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Natural light outdoor portrait, with reflector, on a KMZ Iskra and Fuji Neopan

Since 2000, I’ve been collecting old Soviet cameras, the relics of a once-mighty photographic industry. Many of the cheaper, simpler end of the spectrum – such as the Zenit E SLR – were well-known in the West, the kind of cheap, no-frills camera that many budding photographers took their first shots on.

As I’ve written before, the Soviets also produced – in some cases copied – some more refined designs, some of which were very reliable and capable of taking beautiful pictures. One of the best of these was the Iskra 6×6 medium format camera made by KMZ in the 1960s.

The Iskra’s a medium format folding camera based very closely on the classic Agfa Isolette made in the 1950. It’s a beautiful camera for taking portraits.

My friend Sarah has recently published her first book; it’s a children’s book called The Yes (and it’s brilliant – if you have or know some anklebiters, do check it out). She asked me to take some publicity pics, as hopefully the coming months will see her swept off her feet with people rightly proclaiming her genius. Aswell as a few rolls of 35mm on my Nikon F100, I decided to take my old Iskra out of the camera drawer. I love this camera, but I’ve been such a mission shooting 35mm the last few years that my medium format cameras have been largely ignored.

Tke Iskra is one of the most highly regarded of the Soviet Union’s cameras

I plan to do a lot more shooting with the Iskra this year – I’ll be taking it on some upcoming trips to Istanbul and Morocco – and I’ll write up a proper review in the future. But in short, the Iskra’s secret weapon is its lens. The glass in its 75mm Industar-58 lens (the equivalent of a 50mm standard lens on a 35mm camera) is stunning – not surprising, considering it’s the last hand-made glass made by German lens legends Zeiss before World War II. The remaining glass was impounded by the Soviets after the end of the war, and was used in a number of their lenses during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The Iskra was the very last of these, a final link to a previous generation of camera craftsmanship.

Most of the shooting I’ve done on the Iskra is black and white, but it’s also well suited to colour slides (check out this pic from a trip a few years back to Sicily).

Shooting 6×6 forces you to slow down – there’s only 12 shots on the roll, meaning you’re a big more careful about composing and exposure. This slowing down, being more careful about what you’re shooting is a great way to improve your photographic skills. The square format, too, means you see each shot with new eyes. It’s very different compared to the landscape format of 35mm, and can be just the thing to revitalise your photography if you feel like you’re stuck in a rut.

Despite being sat in the camera drawer for the best part of half a decade, it looks like the Iskra is in perfect working order – testament to the fact this camera is considered one of the most reliable of the USSR’s cameras. Now’s the time to give it a proper workout.

Check out my Flickr set for more pics from the Iskra and its descendent the Iskra 2.

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Stephen Dowling
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