Ihagee Exakta VX
Ihagee Exakta VX
A young Dutchman, Johan Steenbergen, was reluctant to follow his future in the family haberdashery trade, so he ventured to Dresden, the world’s camera capital of the time. After a short apprenticeship, he was confident enough to set up his own workshop, named “Industrie und Handelsgesellschaft” – which translates to “Industrial and Trading Company”. Guess he wasn’t yet sure about the company’s direction. Shortly after that, he shortened the name to ‘Ihage’, the company name acronym pronounced ‘ee-ha-ge’, spelled in German. The name wasn’t bold enough, so an added ‘e’ at the end made it as it is known today. Note that the German pronunciation hasn’t changed, unlike the English pronunciation of the ‘ee’.
Ihagee began making cameras in Dresden in 1912. Early models were aligned with the common types, evolving from furniture-sized wood and brass contraptions to relatively compact cameras, still plate, or cut sheet models. The boxy mirror reflex camera styles were followed by the Klapp style, which gradually gave way to the monoblock models, as small as 127 format. While other camera makers in Dresden and else subscribed to the rectangular body style, Ihagee opted for a trapezoid body, which became their signature style for the next forty years.
Several manufacturers introduced Monoblock SLR using the popular 120 or 127 formats, as were the Ihagee early SLRs. Meanwhile, the two market leaders, Leica and Contax, used the newly introduced 35mm format for rangefinders. Rangefinder is a handy, compact, and portable camera style, but not so useful when using a variety of lenses. Changing lenses required changing viewers and adding range-measuring accessories, rendering it impractical.
In 1933 Ihagee introduced a 35mm format SLR. It is believed to be the first 35mm SLR, depends whom you ask.
The first model, the Kine Exakta, was named after the film format used in Kine – literally cinema in German, still within the same design line but with a scaled-down body, which was a great advantage.
A slew of models evolved in the short pre-was years till production seized. During wartime, the Nazi regime nationalized the company, so production was converted to aid the military efforts.
Steenbergen was married to a Dutch Jewish wife. While a fatal burden in the war’s later times, her father had relocated to the US before the war and managed to extract both out with an early war US/German citizens exchange.
In 1945, the Allies flattened Dresden, culminating with a fire that reduced the city to cinders. Whatever was left after fire and looting, say the heavy equipment, was probably robbed by the victorious Soviets.
After the war had ended, the new masters, the GDR under the CCCP, quickly realized the value of the Ihagee / Exakta name. A new begin was scrambled together, still with pre-war working hands and talent. A fresh Ihagge rose from the ashes but without Steenbergen. The new company enjoyed a much-coveted status at the GDR, a foreign-owned, private entity. It is odd, as the state entirely held it. Perhaps it was just for good public relations towards the West.
1948 saw a new, modern 35mm SLR line under the good old Exakta brand. The East German market was in tatters, and the European market was yet to come alive, so they looked at the US market, as most camera makers of the East block did.
The new models were sold under various names, Exakta Varex, Varex VX, Exakta VX, or Exacta. Each market had a name designated to it.
Steenbergen was now back on the scene as a Colonel in the new, post-war Royal Dutch Armed Forces. I am not sure how could he climb up the ranks so fast, but so it was. He tried to get the company back, in vain. As such, he established a new Ihagee entity in West Germany. Having the rights to the name drove Ihagee Dresden into an odd situation, paying the new Ighagee royalties for the cameras sold in the West, or else it was banned. Yet, it was a foreign-owned company, just short of a foreign owner.
Ihagee Dresen made some successful models until the initial post-war nucleus faded away, and new apparatchiks were at the helm. The world’s industry progressed with electrons replacing cogs, whereas the East Germans were still confined within the mechanical universe. All that till Pentacon swallowed it. Pentacon made several Exakta models, but none could replicate the early glory. All had died with the demise of Pentacon, while Ihagee West kept selling cameras onder Exakta’s brand; all Japanese followed with a slew of cheap point-and-shoot models.
The Exakta Varex
I had many East German cameras on my bench. The Exakta is like no other. Be it in style, quality, or, sad to say, complexity. All in this camera line is outstanding, or at least different. Looking online for reviews on early post-war Exakta, there are hardly any. Searching for most other camera models yields an avalanche of articles, but not here. Only the hardy critics comment on it, nothing by the ‘soft’ reviewers.
The camera is different in any possible way. It seems that the designers examined all conventions and continued in reverse.
- Appearance – most camera bodies were elongated, rectangular shaped, with a prominent, protruding lens mount. Here it is a bulky trapezoid leading to a smaller, shorter lens mount. A high forehead adds to the unique appearance.
- Finish – at the early 1950’s camera bodies were modestly finished; here, the finish is spectacular. All are finely machined and plated. Delicate skin still intact 70 years later. A far cry from the Soviet and other East German models, with rough finishes and the skin hardly glued in place.
- Direction – the Exakta is a lefty delight. The trigger and winding lever are on the left. Film loading is on the right, and spools to the left. The trigger is on the front, and falls under the left index finger.
- Glass – Ihagee did not make their lenses. It offered a proprietary bayonet mount (two, actually), and being the third largest camera maker in the East, there was an extensive third-party lens offering.
- Over-engineered – take the rewind knob. In any camera I’ve ever seen, it merely turns to rewind the spool. Here the knob pops out and is mounted on a joint allowing it to wind at an angle. Not a necessity, but a nice touch. In other cameras, the rewind release is a tiny push-in dot, here an elaborate pin, duly chromed. The trigger is protected with a hinged cover yet still usable with a remote trigger at a locked position. Two each synch ports, for X and M. The back opening knob is easy on the fingers, complemented with a pin for tool-free back removal. The frame counter reset is a proud, easy-to-reach cog in the right place. None of this is essential, but it demonstrates the thoughts and efforts the designers and the plant put in.
On the other hand, it is not intuitive to use. It is rather complex, and I thought the Prominent was complex till I took this in my hand. You’ll need a manual to make sense of it. Regrettably, it does not end here. Several manuals versions are posted online, assuming to match the different Varex / VX generations. The best is here.
The manual is vague in many instances, either that or the translation from German lacks clarity. A good imagination dose would help.
- In the early manual camera parts list, item #10 is “lever (locking shutter when finder-hood is closed”. No matching #10 on the image.
- Further, on a later printed manual version #10 is gone.
- #19 is “control disc for film transport”, I guess it is the tiny window by the slow speed dial.
- #42 on the parts list has no match on the diagram.
Slow speeds dial is a complex affair. The dial on the right doubles as a slow-speed selector and self-timer. To set a slow speed, the main speed selector needs to be on T or B, for the slow speed dial to be activated.
- There are two sets of markings, in black for slow speeds, 1/5 to 12 seconds, and in red for self-timer, up to 12 seconds, or at least what I assume. I have two bodies, and both equally misbehave when this dial is engaged, so I am not sure how it suppose to work. The manual is vague.
- After reading the manual of the Varex IIa, which is almost identical to the Varex VX, It gets better.
– The slow speed / self-timer dial must be cocked to activate it. Turn the dial to the right, against a spring, till it stops.
– For using slow speeds, pull up the dial and set the desired speed, marked black, against the dot in the inner dial. The spring within thes dial will enable the slow speeds, which are really low, up to 12 seconds. As stated above, the main speed dial must be set to either T or B.
– For the self-timer, cock the dial and set the outer dial delay value, in red, against the dot. Select the desired speed on the main dial, and you are good to go.
– As it is understood, the very slow speeds and the self-timer cannot be used together. Either or.
- Further, film speed memo markings are on the body below this dial, with another conical sub-dial just below the slow speed dial, with three nail-killer pins. It supposes to point to a set film speed. This dial is dead stiff on both bodies.
- To confuse it a bit more, there are three marks on the sub-dial: two ‘C’ markings, one in red and one in black, and ‘BW’ in black. Go figure; the manual doesn’t relate to it. From what I understand from the Varex IIa manual, it is meant to mark a combination of slides or negatives, daylight or artificial light.
- Engraving on some dials is too small or smudged. Have noticed that in other East German models, where production tools were not replaced in time.
There were several Exakta VX generations and models assigned to different markets. To match the target markets, marking could be found in DIN. ASA or Weston. In early models, the speed dial has a ‘Z’ for Zeit instead of a ‘T’. Also, synch markings on earlier models are VM & XE, and M & X on later.
The Exakta Varex early models came with an elaborate waist finder with an added folding magnifier to help focus on detail. When the finder’s wings are fully opened, the finder can be used as a sports finder. An eye-level prism finder was added later. Both are easy to remove and reinstall by pushing down a small catch at the camera’s forehead.
Another peculiarity, cocking the shutter, takes pushing the lever a great distance, almost a full swing. I would estimate it as 300o. The camera is meant to roll film from cartridge to cartridge, so a sliding blade is in place to cut the roll by the unexposed side. It takes fiddling with the holding thumb nut to release it; once done just pull it down.
|Model||Exakta Varex VX|
Exakta Varex V
Exakta Varex VX
|AKA||Exakta Automatic VX|
|Weight||700 gr, Body only|
|Class average weight||610 gr, Body only|
|Mount size||Exakta Bayonet|
|Shutter||Focal plane cloth horizontal|
|Speeds||B, T, 25-1000, 1/5 -12 sec.|
|Mirror||None auto return|
|Viewer||Waste or prism|
|DOF preview||With a dedicated lens.|
|Sync speed||30, 60|
|Service / repair links||camerlog.com|
The Ihagee story