Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Exakta Varex Cameras. 3: 2013 Perspective


It was nostalgic fun to have an Exakta (well three, actually) at the eye for a while again after an interlude of nearly 40 years. I bought three bodies which came with a total of five lenses from different eBay sellers.

It is very unfair to extend performance of an old camera to criticism of the manufacturer because so much depends on how it has been treated by its owner or succession of owners. So many cameras of the 1950s and 60s have been handed down to children who then abandoned them in attics, garages and sheds until moving house.

There were five problems with one or more of the bodies.

In all three (one Varex IIb and one IIa) the foam rubber that cushions the mirror had crumbled away or was in the final stages of doing so. That was easily replaced by material supplied by an eBay seller.

Replacement foam above the mirror

In both IIbs but not the IIa the frame counter was not working. It jumped all over the place when the film was advanced. This mechanical failure I am told is a common problem.

The frame counter did not work in the two Varex IIbs

The mirror was beyond use in the IIa. The silvering had deteriorated badly, starting it seems, from chemical reaction as the foam rubber broke up. The mirrors in the IIb were fine with just a little deterioration at the edges near the foam.

The mirror of a Varex IIa showing deterioration of the silvering

The major problem in the IIa but not the IIbs was the state of the shutter curtains. The deterioration of the material is a well-known problem. The curtains were wrinkled and had, when a light was held behind them, what seemed like pin holes. However, pin holes are usually a seller’s description. This is far a more serious condition. The whole (rubber?) material within the curtain is in process of breaking down and the light leaks are extensive, as the following photographs show.

Wrinkled shutter curtain - tell-tale sign of light leakage
Light coming through the shutter curtain

Light coming through the shutter curtain (LED torch in mirror box)
Smooth curtains not leaking light in a Varex IIb

Temporary (paint the curtain) and permanent (do-it-yourself curtain replacement or professional repair) solutions are shown in a number of websites. However, professional repair is an expensive route (£200 plus + VAT, I was quoted) which is why so many Exakta bodies are lying ‘beyond economic repair’.

I also tested the shutters of the two IIbs, both electronically, and with film. I did not test the IIa in view of the light leakage through the curtains.


One of the shutters tapered at 1/500th and 1/1000th sec so could not be used at those speeds without servicing. That shutter sounded better than the one in the second body which fired with a squawk that is said to indicate a lack of oil. The second was fine to use at all speeds. In terms of accuracy, the pattern was the same or similar to that reported in various websites. The higher speeds were slow: the slower speeds were fast.

Taking the IIb with the good shutter, from 1/500 to 1/60 sec (I could not get readings at 1/1000 with my set-up) there was 1 stop overexposure (to the nearest whole stop). From 1/30 to ½ sec timing was within ⅓ stop. At 1 sec there was 1 stop underexposure (i.e. the mean exposure of five firings was 0.54 sec instead of 1 sec).

In the body of the one of the IIb that tapered at high speeds, the variation was somewhat different. I held the sensor in a fixed central position in the film frame so that I was not looking at variation across the frame. 1/250 sec was near enough1/250 sec (mean 1/290). 1/60 and 1/30 sec were slow by one stop. ¼ and ⅛ were pretty well spot on while ½ and 1 sec were within 1/3rd stop of being accurate.

By knowing the accuracy of he shutter I was able to make appropriate corrections when I came to testing the lenses and actually using the better IIb to take a few photographs.

Rumour has it that the mechanical build quality of the IIa was better than the IIb. I cannot comment. All these cameras were in need of servicing. I doubt if any had been serviced since they were manufactured.

All the 50 mm lenses (two f/2.8 Tessars and two f/2 Pancolars) had problems. The pin that engages with the lever on the body had been torn out of one of the Tessars. I can only guess that somebody had inherited the camera and had then tried to change the lenses using brute force. The notched lever on the body was also bent (replacement found on a dead Exa). That lens was a write off and soon on its way to the recycling centre for glass and metal.

The other Tessar had slightly stiff focusing and some cloudiness on an inner element (what is the that cloudiness in chemical terms?) so contrast was low. In use it could still produce a reasonable image in high contrast conditions of bright sunlight.

One of the Pancolar was of the earlier design (without the automatic depth of field indicator lugs)(see 11 June post). Again it was slightly cloudy internally (again - what is that cloudiness?). It gave soft, low contrast results on film. The other Pancolar was of the later design with automatic depth of field indicators. Edge fungus was present but only affecting f/2 aperture. It was slightly cloudy internally and again produced soft, low contrast negatives.

In short the 50 mm lenses were way past their best. The Pancolar had the reputation of being fairly low contrast when new but my original 1960s Pancolar was capable of giving very sharp, punchy transparencies with Kodachrome.

Included with one of the outfits I bought was a 135 mm f/4 Sonnar. I was very impressed with the quality (so is its new owner). No sign of any cloudiness or fungus with just a few specks of something internally. The results on film were excellent - very sharp and excellent contrast. That lens had lasted well.

135 mm f/4 Zeiss Jena Sonnar

This Exakta lens hood fits all the 50 mm and the 135 mm f/4 lenses
Original Ihagee filters are not that common

The cameras did the job I wanted them for (to produce developed 35 mm for another project I will describe later) and have now gone to new owners.
So, after handling and using Exakta cameras again, would I like to turn the clock back and return to 35 mm film photography from full-frame digital? NO. NO. NO. We really have never had it so good. 35 film is in the past and offers no advantages over what we have now other than, for black-and-white, a stored silver image.