Kiev 4 – The Non-Clone

The Kiev 4 is a beautiful, silent and graceful camera.  It has a classic rangefinder design which just makes you want to pick it up and start shooting with it.  Paired up with the well regarded Jupiter 8M Contax mount lens, it forms a formidable team. Especially with a very accurate focus, achieved through one of the widest available rangefinder bases, on paper it should be a dream to use.

It is unfair to call it a clone, as it was manufactured using a significant number of tools and machines the Contax originals were made with.  That is because it was built with plans and equipment taken from the Carl Zeiss factory. The Soviet Union took these from Germany at the end of World War II.  There was a couple of models before the Kiev 4 (Kiev II and III), but the design of the Kiev rangefinder didn’t change for many decades right up to the late 1980s.

The question is whether a Soviet made camera, regardless of the original designs used, will compete with the German made equivalents?  Do the changes in materials lessen the experience and/or the quality?  We have to also factor the Jupiter 8M lens in the equation.  Let’s find out a bit about this Soviet camera and how it performed during Red October.

It can also be compared to another well known Soviet rangefinder, the Zorki 4.

History

The Kiev rangefinders started development in Kiev, Ukraine, right after World War II.  After the war the USSR moved the equipment and some of the staff from the Zeiss Ikon factories in Germany to the Arsenal factory in Kiev.  One of the initial production lines set up was the one that was used for the Contax rangefinders.  In-fact, the initial Kiev rangefinders even had some real Contax parts within the construction.

The Kiev rangefinders utilise the Contax mount.  Apart from being able to use true Contax lenses, local versions were also manufactured.  This particular copy has a Jupiter 8M lens, which is also a well known and sought after lens.  More information of the Jupiter lenses can be found here.

The first model made in 1947 was the Kiev II, which was very much like the original Contax II rangefinder camera.  There was never a Kiev I.  The Kiev line of rangefinders was so successful that it continued manufacturing beyond the 1980’s.  Little changed to the camera design during that whole period, where an 1980’s model will look very similar to the original model.

The Kiev 5 is the exception to the rule and looks quite different.  It was introduced in 1967 and was sold alongside the Kiev 4.

Camera Specifics

The Kiev 4 is a metal rangefinder camera, made in the Arsenal factory in the Ukraine.  This particular copy is specifically a Kiev 4 (Type 3) manufactured between 1958 and 1974.  Most likely manufactured at the end of this run, based on the serial number.  What is interesting is the first two digits are supposed to denote the year of manufacture, but this one has 75.  It cannot be a Type 4, based on the specification of available shutter speeds, so must have been one of the very last Type 3s.

The Kiev 4 continues in the styling of which is very much based on the Contax II.  It has a long rangefinder base, measuring at 9cm, which helps the photographer achieve accurate focus.

The front of the camera is adorned with the Kiev name, in both Cyrillic and English lettering.  Also on the front is the self timer and the flash sync.  The lens release is at the one o’clock position of the lens mount, which is a Contax rangefinder mount.

At the top of the front is a cover, which is spring released and has a selenium meter housed. The release has to also be pressed when closing otherwise it won’t catch.  The selenium meter is uncoupled.

On the top plate is the shutter release, which also has a tripod thread.  It is surrounded by the shutter speed selections, which are engraved on the side of the wheel.  Shutter speeds available are 1s through to 1/1250s plus Bulb.  Next to the shutter release is the frame counter, in a 1/3 circle which has to be reset manually.

On the other side is the exposure calculator.  This is used in conjunction with the meter reading which is on top of the exposure meter on top, in the middle.  With the film speed set using the GOST system, the Russian equivalent of ASA at that time, and the reading from the meter, it allows you to align the aperture and shutter speed setting.  A lot of the selenium meters, including this one, do not work correctly or at all due to age.  In the middle of the exposure calculator is the film rewind.  A cold shoe is also on top.

One final item on the top plate is the focus helicoid.  This is another feature inherited from the Contax which allows the user to focus without having to turn the lens ring.  The focus helicoid has an infinity lock in the form of a tab which needs to be pressed down to unlock it.  Users are polarised on the use of the focus helicoid as it requires holding the camera in a unique way to avoid putting your finger over the rangefinder window.  This is known as the Contax Hold.

The back of the camera is a fairly plain affair with only the viewfinder.  The viewfinder itself is quite large without frame lines, so set only for the 50mm lens.  The focusing patch is clear and a well defined rectangle, enhanced by the blue tint applied to the viewfinder.  No parallax correction is available.

Loading the film into the camera requires releasing the two sides at the bottom and removing the bottom and the back.  The manual specifies that you should do this with the camera turned upside down otherwise you risk dropping the take up spool.

The Jupiter 8M lens is a Sonnar design, with apertures from f/2 through to f/22.  The aperture selections are not click stopped.  These are very collectable and can produce stunning results generally with a quite sharp middle and varying levels of fall off.

The Experience

I struggled to find a Kiev 4 locally as there always seemed to be an issue or the seller could not commit to the camera working.  As I wanted to specifically use it this month, I needed to ensure it was working, so I cast my net wider.  I ended up finding a seller in the Ukraine who not only specified it worked, but it had also recently been serviced.  When the camera arrived, it was indeed in great condition.

That weekend was Sydney Comicon which would be a great opportunity to try the camera out.  I loaded up some Portra 400 and went super hero hunting.  Soon after I arrived I discovered an issue with the camera meter.  After working a couple of times it moved to the top position and never moved again.  At least this was the least important function that I need to work on the camera, being selenium, I didn’t have high hopes in the first place.  I pulled out my light meter for the trickier areas and was good to go.

Initially using the camera I really enjoyed using the focus helicoid as with such a nice bright viewfinder and clear rangefinder it was a pleasure to use.  Focus could be set quite accurately, helped along with such a wide rangefinder base.  After a while though, the Contax Hold became annoying.  No matter how many times I tried to remember to keep the rangefinder window clear, invariably I would end up with my finger in front.  In the end, I started rotating the lens ring to focus instead.

Soon all this was forgotten and I was shooting people that had gone to a lot of trouble with their costumes.  I really enjoyed using the Kiev 4, even with the little niggles above.  It really is a beautiful machine.  Looking through the viewfinder is satisfying and clear.  Even with all the photographers with high end digital cameras at Comicon, and some with whole lighting systems, the attendees were intrigued with the Kiev and it garnered a lot of questions.

The viewfinder did take a bit of getting used to.  I found the blue tint to it was different from the other cameras I use, but made it very clear to view.  As it does not have frame lines, I found that the parallax error was considerable.  I actually lost a few shots through the fact that I chopped off parts of the picture.  You don’t lose the main subject, but it can off-balance the photo.

A few days later I took the camera to a few walks in the central business district loaded with some Kodak Tri-X.  Here I needed to use the camera a little faster and it did not disappoint.  The key functions of the camera are in the right place, shutter speed selection nicely slots into position, with only aperture selection on the Jupiter 8M needing checking as it doesn’t have click stops.  It is also very quiet, which is one of the benefits of a rangefinder camera.

I dropped my film off at the lab and excitedly awaited to pick up the negatives a few days later.  I had heard so many things about the Jupiter 8M lens, even though I have used the LTM Jupiter 8, supposedly the 8M is considered better.

When I picked up my negatives the first thing I noticed was that there is an obvious light leak.  My suspicion is the bottom plate as I had noticed it was a little loose at times.  Considering the comic costumes, some of the pictures work well with the leak, happy accident style.

As I was scanning the negatives I was actually surprised.  I knew this lens supposedly punches above its price tag, but this was really beyond my expectations.  I have previously used the Jupiter 8, LTM version, which I enjoyed but was happy to head back to my regular lenses.  The 8M on the other hand is another story.  I have read that with the Soviet lenses it is not so much the quality they produce, as they are all capable of it, but finding one that has been put together well enough to produce quality results which is harder.

The sharpness is very well defined, obviously helped with easier focusing.  Nowhere near as much fall off as the LTM Jupiter 8.  Contrast is there in spades without being overbearing.

Exposure seems to also be fairly well consistent across the frame.  There is some vignetting, but again it is not harsh and helps give this lens a distinctive look.  To say that I like this lens is an understatement.

The Kiev 4 is a camera I was very keen to try out and I really enjoyed using it.  There are some drawbacks, as there are always, but it is a beautiful camera to use.  Paired up with the wonderful Jupiter 8M lens, it is a combination worth any amount of effort, especially considering the combination can be had for less than $100.  If you see one and it specifically states it is working, give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.

 

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