Imagine a rainy Saturday in November 1978. Photography had become a major interest for me, although my then current Polaroid Snapshot camera was cramping my style a bit! I’d been promised a ‘proper’ camera for Christmas, hence my gazing through the window of Dixons, a photographic and electrical retailer, on the Saturday in question.
I’d done plenty of window gazing on previous Saturdays, but this Saturday was different. This Saturday was The Day of The Purchase. Today cash would change hands, though it would be Dad’s, not mine. My first proper camera would be mine, although it wouldn’t be in my hands until Christmas.
We’d come to buy a rangefinder camera, nothing so fancy as a Leica but something much cheaper, a Zorki, a Kiev or a FED. Personally, I was keeping my fingers crossed for a Zorki-4K!
Far more technically advanced cameras existed (this was essentially 1930s technology after all) – and the Nikon FEs, Olympus OM-2s and Canon AE-1s glittered temptingly in the window. But money was tight and I knew these exotic beasts couldn’t be considered – so for me they didn’t exist. I couldn’t see them. I was tuned into the cheaper end of the market, the cheapest possible without devolving into point and shoots. Welcome to the Eastern Bloc rangefinders.
Dad and I walked into the shop.
The salesman was eager to sell and I looked longingly at these extraordinary mechanical marvels – the Kiev-4A, a Contax copy with its elegantly engraved script and long base rangefinder. The Zorki-4K, a Soviet development of the original Leica II of 1932 with a film wind lever and minimal but somehow just right design, and finally (and cheapest) the slightly ungainly but very nicely finished FED-4!
I’d hoped for the Zorki, but I ended up with the FED. It wasn’t my favourite – it looked big and wrongly proportioned, lacking the sleek lines of the Zorki and the elegance of the Kiev. It was, and still is very much an ugly duckling, and its looks haven’t improved with time. But that didn’t matter – this was my own proper camera, with an interchangeable lens mount, a focal-plane cloth shutter with speeds from one second to 1/500 of a second and B, a rangefinder for accurate focussing, a self-timer, a tripod mount, and a built-in light meter! Where does the luxury stop? And in a few weeks’ time, at Christmas, it would be mine!
And indeed it was. It came in a box from Technical and Optical Equipment (the UK importer who made the cameras ready for sale) with a passport to service and an instruction manual, and over the next few years I shot the flipping heck out of that camera. I still have it and I still shoot it, and I still have a big soft spot for it.
Why? Because the FED-4 is a really good camera. And with prices currently starting at around £15-£20 for a camera and lens, if you want to try some film rangefinder fun, this fully manual camera is a great – and very cheap – place to start!
Like the Zorki-4K it’s a development of the original Leica II of 1932 that FED reverse engineered and copied sometime in the mid 1930s; it preserves much of that Leica DNA and although it looks rather different, anyone familiar with a 30s Leica will be right at home with this one. It has the same lens mount – the L39 screwmount – for which many, many lenses have been made by a number of manufacturers: from Leitz to Cosina to several Soviet lens producers. The FED will shoot all L39 lenses and there are probably thousands to choose from so you really are spoilt for choice, although you’ll need a separate finder for each different focal length you use – the inbuilt one is for 50mm lenses only. There’s a very nice universal one made by KMZ that covers most of the common focal lengths.
The inner workings of the camera are pure Leica. The shutter is the Leica type focal plane cloth shutter, a simple and very reliable design that’s done service in many, many cameras over the years. It’s important to mention here that because of this the camera should never be pointed toward the sun without a lens cap – the shutter will burn through very quickly if this happens, so best avoided!
Any FED-4 you buy will most likely come with an Industar-61 lens – one of the cheapest lenses in the world but in my opinion one of the nicest. It’s a Tessar design so it’s inherently very sharp, it gives beautiful, delicate colours and very nice background blur, although with a maximum aperture of f2.8 I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a blur monster.
Compared to other cameras from the former Soviet countries, such as the Zorki and Kiev rangefinders and the Zenit SLRs, the FED-4 is particularly nicely constructed and finished. The Zorki-4K has less substance, it feels lighter, more delicate, less robust, while the Kiev seems complex and a bit skittish. The FED has chrome plated rims around its viewfinder windows while the Zorki makes do with bare metal. The FED’s film wind lever is cast metal, solid and reliable, while that of the Zorki is stamped from sheet steel, and feels like it.
The FED has mechanical polish too – everything operates smoothly and cleanly, and the shutter operates quietly. In fact, it’s far quieter than the Zorki which has a particularly loud ‘slap’ of a shutter sound. In good condition and nicely serviced it’s whisper quiet – just a little louder than the Leica II, so it’s a really quiet camera and can be used for street shooting without drawing too much attention to itself.
It’s a simple camera, as cameras go and uses no electronics – everything is mechanical using gears and levers and springs, so it’s relatively simple to fix, and it will remain fixable for some time to come. More complex cameras using electronics and printed circuits will eventually fail and may well prove unrepairable.
Shooting with this camera is much the same as shooting any other camera – it’s pretty conventional, although if you haven’t used a rangefinder before you might find it useful to practice focussing. With your eye to the viewfinder you’ll see a small bright patch with a double image – turn the focus ring until the double image in the patch comes together and that’s it! Simple!
As soon as you look through the viewfinder though, you’ll discover one of the features for which the FED is famous – it’s very small and rather dark! It’s a hangover from the Leica II from which it was developed, and it’s not one of the FED’s best features. But – you can see through it, you can focus with it and you can frame with it – and you wouldn’t want a decadent Western big bright viewfinder now, would you comrade?
Actually, when I say you can frame with it, what I mean is that you can kind of frame with it. It’s fine at a distance, for 70s style pictures of the family at the seaside, but for a 70s style shot of one family member at the seaside you’ll most likely fall victim to parallax unless you tilt the camera up a bit. You have to guess how much as the viewfinder, just like the Leica II, isn’t corrected for parallax and there are no framelines to guide you so the nearer you go to your subject, the less accurately your shot will be framed and you might make the classic mistake of chopping the top of your subjects’ heads off! It’s a case of practice makes perfect here!
You have to take your time with this camera – there’s not much choice – but there’s a great deal to be said for a camera that slows you down. There’s no more to do than with any other manual camera, but it takes a little longer.
Here’s why. Cameras like the Nikon FM, or the Praktica MTL 5 have their light meter visible in the viewfinder window and it’s quick and easy to transfer readings to the aperture and shutter speed dial, as the meter responds. The FED’s meter must be read from the top plate and settings must then be entered, but before the shutter speed can be set the camera MUST be wound on – damage and tears will result if this isn’t strictly adhered to. So there’s not much choice but to use the camera in a thoughtful and considered way, a slower way – the way it might have been done in 1932, in fact. And although the FED is a little slow, it’s much quicker than using an external, hand held meter, as you’d have to with the Zorki-4K.
Perhaps most importantly, this camera makes great images. Take your time, expose carefully, focus, and frame (remembering parallax) and when you’re ready, properly ready, gently squeeze the shutter release and fire. It’s a simple camera that’s simple to use; there are no complications or unnecessary frippery – it has everything you need and nothing you don’t.
But perhaps more than all that, this camera is likeable, and if you get to know it, you’ll find it becomes a firm friend.
It won’t take you to the pub and buy you a pint though.
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