Kiev 4 Review – It Bites Back – By James Northcote

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.

Fours to the floor – Leica M4 and Kiev 4

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.

Centerpoint Tower – Oxford Street, London

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.

Elisabeth Hopper and me - costume fittings
Elisabeth Hopper and me in costume fittings – Angels, London.

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.

London Street, Man smoking – Soho, London

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

Broadwick Street – Soho, London

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26 thoughts on “Kiev 4 Review – It Bites Back – By James Northcote”

  1. I like your impressions of your interactions with a little Rusdian machine for making photos. I make things for a living and am very familiar with this idea of dances-with-tools. I also get a lot out of working with peculiar old cameras. I would say that the way these old cameras affect the photographer can have more impact on the image even than the special way it’s old lenses transmit light.

    1. This isn’t a review – there are a lot of reviews on this website, but I always encourage people to share experiences as much as I encourage them to share reviews. I would also encourage commentators to be constructive – if you feel you know something James doesn’t know, why not try and help him out?

  2. Great story highlighting what a change will do for your technique. I had the maiden aunt of the Kiev (the Contax III) for a while and although the pictures were stunning I just couldn’t cope with the operation. I debated for ages before finally letting it go for someone else to enjoy (hopefully).

  3. I understand Dr Ian’s frustration. It would be nice to see how James found the experience of using the Kiev once he has familiarised himself with he camera. Especially if he was to use some higher quality film to see just what sort of results the Kiev and Jupiter are really capable of.

    As for advice, there are plenty of how to vids and blogs/ forum posts that cover the intricacies of using a Kiev. The film speed ratings used by the meter are Russian Gost scale. Again there are conversion tables available online.

    It was interesting to see your results James and I would be interested to see more once you have familiarised yourself with the camera (Oh and don’t be scared to try medium format! A TLR is a good starting point – I began with a Rolleicord).

    1. Completely understand too. But I wanted to teach myself something too by just feeling my way through my first experience of the camera. I’m definitely doing more research and getting more familiar and yep trying some other films. Although still have a soft spot for Street Candy. I am slowly getting closer to a TLR after trying a few other types of medium format camera so you’ve read my mind!

  4. I just got one of these and I see your point, it is a little rough and ready. I used a 4AM years ago and got some surprisingly good pictures with it until it developed a light leak. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about it. I’m still on the first roll in the 4, but I love it, It’s like a trip back in time! By the way, you have good taste in cameras, I have an M4 also, my smoothest camera.

    1. Yes it is rough and ready but your right – completely capable of producing great images. The M4 on the other hand – total dream – so supple! I never regret not going for the M6 even though its also a beautiful camera.

  5. Hi James,
    I’m a bit surprised to learn that you’re allowed to take photos on a closed movie set. I just assumed that there would be rules by the powers that be preventing unauthorized photos. Sort of like bringing your camera onto a factory floor where Ford is making cars. But, if The Dude (in real life) does it…
    I’d like to see you write an article w/photos on some of the shots you’ve made while on movie sets. I’d enjoy that.
    As for your photos…IMHO, you nailed the gloomy pre-holiday atmosphere. Maybe the combo of the film & camera, but the street scenes remind of 1950’s cold war shots. My favorite is ‘END.’ But, the long perspective shot of the street sums up a cold, winter evening in the city.
    Hey Dr Ian, take a chill pill. Easy to tear down, but why don’t you submit something?

    1. Haha thanks Daniel. And thanks for your review of the images. Its very strictly controlled but actors are definitely more encouraged to make their own content. Really I shoot mainly as a record for me but also for all of the people I get to work with. As well as The Dude I’m also inspired by some of the great set photographers i know like Agatha A Nitecka (who also shoots predominantly on film) or more recently Atsushi Nishijima. Check them out if you find that kind of stuff interesting.

  6. Cool camera, great story. Please do try a modern film like Tmax 100 to demonstrate the quality of the Jupiter lens. I almost bought a Kiev in 1978, when I visited the Soviet Union. Various cameras were available in the hard currency shops where tourists were encouraged to shop (but no ordinary Russians were allowed in). The cameras were supposed to be special export models, presumably a bit better finished or inspected. I almost bought a Kiev but passed. One of my many dumb choices in my youth. I expect I would still be using it today.

    1. Got TMax in it right now. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll post the results soon. Hoping it will give me a better understanding of the camera. But I like Street Candy all the same. It has a fun character.


    The Kiev Survival Site- an excellent resource for repair, maintenance, and history.

    The Kiev’s are based on the Contax II (no meter) and Contax III (meter). The Kiev 2 and 3 closeley resemble the original Contax cameras, the Kiev 4 slimmed down a bit. The price of the original Zeiss Contax cameras have come way down in the last few years. The Postwar IIa and IIIa have redesigned shutters that tend to be more reliable. The downside- they cannot take a Jupiter-12 lens. The Zeiss cameras tend to be smoother operating, the wind mechanism, release, shutter- all a bit smoother. If you like the Kiev, you might look for a Contax. I currently have a nice 1957 Kiev 3, cleaned and lubed it myself. But- the prewar Contax cameras are more of a precision piece of equipment. Size-wise, sitting next to a Leica M3 is a good comparison. I modified a fitted case for the M3 to hold the Contax II, just move the screw to the middle of the case.

    Also- “Helios-103”, cheap, sharp, good alternative to the Jupiter-8M. Was never made in Leica mount, and very difficult to modify for one.

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  9. You wrote : “my heart was set on the infamous Hasselbladski, aka: the Kiev copy of the Hasselblad 500c”.
    A personal question : why did you want to purchase on,e of these Russian (or Ukrainian) middle-format copies of the Blad ?
    I myself would like to buy an Arax or Hartblei.
    Best regards : JFB

    1. That’s a really good question. And I haven’t considered the others you mentioned. I think because it is surprisingly small, very well built (not to be confused with well made) and known to be quite fun. A bit like the Kiev 4 it has at its heart a legendary design but some rough around the edges execution that can be quite fun to work with. But it’s completely personal and I still haven’t shot with one…yet. But i’ll Check out your reccomendations. Thank you!

  10. Enjoyed your Kiev journey thank you for writing it. The Russians shipped the Zeiss factory lock stock and lathe, as war reparations to Kiev, thus post war Kievs were made on the same machines as pre-war Contaxs , so not so much a copy more a continuation. but with all sorts of quality control issues. See this excellent site if you want to know more

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  12. Old photo dog

    I own two Contax, one from 1936, with a 1.5 Sonar, and a IIa from 1953 with a build in meter, also with an f 1.5 Sonar.

    In every day use , I prefer the Kiev, f 2, ’cause should I drop it, it is less $ lost than should I drop a Contax

    I very much like my Kiev 4, (sans light meter model). It is extremely solid, all metal, with lovely shutter sound
    and takes excellent pictures. The focusing , shutter speed setting , winding is not as smooth as on the Contax but that’s fine.

    Way more fun to work with, then my digital cameras.

    Should you decide to get one, get one without the light meter. IMO it looks better. And get a lens shade with it

  13. I loved the story, and as I already own a Kiev-4M I wasn’t looking for a review. Past that stage now! My first film through the Kiev was shredded (by me) when I made the mistake of slightly lifting the film advance wheel into changing shutter speed mode in mid stride. Still waiting to see it back from the lab, but I think I made a mess of it – maybe 20 exposures out of 36 if I’m lucky. The light meter works fine, and interpreting the output isn’t difficult once you get your head around it, or if you’ve used something like a Weston Master meter before. Gost is roughly 90% of ISO from memory; nearly equivalent. On another front though I have a Zorki 4 that was CLA-ed by a true expert in Slovakia. It is truly a dream to use and is probably my favourite film camera (don’t let my Pentax Spotmatic SLR hear that though). The viewfinder is brighter than the Kiev, it takes Leica Thread Mount lenses (of which there are MANY good options), and with its lubricants updated etc, is very very smooth in operation. Very easy to load too.

  14. I like the article, shooting these cameras is a state of mind as much as a technical exercise. They are not forgiving, you have to treat them properly and do things their way. It’s as much about the experience of using them as the resulting images. As you may have guessed, I’m a fan (Kiev 4 and 4A). The selenium meter in my 1974 Kiev 4 not only works, but is more or less accurate! I can echo the comments about people not finding them threatening, in street photography I’m more likely to have people admiring them than objecting to photographs.

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