Sunday, 4 March 2018

New fillies in the stable


I must admit I've had these two for a while now but I wanted to have a proper play before casting a verdict.

The KMZ Iskra

I have really become fond of this little beauty. There is little to complain about what it can do. Having said that she is a rather high maintenance madame. Let me explain what I mean. The Iskra (meaning Spark in Russian) is an almost identical copy of the Agfa Super Isolette. A masterpiece of folding cameras to say the least. The Soviets decided they needed a top notch professional camera for their pressmen to show of those lovely missiles and tanks and aeroplanes to the decadent West not to mention getting Khrushchev's best side. The boys in the design department sensibly decided to look at those decadent western boys and copy what they had to offer. What they found they pretty much copied straight off with a few mods and a dash of Soviet industrial simplification. They also had the advantage of the stock of the Zeiss factory conveniently on the right side of the Iron Curtain( So legend has it but then half the lenses made by the Soviets is supposed to have this elusive ever lasting stock of Zeiss glass left in a bombed out shed). These weren't cheap cameras and mostly deployed to the press or given to officials as gifts. Only 38,000 odd were made between 1960 and 1963. There were a few made for export especially the Iskra 2 but they are very few and far between.

The result was a very nice compact folding range finder, auto frame indexing, medium format 6x6 camera with a world class Industar 58 75mm f3.5 lens. I've never held a Super Isolette but I do have an Isolette III which is overall a better quality camera but not far ahead. The lens is indeed top quality with excellent contrast and very sharp. Soft focus is nice and smooth. The quality of the lens can be seen in it's ability to handle colour so well. The View Finder could be better and can be difficult to compose through but you get used to that. The Range Finder is a nice big yellow square and is very easy to use. A particular feature I like is the notched speed and aperture rings around the lens. You sort your light reading and set the aperture and speed to suit. These are then interconnected which means when you want to change an Fstop or speed the other goes with it. Really good for sunny 16. The focus is a slider on the lens side, again does the job with no fuss. One small gripe is the rear door which comes off completely. I would have liked a hinge but never mind. Loading and unloading is an easy exercise with no hassle. So why high maintenance you ask?

Heres the thing. Like the Agfa it has a clever mechanism which means you can load the film without having to line any arrows or look through any red windows. Just load and wind until it stops. Not even my Pentax 67ii can do that!! You still have to line up the arrows with a red dot before closing the door. How cool is that! The reason being it was added is for the press guys to easily load film without worrying about markings. Load, lock, wind and click. The way it works is very clever. Inside where the film travels there is a roller with teeth and a smooth roller. The teeth bite into the film and turn as the film travels over. At the same time the smooth roller is pushed inwards by the thickness of the backing paper. As the paper is wound the film appears and therefore you have the thickness of the packing paper plus the ilm. This pushes the roller in a bit more and cogs engage so activating the counter. Brilliant but very very delicate and precise. Unfortunately films and backing paper have got thinner over the years so may not engage the counter. Finally these cameras are very prone to the very small cogs and posts in the mechanism bending or snapping off. The press guys used them in anger and probably wound them quickly and hard to get that shiny T55 trundling passed. They then had a choice, either ditch it and get another but that was going to be price or take it down to your local tame camera tech and have him mod it. This is where it gets tricky. In the practical world of Soviet professional photography this precious angel of a camera to you and me, well me anyway was a tool to be used. It was opened, the little cogs taken out, a hole drilled in the back and a red window inserted. It was converted to an easy to use, no fail, wait for the number to appear camera. At the same time they also added a couple of blinds in the frame to chop it down to a 645 what with film being rather expensive and all that. So if you see one of these for sale with either a red window or advertised as a 645 this is whats happened to it. They were only ever made 6x6 with no window. If it is in original condition its probably sat on a diplomats mantelpiece for most of its life but no guarantees.

So on to the little princess in point. So nice to hold in ones hand, so sleek, so tactile, so smooth, uuughhhh! Oh! sorry yes well it slips in ones pocket very nicely thank you. But seriously mine is all intact and works a treat. Long story short all I have to do is wind the film as far as I can but with no real accuracy as the initial index doesn't always kick in but doing it this way it works every time and every frame is counted. To keep the frame spacing correct you also leave the tape on the paper to bulk it out a bit. Not sure if that works but I do it anyway. That sounds like a lot of faff but its not really. Despite it's rarity but probably because if the likelihood of getting a dud these are rather cheap. See how much a Super Isolette is then divide by 4 and you'll be about right.

Next to an Agfa Isolette III

So sleek, so smooth so Soviet

The inside. I have taken the lens to bits a few times as it was pretty gunked up.

Separate back

That spiked indexing wheel

Lovely lovely Industar 58 75mm f3.5 lens

(From front to back) The two interlocking rings for Fstop and speed, cocking lever and focus slide

And the results.....................

Ensign Ful-Vue II

And now to the plucky Brit.

Don't you just want to cuddle it! It's the most cutest of cameras surely. Cute as a button. Well I think so anyway. It's a little tin 6x6 120 film box camera, one speed - approximately 1/30 (Single leaf), one Fstop - approximately f11 with a probably 75mm meniscus lens. This being the 'II' it has a 'T' setting for long exposure, a flash sink and the luxury of a focusing lens with various 'zones' 2, 3-5, 6-inf. Interestingly for a 1950s British camera the distance is in meters. The camera as a whole is made up of about 40 pieces including springs, screws, rivets etc. Ok I'll confess I've used this once to see what happened then put it on the mantel piece where it's stayed with it's twin. You can get these for a couple of quid unless they are the rather nice but rare Jubilee red, white (grey) or blue models. In practice they aren't that good as you would expect but they were the happy snappy cheap everyman cameras of the day. There are two features that really do stand out. First there is the ridiculously large, clear and bright view finder. It's like a TV screen. It puts pretty much all but the best waist level finders to shame. Its also a very simple affair. A large glass omni directional prism with a polished steel plate at 45deg underneath through another round omni directional glass lens in the front. Secondly the style has to be admired. Put yourself in 1946 everything was square especially cameras. They were all boxes either brownies or folding or large format. Then one afternoon after elevenses in a design office in Walthamstow a draughtsman, like an ape clasping a rock to crack a shell for the first time, put down his trusty honest and true set square and dusted off a set of exotic, glamorous and mysterious french curves. What came off that page is a design icon (No seriously). This thing was designed in the mid 1940s! This is up there with the Mallard train. There is nothing else like it.

That amazing view finder / television screen

Unfortunately the results don't live up to the style. I might bother using it again but I doubt it. It is what it is and it gives me a smile every time I look at it.

There is an extra little gem to the Ensign. The manual. All camera manuals are pretty dry affairs I'm sure you will agree. Not the Ensign's. Take a read of this. It has to be the best manual ever. Lots of information wrapped up in eloquent humour and an easily understood language. But every word is true. It's as cute as the camera itself. (Thank you Mr Butkus for all your work on old photographic manuals. What would we do without you!)

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