By the 1990s, the Soviet Union’s FED family of cameras were looking decidedly long in the tooth.
The first FED had rolled off the production lines in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in 1934, a fairly slavish copy of a Leica rangefinder assembled by children interred in a labour commune. The FEDs filled a gap in the Soviet camera market created by the early Leicas’ seismic effect on photography.
FED production really took off after World War II, with the FED-1 copy of the Leica II the first of its postwar models. From 1955, with the appearance of the FED-2, the factory’s designers started moving away from the template of Leica copy, until the FED-5 cameras which first appeared in the late 1970s. Right through these upgrades two things remained the same – the camera’s Leica-screw lens mount, and its cloth shutter.
The Leica’s influence on their Ukrainian copies was more than skin deep. cloth shutters had a fastest speed of 1/500 until the advent of the Leica III in 1935, which added a 1/1000 speed. But FEDs – from the first pre-war FED to the last FED-5 coming out of the factory in the early 1990s – all shared the same 1930s-era shutter.
In 1990, FED began work on a new camera, one that finally bring it up to speed. Six years previously, Leica had released the M6, the most advanced rangefinder the company had yet produced. It also featured an integral meter, first introduced on the earlier M5. It was, unsurprisingly a sensation. Even with the Soviet Union in the throes of economic collapse, FED rolled the dice.
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Instead of the mechanical, horizontal cloth shutter in the Leica M6, the new FED would have an electronically controlled shutter, one that would be able to shoot as fast as 1/2000 – the kind of feature normally only found on high-spec SLRs from the West. Just like the flash new Leica, the FED would have a TTL battery-powered meter too.
Electronic shutters had proved to be quite a challenge for Soviet camera makers to get right, at least in production cameras. The Zenit D SLR of 1967 was the first Soviet camera to feature an electronic shutter, though KMZ’s designers were never able to overcome reliability issues due to a shortage of magnetic alloys, effectively killing this bulky, curious-looking camera. Only a few dozen Zenit-Ds were made and it would be another decade before a totally reliable Soviet production SLR – the excellent Zenit-19 – would feature one.
The new FED’s shutter is thought to have been provided by Japanese camera maker Minolta, similar to the one used in the Minolta CLE rangefinder. A speed of 1/2000 in a rangefinder would have been something novel even in 1990; few rangefinders had broken the 1/1000 barrier.
This great leap forward remains a tantalising what if, at least on the cameras that have made their way into collections since the early 1990s – the prototypes feature the exact same Leica shutter as the FED-5C, one which goes no faster than the standard 1/500.
For the camera’s body, however, the Ukrainians were a little more steady-as-she-goes. They turned to the FED-5C, the economy model of the FED-5 made for domestic consumption in the USSR, which didn’t have much in the way of bells and whistles but did have a meter at least. Soviet practicality at its finest – why bother designing a new body when you have one that will do sort of do the job already?
(Pics above taken by William Parkinson via USSRPhoto.com)
The new FED’s chassis did at least show some signs of upgrading, not least the rubberised “grip” covering on the left side of the camera, standing in for a grip. The FED-5C’s selenium-powered meter obviously had no need for a battery, but room was found on the back of the camera body to include a battery compartment. In the production models, this battery would have also powered the electronic shutter. A power switch on the back would activate the meter when needed.
The old travelling shutter dial of the FED-5C had also been changed. The camera’s ASA setting sat inside a much chunkier, rounded shutter butter compared to the earlier FEDs’ lift-and-pull set-up.
This camera’s meter was of course readable inside the viewfinder, with the TTL cell attached to an arm which moves downward when the shutter was depressed, according to USSRPhoto.com. This would have made it one of only a few Soviet rangefinder cameras to have had a meter readout in the viewfinder, alongside the likes of the LOMO Sokol and FED’s own Mikron-2.
The FED-6TTL was intended to be sold with a revamped version of the faithful Industar-61 L/D 55/2.8, a version of which had already been sold with FED-4s and 5s. This version of the lens featured an entirely new aluminium body, with a new lens barrel and slanted grooves on the focusing grip to give it a more modern look.
Work on the FED-6TTL continued sporadically as the Soviet Union fell apart. FED even unveiled the camera the Photokina trade fair in Cologne, Germany, in 2000, a decade after work on it began and eight years after the first prototypes were completed. At that stage FED was still offering fresh stock of the FED-5 (despite production ending in 1990) but by now the now-Ukrainian company’s normal distribution systems had all but dried up. The FED-6TTL faded away with no more than a handful of Leica-shutter-equipped prototypes being produced, most of which have disappeared into private collections.
Leica themselves would not release an electronic-shutter film rangefinder until 2002, with the M7, with Cosina offering the Bessa R4A a few years later. Had the Soviet Union remained intact for a few more years, perhaps the ambitious FED might have had a longer and more successful story.
Many thanks to Vladislav Kern at USSRPhoto.com for help with this article.
Read more on the FED-6TTL:
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