FED 5b With Industar-61

Made in USSR

6 min read by Dmitri and Betty. Published in Film, Photography.

ФЭД 5в (Russian в is read as an English v) is a Soviet-built rangefinder film camera with a Leica screw mount lens base, which typically comes with a 𝑓2.8 55mm Industar-61 L/D. It is a fully mechanical shooter that can fire a silk curtain shutter between 1 and 1/500th of a second.

Like many other Soviet-era devices, this camera attracts conflicting opinions and some controversy.

Fuji Velvia 100 with FED 5b. Pictured is a flowering pineapple plant shot in the late afternoon shade at somewhere around 1/15th of a second. I seem to have gotten lucky avoiding shake blur (I took a lot of time to steady myself) but I wasn’t able to grab the perfect focus on the flower as the rangefinder patch was just not bright enough. Instead, the shoots just beyond are appearing crisper. The slide film, however, did its thing with making the highlights a lot more punchier, driving the attention back to the subject.

Film cameras from the former USSR tend to cost a fraction of most everything comparable coming from the West due to their relative abundance. The good ones are known to perform well, often better than most mid-level rangefinders. Possessing both noticeable shortcomings and high points, they tend to polarize opinions within the photographic community.

Communist ideology is known to oppose patents and intellectual property. As such, the technology coming from the Soviet Union has a merited reputation of being copied from elsewhere. However, I feel it’s worth a note that there has been an undeniable amount of innovation performed beyond the Iron Curtain making everything, including photography instruments, well-deserving attention and (in some cases) appreciation.

Fuji Velvia 100 with FED 5b.

Utilitarianism.

FED is unlike any other non-Soviet camera I own. While most reputedly utilitarian equipment would sacrifice appearance and portability for performance, this one lets go of the form and the build quality completely and mercilessly.

Fuji Natura Superia 1600, pushed an extra stop to 3200 with FED 5b. This photo was taken wide-open, hand-held at night.

The lens, Industar-61, tends to produce results as good as any glass of the time. It is reasonably sharp, with noticeable (but not extreme) swirl in bokeh renditions. While I do not have the equipment or the desire to measure exactly how sharp it is, the swirl alone gives it a distinctive character not typically found on modern optics.

The distinctions continue with unique but pleasant colour renditions which tend to mellow-out the greens while producing punchy reds. Being somewhat subjective, I believe this effect is more apparent in comparison when looking at the results from other cameras, like Yashica Electro 35 and Canon QL.

Fuji Color Superia 200 with FED 5b.

My relationship with rangefinder cameras involves carrying them around, setting their dials and switches, composing the scene in the viewfinder, finding focus plane, and pressing the shutter button. While this list is not unique by any measure, the point is I am in close contact with the instrument for much longer than just a split-second while the light registers on the film plane. Unfortunately, this entire experience is underwhelming with this device.

FED is a utilitarian photographic machine, it’s not a “toy” camera like a plastic Diana Mini. It has heft and is fairly reliable. Nevertheless, it feels awkward to hold and operate.

The viewfinder/rangefinder combo has a good split-image patch and even a built-in dioptrics corrector for spectacled individuals. But it is extremely squinty and uncomfortable. In fact, it looks downright hazardous (you have to see it to believe it).

The shutter, while somewhat loud, sounds reaffirming and pleasant. Even so, it produces noticeable shake that makes shooting hand-held in low light difficult. To be fair, this is partially remedied by the short and comfortable travel of the trigger button.

My personal greatest grievance with this camera is the shutter speed dial. Strange by design it is only useful while the camera is in a cocked position; it has a quirky rotating action while engaged. All of which is OK. The annoyingly-distracting misalignment in the dial numbers and stop marks, however, can not be forgiven. In my view, this is a shameful example of the lack of care towards usability, design, and finishing quality.

Constructivism.

This camera is built to take pictures. It doesn’t feel great in-hand, but it works well. Its appearance, however, does not suffer.

Tudor 200 with FED 5b.

Many people describe FED 5 as ugly, which is a contagious idea, considering how different it looks from the accepted norms. Yet, I believe that the visual design is one of its strong points.

The lens barrel features a small, but noticeable cursive ФЭД, giving it a bit of a tasteful fanfare. The form of the lens is noticeably old-fashioned, even for the time, while the deep-blue multicoated surface adds to the impression of functional power. The edges on the focus grip look blockish, reminiscent of the brutalist architecture of the time, which had a tremendous influence on design and fashion in USSR.

That same brutalist fashion, heavily romanticized in the eyes of Soviet citizens is further amplified within the body construction with simple lines highlighting polished metal and black dyes. In the language of Russian constructivism, it is the voice of technological progress for the benefit of art (and vice-versa).

The finish could undoubtedly be better executed. It’s fairly rough and somewhat uneven to a demanding eye. Even so, it embodies the vision of Russian design ideals, finally independent of Leica manufacturing team they were ordered to copy for decades.

Genealogy.

My FED camera belonged to my dad. He bought it in the mid-‘80s using the gift money he and mom received at their wedding. I remember passingly the bright spark of the gleaming sun reflecting in its metal plating on our summer outings. I remember father’s obsession as he printed gigantic enlargements of our pet basset hound, Frosia in black and white.

Fuji Velvia 100 with FED 5b, shot wide-open.

Upon my request, the camera made a trip from my grandma’s home in Moscow to mom’s house in Toronto and then back across the globe to my apartment in Chiang Mai. It cost a lot more to ship and even more in import taxes to receive than its actual value.

When I unpacked it, the smell of leather hit me with hazy memories of a distant childhood. It looked beautiful, distinctly Russian and like nothing I’ve seen in a long time.