The FS-12

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One of the things you always hear in connection with Fotosnaipers is that they were designed and used by the KGB for covert ops. Some even go as far as specifying their origins with the Seventh Directorate of the KGB, also known as the Spy Shop.

Okay, let me ask you a question. If you were a KGB agent, would you a) use an inconspicuous spy camera or, if need may be, an even less conspicuous tourist camera, or would you b) use a loud, noisy, clumsy and heavy photo set that turns heads in war zones, let alone near embassies? Why, you'd use the Fotosnaiper of course! Because you like having a hose stuck up your ass and cigarettes extinguished on your armpits by difficult CIA people! Of course you wouldn't. You'd use an MF or MA spy camera like every normal spy in this world, or act like a tourist or something. You definitely wouldn't barge in like Rambo, wearing this huge entourage that requires you cock the lens by hand and rewind the film with a spindle. So the KGB and its Seventh Directorate are out. People are just saying that to make money – obviously.

I would say that the Fotosnaipers (often 'translated' to English as 'Photo Snipers', but strange enough, I prefer the semi-Russian spelling that's found on the gun mount) are more suited to take action pictures, than they are to spy on people. The gun mount fairly convincingly eliminates the need for a tripod, so the FS sets are well suited for wildlife photography, sports photography, recording photography: situations where the subject will not feel threatened by a huge gun-like object.

The first Fotosnaipers, called FS2's, were produced between 1937 and 1943 by VOOMP-GOI, a Leningrad plant, with a total production of less than 500. According to Princelle's book, the camera was intended for military use, and available in olive green and black. The lens was a GOI 300mm f/4.5 of, again according to Princelle, exceptional quality. The body was a FED that was hooked up to a special GOI mirror cage, the shutter of which was triggered by, indeed, a trigger.

The second family of FS2's were produced by KMZ from 1944 to 1945, after Leningrad had been sieged by the Germans. KMZ produced less than 300 outfits according to Princelle, with a KMZ Tair-3 300mm f/4.5, meant for military use. The body was a FED...

Tom Tiger has more info about the early Fotosnaipers

The FS-3

Then for twenty years there were no fotosnaipers, until KMZ introduced the FS-3 in 1965: the FS-12's first true predecessor. The FS-3 was fitted with a Zenit-ES body (a modified Zenit-E with a second shutter release on the baseplate), and came with a Helios-44 58mm f/2 and a Tair-3AS 300mm f/4.5. The stock was made of lacquered aluminium. According to Princelle, 97.938 of them were produced between 1965 and 1982.

The FS-12

According to Princelle, the FS-12 appeared in 1982 and was produced until 1990 in a total quantity of approx. 110.000, but KMZ information indicates that FS-12's were produced until 1995. The FS-12 was essentially an FS-3 (Soviet thinking: why change a winning team?), but fitted with the new Zenit 12S reflex body and a new Helios-44M-4, 5 or 6.

There is some confusion about what exactly is an FS-12, because several camera/lens combinations share that same name. The most logical assumption is that it's a photo sniper set with a Zenit-12S body, but it's not that simple. According to KMZ information, these sub-types can be distinguished:

  1. The original FS-12 with ZENIT-12s (sniper modification of ZENIT-TTL body)
  2. FS-12 with ZENIT-12sds body (12sd)
  3. FS-12 with ZENIT-12xps body (12xp), but 12xp is equal to 12sd: it was its export variant.

The FS-122

The evolution of the Fotosnaipers followed that of the Zenit cameras: when the Zenit-122 (read Zenit 12-2) replaced the Zenit-12, so too did the FS-122 replace the FS-12. The most obvious difference is that the FS-122 has a different camera body (Zenit-122S) and a redesigned gun mount. For the rest the concept is still very much the same as that of the original 1965 FS-3.

The FS-122 was built in several variants (FS-122, FS-122-2 and FS-122-3) whose production runs overlap (FS-122 and FS-122-2 from 1992 to 1997, the FS-122-3 from 1994 to 1997) and which have no obvious distinction. Perhaps they differ in the range of accessories?

After 1997, no Fotosnaipers seem to have been built, although there is talk of an FS-312 and an FS-412, one with a Zenit-312M body, the other with a Zenit-412DX.

Other Fotosnaipers

Other FS sets that once saw the light but were never marketed commercially, were the FS-4(M), with Telezenitar 300mm f/4.5 lens for use with several camera systems, and the FS-5, with Telezenitar-K lens for use with a Zenit Automat body.

(Courtesy of Zenit R&D: an '87 FS-5 brochure. Page 1, 2. Also: a photo of the FS-5.)

The FS-12 in detail

To start with optical quality: so far I've shot four rolls of film in my FS-12 (a 1986 model with Zenit 12S, by the way): two colour and two b/w films. It's not enough for a real test, but enough to give me an indication of how the Tair-3S performs.

The Tair-3S 300mm f/4.5 is obviously a somewhat dated design, in that its colour rendering is not optimal. There is some chromatic aberration present, red fringes showing up at contrasty boundaries, which is not abnormal for old tele designs. The brilliance level is acceptable, although the Tair does not have the same sparkle a Nikkor or Leica 300mm has. Pictures shot with the Tair-3S are certainly not dull, but do not have the razor-sharp colourful brilliance that better (more expensive) lenses are famous for. Still, it's quite capable of making acceptable colour pictures. The colour balance is not strictly neutral, but then again the testing conditions were not either.

So far for its weak points. Its strong points are most obvious when shooting black and white film, the kind that I think the Tair-3S was designed for in the first place anyway. On b/w pictures, the chromatic aberration is as good as gone, the contrast is high, sharpness is absolutely excellent, and distortion is virtually absent. There is some vignetting at full open, which is as good as gone at f/8. The Tair-3S is very sensitive to flare and other sources of contrast reduction, so the ribbled conical rubber sun shade is not just meant as a showpiece (not as if it enhances the camera's appearance anyway). Especially the sharpness, retained up to the corners, is excellent.

Although I do have a Helios-44M-5 to complete my set, I haven't taken any pictures with it, so I can't comment on its optical quality.

Tripod vs gun mount

The typical FS-12 set in action would consist of the Zenit-12S body with Tair-3S screwed onto the gun mount, the Tair fitted with UV filter and sun shade. The gun 'magazine' would have a thick leather strap attached, so that the camera set can be carried over one's shoulder like a real rifle. However, I prefer to use my FS-12 without the gun mount from a tripod, for several reasons. The most important reason is that many people are intimidated by this camera set, because of its resemblance to a rifle and the fear it thus evokes. I haven't been lifted by the police yet, but I suppose they are not fond of the idea of a gun-like set either, since they already go berserk over somebody carrying a remotely realistic water gun.

The second reason is camera shake. I had lots of trouble with holding the gun mount steady, because the stock acted like a hinge, swinging the set from side to side. When fitted on a tripod, the images are shake-free, you can use a cable release, and you avoid dealing with the violent aperture setting smash that's caused by the 'automatic' aperture system's recoil.

The third reason is one of portability. The gun mount is perhaps handy for panned action shots (even more suited for that purpose than for stationary tele pictures), but it's hell to carry around because there is no 'natural' position for it. Unlike a rifle or a sports bag, which are both comparable in shape, there is no really comfortable way to carry this set around, especially not when cycling. With its mount detached transporting it in a rucksack or proper photo bag is easier.

The fourth reason for using a tripod is that I've stopped using the Zenit-12S body in favor of an old Pentax Spotmatic F. My Zenit has some shutter problems that cause banding and smudges, so I'm not too keen on it any more. The Spotmatic is a much smoother camera, but obviously doesn't fit the gun mount the way the Zenit-12S does. So to support the Spotmatic-Tair combo, I have to use a tripod instead of the gun mount.

The mechanism

The way the FS-12's trigger mechanism works is as follows:

  1. First you cock the aperture.
  2. Then after metering, you set the desired aperture on the aperture ring.
  3. Then when everything is set, you pull the trigger.
  4. The trigger flips up a rod that first strikes a plate on the lens, thereby releasing the aperture.
  5. A fraction of a second later, the aperture is closed when the rod strikes the shutter hub underneath the camera.
  6. The camera's shutter triggers and the picture is made.

(still under construction)

From the book

Excerpt from the 1971 book/brochure "Discover Rewarding Photography" by Ronald Spillman A.I.I.P (note: on the FS-3):

An idea that won instant acclaim when introduced is the Photosniper, basically an SLR in combination with a 300mm lens, in quick-focus mount on a steadying gunstock. Unlike an ordinary SLR the model on the Photosniper has an additional release button set into the bottom plate. This couples the camera with the shutter release trigger of the gunstock. This camera also has a more extended viewfinder eyepiece, with eyecup, making for more comfortable viewing and focusing with the outfit in the aiming position. Other Pentax-fitting lenses may be used interchangeably with the Photosniper's standard 300mm lens. The focusing screen is bright and evenly illuminated so that the Photosniper outfit can be focused rapidly even indoors. I well remember trying it out at a trade fair when the outfit was first introduced to British photographers. There was no problem in focusing upon people walking inside Olympia, and by resting the hand-held pistol grip on a balustrade my Tri-X negatives were pin-sharp at 1/60th second.

The specially mounted 300mm lens has a spring-loaded pre-set diaphragm which closes automatically to the stopped-down position when you squeeze the trigger release.

The Photosniper is supplied as an impressively complete outfit in a fitted metal case of high quality. The inner side of the lid carries a 58mm f/2 lens under a hermetic cap, 5 filters, two spare film cassettes (a third is supplied in the camera), 2 engineer's screwdrivers, plus a front and back cap.

The camera, with 300mm lens in place, is fastened to a bracket by a clamping screw, while spring clips secure the shoulder butt at the bottom of the case. The case has strong locking catches to prevent accidental opening, a carrying handle and a strong, adjustable shoulder strap. The outfit is supplied with a nicely designed rubber lenshood, very useful in tele-photography, but also protecting the lens in action and rain.

The naturalist will use the Photosniper to scan hedgerows and river bank, revealing their unsuspecting denizens as they go about their business. From his hidden position, he will be able to capture each picture as that of the otter in Fig. 31, where the fierce little fellow is just finishing a fish lunch.

The sports photographer will have his task made easy by the Photosniper's quick focusing, allowing him to concentrate more fully on the action. Rugger players seem to tackle the lens itself, while the angry words between player and the referee will appear sharper still.

How do Fotosnaipers compare to real sniper rifles, according to Chris Mayer, photographer for Soldier of Fortune Magazine, fire arms instructor and Fotosnaiper user?

Ergonomically speaking, the Photosniper is not very good. The 'stock' is short for an American as are all Russian small arms. With the weapons, that is mostly a function of the thick clothing that is worn by the soldier. With the FS though, the stock is short because your eye must be right up at the camera.

Rifles, in general, have two types of triggers, a single or double stage trigger. The double stage has an amount of free travel before you get resistance which is where you begin the second stage. Most military rifles, old or new, have this type of trigger. The single stage trigger is therefore, without the free travel. The FS actually has a three stage trigger, ie, free travel, resistance and release of the lens preset diaphragm, and continued resistance until the shutter is released. Interesting!

Specifications

Camera:FS-12 Fotosnaiper
Manufacturer:KMZ
Produced:1982-1990
Film:35mm film
Lens:Helios-44M-4; -5; -6 58mm f/2; Tair-3S 300mm f/4
Shutter speeds:B - 1/30s - 1/500s
Consists of:Zenit-12S body (or variant); Helios-44M-4/5/6 58mm f/2 standard lens; Tair-3S 300mm f/4; gun mount; adaptor screw from German thread to English thread; five filters; two screwdrivers; a strap; two reloadable film cartridges; one sunshade; two lens caps; one rear cap; eye cup; metal case to carry it in.
Graph of production data

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