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Cameras popular in Soviet Block

Russian Cameras popular in Soviet Block. It was 1990; Poland opened up for free economy market and in shops we could find goods which were unavailable before. One day, while I was window shopping in front of the local department store in my small town, I spotted a FED camera.

It was a rangefinder camera based on German Leika but surprisingly, at affordable price. Considering those times, I must admit that the construction was really fine with Industar 2,8/55 lens on m39 screw thread. The camera was fully manual, equipped with extra selenium light meter and a solid leather case. At the beginning of 1990s automatic plastic cameras, so called “compact cameras” ruled the world of amateur photography. They usually had poor quality wide-angled polyamide lens. Snaps taken by these cameras most often had soft edges and huge vignette. I truly do not understand why people liked these cameras so much. From what I remember, many mentioned their automatic mode as the biggest advantage – you just press the button and here you go with a new photo! And the users were never discouraged by the appalling quality of their pictures.

Lomography ?

Today we call it “lomography”. However, on second thought, today is not much different. Nowadays, most people just want to take a photo without going into details. In this way smartphones replaced compact cameras and in fact, there is nothing strange about it. Most people do not have to be experts, they just want to take a quick snap, sometimes as a souvenir, maybe to create a document, or simply take a fun selfie. This fast and automatic photo-taking has always been there and photography industry has always been trying to offer perfect solutions in this field.

In those times, although I wasn’t even 20 years old, I was quite familiar with theory of photography and its technical aspects. I would read all accessible reference books and although we didn’t use to have the Internet back then, I believe the expertise publications were much better than they are today.

Anyway, coming back to the beginnings of my adventure with photography and my first ever camera ( I still have it) I must admit that the photos were very attractive. This old good camera never let me down and it still works well today, even if it takes a little longer to take a picture due to lower shutter speed. FED was the camera which served me well during all family functions and occasions, plus it was also excellent for landscape snaps. The first type of the film I used was the Russian “svema foto 65” speed 80 ISO and I always developed this black-and-white film in my home darkroom, followed by making prints on baryta paper. Back then, everybody dreamt of a reflex camera with interchangeable lenses, and even though my FED was a really good piece of equipment, I started saving money for a better one.

Zenit XP

I guess it was 1992 when I bought Zenit XP with Helios 58mm lens from some Russian vendors on one of Cracow’s bazaars. The body of the camera had m42 screw thread which was very popular and compatible with a variety of lenses. Soon, I had another – Jupiter 200mm lens and a year later I started taking colour photos using Fuji C200 or Kodak Gold.

Still, I remember well that my first ever colour film was ORWO Color…. unfortunately the proper chemical process for this particular film was unavailable in the laboratory so they used C41, which obviously resulted in poor colours of the printouts. Well, this was the array of films we could choose from in those times. Diapositives and professional films were hard to get.

As an amateur I was happily using this equipment until 2006 when I bought a new Canon EOS 33v and the life took a new turn but this is a different story. Since 2006 many people have been using digital cameras but in my humble opinion they produce poorer quality photos than analogue ones. Still, the wave of digital cameras was unstoppable. Well, I do admit that professionally I use high quality digital equipment but I still love and use – as often as I can – my analogue camera. My number one today is Nikon FM3a although I also take medium format photos quite often, however, to be honest, the medium format cameras are pretty heavy and I’m not particularly fond of carrying them around

FED it is a cool

Coming back to FED. Even today it is a cool camera but it has some peculiarities which we must get used to. First of all, you must set the time only after stretching the shutter, otherwise you may destroy the camera – you always have to remember about that. Viewfinder is very dark and there is not much you can see in it, however the spot in rangefinder is well visible. Viewfinder does not have frames so using lenses other that standard 55mm may be difficult. The strong body and shutter seem to be a great asset.

Let us talk about Zenit now, which in my view, although heavy and solidly made, is not as good as FED. The longest shutter time is 1 /30 and B while FED also offers 1 /15, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 and 1 s and B. The shortest time of shutter opening is 1/500s. Another disadvantage of Zenit is limited field of vision you can see in the viewfinder, which is only a little over 60%.


Over many years I took a similar number of photos using both cameras so I am familiar with them and I can judge the level of their failure rate. FED has never broken while in Zenit the canvas shutter broke twice and once the shutter mechanism failed – quite a common problem as the metal bar of the shutter release button works against a plastic cam. Anyway, the camera needed to visit the service every time. On the plus side of Zenit XP we can mention TTL light meter based on two elements CdS which is really precise. Exposure meter in the viewfinder works on basis of two diodes.

As we can see, these cameras are not particularly sophisticated. There are no automatic modes, no time pre-selection or a diaphragm. They were based on German technical solutions. The first FED cameras were produced in the 30s of 20th century and were copied from German model Leika. The production line of FED was closed down in 1990 and my FED was produced exactly then. Today this camera can be bought at the price of one of two Kodak films – really cheap and still the quality of your snaps are pretty good. So, if you don’t mind FED’s poor viewfinder or Zenit’s small and dark focus screen, I strongly recommend these cameras. The possible hardships will be smoothened by the sound of canvas shutter.

Finally some conclusions.

It is impossible to review and evaluate these cameras by today’s standards. We must remember that in Soviet Block the choice of cameras was very limited and whatever was available was of Soviet or East-German production. Cameras from behind the Iron Curtain were hard to find and too expensive for an average customer from Poland or any other Soviet Block country. Personally, despite everything, I think about that time with great fondness and with these cameras I took a great deal of fantastic photos which are kept in my family album.

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