Exakta VX Initial Experiences – A Camera for the 35mm Aficionado.

I stood at the cash register in my favorite camera store, waiting to pay for film. At my feet, in front of the counter was a carboard box containing several old cameras in various states. It reminded me of a box of kittens you might see with a sign that read “free to a good home.” Perhaps that was their clever ploy to elicit my sense of compassion for these seemingly neglected veterans. They were not free. On the other hand, you could buy one Leica M3 or one of these and 244 rolls of film for about the same cost. I decided to rescue one of the dusty, 70-year-old cameras and review my experience with it in this article. I reached into that box and pulled out an Exakta VX. And to be completely unscientific, I introduced a second variable: Ilford Ortho Plus, a film I have never used before.

Historic Perspective

Although the history of the company has been well documented by others, I would like to highlight a few key points that explain the words Ihagee and Dresden, found on the front of this camera. Ihagee is the pronunciation of the acronym for the company name in German, which is, Industrie und Handelsgesellschaft (industrial and commercial company) or IHG which is pronounced as, Ihagee. Dresden, on the other hand, is the name of the city where the company was located. At the time this camera was manufactured, between 1951 and 1956, Dresden was in Eastern Germany, a demarcation that existed between 1949 and 1990.  The other important fact about this company that all 35 mm aficionados should know is that Ihagee was the first company to mass produce a 35 mm SLR film camera when it released the Kine Exakta in 1936.

The Exakta VX is a camera that I could stare at all day. It is a mechanical time capsule of the 1950’s and carries the same appeal as a 1958 Airstream in its tailored aluminum suit that is buttoned up with rivets. At 833 grams or 1.8 pounds, it feels just heavy enough in the hand that you can appreciate the mechanical works beneath its silver and black skin without straining to hold it. The black cursive engraving conveys its refined style. After all, it held enough esteem in its day to be placed in Jimmy Stewart’s hands as the lead in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 motion picture, Rear Window. Having established itself as a producer of 35 mm SLR cameras for about twenty years, these cameras were sophisticated, offering advanced features including a shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second, a film advance lever and a hinged back, just to name a few. I have read that these cameras sold for about $362 US dollars in 1956 which is equivalent to about $4,351 US dollars in 2023. For reference the cutting-edge Nikon Z9 body sells for about $5,000 US. That means I would not have owned this camera either in 1956! This year I bought the camera for only $200 US. Somehow, I doubt the Z9 will be worth as much in seventy years or if it will be functional after a seventy-year journey.

Initial Experience

This is a manual focus camera without an internal light meter. I think most of us here appreciate that. I use a Sekonic light meter most of the time to estimate my shutter speeds and aperture. On this adventure, I chose to shoot Ilford Ortho Plus, an ISO 80 film, to experience the rendering this orthochromatic film would produce with its bias toward the cool end of the light spectrum. In addition, I was curious to see what resolution could be achieved with the Carl Zeiss lens that was not limited by my typical go-to ISO 400 film. This did impact my ability to shoot in low light though this is part of the experimentation and surprise that I enjoy.

Loading the film is easy with the hinged back similar to modern cameras and unlike the Leica M3 affair of removing the base and sliding the film up into the camera. The camera feels good in the hand. A confident size and weight. On the other hand, literally, you will be winding the film and releasing the shutter with your left-hand vs the now right-handed industry norm. The gears and sounds are very gratifying and feel solid. Interestingly, the Rollei 35S has a left-hand film advance too but is combined with a right-hand shutter release. None of this is a problem, though I did find myself fumbling to find the shutter-release on the face of the camera. Selecting the shutter speeds is accomplished by lifting the round dial and turning it counterclockwise to the selected speed. A speed of up to 1/1000 of a second is a bonus and is faster than any of my vintage cameras, as they top out at 1/500th of a second. This is a real advantage especially if you are shooting in full sun. A unique mechanical marvel is that the shutter speed dial spins when you release the shutter. The aperture ring is at the far end of the lens barrel which by design keeps it away from your finders while you focus. You can even depress and turn an adjacent ring that will limit your choices if you need a reminder. The pentaprism is bright though I find focus to be a little tricky as I strained to see if the edges of the objects were sharp or jagged.

The Lens

Reportedly there are thousands of compatible lenses for the Exakta camera line, produced by many manufacturers utilizing its bayonet style mounting. Carl Zeiss, however, was the official supplier. After World War II, Carl Zeiss lens were made in Jena (East Germany) or Oberkochen (West Germany). The lens on this camera is a Carl Zeiss Jena Nr. Tessar 1:2.8 f=50mm and based on its serial number it was produced in East Germany between 1952 and 1955. It is worth mentioning that Paul Rudolph, a scientist working for Carl Zeiss invented a lightweight portable lens in 1902 that he coined the Tessar (the Greek word tέσσερα or tessera meaning four) to describe the four-element lens on this camera. It was a lightweight lens that helped make mobile 35mm photography possible. (Another pearl for the 35 mm aficionados to savor.) The images below will demonstrate what I believe to be an amazingly sharp, high quality vintage lens.

Images

I did experience a light leak on this first roll. I believe it was secondary to my partial opening of the film back before I understood how to open and close the camera. This will be verified on my second roll in the future. As expected, full sunlight or partial shade images produced a sharp image. Low light images requiring slow shutter speeds due to the ISO 80 film choice, were prone to motion and loss of detail. Despite that, I believe these are among the sharpest 35mm images I have ever taken. These negatives were scanned with an Epson V600 and were edited in Lightroom. In my opinion, the images printed in the darkroom are even better than those scanned.

Full Sun image of a German EV with a German Camera. Small light leak noted.
Full Sun image of a modern German electric vehicle taken with a vintage German Camera. Small light leak noted.
Two portraits in partial shade. Few Hall, Duke university
An image of a wall in the Nasher Museum of Art, illuminated by natural light and shot at an angle.
An image shot in the garage at low indirect sunlight at f2.8. Small light leak over the tank and seat.
Low indirect sunlight shot indoors at f2.8

Conclusion

For two hundred dollars I have purchased a landmark camera that had a key role in the history of 35mm SLR camera development and was brought to life by vintage John Rudolph-Carl Zeiss Tessar glass. On top of all of that, it is a beauty to behold. This is a keeper that I found resting in a humble cardboard box.

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18 thoughts on “Exakta VX Initial Experiences – A Camera for the 35mm Aficionado.”

    1. Hello and thank you. I agree! They are a thing to behold. The build quality in these days was incredible and that is a large part of the appeal for me! Cheers!

  1. Nice to see a review of this camera here. I have one, with the alternate waist-level finder. However, mine is badged Exakta Varex VX, which was only sold in Europe, as the Varex name was already trademarked in the U.S. I discovered it for sale on OfferUp in 2021 and snagged it for $75. I have yet to feed it a roll of film. I still need to check it out more thoroughly for any issues. I had never heard of it before I saw it listed. After learning of its connection to Jimmy Stewart and “Rear Window” I knew I had to buy it! He’s one of my favorite actors in one of my favorite films.

    I have since become slightly obsessed with snagging other classic film cameras. I seem to be particularly partial to Canons, Retinas, Voigtlanders, Zeiss-Ikons and Exaktas, though I only have two of the latter. So far! Two favorites are a Voigtlander Prominent and a Canon II-F, a Leica clone from the early 1950s. I also seem to have accumulated a pile of old medium-format folders, mostly Kodaks, from the 1910s to 1940s. And I just bought a Zorki, another exact Leica clone, that will be arriving shortly.

    I’ve been taking pictures since I was about 10 but only got serious in college during a required photojournalism class where I learned developing, printing and, most importantly, seeing! I have since often used my camera as an adjunct to my career in and out of writing, and later with fine art photography. I haven’t shot film since 2005, but my growing pile of mechanical marvels beckons louder every day . . .

    1. Hi David! Thank you for your note. It sounds like you have the same problem I do! It is a real passion of mine to find these old gems and try to bring them back to like. I love to find a “parts camera” as that sounds like a great challenge to me. That is a nice collection you have there. I did recently restore a “parts” Mamiya 6 folder and some Olympus Pen EE half frame cameras too. Those will become future articles, I am sure. Although I have a nice digital camera, I just don’t seem to pick it up often (except for sports or wildlife) as I prefer the vibe of old lenses, the feel of a mechanical camera and the gratification of fixing and understanding the internals. The mechanisms are ingenious. Keep up the hunt!

  2. My first Exakta was in the year 1958, bought second hand (or was it new) in Hamburg. There is a little story attached to that Exakta. I traded it in for a brand new M2 and immigrated to Canada. It is only for the past year that I have been an Exakta owner again. I now have four bodies and too many lenses, these range from a huge and heavy Vivitar 75-260mm f4.5 zoom to a 35mm f2.8 Flek. plus a Tessar, a Biometar, a Biogon and a Pancolor. One body has been tested with film so far and has had promising results. Exakta shutters have a problem with pin holes light leaks in the curtains and I had one with many holes. I have fixed that with (I hope) black material paint. One body has been sent to a specialist in Gorlitz, Germany as it had a few problems that I was never ever able to fix, and I never tried. There is an Exakta collectors page on Facebook. There is life in the almost antique Exakta camera.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Geoff! They are stunning to look at and are very well built. I am happy to hear you have them back in your hands! I am getting deeper and deeper into repair and the collection of old 35mm and medium format camera. When I picked this one up, I did not yet know about the cloth shutter curtains and the pin holes which is what I think was causing my light leaks. Some images were unusable. I actually exchanged that camera for a another with a different set of problems that I was able to repair, and it works great. I think these lenses are amazing too. So much to learn and so little time. Best of luck with yours. John

  3. Interesting article – thank you. This camera is on my wanted list, but I haven’t found one yet at the right price in the right condition, but I keep looking.

    1. Hi David. Thank you for the kind words. It is definitely one for the list of old cameras worth acquiring. If nothing else, they are a beautiful piece to look at. Check the corners of those old camera shops! BTW the one I bought for $30 is way better than the one I bought for $200! Happy Hunting!

  4. Wow, $200 now. I recall these being under $50 back in 2002 when I started buying mine. I quickly learned there were differences over time so set out to get as many of them as I could. I netted 10 and then learned about pinhole curtains. Taught myself to make and insert new curtains. I have since learned how to CLA them. Now they go for $100-200 at auctions with function untested. They do take excellent photos but they are also one of those cameras that are pleasurable to simply look at, admire, and hold which not every camera is.

    1. Hi Michael, I agree, prices are up. On the other hand, its good for resale and it is nice to have so many people interested in film. I just ran a quick ebay search for completed sales for an Exakta VX and it looks like they go from about $50 US to $260 in a variety of conditions. Sounds like you developed a great skill set! What a good feeling knowing that you can restore many of them. That is my goal too.

  5. Phil Steelandt

    Hi John,

    2 weeks ago I found one in a flea market in Normandy (France).
    My G.A.S. driven heartbeat went in overdrive… they asked 50 Euro.
    After a close inspection I had to leave it there in France.
    But now, after reading your article, I know that you “infected” me with a new G.A.S. virus 😉
    nice article
    Phil

    1. Hi Phil, I too have a serious G.A.S. affliction. I comfort myself by “buying (sometimes)inexpensive parts cameras.” Finding an Exakta in Normandy, France would have made a great story. You will now need to go back for it! I appreciate your kind words and hope this has inspired you to take a chance on one of these gems!

  6. David Dutchison

    Fun article. I’m thinking that the Exakta’s design might have well been considered a little dated by the 50’s, even if it was the only system SLR in the world at that time – it was a 30 year old design by that point. That was an excellent choice of film, an 80-ISO Ortho film would have been a very common choice for many photographers in the 40/50’s.

    1. Hi David, Glad you enjoyed it! You make some great points too. I think that was my first go with ortho and it performed very well. Maybe I should investigate what the common developers and or films were in the day to and also look for some examples from the period. It’s doesn’t seem fair to use a modern developer. I am glad you brought that up. That would be another fun project! I wish that it was mandatory to have the camera used and development details on all photos. I often wonder when I look at them.
      Cheers.

  7. I always wanted an Exakta VX1000 when I was at school, but by the time I could afford one, they were no longer available, and I followed a more conventional route until a few years ago. Then I found one on eBay…

    Subsequently, I’ve acquired several more VX bodies of varying types – my experience is that the older ones (VX, VXIIa, VXIIb) are more solid, but the shutter cloth has usually disintegrated to some extent, leading to light leaks and spots all over the film. Maybe your $200 experience meant that yours had been more cared for than most!

    Sadly, i haven’t found a repairer in the UK who will replace cloth shutter blinds – and I suspect the cost would be VERY high if there is anyone.

  8. I have been infected with Exakta collecting virus since 1966 when I was in high school and my parents brought me back a new Exakta Varex IIb from their visit to my Grandma in Czechoslovakia. While the design at that time was getting a bit dated, it was still a camera that can and still will do everything, from family snapshots to scientific work. In fact, my Exakta took microscopic photos that helped my team win a fairly major prize in a high school science competition. Now in my old age, I am still collecting Exakta. Drives my wife a bit nuts when I keep clicking the cameras to loosen them up! Just picked up a near mint a version 1 VX at my local used camera store for $25. It was supposedly not working and was dirty and parts covered in tape. Not surprisingly after working the shutter for 5 minutes and a few applications of Goof Off on the tape, it turned out to be near mint and working perfectly with a great curtain. This leads me to my opinion. I own 4 Varex VXs. The shutter curtains are as good as the day, the camera left the factory. I own 6 VX IIa bodies. The curtains are bad on ever single one. The luck of the draw? Maybe, but I once read that Ihagee had purchased the shutter cloth from a West German firm for the Varex VX. For the Varex IIa, they bought the material from a East German firm. So inspite of the high screech of the slow speed dial, my favorite Exakta is the Varex VX. It never fails me. I also enjoy telling people, “Did you ever see ‘Rear Window,’ this is the camera!”

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