Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Every Film Buff Should Have One Of These

From Russia With Love - FED 5B for $10

The Last Camera I'll Buy - For Awhile!

Yes, it's gotten to the point where I'm getting confused about which camera I should take out with me. I actually made a resolution to buy no more cameras in 2013 - but technically, I ordered this one on Dec. 27, so it doesn't count! It's a "Russian Leica", of sorts. The FED 5 series is a modernized update of the Leica III cameras that started life in Russia just after WW II, when the victorious Soviets carried a German Leica plant back with them, as a spoil of the war. The earliest ones looked exactly like a Leica III, and in fact the Russians used up the stock of original Leica parts - it is only in some specific details you can tell them apart. As time went on, the Soviets came up with their own improvements, mainly in usability, although most think not in quality, and certainly not in the looks department. I will be the first to say that these more recent models are just plain butt-ugly when compared to the classic original Leica III design. However  I am very enthusiastic for most, if not all of these various Soviet Rangefinder cameras, and I'm here to tell you why.

You can tell these cameras were designed and built in another world. Soviet Russia was a totally "form follows function" society, just like these cameras are. Incidentally, in light of the Soviet's adherence to "central planning", the big plan must have been for every Russian citizen to be a photographer, because these things were built by the millions, almost like there were camera tree orchards somewhere. But, with this overproduction, one senses an air of enthusiasm which everybody involved in the works must have had for these. Once you get past the ugliness of the stamped metal covers, and look inside -

 Precision Machining of the Shutter Block and Film Advance

Back Half of the Rigid Clamshell Body Removed for Loading Film

... you can see the passion, with the powder-coated black paint used throughout, with a very chunky and well machined mechanism which looks so well made, my gut tells me this can't be too far away from the original Leica heritage - in the workings of the camera - where it really counts. The nice crisp "clack" of the shutter confirms this - it's possibly the nicest sound I've heard from any camera. Upon close inspection, I can tell the center block mechanism of this camera (built in 1992) is exactly the same as that of the Zorki-4 (built in 1958) that I owned before. Judging from the overall condition, I would say this camera was bought, but very seldom used. Some Russian camera enthusiasts tell you to go for the well-worn ones, because you know they work, and that the ones that are pristine might be that way because there's something wrong, and therefore never got used. However, I thoroughly tested every function, and it all works, very very well in fact. So, unless there are serious light leaks, which I'll only know once I've shot a roll of film, I think for $10 I've got a real winner.

For the uninitiated, I should tell you about the Leica Rangefinder design in general. A rangefinder camera is one with a conventional viewfinder that does not look through the camera's lens - it's not like an SLR which is a "Through the Lens (TTL)" design. Added to this viewfinder is another set of optics, called a rangefinder, which serves as a focusing aid. The lens is coupled to the rangefinder mechanism so that while you are turning the focus ring, you see a split image in the viewfinder, so that when the two images overlap into one, you have achieved focus. Although the TTL design used by SLR cameras has many advantages, a rangefinder has one huge advantage that trumps it all in the minds of rangefinder enthusiasts. That is, it doesn't matter how big or small you've set the lens aperture, the view through the finder and it's focus aid remains constant, and you can very clearly align your optics for perfect focus on whatever object you wish, regardless of the depth of field determined by the aperture. Focusing thus becomes a completely independent operation, basically through a separate set of optics, making manual focusing much quicker and easier than with a TTL design. So why are so many of us still even talking about manual focus cameras at all? Didn't auto-focus make it's way in over 40 years ago? Certainly, and it's nice to have, but you don't have to read very far to realize that even with the latest model 2012 digital cameras, auto-focus can still be the biggest pain of all camera issues. I'm still reading digital camera reviews that talk about AF deficiencies - too slow, bad in low light, too complex, too hit and miss, etc, and it seems there is always hope held out that it will "be improved in a Firmware Update, or when next year's model is released", yet the complaints never seem to end. Auto-focus has it's advantages, but I still prefer manual focus, and in choosing between a manual SLR and a manual rangefinder (RF), focusing with the RF is much easier.

Now, on to my new FED 5B. It looks strange, and kind of like the body is beat out by hand with a hammer.

The name-plate has no sense of style whatsoever - it would be perfectly at home on a Moskovitch car. It has no strap lugs, so the (included) leather case has to be used (which kind of helps cover up the homeliness, ironically). The viewfinder, as much as I've bragged up the rangefinder design above, is only fair on these Russian cameras. The focusing part works great, but otherwise, it's quite small, dark and vague. This is the one big thing that is very un-Leica like about these Russian Leica's. On the plus side, this, and the Zorki 4 are the only cameras I've ever owned with a dioptre adjustment that actually matches my extreme far-sightedness - I need a +4.5 dioptre; most newer cameras only go up to +2.5 and if you need more, you have to buy another insert. Kudos to the Russians and their thick framed glasses!

The lenses are interchangeable, and the Leica Threadmount (LTM), also known as M39 is used. This means that you can use the older versions of best lenses ever made if you want to - (Leitz, Voightlander, Zeiss), and theoretically take pictures that are every bit as good as if you were using a real Leica III. Most of these lenses still cost hundreds, or thousands of dollars, and if you're on the cheap, the Russians themselves, along with copying the cameras have also made amazingly great copies of LTM optics. I've got the "entry-level" lens here- the Industar-61 f2.8 52mm. Still, even this lens which can itself be bought for only $10 or $20 is favoured by many for it's sharpness.

The better Russian lenses for M39 are from the Jupiter line, starting with the Jupiter 8 for around $50, and the ultimate being the Jupiter-3 which is a very fast f1.5 design which goes for around $170. There is no adapter available for using the more modern "M-Mount" lenses on the LTM mount. I'm just going to hang out with the Industar-61 for awhile, expecting it to be every bit as good as the Industar 50-2 that I use on my DSLR.

The FED 5B, unlike the FED 5, has no built-in light meter. The FED 5 uses a Selenium meter which adds greatly to the ugly factor, but I prefer using my smartphone light meter - bCam App instead, as I do with my Rolleiflex and Spotmatic cameras - the FED is no different. Neither the FED 5 or 5B require batteries - in fact, none of the Russian Leica's require batteries.

Loading film is very easy. As pictured above, the body is made from two rigid pieces that come apart like a clamshell, and this is a Russian Leica's best feature as far as I'm concerned. Even Leica themselves never thought of this! With the back completely removed and out of the way, you simply thread the end of your film into a slot in the built-in take-up spool and wind the crank once. Then you put the back on and wind again until #1 shows in the frame counter.

Shooting with this camera has two big pleasures, besides the ease of focusing mentioned above. First is the way it fits in your hands - Leica is famous for this, and the Russian versions share pretty much the same dimensions, along with the brick-like solidity. Secondly  as I mentioned above, but it' worth repeating, is the sound that the shutter makes. It isn't particularly quiet, but oh so lovely - a solid, perfect "clack" is what you hear. With the slower speeds of 1/15 and below, there is a clockwork involved, so you also get a bit of the sound of a spring unwinding.

I was stupid to have sold my old Zorki-4, especially as I had the Jupiter-3, Jupiter-8 and Jupiter-12 lenses with it - I sold all this to "go digital" back in 2008. It's nice to be back into it again at such a super low price - I do hope my first roll of film won't show up any unpleasant surprises. Meanwhile, here is a group on Flickr dedicated to pictures taken with the FED 5B. Enjoy.


  1. Nice overview, Dave. That camera truly is butt ugly and doesn't tempt me like the other Soviet rangefinders. Geez, tallying mine up I realize I have five of the buggers, four of which actually work (cloth shutter on the Kiev 4 is pretty spotty and hard to repair when it goes).

    One day my father's old Leica IIIF will tumble out of a drawer and I'll get to try it out. Until then I'm quite happy with my Zorki C.

  2. Thanks for the comment Tu. I agree, these are truly under-rated cameras! Thanks for posting, and welcome aboard!

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