Convergence

Zach Horton

P6 Cameras

The Pentacon Six (or P6) system is a unique series of cameras and lenses produced in three different countries, by several different entities, over a fifty year period of time.  As explained in this post, I became fascinated with the Pentacon system several years ago, and eventually ended up acquiring or testing most of its various cameras and lenses.  This page presents my findings, and is meant to serve as a resource for users interested in this fascinating system.   If you want to read about the best lenses, see my P6 lens page. This page covers the cameras.  If you want, you can jump directly to the camera comparison table.

 

A Brief History of P6 Cameras

 

Pentacon Logo

The best resource for information about the P6 system is www.pentaconsix.com, maintained for many years by the world’s more prolific P6 aficionado, TRA (aka “Mr. Pentaon Six”).  He has covered it all.  However, the sheer completeness and fragmented nature of his site make for great perusal, but not easy summary.  My much more condensed version here will serve as a starting point and resource for quick comparison for the bewildered buyer or longtime user.

VEB Pentacon was the East German conglomerate of many classic camera and lens companies from the heyday of German photography manufacturing.  I cover something of the history of Pentacon in my post here about a pilgrimage I made to the famous Ernemann building, where all such manufacturing took place.

The Pentacon Six with Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f/2.8

The Pentacon Six with Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f/2.8

In the 1950s, Pentacon decided to launch a brand new line of 6×6 SLR cameras.  Unlike the popular Hasselblad system (and the Soviet knockoff, the Kiev 88), this new system would retain the classic form factor of the 35mm SLR, which Exakta had used on a brief camera, a medium format scale-up of the 35mm version, before WWII.  Now this format would be resurrected, using a new lens mount (known today simply as P6) and accompanied by a series of high-end lenses by Zeiss (now renamed Carl Zeiss Jena due to a breakoff faction of the company moving to West Germany and litigating in the Western countries for trademark rights).  The resulting camera was the Praktisix.  It went through two versions over several years, and was rapidly improved.  Finally, Pentacon decided to rename the mature version the “Pentacon Six” to better highlight their relatively new company name.  Thus the legendary camera was born.  Its main features included integrated auto-aperture, exchangeable finders, a range of accessories, a focal plane shutter, and a convenient form factor (these latter two are its only real advantages over the Hasselblad).  The focal plane shutter made special lens shutters unnecessary, making lens design more flexible, smaller, and cheaper.  This turned out to be one of the keys to the success of the P6 system throughout the next 50 years.  Like the Hasselblad and Rollei TLRs, the Pentacon Six uses 120 or 220 rollfilm matted to a 6×6 square image (120/220 film has no sprockets, and thus has no standard frame size; it can be shot at any width, though always limited to a 56mm image height on the 60mm film).  The camera works well and is fun to shoot, but has two disadvantages over popular 35mm SLRs.  First, is lacks a free return mirror, meaning that the mirror does not automatically return to its viewing position after you take a shot.  This means that the finder is black until you cock the shutter for a new shot.  This means that you become more or less committed to taking a shot, and once you’re cocked, there is a danger of accidentally releasing the shutter during, for example, transport.  The shutter button has a lock position to compensate for this, but I’ve found that it doesn’t always work.  Alas, every single camera in the P6 ecosystem, by any manufacturer, replicated this limitation.  You just have to live with it.  The Japanese perfected the free return mirror, and they never got into the P6 system.  (Though there is one advantage to a non-free-return mirror: it produces less vibration when shooting, as it only performs one mechanical operation instead of two.)

The second significant limitation of the Pentacon Six is its relatively primitive frame advance mechanism.  This mechanism generates slightly uneven frame spacing at the best of times, and when something goes drastically wrong, can slip and cause overlapping frames.  Online, many inexperienced folks simply assume that the camera has an “overlapping problem.”  However, actual overlapping is a malfunction caused by a broken camera or loose film.  The first problem requires repair.  The second is usually the result of improper loading of the film.  Because 120 film doesn’t have sprocket holes, it relies on tension for advancement.  When you initially load the film, proper tension must be maintained.  This can be done by holding a thumb on the feed roll as you first advance it onto the takeup spool, removing all bowing and looseness from the film.  As long as it winds on with good tension, an unbroken camera will not overlap frames.  It should also be noted that the camera designers have left very little margin for error when it comes to frame spacing: they preferred to space the frames very close together, in order to achieve an extra shot on 120 film.  So, with a bit of added risk, your reward is a 13th frame on an otherwise 12-shot roll.

In 1968 or so, Pentacon developed a metered finder for the P6, backwards compatible with any model.  This allows you to meter through the prism rather than using an external light meter.  Though this involved no redesign of the camera itself, Pentacon decided to emphasize the system’s new capability by changing the camera’s name to Pentacon Six TL (for “Through the Lens”).  In practice, Pentacon’s prisms (metered or unmetered) are relatively dim and crop about 15% of the image from view.  The metered prism is also large and ugly.  For these reasons, I recommend using the Waist Level Finder or adapting the metered prism from a Kiev 60.  Baer Foto in Germany and Arax in Ukraine both make adapters that allow Kiev 60 finders to mount on a P6.  It is also possible to make your own.

Kiev 60 with Volna 3 lens.

Kiev 60 with Volna 3 lens.

The Pentacon Six was a great success in Eastern bloc countries, quickly becoming the most popular medium format camera.  The Russians, with their Hasselblad copy, were mollified, and decided to get into the game.  They responded with the Kiev 6C, a new camera (not a clone, as is sometimes asserted) that shot the same format and used the same P6 lens mount, along with a similar “supersized SLR” form factor.  The Russian camera, however, was larger, bulkier, and so ugly it hurts my eyes.  Nonetheless, it worked well and was a hit.  Because the Arsenal factory in Ukraine was already making a well-regarded series of 6×6 lenses for their Kiev 88 system, they decided to adapt that line to the P6 mount.  As a result, cheap, plentiful, high-quality lenses are available to this day, thanks to the Soviet optics system.  The final version of this camera was dubbed the Kiev 60.  It was manufactured until 2009, when Arsenal closed its doors.  These are great cameras if you can get over their aesthetics.  Though not many accessories were manufactured for them, the main accessories are improvements over the East German ones.  I particularly like the Kiev 60’s metered prism and collapsible waist level finder (WLF).  The metered prism on Kievs and Pentacons is uncoupled, meaning that once you take a reading, you have to manually set the shutter speed and aperture on the camera; the advantage is that this makes interchanging prisms possible.  Unfortunately, the Russian and German cameras using different finder mounting systems.  It is not possible to put Pentacon finders on Kiev cameras, but the reverse is possible with a Ukrainian or German made adapter (by Arax or Baer Foto, respectively).  Arsenal released updated versions (dubbed “New Style”) of the metered prism and WLF in the mid 1990s.  The prism added the excellent feature of a momentary-on button, which meters for about 30 seconds when pressed, then automatically turns off until you press it again.  I find this to be extremely useful; the on-off switch on the old style meter is easy to leave on, and drains the button-cell batteries very quickly.  The new style meter also takes modern Western batteries.  The old style took an obsolete Russian battery.  It can still be used with an inexpensive battery adapter, made by several folks in the Ukraine and USA.

Over time, an aftermarket niche arose in Ukraine for upgrading and improving cameras from Arsenal.  Both Hartblei and Arax arose to fill this need.  Their versions of this camera involved complete breakdowns and replacement of any sketchy parts prone to fail, more expert assembly, a more careful adjustment of all aspects of the camera (frame spacing, etc.), and the addition, in some cases, of a Mirror Lock Up function that allows the user to separately trip the mirror before taking the photo, in order to reduce vibrations on slow exposures or very long lenses.  Arax is still operating, and does very good work.  You can purchase a new Arax 60 with MLU, or send in a Kiev 60 for upgrading.  These aftermarket shops also did conversions to 645 (the smaller, rectangular format preferred by the Japanese medium format systems) at one point, and I have a Kiev 6C that shoots this format, getting 16 shots per roll.

Exakta 66 with Xenotar MF lens.

Exakta 66 with Xenotar MF lens.

The success of the P6 system and the many excellent Zeiss and Arsat lenses available for it, eventually got the attention of the high end West German camera industry.  Ihagee West hit upon a brilliant idea: buy up large quantities of the Pentacon Six, improve and rehouse it, have Schneider develop and even-higher-end set of lenses, and sell it as a premium product to the West.  They did exactly this, and the result was quite extraordinary.  However, it was too expensive, and never did sell well outside of West Germany.  The system was the Exakta 66.  Where it gets highest marks is in design.  I know of no other camera that looks like this futuristic, rubber-clad device.  And they did indeed improve many aspects of the camera.  They even added a fully coupled metering prism for an astronomically high price.  Their coordination with Schneider and Rollei (owned by the same folks) allowed for a unique design convergence: the lenses perfectly match and integrate with the camera and accessories.  I’ll cover the extraordinary Schneider lenses on the lens page.  Here, I’ll just note that the cameras, while improved in many ways, still retain the three main weaknesses of the Pentacon Six:  no free-return mirror, a finicky frame advance system, and dim/cropped finders (the Exakta 66 created fancy new housings for their prisms, but use the same glass inside from Pentacon).  The WLF for the Exakta 66 is, however, the best one made for any P6 camera, and is fully compatible with the Pentacon Six.  As for prisms, the Exakta 66s look fabulous, but unless you need the speed of the coupled prism, I suggest adapting the Kiev 60 metered prism.  In 1989 the camera was upgraded to the “Mk II” version, which changed the ground glass, eliminating the earlier interchangeable system and replacing it with a full frame (the earlier one had cropped the image a bit) Rollei ground glass.

Exakta 66 Mirror Lock Up (MLU).

Exakta 66 Mirror Lock Up (MLU).

This is the best ground glass available for pretty much any medium format camera system, and is a big improvement over the P6’s mediocre ground glass, and even the Kiev’s excellent optical plastic screens.  In 1996 the camera was upgraded again to the Mk III, which added MLU capability.  It’s odd in use: you have to insert a (second) cable release into a socket on the back of the camera, and trip it before tripping the shutter, then release it to release the shutter, but it works if you really need this feature.  Of all the P6 cameras, the Exakta 66 is my favorite to shoot.  But alas, my  copy is in need of repair…

Finally, in the 1990s, when Ukraine was an independent country, Arsenal decided to change its mainstay Kiev 88 over to the P6 lens mount, thus allowing it to accept the lenses made for the P6 (Russian, East German, and West German, mostly, with some limitations).  The result was the Kiev 88CM, the final camera in the P6 line.  This camera, improved in other ways from the old Kiev 88, is extremely capable, but easy to damage.  It is the only P6 camera to take exchangeable film backs, allowing photographers to switch to different rolls of film at any time, like the Hasselblad.  This is a great feature!  The camera also has a really excellent metered prism.  It has a terrible reputation, however, as it is very delicate and easily breaks down.  Mostly this is because its procedures are not followed correctly.  It has many strange rules that must be followed to the letter to avoid damage to its complex system.  Arax has compiled a handy guide.  Don’t try to operate one of these cameras without reading it!  Arax also repairs and upgrades these cameras.  Here’s my copy, upgraded with MLU and repaired by them:

Kiev 88CM with Carl Zeiss Jena Flektagon 50mm lens.

Kiev 88CM with Carl Zeiss Jena Flektagon 50mm lens.

It’s a beautiful camera.

 

Table of P6 Camera Features

 

I decided to compile the following table to quickly summarize the various features, pros, cons, and compatibility issues of these cameras, based on my own experiences.

 

Pentacon 6

Kiev 6C/60

Kiev 88CM

Arax 88CM-MCU

Exakta 66

Delicacy

Must follow some important but simple procedures to work properly

Rugged. Can use much like a 35mm SLR.

Almost always breaks. Must follow many rules.

Must follow many rules. Still pretty delicate.

Must follow some important but simple procedures to work properly

Reliability

Pretty good if follow procedures

Good

Very poor

Mediocre

Good if follow procedures

Aesthetics

Attractive camera

Ugly as hell

Good

Good

Strange but very unique camera

Focusing

Mediocre unless you upgrade screen, WLF, and prism.

Good

Good

Good

Good

Metering

Poor unless you adapt a Kiev 60 prism.

Good, if prism is calibrated correctly.

Good, if prism is calibrated correctly.

Good, if prism is calibrated correctly.

Open aperture coupled metering with special TTL prism.

DOF preview

On particular lenses only.

Yes, in body.

No, and prevents many lenses from their own DOF preview as well.

No, and prevents many lenses from their own DOF preview as well.

On particular lenses only.

Self-Timer

Yes

No

No

No

Yes

MLU

No*

No*

No*

Yes

No*

Exchangeable backs

No

No

Yes

Yes

No

Carl Zeiss Jena lenses

Work perfectly

Work perfectly

Some don’t fit. 50 and 80 can’t do DOF preview. Any can press against aperture lever and throw mirror slightly off.

Some don’t fit. 50 and 80 can’t do DOF preview. Any can press against aperture lever and throw mirror slightly off.

Work perfectly, but can’t use special TTL prism metering.

Arsenal Lenses

Work well, but some lack DOF preview, and many will not show proper full aperture unless set to full aperature (automatic aperture problem; only affects metering and preview brightness, not final exposure)

Work perfectly

Work perfectly

Work perfectly

Work well, but some lack DOF preview, and many will not show proper full aperture unless set to full aperature (automatic aperture problem; only affects metering and preview brightness, not final exposure) Can’t use special TTL prism metering.

Schneider Lenses

Work perfectly (though open aperture preview is .5 stop off on my 80mm MF)

Work perfectly

Won’t mount without modding mount ring. DOF preview difficult to operate.**

Won’t mount without modding mount ring. DOF preview won’t work.**

Work perfectly and enable open aperture coupled metering with TTL prism.

Cost

Decently priced

Can be found cheap

Too much for finicky camera

Fairly expensive

Very expensive

 

* Can be added with expensive custom mod from Baer Foto in Germany. In the past, Pentacon Dresden offered a MLU upgrade, but it is complex to operate and no longer offered. The Exakta 66 Mod 3 came with this standard.

** Others have claimed that Schneider lenses will mount without modification, but it did not work for my late-model camera (2000s) and 1980s lenses. The DOF preview slider on the bottom of these lenses makes contact with the bottom of this mount. To fix this problem, the mount ring must be removed and a section of the ring must be trimmed down with a mill, dremel, etc. After this mod, Schneider lenses will mount fine, and their DOF preview levers will operate, but become very difficult to reach (depending on how fat your fingers are).

 

Conclusion

 

Unfortunately, no perfect camera exists in the P6 ecosystem. For ease of use, including speed and reliability of metering, the Exakta 66 combined with Schneider lenses can’t be beat. It is also the most unique camera aesthetically. However, it is very expensive for only minor improvements over the Pentacon 6, and is still delicate (easily broken if you don’t follow certain procedural rules), lacks MLU and interchangeable backs (so no digital options). For a robust camera system that can do these things, the Arax 88CM-MLU is the best, but it comes with many hassles (jams and delicacies), potential problems with some Carl Zeiss Jena and Schneider lenses, and suffers from a lack of self timer and DOF preview, and to make matters worse, disables the DOF preview built into many Carl Zeiss Jena and all Schneider lenses. For rugged and reliable SLR use, the Kiev 6C or 60 are recommended, but it will tax your aesthetic sensibilities beyond the pale. Overall, for the value, the Pentacon 6 remains the most pleasurable choice, as long as the mechanism is in good shape, you follow the procedural rules when it comes to loading and winding, and you upgrade it with the superior Kiev 60 focus screen, WLF, and metering prism.

See my P6 lens page for a breakdown of my favorite lenses (truly the highlight of this system).

 

5 Comments

  1. [1] Very accurate treatment of the P6 cameras and the lenses, as well as faults. Having used both the P6 as well as the Arsenal cameras, I can only say that one must be really confident of the inherent superiority of the lenses to justify the cost to upgrade and repair these cameras. [2] ARAX. Everything I have ever bought from Vartanyan had to be repaired by an excellent technician in New York. Vartanyan is selling junk with little oversight of the end result. He is, however, still in business and supplies parts for these cameras. [3] The Kiev 60 is absolutely an ugly beast, but just as absolutely reliable. It’s a manifestation of the Russia proverb regarding quality control: “Good Enough” trumps “Better”. I have two P6’s which have even sent to Baier for repair. He is excellent. [4] The overall cost. In retrospect, I should have spent my time and money on the Bronica S2A, or the Mamiya 6 x 6 systems or the Pentax. The quality control of these cameras is superb, and I cannot discern a noticeable advantage in the lenses. They are all available at cheap prices at KEH, for example, or eBay. [5] Yes, the metered prism on the K88, with the spot metering is accurate. But it will suddenly break. Better to just buy a used Pentax spotmeter, and again save the agony and wasted time of shipping back and forth to Kiev for repair. [5] What remains is the mystique of using a Zeiss lens. This is an element of faith and passion which cannot be explained away!

    • zhorton

      May 18, 2016 at 4:57 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Bruce. Your perspective is greatly appreciated. For me, the P6 system is more interesting, and more fun to use, than the alternatives you mention, not only because of the Zeiss mystique, but also for the other reasons I outline here: the vastness of the system (spanning 60 years and multiple companies in multiple countries), its cold war politics, the aesthetics of the system (particularly the German cameras and lenses). No other system offers this kind of history or options. For me, at least, this makes such a system worth investing in, even though there is a cheaper option out there in the case of the Bronica. For those looking for the cheapest 6×6 system who want quality and functionality and don’t care about the rest, I would echo your recommendation. For those who want a really interesting and fun experience, and don’t mind entering a complex and crazy world (for which I’ve tried to fashion a basic map here), I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the P6 system.

  2. Hi Zack,
    On the topic of the Kiev 60: You’re quite right about it be a functionally somewhat awkward to use in one’s day to day photography centered activites, but it takes the 180mm Sonnar along with all the other lenses you’ve identified. Ergo, it’s a real valuable body to have around; this is especially true if you have one with MLU.

    • zhorton

      January 12, 2017 at 10:58 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Bob. I completely agree! My only complaint about the Kiev 60 is aesthetic; otherwise, it is quite a capable camera!

      • Zack,
        To be objective: I’m now 84 year old & lettered. I procured my first camera (a Practika) in Kowloon in 1956; I’ve had my
        share of cameras, & experiences.

        The Kiev 60 that I have was altered & has MLU; the ferocious mirror slap is neutralized! Once the camera is on a tripod it’s
        much easier to operate especially with a waist level finder with a magnifier. (I’d attach a couple of jpegs to this email if I could.) Needless to say that once the camera is on a tripod it really needs a cable release; I use it that way.

        Zach, these bodies are inexpensive, & as you point out the P6 lenses are plentiful. The aesthetics (?) improve a lot when you
        put the Sonnar on the rather large & rectangular body. In the end the 2.25 square Fuji transparencies look gorgeous as they’ve
        come to life via Zeiss glass.

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