Books on Soviet-Russian cameras

Alfred's Camera Page
The Authentic Guide to Russian and Soviet Cameras

The Authentic Guide to Russian and Soviet Cameras

This book, by the French author Jean Loup Princelle, is more or less the Russian camera collector's bible. Of all the books on this subject, this one is probably the best value for money, because of its completeness and sheer overwhelming amount of data. Princelle has clearly done a lot of research in Russia and abroad, because the information in this book is phenomenal. A must-have.

Princelle covers all major factories in clearly defined chapters, and lists not only all major production cameras and prototypes, but also their lenses.

However, Princelle doesn't mention any prices, because they are extremely variable in a country as turbulent as the exUSSR. Instead he mentions (somewhat dubious) production figures, which ought to be an indication of an item's rarity. Also, this book was originally written in French, and rather crudely translated to English, sometimes producing hardly readable sentences, and needlessly retaining all the French translations of the Russian camera names. Still, for a highly specialised, rare and expensive piece of compulsory reading, that's a small sacrifice to make.

  • Hove Books, the publisher.
  • This book on Amazon
  • September 2002: I'm way late on this, but there's a new Princelle set to appear somewhere this year! More news as I receive it.

    Discover Rewarding Photography

    Discover Rewarding Photography

    Ronald Spillman, as his introduction on the bookmark informs us, "started work on a national newspaper at the age of fourteen" and "was given all the press tickets the staffmen didn't want". One supposes that he delivered good work, because "by 1964, he was handling assignments for national papers, and magazines at home and abroad". His pictures were published in TIME, LIFE and elsewhere, and he went on to become chief photographer of TITBITS magazine. In 1968, he became a Technical Editor for PHOTOGRAPHY magazine, and in 1971, at the time of publication, he was "Chairman of the Photo-Journalism Group of the Royal Photographic Society". The bookmark further notes that he's the author of "many books on photography" (some titles of which can be found on the Internet, e.g. The Complete Photobook, Simplifying Macro and Darkroom Techniques), that he "compéres" a Kodak show called This World of Colour, that he "runs his own Personal Tuition Course in Photography", and concludes whimsically by nothing that he "still finds the time to take photographs".

    This Ronald Spillman, the very same, wrote this book in 1971, called "Discover Rewarding Photography" and subtitled "the manual of Russian equipment", that could, with some license, be called Soviet propaganda. Gasp! No, really, it's a strange book. Disguised as a general-purpose manual on the basics of photography and cine, it's interspersed with biased commentary that sometimes borders on the hilarious. For instance, on page 25, when discussing which lenses are useful in what situations, Spillman (or his ghostwriters) note:

    "A long telephoto, of 200mm or even 300mm is invaluable when taking candid pictures of colourful characters abroad. Far better than aiming a standard lens at their faces from a yard or so away. The longer Russian lenses handle well and steadily in the hand, and there is no finer outfit for candids, among other subjects, than the 300mm Zenith-E combination known as the Photo-Sniper."

    What was that all about? One moment the author is speaking about focal lengths in general terms, the next he's extolling the fabulous FS-3 as the best thing since sliced bread! (Incidentally I think that the Fotosnaiper is about the worst tool imaginable for 'candids', but big me.) Where did that outburst of Russophilic technical nitpicking suddenly come from? Answer: from the treasure trove of Soviet-Russian import equipment that is Technical and Optical Equipment, Ltd, channeled through the font of wisdom and popular authorship that is Spillman. The thing is, this book isn't an independent publication—its publisher is Technical and Optical Equipment, the sole British importer of Russian consumer goods like the cameras and lenses discussed in this book. Basically it's an elaborate brochure disguised as a hardcover general-purpose photobook. The point behind it is to convince the general audience that Soviet-Russian equipment isn't that bad; that in fact it's rather good. And convincing was necessary, because Soviet-Russian equipment had more than just its bad technical record to overcome; it had an image problem. Which leads to quotes like these:

    "There are many fixed-lens cameras of high quality which focus by rangefinder and they serve the out-and-about needs of the hobbyist. On the other hand, there are very few 'system' models. Best known are the superb and classical Leica which started the whole business of 35mm photography, and the Russian Fed and Zorki models."

    Yes of course, in Rangefinder land there's Leica and there's Russian Leica copies, never mind Nikon's SP's, Canon's P's or the Contaxes! To assume that Fed and Zorki are second only to Leica is presumptuous at least. Quotes like this:

    "A superb single-lens reflex like the Zenith does exactly the same job as a simple box—it projects a light image on film. But it does this far more accurately, with greater facility and with infinitely more scope."

    ...are equally hard to take seriously. But come on! They're good cameras!

    "Not only at the amateur level, but among professionals, too, there is appreciation of the high quality of the cameras themselves, at prices that make them a viable proposition for the self-financing photographer."

    Translation: Russian cameras are the budget choice. But come on! They're still good cameras!

    "Mechanically, Russian equipment is built to the same functional and hard-wearing requirements that got the Russian space programme off the ground."

    After an an enormous effort in labour and research and an x-number of covered-up disasters, the Russians did indeed manage to get some probes into orbit. Why this should reflect positively on their cameras, or their cars or their watches, is something I don't quite understand.

    The whole book is fairly risible and painfully obvious where it comes to pushing the Russian merchandise, although they don't completely avoid the adjective "Russian" as I expected they would. The didactive part is the standard introduction to the photographical basics (perhaps literally copied from The Complete Photobook by the same author) with the typical ugly 1970's pictures (helicopters, race cars), while the commercial part is more or less interwoven with the text and has a bearing on the subject just discussed:

    "At the other end of the scale we have the wonder world of microscopy, available to the single-lens reflex user by means of a microscope adapter. When fitted, and with the subject suitably illuminated, subjects can be photographed at magnifications well beyond 1000×. This is really a world that needs exploring. Invisible even with the use of bellows and extension tubes, it becomes an awe-inspiring experience at 200×, 400× or 600× magnification. Tiny cells jostle each other and bustle along like human beings in the street, tiny scraps of paper, coal, bone, clay, water, give an insight into the very texture of the world we live in—nay, the world we are composed of. And what a beautiful world it is! A microscopic world with its own microscopic sunsets and oceans and storms—all in a drop of fluid.

    The least expensive and most suitable instrument for use in photomicrography of the Russian range of microscopes is the model MBR-1E..."

    I could go on and on. This is a delightful book that gives a delicious insight into the Soviet-Russian camera market of the time, and is more than worth the pound it sells for in the UK today. The writing is actually quite good, and the general introduction to photography still stands. Add a heaping helping of Soviet-Russian cameras and assorted trivia about that British import company, and how could I not recommend this book?

    "I, together with all of my colleagues at Technical & Optical, hope that this book will increase your understanding of photography and in many ways enhance your interest in life itself. J. N. Hapgood, Managing Director."

    I quote extensively from this book on my website. For example:

  • Technical & Optical Equipment Ltd
  • Lubitel-2
  • Universal Viewfinder
  • FS-12
  • Horizon-202
  • Russian and Soviet Cameras (1840 – 1991)

    I don't own this book, so I can't really say a lot about it. Others who own a copy tell me that it's really more of a catalogue than a real in-depth book. The author is either Boris Bykov or Yuri Ryskhov, depending on who you believe.

    Isaak S. Maizenberg's repair books and articles

    The late Isaak S. Maizenberg is perhaps the most important author in the Soviet-Russian camera field, which makes me all the more disappointed that I don't own any of his books.

    Mr. Maizenberg published eleven camera books, in Russian, Ukranian and English. Moreover, between 1956 and 1975 he wrote almost one hundred articles for the Russian "Sovetskoe Foto" and the Ukranian "Ukrania", where he was editor of the "Goluba Linza" section. Mr. Maizenberg was also the USSR representative for the Czech Meopta, and as such he wrote about their line of products.

    In 1978 Mr. Maizenberg and his family moved to Chicago, where he passed away some time ago. His most common "modern" book, "All You Need to Know About Design and Repair of Russian Cameras" (306 pages A4), was printed privately, and is running pretty scarce. Some copies are still available through the Internet.

    The Dzherzhinsky Commune: Birth of the Soviet 35mm Camera Industry

    The Dzherzhinsky Commune: Birth of the Soviet 35mm Camera Industry

    This essay by Oscar Fricke from the year 1979 (based on a 1977 lecture to the LHSA) came to me in a reprint of "History of Photography". In twenty richly illustrated pages, the author tells the story of the founding of the FED commune, and the inception of its first Leica copies. Drawing from a lot of Russian sources, the author meticulously recalls the history of Makarenko and his band of communards. Although the essay is largely limited to prewar times, it's a very clear and readable introduction to that early FED, and laid the ground work for Princelle and others.

    September 2002: This article is now available on the Internet! Go read it this very instant! Thanks to Oscar Fricke and Yuri Boguslavsky. (The link above leads to the HTML version with images, but there's also a text version and a facsimile PDF version available.)

    Albino Pegorari's determination books

    Mr. Pegorari has published a number of books on determining and collecting Soviet-Russian cameras. Click here for more information.

    Russische Kameras 1930-1990, ein Nachslagwerk

    The only account of this book I know about is the Reviews section of the February/March 1995 issue of Camera Magazine, a Dutch, eh, camera magazine. The book "Russische Kameras 1930–1990, ein Nachslagwerk" was written by the Rumanian Yrrah Kesardnov and published privately by the author in 1993. According to Camera Magazine, it's inferior to Yuri Ryshkov's "Russian and Soviet cameras (1840–1991)" both in information and image quality, even though the pictures are larger. Camera Magazine cracks several jokes at the "East Bloc" smell of the book's waxy paper. In 74 pages, Kesardnov reviews 66 cameras following the same pattern: image of the camera at the top of the page, bare specs at the bottom. The text is in German, the format is A5. Unfortunately Camera Magazine didn't include a picture of the cover.

    Het Verloren Paradijs – De ontwrichting van Rusland

    Het Verloren Paradijs – De ontwrichting van Rusland

    This book, written in Dutch by the Belgian Eastern Europe correspondent Jan Balliauw, is not a book about Russian cameras in the strict sense, but I think it deserves its place in the sun anyway, since it's an excellent eye-witness account of Russia in the period between 1989 and 1993. Not only does Jan Balliauw clearly explain the workings of the old Communist system and the complicated nature of the Russian people, but he also offers a detailed first-hand account of the 1991 Moscow street wars, the turbulent politics of the time and its actors, and the ever-changing situation in the everyday Russia. I read it with great interest, and learnt a lot from it. It's a great primer on modern Russia, written in a very clear and accessable style.

    The flipside is that it's not a common book. I bought mine from a book outlet, which is a store that sells unsellable stocks for low prices. My copy of Het Verloren Paradijs (aptly translatable with 'Paradise Lost') cost me a mere fl.5,-. I bet that it wasn't translated to English, and never exceeded 5000 copies. Still, since this is my website and I can put any book I want on this page :), I want to give Jan his due credit.

    Mastera Optiki

    This is a Russian book which was published in relatively small numbers. It covers the history of the KMZ plant, and focuses more on its social history than on technical aspects. I don't have this book myself, but was pointed to it by Dmitry Kopp from Zenit R&D, who also sent me an image and some specs.

    Other books

    These are other books mentioned in Princelle's bibliography. Any information is always welcome.

    • FED: History of a factory – Charkov 1987
    • D. Bunimovitch: Russian cameras – Moscow 1950
    • Oscar Fricke: The Dzerzhinsky Commune: Birth of the Soviet 35mm Camera Industry
    • Isaak S. Maizenberg: Ustrojstvo i Remont Fotoapparatov – GITL Ukraine-SSR – Kiev, 1963
    • Isaak S. Maizenberg: First complete guide to 110 Russian cameras – Chicago, USA
    • A. A. Syrov: Put' Fotoapparat, Development of the Camera – Iskusstvo, Moscow, 1954
    • Herman van de Velde – Cameras uit Rusland – Provinciaal Museum voor Fotografie, Antwerpen, 1988
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