FED 5b – The Joys and Pains of Shooting the Soviet Union’s Beer Can Rangefinder

FED 5b – The Joys and Pains of Shooting the Soviet Union’s Beer Can Rangefinder

1956 1100 Jeb Inge

For those who argue that the third part of a trilogy is typically the worst, The Godfather Part III is People’s Exhibit A. The political intrigue of financial malfeasance in Vatican City was destined to disappoint those of us who consider the first two Godfather films among the greatest movies of all time. And every time I look at the FED 5 sitting on my camera shelf, I think of Godfather III.

There’s no official trilogy of Soviet cameras. The Eastern bloc created many different bodies and styles throughout its long existence. But after shooting and writing about the Zenit-E SLR and the medium-format Kiev 60, I began to feel the need to round out my socialist shooting experience with a third camera, and a rangefinder seemed the perfect fit. And when it comes to Soviet rangefinders, the FED is a strong choice.

I loved the first two Soviet cameras I reviewed. The Zenit E’s crude construction and sassy lens made the results spontaneous and pleasurably unique. The medium format Kiev was equally crude but surprising, and it reliably produced big, beautiful images that I enjoyed so much that the camera’s become a favorite on my shelf of keepers. 

Both of those cameras shared a straightforward approach to photography largely thanks to their basic spec sheet and crude build. But basic and crude are rarely traits that make for a successful rangefinder camera. The quality control issues that plague Soviet cameras had me even more skeptical of success. But the unusually low price of an allegedly overhauled FED 5b from the Ukraine was hard to pass up, and this stoic Soviet rangefinder eventually found its way to my home in Virginia. 

But what’s a FED camera, and what’s a 5b? Okay, let’s do that first. 

The first FED camera is nearly as old as the Soviet Union itself. With civil war a thing of the past and a good decade-or-so of rule under its belt, the USSR began its journey toward “realizing Communism” by creating its planned economy. This meant, in part, fewer and fewer imports of foreign, capitalist goods. If the Soviets wanted something made, they would make it themselves. This ideal permeated all segments of the economy and extended naturally to photography equipment, almost all of which had until that time been imported from Europe, and more specifically, Germany.

In 1932, the German firm Leica debuted the world’s greatest handheld camera. The Leica II was the first camera to include a built-in rangefinder, and its incredible build quality and amazing optics set a new standard for compact photographic performance. It also provided background, so thought Soviet leadership, for the nascent communist empire to show that it could hold its own in manufacturing quality consumer goods. 

But the skilled craftsmen and expert engineering employed by Leica was something sorely missing in the USSR. The Soviets, instead, had Ukrainian orphans.

That’s not a joke. 

Ten years earlier, an orphanage in Kharkov had been converted into a labor commune and gloriously named after Felix E. Dzerzhinsky, founder of the NKVD. This state security organization which would later become the KGB naturally required numerous tools of their trade, including photo gear. Rather than design and build their own, the Felix E. Dzerzhinsky (FED) factory literally disassembled and reverse engineered existing cameras from foreign countries. And in 1932 FED created their own Leica II.

The FED 1 (or Fedka) was a Leica II with an Industar lens in place of the Leitz Elmar, and more than seven hundred thousand of them were produced from 1934 to 1955 (this number would be even higher if not for an involuntary five-year hiatus after German troops inconveniently destroyed the factory in 1941). So many Fedkas were made that even today it’s common to find examples that have been altered for sale as Leica IIs by unscrupulous sellers.

But just like my mother’s forged signature at the bottom of my elementary school report card, the authenticity of these Russian Leica copies crumbles under anything more than cursory scrutiny. The Soviets simply didn’t have the precision machinery, human expertise, or quality control of the Germans. Still, that didn’t stop them from making five iterations of the FED rangefinder and producing 8.6 million of them. 

Each new iteration saw improvements. The FED 2 combined the rangefinder and viewfinder. The FED 3 added slow shutter speeds and a film lever to replace a thumbwheel, and the FED 4 added an uncoupled selenium meter. In 1977, FED would issue its fifth and final iteration of their rangefinder camera. This was the (predictably named) FED 5.

The FED 5 brought a cleaner design and a number of technical and user-experience improvements. A pop-up rewind knob replaced a thumbwheel and later, a more standard rewind lever would replace the knob. The uncoupled selenium meter was given a needle window on the top plate with which the user could input the reading into a calculator. Produced until 1996, there would eventually exist seven types and ten sub-types of the FED 5, including the 5b and 5c. These were lower-spec economy versions of the 5; the 5c had a finder without diopter adjustment and parallax conversion, and the 5b eschewed the light meter.

When I first opened the boxes that housed my earlier reviewed Zenit and Kiev, I was like a kid on Christmas who gets something so weird and foreign that he can’t help but squeal for joy. But when I opened the box that delivered the FED 5, it felt more like the Christmas morning that I got a pair of overalls and a book on bird watching. It was underwhelming, at best.

The FED 5b felt flimsy, but maybe that’s normal – after all, I’d never held an aluminum camera before. Still, the aluminum chassis of the FED 5b feels closer to a beer can than a baseball bat. Holding it, I knew that if I put this camera in one of the man cave beer can crushers, there’s no doubt it would fold like a Romanian car. This was not the same tank metal used to craft the Kiev and Zenit.

Worse still, the camera’s spec sheet, while adequate, did nothing to inspire excitement. It has a cloth focal-plane shutter with speeds from 1 to 1/500th of second and bulb mode, a 55mm (mine says 53mm) Industar with apertures from f/2.8 to f/16. There’s a self-timer that continues making its unhealthy rasping noise for about a week after it triggers the shutter. There’s also a dial under the film rewind crank on which we can set our film speed so we don’t forget what we’ve loaded, a hot shoe for its 1/30 second flash sync, a frame counter and, my personal favorite, a slider with a star, a lightbulb and a bullseye. I never bothered to find out what that was for.

My personal FED had a few individual quirks, including a rangefinder face plate with a tendency to move around and a lens that, when focused to infinity, appeared to be out of focus. For my FED, it wasn’t to infinity and beyond, but almost, sort-of infinity.

Everything that I read about production-dating the FED said that the first two numbers in the serial number indicate the year of manufacture. Once again indicative of the incredible brain trust that is random internet posts, my camera was made in 1912. Or, wait, that’s not right. Oh well. The first two numbers on the lens serial number are 90, so that makes sense, although this also indicates that the lens was manufactured at the same time that the society around the factory was collapsing. That likely has no bearing on quality control. I’m sure it’s fine. It’s fine.

Loading film into the FED means removing the back half of the camera, winding up the film and then attaching the camera back again. This isn’t a new concept, but care has to be taken to be absolutely sure that the back is fitted correctly. If not, images will show light leaks and fogging. I’ve read that to mitigate this problem, many FED shooters affix electrical tape around the seams each time they load film, which truly defines the concept of brand loyalty.

Needless to say, my first steps with the FED 5b were a bit wobbly. All of the mentioned weirdness came together in a perfect storm, and I suddenly understood  where the stereotypes surrounding Soviet cameras originate. The camera made me nervous, both in shooting it and in the threat it posed to the track record of my perfect experiences with Soviet camera. And that’s why it sat on the shelf for a long, long time. In the end, it would take packing up my entire apartment and moving to the other side of the world to get me to finally take the FED out and see what it could do.

My initial shooting experience continued the unfortunate first impression of months earlier. Taking the camera on a road trip to Florida, I was shooting the FED along with some other gear that I’d never before used, and the FED seemed to always be the last camera used to shoot a particular image. This didn’t really make for easy success.

Functionally the FED is a lot like the Zenit, meaning it takes more time and more patience to shoot it right. It has that same obnoxious requirement of only adjusting the shutter speed after advancing the film. Changing the shutter speed out of order can break the setting pin and brick the camera. Once the film is advanced and the shutter speed set, lens aperture is controlled on the front of the Industar lens with each aperture clicking mechanically into its detents (an improvement over the Industar on the Zenit).

Made by the Arsenal factory in Ukraine to this day, the Industar-61 is a famous and very well-regarded lens. It’s a single-coated Tessar style lens with four elements in three groups, all made lightweight by its aluminum construction. My copy’s focusing action was sluggish and the distance ring was either installed incorrectly or damaged before I received it. It felt imprecise in use and drained my confidence in producing a good shot, and even before finishing the first roll, I began to doubt the veracity of the many online commentators who gush about this lens.

But the worst part of shooting the FED 5 certainly comes when composing and focusing. Far and away, this was the worst. An absolutely miserable experience. First, looking through the circular metal on the viewfinder means we never see the entire frame. Once, when really pressing to get a clear view, I leaned so far in that the viewfinder touched the surface of my eyeball. That’s not pleasant. Generally speaking, the world seen through the viewfinder of a FED 5b is dim and dark.

These irritants meant that it took a week for me to get through one roll of film. Not because I didn’t have anything to shoot, but because after two or three shots, I was so underwhelmed I would give up on the FED and choose to shoot a better camera. When I finally finished that first roll, I sent it off to the lab entirely sure that the images would reflect the less-than-pleasant experience I had making them. But I was wrong.

Images for this article were made on Agfa 200, Kodak Portra 400, and Fuji C200.

Were all camera opinions gleaned from just the first roll, then the FED 5 would be my all-time sleeper camera. The one that defies its technical and constructive limitations to create some pretty remarkable images. The first batch of images I received back from the lab were incredible. Those light leaks I read about were nonexistent. The reputation of the Industar was completely defended. I was legitimately astonished at how much I liked those shots.

Then I shot two more rolls.

With the remarkable images fresh in memory and the pains of making them conveniently glossed over, I took the FED 5b to Potsdam and Wannssee outside of Berlin for a weekend of exploring. This time the experience was reversed; being more familiar with the camera meant shooting the FED was less frustrating and tedious, but the resulting images weren’t nearly as good. There were light leaks everywhere. Occasionally there were spacing issues when the camera failed to advance the film correctly. More than occasionally, focus was off.

I know it’s cheap to blame the gear, and I know that some of the mistakes of the subsequent rolls of film are all on me. I could have put tape around the back plate to prevent light leaks. But why should I have to regret not doing that in 2018?

I know the FED 5 wasn’t made by orphans in a makeshift factory, but the FED 1 was. And when any FED camera fails for no real reason other than its own flawed design, it’s these orphaned “workers” that spring to mind.

It’s not that my FED 5b never made another nice image — it did, and it does. But most of the time it makes images that are just what I expect from a Soviet rangefinder. These images match the experience of making them;  sometimes great, sometimes awful, always unpredictable. If I were creating a slogan for the FED 5b’s ad campaign, it might read “thirty-six maybes”.

Just like The Godfather Part III, the FED 5b is hard to recommend. Sure, it’s cool to see Andy Garcia do a young Pacino impression for a few hours, but I’d rather watch him in The Expendables or even When A Man Loves a Woman.

If the best part of the FED is the novelty of shooting a Soviet-made camera, I’m better off with the Zenit. If I’m chasing the higher-than-expected quality of the images it sometimes makes, I’d rather expose the 6 x 6 negatives of the Kiev. And if I’m looking for the interesting rendering of the Industar lens, I can easily get that lens on a better body. There are good things about the FED, but each of those good things is done better by other cameras. And I think I’d rather use those.

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Jeb Inge

Jeb Inge is a Berlin-based photographer and writer. He has also worked in journalism, public history and public relations.

All stories by:Jeb Inge
19 comments
  • Great reviews coming from this site, well done. Although Russian cameras are not my favorite, I do appreciate the enthusiasm. I do have a couple of Zorki cameras, then I turn to my Leica’s and I smile. Yet, the Soviet lenses can surprise.

    • Thanks, Jose. I have to admit that after the last three, my enthusiasm isn’t quite what it used to be. I would still like to try the half-frame plastic camera they made though…

      • Mark Kronquist May 29, 2018 at 1:15 am

        WOW A hanging offense. In 1993, when Yeltsin dissolved parliament, I headed to GUM, the former Soviet department store, ditched my Western Gear and shot the chaos which TACMA and SVEMA film with the Fed 5b and C bodies and lenses they had at GUM. The results were fine and published in many places on this planet. A Leica or even Nikon F or Minolta SR T no? But, when the tanks were rolling (over people) the photos mattered and were fine. Yes the plastic window of a Fed 5b or C may move and the Industar lens was made at Igpr’s Tractor Factory (no) but the cameras delivered images when it counts. Under fire

  • Oh, the joys of the FED 5. There ARE some, just not quite as many as some of the partisans of FSU (Former Soviet Union) cameras will attest to.
    My own journey through the many variations of the FSU rangefinder has been interesting and not always as much fun as I hoped for but, ultimately, I have honestly enjoyed that journey. Maybe not each stop along the way, though I now have a pretty complete rf kit based on FSU gear that I’ve gathered over the years.
    I do have a FED 5 that is OK, I don’t use it much because I discovered the Zorki branch of the family tree.

    What I like about the FED 5 is mainly the inexpensive entry point it gave me to using Leica thread mount lenses. The reasons it is not my primary 35mm camera are many but the first thing that annoys me about the FED 5 particularly is the lack of strap lugs. I never quite trusted the strap on the case and find that simply carrying the camera becomes an exercise in deciding which jacket has the biggest pockets and is that coat compatible with the current weather…

    I think the biggest problems with the FSU cameras are twofold–the indifferent quality control and the unknown service history of any specific camera or lens one might buy. The quality control failings are surely strongly tied to a planned economy and no real consumer driven pressure to be better. But the service history of these cameras is complicated by this (internet driven, I think) that they are so cheap to buy that 1) they are not worth paying an actual camera tech to work on them, 2) you can just fix it yourself whether or not you have any experience or skill in that area, and 3) they are all OLD cameras. Even the newest FEDs are 20 plus years old by now and like any other precision mechanical device will almost certainly need some attention. And the “better” models are even older.

    What I did to build my current stable was to settle on a camera that seemed to have the features I wanted, have it serviced by an actual expert, and try not to get caught up in the idea of “gotta collect ’em all.”

    So, I have a 1955 vintage Zorki 3m and the best examples of the three basic focal lengths (35mm Jupiter-12, 50mm Jupiter-8, and 85mm Jupiter-9) I could find. I quite like a 21mm lens and for that I have the Cosina Voigtlander 21 and have added a 135mm and several other lenses.

    I am a fan of these cameras but I try not to be a fanboy–they are not, in several objective ways, the best cameras out there but, for me, they are my preferred choice for 35mm rangefinder.

    A couple of things to end with:
    I think you are capable of sorting these cameras but for those of us who are not, I will highly recommend having Oleg of okvintagecamera.com handle repairs.
    And, the “…slider with a star, a lightbulb and a bullseye.” is, I think, supposed to be a reminder of what type of film you have loaded. Daylight or tungsten color and black and white film.

    Thank you for a good read this morning as I started my day!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed reading, Robert. I think you hit the nail on the head. The Fed 5 really is the cheapest entry point to the Leica mount. If you were able to find one that was light leak proof, it would be a fine body to attach to some good glass. I have to admit that mine felt very minty when it arrived, though who knows what the history really is. I’m interested in finding someone to take a look at the Zenit and the Kiev as those cameras I see myself using more frequently than the Fed. i’ve always thought the FSU cameras interesting in many ways — not least that this camera that feels 40 years old is the same age as an F5. I think it’s great that you’ve invested so much into your system. There’s no “right” camera, just the right one for you. Cheers to making yours something so interesting and unique.

      • Jeb,
        For your Zenit, I will un-hesitatingly recommend Oleg. For the Kiev 60, Araxfoto. Arax is who I bought my own K60 from and that was a very good experience. I am, in fact, saving towards another Arax camera but this time I want to get the Kiev 88 they offer.

        Above you mentioned the “plastic half-frame camera” and I’m guessing you’re referring to the Agat 18? I also have one of those and I really like the design but man o man, the plastic they used just worries me a bit every time I advance or rewind. I think the lens is pretty decent and I found the mechanical exposure system in it to be very good with print film–I haven’t shot any slide film with it.

        As far as “investment” well, I have invested more time than $ and have been amply rewarded. Photography is a hobby for me so my payout has to be in fun. As a bonus, I have ended up with some prints on my walls and on some friends walls.

        Never really got into the SLRs from the Soviet Union–been a long time Pentax user until my advancing age has shown me the benefit of auto focus and last fall I bought a Nikon 8008s and (gasp!) their 24-120 zoom. And have been thinking about the F100 and a good fast 50.

        Again, thanks for a good overview of the FED and some of the FSU camera history!

  • Actually, 5 was not the last of FEDs, there were also prototype 6 and 7 cameras along with serial Fed 10 and 11 (AKA Fed Atlas)

    • Ive read about those prototypes. Some of them can fetch a pretty penny.

      • The only one I have seen on local market (FSU guy here) was Fed-11 and it cost roughly 100$. While famous (and also infamous) “Start” camera in good working order typically shows up at something like 80$

  • >The Soviets, instead, had Ukrainian orphans.

    That’s a myth. The FED factory was built in place of former orphanage. Orphans were moved to other orphanages. It would be impossible to make such a complex devices as rangefinder cameras and optics using unqualified labour, even considering that soviet cameras were of more crude design.

    • Pretty sure this is NOT mythical. Aside from the history recounted in Jean Loupe Princelle’s book about Soviet cameras, there is this article that also discusses the early history of the FED cameras:
      http://www.fedka.com/Useful_info/Commune_by_Fricke/commune_A.htm

      Yes, UNQUALIFIED labour couldn’t make a camera but teen aged people could certainly be trained to assemble one. In my own late teens I worked in the Smith Corona typewriter factory and while I don’t know anything about designing a typewriter, I absolutley was trained to assemble a collection of parts in the correct order and at least visually check that they worked how I was told they should. And those assemblies I made were then checked more stringently by other trained workers. Using routines and equipment designed by people who DID have knowledge about designing typewrtiers.

      • Actually, first FEDs had inscription of “Трудовая Коммуна им. Ф.Э. Дзержинского”. That means “labor commune of name of F.E. Dzerzhinsky”. Yes, labor commune, not factory. It’s something between a gulag and low-grade factory which employs unqualified personnel, mainly homeless teenager (orphans) and hobos. So by no means was it mythical.

        • I read more Russian sources on this topic and found out that the FED labour facility was founded by Makarenko, who was very famous educator and pedagogist here in Russia. And the facility was a correction camp built for underage criminals, who indeed were assembling first FED cameras. But during the World War II as the German troops came through Ukraine the facility was shut down, and after the war in place of FED facility the new factory was built. So in fact the first batches of FEDs were made by young criminals and the ones made after the war were built by professional workers.

  • What a fun review! I think your pictures are great. Maybe we should all be shooting old Feds with light leaks?

  • I think of my FED 5B the way I think of my well-loved Argus C3. Not a great camera, by any measure, not ergonomic, often frustrating… but there can be something wonderful about the pictures it makes.

    • That’s totally how I see my Zenit E. For all the frustrations of Soviet cameras, they can take some really amazing photos.

  • Honestly, I can’t tell the difference between the Leica & the Zorki.
    Right!
    Dave.

  • foxtrot.mike-fm July 12, 2018 at 3:04 am

    I think you would have been better trying the mighty FED-2. A far more handsome camera! Appearances aside, you can get versions of this model from the ‘Sputnik Era” when people had a better feeling about the social experiment in which they were involved. As a result quality control appears to have been better. I have two versions of the FED-2; a 1958 model on which I keep a 1956 Jupiter-8 & a 1961 model with its original Industar-26M. Both of these cameras are handsome work horses that fit the hands well. There are no slow shutter speeds, no pesky escapements to clog up & quite adequate for hand held shooting. The wider rangefinder base on these cameras is a definite plus. By the mid 1960s things had started going downhill badly. Cameras such as the much vaunted Zorki-4 were produced with the indices on the lenses & control dials silk screened onto rather than engraved into the metal. The focusing helices on on lenses, even the otherwise commendable Jupiter-8, were cheapened so that the front element rotated as the focus ring was turned. Things only got worse over the following decades & some really ugly cameras were made. Big ugly top-plates to accommodate slow shutter speeds of questionable value. I notice you are using the Industar-61/LD on your FED. A lot of people seem to regard the camera as a “big ugly rear lens cap” for this well regarded lens. I have tested the Industar-26M against the later Industar-61L/D on my Sony-a6000. I consider the latter lens a little over-hyped & much prefer the Jupiter-8 over either of the Industars. My final recommendations would be to look for equipment in good condition (from a reputable dealer) that dates between the mid 1950s & the early 1960s. I am probably a little biased here, but, in my in my personal experience FED cameras are better made than Zorkis. I encourage indignant Zorkiphiles to tell me why I am so wrong in this opinion… 😉

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Jeb Inge

Jeb Inge is a Berlin-based photographer and writer. He has also worked in journalism, public history and public relations.

All stories by:Jeb Inge