Starting out on film photography in eastern Europe is interesting, here you can find an absolute abundance of cheap old soviet cameras for sale. The soviets famously copied almost all the most popular western camera systems from brands such as Leica, Hasselblad, Contax, Zeiss, Pentax and others. What this left behind is the most fun you’ll ever have scouring through bazaars and online shops. Why? In search of hidden treasure of course, like the Kiev 4M that I managed to find one day for no more than $30.
The Kiev 4M is “rough” copy of the classic Contax rangefinders of the 1930s. These frequently came with the now well known 50mm f2 Jupiter-8 lens, but my copy came with the arguably-superior 53mm f1.8 Helios-103! What’s the big deal I hear you say? It’s only 1/3 of a stop. Correct, it’s not a huge advantage but what this lens provides is lovely subject separation and sharpness which rivals its western equivalent (maybe). I can’t claim to be qualified enough to say for sure but rumour has it that rather than being of Sonnar design, the Helios 103 appears more similar to a Summitar/Summicron.
However, what you get when you sign up for eastern european camera roulette is a spin of the quality control wheel and this is no expectation for the Kiev. I managed to strike the jackpot and haven’t had any significant issues with my copy.
A little about its use.
Being a Contax copy, you must learn to wield it with the mighty tiger-claw-Contax-grip. This is because you need to depress the cog wheel found on its top plate to unlock the lens from infinity focus. The viewfinder is surprisingly big and bright compared to other cheap soviet cameras, but the focusing patch is rather difficult to see.
Also of note is the ability to use 1/1250th of a second for your shutter speed, eat your heart out Leica. You might have noticed I haven’t yet mentioned anything about the included light meter, that’s because they usually weren’t very accurate and mine falls in that category so it’s best to get your metering elsewhere.
This is all part of the challenge and charm, you’ll never get bored with this camera and all its quirks and rattles. If by some magic you do, you still have yourself a rather handsome book stand or display-piece all for about the price of 2 rolls of Cinestill 800T.
Loading up my Kiev-4M with the cheapest film available to me at the time – Fuji C200 – I took a little walk around my town in western Poland called Wroclaw. The included photos are nothing special by any means, but they do demonstrate just how surprisingly sharp this lens is even in the corners. The Helios-103 lens renders a more modern look without the classic sonar bokeh which may or may not be suited to your tastes. It is definitely worth getting your hands on one if you’re interested, just remember that being a Contax mount lens it isn’t easy to adapt to other camera mounts.
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