5 Frames with the Exakta Varex IIa – By Glenn Bech

By Glenn Bech

My analog photography obsession snowballed quickly from a Pentax K1000 flea market impulse buy. Before I knew it, I had a budding camera collection and was part of a darkroom community. The gear aspect of photography can undoubtedly take a life of its own. And I am no stranger to GAS, gear acquisition syndrome. 

As of late, I mostly shoot medium format with my Hasselblad 500CM (I’ll sell body parts before that camera!). And I’m calmer when it comes to gear. I’ve sold many of my 35mm cameras but have kept one rangefinder, one SLR, and one point-and-shoot. The Pentax K1000, Olympus 35SP, and the Olympus mju-II were gifted to me by my inlaws. I then told myself that this would be all my 35mm cameras. 

Then a strange camera showed up on the classifieds which I still scan from time to time; an Exakta Varex IIa. Mysterious and as if taken straight out of a steampunk movie, it poked my curiosity for sure. The asking price was a mere $50 equivalent. I watch some YouTube videos. GAS-inducing as always and never a good idea. I fell into a relapse and pulled the trigger on it. 

My enthusiasm waned, and my disappointment grew when I held the camera in my hands for the first time. The cosmetic near-mint condition was a stark contrast to its poor mechanical state. The shutter was jammed, and the curtains folded and curly.   

After asking around on forums and several Google searches – I found a camera repairman in Germany that still service these cameras. The dialogue was a mix of questions in English from me and him writing back in German.  Always finished with the polite “Freundliche Grüße A.Schönfelder.” 

The camera found its way to Germany and back. I now have a piece of art with an inside to match its beautiful looks and a camera that will outlive me.

A fisherman probably used this chair to relax by the river – I have an intense fascination for the abandoned and left behind.

Exakta Varex IIa is a 35mm film SLR camera manufactured by Ihagee Kamerawerk Steenbergen & Co, Dresden, former East Germany. After looking at the Exaktaphile web pages, my best guess is that my camera is from 1958-1960. The cameras packed a surprising set of features, given the time of production; some noteworthy attributes include

  • A Self-timer
  •  1/1000 to 12-second (!) shutter speeds
  • A film cutting knife that makes it possible to switch film halfway through a roll
  • Interchangeable viewfinders – I have both a waist level and a see-through; others, including a meter prism, exist.  
  • Versatile mount with a wide range of lenses available (Exakta mount, inner and outer bayonet)

So, what’s not to like about this camera? The shutter release is on the left side and at the front of the camera. It takes some practice to hold the camera steady while releasing the shutter. Other than that, nothing. The complexity and oddities appeal significantly to me, and it’s a delightful camera to carry around.      

If I  have to choose only one 35mm SLR, and if the contender is my Pentax K1000? I will have a huge problem. The K1000 shutter sound gives me goosebumps. It has the minimum features to let me focus on the photography, not the gear. But, on the other hand, the Varex is a beautiful, complex, and capable camera with its own story. So I’m doing the only sane thing and keeping them both.  

I shot the first three frames on Ilford Delta 100 and the 50mm f/2.8 lens. The last frame was shot with a Jena 100mm f/4 on Ilford Pan F Plus 50.

I developed both films in Kodak D76 Stock solution. 

Bathtub in the middle of nowhere
Tie the knot
Rest in trees—another chair in the middle of nowhere.
Study of a dead tree. Shallow depth of field, taken with the 100mm f/4 Jena lens on Ilford Pan F ISO 50 film. I love the fine grain of this film.

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Comments

Mark Trym on 5 Frames with the Exakta Varex IIa – By Glenn Bech

Comment posted: 11/08/2022

Exakta is the camera in which I exposed the first black and white film after years of break, basically looking at the screen is like using the screen of modern cameras! Exakta II has an even larger (non-replaceable) screen. My copy is still operational, it works better, more gently than the later model from the 70s. Congratulations - Exakta is always a photographic adventure!
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Glenn Bech replied:

Comment posted: 11/08/2022

I totally agree with the viewfinder, it's large and bright! Taking photos with the waist level "shaft" finder is also fun, almost like shooting with my Hasselblad 500cm even if the image is way smaller :)

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Thomas Cervenak replied:

Comment posted: 11/08/2022

Thanks for an excellent article. I am an "Exaktaphile." That's actually a polite way of saying that I am an Exakta nut case that gets the shakes when I see Exakta equipment at photo shows. But I believe that I am recovering, but it is long process. (That last sentence is lie I tell myself). I got my first Exakta, a VX IIb, in 1966 when my parents brought one back from Czechoslovakia, when they went to visit my grandma there. For a high schooler. It was a camera that could do everything. After, a few months, I learned that the Zeiss Jena Tessar is not the best lens shot at f2.8, but really shines at f5.6 and smaller. From there my photographic career took off. Worked the yearbook staff and was a member of a team that won a fairly prestigious science fair competition because of microscopic photographs taken with my Exakta. When I got out of school, I bought an original Canon F1, because it seemed to be a more modern Exakta. The F1 is a great camera. But now in my old age, I have amassed a fairly large Exakta collection. I have other wonderful cameras, but always seem to pick up an Exakta when I go out shooting. It feels so familiar and comfortable in my hands and the viewfinder is truly bright and clear. As far as shutter curtains, I found that the beautiful VX IIa and VX IIb have a real curtain problem. I own five VX IIas and all have curtain problems. I own six VX IIb and only two don't have curtain problems. I think the best curtains are on the Exakta II and the Varex VX. I own three Varex VX and two Exakta II, and the curtains are still pristine. I once read that for the Varex VX and before, the East German Ihagee firm was buying the shutter curtain material from a West German firm but switched to a East Getman firm for the later models. Seems like a plausible reason for the poor performance of the shutter curtains. BTW, the problem seems to have been solved with the Exakta VX 1000 and 500. Thanks again.

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Molly Kate on 5 Frames with the Exakta Varex IIa – By Glenn Bech

Comment posted: 10/08/2022

Oh wow, the film cutting knife I haven't heard of before! Lovely images!
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Ben Garcia on 5 Frames with the Exakta Varex IIa – By Glenn Bech

Comment posted: 10/08/2022

Those are definitely on my list of most beautiful cameras, right next to a Mercury II! I've never met an Exakta in the wild that was still working.
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Glenn Bech replied:

Comment posted: 10/08/2022

At some point, I bought another newer model, mainly my 100m lens, but it ha an extended range of mechanical problems as well. I think you're right about the Exaktas in the wild. I'm happy that I got it fixed by a skilled repairman before he retired.

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jude on 5 Frames with the Exakta Varex IIa – By Glenn Bech

Comment posted: 10/08/2022

Absolute Gorgeous camera, unfortunately i gave away the couple i had, i mean to get another,true jewel pieces.
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Glenn Bech replied:

Comment posted: 10/08/2022

I could not agree more, next level craftmanship in every detail!

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