General Comments and Background
If you ask the average American which two countries are the largest camera manufacturers, the answer would most likely be Japan and Germany. Japan is correct, but the second largest manufacturer is the former USSR, not Germany The former Soviet Union has manufactured cameras since the late 1920's and has produced an amazingly broad product line. Since there was almost no trade with the West all supplies and parts for cameras had to be produced locally. The finish and design of these cameras not up to Western standards. However, they are functional.
At several Photokina shows, in Cologne, during the early 1990s the Arsenal factory stand showcased a new 6X4.5 camera: the Kiev 90. Official word was that the camera was pre-production but was available in limited quantities.
I saw the first two Kiev 90s to be brought out of the Soviet Union. Unlike previous Soviet medium format cameras which where copies or modifications of foreign designs. The Kiev 90 is an original although it does borrow some features from existing cameras
Previous Soviet designs were all 6X6cm copies of the Hasselblad 1000 and Pentacon 6. The Saliut, Saliut-S and Kiev-88 are three generations of a copy of the Hasselblad 1000, retaining the lens mount. The Kiev-6C and the Kiev60 are two generations of the Pentacon 6, in this case a superior design. Arsenal also manufactures a line of lenses for these cameras differing only in the lens mount.
The Kiev-90 represents a new approach, not a clone or copy, but a completely new design. The design shows elements of other currently produced 6x4.5 cameras (the official format is 4.5x6). In keeping with modern design, the camera and lens are completely finished in black. The Kiev-90 will never win any awards for quality of finish: it is good but rough in spots as if the enamel did not stick to the metal properly.
The camera has an electronically controlled focal-plane shutter and operates in manual, semiautomatic, and aperture-priority automatic modes. The lenses specially made for the 90 are the normal 80mm f/2.8 MC Volna-3, the telephoto 120mm f/2.8 MC Vega-28 and the wide-angle 65mm f/3.5 Mir-38. The lenses are in a modified Pentacon lens mount to allow for lens coupling to the camera body in automatic mode. The telephoto 120mm f/2.8 MC Vega-28 and the wide angle 65mm f/3.5 Mir-38 have never been seen other than at Photokina but the factory claims to have manufactured them. The camera will also use all other lenses in Pentacon mount but only in semiautomatic or manual modes.
The Kiev 90 appears to have borrowed some pages from other modern 645 designs. The finish is all black with a few small exceptions. It's covered in that pebble-grain leather we've come to expect on cameras. What isn't covered in leather is enameled in black.
We'll start at the front and work our way back. The lens is, for the most part, almost identical to the same lens in Pentacon 6/Kiev 60 mount. The one exception is the aperture ring. On the bottom of the ring (in relation to where it is when the lens is on the camera) is a small "finger". This finger couples with a similar finger on the 90 body. In other respects the lens is like any other Volna: there's the engraved depth-of-field scale and distance scale. The aperture ring has half-stop detents and the optics are multicoated. In other words, if it works, run with it.
Moving on to the body things get interesting. The lens mount is a modified Pentacon 6/Kiev 60 mount. Again, the modification is only minor: there is a coupling finger at the bottom of the mount, outside the breech-lock ring. Actually, the ring has only been slightly modified: a small pin in the ring engages the fingers you turn it counterclockwise.
Mounting a lens requires turning the breech ring counterclockwise until the finger is at approximately the five o'clock position. Since the lens coupling mechanism is spring loaded, this requires a touch more additional effort than with a 60. Drop the lens in and lock it on. The finger will slide over to the one on the lens.
Sticking with the outside of the camera, we come across two shutter releases. The first is located on the front at the seven o'clock position, angled slightly away from the body. It's threaded for a cable release. The second is a small black button on the right side, on top and in the front, next to the finder port. It's not threaded.
About one inch behind the second shutter release is the finder release button. You can change finders on the 90 without removing the film back, as is required on the Kiev 88. Press the little silver button down and push the current finder forward about 1/4", then lift it out. You don't rd. Just below have to hold the button down to load a new finder. Just drop in place and pull back until it locks.
On the right side are some standard controls and a new one. The winding knob incorporates a rapid wind lever, a feature I'd like to see as standard on the 88. The knob itself is removable by pressing on a small silver tab near the body. Arsenal apparently had intentions of either a motor drive or a side grip for the camera that incorporated a rapid wind lever.
Behind the knob is the winding crank of the film back, which also has a rapid wind lever. A much better solution than the key system incorporated into Kiev-88 backs. Below the back wind is the film counter window. It's a clear rectangle with a red line running across the middle. The line bisects the current frame number. Just below it is the exposure indicator. Like the Kiev-88, red shows the current frame has been exposed and white means it's unexposed. Likewise, there's a similar indicator on the body, below the winding knob.
Immediately below the winding knob is a small dial switch. The switch controls the meter and electronic shutter. It has two positions: 3 and M. In the M position, the camera functions but the shutter fires at the fixed speed of 1/125. Switching to 3 lets you choose from semi-auto and automatic exposure modes.
0n the left side of the camera, you'll find a whole bunch of neat innovations. First, there's the shutter speed dial. The shutter runs in speeds from B, 4 sec, and 2 sec to 1/1000th. All, apparently, electronically controlled. However, it doesn't stop there. There's also an A on the shutter speed dial. Putting the shutter in the A position turns the aperture-preferred automatic exposure system on. It also locks the dial in the A position. There's a small silver button just below the dial that you press to release it.
But wait, there's more! On the side of the shutter speed dial is an EV compensation control. You can dial in +/- 2 EV compensation in 1/2 steps!
But how does the meter know what film you're using? By the GOST dial on the film back. Simply dial in the proper GOST (not ASA!) setting on the dial and you're set. Three electrical contacts convey film speed to the camera. A locking mecha-nism with a small red release button prevents the dial from moving during use.
Also on the left side you'll find a hot shoe and PC socket. These are lo-cated, oddly enough, at the back of the body, behind the shutter dial. So if you have a flash mounted, you have to make sure your hand is clear before shooting. This can be a problem when using the meter in semi-auto mode. The PC socket is at the bottom rear of the left side. Flash sync is at 1/60th.
Onto the back we find several more new features. Like the 88, these backs have darkslides. As the negative format is smaller, so are the darkslides. The first major difference is that the back hooks on to the body at the top and latches at the bottom. The latch is darkslide coupled, so you can't remove a back with the darkslide removed. The back release is a small push-button located at the bottom front of the left side.
There are actually two controls both located on the top left-hand side. First, you have to press the little black button. This releases a lock on the slide switch next to it, which opens the back itself. Like some other 645 systems, you load film maga-zines without removing the film back.
Finally, we come to the bottom of the camera. On the bottom of the body itself you'll find the battery compartment; it takes four 76-type cells. The tripod socket is European sized: 3/8x16. Both of these are located in a two-inch square metal plate that is separated from the body by about 1/8". My guess is that this is some sort of built in quick release plate intended for accessories such as a motor film advance. On the left side, in the space between the metal plate and body, are two holes. Inside the holes are two black pins. Just what these two pins do is a complete mystery.
Moving to the bottom of the 90 back, we come to yet another welcome change. Near the back release is a small disc bisected by a white line. When the back or the supply reel is empty, the white line aligns with a white dot on the back. The disc turns slightly when you have unused film in the back. It is a nice, unobtrusive film reminder.
As supplied, the camera comes in a fitted leather case with the normal lens, two film magazines, batteries, instruction manual (Russian only), and waist level finder. Also supplied are a camera strap, 58mm UV and yellow green filters, a cable release and a prism finder. The prism finder is unusual in that it has a tube extending to the eyepiece with an adjustable diopter setting. The supplied lens is the 80mm MC Volna-3 f/2.8-22. The Kiev 90's is 124x103x164 mm (4.88x4.05x6.46 in) and it weighs 1.5 Kg (3.3 lbs.).
Operation & Handling
The camera is somewhat like the Kiev 88. After all, the layout is pretty close. The camera will fit comfortably in your right hand, leaving the left free for focusing and adjusting the shutter speed. The shutter can be operated with your thumb (from the top) or forefinger (on the front).
Metering is simple. Turn the meter on by putting it in 3 mode. Setting the shutter speed dial to A will give you aperture-preferred automatic exposure Limply press the shutter release halfway to turn the meter on and an LED will light on the left side of the screen (or the right if you're using the prism finder). Turning the aperture ring on the lens will cause the LED to move up or down. Engraved in the finder screen are the shutter speed numbers the camera will use for your selected aperture.
In semi-auto mode, you'll see two LEDs light when you depress the shutter release. Turning the shutter speed dial will cause one to move; the aperture ring controls the other. Simply combine both LEDs and you're set.
The metering cell, by the way, is located behind the reflex mirror. The mirror is half-silvered (it has a slight yellow cast) yet still manages to project a very bright image. The focusing screen has the expected split finder surrounded by a microprism and Fresnel for the rest of the field.
Interchangeable finder screens are available. The two other screens are a plain matte and a matte with horizontal and vertical lines.
From a users' point of view the camera is light and easy to handle. I was able to adapt to its differences very quickly. I found the shutter release button on the top to be exceptionally convenient. I have used other medium format cameras and very quickly found myself using this button instead of the normal shutter release on the front. The controls are well laid out and convenient to use. Magazines are easy to load due to the removable film holders and easy to change.
I ran two rolls of film through the camera: one roll of slide film and one of color print film (and that is all that I have ever used in this camera). I used the automatic, semiautomatic, and manual modes. The results on the film were consistent regardless of the exposure mode. The color print film was all within acceptable range. The color slides were all overexposed by about one stop. In actual use this would not be a problem, as you would adjust the FV Setting when shooting slides.
I found only one glaring deficiency in the camera. The neck strap attachment point is too close to the wind lever and they interfere with each other making it impossible to use the neck strap and quickly advance film.
Specific information on this camera is very scarce. Rumor has it that very few of these cameras operate and that they represent the extreme reach of Soviet camera technology, if not an over reach. Another rumor is that the difficulty in producing operational cameras caused this camera to be discontinued before it actually reached the market. Of the four Kiev-90 cameras I have seen outside the USSR, only this one is fully functional(Since writing this I have seen about 10 more non-functional cameras.).
Another clue to the status of these cameras is found in their serial numbers. Most Arsenal photographic equipment has the year of manufacture as the first two digits of the serial number. Both of these cameras are several years old. Normally due to the limited production of consumer goods, all equipment offered for sale is dated this year or last year. It is very unusual to see equipment that is not "fresh dated". (This was especially true just after the fall of Communism when anything saleable was coming to Western Europe to be sold in the flea markets.) A third clue to the status is the actual serial numbers both cameras have low two digit numbers and in several other ways appear to be prototypes or very early pre-production models. With all this information and my knowledge of previous Soviet cameras I feel that most if not all of these rumors are true.
Although the camera is definitely usable its' cost would seem to be too high and its' reliability too low for the camera to be commercially successful outside the USSR.
This is an edited version of my article, which appeared in the July/August 1995 Kiev Report.
© Nathan Dayton 2000