Poking around Flickr one day a few years ago I discovered a group called International Commie Camera Days devoted to photography with cameras produced in communist countries, like the Soviet Kievs, FEDs and LOMOs, and the Chinese Seagulls and Holgas. Participants celebrate Commie Camera Day on the 1st of May, and the whole month of October is observed as Red Oktober. I have a dozen cameras that fit the bill, so I joined. So far this October I have been shooting with a Kiev 4a, which is almost certainly the best of my Commie cameras
The Kiev brand of cameras was made in the Ukrainian city of Kyiv at the state-owned Arsenal Factory. The factory closed in 2009. The Kiev camera range included medium format and 35mm SLRs and 35mm rangefinder cameras. The factory also made Arax cameras. The Kiev 35mm cameras were clones of the pre-WWII Contax II and III cameras, with designs, machinery and some technical staff transferred from the Zeiss factory in Dresden to Kiev in the immediate post-war period.
My limited experience with the Kiev 4a has led me to believe there is little difference between it and a Contax II, except perhaps a little quality control. I have heard it said that there are good Kievs and bad Kievs – I seem to have lucked onto a good one. It is a robust rangefinder camera, with a long base rangefinder, the standard Contax lens mount and vertically traversing metal focal plane shutter. It has speeds from ½ to 1/000 second, plus B, and a self-timer. It has a single flash socket that synchronises up to 1/25. There is no meter.
It has a few strange quirks though. The back slides off downwards for loading, but this is not really a problem for owners of older cameras. The take up spool has a centrally placed slot for the film, necessitating carrying a small pair of scissors to trim the leader. The focusing has an annoying infinity lock, which comes on too easily and has to be disengaged by pressing on the auxiliary focusing wheel on the top plate.
The most difficult thing though is a result of the wonderful long base on the rangefinder. The right-hand window is way over on the right edge of the camera, and is readily obscured by one’s right hand. This necessitates adoption of the “Contax grip”, an uncomfortable crab-like grasp with the finger curled up sharply to access the shutter button and, if you use it, the auxiliary focusing wheel.
My 4a has only one lens, a Jupiter 8M, a 1:2/50mm, which is basically a Sonnar clone. It is quite sharp, has good contrast, and a classic creamy bokeh that I find very suitable for lending a 3d feeling to portraiture and nature study.
In summary, this camera is typical of many of its relatives. It is solid and durable, replicates the best features of the Western camera which it copies, and has annoying quirks which nonetheless do not prevent one from using and loving it.