When I first got into Soviet cameras in the early 2000s, the amount of information you could find online was a tiny fraction there is today.
Invaluable sites such as USSR Photo and Soviet Cameras, with all their exhaustive detailing of cameras from prototypes to household names, were still to appear. To people like me, freshly bitten by the Soviet camera bug, the most reliable information came from a handful of forums and newsgroups, which is when I first became aware of Jay Javier.
Jay is a bit of a legend in the Soviet camera scene. He was shooting with Soviet cameras while the USSR was still nearly a decade away from collapse, back when all but the most common, mass-market Zenits and Zorkis were almost impossible to find outside the Soviet sphere of influence.
Twenty years later, Jay is still an active participant in various photography forums, and a pragmatic cheerleader of Soviet cameras. Based in Manila in the Philippines, Jay teamed up with Yuri Boguslavsky of Fedka.com to release the FED-1 & Zorkij-1 Survival Site, which is still an invaluable resource for those wanting to repair or calibrate these early Soviet rangefinders.
I was overjoyed to have Jay’s involvement in the long-read ‘Read this before you buy a Soviet camera’ earlier this year. He really went above and beyond in his replies to his questions, so this piece is the full text of our interview. If you’ve ever been curious about picking up a Zenit, Zorki or FED, this is a must-read.
What is your experience with Soviet cameras?
“I use/shoot with Soviet cameras, repair and restore them, and collect them. Learning about their histories, function, abilities, oddities and eccentricities, and circumstances, is also a part of this experience. If I may add ‘proselytising’ about these instruments and converting a few to subscribe to them. Soviet cameras tend to be regarded as unknown, exotic, hostile, and incapable beasts in this part of the world, and this proselytizing a bit clears a lot of misconceptions and pulls in new Soviet camera fan(atic)s.”
How did you get into them?
“There were many entry points to going into Soviet cameras. I had always been interested with what was behind the Iron Curtain. I was in high school back in the 1980s. I came across some odd-looking text which turned out to be Cyrillic. I taught myself to read and write in this alphabet, and this lead to an interest in anything Russian.
“Then during a discussion with a senior photographer, someone mentioned the Zenit. I was unaware of Soviet cameras and hearing that brand made me curious. That senior photographer lent me a very old American camera magazine which had a piece on Soviet cameras. The cameras shown there were those featured in the 1957 Brussels Fair: Kiev 4, Leningrad, Smena, the PH-1 panoramic, and three obscure cameras, the Junost, Kadr, and Kometa. The last was described to be the USSR’s challenge to the west- and indeed it was, with its mechanically linked auto-exposure and automatically indexed framelines. The lenses described were fantastic too, such as the MR-1 20mm, which the magazine article claimed was wider, though just by 1mm, than the 21mm Super Angulon.
“That was in 1982, and the cameras which I had were a Nikon FM2 and a Leica IIIc. The Soviet goods were really appealing. I wanted to have them badly. But the Curtain was still draped over the USSR, and there was no way that I could get any of them. The internet and eBay were still 15 years away for me in the future.
“Some Soviet cameras did find their way to Manila, as I came to realise shortly later. Zenits were usually brought home by people who worked abroad in the Middle East where Soviet cameras were available, or by Soviet merchant seamen who would sell their cameras for cash to buy some Levis or Adidas. It wouId be worth mentioning that cash from a sold Zenit was enough to buy just one pair of Levi’s and perhaps a dozen sachets of dried mango preserves.
“The first Soviet camera I got, in late 1985, was a FED-3 with an Industar-61 lens. My Leica had a badly scratched Summar on it so I replaced it with the Industar. This was what convinced me of the quality of Soviet lenses. The Industar made the colours pop and I’ve never seen so much snap in b&w before. This was still in the days when negatives were printed directly on paper without digital software intervention, so those wonderful qualities were really attributable to the lens.
“Around 1988, I got my first Zorki, a Zorki-4K. I had seen it in a shop which sold old cameras. I thought it looked like a Leica M3 (my ultimate goal camera then) and that it was a good enough substitute. I was quite disappointed because it was poorly made. The viewfinder prism literally unglued itself which made the camera useless. The black Jupiter-8 that came with it found use on my Leica IIIc and eventually a Canon 7 which I got some years later. The quality of the Jupiter and Industar lenses was more than a consolation- the cameras they came with were not so good, but I got excellent lenses for much less than what a Leitz or Canon equivalent would cost.
“In 1990, I got acquainted to the Kiev brand with a Kiev-4AM and a Kiev-6C. Unfortunately both cameras konked out almost as soon as I loaded them with film. I noticed that these cameras, including the aforementioned FED and Zorki all had serials which started with numbers which seem to refer to years. The assumption turned out to be correct. This was also the moment that I look back to as the basis of the opinion that cameras made in the late 1970s and 1980s were of poor quality and make. That opinion was proven to be correct later, with the cameras acquired and through the stories shared on the internet. This muddied the reputation of the Kiev for me, but not so with the Zorki.
“Forward a few more years, towards the turn of the century. I had been itching to get a Hasselblad but its price tag was beyond my reach. I saw the Kiev-88 in those tiny backpage boxed adverts in Shutterbug magazine. There were already discussions there about the dubious quality of the Kiev 88. But still I wanted one, and found an advert from a USA-based vendor (who was endorsed by no less than the magazine’s editor himself) who claimed to do away with the “Russian Roulette” hit-or-miss factor in buying Soviet -now Ukrainian- cameras.
“ I bought their claim and paid about 3x more than what the others sold the Kiev for. And bought my first Barnack-Zorki. The Kiev also failed and I sent it back. The US$100 Zorki was OK, but quite expensive, as I found out a couple of years later when I discovered eBay.
“It was at the turn of the century that I got online and discovered the forum and newsgroup sites devoted to Soviet cameras. There I learned a lot from people like the late Kevin Kalsbeek who was considered as the online authority on Soviet cameras. One day in 2000, my Barnack Zorki was pilfered by a nimble fingered thief from my satchel. I really felt bad about its loss. I could say that this was my inspiration for going to eBay where I found that a lot of Russians and Ukrainians selling Zorki, FED, and Kiev for much, much less. I bought my first eBay Zorki from an Estonian seller for US$20.
“I remembered the lost Zorki, so I bought again. And again. Until I had dozens of them. I felt too, that I had to have Barnack FEDs. I venture to guess that a comparable motivation drove Imelda Marcos to get all those shoes.
“Kievs, Smensa, Lubitels, as well as more Jupiters, Industars, and Helioses joined the growing stable of Soviet cameras. Since a lot of what I was getting needed repairs, I felt that I had to know how to repair these too. I had some experience tinkering with Leicas before, but the internet provided vast amounts of information. This was also the time that I met Yuri Boguslavsky (FEDKA.com) who suggested that I find Maizenberg’s Camera Repair book.
“The book was an awesome resource. I practiced and got the ropes of fixing Barnack Zorki and FED in no time at all. To show gratitude to all those who shared with me their knowledge in Soviet cameras, I launched the FED Zorki Survival Site, which was hosted by FEDKA. It is perhaps the first English-language online resource on using and repairing FED and Zorki cameras. The site is still there, but has not been maintained for more than a decade and a half. I am thinking of creating an updated version.”
Was it the affordability? The fact they were out of the ordinary in those days?
“There is no question that Soviet cameras are exotic. This exoticism is what I believe to be a major factor in the interest. I tend to regard them as the kangaroos and platypuses of cameras. These evolved on their own, with odd and unique features, after they got cut off from the rest of the world. Cost was a factor, but not so much now. Twenty years ago, Barnack FED and Zorki could be bought off eBay for about US$20-30. Zenits for about $10. These cameras were true alternatives if cost was the factor. But not anymore. The Helios lenses which used to go with those US$10 Zenits now sell for as much as US$50, thanks to the hype. Or maybe the discovery and realisation that these lenses were as good as the best German or Japanese equivalents.”
Which cameras are your favourite?
I have a strong- very, very strong- preference for the Barnack Zorki and FED. Much more so with the Zorki, which from personal observation and experience, were better made cameras than their contemporary FEDs. I also now like the Kiev rangefinders which I used to dislike. And Zenits, of course.
What are your tips regards using them?
“Not much, just know how the camera is to be used. Soviet camera operation is largely intuitive, but there are certain peculiarities in handling which must be followed. Incorrect handling can be fatal to many cameras.
“If there is one tip which I feel strongly about, it would be the proper loading of bottom-fed cameras like the Zorki or Zenit-1. Cut the leader as required and load as instructed. The people who designed (mostly Oskar Barnack) and made these cameras knew what they were doing and the instructed method wasn’t made to torment users. The hipster methods which involve lens removal and insertion of cards just to avoid film leader cutting are clumsy, ridiculous, and potentially perilous to the camera.
Why do you think they have a bad reputation? Is it unfair?
“Before it was largely due to unfamiliarity with Soviet cameras. Back in the mid 1980s, when I was still in school, I attended a function of a camera club. The big boys there sported Nikons (which they considered to be on top of the pecking order), followed by Canons, with Minolta, Pentax, and Ricoh following. They thumbed their noses down at Zenits. They would tell the Zenit owner to get a ‘real camera.’
“It was no surprise that those who panned the Zenits severely have never held nor used one. Their opinion of the camera was based mainly on uninformed opinion. None of them knew that the Zenit lenses were largely Soviet versions of legendary German glass. Or that the Zenit was the only camera (then) that could claim to retain as a true Leica descendant by virtue of retaining the original Leica II shutter. This is “unfair” in this context.
“The bad reputation which Soviet cameras isn’t undeserved either. Many were really badly designed or made. As these creatures become more known, thanks to the internet, the bad ones get to be publicly shamed and justly avoided. Many of the generalisations in this respect turn out to be valid. There were several cameras I bought, boxed and with factory seals and signed certificates of worthiness, and yet when opened revealed a camera which could never work. One was a compact Kiev-35A whose shutter blades were not even opaque. Quality control was so bad that even a non-working camera could pass through “inspection.” I presume that it was the quota system of Soviet industry, where success was measured in term of how many were produced, with no concern if the products worked or not.”
(The portraits above were all taken on a Zenit-3M with a Helios -40 85/1.5 lens, pictured)
Which models do you recommend to those curious about using them?
For the curious and serious, I recommend the Zorki models 1, 2S, 5, and 6. The popular Zorki-4K is perhaps the worst of Zorkis. I see it as a last ditch effort to improve on a camera whose platform was a design from the 1930s. The additions are just crazy. Slow speeds can be debilitating- their presence is what makes the shutter shifting error fatal. Slow speeds are also rarely used.
“The Zorki-6 is underrated. It was the only LTM Zorki with a hinged back with a fixed spool. These make it perhaps the best for user-friendliness.
“For the Zenit, the Zenit-12XP, 12CD, or TTL. These models are nearly identical, save for some details. Based on experience, these would be the peak of Zenit design.
“Kiev rangefinders are wonderful pieces of engineering. The dictum that “older is better” holds true for Kiev. My best Kiev date from the 1950s and 1960s. The worst one I got, my first Kiev, was crap made in 1984.
“The Kiev-88 Hassy copy should be avoided because of its delicate nature. So many parts and assemblies where failure can happen.”
Is their reputation gradually getting better as more people use them?
“I suppose that the two decade online presence of Soviet camera topics from using and repair to collecting and history has improved the reputation of these cameras. As Nathan Dayton put it in his Commie Cameras site, the “attempt to clear the fog” shrouding these enigmatic cameras has succeeded. FEDs, Zorkis, Kievs, Smenas, and Zenits which had previously been grounded behind, and largely unknown outside, the ‘curtain’ have crossed over to the other side. This turned many of these previously unseen machines from mythical beasts into household pets which anyone have, behold, or use and play with.”
The lenses certainly seem to be held in high regard – given how the prices are rising
“Soviet lenses without doubt are excellent ones. Going back to that camera club Zenit story, my main point in the defence of Soviet optics was that the USSR had sent satellites and men to space before anyone in the West did –so making excellent lenses was well within their capabilities. And further supported by the observation that on the club wall, the enlarged prints of photographs shot with Helios lenses cannot be differentiated from those shot with Nikon or Canon lenses.
“Early this century, I have used Industar-61, Jupiter-9, Helios-40 and -44, Mir-1 and 26 (for 6×6 on Kiev), and Mir-20 for professional work on film, and later, adapted to digital. These photographs went on magazine covers, advertising layouts, calendars, cd albums, and even movie posters. I could say without doubt that Soviet lenses are really capable. Some, like the Mir 20mm (for Leica) have very rectilinear fields which aren’t always seen in Japanese lenses. I still use them now.
“The combination of old, mostly pre-WW2 formulations combined with more recent materials and manufacturing techniques created a body of optics with qualities unseen in modern offerings that make Soviet lenses particularly desirable.
“The lenses used to be very affordable – cheap, in a good way – from online stores. The Helios-44, the 58mm which came with Zenits used to be given free with some purchases. Or else could be had for about US$5.00. Add US$5 more and you get the Zenit with it. The Helios 44’s adaptability to many digital cameras has redefined its use and created a new demand for it.
“And there is also the (ridiculous) construct called bokeh. Blur used to be a non-issue, but the romanticised descriptions on how these are rendered made them sound relevant. This inflated the prices of originally low-tiered plebeian lenses into the gentrified overpriced baubles they are now. The Trioplan costs now as much as two of its contemporary Summicrons because there are too many hipsters who want one to make bubble bokeh. Soviet lenses like Helios-44 now cost about US$ 40-90, from the US$ 5.00, for two, from the days when no one was interested in it.”
There seems to be a great international community with FSU gear
“The internet made this possible. I suppose saying that ‘there seems to be a great international community’ is an understatement. There is, without doubt, a great international following for Soviet photographica.
“I could talk about the situation here which may perhaps parallel the situations elsewhere. Soviet cameras were unknown here. Very few wanted to have them. People distrusted Soviet cameras in the cold war sense. So a few of us started bringing them in, thanks to eBay. Up to 2003, I only knew of two other people here who were into Soviet cameras. Then as our collections increased, we started to describe them in the local online chatter. This whetted the interest of more than a few. This is the infection we so fondly referred to in the old Soviet camera fora.
“Showing and demonstrating Soviet cameras and lenses often made this infection effective. The affection for these gear can be transmitted by contact, so we’ve observed.”
Are they the antidote to overpriced hipster cameras?
“The greatest hipster racket, IMO, was the LOMO LC-A craze. LOMOgraphy made low-tech and defective photography into a hipster mania and used this to overprice those which were really cheap. I have an old TENTO catalogue from 1985 which presented cameras according to value and sophistication. On page one was Smena 8M, followed by the LC-A, and then the Kiev-35A, and then ultimately, the Zenits and Kiev MF cameras. The hype shot up the LC-A into a lofty tier it didn’t deserve.
“Luckily it was the only the LC-A which was ‘hispterised’. All the other, better cameras remained untouched by LOMOgraphy’s rebranding.
“We get orders in our processing laboratory which turn out with blank or badly fogged film. The owner often shot with some overpriced toy camera. The Holgas or Sardina cameras cost about the same as a good FED-2 or even a Lubitel. When one owner whose three 120 rolls came out totally blank – that was about US$55 in film and processing costs – asked for a tip on how to avoid this, I simply told him, “get a real camera. A FED-2 will cost less than what you paid today for those wasted film.”
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Jay Javier is the reason I got into Russian cameras more than 2 decades ago. The stuff he helped me get still work to this day, and they’re still favorites in my collection. Also, reading this article makes me want to get another few Feds and Zorkis 😛