Before I start, I just want to say that this review is as much of a review as it is my thoughts on the camera, I won't be delving too much into detail, but will offer my thoughts on certain aspects of the camera.
These days, Soviet cameras are becoming increasingly popular amongst many film faithfuls, mainly due to their vintage looks while being easy on the pocket. Compared to the more popular film cameras around, such as the Nikons, Canons, and Pentax, the old Soviets are increasingly receiving more love; sadly at the increase of price. The current resurgence of film helps their cause quite a bit, but also so does Lomography, which on the rare occasion, has in stock the rarer varieties of camera. Actually, we can't deny that Lomo has helped with not only the resurgence of film, but also the demand for vintage film cameras. But we aren't here to talk about Lomo cameras, we are here to talk about the Kiev 4A I picked up from my adventures in Eastern Europe.
Introduction: Kiev 4A
To start the story of my love for Soviet cameras, I would have to start off with my love for Eastern Europe; Romania exactly. Having ventured to this beautiful country many times, it was back in 2012 in which I decided it would be interesting to have a peek at what photographic goodness was being sold on the Romanian version of 'Craigslist'. Here I found many, and I mean many, old Soviet cameras, from FED's, to Kiev's, and of course, not forgetting Zenit's. It was like stumbling across a long forgotten treasure trove of cameras, no longer loved by anyone, and left to the veils of time to fade away. While I was on my vacation, I spent the first few weeks trying to choose which camera would be best suited for me. Should I choose the FED 2, a Kiev, or maybe a Zorki would be a good purchase; the choices where near endless.
Many soviet rangefinders are based on existing rangefinders once created by legendary camera companies back in Germany. A little history: after the second world war, Soviet forces moved the Zeiss Ikon die casting and lens equipment from ex-Nazi Germany to the Arsenal factory in Kiev, Ukraine. Here they started manufacturing Contax copies, but with a new name. Early Kiev models could be said to be real Contax cameras, as they used the original stock bodies but were just assembled in Kiev, that was until the Arsenal factory start machining their own bodies.
Back to now; eventually I decided on a Kiev 4 without the selenium meter, from the late 1970's. The reason I chose not to get an earlier version, even though they are better quality and in my opinion, look aesthetically nicer, was mostly due to location based reasoning, and also, many early Kiev's with the selenium meters, no longer accurately meter light. So, the decision was made!
I quickly shot out an email to the seller, and he promptly turned up the next day with camera in hand. I did a few checks and the deal was complete, I was now the owner of my first Soviet rangefinder.
At once, you can tell by the weight and handling, this camera was built in a time when equipment was made to last, ideally, longer than the owner! It has a nice heft to it, weighting in at around 700g, which is in the same range as modern DSLR's; cast from metal, it offers the sense that this camera can take a beating and still work. With its angular contours, and the simple, yet beautiful silver and black colour scheme really gives off that classic vibe, which makes camera nerds weak at the knees.
It is a rangefinder, so you can't compose TTL (through the lens), meaning you have to account for parallax issues, which aren't really an issue once you've gotten used to it. My first rangefinder was the Fujifilm X-Pro1 (excuse me, I should correct myself, I mean rangefinder-style), so this allowed me become familiar with the nuances of using this style of camera and mentally prepare myself for the real thing!
The camera is completely manual, and doesn't rely on batteries, so you can technically shoot forever, provided you have a endless supply of film. Seeing as I don't have an endless supply of money, nor film... Tangent! You've probably heard from many digital-to-analog-converts, that film allows you to slow down and savour the pleasures of photography; taking you back to a slower, more refined time, where men were "gentlemen", and women were, I guess "gentlewomen". Truth be told, you slow down and become more attentive due to knowing that every frame you fire off means you have just spent a few cents. Better make that frame count, because you are in the time of 'pay-to-shoot'.
While on the topic of film, you load a canister from the back, similar to the way you load film in a film-slr, but the difference is you completely remove the rear half and bottom of the camera. It can be fiddly, and means you need somewhere to either sit down or rest the camera while you load the spool and reassemble everything. Once you have a new roll of film loaded, you are again on your way to continue shooting. Unlike film cameras with advance levers, the Kiev instead has a dial, so to advance the film to the next frame you must first select the shutter speed, then rotate the dial until it stop (if you do it in reverse, it can damage the internal gearing, be warned!). The aperture is on the lens, in this case a super-sharp Jupiter-8M 50mm f/2, try not to rotate the focus ring past infinity as the ring will lock and any further, the lens will fall off and you'll feel a little daft (only joking!). The only thing left is focusing, this can be done via the focus ring on the lens, any fine-tuning can be made by using the small vertical dial near the shutter speed dial at the front.
A quick word on handling, the shutter button is located on top of the camera, inside the shutter dial, so naturally, your hand and fingers wrap around the front of the camera. If you aren't careful, your fingers can cover the rangefinder window and prevent you from focusing. As this is a rangefinder, focusing is by coincidence, just get the little focus box image aligned with the image in the viewfinder and you are good to go.
- Sturdy build
- Looks amazing
- Extremely quiet shutter
- All mechanical, no batteries
- Simple to operate
- Self-timer reliability (mine didn't work when I brought the camera)
- Rewinding film a little fiddly
- Extremely small rear viewfinder
- Reloading film takes some time
The Kiev 4A is a great, and sturdy film camera to use, and you know it will keep making images until it falls apart. Parts do and will break, seize up, become mis-aligned, but they are easily repairable, and with care and maintenance, it will keep shooting. As with all cameras it's not without its quirks and annoyances, but they will only get in the way of shooting as much as you are willing to let them, in fact, they actually add to the photographic experience. You have to understand the camera, and learn its limits; unlike modern cameras, this camera won't adapt to your way of shooting, it is the opposite, instead it forces you to change the way you shoot. These Soviet rangefinders aren't for everyone, they aren't as smooth as a Leica M, nor are they as user-friendly as SLR's, they make you work for the final image. With all the effort you put in to make the image, the reward you receive when you see the final product is something, I feel, you don't get with modern cameras.