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Salyut-C camera (Pic: Jayden Guthrie)
The Salyut-C, the USSR’s attempt to make a medium format system SLR like the Hasselblad 500 (All pics: Jayden Guthrie)

By Jayden Guthrie

My first proper film camera was the Canon AE-1.

With it, I learned the basics of photography: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and composition.

The easy loading method, and relatively small size meant that I could take my trusty Canon anywhere (not to mention I could shoot 36 shots before reloading).

But after four or so months of really getting to know the camera and getting into the rhythm of using it second nature, I started to want more; to expand my knowledge of the film medium, to take advantage of everything it has to offer.

This is what lead me to think back to the camera I had always admired, even before my entry into the world of film photography.

The hallowed Hasselblad 500CM.

The unusual square body profile, the waist-level viewfinder, interchangeable film backs, and most appealing to me, the massive 6×6 square negatives. The square format was so foreign to me, I had never seen any work or pictures used with it, it seemed so unusual, so very fitting to my own unconventional approach to shooting.

At the expense of a few eye-rolls from Kosmo Foto readers, the camera was so “outside the box”, an approach I take to most things in life, I knew I had to have one. This was IT, the camera that would kickstart my love for medium format.

Until an eBay search later revealed the eye-watering prices these machines commanded.

“Oh well, it was nice to dream”, I lamented.

Salyut-C profile (Pic: Jayden Guthrie)
The camera’s prominent wind knob

But something else caught my eye. It walked like a Hassy, it acted like a Hassy, and it talked like a Hassy, but with a heavy Russian accent.

It was a Salyut-C.

The Salyut (Russian for greetings/salute) was a the time, the Soviet union’s answer to the Swedish original at the time, the Hasselblad 1600F.

As the Russian market at the time lacked a medium format camera this sophisticated, the original was quickly reverse-engineered and put to market to the masses, sold to be a professional grade camera, suited for studio shooters.

I won’t go too much into detail about the later production, and later quality decline of the line here, as it matches closely to that of the Kiev 88, the younger brother of the Salyut.

Now to why this camera is still in my regular inventory rotation, even though I am now able to afford the “real” alternative.

To me, this camera has so much character.

Salyut-C on tripod on beach (Pic: Jayden Guthrie)

The unusual Cyrillic nameplate of the viewfinder mount lets you know this is a genuine piece of Soviet photographic hardware.

The massive heft of the thing, one that I find quite reassuring, telling me that this is not a plastic rip-off, it was built to last, and to take some punishment along the way while doing it, in true fashion of Soviet hardware of the era.

And my favourite quirk of this camera?

That shutter sound.

This is almost the main driving reason that I take this camera out sometimes. The massive 6×6 mirror slapping back, the pure joyous sound of the winding gears chattering away, advancing to the next frame, it feels like shooting a round from a grenade launcher.

Every picture taken rewards you with the immense satisfaction of the rewind action.

This thing is a mechanical dream machine with a roaring steel heartbeat. If you can’t already tell, I’m a big fan.

As most square medium format shooters know, using a camera like this for anything other than being mounted to a tripod can be a challenge, but a fun challenge at that.

Carrying this thing around on a photo walk, let alone a day trip, is pretty draining. It can feel quite cumbersome at times, weighing you down. But, as I said before, it is a limitation I really enjoy.

Using such a heavy camera makes you ask yourself, “Is this really worth a photo?”

But put this thing on a tripod and wait for an early morning sunrise? It’s in its prime element That is where it it shines, and where I’ve found it performs best.

Cable release? Check. Scene metered? Check.

Gorgeous scene? Check.

And release.

KALUNK!

Time to hit that goosebump-inducing rewind!

For those gear-loadout addicts (I include myself here), I’ll give you a rundown on the kit I’ve been slowly building up.

  • My Salyut body, 1977 model
  • Vega-12 Lens
  • 40 and 70mm macro extension rings
  • 45-degree eye level finder, which I will add is surprisingly hard to find and expensive, even for my unmetered version!
  • The strange straight pipe vertical eye-level finder

Now lastly is a question that I have been asking myself lately, and a good enough answer to back this up.

Why haven’t I upgraded yet?

Sunset in black and white (Pic: Jayden Guthrie)

To answer this, you’ll have to join me in looking at my other Soviet camera, my Zorki-4K. (Which coincidentally is how I found this site!)

I have been using the Zorki for the last couple of months or so, and have formed quite an attachment to it, after giving it a basic CLA/rangefinder realignment, my first on a mechanical film camera. This little service really cemented it as MY film camera.

As the Zorki is without any kind of meter, I have used a Doomo Meter D, attached to the coldshoe, for all of my metering needs.

Now don’t get me wrong, it worked a treat, and made the camera so much more capable. The clean retro lines of the Doomo complimented the harsh angles and knurling of the Zorki top plate.

But it never felt truly “natural”.

It was never a flowing process to take an image, it always felt clunky, transitioning from the viewfinder, taking a meter reading, then composing.

It didn’t feel suited to the style of photography that I wanted for my rangefinder, that is to be an “everyday carry”, capable of taking a snapshot of a scene, or capturing my feelings in the moment through an image.

The Zorki 4K is a capable machine, and I still do enjoy using it, but it doesn’t suit the purpose I wanted to use it for. So I now have a Voigtlander Bessa R, a sleek 2000’s rangefinder that is internally metered.

And it now happily accompanies me everywhere as my everyday camera.

If you are still here after that long winded description, then what I am getting at is this. I replaced the Zorki because I needed to.

The Salyut however? Not a chance.

I don’t think that I will ever really need to replace this camera, through want of something better, because it does everything that I need it to do.

I’ll admit, it has its flaws The occasional light leak in the darkslide seal (one that I attempted to replace with a DIY seal It has the standard Prime Directive of any Soviet film camera- NEVER change ANYTHING without first winding on the shutter, or risk mechanical apocalypse inside. It also has a limited selection of lenses available, but that just means less for me to collect!

But in the end, if I wanted flawless operation and a stock-standard shooting experience, I’d shoot digital, right?

Would I recommend someone to buy one of these cameras? One hundred percent yes It has a quirky character and personality that I am still struggling to find in any camera I own to date.

Thanks for reading, and happy shooting!

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Scott Gitlin
9 months ago

The appeal of Soviet cameras – I understand your special GAS. They are interesting and sometimes challenging to use but always fun.