Beautiful and a Bit Bizarre: The Exakta VX

A little while back, I finally gave 35mm another try, by reactivating a Praktica FX3.  The experience was interesting to say the least, and while I wasn't over the moon about dealing with some of the ways of the old camera, I was certainly open to seeing what else might be a usable option that would allow me to fire off a few more frames and be able to experiment with some 35mm film options that are not available in 120.

Around this same time, I began peeking about a Facebook group of Vintage Camera Collectors, when a particular camera, endeared by a number of people there, caught my eye. Reportedly built like a tank and glimmering in a mix of aluminum, chrome, and black leather, it was an SLR camera that carried with it a timeless beauty, predating the decades of austere machines that would copy its basic premise and leave us with endless sterile designs. Like the Praktica, it was known for having a few quirks, but many of its users loved theirs, and I was determined to join their ranks.  

And thus I set about acquiring one of these marvels.  Meet the Exakta VX: 

The VX, and it's International twin sibling, the "Varex," are the direct descendants of the world's original SLR Camera in regular production, known as the Kine Exakta.  It was a groundbreaking design that stressed a modular nature, where lenses and other accessories could be added as the user needed or desired.  Wide angle photography, telephoto photography, macro photography, and even micro photography were all possible using the Exakta at the core.  

Curiously, in a world where manufacturers tend to favor proprietary designs where they can have a firm hold on the design and/or manufacture of every accessory accompanying a core device, Ihagee, the makers of the Exakta, never made a key element of its camera's needs for production: it's lenses. Instead, purchasers of an Exakta camera would have to purchase lenses made specifically by a lens maker for Exakta, while Ihagee focused solely on designing and building their cameras, as well as some accessories such as viewfinders.

And what a camera they made.  Often described as "Steampunk" in nature, the Exakta VX is a rugged, yet gleaming example of industrial design, overflowing with some rather unusual and interesting features.  Want to lock the shutter release?  No problem! Need to take a 7 second exposure? There's a feature to allow you to do just that.  Need to cut your film part way through the roll? You can do that directly in the film chamber (No kidding!).  Want a reminder to let you know if you are shooting black and white or color? It's there for the using.  

Of course, there are a number of now standard features that you won't find in this mid-1950's Cold War era classic.  Autofocus? Of course not.  Motor Winding? Nope.  How about Automatic exposure?  No, there is not even a meter in this camera. 

But therein lies much of the charm of the VX.  Unlike modern digital cameras, buttons are very scant in this design, with most controls taking the form of dials and indicators.  The user must take a modest amount of care in ensuring the camera has the proper settings, but there is a satisfying feeling of control in being able to see aperture and shutter settings directly on the camera.  

Usage of the Exakta is similar to most SLR cameras of more recent vintage, but with some very interesting exceptions.  The central feature of any camera, the shutter release, is not in its typical spot on the right side of the upper body of the camera, but rather on the left side of the front of the camera. It is said that this makes this model a "Left Hander's Dream," but as a Southpaw, I'm pretty ambivalent about it.  Perhaps the decades of conditioning has jaded me.  Still, I find the shutter release location a lot more intuitive than on the Zeiss Folders, who also favor the left side.

As well, the film winding lever, also a now traditional feature on the right side of the camera, is as well on the left side of the camera.  Again, the location is fairly easy to adapt to, though the lever requires a lot of throw to advance the film to the next frame.  As with the Praktica, the mirror resets to the down position when winding, and if you don't completely advance the film, the shutter won't release, so a little practice helps prior to taking the Exakta out shooting.  

To me, the most interesting and unusual feature of the Exakta is the slow speed shutter dial.  The numbers in black represent settings available in seconds, ranging from 1/5 to 12 seconds.  Need a 10 second exposure?!?  Verboten! 

Unlike the Praktica, the "fast" shutter speed dial on the Exakta is nice and logical, and is actually pretty visible in normal use.  Note there is an odd gap in available shutter speeds between the "fast" and slow settings, with 1/25 the slowest fast speed, and 1/5 the fastest slow speed.  This leaves about a 2 stop gap between settings.

Many Exakta lenses circumvent the annoying "pre-set" method of setting apertures on cameras like M42 mount, using an aperture coupling automatic linkage that stops down the lens an instant before the shutter is released.  The silver release on this Primotar lens will stop down to the set aperture just before it hits the in-camera release behind it. A pretty ingenious stroke of mechanical engineering! 

Using the manual to understand how to fully use the Exakta VX can be somewhat belittling, though some of this may be due to translations made at the time between German and English.  One must actually approach its reading with a touch of levity to attempt to grasp what it is attempting to convey.  Case in point is this example to help the user know how to use the slow shutter speed dial on the right side of the camera.

Lenses for the Exakta come in automatically coupled versions, as well as (often cheaper) non-automatic versions.  The most commonly found lenses are prime examples such as the Tessar (as well as Pancolar and Biotar) by Carl Zeiss, while other lenses by E. Ludwig Meritar and Isco-Gottingen (a Schneider offshoot) can be found pretty cheaply as well.  A number of other lines can be found as well, from makers such as Meyer-Gorlitz, Schneider, Schacht, Steinheil, Angieneux, and Kilfitt, and will range from about $50 on the low end well into the hundreds, depending on focal length, maximum aperture, scarcity, and desirability. 

Since I have become a fan of Meyer lenses on some of my folding cameras, I sought out an example that I could use on the Exakta, and settled for a Primotar 50mm f/3.5 for the VX. Soon after, I picked up a few other lenses at a very reasonable price, including a Schneider Xenon 50mm f/1.9.  Examples taken with both lenses can be seen in the results below.


The Primotar got the nod for the first batch of shots, and loaded with some Agfa Precisa CT, the Exakta put forth some results that were not shabby at all.  One of my favorite scenes near Columbia Maryland is rendered sharply with good contrast and color.

"It's hard to stop a train."  Well, photographically, even a 1/500 speed tends to do the trick.

Color rendition of the Primotar is top notch! The scan fails to truly convey how vivid this shot is on the original transparency.

A visit to a locale I once took on another left hand favoring camera yields this grab shot.  I note a bit of a yellow cast, but this may be the scanner.

I had to tease the Primotar into giving me some fun shapes with the bokeh.  As it is a six leaf aperture, it gives hexagonal bokeh.

Another test of bokeh on the Primotar shows some nice "soap bubble" rendering, quite similar to other Meyer lenses of the same era.

Color rendition of the Agfa Precisa is really quite nice on the Primotar.  This shot was taken in "Golden Hour" lighting.  

The Schneider Xenon also renders quite sharply, though the color portrayal seems a bit colder than the Meyer, as seen here. 

A quick comparison of lenses rendering the same scene shows the Schneider version above and the Meyer version below, both taken at f/3.5.  Overall, the renderings are quite similar though the out of focus areas from the Meyer tend to render in a more pontillistic manner, as can be seen by the light highlights to the left of the marsh tail.

One oddity of the Meyer Primotar 50mm f/3.5 is that it actually seems to be an f/2.8 lens.  This is evidenced in how the aperture blades stop down slightly even when shooting wide open.  It is possible to shoot it at f/2.8 by carefully depressing the in-camera shutter release thereby bypassing the shutter release on the lens.  The results show a dramatic difference as seen in these two images, with the above shot taken truly wide open, with the below image taken at the nominal f/3.5 aperture.  Note how the out of focus areas are circular in the above image, but hexagonal in the shot below. 

Overall, the Exakta turned out to be the 35mm system that I could definitely embrace, and indeed I have.  I do like the majority of quirks of the system, in particular the interchangeability of the finders, as well as the front of camera shutter release.  Rewinding of film can be a bit tedious, and the frame counters tend to skip forward a few frames as one shoots through a roll, but these little nuisances are minor.  

The camera is indeed built to last and has an elegance that the generations of SLR machines since are sadly lacking.  It seems I have finally found my 35mm camera of choice, and have since added another companion to the collection.  Hopefully both will provide me with years of enjoyable use!

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