Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Exakta Varex Cameras 1: When New

I had an Exakta Varex IIb camera for twelve years. Bought in Hong Kong with a 50 mm f/2 Pancolar lens, it served me well enough but I had no qualms when the time came for a change to the Olympus OM series.

So why am returning to Exakta cameras now? I needed some exposed 35 mm black-and-white films for a project that will appear later this year. Instead of buying a relatively modern 35 mm SLR I thought it would be interesting to buy a few Exaktas to see how they have survived and use them to generate the exposed film. Before describing how I got on, I thought it worth describing what it was like to use a new Exakta Varex in the mid-1960s and then go on to describe the problems with trying to use the cameras now.

In its day, the Exakta was the 35 mm single-lens reflex camera. For many applications, it was far superior to the rangefinders such as the Leica or Zeiss Contax. I wanted a camera for close-up photography of small animals and the Exakta Varex was the desirable camera for such applications in the UK of the1950s and early 1960s.

Some of the irritations of using Exaktas had gone by the mid-1960s. For example, the newer lenses had automatic diaphragms, closing before exposure as the release was pressed. Such a change made the Varex IIa and IIb more suitable for the ‘normal’ sort of photography associated with non-reflex cameras.

Exakta Varex IIb with Tessar 50mm f/2.8 lens
Roger Hicks, in his excellent website*, describes the idiosyncrasies of the Varex IIa and of using the camera in the present day. Some of what we now regard as idiosyncrasies were the norm of the time, the non-return mirror for example. Other features made the Exakta system highly versatile.

Right handers find the Exakta Varex awkward to use. Even left handers like me find the shutter release strange. The shutter is released by pressing the button on the left hand side of the lens towards the camera body. With the later fully-automatic lenses the initial movement closes the diaphragm, then the movement reaches the shutter release on the body of the camera. An ear-piercing clunk accompanied by a squeal indicates the focal-plane shutter has done its job. Then, until the film is wound and the shutter cocked, the viewfinder is dark. There was, as I said above, no instant-return mirror. I found it difficult to hold the camera securely and press the shutter; I still find it difficult. I think the problem is that the axis of holding the camera firmly is at 90° to the release movement.

The external linkage between lens and body was a pain when using extension tubes. Auto-couple release rods with brackets which screw into the front of the lens and into the body release were made by Ihagee for use with extension tubes and bellows. If using them for hand-held photography the length of rod in use has to be adjusted so that the automatic diaphragm closes before the body release is triggered. The obvious answer is to use a double cable release but this solution was not in the Ihagee line up of equipment.

Showing the external coupling from lens to body release
Exakta Manual, Werner Wurst, Fountain Press, 1966

On fully automatic lenses, the diaphragm can be locked at the set aperture by pressing the release and turning the knurled ring under the release button. This procedure is needed for T and B exposures.

The lever wind is also in the left side of the body. This needs a complete all-in-one turn of 270°. I achieve the wind first by using the thumb to advance it half way and then the forefinger to reach the full distance.

Lever wind - left, at rest; right, near the end of its travel.
The shutter speed dial is also shown.

Changing shutter speeds is awkward. To avoid damage, the speed-setting dial is turned in one direction only. Therefore, when wanting to change from 1/250 to 1/500 (adjacent settings on the dial), the dial has to be turned nearly 360° while lifting it against a spring. A tiny red dot indicates the speed in use.

Using the slow speeds (longer than 1/30) often has newcomers fooled. The slow speeds start at ⅛ second on the Varex IIb and at ⅕ on the IIa. Therefore, the natural progression  of speeds between 1/30 and ⅛, i.e. 1/15 is missing. To set a slow speed, the normal shutter speed dial is set to T or B. Then the slow speed dial is wound up by turning it clockwise until it stops. The speed on the large dial is set (up to 12 seconds) using the black numbers. Finally, the release is pressed.

The large slow speed dial also serves to operate the delayed action release (self-timer). At speeds set on the normal speed dial, the slow dial is wound as before and then set to any red number. When the release is pressed there is a delay of 12 seconds.

For slow shutter speeds with delayed action, the procedure is to set the normal dial to T or B, wind the slow speed dial as above and then set the shutter speed using the red numbers. Doing all that lot really slows photography down but is only equally infuriating to the menu-driven procedures on too many modern cameras.

The slow speed/delayed action dial with film reminder
disc in centre

Rewinding the film can be a nail-breaking experience in the Varex IIb. When the rewind crank is unfolded, the rewind knob turns without engaging the rewinding. When it is extended, the rewind axle turns. However, as the crank is turned (while holding the film release button on the top of the camera) I find it slips out of gear leading to the film being rewound in fits and starts and the finger nails catching on the knurled and tiny crank handle. I supposed Ihagee changed that in the Varex IIb in order, theoretically, to speed up the rewinding process and therefore the changing over of films. In the IIa, the rewind knob is engaged by pressing the centre section such that prongs make contact with the cassette spool.

Varex IIb. Rewind crank in use (left) and closed (right)

Varex IIa. Rewind engaged (left). Disengaged (right)

A real idiosyncrasy of the Varex is the film cutting knife. This knife allows a short length of film to be cut and processed separately. Coupled with its presence is the ability to have a cassette instead of the standard open spool at the receiving end of the film gate. Using that system, short lengths of films can be exposed, cut, wound into the receiving cassette and removed from the camera in daylight. That was a brilliant system for checking exposure and composition with technically difficult subjects. However, I have yet to find an Exakta owner who has not bled as a result of catching a finger on the blade.

Film cutting knife in closed position - waiting to nick an unwary finger
Knife being pulled across the film plane
The back of the camera can be removed by pulling
out the pin
A key to the versatility of the Exakta system was the ability to change viewfinders and focusing screens. The reflex finder could be changed for a pentaprism very quickly (more quickly in the IIb than the IIa, the latter having a catch on the front of the camera). I had the version with the pentaprism and fresnel lens with split-image rangefinder. Some writers have questioned the accuracy and ease of use of the split-image rangefinder but I had no problems in using that screen.

Varex IIa. Release catch for the viewing system - not present on the IIb

Initially, I thought the bayonet lens mounting system fine. However, when I used the extension tubes and a heavy lens on the front I noticed a pronounced droop. When I asked my colleagues if they too could see the droop, one thought it resembled Concorde’s nose (then of major interest in British newspapers) while others thought I had taken it to the pub too often. Somewhere or everywhere in the bayonet connexions the tolerances were too great.

I had one of the later model Pancolar  50 mm f/2 lenses; this had the automatic depth of field indicators and the zebra markings across to the focusing scale. I found it, when new, to be a sharp lens of moderate contrast (compared with modern lenses). 

Early 50mm f/2 Carl Zeiss Jena Pancolar with
conventional depth-of-field scale
Later 50mm f/2 Pancolar with automatic depth-of-field indicators
changing position as the aperture is changed

By the mid-1960s there is now no doubt that Ihagee, like the rest of the German camera industry, east or west, was losing its way. Japanese camera manufactuerers were overtaking them rapidly and I soon realised that I had actually made the wrong choice. For the same money (prices in Hong Kong were one-third of those in U.K. at the time), I could have bought a Pentax SV with its huge range of accessories (and internal linkage) or a Nikkormat. They were the future; Exakta was the past.