I have a very special relationship with my Pentacon Six TL camera since it is my only working medium format camera. I was always heavily attracted by medium format photography, but I couldn’t afford for a while to get into it. Eventually the P6 was the camera which allowed me to shoot 6×6 frames and since then I have not regret my decision nor had a single thought to change to another system. In this post I tell my story with this camera and try to show both the bad and the good things about it while hoping that some of you can find this information useful. It will be more like a subtract of my personal usage experience and all the important bits I learned during my research.
My Pentacon Six story
I was a student at the university sometime around my second year when I first heard about this camera. I have just started up experimenting film with an old Zenit-E when my buddy and roommate showed me a website with lots of photos and description about the P6. Both of us got pretty excited when we realized that there is a world beyond the 35mm film, so we started to google and find more information about this beast. Unfortunately I had no money at this time to simply buy one on ebay therefore I almost abandoned the idea until I found a Pentacon in a repair-shop next to my sister’s old apartment where I helped her to move in. The camera was broken, not complete and had no lens. It was literally a looted old donor of a camera. Despite the conditions of this camera-corpse I was amazed by the size of the thing. It was huge, much bigger than I have expected after all the photos I have seen on the Internet, especially the lens mount was extraordinary sizeable compare to anything I have seen before. I could only wonder what a hell of a lens could possibly fill this gigantic hole on the front of the camera.
From this moment, there was no return. I knew I had to get one of these monsters, but I still had to find the right one, which turned out not to be that difficult at all.
A few weeks later I found a little shop in a small village next to my hometown by accident. I had spotted an ancient Russian enlarging machine in the shop-window so I stopped by and found a great repairman and a huge cabinet of precious vintage cameras and other relics. As you have already figured out, he had a nice Pentacon Six TL in the shape I was looking for. The camera was there for cleaning, but the owner hasn’t fetched it for many years.
It was not an easy deal because the guy was not really keen to sell anything from his collection, but eventually I got my Pentacon Six with the standard 80mm f/2.8 Biometar lens made by Carl Zeiss Jena and with a waist level finder. Both the camera and the lens were beautiful, nice, clean and fully operational. In fact it was not really heavily used and in addition the repairman was kind enough to check the shutter speeds before he handed the camera over the to me.
Since then I have added many additional accessories and lenses to my Pentacon kit so today my collection consist of:
2 Pentacon six bodies
- 2 Waist level finders
- TTL pentaprism
- 2 Carl Zeiss Jena (CZJ) 80mm f/2.8 Biometar
- 1 CZJ 50mm f/4 Flektagon
- 1 CZJ 120mm f/2.8 MC Biometar
- 1 CZJ 180mm f/2.8 MC Sonar (This lens belongs to a friend I just use it)
- 1 CZJ 500mm f/5.6 MC Pentacon
- Extension tube set
- Split image focusing screen
- Ever ready cases
The way it looks
Unfortunately there are not only great things about this camera even if most of the bad rumors are only partially true. So let’s start with the not so nice before we focus on the good things.
Many people thinks that the quality insurance was not the best during the manufacturing of these cameras therefore it is a real gamble to buy one as you may get a pretty bad and unreliable one.
It is true that it is hard to find a Pentacon Six in a good working condition with perfectly accurate shutter speeds, but it has nothing to do with the quality of the cameras. The fact is that these cameras are pretty old and most of them were used for professional purposes where most likely a tremendous amount of film was burned through of them. You should think of them like you would think about an old car for instance a VW Beetle. It is a nice car with very few flaws, but since it is old and was driven around the Equator like 30 times you need to pay attention to maintenance to keep it running. You wouldn’t drive a 40 year old Beetle found in someone’s backyard without checking the oil level would you? Of course not, so why would you treat a camera differently? An old mechanical camera is just like an old car. It needs some maintenance and care. Of course if you were a Hasselblad user, you might disagree, but the category and price tag of these brands are completely different, however the produced images could be very similar.
Typical issues and solutions
I am lucky because I have personally met with only very few issues you can read on the Internet according to the P6.
Most problems are easy to fix during a general overhaul which involves cleaning, lubrication and adjustments of strings etc.
Slow and inaccurate shutter speeds
The Pentacon Six TL uses a huge canvas focal plane shutter which has 3 implications.
- Lenses are cheaper because there is no shutter in the lens
- Flash photography is limited to the sync speed which is 1/30s.
- The huge canvas needs big and strong strings which can loose their adjustment as time goes by.
Usually the speed 1/125s is the most accurate, anything faster could be slower than intended if the camera was not used in a long time. The slow times also could be problematic because the mechanical clock could pick up some dust.
The solution is an overhaul by someone who knows what he is doing. The camera must be disassembled, cleaned and adjusted. There are no big worries here, if you casually use your camera this does not have to be done too often, maybe once in every 10 years.
This problem is much more apparent than the previous one though. Many people have this problem of “kissing” or worse, overlapping frames. I think in most cases this happens because of the improper loose loading of the film. Have a look at this video from PentaconSixExpert on Youtube. I am not saying that this is the only problem, because my rolls have uneven spacings between frames too (but no kissing or overlapping so far), but many times it is only because of the way you load the film.
I had no problems with this feature either, but this is definitely one of the weak spots of the camera. I have seen some Pentacons where the back of the camera was modified by adding a little window covered with red plastic to be able to see the numbering at the back of the film. This is certainly a solution, but a very harsh one. You could get the counter fixed by a professional or you could live without it, eventually you can shoot even if it is broken.
The bright side
Now that we finished off the not so nice things it is time to celebrate and inspect why this system is so great.
If I had to be short I would say we need to have a look at the following aspects to justify:
- Lenses and image quality
- Value/price ratio
The lens selection for this system is just fantastic in my opinion. You can find excellent optics for literally no money (compared to modern lenses) for every focal length from a wide variety of manufacturers most notably Carl Zeiss Jena (CZJ). The lenses I use most of the time, are generally very fast, sharp and joy to shoot with.
It has to be said that even the multi coated (MC) versions are more prone to flare than modern lenses with similar optical formula, therefore the use of a lens hood is always a good idea.
If you want to read more about compatible lenses, visit the truly great site pentaconsix.com.
A friend of mine gave me a 180mm f/28 Sonnar to use. While this is one of the best and most iconic Pentacon mount lenses, I rarely use it, because it is so much bigger and heavier than the not much shorter 120mm Biometar.
Size and weight
The Pentacon Six looks like a 35mm SLR except this is much bigger therefore many people call them beefed up SLR or SLR on steroids.
While it is true that they are significantly bigger and heavier than their 35mm counterparts, in fact the P6 is a rather compact medium format camera which shoots 6x6cm frames.
Yes, there are smaller ones, but those usually do not have the capability to switch lenses or having similar dimensions but with more weight.
If you, like me love to travel with the biggest “sensor” possible then this size/weight aspect could be really important for you.
It has to be said, that this kit could be still awfully heavy especially if you pack more than one lens and a tripod too.
Value for the money
I think the Pentacon Six system comes with a very appealing price nowadays. You can get your body with the excellent standard lens around 100€ and even if you add the extra for cleaning and adjustments it is still far cheaper than most other interchangeable lens medium format system.
The fun I have
Eszter documented how I took a portrait of a painter in Istanbul. I think it reflects my emotions during the usage of this camera.
The result is below :
During the years I used my Pentacon Six, I have gained a lot of experience with it. So I would like to share some random thoughts I think could be useful for you.
Pentaprism vs Waist level finder
I do have a TTL prism, which provides correct image in the finder (no switched sides) and can be used for through the lens light readings.
On the other hand the prism is very dark and the light metering is not very easy to use. It is great to have in some cases, but generally I prefer an external light meter. There are different brighter prisms available for example the older non-metering version. If I am not wrong the even brighter prism of the Kiev 60 is also compatible and can be attached.
In contrast the waist level finder is definitely the brightest solution, therefore I use it the most. But it switches the sides of the images in the viewfinder, and you can hold the camera lower than usual to be able to see through the finder. For me it is much easier to focus with, especially with the little magnifying glass built in.
Despite all of the inconveniences of the waist level finder the image in it is something really special. I know it is an oxymoron, but it looks even better than reality. It is huge, bright and vivid, no viewfinder of any 35mm camera can come even close to it.
Focusing as always is a critical thing to do when talking about any photography. I had to learn that the depth of field is just way more shallow when you shoot medium format, thus even a slight movement of the camera could cause your subject to fall out of the sharp region.
When I shoot handheld with the 80mm/120mm lenses I try to not going wider than f/4 or even f/5.6 because it still provides nice bokeh, but has some safety in terms of the size of the sharp areas. Naturally I often find myself shooting wide open (f/2.8) on a street, but it’s always risky to do.
Luckily I haven’t had many problems with my cameras, but during the last 6 years I had some cases where I had to ask someone to help.
I had “the old” (my original) P6 cleaned, lubricated and adjusted one time, after I heard some unusual noises from the shutter. Since then it works perfectly. No exposure problems even when shooting Velvia.
My 120mm lens had a stuck iris once which required the disassembly and general cleaning of the lens. This is unfortunately a common problem with old lenses.
Conclusion and recommendation
Needless to say this camera is not for everyone. As long as you can accept that your camera needs some care in a form of regular maintenance, you could be very happy with it. So keep in mind that the final price could be higher than the purchase itself as basic repairs might be needed.
Nowadays it is not always easy to find someone who is qualified to repair old mechanical cameras. Therefore it is best to buy from trusted source with grantee that you get a working camera. I think it worth the extra money to get an overhauled camera at the first place.
I think this is a great camera, and could be a good choice for anyone who wants to try medium format photography and needs an interchangeable lens solution. If you don’t have the budget for more expensive systems like Hasselblad or Mamiya, or simply want to find the most compact option this could be the solution for you.
So far my Pentacon Six never let me down, the images are just amazing and for me it is great fun to shoot with.
- The Pentacon Six System Far the best and most comprehensive informational site about the topic. Highly recommended.
- Operating instructions
- User manual
- Wikipedia Pentacon Six
- Camerajunky: Istanbul through Pentacon Six TL
- Camerajunky: Color portraits Portraits mostly with the Pentacon Six
- Camerajunky: B&W portraits Portraits mostly with the Pentacon Six
- Camerajunky: Stupa (gold and blue) Dia shoots with the Pentacon Six
- Camerajunky: Iron factory
Big thank you for Ivan for the English proof reading!