Kiev — a Soviet Contax

Not just a clone

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The Kiev was actually a version of the famous German Contax rangefinder camera, made in the Soviet Union, in the military Arsenal Factory in Kiev, Ukraine. The first Kievs were made in 1947 from parts and with machinery pilfered by the victorious Red Army from the Contax Zeiss factory in Dresden, Germany, and some were just made in Dresden and branded as Kievs. (Some have the Contax nameplate re-stamped as Kiev.)

The industrial-scale production started in 1950, and lasted until 1986, with the camera virtually unchanged.

The model shown here is referred to as 4AM (the designation is not shown anywhere, you just have to know such things). It was made quite recently, in 1984. Still, only some cosmetic details make it different from the 1947 Kievs.

Minor variations of Model 4, including this one, were made from 1957 to 1987. The one shown is perhaps the last version. From the Sixties most models were made in two parallel variants: with and without a selenium light meter.

This particular camera, bought quite cheap during a trip to Poland, is shown here with the impressive Yupiter-3 (or Jupiter-3) lens, 50mm/1.5, not too shabby even by today's standards.

S/n 8441652, with the Yupiter-3 50mm/1.5 (!) lens.
(Pictures taken with Olympus C-5060WZ)

The Contax, introduced around 1933, was a major competitor to Leica. The Soviets were making imitations of both these camera lines, their FED and Zorki Leica clones being more pedestrian, the Kievs — more sophisticated (and much more expensive).

From my own experience: in the Sixties Kiev was selling in Poland for about 40% of the price of an Exakta, which made it as expensive as the Practica IV SLR, slightly more than a two month's pay. Among rangefinders, a Zorki would cost about 60% of Kiev's price, and was also considered more reliable.

You cannot talk about Kiev without mentioning Contax. Then you cannot talk about Contax without comparing it to Leica. This is because both cameras, while aiming at the same market, are so different.

While Leica (FED, Zorki) had a cloth shutter traveling horizontally, Contax (Kiev) had a metal one, with vertical movement. While Leicas were focused by turning a ring on the lens, in Contax the focusing mechanism was a part of the lens mount, and driven by a thumbwheel on the top of camera body. Leicas (the earlier ones, at least) were loaded from the bottom, Contax had a removable back. Contax was also significantly larger and had a rangefinder with a huge base, a boost for focusing accuracy. Leica lenses were screw-mounted, while Contax used a bayonet mount, really two (internal and external), one for short, and one for long lenses.

There are also differences in how these cameras age. Leica (and its clones), being mechanically simpler and perhaps better designed, age gracefully. Most of the used FEDs and Zorkis I encountered (I stay away from used Leicas) would work, maybe after some cleaning and lubrication. A large share of vintage Kievs (and, from what I hear, Contaxes) suffer from problems with the shutter, back locks, even lens mount. Buying a used Kiev is an exercise in caution.

The original lens which came with my Kiev, Helios-103, is shown at left. It does not age gracefully, either. Looking through it I can see some Fresnel rings: sign that the lens elements are becoming separated. This is why I equipped the camera with the lens shown above: the gorgeous Yupiter-3.

You can clearly see one flange of the outer lens mount in the picture. It is not used by this lens.

Kiev was, I believe, better supported with interchangeable lenses than any other Soviet-made camera (except those using the M42 universal screw mount). Here the camera is shown with a 135mm/4.0 Yupiter-11 (#6215383). The lens is compact (a true telephoto) and quite ugly-looking.

It still couples with the thumbwheel, but the latter cannot overcome the torque, magnified by some internal transmission ratio. Therefore the lens (unlike standard Kiev/Contax ones) has its own focusing ring. When you turn it, the thumbwheel also turns.

From Contax Kiev inherited two ergonomic design flaws.

In all Kiev lenses I've seen focusing also rotates the front lens element, together with the aperture scale. The scale may easily end up at the bottom side of the lens barrel; to set the aperture you have to turn the camera upside down.

The focus wheel is quite difficult to operate without your fingers obstructing the rangefinder window. On the other hand, the rangefinder itself is very accurate (good enough for long and large-aperture lenses with small depth of field) and quite easy to use. The viewfinder, however, is small, dark, and difficult to use with glasses. I'm happy I don't have to use Kiev (or Contax) as my basic camera. From a collector's viewpoint these are just conversation items, though.

And now we come to the painful bit.

Generally, the late-period Kievs are less well built, finished, and tuned than the earlier ones (which were not shining either). The one shown here is perhaps the worst I have handled: this is no longer the German engineering, but the shoddy, Communist imitation. I have used some pre-Seventies Kievs and they were better.

In the Seventies in Poland a Kiev was considered junk, unless you hired a technician who would spend a week bringing a factory-fresh camera into shape, which could include custom-making or cannibalizing parts. Some people were actually doing that, but most simply wouldn't bother.

Camera specs at a glance

These were quite impressive specs at the time.

  • Shutter: focal-plane (metal, vertical); 1/2s to 1/1000s and B.
  • Lens: Interchangeable, Contax bayonet, focusing from .9 m. Typical standard lens: a coated Helios-103, 53 mm/1.8, apertures up to F/22, or 50mm/2.0 Yupiter-8M.
  • Film transport: winding knob at the right, rewind crank at the left.
  • Flash synchronization: PC socket; in latest models also a hot shoe.
  • Viewing: a Newtonian viewfinder with a coupled, large-base, dual-image rangefinder.
  • Self-timer: yes.
  • Film loading: detachable back and bottom, secured by a two rotating knobs.

Web resources

  • Peter Henning's Kiev Rangefinders is a detailed, interesting, and most enjoyable reading, not just for Kiev or Contax collectors, but for anyone interested in history of cameras. It is loaded with not just technical, but also historical information.

    Peter's expert opinion on the decline of Kiev quality is consistent with my impressions from the Sixties through Eighties.

  • A Contax-to-Kiev article on the Zeiss Historica Society Web site gives the details of how the Zeiss Ikon (the makes of Contax) production lines ended up being shipped to the Soviet Union; also a very interesting reading.

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Posted 2003/12/07; last updated 2007/08/26 Copyright © 2003-2007 by J.Andrzej Wrotniak.