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Before the war, the 35mm format had come into grace due to Leica-style cameras, which gave photographers much more freedom than the cumbersome medium format cameras that they had to do with until then. The wind of change had spread to the Soviet Union too before the war, and the FED factory of Kharkov started producing their 'FED' Leica copies for the Soviet home market.
Before the war there had been some SLR (Single Lens Reflex) cameras in the 35mm format (for example the Exakta and the GOMZ Sport), but after the war, cameras like the Asahiflex, the Contaflexes and the Zenits really started another revolution in photography: the rise of the pentaprism 35mm SLR. In the mid-1950's, these were rapidly gaining popularity, at the expense of, ironically, the Leica-style rangefinders that sparked the whole 35mm business in the first place.
None of these changes went unnoticed in Krasnogorsk, the home of the KMZ plant. After the war, KMZ had switched from military equipment to the production of civil optic products, like cameras and lenses. Their main camera in the late 1940's was the Zorki rangefinder, which was a Leica copy, and at first similar to the FEDs of Kharkov. KMZ's other money maker at that time, was the Moskva range of medium format rangefinder cameras. Being improved copies of the Zeiss Super Ikonta, they became wanted under Russian professional photographers because of their good mechanical and optical quality.
Having the professional medium format market in their back pocket, KMZ introduced the Zenit line of consumer SLR cameras in the mid-1950's. These were meant for an amateur public, and were basically Zorki-1 rangefinder bodies with a reflex cage mounted on them. They were much like the Zenit cameras of today: simple, cheap, crude, true to the Soviet adagium of 'quantity prevails quality'.
Now producing 35mm rangefinders, 35mm amateur SLRs and medium format bellows cameras all to reasonable success, KMZ felt the urge to conquer the professional 35mm reflex market. It was a field then more or less untrodden: in the Soviet Union at that time, the only SLR available was the Zenit, and those were meant for an amateur public. So KMZ filled the niche with a 35mm reflex aimed for professional use: the START.
What made the Start so different from the Zenit range, or the other cameras in the Soviet Union at that time? Well, first of all, the Start had an interchangeable viewfinder. Being one of the first cameras with that feature, the Start could be equipped with a magnifying viewfinder, a normal pentaprism viewfinder, and a waist level finder. Secondly, the Start had a 'modern' lens mount, on which I'll get back later. Thirdly, the Start's lenses were fitted with an automatic aperture, which was closed only to take the picture. Also, the Start had a thumb wind, something that neither the Zenits nor the Zorkis had at that time. The Start also had a main shutter speed of 1/1000s (really unheard of then), and slow speeds, and all of that in just one speed dial. Finally, the Start also had goodies like a film cutting knife, a cassette film system, a self-timer, smooth transport, ball bearings in the door keys, et cetera. Enough to attract sufficient attention from the professional market.
Princelle writes that KMZ succeeded in conquering the professional market with the Start, but that the owners had complaints concerning the shutter release system, and about the fact that the Start only had one lens. In 1961, KMZ introduced a new film advance mechanism, and drove up the production between then and 1963 to 20.000 units a year. In 1964, the Start was becoming outdated already, and was made obsolete by the Zenit 4/5/6. A Start-2 was announced, with a TTL exposure meter and automatic preselection lenses, but never produced in any quantity. There was even a Start-3 prototype, about which we know next to nothing. Apparently it was sold on the black market, and can now be had for an astronomical price at the Leica Shop Wien.
All in all, some 70.000 START cameras were produced (Princelle mentions a number of 76.503). It became a moderate success, but what killed it, was the fact that the system only had one lens, being the Helios-44 58mm f/2 standard lens. For professional use, that was totally unacceptable ofcourse. Perhaps other lenses could have been used on the Start through an adapter (Princelle says that the Starts were equipped with a 39mm adapter ring so that they could take all the Zenit lenses), but you would lose the automatic aperture and the large shutter release probe, so it wouldn't be a very elegant solution.
There are several types of Start. Some Starts have a cyrillic engraving, reading Старт, and some have a latin engraving. As is customary with Russian cameras, the ones with the cyrillic engravings were meant for the internal market, and the ones with the western engravings were meant for export. Perhaps the exported cameras are of better quality than the home market cameras, because for the home market, the Soviet government insisted on low prices even if that meant low quality, but the outside world demanded quality products. There are differences in the Start's self-timer handle too. My Start's self timer lever cannot face totally upwards, not even when forced. But some Starts have self-timer levers which can do that (for example, the one in Princelle's book). Princelle mentions that the film advance system was changed somewhere during production in 1961, so perhaps a new self-timer mechanism was added then too. Another difference between types of Start, is the thumb wind lever. In the first years of production, the Start had a lever with a flat, curled tip, but that was changed in 1961 to a thumb wind lever with a little knob on top. However, my Start from 1964 still has the old-style lever, so that at least not all Starts from after 1961 can be said to have the new lever.
The Start is quite a heavy camera, because its body is made of moulded iron rather than pressed plate. Its main body iron is 3 mm thick! Think of it as a SLR with the Zorki-4's body: very sturdy. The Start is larger than the Zorki-4: the Start's 'shoulder height' is more than the total height of the Zorki-4. The Start is also longer than the Zorki-4 by half a centimeter or so. What the two cameras have in common, is their oval body, the thick iron that their body is made out of (although the Zorki-4 has a press-plate top), their speed dial, the black lacquer used on some parts, and the self-timer lever. Perhaps there are internal similarities too, because the Zorki-4 has the same shutter speed range as the Start, and the same X synch time of 1/30 s. Because it's such a firm camera, it has a good, sturdy grip, and feels comfortingly mechanical. But one thing that's definately wrong about the Start ergonomically, is the shutter release mechanism. In order to be able to use lenses with automatic aperture on the Start (lenses whose aperture closes only when the picture is taken), there had to be some kind of coupling between the camera and the lens, so that the lens would 'know' when to stop down. KMZ probably thought an internal pin too difficult (the Praktica was of solving automatic aperture), and opted for a different solution entirely: making a shutter release button the Exakta way. If the shutter release button was somehow coupled to the lens, the lens would always know when a picture was taken, and stop down accordingly.
So KMZ placed the camera's shutter release button on the front side of the camera, and equipped each Start lens with its own shutter release probe. If you press the lens' shutter release button, the lens stops down, and the force is then aimed at the release button on the camera, taking the picture. This system works fine in practice, and is a working early example of automatic aperture. But the fact that the release button was placed that far to the front of the camera, didn't exactly improve the ergonomics: on the contrary, to take a picture you have to really stretch your fingers. And because the release probe is in the middle of the body, you have to trigger it by pressing it with your middle finger instead of your index finger. That's extremely uncomfortable, because your middle finger was the one with which you held the camera tightly. With that finger on the release, your grip on the camera becomes unfirm. So perhaps the Soviet photographers who used this camera professionally might have used a cable release as much as possible.
The Start has shutter speeds ranging from 1 s to 1/1000 s and B. The 1/1000 s speed was new in any Russian reflex camera at that time, and was probably borrowed from the Zorki-4. The Start's slow speeds probably stemmed from the Zorki-4 too, because they weren't on the Zenit reflexes of that time. Setting the shutter speeds is like the Zorki-4. Make absolutely sure that the shutter is cocked before you adjust the shutter speed, because adjusting the shutter speed without a cocked shutter will apparently wreck the shutter. To adjust the shutter speed, lift the dial up slightly, and drop it over the desired speed. Make sure that the dial clicks down into place. The shutter speed dial has a line drawn between the 1/30 s and the 1 s speed, meaning that you should not turn the shutter speed dial past that marker, or risk wrecking the shutter also. Once the speed is set, trigger the elaborate shutter release mechanism to release the shutter. The Start's exposure counter is inside the wind lever's knob, and is of the forward counting type. Meant for standard 35mm film up to 36 exposures (why not for 72 exp. or more? After all, it was a professional camera), it does not reset when you open the back. Whenever you load a new film, you must reset the counter manually, through twisting the ribbed area on top of the dial until the little white marker points to −2. Then take two fake exposures to advance the film to 0. Whenever the wind lever is used, the exposure counter turns around slightly more than once, so that the next exposure is indicated.
For a professional camera, the Start has surprisingly little film memo possibilities. Its exposure counter is not backwards counting, unlike that of the Voskhod, so it cannot be used to see how many film is left. The only memo function on the Start is the memo scale in the rewind button to the left of the camera. That memo dial is divided into three separate areas: a black symbol of a circle inside a circle representing black and white film, and two red colour symbols, the bulb symbol representing indoor film, and the sun symbol representing daylight film. Each of these three symbols has a small dot above it, and this dot can be aligned with several GOST film sensitivity values. So you can mark, for example, b/w 350 GOST, or color daylight 45 GOST. But still there is no way of knowing how many exposures the film you're using has left. The Start has a smooth self-timer which needs to be turned downwards counterclockwise to cock it. When ready, you press the tiny self-timer release button to trigger the mechanism. The lever creeps upwards, taking a picture when it's in the 9 'o clock position. If you want to use the self-timer at an opening other than f/2, you need to stop down the lens in advance by turning the tip of the shutter release. As I've mentioned earlier, some (probably older) Starts have self-timers whose handles rest in totally vertical position, and some Starts have self-timers whose handles can go no further than eleven 'o clock. Perhaps this is one of the improvements implemented in 1961. The Start has two flash contacts at the front left of the camera: one for X and one for M. M is for bulb flashes, and X is for electronic flashes. The two types of flash each have a different delay time, so hence the two contacts. The flash delay time cannot be set on the Start, unlike on the Zenit range and the Zorki's. The Start does not have a hot shoe, nor does its viewfinder have room for any accessories (like the Zenit-E), because the viewfinder needed to be interchangeable. To use a flash, the Soviet photographer would have had to use an external mount, or a studio flash.
The Start has strap lugs, unlike the Zorki-4, the Zenit-E and several others, a major improvement. Its case is made with more attention than the usual KMZ cases. It's made of thick brown leather with red felt on the inside. There is an oval pattern on top. On the case's lens bulge it says Start/Старт. The case itself is the usual Soviet model: a baseplate and a protective top that can be clapped open or removed entirely. The Start's lens system is most remarkable. I've discussed the way that the automatic aperture works, but there is also the aspect of the strange bayonet mount. The Start did not use screwmount lenses like the Zenit range or the Zorki series, but used bayonet lenses instead. But unlike most bayonet lenses, these cannot be quickly and smoothly attached to the camera with a small twist. Instead the lens always remains stationary, while a tightening ring, attached to the camera mouth, tightens the lens to the body. If you want to take off the lens, you turn loose the ring around the lens mount, and then lift the lens out. If you want to insert a lens, you lower the lens into position and tighten it by turning the ring around the lens mouth. When placing a lens, the ring on the camera should be turned to its uttermost left, until the red dot on the ring alingnes with the red marker below the logo. If more than one lens would have been produced in the Start mount, so if there would actually have been a need to change lenses, this cumbersome system of changing lenses would probably have killed the Start.
Instead of having a convenient hinge back like all modern cameras, the Soviets gave the Start the blessing of a removable-back-with-turnkeys. I'm not fond of that system, because it leaves you with a loose back whenever you want to change film. Anyway, the Start's back opens by turning two keys on the baseplate. Unlike those in some other cameras, these keys turn swiftly and gently, probably due to ball bearings. When opened, the Start looks pretty regular for a 35mm SLR with removable back. The only things striking are the film cutting knife and the film catridge. The film cutting knife is connected to a knob on the top left of the camera through a little rod. Unscrewing that knob, you can lift it up, thereby cutting the film inside the body. Being a professional photographer, cutting the film somewhere in the middle would mean saving the part of the film that was unexposed, which would be efficient, certainly in the Soviet union where good, western film wasn't cheap, if even available. The Start's film cartridge is much more mysterious to me. Like other Soviet cameras, a loose cartridge is provided as a take-up spool. In the case of the Start, that loose cartridge falls out every time you open the back. The cartridge itself is very nifty. It has a pin on top, and if pressed, it releases a light-tight shell around the true take-up spool in its center. You can then lift out the shell to arrive at the solid metal take-up spool. The mechanics are especially nice here: a small pin deactivates a pin, which releases the shell, which in turn can be lifted out when turned enough. It's like a Bond gadget: a pellet with a secret button that opens its inside. To load a film in this cartridge (something that I have never done yet), you should take out the shell first, then feed the film into the take-up spool, then turn the shell again until it jumps back into its blocked position, and then insert the film's original cartridge and the Start's cartridge into the camera simultaneously.
The Start's viewfinder is one last point of interest. In order to attract professionals, KMZ fitted the Start with an interchangeable viewfinder. You had the choice between a pentaprism viewfinder, a waist level viewfinder (which made the camera like a 35mm Rolleiflex: waist level viewfinder and shutter release up front), and perhaps also a magnifying viewfinder. I only own the pentaprism viewfinder. The viewfinder slides off easily when pushed backwards, but is otherwise held in position neatly by a spring lock. Sliding out the viewfinder reveals the ground glass section and the focusing wedge. The interchangeable pentaprism viewfinder doesn't seem very special to me: just a small iron-and-glass thing, nothing fancy. Looking through the viewfinder, the image appears large and slightly bulged, with diagonally cut off corners. The image is not terribly bright. There is a focusing wedge in the center of the viewfinder: something's in focus when the two halves of the wedge align exactly. Strange enough, my Start's viewfinder seems to be extremely deranged. Something has shifted somewhere, because the image is not equally sharp. In the top of the viewfinder, infinity is sharp, whilst in the bottom part, an area more closeby is sharp. This probably has something to do with mirror mis-alignment or a shifted ground glass. Probably the former owner got rid of this camera because of that.
The Start was made between 1958 and 1964 in relatively small quantities. To tell when your Start was made, look at the first two digits of the serial number. They indicate the production year. Starts from 1964 (like mine) are quite rare, because only 1197 of them were made then, due to stagnating demand and the availability of better alternatives (Zenit 4/5/6). I bought my Start second-hand at a local photo store for approximately $35, which is quite cheap. The store probably thought it was some worthless Zenit model or something. It's definately not: the Start is one of the most professional 35mm cameras that KMZ made, and despite obvious shortcomings (just one lens available, and that lens had to be a Helios-44, a not very professional Zenit lens) and clumsy solutions, it's an impressivly large camera with some interesting properties.
My Start has some identification marks from the previous owner. The first one is some sort of logo that reads "RW", and the second are the initials CRdW. Cornelis Roelof de Waal perhaps? Cynthia Ramona de Waard?
The two logos found on the Start: latin/export and cyrillic/domestic respectively. The latin version appears to be less common.