I was excited to see the results.
I was not happy. There was a major problem with the focus. What appeared to be in focus in the finder was not actually what was in focus on the film.
What a let down. I mean this camera is so huge you’d expect the results to be great just due to the sheer size of it. Medium-format is supposed to be extra-awesome. But I did a little research and discovered that this problem isn’t just a fluke with my camera. It’s a well-documented problem with the 6C, as well as the “upgraded” model – the Kiev 60. The good thing was that the solution was also well-documented. The problem was that the focusing screen was out of alignment. And if I was willing to do a little bit of camera disassembly, I could take care of it. I was. And I did.
And while I was at it I also decided to make sure the frame-spacing was adjusted properly. This seems to be another well-known issue with the big Kievs. But after a day of tinkering, I got it back to what I hoped was working order.
It’s also worth mentioning that the meter prisms aren’t known for their precise calibration. I found another tutorial on how to fix that. The problem I ran into then, however, was that the version of the prism I have is the “old” one. And it couldn’t be adjusted as far as I could tell. So, I figured I could make do with it, nonetheless.
After testing the meter against the one in my Canon 1D Mk IV, I discovered that it was reading a little hot – meaning it would interpret the scene as if there were more light there than there really was. No big deal really. The meter design is one like I’ve seen on several cameras that were released in the late 1960s. You must calibrate it for the maximum aperture on whichever lens you are using. The 90mm Vega is 2.8, so the meter should be set accordingly. But in this case I set it to 1.4 to compensate for the discrepancy. After this adjustment I found the meter to be quite accurate.
Oh, and the battery issue – nothing major there. I just picked up a cheap 8-pack of hearing aid batteries, put two in the battery compartment and filled up the extra space (there was a lot of it) with aluminum foil. It worked like a charm. And after everything was adjusted and calibrated to usable specs, this beast was ready for a couple of rolls of Ilford 120.
So, how was it? Well, it’s familiar and different at the same time. One thing you must understand with this camera is that it’s BIG. And even though it has the form-factor of an SLR, it doesn’t handle like any that I’m used to. Which has me wondering if I’d feel the same way about a Pentax 67. Hopefully, I’ll find out one day soon. But I digress (and daydream).
I alternated using the prism finder with the waist-level finder and found that I think I prefer the WL for this size camera – especially since the format is 6×6 and you don’t need to use a vertical orientation for anything. However, the prism finder is really nice to have since it has the meter.
I also love the commanding “ker-chunk” of the shutter. It just yells “medium format”.
In use, I only found a couple of issues that really pestered me. The biggest was the shutter release button being on the left-hand side of the body. I have no idea why that is, and it forced me to focus with my right hand – which was completely foreign to me. It’s hard to un-learn 30 years of camera technique. And it’s interesting to note that when they decided to upgrade this camera to the Kiev 60, they put the shutter release back on the right where it’s supposed to be.
The only other issue I had was that film-loading was a PITA. But, you know, I guess that’s usually the case with medium format cameras. Each one has a slightly different way of doing it. And the more I use this camera, the easier it will get. It consists of twisting and pulling (but not necessarily in that order) the spool knobs on the bottom of the camera so that the spool pins inside the camera open up enough to fit the film in there. I found the greatest difficulty in returning the knobs back into position to engage the film spools. I did download a user’s manual, but guess what? It’s in Russian.
Apart from those two things, I thought it was an enjoyable shooting experience. And for the price, this camera is a pretty rock-solid value once you fix all of the common issues. This is by no means a cheap knock-off of anything. But Russian cameras aren’t exactly known for their quality-control. Still, if you have some patience and a little DIY skill, this baby can be turned into an able performer.
One of the best benefits I recognize of the camera is the P6 lens mount. That is “P” – as in Pentacon. And all those legendary Carl Zeiss Jena lenses that fit the Pentacon camera will fit the Kiev. The Russian Vega-12B that was supplied with this particular camera isn’t terrible. Stopped down a couple of stops it’s really pretty good. Wide open is a little soft for my taste.
The verdict? Well, it’s big, bulky, and a bit clunky to use. The left-hand shutter release forces you to hold the camera in a way that isn’t intuitive. And the film is a pain to load. Add to that the time spent just bringing it up to shooting standard, and you may think it not worth the effort. But…once all that is done, I think it’s a good value for someone looking to get into medium format at a reasonable cost. I can’t think of any other similarly-priced system that would include a metered prism finder. But, you be the judge. Photos follow the technical specifications below.
Original List Price: 690 Rubles
Price in 2016 Dollars: Hard to say, but fun to think about. As of this writing (2016) 690 Rubles is equivalent to US $10.75. And $10.75 in 1971 is equal to about $65.00 today. But, it is quite an assumption to say that today’s exchange rate is valid for that of the former Soviet Union in the early 1970s.
Model: Kiev 6C
Year Introduced: 1971 (meter prism available only after 1980)
Production Ceased: 1984
Film Format: 120/220 6×6 format
Lens: 90mm f/2.8 Vega-12B
F/Stops: f/2.8 – f/22
Shutter: Focal Plane
Shutter Speeds: 2-secs to 1/1000, plus B
Shutter Release: front of body on left
Built-in Meter: Only with Meter Prism
Film Speed Range: DIN 10-31, GOST 8-500
Flash Sync: PC-terminal
Film Advance: Single-stroke lever on top
Frame Counter: Yes
Double-exposure capable: No
Finder: Waist-Level, Meter-Prism (non-Metered Prism also available)
Other points of note: Hinged back, tripod socket