Russian ballet: The dance of the FED-5c rangefinder camera

Side-by-side FED-5c fronts
Front views of both the first (left) and second FED-5c cameras to enter my collection. The Industar lens on the first FED-5c came to me with the second one. (Daniel J. Schneider)

In general, I’ve had really good luck with most of the used cameras that have come into my possession. The issues I’ve had have been small, and most have been relatively easy to fix.

The Minolta XE-7, the second Nikon FM2n, the Olympus 35SP and many others have come to me in perfect working order.

Some have some to me with minor issues, like the Konica Auto S2, the Nikon F2 (story forthcoming) or the first Nikon FM2n. Some have been unusable and possibly irreparable (I’m looking at you Agfa Ansco PB20 Viking, and you Kodak No. 2 Folding Cartridge Hawkeye Model B), although I knew and accepted that when I acquired them.

The FED-5c, however, has a tale complicated by numerous twists and turns, involving a dance more difficult than any I’ve undertaken just to test out a camera.

FED-5c with Leitz Summar (1)
First outing with the FED-5c after acquiring an inexpensive Leitz Summar 5cm f/2 lens. I was shooting wide open, but this seems excessively out-of-focus… (Daniel J. Schneider)

Act I: The Gift

My mother, who has given me several other cool cameras, was once again involved in the exposition here. She gave me the FED-5c for Christmas in 2013 (or was it 2012?), with the original box and owner’s manual. Sadly, it did not include a lens.

Since it appeared to me to be in pretty good working order, I reasoned I could easily buy an M39-mount lens and give the FED a whirl. This plan seemed solid, also, because I figured that I could eventually follow the lens purchase with another Leica thread mount camera purchase (can you say Leica IIIc? Of course you can).

I set my plan in motion with a trip to (you guessed it!) Englewood Camera, where Bryce gave me a solid deal on a c. 1935 Leitz Summar collapsible 5cm f/2.0 lens that has a bit of dust inside, but is mostly clean and in good shape. The outside is a tad worn, with the nickel finish worn off of the brass in a few places on the sliding barrel.

I figured the condition of the lens wouldn’t matter very much as I didn’t expect the FED to be a daily-carry camera; more of a shelf piece and occasional novelty. I was interested in testing the operation and feel of the camera more than the optics, and never expected to make superb images with it.

FED-5c lenses
The lenses, up close. The Leitz Summar I purchased in order to test the first FED-5c, but… The second FED-5c came with its original Industar 61-L/D, whose glass is doped with a small amount of radioactive Lanthanum. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I started pumping film through the FED-5c a couple days later, taking it along to the Denver Botanic Gardens’ holiday Blossoms of Light event with a roll of Kodak UltraMAX 800 and hoping I could hold it steady enough to take some dark, moody photos of Xmas lights adorning the largest collection of cold-temperate climate flora in North America.

Kate and I went on a cold night in early January and the lights, while not quite as numerous as those at the Denver Zoo’s Zoo Lights event, were very tasteful and attractive. I wasn’t going to hold my breath for great results, but I was really hoping for something at least half decent.

Little did I know.

FED-5c with Leitz Summar (2)
A portrait attempt during the Denver Botanic Gardens’ holiday Blossoms of Light event; stopped down a little it’s still out of focus. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Act II: Problems Arise

Had I done more research I probably would have discovered that the FED-5c shares an idiosyncrasy with a number of Other Russian-made Leica copies and their descendants and variants: the “50mm lens” the rangefinder is designed to work with is not the same as other 50mm lenses in the LTM world.

That means the lenses made for these cameras aren’t always the same. A standard 50mm lens has an actual focal length of 51.6mm when it comes from a Leica factory, but the actual focal length may be 52.3mm when they come from a Ukrainian factory.

Sometimes it’s not that — the cams that couple the rangefinders to the lenses might be different, too. Or worn. Or might get out of whack when the lens is screwed in because the barrels are thicker or thinner than what the cameras were designed for.

I’ve also seen speculation that the distance from the lens mount to the film plane varies slightly, whether by design or due to lower quality-control standards, which can complicate any of the above problems further.

Even though these cameras and lenses are nominally copies of, or descendants of copies of, the Leicas and Contaxes known worldwide, they are often incompatible.

TL;DR: You can’t always use a Leica lens on a FED (or an Eastern Bloc lens on a Leica).

FED-5c with Leitz Summar (3)
Last shot on the first roll through the FED-5c with the Summar lens is my go-to. Pretty sure this was shot stopped all the way down to f/12.5 and it’s not so bad. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I didn’t realize the extent of this misalignment right away. I shot that first roll and got it developed and discovered nearly everything was out. Way out, in most cases. A few shots that were stopped down a bit came out close, but only close.

So I borrowed a Rolleiflex focusing screen from The Post’s AME of Photography, Tim Rasmussen, who happened to have it in his desk, and set to check the rangefinder’s adjustment.

Since the entire back comes off the FED-5c and takes the whole baseplate with it, you can easily lay a piece of ground glass right against the film plane, which makes it possible to check the rangefinder’s adjustment pretty easily with a measuring tape and a 10x loupe.

Adjusted FED-5c with Leitz Summar (1)
After adjusting the rangefinder: Shots at smaller apertures are better, but still clearly out a bit. The Joker and his henchmen at Denver Comic Con 2014. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Adjusted FED-5c with Leitz Summar (2)
I think these girls were at Denver Comic Con to promote and sell custom-made horror-themed bikinis, hence the skimpy “uniform.” Still not quite sharp, even on a very sunny day. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I followed this Lomography guide to adjusting the FED-5 rangefinder and did the best job I could setting up the rangefinder, although it didn’t seem to need much adjustment as far as I could tell. So I loaded it up again, this time with a roll of my beloved Kodak Plus-X 125.

I took the FED along with me on one day of Denver Comic Con in the summer of 2014. I was carrying my Nikon FM2s for the more serious shooting, but figured it would give me an opportunity to try some closer shots and wider apertures and test the focus. While some of the results were better, it was clear that the focus was still way off.

Adjusted FED-5c with Leitz Summar (3)
A Denver Comic Con attendee dressed as Kaylee from Firefly. I tried shooting this shot at f/2.8 and at f/5.6. This is the f/5.6 version. Her costume, by the way, was really great, and I wish it were sharp. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Adjusted FED-5c with Leitz Summar (4)
A wide, infinity-focus shot of the back wall of the Denver Pavilions shopping center along the 16th Street Mall. Pretty good focus, again, shooting stopped-down and at infinity. (Daniel J. Schneider)

At this point I felt I had no choice — I had to get a proper Soviet lens if I wanted even a remote chance of making a sharp picture with the FED-5c.

Act III: A second FED

I shelved the idea of further testing on the FED-5c in favor of waiting until I acquired a Soviet-era lens. I watched on eBay but mostly focused on other cameras for a while.

I had nearly forgotten about the Soviet lens problem when I stumbled on another FED at a thrift store. I saw immediately that it had its original lens on it and realized I had to buy it — it was cheaper as a package than even the lens alone would have been on the ‘Bay.

I took the new FED-5c home and shot a moody iPhone photo of it sitting on some crumpled tissue paper that was on the kitchen counter for some reason. A few days later when I had a few hours to do a little testing, I loaded up a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 and headed out.

I processed the film excitedly, hoping I would finally see in-focus results from a Russian rangefinder. As I hung the developed negatives up to dry I noticed an odd repeating pattern. They almost looked like half-frame negatives.

Second FED-5c with Industar 61-L/D (1)
First roll through the second FED-5c, which came equipped with an Industar 61-L/D 53mm lens. If it weren’t for the light leak, it might have been sharp… (Daniel J. Schneider)

It was a pattern so repetitive that would have been really hard to achieve shooting that roll — the photos spanned three different parts of town and a couple dozen different subjects. Worse, the repeated pattern didn’t appear to be at all detailed or sharp.

The repeating pattern turned out to be the result of a massive light leak. But how could it have a massive light leak?

While the film was still drying I checked the back, checked the lens, checked the top… Nothing appeared to be unusual or out of place. A screw was missing from the front plate and the self-timer lever was missing from the camera, but that wouldn’t…

Would it?

Second FED-5c with Industar 61-L/D (2)
One of the train bridges at Belleview Park in Englewood, Colo. The train runs kids around a loop through the park about a half-mile long in summertime. Looking pretty sharp. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I took the lens-less body into the closet with a flashlight, removed the back and pointed the flashlight at the tiny hole where the self-timer lever attaches while looking into the back of the camera and there it was.

While the lever appears to simply mount into a hole in the front of the body, it’s not immediately apparent that light could leak into the camera. Yet while you can’t see the inside of the timer mechanism when looking into the back, a bit of light does manage to make its way through and hit the take-up spool.

Once I scanned the film I could see clearly that every frame on the roll had a band through the middle and some general fogging. Some frames are worse than others, probably depending on how long I took between exposures and whether my finger was blocking that hole up.

What I could see of the frames appeared to be fairly sharp, at least, so there’s that.

What was the logical next step?

Second FED-5c with Industar 61-L/D (3)
An enormous tree dominates the horizon from anywhere in the open space of Ketring Park in Littleton, Colo. This is probably the frame I’m most upset about losing to the light leak in the second FED-5c. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Act IV: The recombination

Putting the Industar lens from the second FED on the first FED body and trying that, of course.

So that was exactly what I did.

First I took the FED — now the Industar lens on the original FED-5c body — along with me on a trip to Denver Pro Photo to get some fixer and 4×5 archival sleeves. I took a few pictures in the area of the store, and in nearby Ruby Hill Park.

FED-5c with Industar 61-L/D (1)
First test image with the First FED-5c body using the Industar 61-L/D lens: Mailboxes on Jason Street near Ruby Hill Park in Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The next day, Kate and I took a walk around the Cheesman Park neighborhood and we wandered through the houses and buildings, around the park and up to the pavilion. I took along the FED and my Olympus 35RC. I ran through the rest of the roll of Kodak T-Max 400 through the FED in that afternoon, and polished off a roll of HP5+ in the Olympus.

This time when I developed the film I finally got what I expected: contrasty frames (if a touch underexposed in a few cases) and sharper focus visible even in the negatives. I wish I could say I was giddy at getting something more closely resembling the expected results, but by the time the film was hung up in the shower I was almost more relieved that the exercise might be over.

Finally, a decent test with some okay, though not amazing, results.

FED-5c with Industar 61-L/D (2)
Second test with the first FED-5c using the Industar 61-L/D lens: Dark building front on Capitol Hill in Denver; the meter may be off, or more likely, I forgot to adjust the exposure after a previous shot. (Daniel J. Schneider)

So what’s the resolution of my FED follies? Probably to build a hybrid FED-5c from these two, transferring the self-timer lever to the second one and maybe the film advance lever (I like the black) and film type indicator.

Or I could probably just jam some gaffer tape in the self-timer hole on the second FED-5c.

Actually, I’ll have to go with the gaffer tape solution, at least for now, because the screw that retains the lever seems to be broken off in its socket in the second FED. I’m going to swap in one of the front plate screws from the first FED, though, where the second FED is missing one.

FED-5c with Industar 61-L/D (3)
The Walter Scott Cheesman Pavilion in Cheesman Park in Denver’s Cheesman Park neighborhood (so much Chees in that sentence…). Dark again. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Act V: The review

So, how do I actually like the FED-5c?

I like it quite a bit, actually. It’s a touch smaller than some of my other rangefinders, and it’s not light. It weighs at least two pounds with a lens on it. But that just makes it feel very strong and steady.

When we think of Soviet-era things, Eastern Bloc industrial design, in the U.S., we often seem to compare it with things like the stark utility of the Brutalist school of architecture or the rough practicality of Constructivist graphic design.

The FED-5c arguably fits with those comparisons because if its solidity — it could almost have been cast in concrete, and virtually nothing aside from the name plate appears to have been designed with anything other than practicality of production and use in mind.

But even as Brutalism was on the rise, some in the Modernist camp were finding ways to soften those edges and show similar strength and simplicity without conveying the cold dullness of raw concrete — with a little grace. Think of the soaring spiral of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (International-style), or Oscar Niemeyer’s Cathedral of Brasília. Now you’re thinking of the FED-5c — a little softer around the edges, a little more inviting. Utilitarian without being plain — quite possibly even a little beautiful.

History

The first FED cameras were produced in 1934, rough copies of German Leicas. During World War II, the FED factory was partially destroyed by German forces. After the war the company was forced to work with a competitor, KMZ, to restart production. KMZ and another factory in Kiev were the recipients of captured Leica, Zeiss and Contax equipment, technology and designs from Dresden.

FED, along with their Zorki, Zenit and Kiev brethren, built cameras varying from direct copies to completely new designs over the years. All the manufacturers in the U.S.S.R. were successfully selling to a captive audience as embargoes on all sides of the Cold War kept Western cameras out and the so-called “Commie Cameras” in.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union on Dec. 26, 1991, FEDs, Zorkis and more cameras from Russia, Ukraine and other newly-independent, former-Soviet states began to make their way into the West.

The FED-5 series, once supplied to the KGB, was no exception. As much as some of the technology appeared to be a throwback to the 1950s, some features were light years ahead of the cameras its simple construction was often compared to, such as the hot shoe, bright-line viewfinder with parallax correction marks and self timer.

The FED-5c was still in production as late as 1994 and was a remarkably capable camera for the prices it fetched in the U.S. and Western Europe.

FED-5c rear stamps
The back of the top plate of each FED-5c is stamped with a small “ФЭД” logo. Interestingly, the script version (right, from my second FED-5c) is on the earlier model, which uses the block characters on the front. My first FED-5c, the second version, has the blockier logo stamped on the back. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Features

The FED-5c has some interesting functional cues, such as the knurled pop-up rewind knob surrounded by a simple exposure calculator, a built-in self timer, selenium light meter and a long “rapid-wind” film advance lever.

The lens mount is a Leica Thread Mount (M39), though not in every way, as discussed above. The back and baseplate are removed as a unit, by way of two latches that require you to flip out their semi-circular hasps and turn them exactly one-half turn to release the baseplate.

Some models featured a handy film reminder with icons for daylight, tungsten, and black and white films, similar to the one found on the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic SP1000 I recently acquired.

The cloth focal plane shutter has speeds from 1 sec. down to 1/500 sec., and bulb. The 1/30 sec. flash-sync speed, marked in red, is placed between 1 sec. and bulb on the dial. While the gap between 1/4 sec. and 1 sec. is much wider than that between 1/500 sec. and bulb, you actually have turn turn past 1/500 sec. and then bulb to reach 1/30 sec.; you can’t go from 1/30 sec. to 1 sec. or vice-versa.

FED-5c shutter speed and winder
The shutter speed knob, the film advance, shutter release and film counter on the two FED-5c cameras (first acquisition/second model on the left again). Note that the older model has a film reminder by the counter, with icons for daylight, tungsten or black and white. Only adjust the shutter speed when the shutter is cocked. The ring around the shutter release button is the spool release; press it to rewind the film. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Additionally, be sure you NEVER TRY TO ADJUST THE SHUTTER SPEED WITHOUT FIRST COCKING THE SHUTTER! The shutter speed dial is directly coupled to the shutter and trying to adjust it with the shutter un-cocked can permanently damage your FED-5. This applies to some other cameras made in the former Soviet Union, too.

Because the dial is directly interacting with the shutter spool, when you depress the shutter release you’ll see the dial spin back to its resting position, which is not the current setting, as the curtain travels. Until you advance the film and cock the shutter, which will spin the dial back around, the actual setting can’t be seen.

First FED-5c bottom plate
The bottom plate of the FED-5c. This happens to be the first FED-5c, but in this respect the two are identical. Note the latches for opening the camera. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Loading the film is fairly straightforward. Advancing is, too. Rewinding takes finesse, though.

Load the film by removing the back and loading the film like you would in most any camera. Sounds simple because it is. The film advances easily and the frame counter resets when you change the film; crank forward two exposures after replacing the back to bring the counter to zero.

To rewind the film, first press the spool release button. What spool release, you ask? That one, right there. Wrapped around the shutter release. Yep, the little collar around the shutter button is the take-up spool release. So slide it down until it locks.

Then you’ll need to gently press down on the rewind knob, which is fairly small and has a sharply-knurled top. You might have to dig the meat of your thumb into the knurls a bit, because then you’ll need to rotate it about a quarter-turn counter-clockwise to unlock it. The knob pops up partway on a spring and you can gently pull it up until it stands about 3/4-inch proud of the exposure calculator.

Because the diameter of the knob is fairly small, it will take you a lot of turns to rewind a 36-exposure roll of film. Don’t worry, you’ll get there. When you’re done and you’ve removed or replaced your film, press the knob all the way down and turn it clockwise to lock it in its seated position once more.

FED-5c exposure calculator comparison
Comparison of the different exposure calculators (left, first FED-5c, model II). The earlier models featured metal dials and a rewind knob that sits flush with the top. The later model used plastic, and the rewind knob stick up by about half of its height, even when seated. Note that the earlier model features film speeds only in ГОСТ (GOST, a standard in the former Soviet Union). After metering, use the calculator to find your best shutter and aperture combination. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Using the FED

Most of the methods for using the FED-5c are common-sense camera operation. The simplicity (read: crudeness) of the metering system takes some getting used to, though. It’s good and bad, really.

The selenium meter on the front of the camera does a pretty good job gathering light and giving a decent reading, I think. The reading is returned by a needle on the scale on top of the camera. It’s not visible inside the viewfinder, sadly.

Now this can be pretty handy for street photography or candid portraits because you can take a meter reading and set up your exposure with the camera down on your chest or at your waist. Then all you have to do is raise the camera, focus and shoot.

But not seeing the reading inside the viewfinder means you can’t adjust on the fly. It’s probably okay, because you can’t really adjust on the fly anyway. You’ll have to be looking at the lens to set the aperture, because that doesn’t appear in the viewfinder either.

Which is just as well, because you have to lift up on the shutter speed dial to adjust it, and the shutter speeds aren’t in a convenient order that you can flip through by memory. So you can’t really do that without looking, either.

This is probably all okay because once you’ve read the meter, you’ll need to decode the information it provides — it gives you an exposure value number that’s fairly meaningless. You’ll have to turn to the exposure calculator on the left shoulder of the camera next.

On the calculator you’ll set your film speed on the inner ring in ASA or ГОСТ, the standard in the former U.S.S.R. Fortunately the numbers are pretty much interchangeable Line up your selection with the small notch in the metal center ring. If your FED is an earlier model marked in ГОСТ only, just pick the closest number to your ASA film speed. Or guess. That’s still a thing.

Then turn the outer ring until the cutout reveals the exposure value shown on the meter. Look across to the other side of the calculator and you’ll see shutter speeds and aperture values paired off into happy little exposures. Given the handy pairings, it’s relatively easy to pick a pair that gets you closest to the depth-of-field you’re after.

FED-5c light meter
The light meter on the FED-5c didn’t change between the FED-5c (I) and the FED-5c (II). It’s powered by a selenium cell and requires no batteries. After reading the meter, use the exposure calculator on the left side of the top plate to determine shutter speed and aperture. (Daniel J. Schneider)

As I mentioned above, the FED-5c is heavy and solid, and when it works it works pretty well. As us Westerners tend to expect from Soviet-era engineering and craftsmanship, tolerances are loose sometimes and the build quality is somewhere between barely-passable and pretty OK. But it really does feel fairly good in your hand.

One side note: You’ll be really tempted to bag up the ever-ready case that comes with the FED-5c (if you have it, that is), or even double-bag it, because they typically smell anywhere from really unpleasant to suspiciously putrescent. Be warned: If you do ditch the case, be sure you’re okay carrying the camera in your hand … all the time. There are no strap lugs on the FED-5c!

Different Models

The FED-5c came in a couple different flavors over the years and saw the markings and some design elements change, though it’s difficult to pinpoint a given feature-set for any one model. Changes were made around the same time, but parts were used based on availability, meaning a camera that got the new rewind knob and exposure calculator might still have an older style nameplate, for example. Why throw away perfectly good parts?

The two I have appear to most likely be a Model I and a Model II. My Model II, the first FED-5c I got, looks in almost every way like the 70th Anniversary Edition, but does not feature the marking.

My second FED is clearly an earlier model, featuring a much, much lower serial number, the film reminder wheel and a nice metal exposure calculator with a rewind knob that sits flush. Film speeds on the exposure calculator are marked only in ГОСТ.

The Model II has a thinner, plastic exposure calculator and the rewind knob stands up by about half its height even when locked down. Film speeds are marked in ГОСТ and ASA/ISO.

FED-5c nameplates
The nameplates of the two FED-5c cameras. The later edition used the script font (left, first FED-5c), whereas the earlier models used the blockier Cyrillic characters. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Epilogue

A++++++++ would do business again anytime great experience with this camera

Nah, it’s a B– camera. Nothing glaringly wrong with it, but nothing to make it really stand out, either (aside from its little part in history and the long way they came to get to my hands). I’ll definitely be keeping it on the shelf, and I might take it out again one day, but I really don’t expect it to feature in regular rotation.

That said, I strongly recommend getting yourself a “Commie Camera” if you can, and bonus points for sticking with it through a string of failures like I experienced (or worse!), because it’s still got a high cool factor, big nerd quotient and awards plenty of hipster cred.

FED-5c with Industar 61-L/D (4)
A portrait of Kate in Denver’s Cheesman Park in midwinter. This one was also a bit underexposed, but I tend to blame myself for that. I was shooting Sunny-16 with snow in the frame. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
FED-5c rangefinder camera
Author Rating
4
  • Hugo Huang

    Thanks Daniel! Your article is really solid and helpful. I recently purchased a FED 5C from Ebay. It hasn’t arrived yet. With high expectation, this helps me ease the anxiety, really!
    Keep going!!
    Greetings from Taiwan!