Exakta VX Review – Through The Past, Brightly

I  love playing with old lenses (and interesting color films, too) for their character. Creativity is a form of play, and the Exakta VX is a fun toy for exploring these things (and it’s Jimmy Stewart’s camera in Rear Window). There are the aesthetics, especially that gorgeous Spencerian script on the finder, and the overall art-deco vibe. In the late-30s, the Kine Exakta and its successors, the VX and VX II, were the first “system” 35mm cameras. They have interchangeable lenses in a bayonet mount, interchangeable finders, and accessories for macro, microscope, and astronomical photography. Their built-in knives and available take-up cassettes allow film swapping mid-roll. I have four lenses, a Carl Zeiss Jena 58mm Biotar, a CZJ Flektogon 35mm, a Schneider 135 Tele Xenar, and a 100mm Steinheil Tele Casserit.

Carl Zeiss Jena Flectogon F2.8 35mm, Kodak Ultramax 400

The other standout feature of the Exakta VX is a left-handed control layout. This wasn’t because the designer was left-handed. He believed focusing was the most crucial camera operator’s job so that the right hand can concentrate on that; the left does everything else. As a lefty, I wish more cameras were built like this.

The operating system, in addition to being left-handed, is decidedly vintage. There are separate dials for 1/25-1/1000 and 1/15th-12 seconds. There is a film advance lever, but it’s on the left side and rotates through a 300-degree arc, which means taking the camera away from your eye when advancing film; you MUST advance the film after every shot because the mirror is not instant return. The viewfinder will be blacked out, and the sun can be magnified by the lens elements and burn tiny pinholes in the shutter curtains, which are rubberized cloth. That said, because the mirror doesn’t instant-return, an Exakta is quieter than a modern SLR, and there’s less vibration.

Loading film is the same as in a modern SLR, assuming you don’t use an Exakta take-up cassette (I’ve got an alert on eBay; they’re rare). This brings us to the most annoying part of the Exakta experience: rewinding the film. The rewind knob is on the bottom right. The release button is on the top left. To rewind, you press the middle of the rewind knob and start turning … and you’ll keep turning for what feels like ages since your wrist is only flexible enough to give it half a turn at a time. I’m convinced the reason for this awkwardness is because Exakta intended for everyone to use take-up cassettes, in which case you’d employ the built-in knife to cut the film, then wind the exposed part into the take-up cassette.

So what is the Exakta VX like in actual use? These cameras were initially sold with two finders, an eye-level pentaprism, and a waist-level. The waist-level finder is an obvious tool for street photography – people ignore cameras unless it’s at eye-level. But there’s another use-case: careful composition. The waist-level finder is like looking through a view camera’s ground glass. A third use-case: it’s easier when wearing glasses. I almost always use the prism, though, because, at waist distance, a 35mm image is tiny. The cliche that some cameras force you to slow down and pay attention applies here, although, with practice, you can move quickly.

Besides looking cool – this is the camera I’ll bring when visiting Paris – it’s all about those neat-ass vintage lenses.

The prime on both my bodies is the Carl Zeiss Jena 58mm Biotar. Fifty-eight millimeters seems arbitrary, but, it’s the 35mm focal length that renders subjects their actual size – with a 50, objects are smaller than they appear. My Biotars have a red “T” (no star, though), and despite East German origins, they have the characteristic Zeiss sharpness, in which edges of things pop.

Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm F2, Kodak Ultramax 400
Carl Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm F2, Kodak Ultramax 400

Color-wise, they are slightly desaturated and slightly warmer than modern glass. Surprisingly, they handle flare reasonably – the lights in this night shot of the Little Red Lighthouse have halos, but I don’t think they ruin the picture.

Carl Zeiss Jena Flectogon F2.8 35mm, Kodak Ultramax 400
Carl Zeiss Jena Flectogon F2.8 35mm, Kodak Ultramax 400

The lens I use the most is a Carl Zeiss Jena 35mm Flektogon. It lacks a red “T,” but its rendering resembles the Biotar. With both Zeiss lenses, red pops, giving an “I’m reading an old National Geographic” vibe.

Carl Zeiss Jena Flectogon F2.8 35mm, Kodak Ultramax 400
Carl Zeiss Jena Flectogon F2.8 35mm, Kodak Ultramax 400
Carl Zeiss Jena Flectogon F2.8 35mm, Kodak Ultramax 400
Carl Zeiss Jena Flectogon F2.8 35mm, Kodak Ultramax 400
Carl Zeiss Jena Flectogon F2.8 35mm, Kodak Ultramax 400
Carl Zeiss Jena Flectogon F2.8 35mm, Kodak Ultramax 400

The earliest SLR lenses had an f-stop ring, and only an f-stop ring, so if you shoot at, say, F11, you’ll compose in a VERY dark viewfinder, OR, you can frame the shot wide-open, then set the f-stop and take the photo. Neither is convenient. My Zeiss lenses both have semi-automatic diaphragms. You set the f-stop, then “cock” the lens with a lever on the bottom, set the f-stop, compose wide open, and the lens “automatically” steps down when you press the shutter release. Make a habit of cocking the lens right after you advance the film.

Many companies made Exakta mount lenses; I’ve barely scratched the surface. The 100mm Steinheil Tele Casserit is sharp enough, as is my Schneider 135, but low in contrast. One of these days, I’ll shoot a roll of Ektachrome through them, which should be synergistic. Both these lenses appear designed with semi-automatic diaphragms, but neither is working, so it’s compose and stop down.

Steinheil 100mm  Tele Casserit F3.5 Kodak Ultramax 400
Steinheil 100mm  Tele Casserit F3.5 Kodak Ultramax 400
Schneider 135 Tele Xenar,F3.5, Kodak Ultramax 400
Schneider 135 Tele Xenar,F3.5, Kodak Ultramax 400

The Exakta VX is now my default carry-around camera; the Nikon D600 and Nikon FM gather dust in a drawer.

With its seeming objectivity, photography captures the passage of time, and death is always the subtext. Edgar Allen Poe connected this to true beauty. We take photos of milestones because we’ll never have those moments again. The Surrealists loved Atget because he saved a Paris long gone. For the right sort of quirky person, the Exakta and its lenses let you access the past without waiting forty years.

Carl Zeiss Jena Flectogon F2.8 35mm, Kodak Ultramax 400
Carl Zeiss Jena Flectogon F2.8 35mm, Kodak Ultramax 400

Highly recommended.

Steve Fretz has been taking photographs for forty years. Follow him on Flickr.

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23 thoughts on “Exakta VX Review – Through The Past, Brightly”

  1. Good review thank you ! Totally unfamiliar with these
    I was really really pleased to see your photographs – love the colour, the red really pops! And such clean look! I haven’t ever tried this film before.

    1. Stephen Fretz

      Thanks! I can also recommend the Topcon SLRs, which are 60s-era SLRs that can mount Exakta lenses.

      1. Thomas Cervenak

        Thank you for an excellent review. I got my first Exakta, a VX IIb in 1966 when my parents brought me back one from Czechoslovakia when they went there to visit my grandma. Though it was getting long in the tooth in 1966, for a high school student, it was still a camera that could do almost anything. It was lots of fun to use. With the interchangeable finders, the film knife and the incredible array of speeds, I took all sorts of unusual photographs. As part of a team, we won a fairly prestigious science fair award because of the microscopic photographs, I took with my Exakta. As a collector, I now have lots of Canon and Zeiss cameras to chose from, but as the author does, I usually grab one of my Exaktas. Even 60 to 80 years on, an Exakta is a very usable camera and still lots of fun to use.

  2. Superb photos with immense detail. The haloes around the bridge lights actually enhance the whole effect. I have one of these cameras that I am yet to use but am really looking forward to it now.

  3. Great review and sample images. Now I want to dig out my Zeiss Ikon Contaflex II and Teleskop adapter and take it for a spin.

    1. Stephen Fretz

      Sounds like a plan! I love the Contaflex but have always been scared by campfire stories about its complexity and difficulty finding a repair person. Hopefully, you’ll report back that those are just urban legends.

  4. I took a picture on New Year’s Eve 1958 with an Exakta bought in Hamburg. 65 years on, that Exakta was traded for an M2, That has gone too. But in the last few months I have collected 4 Exaktas (GAS) and a 50mm Tessar, a 50mm Pancolor, a 35mm Flektogon, a 58mm Biotar and an 80mm f2.8 Biometar. Not all the bodies are perfect, some have shutter curtain problems. But am eager to try those Carl Zeiss lenses, especially that Biometar. Have joined the Exakta collectors club on Facebook and the Vintage camera club too. Just like to read other bits about these wonderful Exaktas.

    1. Stephen Fretz

      Thanks for commenting. There’s a lady in Germany who specializes in overhauling Exaktas, and mine has been there. It’s not cheap but I figure mine is now good for the rest of my life (I’m 62). I’m posting her email because it really should be part of this article: [email protected]

      Or … you can get a Topcon RE Super body; I’ve had one a few months and honestly, it’s the most overbuilt camera I’ve ever used; the US Navy, Air Force, and FBI all agreed – the Army went with Nikon Fs. There are a handful of Exakta lenses that won’t work with it, but most do.

        1. Stephen Fretz

          YMMV, but my Topcon has been absolutely bulletproof, something I can’t say for the Exaktas. IMO, worth trying out a roll. The Topcor lenses have a cooler, 60s Technicolor vibe, as opposed to the warmer 40s-50s Technicolor of the “native” Exakata glass.

          1. Just remembered that I also have a 135mm lens somewhere but can’t remember the name, plus a very large and heavy Vivitar zoom up to 260mm I think. GAS is giving me constipation.

  5. Peter Roberts

    An interesting review of a beautiful, beautiful camera. I’ve always wondered why Exactas were left handed.
    Not in the same class, but my Exa 500 dates from the time when austerity had turned the glittering pre-war beauty into a rather dumpy and cantankerous East German hausfrau. But looking at the gorgeous colour in those images has made me want to take her out loaded with some colour film.
    Thanks for posting.

    1. Walter Schimeck

      There is a comprehensive explanation for why Exaktas were “left-handed” given on the zeissikonveb.de website, and it has nothing to do with which hand is preferred for focusing, much less whether the designer was a lefty. More to do with production economies, since the original Exakta SLR was not designed for perforated 35mm film, but rather for a different format altogether. Completely re-engineering the camera to be right-handed would have cost Ihagee money and time they apparently didn’t have in the 30s, but right-handed operation was already the industry standard back then, and Exakta’s designer, Karl Nuechterlein surely knew this.

  6. Fabulous images (esp the ‘red pop’ ones) and inspired prose here Stephen. ‘…death is always the subtext’ – couldn’t agree more. For me photography is a lot about mortality – not only my own, but also nature’s. Susan Sontag famously observed: ‘When we are afraid we shoot. But when we are nostalgic, we take pictures.’

  7. Castelli Daniel

    I have been treated for GAS, but this is one camera I’d go after. Yes, take it to Paris, or Rome or wherever! Just a beautifully made machine.

  8. Stephen, this a really engaging and informative read. It’s years since of seen an Exacta and I never got to use one. I did own a 35mm f2.8 CZ Jena Flectogon, many years ago in M42 fitting. It was a super lens, long gone now. Your vivid and detailed description of the camera and lenses in use and accompanying images make a compelling case for hunting down an Exacta! More please!

  9. Beautiful cameras are they not? Definitely have character. I have six of them from from VX up to the IIb and half a dozen lenses besides some of the Exa. Pinhole curtains forced me to learn how to make new curtains which forced mean to learn to take apart and do a complete CLA. Miles Upton manual was very helpful and now I can CLA this along with the Spotmatic. Speaking of Topcon Super D’s and RE Super they are the personification of quality.

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