Let’s leave Zenits apart a little bit now and talk about another immense, glorious, immortal, victory of the USSR in the consumer goods field: the Kiev SLRs. Well, the first generation of them. It is not that the second generation wasn’t an immense, glorious and immortal victory, but I have two hands only, so I can only bash one generation of Soviet victories at a time.
If you think Zenits are not a nadir of design, here above is a Kiev 15. You can call it whatever you want, I call it butt ugly. But I kinda love ugly cameras, you know.
I don’t know too much about this cameras because neither Princelle or other western authors took much interest in them. Some Russian folks who I’ve talked with about this subject often say that Kiev SLRs were the cameras of the “party people” as opposed to Zenits, which were used by common rabble. I smile to myself while imagining the red version of Richie Rich carrying this big, heavy and featureless camera instead of a lighter, smaller and not much less advanced Zenit just for showing off social status in a “country without social classes”. Pity the fool!
Well, no, the Kiev SLRs were not that featureless: they had speeds from 1/2 to 1/1000 and they had speed-priority auto exposure, which was quite an advanced feature back in the day. I mean a quite advanced totally useless feature, cuz let’s be serious: who shoots speed-priority auto outside of the sports photography world (for which the Kiev SLRs lacked specialised long teles anyway)? I’ve never done that and I’m a photographer. But yes, the ruskies were awzum for doing this in the 70’s, etc.
Princelle, author of the most complete book on Soviet cameras ever printed in the West, says, and it is endlessly repeated in the Internet, that this was the first commie camera that owed nothing to the west. I kinda disagree with the Prophet here, Cthulhu forgive me. I won’t say it is a copy of it, but doesn’t this camera and its predecessor, Kiev 10, remind you a little bit of the Contarex, which preceded them in just a few years? Just a little, in the thickness of the body, in how the aperture of the lenses is operated by a dial in the front part of the camera… If so, I have to give this to them people at the Arsenal design bureau: they were more aware in terms of design than the Germans, as the Contarex looks more like a camera from the 1930s than one from the Nikon F era, and, instead, Kiev 10 and 15’s finish looked much more like what mainstream camera design was going to be in years to come. Maybe, even if the influence of German cameras from the 20’s and 30’s was very real, Princelle tended to underestimate the influence of Japanese design in Soviet camera lore.
One of the mysteries of this camera, and you don’t know how embarrassing is to admit this, is how it actually works. I’ve had two samples in my hands and I’m totally clueless on how to use the auto mode. And I mean clueless. It is also possible that they were malfunctioning and I was cheated by those bad, bad Russian ebay sellers. I should have bought from a reputable camera salesman such as myself. Yes, I sell cameras, if you didn’t notice.
But hey, nobody in the West knows either. You will find countless posts in camera forums crying for help on how to use a Kiev 15 and the only answer is the eerie silence of the Internets void. This and equally countless fools who actually have no idea on how the camera works but claim to be sure how to figure out: they can’t.
Fortunately, you don’t need to know how to set the auto mode to use the camera cause the shutter speeds are mechanical and both the shutter and the apertures can be manually set when the auto mode is off. In fact the speed-priority mode is at the end of the lens aperture setting, which is on the body of the camera instead of the barrel of the lens. This also means that setting the aperture outside of the camera is not possible, which leads to a simple adapter being impossible to make. That is because you would need either something to properly control aperture (high precision level needed here) or an external diaphragm, which would be costly and would also make it impossible to calculate relative aperture manually, quite the same as the ‘dumb’ adapters for EOS lenses to mirrorless camera bodies. All this in mind, it isn’t strange that and Kiev SLR bodies and lenses haven’t ever raised too much passion here in the West. But hey, you can still use the camera without a light meter like a real hombre, which I do, or rely on a handheld light meter, which is for pansies ( I also do this some times, but without compromising my masculinity, cause Baron I is so much alpha that he can wear high-heels and stockings and still look butch).
Add to all this that the selection of available lenses isn’t particularly exciting: there’s Mir-1 (37mm f2.8), Jupiter-9 (85mm f2), Jupiter-11 (135mm f4), Mir-20 (20mm f3.5), Helios-81 (50mm f2), and the Granit-11 zoom (80-200mm f4.5) all of which are interesting but available in other, more common lens mounts. And maybe in greater quantity, as Kiev 10/15 lenses fetch more or less the same price tag than their m39/m42/Nikon bayonet counterparts, demand for them being necessarily lower. There’s another nifty fifty lens for this bayonet, some Helios 65 (50mm f2) which is sometimes found on ebay, but in small quantities. The barrel of the Helios 65 is quite different from that on the other lenses, which might be for a number of causes, most likely because it was an earlier design. I ordered one from Mother Russia, which must be on its way now, so I will be playing with it soon and see if it is very different from the Helios 81. The fact that the comrades made two 50mm lenses for this camera really keeps me thinking. A Russian fella told me that it was a new design to improve on the Helios 44, because 58mm was too long a focal; the 65 was a true 50mm, but scored poorly on resolution tests. It was replaced by the Helios 81, which was better in the lab and barely 53mm to the focal plane; this was wider than the H44, so success: the Kievs had a better ‘50’ than the Zenits. But who knows, really.
Then there are other lenses which Princelle cites as existing for this bayonet, being rather succinct on this matter, but they might be very scarce or have remained at prototype or preseries stage. There’s a 40-80 zoom with a max constant 3.5 aperture, which was rocket science back in the good ol’ 70’s that I have never seen, even in the Internet; and the crown jewel: the Era-18 (50mm f1.2), which, in theory has a N bayonet version too and that I have seen pictures of, but have no reliable info on whether it was actually sent to the assembly line or not. According to photohistory.ru, it was a prototype, showing two pictures of it, one of them also in Princelle’s book. I would kill, KILL, to lay my hands on one of those. And if you are surprised that Baron I looks so much like a loco single-minded psycho, you haven’t been reading this blog long enough, you’ll get used to it.
Now that we talk about the lenses, I must admit that this is one of the awkward aspects of this camera. I mean, look at it. The body is so big and substantial. More than 2 pounds heavy. And VERY thick. The lenses, in comparison are kinda narrow. maybe they were like that because having the aperture out of the lens barrel simplified their construction and this allowed to make them smaller. In fact, Kiev SLR lenses are smaller and more compact than any of their cognates in other mounts, but… Doesn’t it make the whole rig look kinda funny? I mean, a big, thick, almost medium formal looking camera with a narrow, long lens on its lower, front area? Maybe I’m sick, but am I the only one who sees all that as an opticomechanical Manneken Pis? Not that it provides a great grip either: again, the body is not that easy to get used to. Thickness is a problem here; also the shutter is meant to be operated through your middle finger, which I don’t find really convenient as it is somewhat difficult to reach, being on the top of the body instead of the front, like in the Kiev 10. Again, the lenses, being so small compared to the size of the body make it even worse, as they don’t really provide a good hold of the whole bundle while focussing.
And there’s more! You know how much them guys at Leica spend each year trying to make their cameras and lenses blacker inside with less reflective paint and parts? This is because stray light bouncing into the camera can and will hit the film in an unintended way, having a very noticeable effect on contrast, flaring, and color faithfulness. Now, do you know what the approximation to that matter was in the Arsenal design bureau? They made Kiev’s lens irises and shutters of Kiev cameras of unpainted, polished, copper. Motherfucking, reflecting orange, shiny copper. Now, those were real men: they saw a problem and said ‘fuck it’. This is my kind of guy. Right now, the designers of the Arsenal factory are dining and wining at the Valhalla of cameras because they consciously, totally, and manly, looked down on a key factor to taking good pictures, which would have been so easily improved, and got away with it. Some day in a not so far away future, I will raise my cup with them at Valhalla’s great hall and, blind drunk, we will laugh together at Leica for splitting hairs so fussily with stray light. Because design is more about gonads than knowing what you’re really doing.
Now seriously, what I really mean is that wasn’t the Kiev 15 so difficult a camera, maybe I wouldn’t have taken any interest on it. Yes, I like problem girls too. There must be something wrong with my personality; had Freud met me, he would have judged me such fine stuff that he would have been devoted to me 24/7. Think in a mash-mix of Woody Allen and Dr. Caligari and you’ll kinda come close.
Now hasn’t it been a long reading, tovarich? You really deserve something for this. Why not awarding yourself a camera, Soviet or not? Come to my ebay store and indulge in your GAS. You know you want to.