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One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...

John Duder has quite the growing collection of Exakta cameras which are the subject of his fascinating latest feature for ePHOTOzine.

| General Photography
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One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: The line-up, oldest at the front, newest at the back.

The line-up, oldest at the front, newest at the back.

 

Now it’s a collection

If a couple of years ago I wrote about my 50-year long desire for an Exakta and its eventual fulfilment. There’s a seductive look to the cameras that Ihagee made in Dresden: the full name of the company was Industrie und Handelsgesellschaft (Industrial and Commercial Society) and the German pronunciation of the acronym IHG gave the rather odd name. Over the last six months, I seem to have turned into an Exakta collector. I don’t mean that I’ve got every model ever made, but I have got examples of the main models from about 1950 to the end of the line in the early seventies. All of them work after a fashion, and some work pretty well. The collection includes an Exa 500 (sadly, not the one I bought as my first SLR in 1970) and an Exa 1a, which is a quite remarkable camera, in several ways.

 

The Exakta Pedigree

As a result, I’ve had detailed insight into the development of one specific bloodline among cameras, and I’m seeing how problems often develop with age. It’s been a springboard for thinking about how products, in general, are developed, and that’s part of what I’m going to write about here.

 

One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: Exakta and Exa – while the cheaper model is more conventional in layout, it’s got a lot of the Ihagee DNA showing.

 Exakta and Exa – while the cheaper model is more conventional in layout, it’s got a lot of the Ihagee DNA showing.

 

The Exakta was the first 35mm single-lens reflex, and as every early adopter knows there are drawbacks to being the first in a field. These days, they call it ‘beta testing’ and you really expect to have a few problems. Not that many years ago, it was always a good move to wait until a car had been on the market for a year before buying one. At least these days beta testers know what they’re getting into!

You may have seen cameras described as having an ‘instant return mirror’ - this phrase comes into focus with the Exaktas that came before the VX1000, as their mirrors went up and stayed up until the user wound the film on. In one sense, it doesn’t matter, as you’ve taken the shot, and can’t change it. Disconcerting for novices to the brand, though!

Ihagee developed the Exakta largely for scientific use, and adaptors for microscopes and telescopes featured prominently in their catalogues. The scientific applications probably account for the way that Exakta bodies (but NOT the cheaper Exa models) allow cassette-to-cassette winding of film, and incorporate a film-cutting knife. This means that exposing half-a-dozen frames and developing them without either wasting a whole film or waiting until the full film has been used is easy.

 

One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: 2 Varex with the takeup spool removed and replaced by a second cassette – the knife can be seen on the right, halfway through the cutting process. After cutting, the last frame can be wound into the takeup cassette, and rushed to the darkroom – useful if you expose four or five frames in the course of a night in the observatory, or a lab session with a microscope.

Varex with the takeup spool removed and replaced by a second cassette - the knife can be seen on the right, halfway through the cutting process. After cutting, the last frame can be wound into the takeup cassette and rushed to the darkroom - useful if you expose four or five frames in the course of a night in the observatory or a lab session with a microscope.

 

The range of lenses available was also extensive, ranging from a 20mm Flektogon to a 1000mm mirror lens. I have ended up with quite a collection of lenses between 30mm and 135mm, for various reasons.

For one thing, I have my best friend’s dad’s old camera (that’s the Exa 1a), and its disregarded standard lens, a Meritar. This is undoubtedly the cheapest and indubitably the nastiest original equipment lens ever fitted to Exakta cameras although I have recently found that it works rather well for taking pictures with ultraviolet light because of its three thin elements. And I have got a Meyer Trioplan 100mm lens which I bought for its unusual bubble Bokeh – it just happens that many of the lenses I use for special purposes were made in Exakta mounts.

 

One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: 3 The characteristic ‘bubble Bokeh’ of the Meyer Trioplan – this has led to a price of up to £400 for original lenses, and remanufacture in various fittings. The new lenses have much higher ‘production values’ – and are priced accordingly.

The characteristic ‘bubble Bokeh’ of the Meyer Trioplan – has led to a price of up to £400 for original lenses, and remanufactured in various fittings. The new lenses have much higher ‘production values’ – and are priced accordingly.

 

The collection began with the Exakta VX1000 but I wrote about it a couple of years ago, but it’s now been joined by a VXIIa, a VXIIb, and a VX. If you put the camera side by side, you can see the development in use of materials, changes in detailed design, and simplification of construction. For instance, the heavy metal take-up spool of the VXIIa mutates into a much lighter part with a plastic core: it’s clearly cheaper, but it also makes the camera a few grams lighter. Is that a step backwards or forwards?


One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: 4 Top left of a VX and a VX1000 showing changes to the wind lever, frame counter and – crucially – the available shutter speeds.

Top left of a VX and a VX1000 showing changes to the wind lever, frame counter and – crucially – the available shutter speeds.

 

Similarly, the earlier cameras have a special thumbwheel for setting the frame counter, but the VX1000 simply has the edge of the frame counting disc exposed so that you can turn it directly: but the bent metal winding lever has turned into a cast and shaped piece. The ingenious film cutting knife which is secured by a screw thread in the earlier cameras has only a click stop to hold it in the later camera. And the ingenious ‘push the centre to engage rewind’ knob mutates into a conventional fold-out crank.

By far the weirdest variation is on the VX: all the other cameras have conventional coaxial flash connections – though all of them have FP as well as M and X synchronisation: the VX has four mysterious holes in the body, which the internet tells me are Vacublitz connectors. Cruder than the standard PC socket (itself almost a thing of the past, these days), there are separate connections for positive and negative terminals on the front of the camera.

 

One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: A view through the lens throat shows that the rubberised cloth of the blinds has deteriorated quite a bit. This is very obvious on the VX IIa and VX IIb, but absent on the later VX1000. It’s also not happened to my VX. I’m not sure whether this is because the VX used better materials, has been more carefully looked after, or has had the blinds replaced.

A view through the lens throat shows that the rubberised cloth of the blinds has deteriorated quite a bit. This is very obvious on the VX IIa and VX IIb, but absent on the later VX1000. It’s also not happened to my VX. I’m not sure whether this is because the VX used better materials, has been more carefully looked after, or has had the blinds replaced.

 

Keeping focus

I often look at the people toting 70-200 zooms and think how complicated and difficult they make life for themselves – but it was ever thus. When you fit a wide-angle or tele lens to an older camera, there are a variety of problems that seem to come with the territory. First, of course, there’s the increased difficulty of focussing – by the Seventies, this meant that microprisms or split-image devices blacked out, but on earlier cameras, the screen was just dimmer with the restricted aperture of the lenses. Focussing an f/3.5 30mm Lydith on the screen of any of these cameras is by guess and by God as much as by precision optical engineering, and you need good eyesight to get close.

 

One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: 5 Waist-level finder with a long lens at maximum aperture – compare this with the next picture, where the whole screen is darker, but the top edge is showing shading. The shading increases with further stopping down.

Waist-level finder with a long lens at maximum aperture – compare this with the next picture, where the whole screen is darker, but the top edge is showing shading. The shading increases with further stopping down.

 

And there’s a tiny little issue with any tele lens – due, I believe, to the limited size of the mirror, there’s usually cut off at the top of the screen, or at least severe darkening. It’s not in evidence on negatives or slides, but it’s annoying and may cause you to miss details at the edge of the frame when you compose your picture.

 

One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: 6 Waist-level finder, long lens at f/5.6.

Waist-level finder, long lens at f/5.6

 

A further problem issue is that additional lenses were far more of a luxury back then, and smaller production runs made lenses other than the 50mm more expensive. I’ve got a copy of Amateur Photographer from 1969 that lists most of the lenses on sale at the time, and it’s noticeable that both wide angle and tele lenses are relatively costly. This is perhaps the reason that many of the accessory lenses have preset or even fully-manual diaphragms.

What does that mean? A completely manual diaphragm means that you either have to focus at the taking aperture (no easy task at smaller apertures, where darkness and increasing depth of field make it hard to see what’s sharp), or adjust the aperture after focussing, necessitating looking at the lens. OK on a tripod: immensely difficult with a longer lens taking portraits in dim natural light. Zone focusing is great if the depth of field is reasonable, but it always feels like difficult territory to me.

 

One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: 7 Stopped right down, and without using the magnifier and excluding ambient light the view in the finder is hard to distinguish, let alone focus.

Stopped right down, and without using the magnifier and excluding ambient light the view in the finder is hard to distinguish, let alone focus.

 

Lenses, lenses, lenses

My Exakta acquisitions have come with a variety of lenses, from the Pancolar which was the ultimate aspiration for Exakta users (fast, auto diaphragm, relatively modern design) to the Meyer Domiplan, a lens that served honourably on so many Exas, Exaktas and Praktica cameras. Most of my lenses, like the cameras, are East German, and even the Meritar has the same sense that it was made by engineers doing the best that they could within a budget. My one West German lens is notably cheaper, with front cell focus and a fully manual diaphragm, engineered to a price, and with significant investment in the looks, rather than the feel. Think Seventies Fiat beside a Lada…

 

One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: 8 The lightly-made Westron makes use of a lot of plastic: the ergonomics haven’t invited me to experiment with the lens much.

The lightly-made Westron makes use of a lot of plastic: the ergonomics haven’t invited me to experiment with the lens much.

 

A good reason to seek out Exakta kit – especially if you can find an outfit – is that some of the lenses are now valued for their unusual rendering qualities. Most particularly, the Meyer Trioplan and Primoplan are prized for their unusual Bokeh – for lovely examples of what the Primoplan can achieve, have a look in Angi Wallace’s portfolio.

 

One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: 9 As a direct result of writing this article, I took the Westron out for a walk. Even wide open, it’s not that bad: no match for a Sony or a Sigma lens, but pretty acceptable for a lens that’s 50 years old, and a budget line.

As a direct result of writing this article, I took the Westron out for a walk. Even wide open, it’s not that bad: no match for a Sony or a Sigma lens, but pretty acceptable for a lens that’s 50 years old, and a budget line.

 

Contemporary camera lessons

There are lessons for the thoughtful photographer who never wants to go near a film camera, because many of the same kind of developments are going on now. For instance, the DSLR has evolved from a film camera with a small sensor stuck behind the shutter into smaller and sleeker devices, and the joins are far less obvious! Manufacturers are constantly experimenting with new materials, and there are constant experiments with a finger-grip that is smaller but still allows the user to hold the camera comfortably without a strap (something that an Exakta’s heavily-tapered body simply won’t allow).

 

One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: 10 The ‘barrel’ shutter of the Exa 1a is weird, and has a very limited range of speeds available.

The ‘barrel’ shutter of the Exa 1a is weird and has a very limited range of speeds available.

 

You may want, of course, to hold fire when a new development arrives. Rather than pre-ordering when the price is high, you may want to wait until that new lens or camera body has been around for six months and you’ve read and re-read the reviews, and maybe have had a chance to handle the gear at a show or your local dealer. Who knows? You may be able to pay less – not only will the list price have dropped, but you can find an example that an ‘early adopter’ has traded in with 1,500 miles on the clock.

 

One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: 11 The famous Trioplan ‘bubble Bokeh’ is most apparent with out-of-focus background highlights, and at maximum aperture, as in this shot.

The famous Trioplan ‘bubble Bokeh’ is most apparent with out-of-focus background highlights, and at maximum aperture, as in this shot.

 

Above all, though, think on when the latest version lacks something that you have treasured – when it is lighter, or the buttons have moved. Sometimes you will find that the usefulness of a feature has decreased, but often, once you adapt to the change, you’ll find things have got better. I clung to film in the face of digital, and to my DSLR when I had bought my first mirrorless body – and while my film cameras still get exercised, as do my couple of DSLR bodies, I mainly shoot digital with a mirrorless camera. I get the results I want more simply and easily – but the experience of doing it in different ways remains valuable.

 

One Of My Bad Habits, Buying Cameras, Has Got A Little Out Of Hand...: 12 The leatherette focus ring of some earlier Tessar and Pancolar lenses is pretty, but far less practical and durable than the later ‘zebra’ all-metal lenses.

  The leatherette focus ring of some earlier Tessar and Pancolar lenses is pretty, but far less practical and durable than the later ‘zebra’ all-metal lenses.   

 

Go on – go out and take some pictures, and get some exercise!

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder has been an amateur photographer for fifty years, which surprises him, as he still reckons he’s 17. He’s welcomed the easing of restrictions and the chance it’s provided to go back to model photography, and he’s also been running occasional lighting workshops with Misuzu. He remains addicted to cameras, lenses, and film.

 

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Comments

dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2063 England
8 Dec 2021 8:10PM
Will anyone else admit to bad photographic habits? Camera addictions, lens weaknesses?
alfpics Avatar
alfpics Plus
21 389 4 England
16 Dec 2021 11:35AM

Quote:Will anyone else admit to bad photographic habits? Camera addictions, lens weaknesses?


Bad habits?... never!
Film is no more for me; recently got rid of the photographic enlarger and assocaited tanks etc that has lain around unused for over 25 years!
Fascinating article John.
altitude50 Avatar
altitude50 19 24.1k United Kingdom
16 Dec 2021 5:36PM
I spent several years collecting early Miranda SLR's because I could see that they were quality. (Not the ones sold by Dixons).
Every time I saw a really good one at a low price on the auction site I bought it. Including a Soligor, which was a badged Miranda. I even found a mint Miranda RS which is comparatively rare and a Sensomat? with a nice f1.4 Miranda lens.
I had 12 altogether but decided I needed to sell as I am not getting any younger and sold them all as a lot with various Nikon, Voigtlander, Periflex, Zeiss, Pentax & Canon. Biggest bargain, a working Lordomat at 5 sold for 80.
I have never owned an Exakta.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2063 England
16 Dec 2021 5:50PM
Exaktas are definitely a niche interest: not at all mainstream!
abuford Avatar
abuford 14 United States
16 Dec 2021 8:41PM
My first 35mm camera was an exacta VX i bought used in college in 1973. I used it until it started scratching the film as the back pressure plate had some many rolls of film run past it that is lost its coating. It came with the original instruction book, the Biotar 58mm f1.2, lithagon 35mm f4.5, an xenar 135 f3.5. I used the built in film cutter a lot to switch between black and white and color film mid roll.... I use it now as a teaching tool to teach new photographers about shutters, f-stops, etc as like you noted it is easy to see all of the moving parts. To this day, i still prefer to focus manually because of this camera....
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2063 England
16 Dec 2021 9:24PM
I've had to go to Mike Butkis's wonderful website for instruction books more than once with Exaktas: sadly, none of mine have come with the instructions - and the pre-VX1000 rewind knobs are unusual, to say the least!
AndrewThompson Avatar
17 Dec 2021 10:57PM
Thanks for the article John; it made me feel less guilty about my own small collection. Over the last couple of years, for reasons which must have some deep-seated psychological root, I have been picking up cameras that I used when I was starting out as schoolboy amateur and into my 20s.With a Zorki, a Praktica IV (non-return mirror), Trip 35, Minolta 7S, a Yashica TLR, a few folders and a K1000 I've run out of room. I've had to repair a couple but others just keep going. Some of them have film in and I have a delivery of chemicals waiting to be tried out. Of course, with the older SLRs and the Zorki there are also lenses, some of which get daily use on my Fuji-X bodies (with old-fashioned shutter speed dial). The quality of the images from some of my manual lenses almost equals that of my XFs, whilst the quirky results from the Helios add some fun. And there's something very satisfying about making a great image with a 1949 Tessar on a 21st century body.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2063 England
18 Dec 2021 8:03AM
Andrew, you're quite right. There's a strange satisfaction to be had from using old lenses on new bodies - and mirrorless cameras make this easy, with cheap adaptors, assured infinity focus, and in-viewfinder 'live view'. As a certain Prime Minister said - you've never had it so good.
wilseymo Avatar
5 Jan 2022 6:26PM
Great article John. Got my first Exacta VX when I was about 13 (1953 or 54). My father got it from a friend at work and I fell in love with it. Took pictures for many years with it until it started to fail. (Film wind lever spring gave out and other little things, I took around the world with me in the navy in the 60s. I bought another body in the early 70s, don't remember what model. 1000 I think. But I had a 50mm, 135mm, and a 18mm for the VX so I could use them on the new one. Used it up to the early 2000s when I discovered digital. I gave the new model with lenses to my daughter when she got interested in photography. I Still have the VX body on a display shelf. Great cameras. Had a lot of fun with them.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2063 England
5 Jan 2022 9:34PM
Thank you, Will!

So you owned a camera in the year I was born - or maybe the year after. And you really clocked some mileage with it. I'm intrigued that your spelling (with a C instead of a K) was used in some marketing, though I've yet to see a camera with a nameplate spelt that way...

Fascinating cameras, any way around.
brubaker45 Avatar
10 Jan 2022 9:52AM
Well I'm another 'altitude' with a love of original Miranda's and a lack of interest really in Exacta. I had a Miranda F rather than going down the Pentax route most contemporaries had and always regreted selling it. Miranda were pioneers in SLR's in Japan and were superb products with one unique thing the lens mount which was somewhat larger than others meaning that with simple 'enlarging' adapters, any available SLR lens of the day would fit. The pentaprism was removable and there were a range of alternatives, waist level etc. A Sensomat came into my hands for 10 in the mid 90's and a hunt for that lovely black F followed, I ended up with the complete range before I got the F and I still have them along with about 8 Pentax SV's, S1a's etc and a collection of Olympus from the Pen F (original) onwards - using the great little digi Pen F nowadays. At 77 I'm afraid there will have to be a severe 'culling' soon!
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2063 England
10 Jan 2022 10:56AM
Culling? I have asked my daughter-in-law to be my photographic executor - she can keep or sell the cameras and books, and even th negatives. Just so long as they don't go in a skip...
brubaker45 Avatar
10 Jan 2022 5:20PM
That's a point I haven't really thought of - in fact I can't think of anyone who gives a dam in my small circle - take the relatives (of my wife) about 5 minutes to ditch the lot!
wilseymo Avatar
10 Jan 2022 6:55PM
Hi John,
You so right Exakta is spelled with a 'k'. It been a long time since I looked at the name plate. Sorry about that. As for buying more cameras and other photo toys, I just had to stop looking at the ads on line and in magazines. And as long as the Raw files fit on a hard drive, "out of sight-out of mind!."
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2063 England
11 Jan 2022 8:28AM
I have a row of external hard drives sitting on top of my computer...

If nobody else is likely to care, make sure that the cameras are labelled, and ideally all in one place. Make sure that there's something that tells people what you want doing with them - even if it's to send them to a charity shop (these are becoming more aware of 'collectable' status, or a local museum. Near me, the Black Country Living Museum is working on a Sixties are - so some of my stuff can go there...
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