I first got into film photography to pass the time on film sets between scenes. Film sets are amazing places to photograph. Lots of interesting looking people doing weird and wonderful things in spectacular lighting conditions. “Its like street photography but with film set lighting” a photographer friend of mine once said.
I shoot with a Leica M4 and I’m generally a fan of rangefinder cameras. It’s the magic of watching those ghostly images snap together. Shooting in low light and in places where I’m trying to be discreet are situations in which they perform well. I find people are more accepting of film cameras on set. There is something unthreatening about a camera with no LCD on the back, no internet connection and no more than 36 frames. The M4 is quiet, super reliable and totally manual. I love it. Recently, however, another rangefinder crossed my path and it taught me that a camera definitely can have a very different type of performance.
At the end of 2018 I ended up in St Petersburg for a few days on a shoot. It was a golden opportunity to pick up a Russian camera. Despite my love for rangefinders my heart was set on the infamous Hasselbladski, aka: the Kiev copy of the Hasselblad 500c. But faced with my dwindling roubles and my absolute lack of knowledge of medium format, I couldn’t bring myself to buy it. I left Russia empty handed.
A couple of weeks later, I’m in another part of Eastern Europe, on another set and its my last day on the job. Dominic Borrelli, an actor who I had shared a plane ride with, who also has a love for old cameras, presented me with a fully working Kiev 4 as a goodbye present. I was completely overwhelmed and immediately itching to shoot it.
The Kiev is very similar to the Leica. It’s credited as being an exact copy of the Contax III with a bright rangefinder, all metal construction and like the M4, no batteries. My Kiev also sports a 50mm lens so I already felt familiar with the shooting style. It does have some funny quirks, an unforgiving infinity lock on the lens, whose whole barrel rotates as you focus and a fiddly spool loading system. The Kiev’s spool has a brutal razor grip reluctant to ever release the film once engaged. I broke bits of the spool as I tried to clumsily load it but after all my messing around it still seemed to work fine so I locked it all in place and took it out to shoot some Street Candy 400 B&W as a test roll.
To be honest, shooting didn’t go particularly well. Incredibly the selenium cell light meter worked! The Kiev has a kind of cool metal shutter that you can flip up and down to protect the cells from degrading. But the Kiev also has a confusing non standard meter dial I don’t know if I’ll ever understand. True, I could have done a bit of research but my impatience to test the camera took over. I stuck my trusty Voigtlander VC1 meter on the hot shoe and frankencamera was ready to roll. The first day in costume fittings back in London I decided the best test conditions to begin with were the fluorescents of the fitting rooms.
Next day, came some Christmas shopping on gloomy London streets, and moodily lit department stores. Again I shot with not enough light, pushing the lens and film to the limit. To make matters worse I didn’t check how to rewind the film with the Kiev before I started. I decided to unload it on the steps of the photo lab in the cold. As I fought with the camera it most definitely fought back. The excruciating continuous push of a release on the underside and the skin shredding wind of a knurled nob proved an uncomfortable experience. In my feeble efforts to unload the camera I opened the film door twice, losing at least 5 exposed frames in the process as I struggled on the street.
Strangely, I loved it. The camera was unforgiving. The Kiev’s images, with the slightly dusty lens, limited light and that unique rehoused cctv film from Street Candy felt distant and disinterested. The costume fitting was for a WW1 film so the images I took there, even under tube lights felt from another time. Even street shooting during Christmas shopping I couldn’t help but feel the camera had its Soviet nose turned up at Oxford Street’s commercial fever.
Technically, the test roll proved a mess with some sort-of-interesting results but to me this first experience shooting the Kiev….was perfect. Maybe its because I’m an actor but the process and performance gave me as much pleasure as the result. Performance is something you definitely get with the Kiev but it’s not a performance that seems particularly interested in the photographer. Its rough and brutal yet capable of creating images that seem out of time but not out of place. I don’t know whether my Kiev replaces my M4 on set but for the right story its an amazing tool.
In the end, I liked the way these images came together with this camera. It felt like I was shooting with a bit of a Russian spirit. The Kiev has that in abundance. And maybe that is what I mean by performance. The way the camera informs you – what it moves you to shoot and how it encourages or discourages your good or bad habits as a photographer.
The Kiev drew out all my bad habits: impatience, carelessness, clumsiness and much more; and it punished me for all of them. But I came away with a greater respect for the camera and a better sense of what a camera can bring to the experience of shooting. I like to think every camera I shoot with changes the way I shoot. Maybe that’s what I mean by performance but maybe I’m just a camera romantic.
More inexperience, set photography and performance on instagram : @northcotej