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.
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.