By Roman Yarovitsyn
In the late 80s, this SLR was probably most discussed in the USSR, and lot of Soviet photographers looked at it with undisguised hope. Those of us who could not qualify for Japanese cameras from state procurement for propaganda media had particular hopes. The camera’s name was Almaz-103, and it was a bestseller of most ambitious Soviet project, conceived as a family of four SLRs. Just over 9,000 were produced and all of them sold immediately, despite the fact that the price was very high: 300 rubles.
The features of the Almaz-103 was unprecedented for Soviet 35mm SLR: interchangeable viewfinders and focusing screens, full range of shutter speeds, multi-exposure, detachable back cover and even motor drive compatibility! Such wealth could not overshadow even the absence of a light meter! Those photographers which could appreciate such a camera, were able to evaluate the exposure with a squinted eye since elementary school grade. But happiness was short-lived: nine out of 10 Almazes were jammed within a couple of months.
Not a single master accustomed to mass-produced Zenits could repair this miracle of technology, and almost all cameras returned back to the stores where they were bought. I myself received without further questions from the cashier my 300 rubles when I brought the broken Almaz-103 back to the photographic equipment department of store at summer of 1987. This camera could not survive more than 40 rolls, stopping forever. Almost all other Almazes have survived no longer and were returned to manufacturer too.
Only a few most experienced DIY craftsmen dared to get inside this complex mechanism and fix what the LOMO factory screwed up. Some of them even managed to independently modify the most important details for the minimum reliability of the camera. But the plant was already desperate to bring the product to the desired level of quality, and the production of Almaz-103 was stopped in 1989. The last attempt to create in the USSR a domestic system of professional photographic equipment ended.
It is worth saying that my Almaz did not work hard because that time I was actually still an amateur, completing the first year of my photographic career. Those 40 rolls were stretched over the course of a year because I didn’t have much to shoot yet. You can imagine how long Almaz-103 could serve for the kind of pro photojournalist for which it was intended; maybe less than a month. Grieving a little, I returned to familiar Zenits and forgot the dream about pro camera: Japanese SLRs were not available for me that time.
But this familiarity with Almaz-103 was not the last in my life. Next time I got my hands on this camera was almost a decade later: in 1993 when already worked as a pro in the newspaper. The price was not 300, but 80 000 rubles: during this time the USSR managed to fall apart and was in the grip of powerful inflation. So, the price was quite adequate. You’ll ask me: are you an idiot to buy the camera, which had so bad reputation and jammed in your hands?! It’s OK, I asked the same question myself.
Three things persuaded me to buy it. The first: the previous owner was well known to me. And he was one from those DIY craftsmen, who could fix Almaz-103 well. This camera history was very well known in a close photographic circle of my small city, and everybody could be sure of its reliability. The second reason was my new Zenit-APk, which needed a back-up camera with the same Pentax K-mount. And the third… the third was the charm of the Almaz-103. No photographer, at least one who can’t afford Nikon F2 or something similar, was able to resist.
In general, it is impossible to explain my act from a rational point of view, but I bought my second Almaz. Another reason was a recently purchased zoom lens Variozenitar-K 25-45 with the same K-mount. That Almaz worked infrequently: I understood well its real reliability and took care of it. The shoots I used it on were really journalistic reports for local newspaper. The military would call it a real combat situation and I can say that Almaz performed well.
First of all it lies in the hand like a glove, a rare property for a Soviet camera. The second is, of course, the film advance lever. It is not like any other at domestic SLRs. I experienced the same feeling again only once: when I touched a Nikon F2. We will discuss the similarities with this camera a little later. But one has only to cock the shutter once by this lever, as it becomes obvious that the camera is intended for fast shooting. Shutter sound was not similar to any different Soviet camera and shows a serious mechanism inside the body.
Unfortunately, the coupling half and two contacts for a motor drive at the bottom cover remained just a decoration of camera up to its production cancelling. Not one motordrive device was produced and possibly never left the drawing board. Only one DIY craftsman, Sergey Grishin, created a single unit for Almaz-103 automatic film advance, and the photographic magazine Soviet Photo published an article about it in July issue of 1988. In this article the inventor reported that the regular contacts of the camera allow to advance the film only in a single shot mode. Continuous shooting could be possible only with adding to camera more contacts and increasing shutter reliability.
The biggest inconvenience of the Almaz-103 was the flash mount. Coupling of such a unit directly to the camera is impossible because of the detachable pentaprism. A user could find a special bracket in the box with new camera to insert in the guide grooves under the film rewind crank. But such a coupling was unreliable and everybody tried to avoid shooting with the flash.
The hot shoe of my Almaz was attached to the top cover of pentaprism, this was an obvious move for its previous owner with skillful hands. The PC-socket from factory bracket was inserted into side facet of prism for sync connection to camera by the cord from the set. So, you can be sure, that my camera was ‘charged’ well.
Another weak point of Almaz was a viewfinder. It’s strange, but it was too dark despite an absence of any light meter which needs a light splitter. Of course, I chose without a peep a uniform ground glass without split image and microprisms. Even with the Zenit-E, I got used to focusing an already composed shot to save precious time. So, this screen was the best for me from the three available. In addition, in the factory foam box, one could find an eyecup, a short release cable, K-mount to M42 adapter and a connecting wire for hot shoe on the flash bracket. Most of us left it all in the box, except the adapter: domestic K-mount lenses in the USSR existed only in catalogue pictures.
Now I don’t remember how and to whom I sold that camera. I can only say it was happened in 1994, just after buying my first Japanese SLR Cosina. I was very sad to part with Almaz-103, but I understood clear one thing: sooner or later it would break. Besides, the era of Soviet cameras had come to an end. In 1994 Japanese cameras already were available in the stores, at least in large Russian cities: Moscow and Saint-Petersburg. With our wages they were priced sky high, but it was clear to everyone that the future was for foreign cameras, not domestic. The failure with the Almaz-103 project proved even to optimists that the country was unable to create professional photographic equipment.
So, it was my last chance to get at least some money back by selling this camera, and I used it. In those times few of us could afford to keep a working camera just for collection. A quarter of a century passed before I met another Almaz-103. This time I didn’t buy it. Instead I change for it… a Nikon F2 Photomic. You’ll say, no doubt, that I’m crazy, and you’ll be right! But there are two extenuating circumstances: there were two F2s in my collection and I gave away the one without a lens.
To my surprise my new Almaz appeared to be in full working order, so I think it passed through the hands of those DIY craftsmen. But now the camera doesn’t have to work hard except a couple of my careful shutter clicks semi-annually. It decorates a shelf with other cameras better than a real diamond: this is how ‘Almaz’ is translated. So, why was this attempt to create a pro camera so unsuccessful? To explain this, I will have to tell one story from my student life. When I was studying at the Leningrad Institute of Motion Picture Engineers (now Saint Petersburg State Institute of Film and Television) one of our disciplines was called “Film Camera Technology” (Технология киноаппаратостроения, abbreviated TKA). The teachers of this department were closely connected with the optical and mechanical plants of Leningrad, such as GOI and LOMO. In fact, they were a part of a most Soviet camera design team, which brought together specialists from all these factories. This circle was always tight and everyone knew each other.
Once among the details lying on the shelves of the TKA auditorium as visual aids, I saw with my keen eye the metal casting, the shape of which seemed familiar. It was an unpainted main part of Almaz-103 without drilled screw holes. By then I had already experienced the bitterness of parting with this camera, so during the break I asked one of the teachers by the name of Yakimovich about the sad fate of Almaz-103 project. He knew LOMO well from the inside, and seeing in my hands that cast he told a whole story. It turns out, for the manufacture of camera bodies with such a complex shape, the Soviet government had purchased imported injection molding line. Domestic industry of the USSR could not produce such complex machinery. That’s why the most modern machine tools were often purchased in capitalist countries.
This time, as usual, the seller offered to buy along with the line a technology for its use. Insiders know that the technology can often be much more expensive than the machine itself. But the Soviet officials decided to save scarce currency, and were sure that their domestic experts already know how to do everything themselves. The engineers themselves certainly knew that technology was important. But arguing to the authorities in the USSR was not accepted, and the line arrived without necessary instructions.
Of course, local engineers were able to install and launch this line, but… the resulting castings changed their shape and dimensions after cooling and relaxation. So, any precision and accuracy of assembled device was not possible. With most of another parts of camera things were similar. The springs were not hardened enough or, on the contrary, were too brittle. Tolerance accuracy was worse than specified by the original designers’ project. In addition, in the Soviet industry there were so-called “limits”. There was a list of materials not allowed for use in civilian products. For example, brass was considered strategic material because it was used for the manufacture of shells for cartridges and artillery. That’s why main command cam of Almaz-103 was made not of brass, but of a softer alloy. Of course its surface wore out very quickly and the shutter jammed.
All these problems were not new for the Soviet camera industry. But other SLRs were not so complex and did not require such precision of manufacturing. The matter was aggravated by the fact that the LOMO civilian sector was initially targeted for the production of simple and cheap cameras, such as Smena or Lubitel. There were not enough precise and complex machines and the staff was not highly qualified.
All this was no secret to anyone: Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign began and problems of Almaz project were widely discussed in media. So the main photographic magazine Soviet Photo in 1988 published at least three articles, where leaders of Almaz manufacturing department justified themselves to users dissatisfied with the quality. Deputy chief technologist of LOMO. Klebanov says at the round table about Almazes, that the factory lost 439 rubles for every camera, because production cost 669 rubles and the wholesale price was 230 rubles. Because of this in 1984, when production was at its peak, the plant suffered losses of almost two million rubles.
It’s hard to imagine now, but in the USSR there was directive pricing and the retail price of goods was set by the government forcibly. It was believed that a 35mm camera should not cost more than 300 rubles, and its release was financed by the plant itself through military orders. This state of affair was common in times of zastoy or stagnation, but with the advent of the principles of self-sufficiency on the wave of perestroika, the plant did not tolerate it any longer. Production and further development of Almazes were stopped.
From the very beginning of Almaz-103 production there were critics, saying that it was nothing but a Soviet copy of Nikon F2 Japanese SLR. Strictly speaking, this is not the case, if only because of a completely different type of shutter. If Nikon used a classic Leica shutter with flexible titanium foil curtains, then the latest Copal Square-type was installed in the Almaz. Besides, the lens mounts of these cameras are completely different. Almaz-103 utilises a Pentax K-mount despite existing Soviet F-mount photographic system used in the Kiev-17. Moreover, domestic Nikon-mount lenses quite available at least in large cities of USSR, but K-mount lenses completely absent. The reason of this choice is of course well-known: Asahi Optical actively promoted this standard, and offered it to the USSR for free, well aware of the potential capacity of this market for their lenses.
However, these fundamental differences fly out of your head as soon as you see both cameras together. The most unobvious similarity for the eye lies in the overall dimensions of the body and its proportions, which are almost exact. But for any engineer, this can already serve as the first bell, hinting at a common origin. How many cameras of different brands with the similar bodies have you seen? I did not see. The shape of pentaprism already eloquent, being compared to any Photomic. Remember again the film advance lever, it produces almost an identical feel.
But all doubts disappear when you see the focusing screen lock button on the back side. It seems that for both cameras it was made at the same factory. In fairness, it’s worth saying that Almaz’s pentaprism lock is much more successful than Nikon’s. This button on the Almaz locks only the focusing screen, and the pentaprism locks open with two different buttons and without effort. Those, who tried to detach F2’s pentaprism at least once, knows how hard to open the lock by this button on the body. Almaz is free of this problem, the pentaprism removed in one motion. Unfortunately, this was the only advantage.
The similarities between cameras are even clearer when comparing focusing screens. The Soviet-made screen is slightly less in width, but the design is completely same. The seat of the pentaprism also almost coincides. And cherry on the cake: the thread of the eyepiece coincides perfectly! The experienced eye of an engineer cannot fail to see at least Nikon’s influence on the Almaz designers. There is nothing surprising in all this. The stories of copying of Western products in USSR are widely known. There is the B-29 bomber copied to the last rivet, and turned into the Tu-4 behind the Iron Curtain! Why not copy the camera, recognised in all over the World of photojournalism as the gold standard?
It is quite possible that the usual principle of the Soviet industry acted, in which sometimes the most important decisions were lobbed by influential official, carried away by some idea of his own. In this case, the official could be an amateur photographer. After all, before that there were many attempts to create Soviet original photo systems that were not crowned with success. Remember for example, the Kiev-10 or Zenit-7. Unfortunately, even borrowing did not help to create a reliable and flexible tool for professionals. The Almaz-103 became the swansong of a professional Soviet camera industry.
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- Amateur Photography in the USSR: Part Two - 12/04/2021