The Kiev 30 is a camera that inspires day dreams of cloak and dagger spy games. It belongs to the subminiature class of cameras, which are specifically designed to be as small as possible. In reality, if they were ever used for international espionage they had to be small to stay discreet. You’re not going to get away with breaking into an office, photographing secret documents and escaping a gun fight with a medium or large format camera.
To prove the point, there is a version of the Kiev 30 branded the John Player, as in the cigarette brand John Player Special. This particular and rare version is inserted into a fake cigarette packet and if rumour is to believed, designed so they could spy on consulate staff from the UK. It is triggered with a cigarette shaped shutter setup.
This review is a follow-on from a previous article on Loading a subminiature spy camera – the Kiev 30. It is worth getting acquainted with how to load film, as without film being sold now, it has to be done manually.
The Kiev 30 predecessor, the Vega, is modelled on the Minolta 16, but as the models progressed the design deviated. Unfortunately there wasn’t a standard for subminiature cameras, and while the early models used the same film cartridge as the Minolta, the 30 is not compatible. Then the Minox is different yet again. These days the cartridges are worth more than some of the cameras, as they are plastic and break easily. Supply is drying up, hopefully someone will 3D print some.
A camera that can bring out the inner spy in all of us, be a lot of fun and very discreet, sounds like a great combination. There is a “but” though, and it is quite a big one, or actually a small one. What are the results like from such a small negative? Let’s have a look.
The Arsenal factory in Kiev, Ukraine began manufacturing cameras right after World War II. Some of this is covered in the Kiev 4 review here. While initially primarily rangefinders, then SLRs and medium format cameras, they took the opportunity to move into the subminiature market in 1960 with the Vega (model a). This was almost an exact copy of the Minolta 16 and had a 25mm lens. In 1961, it was updated to the model b, with a slightly wider lens. In 1962 the Vega 2 model made its appearance until 1974.
It was in 1974, when the Kiev 30 was first introduced. It changed the film format away from the Minolta size which was by using unperforated film for the first time. Only available in black, over one million were produced until 1983. The infamous John Player model was made in 1978.
The Kiev 30 was superseded by the 30M, and then the 303, until well into the 1990’s. This includes the Speccam Detective Camera, a 303 modified to look like a notebook. For the authentic look it even has pages to write in. There is another version of this which was modelled into gold plated lipstick housing, with even a mascara brush. These are quite hard to come by.
The Kiev 30 is a subminiature camera, in the shape of candy bar. It uses 16mm unperforated film, which is loaded into a film cartridge, specific for this camera. The frame size is 13x17mm. The camera shoots when it is pulled open, aligning the lens with the window. A red dot is visible covering the lens, indicating it is ready to shoot. Closing the camera advances the film to the next frame. The frame counter is on the bottom.
The lens is an Industar-M 23mm f/3.5. Focus is controlled by a wheel on top of the camera when it is opened. It’s closest focus distance is 50cm. The focus wheel has markings of 0.5, 1, 2 metres and infinity.
Aperture and shutter speeds are selected on the side of the camera. Aperture values start at f/3.5 wide open, down to f/11. Three shutter speeds are available, 1/30th, 1/60th and 1/200th. Both of these can be pre-selected before opening it up. The shutter release button is on top of the camera, next of the focus wheel. As the camera only shoots open, it is really only available when opened.
On the back of the camera is the exposure calculator, which is a combination of wheels which need lining up with the film speed, aperture and weather conditions. When lined up, you can see the proposed shutter speed which you have to manually set.
The viewfinder is at the back and as per the lens, can only be used when the camera is pulled open. This is because it needs to line up with the window at the front. There is also a wrist strap lug on the side of the camera.
To get inside the camera to load film, you literally pull it apart. Inside it, you lift the top and you can access the film cartridge. The cartridge is two joined parts. One which contains the take up spool. Once the film is loaded, the frame counter is reset manually.
Of-course the size is one of the important factors of this camera. The dimensions when collapsed are 84×46×27mm, when it is opened it is 108×46×27mm. It weighs 178g.
I bought the Kiev 30 in a lot which included a number of subminiature cameras. Also thrown in for free was a BelOMO Agat 18K. I specifically bought this one as it was shown with the film cartridge included. Unfortunately when I went to use it, I found that the cartridge was missing the cover on the film take up side.
While I was despairing my fortune, I happened to buy a Ansco Cadet. Interestingly it had a little black plastic container with it. To say I was surprised to find out when it arrived, that it contained a Kiev 30 film cartridge would be an understatement! How weird?!
I sourced some pre-spliced film, specifically Kodak T-Max 100 and Fujifilm Pro 400H. Soon afterwards I was loading it up. I was apprehensive trying to load it the first time, but it was not as hard as I thought it would be. So off I went to do my spying. It was so much fun using this camera.
It was hard not to run around the corners and take sneaky shots. Interestingly, no one really took notice of me using it anyway, as it is not any bigger than a mobile phone. I did have some trouble with the Pro 400H, as during the day with the slow max shutter speed of 1/200th second it was difficult to expose correctly for bright conditions.
While shooting with it I did like right away that the viewfinder/lens is framed for what feels like about 45mm in 35mm terms. I imagine that would be about correct, as judging by the size of the frame, it is very similar to Micro 4/3 sensor size and that is a crop factor of 2.
The one complaint that I do have about using the camera is that you cannot see through the viewfinder when closed. But if you open it up and decide not to shoot, closing it advances to the next frame, thus losing a frame.
Ok, so it is a lot of fun to use, how are the results? Unfortunately, as you will be able see in the results, the camera has some light leakage. There is also another mark across the frame from what seems to be something is either loose or there is a blockage masking the film. I have not tried to fix this much in post, as I think in this case it adds to the “arty” side of the photos. I have also cropped where it was too much interference.
With such a small frame size, the grain is huge. Even on T-Max 100, which is fairly fine usually. On the Pro 400H it is the proverbial golf ball size. The negatives did lack contrast, which surprised me considering it was in theory aimed at capturing documents. I have increased it for the examples here, so it is not a big issue.
The expected vignetting was there. Sharpness was also ok, nothing to write home about, but fine for such a small frame. Considering the size of the camera it does perform quite well, light leaks and blocking mask aside.
I had a blast using this camera. It was fun and all the jokes that come with it, about being a spy, just add to the experience. The sound it makes as you open and close it just make you feel like a spy too. Would I shoot this again? Probably not. While fun, the effort in loading film with resulting images just does not add up for me. Would I recommend that you should try it out? Yes. It is fun, and for others, the results may be just down their alley. Just make sure if you buy one that has a fully functional film cartridge.