Shooting With the Fed 5C

Copyright 1994, Tom R. Halfhill

[ FED 5C ]

The Fed 5C comes from a factory in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine and was once supplied to the KGB.


Ever since the startling collapse of the USSR, the former Soviet republics have been exporting a small but steadily increasing flow of goods to countries on our side of the fallen Iron Curtain. By selling everything from t-shirts and fur caps to Red Army watches and cameras, the impoverished republics are struggling desperately to earn hard currency and develop free-market economies.

The problem isn't that their wares aren't affordable. Labor costs in the Commonwealth of Independent States are extremely low -- the average factory worker makes about as much money per month as the average American does per hour. The problem is that the former communist managers have a poor understanding of capitalist markets, and their products often have trouble competing with higher-quality goods manufactured elsewhere.

Which brings us to the Fed 5C, a 35mm camera made in the republic of Ukraine and imported to North America by a Canadian wholesaler. Although the Fed is a solid, competent camera, it's also a perfect example of both the outdated technology and the promising future potential of products now appearing from the Soviet nation-states.

Regular Shutterbug readers are already familiar with the Kiev 60 and Kiev 88, two medium-format cameras imported from the Ukrainian republic. The Fed 5C comes from a different factory and was originally made for the Soviet domestic market and the KGB. In terms of technology, it's a quaint throwback to the Cold War days of the 1950s.

For starters, it's an all-metal, all-manual, all-mechanical 35mm rangefinder camera which accepts Leica screw-mount lenses. For those who aren't well-versed in Leica lore, be advised that Leica hasn't made a screw-mount lens or camera for over 30 years.

Several other features of the Fed 5C also date back to the days of Krushchev and Eisenhower: an external selenium-cell light meter; a cloth focal-plane shutter whose speeds can be adjusted only when the shutter is cocked; a shutter-speed dial that rotates when you press the shutter release; and a one-piece back and baseplate that completely detaches for reloading.

On the other hand, the Fed has a few features not usually seen on 35mm cameras of the 1950s (including most Leicas): a hot shoe; a self-timer; a rapid-wind lever; an auto-resetting frame counter; a single dial for both slow and fast shutter speeds (1 to 1/500 second plus Bulb); and a combination rangefinder-viewfinder with brightline frames and parallax correction marks.

Because the Fed 5C is the only interchangeable-lens 35mm rangefinder camera in production besides the German-made Leica M6, comparisons are inevitable -- but hardly fair. Equipped with a standard 55mm f/2.8 lens, the Fed retails for well under $150. A similarly equipped Leica M6 would cost well over $3,000. To be objective, let's evaluate the Fed on its own merits.

Your first impression after picking up the camera is that it's as solid as a rock. Constructed almost entirely of metal, the Fed is a hefty, tanklike machine that tips the scales at about 2.2 pounds. The metal parts appear to be steel stampings, not brass or aluminum castings. Stamped parts are cheaper to manufacture and are less precise than die-cast components, but they're adequate, and were commonly used before the days of polycarbonate plastics.

If you've been weaned on motorized, autofocus, automatic exposure SLRs, you'll probably be baffled by the antique dials, scales, and buttons on the Fed 5C. But oldtimers -- that is, anyone who can remember when cameras didn't need batteries -- will find themselves right at home. In fact, the Fed has such a classic control layout that with only one exception (noted below), I was able to operate the camera without referring to the English translation of the Russian instructions.

Loading is an easy but decidedly manual operation. By twisting two keys on the bottom of the camera, you can remove the entire one-piece back and baseplate. After dropping the cassette into a cutout on the left, you pull the film across the guide rails and insert the leader into a slotted takeup spool on the right, making sure the sprocket holes are engaged with the drive shaft. Then you advance one frame to make sure the film is winding properly, reattach the back, and wind another frame or two.

The very next step after loading the camera is to wrap the leather eveready case in a plastic bag and stash it in a closet. I don't know what process was used to tan the leather, but take the word of an old farm hand -- it smells worse than the cow did when it was alive. Unfortunately, disposing of the case makes the Fed a bit inconvenient to carry, because the camera has no strap lugs.

Most of the Fed's controls are on the camera's top deck. (See photo.) At the far right is the rapid-wind lever, which advances the film and cocks the shutter with either one long stroke or a few shorter strokes. Atop the lever is the frame counter, which starts at 1 and moves toward 36 with each throw. When you reload the camera, the frame counter automatically resets to minus-2, something we take for granted nowadays but was a luxury in the 1950s.

[PHOTO LINK #1: The Fed 5C accepts Leica screw-mount lenses and has a classic control layout reminiscent of cameras from the 1950s.]

There's also a small film reminder dial on top of the lever. It's marked with a sun symbol for daylight-balanced color film, a light bulb for tungsten-balanced color film, and a circle symbol for black-and-white film.

Immediately to the left of the rapid-wind lever is the shutter release, which is threaded for a standard cable. The release is smooth, but requires a fair amount of force, though I had no trouble squeezing off acceptably sharp pictures at slow shutter speeds.

The shutter release fits inside a thick collar which doubles as the rewind clutch. This was the only control that mystified me when I began testing the Fed. After shooting my first roll of film, I searched vainly for a lever or button that would release the clutch and allow me to rewind the film back into the cassette. At first I thought the small chrome button on the front of the camera was a clutch release; that's where it's found on M-series Leicas. But no, that button releases the self-timer.

Instead, it's the unmarked shutter-release collar that does the trick. All you do is press down on the collar with a thumbnail until it locks into place. An odd method, but it works.

Next to the shutter release and rewind collar is the shutter speed dial. This control really is a throwback to the 1950s. Although it combines both the slow and fast speeds on a single dial -- a feature which never appeared on screw-mount Leicas -- it's a lift-and-set, rotate-during-release dial that dates back to the days when cars had tailfins. To choose a shutter speed, you must lift the dial, turn it until a red arrow points to the desired speed, and then lock the dial back down again.

However, you can't change shutter speeds unless the shutter is cocked. That's because the dial is linked directly to the rollers of the shutter curtains. When you cock the shutter, the shutter speed dial rotates until the red arrow points to the previously selected speed. When you fire the shutter, the dial rapidly spins back around to its uncocked position.

The speeds are irregularly spaced around the dial, and on my camera it was difficult to distinguish between the 1/250 and 1/500 settings. Three of the slow speeds (1/4, 1/8, and 1/15) are also spaced very tightly together. The 1/2-second speed is marked only with a dot, not a number. To set the 1/30-second speed (which is marked in red to indicate that it's the fastest sync for electronic flash), you must turn the dial clockwise past the 1/500 and Bulb settings -- even though it appears as if you could reach it by turning the dial counterclockwise past the 1-second mark.

Once you get accustomed to these little quirks, however, the dial is easy to deal with. The slow speeds sound quite distinctive, especially if you're used to modern electronic shutters. When you rotate the dial or release the shutter, you can clearly hear the mechanical whir of the clockwork gears.

Left of the shutter speed dial is the hot shoe, which is supplemented by a standard PC socket on the back of the camera. The shoe is centered directly over the lens, so it's also useful for clipping on auxiliary viewfinders when using different focal-length lenses.

Next to the hot shoe is the meter readout. It's the only readout you'll find -- there's no indication in the viewfinder that the Fed 5C even has a meter. Although a viewfinder readout would be welcome, I wish more cameras also had external readouts like this one. When you raise a camera to your eye and begin fiddling with the controls, it alerts everyone that you're about to take a photograph. Sometimes this can cost you a good picture. With an external readout, you can casually adjust the controls while holding the camera at waist level, then quickly raise the camera and shoot. Often I carry a handheld light meter for this purpose, even when using a camera with through-the-lens metering.

The Fed's meter is connected to a selenium cell on the front of the camera. Although the meter doesn't read through the lens, it's fairly selective, corresponding roughly to the view of a 50mm lens. Because selenium meters are powered by the light falling on their cells, they don't need batteries. However, they're also relatively insensitive to low light. The Fed's lowest meter reading is 1/30 second at f/3.5 when using 400-speed film. You'll definitely need a separate battery-powered meter if you anticipate doing any available-light photography with this camera.

I also recommend using a handheld meter if you're shooting color slide film. The Fed's meter proved to be accurate within one f/stop or so, which is sufficient for color print film but not within the narrower latitude of slide films.

In actual practice, a handheld meter won't slow you down when using the Fed, because the camera's own meter isn't coupled to the shutter speed dial or the lens apertures anyway. The meter needle simply points to a number from 1 to 11, and you have to rotate a calculator dial surrounding the rewind knob to translate this number into a combination of f/stops and shutter speeds. Once you've picked a workable combination, you manually transfer these settings to the shutter speed dial and aperture ring. The only real advantage of the built-in meter is that it's there if you forget to carry a handheld meter.

Inside the calculator dial is another ring for setting the film speed. It's marked only in full-stop increments (ISO 25, 50, 100, 200, and 400), but you can set intermediate speeds by guessing.

At the center of these dials is the knurled rewind knob. After you've reached the end of a roll and depressed the rewind collar, you pop up the rewind knob by pressing it down and moving it counterclockwise. Then you turn it clockwise to wind the film back into the cassette.

The few remaining controls are on the front of the camera. The self-timer is cocked by moving the lever in the direction of an arrow, and it's released by pressing the small button directly above it. The maximum delay is about 12 seconds, and it's accompanied by a lovely mechanical purr that's much more interesting than the obnoxious beeps emitted by electronic cameras.

The Fed's 55mm normal lens has an aperture ring with f/stops from f/2.8 to f/16, with positive full-stop clicks. The smooth focusing collar is marked in meters. In between is a depth-of-field scale. Because it's a screw-mount lens, there's no need for a bayonet release or red index mark. You can mount any Leica screw-mount lens on the Fed, but you'll need an auxiliary viewfinder for wide-angle and telephoto lenses, because the camera's finder is marked with framelines for the normal lens only.

Overall, the Fed's viewfinder is much better than those found on most screw-mount Leicas, but not as good as those on bayonet-mount M-series Leicas. Unlike screw-mount Leicas, the Fed combines the rangefinder and viewfinder in a single window, provides brightline frames to clearly define the field of view, and offers near-lifesize magnification. (The only screw-mount Leica with brightline frames was the late-model IIIg, and it still had separate rangefinder/viewfinder windows and 1/2-lifesize magnification.)

On the other hand, the Fed's viewfinder lacks some features of M-series Leicas. For one thing, the brightline frames are etched, not projected, so they don't move as you focus to automatically correct for parallax. Instead, short lines are marked in three corners of the frame to show the approximate field of view at close range. And, as mentioned before, mounting a different focal-length lens on the Fed does not bring up a matching brightline frame.

The circular rangefinder spot is fairly bright and easy to use, but the rangefinder on my camera was definitely out of adjustment. The twin images wouldn't merge with the lens focused at infinity, and pictures taken at close distances at wide apertures were slightly out of focus. A faster lens or a telephoto would reveal even more focusing error. Fortunately, rangefinders are easily adjusted by knowledgeable technicians, and I'd recommend this inexpensive tune-up before using the Fed or any other rangefinder camera.

When the lens is properly focused, the Fed is capable of producing sharp pictures, even at wide apertures. I had no unusual problems with flare or contrast, even when shooting without a lens hood. (The filter size is 40.5mm, and I had no hood for that size.)

[PHOTO LINK #2: The 55mm f/2.8 lens supplied with the Fed is acceptably sharp and has no unusual problems with flare or contrast.]

I did encounter one problem with my pictures, though. Every image had dark, fuzzy shadows along the edges of the frame. Investigation revealed that they were caused by the felt strips which protect the film from fogging when you change lenses. There's a strip at both the top and bottom of the film gate, and on my camera they were improperly trimmed. The stray material protruded into the film gate, casting fuzzy shadows onto the edges of every frame during exposure.

[PHOTO LINK #3: Notice the fuzzy shadows along the left edge of the frame, caused by stray felt strips around the film gate. Incidentally, this San Francisco street musician is actually a very good violinist, but finds that he attracts more attention by wearing hose and garters.]

Although this problem is easy to fix, it's typical of the Fed's overall construction quality. Vital internal mechanisms such as the curtain rollers and shutter release are not sealed or baffled, and the film advance is definitely on the stiff side. Because the former Soviets are used to producing goods for a captive domestic market that had few alternatives until now, there was little incentive to innovate or to put extra effort into quality control.

It's a tantalizing paradox. Until its collapse, the USSR was one of the most powerful and technologically advanced nations on Earth. The Soviets produced such marvels as the Sputnik satellite, the Soyuz spacecraft, the Mir space station, and the MiG-29 jet fighter. Imagine if that technical expertise were applied to consumer products and combined with their low labor costs. A Leica M6 or Nikon F4 clone for $200? Why not? It's within their grasp.

The Fed 5C isn't quite there yet, but it's a rock-solid, fun-to-use camera that's probably destined to become a collector's item. Like the first Japanese cameras which emerged from the aftermath of World War II, it may be just a harbinger of things to come.

[end]


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