Should I Buy a Kiev?

Now this is a tough question.

Of course, opinions on Kievs will vary. Opinions on Kievs probably vary more greatly than for most other cameras out there. There are people who love them (us Kievaholics) and there are those who hate them (the other guys... and sometimes us Kievaholics too). Then there are the people in the middle (yeah, some of us Kievaholics are in the middleground too. We're all over the place!).

Before deciding to buy a Kiev, there are a few questions you should ask yourself:

What are my needs? Simplicity of use? Reliability? Prestige?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you'd probably best cruise on over to some other camera site. Kievs do not give you the simplicity of point and shoot usage that the majority of camera owners expect today. Kievs are slow to use and you may miss a shot if you need to work fast. Besides, people today don't seem to take well to "Wait a second, okay? I have to adjust the camera."

Reliability? Hahaha! Leicas they are not. Kievs are known to be temperamental cameras that some days just wake up on the wrong side of the camera bag and refuse to work. Apparently at the factory, they are not assembled with the utmost care and so may of them have chronic ailments from birth.

Prestige? Would you feel proud driving a Yugo? Well, if so, you might consider a Kiev. If you want to be a photographic rebel, you might consider a Kiev.

Do I LIKE cameras?
Well, this is not an absolute requirement, but many of us Kievaholics just LIKE cameras. Let's face it: Point and shoot cameras are boring!

Conversely, Kievs are far from boring. They're big and heavy and have that real "classic" look to them (heck, the designs are old enough). The older ones have those funny Cryllic name plates. (Can you say "kuh-neb?") They often have problems right out of the box so you can have the fun and challenge of trying to beat light leaks and film spacing problems from the start. Then they break down and let you have the joy/frustration of trying to fix them. And they smell bad. Really.

Do I want to be a professional photographer?
Oooh. This one will stir up a debate.

It often seems that people who want to be a professional photographer and have realized that 35mm won't quite cut it, start looking for cheap medium format cameras to get started with. They see the little ads for Kievs at the back of magazines and start to think about breaking into the wedding or event photography business on a budget.

While there is no doubt in my mind that Kievs are capable of taking excellent photographs that could equal or better those taken with other name brand medium format equipment, I personally would not recommend them for professional photographic use.

Now, before you send me a hate message, please let me explain my stance. If you read the very first question in this section, you know my position on Kiev cameras' simplicity of use, reliability, and presitge. Think about those things at a once in a lifetime event like a wedding where the pressure is on and everything happens only once.

Simplicity of use: You have to focus manually which may or may not be a disadvantage depending on how you feel about autofocus. Then there's the fact that Kievs have no exposure automation -- you have to first take a meter reading, then set the shutter speed and aperture as two separate steps on different parts of the camera (and many of us say it's a good idea to double check you settings to be sure that they really ARE set). And after taking the picture you have to wind the film manually (no power winders) and gently (for fear of breaking the camera or having film spacing problems). Basically, you have to carefully follow a sequence of steps when using these cameras (NO changing the shutter speed before advancing the film!). Failure to follow the rules can cause problems. All of this boils down to a pretty slow camera meaning that you'll probably only get once chance to capture the action. How good is your timing?

Reliability: Kievs have a nasty habit of spontaneously developing problems. How would you feel if you camera just stopped moving right before the climax of the event? Could happen. How would you feel if you THOUGHT you bagged all the shots, then developed the film and got nothing? Kiev shutters sometimes go buggy but "sound" fine. Customers don't take lightly to the words "Sorry. My camera jammed."

Prestige: Would you offer to chauffer the bride and groom to the chapel in a Pinto? Okay. Some people will say this is not major. If you're doing an event where every single person there is a camera "know nothing" you might be safe by simply having the biggest camera around. But if Uncle Art happens to like cameras himself, knows his stuff, and sees you toting a Kiev, do you think you'll instill him with a great deal of confidence? I guess you could hope that he'll keep his mouth shut about it and let you try to do your job.

Okay. I can see a few people fuming out there. Now the other side of the coin: The optics available to Kiev cameras are quite good (if they weren't, many of us wouldn't be bothering with these cameras). And there are several Kiev upgraders/rebuilders out there who claim that their modified cameras are capable of handling a professional workload. This combination makes for an attractive package.

But the upgraded Kievs also carry upgraded price tags (we're getting into the $1,000 price range here), and at that point I personally would start looking at other camera systems that offer exposure automation, motorized (or not so finicky) film advance, and better name value. Me? I'd hunt high and low for a good deal on a light non-professionally abused Hassy, Bronica, or Mamiya if I wanted to seriously get into event photography.

Now, if you're NOT thinking about wedding and event photography, then a Kiev *may* fit the bill.

Landscape, still life and some styles of portrait photography do not require the speed and simplicity of use that other camera systems offer. The reliability issue is still there, but at least you won't have a couple of bloodthirsty newlyweds hunting you down if your camera jams. And the mountain just doesn't care what kind of camera you're using.

If you want to get into one of these kinds of professional photography, a Kiev is an attractive and cheap way to get the bigger 6x6 negative or slide.

So who buys these things?
We do! Our reasons are wide and varied, but some of the more common ones are:
  • We like cameras, especially oddball cameras
  • We like to take things apart and fiddle with them ourselves
  • We don't have the money or desire to buy name brand medium format cameras
  • We're willing to take a chance on funky camera bodies to use the often excellent and cheap East German, Ukrainian, and Russian lenses
  • We have no sense of smell


Last update: April 29, 2001
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