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Kiev-4 (Pic: Hubregt Visser)
The Kiev-4, a Contax III from behind the Iron Curtain (All pics: Hubregt Visser)

By Hubregt Visser

I acquired my 1978 Kiev-4 from an internet auction, guided by nothing but photographs and a short description from the seller. The price I paid was very fair and worth the risk of buying a camera that I did not have in my hands before the transaction. Sometimes you lose, sometimes you’re lucky and this time I certainly was lucky.

I already own a couple of Former Soviet Union (FSU) rangefinder cameras, like a Mir, several Zorki-4s and a FED-3. I was attracted to these cameras seeing them as cheap alternatives for Leica cameras. And I was not disappointed. They live up to the saying that they deliver 90% of the Leica experience for 10% of the price.

Following the same reasoning I also wanted a Kiev-4 or – preferably – a Kiev-4A (that’s the one without the exposure meter) to get a Contax III (or II) experience without breaking the bank. Remember that the Contax II camera was the one Robert Capa used on Omaha Beach on 6 June, 1944, to make the ‘magnificent 11’, the most famous pictures of D-Day. If a seasoned war photographer like Capa chose the Contax II over the Leica III – that he also used during the Spanish Civil War – there must be something special about it.

History of Contax and Leica

The history of the Arsenal Kiev-4 camera is closely related to the history of the Zeiss Contax II camera.

The Zeiss Contax II (successor of – not surprisingly – the Contax I) was introduced in 1936 in Jena, Germany. It was not the first 35mm rangefinder camera, but it was the first rangefinder camera that combined both rangefinder and viewfinder images in a single window. The Contax II was made to compete with the Leitz Leica 35mm cameras. This film was originally devised as a motion picture stock in the 19th Century. It became popular for stills photography with the introduction of the Leica I in 1925. Kodak released preloaded 35mm cassettes in 1934, and that must certainly have added to the popularity.

The Contax II combines all shutter speeds (B, 1 to 1/1250 s) in one dial, whereas Leica used two dials. The viewfinder and rangefinder in a single window, whereas Leica used separate rangefinder and viewfinder windows. The base of the rangefinder is 9cm, much longer than that of the Leica. The Contax II uses a backloading film procedure where Leica uses bottom loading. The Contax II has a self-timer, the Leica does without. The Contax II uses a lens bayonet mount where Leica uses a (39mm) screw mount. The Contax 50mm f/2 Sonnar was considered to be sharper than the 50 mm f/2 Summar made for the Leica.

History of the Kiev-4

Immediately after World War II, the Soviet Union moved German equipment and technicians from the Zeiss factories in Jena and Dresden to the Arsenal factory in Kiev, Ukraine as a form of war reparation. There they ‘continued’ the Contax II manufacturing. The first model, named Kiev-II, was introduced in 1947 and is said to contain original Contax II parts.  Don’t try looking for a Kiev-1; it never existed. The Kiev-II was followed by the Kiev-III, a copy or clone of the Contax III (a Contax II with an exposure meter on top of the body).  The Kiev-4 (with exposure meter) and Kiev-4A (without) have a synchronised flash and some minor cosmetic differences compared to the Kiev-III. They were in production from the 1950s until the 1980s. The latest variant, the Kiev-4AM was equipped with a rewind crank and a hot shoe. All models use the Contax bayonet mount.

The quality of the cameras is said to deteriorate with production date and especially the late 1980s specimen are frequently described as being of a low quality. The year of production can be read from the first two digits of the serial number. The serial number of my camera is 7809684, meaning it was made in 1978.

Kiev-4s came standard with a Jupiter-8, a 50mm f/2 lens. This lens is a copy or clone of the Zeiss Sonnar lens of 1929, consisting of six elements in three groups. In 1931, Zeiss made a redesign with seven elements in three groups, leading to a maximum aperture of f/1.5. But the Jupiter-8 is not a clone of this redesigned lens, it is basically the 1929 Sonnar. In 1957, the Jupiter-8M was introduced, adding stops/clicks to the aperture ring.

The light or exposure meter on top of the Kiev-4 body is of the self-powered selenium cell type and does not need a battery. The cell is kept in the dark with a spring-operated cover that is to be opened for light measurement only. Keeping the cell in the dark will prolong the lifetime of the cell. The exposure meter is not coupled to the lens.

Kiev-4 camera specifics

The Kiev-4 specifics are listed below. We will go through most of these in detail later.

  • Produced: 1947-1987, Arsenal factory in Kiev, Ukraine, USSR
  • Type: Rangefinder
  • Film type: 135 (35mm)
  • Negative size: 24mm x 36mm
  • Dimensions: 139mm x 89mm x 66mm (with Jupiter-8M)
  • Weight 769g (with Jupiter-8M)
  • Lens mount: Contax rangefinder
  • Focal range: 0.9m (3ft) to infinity
  • Filter size: 5mm threaded, 42mm slip-on
  • Shutter: Vertically moving metal-slat curtains
  • Shutter speeds B, 1/2, 1/5, 1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000
  • Viewfinder: Coupled rangefinder
  • Exposure meter: Uncoupled selenium cell
  • Self-timer
  • Accessory shoe: (cold)
  • PC sync flash contact

Rangefinder

When looking at the front of the camera, we do see two windows. The one on the right is the viewfinder window, the one on the left is the rangefinder window, see the picture below.

Kiev-4 camera (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

The rangefinder image is – through an optical mechanism – superimposed upon the viewfinder image. The rangefinder mechanism is connected to the lens focusing mechanism. So, by adjusting the focusing, the rangefinder image is moved. When the rangefinder image coincides with the viewfinder image, the lens is focused correctly.

The focusing of the lens may be performed by rotating the distance/focus ring of the lens in the usual way. A nice feature of this camera though is that you can also use a focusing wheel on top of the camera, see the next figure.

Kiev-4 details (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

Behind this focusing wheel is a lever that locks the lens when focused at infinity. Pressing this lever unlocks the lens for focusing at distances between 0.9 m (3ft) and infinity. The lever and the focusing wheel are operated by the right-hand index finger.

This way of focusing requires that the camera is held in a special way so that the rangefinder window is not obscured by the right hand. The next figure shows this so-called ‘Contax-grip’, which just means that fingers are placed above and below, but not on, the protruding rangefinder part of the camera.

Contax grip (Pic: Hubegt Visser)
The ‘Contax Grip’

Lens mount

The lens mount of the Kiev-4 is the Contax rangefinder mount. The next picture clearly shows this mount.

To remove the Jupiter-8M 50/2 lens, press the lens lock release and turn the lens clockwise until it comes apart from the camera body. To attach the lens, simply insert and rotate it counterclockwise until it snaps into position.

Kiev-4 lens mount (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

The Contax lens mount actually consists of two mounts: An inner mount that is being used for the 50mm lens and an outer mount of which the bayonet grips are visible in the above figure. The outer bayonet is used for lenses having a longer focal distance.

Film loading 

To load a 35mm film, we need to remove the back completely. For that, we need to lift up the two keys on the bottom of the camera – see the figure below – and rotate them half a turn.

Bottom of Kiev-4 (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

Back of camera removed (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

We then see the cassette chamber on the left, the (vertical metal) shutter in the center and a loose take up spool on the right, see the next figure. The reason for having a loose take up spool is that it can be interchanged by a take-up cassette. If we use a take-up cassette, we don’t have to rewind the film after finishing he roll.

If you get a camera without a take-up spool, you can take a used 35mm cassette, open it, take out the spool and use it as a take-up spool.

To load the film, we first attach the lead of the film to the take-up spool. Then we insert the cassette into the left chamber and the take-up spool into the right chamber. We make sure that the film perforations engage with the sprocket teeth of the transport drum on the right of the shutter. Closing the camera has to be done carefully.

It is best to hold the camera upside down and hold the film in position with the left thumb while using the right hand to engage the back edges into grooves of the camera body. Upon closing the back completely, it may help to wiggle the lock on the side of the take up spool a bit until you feel the back engage. Then completely lock the back. With that done you make two blank exposures.

To advance the film, rotate the advance knob clockwise until it locks (the take up spool is rotating counterclockwise), see the next figure.

Details of Kiev-4 (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

The shutter is found at the center of the film advance knob. After making the two blank exposures, rotate the rewind knob on the left in the direction of the arrow to tighten the film.

To set the shutter speed, lift the advance knob, rotate it to get the desired shutter speed and let it fall into the slot. The shutter speed may be set before or after advancing the film, but is recommended – for accuracy – to set it after advancing the film. This is a common procedure for all FSU rangefinder cameras.

Finally, use the thumb wheel in front of the film advance knob to set the frame counter on zero and you are ready to go.

Exposure meter

To use the exposure meter, the cover first has to be opened. For that, press the small button indicated in red in the next figure.

To close the meter, fold back the latch and press it to the left (camera in front of us with the lens pointing forward) as indicated in blue.

Kiev-4 meter front (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

 

Kiev-4 meter details (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

To use the meter, you use the calculator on the left of the camera top to find the correct exposure settings. Start by setting the ISO value, (see the figure, number 1 in green).

To set the film sensitivity, rotate the inner ring with ISO/ASA/GOST settings indicated on the top. The ISO value is indicated by the red arrow. For that rotation, use the two small knobs indicated in green (number 1). Here I have set the sensitivity to ISO 400, see the top green arrow (number 1). Actually, the sensitivity is in GOST which is close to, but not identical to ISO or ASA. For negative film the differences between the two are negligible.

Next, open the exposure meter and point the camera to the scene you want to photograph. By turning the outer rim of the calculator (red curved arrow, number 2), you get the needle to move so that it matches the diamond-shaped mark in the exposure meter window (red arrow, number 2). When this is accomplished, we’ll read aperture and shutter speed combinations from the bottom parts of the outer and inner rings of the calculator.

In the current setting we see, for example, a shutter speed of 1/10s combined with f/16 or 1/125 s for f/4. Note that you’ll need to apply some rounding off, but the exposure latitude of negative film (the extent to which it can be under or overexposed) easily allows us to do so.

If it is not possible to let the needle indicate the diamond-shaped mark because there is not enough light, guide the needle to the -2 or -4 marks and divide the shutter speeds by 2 or 4, respectively.

First impressions

The over-40-year-old camera had obviously been taken care of and given tender loving care. All shutter speeds worked and seemed to be accurate. The rangefinder worked and seemed to be accurate. The self-timer worked. The lens was clean and focused easily, the aperture blades were oil-free and moved smoothly. The camera came with a nice ever-ready case, showing only minor wear and tear.

Kiev-4 and case (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

The only minor issues were the leatherette that was starting to get loose at the edges and the setting of the shutter speed that was not going very smooth, it needed some force. The first issue was easily solved with a bit of glue. The second issue might not be an issue, but might be specific for the camera.

Since all-in-all the camera seemed to be in a very good condition – giving me the impression that it has recently been CLA’d (Cleaned, Lubricated and Adjusted) – I decided not to open it up for CLA. I decided to give it an outer cleaning – although it did not need one – and run a film through, a roll of Kentmere PAN 400, to see if the shutter, shutter speeds and focusing are OK and if the body is light-tight.  At the bottom of the inside, I found some light seal foam in good condition, confirming my assumption of a recent CLA.

Shooting with the Kiev-4

I never use ever-ready cases. If you are shooting with an SLR camera, such a case is only useful if you are not intending to change lenses and stick to a 50mm. For protection, while traveling light, I decided to use the ever-ready case. It did its job protecting the camera from rain and did not hinder me at all in taking pictures. So, I might have changed my opinion on ever-ready cases.

I started by comparing the exposure meter results with those obtained from a hand-held reflective meter. The results were spot-on!

Using the exposure meter is something you do have to get used to. The calculator is not the troubling part for me, but mere the fact that you have to take a reading holding the camera at waist level (to see the meter), while shooting at eye level. I did notice that the reading can change a bit between those two positions, but then I guess I’m taking the reading too seriously. It should be more of an indication rather than an exact measurement, given the earlier mentioned film exposure latitude.

Focusing, using either the focusing wheel and rangefinder is very smooth. The viewfinder is very clear and if you lose the superimposed rangefinder image from time to time, the cure is always to remove a finger from the rangefinder window. After a while you’ll learn to stop obscuring the rangefinder window.

A much-read complaint on the internet is the limited view through the viewfinder and the metal ring scratching eyeglasses. I think that the viewfinder is very bright, giving an accurate viewing of the scene that will end up on the negative. The glass-scratching is a serious problem indeed. I use contact lenses now (after scratching my glasses) to avoid this problem, which also gives me a better view. For wearers of glasses I advise to glue a rubber or velvet ring on the rangefinder window rim.

Changing the aperture once the lens has been focused is difficult. You’ll need to fix the lens with one hand, while changing the aperture with the other hand. If you don’t, you’ll rotate the lens and with that change the focus. The rotation may also result in the aperture values being visible only on the underside of the lens. For me, the best procedure is to set the lens at infinity, which locks the lens and then change the aperture. Once the aperture is set, I’ll (focus.

Holding the camera, with or without its case, I find comfortable. The size is right for placing the hands and the ‘Contax-grip’ is easy to get used to.

Results

I had loaded the camera with a 36-exposure roll of Kentmere PAN 400 film, but could not wait to see the first results. So, after 14 shots, taken in my neighborhood, I have opened the camera in the dark and cut the film.

I was really pleased with the results. The shutter speeds do all work, the focusing is very precise and there are no light leaks. On top of that, I am really impressed with the quality of the Jupiter-8M lens. I find it very sharp and contrasty, being used to Industar-22 and Industar-61 lenses on my other FSU rangefinder cameras. A few example shots are shown below.

Building and sky (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

Office windows (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

Lone tree (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

Canal and trees (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

Crane and barge (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

Conclusion

The camera looks good, feels good and – apart from changing the aperture – handles really well. The broad rangefinder base, combined with the on-body focusing wheel leads to a very accurate focusing. The viewfinder is clear and the superimposed rangefinder patch is very good to see. The Jupiter-8M 50mm f/2 is a beautiful lens, giving sharp and contrasty images.

The standard ever-ready case proves to work in practice, giving protection while not hindering camera operation.

The exposure meter is still spot on and the calculator works well for decently illuminated scenes. For dimly lit scenes the calculator fails to deliver shutter speed and aperture settings and a hand meter needs to be used.

Since I’m in favour of using a hand meter anyway – and then preferably in incident metering mode – I’m on the lookout now for a Kiev 4A model (the one without an exposure meter). If anything, I think that model looks even cooler than the Kiev-4.

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Keith W
Keith W
2 months ago

Interesting article Hubregt, with a lot of useful observations. As someone who wears glasses, the comments regarding the viewfinder are particularly relevant.
Also, I love the fact that despite loading a 36 exp roll of film, you had to process it after just 14 shots! The detail in the final shot of the barge on the river is particularly impressive.

Thanks for posting. A perfect companion piece to my morning coffee.

Hubregt Visser
Hubregt Visser
2 months ago
Reply to  Keith W

Thanks very much

Brett Rogers
Brett Rogers
2 months ago

One of the biggest problems with acquiring a really good Kiev is that—depending on your level of film photography obsession—it can subsequently be impossible to ignore a desire for a genuine Contax. I scored a cheap Kiev 4a a few years ago, and now own 3 Contax IIs…

Hubregt Visser
Hubregt Visser
2 months ago
Reply to  Brett Rogers

I do hope that I can suppress the desire to own a genuine Contax 😉

Juan Suarez
Juan Suarez
2 months ago
Reply to  Brett Rogers

It works both ways. I own two Contax iis, which I use a lot, and I’m kind of curious about Kievs.

Hubregt Visser
Hubregt Visser
2 months ago
Reply to  Juan Suarez

I’m wondering how they compare when you have both in your hands.

Harry Machold
Harry Machold
2 months ago

I might not create friends here but pretty often, the Kiev is the better Contax though.Here in Vienna, we have access to some superb restorers being able to make everything Eastern European run perfectly well. In many ways, the Contax is the choice instead of a Leica from back then. Later, after the M3 and IIIG, Leicas was the one to go for. Contax never developed their after war IIa and IIIa to the standard required already back then. I recently fall more and more in love with these humble Russian cameras.. Thank you for the images here, they are… Read more »

Hubregt Visser
Hubregt Visser
2 months ago
Reply to  Harry Machold

Thanks very much! I’m learning to appreciate Russian rangefinders more and more. I think they are wonderful after a CLA. And the CLA can be performed at home with a bit of patience and good guidance.

Frederik
Frederik
2 months ago

Great to read an article that does justice to this camera, Hubregt. I bought mine 35 years ago in Budapest, using it since, it needs a service now. Acquired recently the Jupiter 35/2.8 for it, a nice lens to use together with Jupiter 50/2.0.

Hubregt Visser
Hubregt Visser
2 months ago
Reply to  Frederik

Hope I can use it as long as you do.