Exakta — a Personal Introduction

What's so special about Exakta?

I have a soft spot for this camera.

Exakta is a real man's thing. What you get is a film winding mechanism, a shutter, a lens with aperture, all of it nicely engineered, a piece of old-time precision machinery — and then it is up to you to come up with good pictures.

Exakta is also a camera with a great historic significance, comparable only to that of Leica: it was the first 35-mm single lens reflex (SLR). It started a trend lasting almost 70 years, one which will probably end only with the digital onslaught.

Oh, well, this is the official version. I just like these suckers, with all their up-in-your-face oddities.

Consider these pages a small shrine to the One and Only Exakta.

All eight models of Exakta, plus a major cosmetic variant (late IIa, center) shown in one picture.

Back in time

When I was growing up as an aspiring, teenage amateur photographer, back in Poland in the early Sixties, Exakta was a symbol of status. Its price was my father's six months' pay. I knew one guy who had an Exakta (or his father did).

(As a matter of fact, $300 which one had to shell out for an Exakta here in the States during the Fifties was no small change either!)

But the thing was just beautiful. Winding the film and firing the shutter was a sensual pleasure. In the world of shabby Communist mass-market goods, Exakta was like a trip to another world.

Forty years later I have a number of these cameras in my small but growing collection. Although I use digital cameras for most of my shooting today, from time to time I just like to load a roll of film in one of the Exaktas and spend a day with it. And, boy, do I feel good then!

A camera with personality

This is a camera with personality, unlike most others.

Some people say that's because it was built with the German "I know what's right for you regardless what you think" attitude (having quite a few German friends I might agree).

Focusing is a responsible task: it must be trusted to the right hand, therefore the shutter release has to be on the left. Being able to cut your film in mid-roll is an essential need. Having fast and slow shutter speed adjusted with the same knob is for weenies (read: Leica users), and it needlessly complicates the construction. Don't try to turn this knob until the film has been wound, or else. And so on.

Frankly speaking, during the last years of the Exakta line the Japanese SLRs were already better-designed, better made, and were delivering better results. Exakta was doomed to become an oddity. This accelerated its demise at that time, but it also adds to its charm and attractiveness now.

The first system camera

This was a system camera: it would accept thousands of lenses, the finders and screens were interchangeable, and there were also dozens of Exakta accessories for macro-, micro-, spectro-, stereo-, and astrophotography.

The choice of lenses and accessories for Exakta and Exa remains unmatched by any other camera, even after all those years.

With very few exceptions, all models accepted all accessories and vice versa. Once you invested into an Exakta, you could spend the next ten years building a complete system and knowing that it will not become incompatible with the next model release. And many people did.

Collecting and using Exaktas

Among camera collectors Exakta aficionados are a small but growing group. In spite of the definite character and historic significance, second-hand Exaktas are quite inexpensive on the used-camera market. Most of the bodies can be bought on an auction for $80-&200, even in mint state, and there are many equally inexpensive (and sometimes very good) lenses for this camera.

Many of the fifty-year-old Exaktas are still working just fine (or can be brought to this state with some loving care), capable of delivering good results, not worse than these obtained with modern cameras. The broken ones are often not difficult to repair yourself — certainly much easier than any high-tech, electronics-loaded and plastic-sealed camera you see in the stores today.

The Exakta line spanned about forty years, with quite a number of different models (and their variants): lots of digging, comparing, research; just what collectors like.

More, with the wide latitude and great tolerance of contemporary color negative films, the absence of exposure automation is not much of a handicap. With some practice, setting exposure "by eye" gives more than acceptable results. if in doubt, overexpose; your negatives will still print just fine.

Last but not least, we may expect the value of our collection to grow quite fast. Exakta is no longer seen as obsolete technology (as it was twenty years ago); it becomes more like a treasured memory of the past.

Exakta — the brief story

More than sixty years ago, a milestone in camera making happened: Ihagee, a Dutch-owned camera company in Dresden, Germany (already known for SLR models in larger format) introduced the first single lens reflex model using the 35 mm film. The world of photography was never the same.

The camera, named just Exakta (and usually referred to as Kine Exakta), was released in 1936. It bore a strong resemblance to the Exakta VP series of the early Thirties, which were using the now-forgotten 127 film to take pictures 40x75 mm in size.

The maker, Ihagee Kamerawerk from Dresden was not a newcomer to the camera manufacturing. Being in this business since 1912, they had a series of successful models, including, in addition to the VP series mentioned above, ones with great-sounding names as Patent-Klappreflex (1924), Luxus-Roll-Paff-Reflex (1927), or Nachtreflex (1930). Still, none of these constructions were as ground-breaking and trend-setting, as the Kine Exakta, whose impact can be clearly felt even today.

The production was almost entirely suspended during most of the war, and then the factory was destroyed in the Allied bombings. Finally Dresden fell into Soviet hands, to become a part of the "worker's paradise", known as the DDR.

In spite of all that, the manufacturing was resumed in late 1945, at first from the pre-war parts; it reached pre-war levels as soon as in 1947. In 1949 the first post-war model, Exakta II, was introduced, and other models followed shortly.

The Fifties were the golden years of the Exakta family. The camera faced no serious competition. It was technologically up-to-date, offered a vast array of compatible lenses and other accessories, the German craftsmanship was still hard to match (it took 20 years of the Communist system to degrade it), and Ihagee could sell as many as they wanted: most of them to the Western Europe and the U.S., and any surplus — to other members of the Soviet-dominated family of nations.

The last "genuine" Exakta, VX500 (by "genuine" I mean made by Ihagee and accessory-compatible with the whole line) was released in 1969. Then the factory was incorporated into the "People's Enterprise Pentacon", and the Exakta label was put on the RTL 1000 — a completely different camera (Practica VLC), not made by Ihagee, and having nothing to do with the previous Exakta models (except for the lens compatibility). The camera was not reliable and did not sell well, so the effort was doomed, and the Exakta line withered out.

On another front, for some time in the 70's the original owners of Ihagee were trying to make their own cameras with the Exakta label in West Germany or in Japan, but these efforts were also largely unsuccessful: the West-German model (Exakta Real), in spite of technical excellence, was not competitive in terms of price, and the Japanese ones were just other bottom-drawer cameras with an Exakta logo (and, initially at least, Exakta lens mount).

By that time the major Japanese camera makers got their act together and within a few years swept any European (or American) competition off the camera market — not just the East Germans. While through most of the Fifties Japanese cameras were cheaper look-alikes of European models, in the Sixties they were able to stand on their own, and in the Seventies became a tough act to follow. The Japanese success was well-deserved.

Exakta was an early victim, unable to compete in terms of design, features, innovation, quality, or price, and beaten into the ground by the incompetent Communist management.

Exa — the little sister

Exakta was a very expensive camera in those days. This might have been a reason why in the early Fifties Ihagee introduced its scaled-down sibling: Exa. This really was a different camera, but it fit into the system by accepting Exakta's lenses and interchangeable viewfinders.

Exa was smaller, much simpler mechanically and, obviously, quite limited in capabilities compared to its big sister. It also cost, as I remember, less than one third of what Exakta did. It could be used as an introductory camera (although at its price more advanced ones were already available) or as a second body for an Exakta-based system.

The original Exas had a funny shutter of which the mirror was a functional part, and the speeds were very limited: from 1/25 to 1/150s (sometimes 1/175, what a German hairsplitting accuracy!). Only in the Sixties a regular, cloth focal-plane shutter was introduced in Exa II (but this one did not have interchangeable finders). The "funny shutter" models do not work quite right with Exakta lenses of focal length above 100 mm because of horizontal vignetting. This limitation also disappeared in later models.

The "real" Exa series continued up to the Seventies; cameras with this brand name made after 1977 did not share the Exakta bayonet mount and were made quite shabbily, aiming at the bottom of the market. Too bad.

Name — just a commodity?

The current owner of the Exakta name, Pentacon GmBH of Dresden, recycled the Exakta name a few years ago, putting it quite arbitrarily (along with the Praktica logo) on point-and-shoot digital cameras, most probably made somewhere in the Far East.

While they have all legal rights to do it, I consider this in bad taste. In the days when the "real" Exaktas were made, the name meant something. Now it means nothing.


(Image from Pentacon GmBH advertising)

Back to my main Exakta page

Home: wrotniak.net | Search this site | Change font size

Photo News | The Gallery


Posted 2001/10/22; last updated 2004/06/20 Copyright © 2001-2004 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak