By Iain Compton
Many years ago, I lived in Kiev, and found myself falling in love with Soviet camera equipment. The fleamarkets, camera stores and small ads were full of old cameras that were so cheap as to be almost free.
I bought a lot of cameras and passed on many more. I wanted working machines, not shelf-sitters. What I especially wanted was a really good example of the Kiev 88. These were hard to find. It’s not that there weren’t plenty for sale, quite the opposite, it’s just that it was hard to find one in good working condition. Most of the ones I looked at had rotting curtains, ominous noises when winding on, or other serious issues.
I looked further and further afield, and eventually the name Arax hove into view. Arax is a project by a man named Gevorg Vatanien, when the Arsenal factory in Kiev stopped making cameras, he bought all of their stock of finished cameras, camera accessories and spare parts, hired a bunch of their line techs, and set up a new small-scale production line.
Every Kiev camera went through a rigorous re-engineering program. The lens mount was swapped for a Pentacon Six mount, the insides were flocked, a mirror lock-up system was installed, the original cloth curtains were replaced with titanium ones, and the cameras were generally tightened up and given a QC pass that the original Kievs never had.
I looked at the prices, decided that the extra cost over the fleamarket offers was worth the peace of mind and placed an order. A few days later, Mr Vartanien showed up at my office in person with my new camera. I bought the standard kit which came with two magazines, an 80mm f/2.8 lens, a metered prism, a waist-level finder, and some small accessories. I played with it a bit and became hooked on the 6×6 life.
The Kiev 88 was originally the Kiev Salyut, a clone of the 1948 Hasselblad 1600. Hasselblad actually only offered this model for a very short time, because they couldn’t solve the problems with banding at high shutter speeds as a result of the very large focal plane shutter curtains. After about 1951, they increased the maximum shutter speed to 1/1000s before later ditching focal plane shutters altogether with the 500 series, but Kiev continued to produce cameras with the 1/1000s focal plane shutter mechanism.
For what it’s worth, the techs in Ukraine didn’t solve the banding issue either. Over the years, the Kiev went through some minor evolutions, and became the Kiev 80, then the Kiev 88.
Back in the day, the Kiev was the camera system of choice for professional photographers in the USSR. Hobbyists and amateurs used the ubiquitous Zenits, Zorkis, and FEDs, but the Kiev range was aimed at people who needed more. Kiev made two medium format solutions, the big SLR-like 60, and the modular 88. Like the Hasselblad that spawned it, the 88 has interchangeable everything. You can switch between a finder or a prism, you can remove the film magazines mid-roll, and of course the lenses are interchangeable too.
For studio work, I use the 88 on a tripod and with the waist-level finder attached. The finder, with its flip up magnifier allows much, much more precise focusing than the prism, and it’s a brighter image too which makes it easier to find the focus fast – important if your model is holding a pose while you fiddle with the focus ring. The body has an accessory shoe that will fire a remote trigger, so I can use off-camera flash with it just fine. That huge shutter takes some time to trundle across the frame though, so the sync speed is all the way down at 1/30s.
That means you really need to be getting all of your light from flash. It’s hard for a model to stay still enough for a sharp exposure at that speed unless you are using multiple off-camera strobes to freeze the scene. Ambient light with fill flash will very likely end up giving you an unsharp image purely because of the subject’s natural movement. Obviously, the lenses are all primes so reframing means dragging the tripod backwards and forwards.
I’ve had a lot of success with the Arax as a studio camera for portrait work. I’m generally using Fomapan 100 for black and white, and Kodak Portra 160 for colour work. The huge negatives are a joy to work with, and the Volna lenses are capable of really super sharp resolution along with lovely colour rendering. You will want a hood, as even with multicoating, the lens flares like crazy if there’s a light source in the frame.
You may need to set up some barndoors if you have some backlighting and you can’t keep it out of the frame. I’m generally using studio strobes with beauty dishes, octaboxes and gelled reflectors so it’s not too hard for me to angle things so that nothing is shining directly into the camera.
As far as composition is concerned, the 1:1 aspect ratio enables some interesting poses that would be lost in a regular 3:2 frame. Thinking in terms of squares instead of rectangles can help to break you out of a rut.
Instead of going for thirds, you find yourself looking for symmetry instead. It’s liberating. You will need to explain in advance to your model that the process takes a bit longer per shot than with a digital, autofocusing camera and you owe it to your model to think ahead so that they aren’t holding uncomfortable poses for too long.
These days, I tend to do hybrid shoots. I’ll use my DSLR and my Arax alongside each other, deciding for each pose how I want to capture the shot. There’s a lot to love about big analogue cameras and it’s often a valuable selling point for me when I’m pitching ideas to a model or a client.
Medium format; it’s big AND it’s clever.
- I’m Iain Compton, I make video games for a living so that I can take photos the rest of the time. You can find me on Instagram (@serialforeigner) or on my photoblog serialforeigner.photo