Well that was fun! Thanks to everyone who uploaded a picture of their favorite camera yesterday. Sorry again it isn't easier to do; sharing pictures is fun, though—enough fun that it's worth doing once in a while despite the technical awkwardness with the blogging service I use.
So here's just one more, and from the uploads in the last post it seems like a lot of you are going to get this. My all-time fave:
It was an Exakta 66 Mod. II with an 80mm Schneider Xenotar MF lens, a medium-format, 6x6-cm square SLR film camera. This picture isn't of mine, although pictures of the one I owned were published in Darkroom Photography magazine in my review of it.
An odd choice? Very!
I bought it new in the 1980s after reviewing several much more expensive medium-format cameras for magazines—cameras I couldn't afford. After I reviewed the Exakta 66 I bought the review sample. It was quite cheap for a new medium-format camera at the time but on a teacher's salary it was still very expensive to me, and it took me a long time to save up for it. I had only the one lens and never bought the metering prism; I had only the unmetered flip-up waist-level finder like the one in this picture. I never bought the camera strap, even. It was a dedicated strap with a special attachment designed just for this camera (you can see it in this picture, a semicircular bracket under the camera that cradled it and attached via the tripod screw), and it was too expensive for me at the time—around $90 or $100 if memory serves. My budget for food was $60 a week then. So I used the camera without a meter and carried it around in my hand. I never shot anything in it but 120 Tri-X 400 with a K2 yellow filter.
It turned out to be my OC/OL/OF/NLM/OY camera...one camera, one lens, one film, no light meter, one year. Except it was more like 18 months.
The Exakta 66 was essentially a "vanity project" of the German/Israeli industrialist Heinrich Manderman, who bought the lensmaker Schneider-Kreuznach after the last of the Schneider family owners went bankrupt in 1982. Herr Manderman, who was born in 1923 and died in 2002, at one time also owned Rollei, B+W filters, Exakta, Miranda, ORWO, and Pentacon, among other companies. I believe his family still owns, or perhaps has an interest in, Schneider, but I don't know.
I was never able to speak to him directly, but the story I heard was that either Pentacon or Exakta was the factory where he got his first job, and the Pentacon Six was his favorite camera in his youth (which is right on theme). So he ordered the old Exakta works in Nuremberg to build a modern, updated variant of the Pentacon Six, and he had Schneider design new breechlock lenses for it. The result was the Exakta 66.
By name, the Exakta 66 was supposed to be a descendant of the Exacta 6x6 made by Ihagee in Dresden before WWII, but it was really a descendant of the Pentacon Six introduced in 1956.
The Pentacon Six had a long history as well, including some USSR knock-offs. This, for instance, is a Kiev-60, sometimes called a "Kneb" on forums because of the Cyrillic characters for "Kiev." A copy of the old Pentacon Six, it's a distant cousin of the Exakta 66. While not as nicely constructed, the Russians fixed the film advance, so the Kievs actually had fewer headaches with frame spacing than the German cameras.
Great camera? Not really
Although the Exakta 66 went through two refreshes, three models altogether (called "Mod. II" and "Mod. III," leading the first version to retroactively be called "Mod. I"), it never sold well. The reason is that it just wasn't a very good camera, unfortunately. Although "modernized," it showed its ancient roots in its flaws, which weren't subtle. The viewfinder showed considerably less than the negative would record, and it wasn't centered, either—the bottom of the picture in the viewfinder lined up with what you'd get on the negative but there would be considerably more "air" at the top of the image than you'd see in the finder, and half that much on either side. And the film advance mechanism was a weak point—frame spacing was often irregular, and sometimes failed resulting in overlapping frames. Film was not held flat very well in the gate, either—I occasionally lost a shot due to poor film flatness. In fact, I probably lost more shots with that camera than with any other camera before or since, including one great shot ruined by poor film flatness that still galls me even after all the intervening years.
The Schneider Xenotar MF 80mm ƒ/2.8 I had was the single best lens I ever used. It wasn't that the lens was so great, though, it was that I happened to get a good one, one that must have been at the very top of the sample variation. I tried several other copies of the same lens over the years and none were quite as good. My experience of medium-format lenses over the years, and enlarging lenses too, was that there was considerable sample variation. This was confirmed in a number of cases. You couldn't buy those things by the label; you had to buy by the specific individual sample. That was even true for Zeiss Hasselblad lenses until fairly late in the game.
The young have hopes
So why was this camera my favorite, then, if it had all those flaws? Well, I guess it has to do with memories of youth. For some reason, I took to the Exakta 66 like the proverbial duck to water. I knew just what to do with it immediately, almost subconsciously. As I say I only ever used that one film, and from the first I took to cropping every picture to a vertical rectangle. Why? I guess because it was hard to guess what would be on the negatives on the sides of the image. Because it didn't have a light meter, I decided to train myself to guess my exposures, and although this was a struggle at first, I worked hard at it, and found to my surprise that I got very good at it. In some cases my brain even metered better than a light meter would have, because I understood the scene better, whereas the meter would be assuming the scene was middle gray and would need to be compensated for. And I really liked the pictures I made with that camera. I curated a group show for the U.S. Park Service in which I included my own work, and it turned out to be the last time my work was ever exhibited. All my pictures in that show were taken with the Exakta 66. The show as a whole got good reviews, and while not every reviewer singled out my work, those who did said nice things.
The Exacta 66 was the camera that I owned as I transitioned from being a photographer to teaching and writing about it. So it was the last camera I used while I still assumed I was going to spend my life as a working art photographer. I'm better at the career I ended up with than I would have been at that career I left behind, I think, but, still and all, I have a certain amount of sentimentality for who I was then, and for the plans, ambitions, and hopes I had. As many of us do, for our youthful dreams.
So that's why it was my favorite.
I roamed on foot all over Washington D.C. with that camera, and did many portraits with it. I think having to carry it in my hand and working so hard with it played a part in my affection for the old beastie, too. What can I say? We bonded.
The usual fate
In those days I had very little money, and when I wanted or needed a new camera I had to sell the old one. I joined a photo studio in which all the other photographers shot Nikon and Hasselblad, and I couldn't use off brands or I wouldn't be contributing to the equipment pool. So my Contax and my Exakta 66 had to go the way of all cameras.
I've always regretted letting that one go, however, and to this day I wish I hadn't.
P.S. As for my favorite camera now, it's the one I'm jonesing to buy next...same as Peter Vagt's favorite. But it's going to be awhile before I can both a) afford it and b) justify it, and both a) and b) are going to have to pertain before I can get my hot little hands on one. But don't cry for me! :-)
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Featured Comments from:
Andrew Lamb: "I had the Exakta 66, with an 80mm Schneider, when I was young and foolish. If I'm being honest, I think it appealed to my contrary nature. As I've mentioned before, I experienced focusing problems with it until I figured out that the focus screen had been installed the wrong way around. I can't remember how long I persevered with it for. Nowhere as near as long as you. It was a nice camera to use hand-held on location but the 1/30th sec. sync made it poor as a studio camera. As for the lens, I got great results with it in B&W (T-Max 400) but I was disappointed with it when using colour slide.
"All-time favourite camera? Another 6x6, the Super-Ikonta. Current modern favourite: the Sigma SD Quattro."
Mike replies: The slow sync was the proximate rationale for selling my first one--it was useless in the studio. I bought a 150mm telephoto for the Hasselblads, contributed in lieu of a few months of studio rent—never owned a Hassie body, but I could borrow those, and nobody else in the studio owned a 150mm. I tried to buy a second Exacta 66 sometime in the '90s, trying to recapture the magic of my period with the first one, and it, like yours, had the focusing screen installed upside-down. Took me a long time to figure that out, too—you don't expect a new German camera straight out of the box to have a problem like that!
Thomas Rink: "This brings back some less-than-pleasant memories from my youth. In 1985, the camera shop in the next town had a nice, pre-owned Pentacon Six TL with 50mm, 80mm, and 180mm Zeiss Jena lenses on offer. The entire kit was only 800 Deutsche Mark, which was within my financial reach (with a bit of stretching). But on the day I finally decided to go for it, I rear-ended a driving-school car; to add to the embarrassment, the car was from the driving school from which I got my license just a year earlier (which required, due to my ineptitude, an above-average number of driving lessons, of course). Gone were my savings, so no medium format for poor Thomas."
Mike replies: That is a sad story. So close, yet....