Soviet camera obsession

No more cameras. I told Farrell and my friends; don’t let me buy any more cameras (for a little while at least, unless I find a really good deal, or a Sputnik).

Last week, I visited a new-to-me antique shop where I had heard there might be a Sputnik for sale. There wasn’t one, but as I browsed some of the other cameras for sale, I realized that I had no idea what I was looking for in an old Soviet-era film camera. I made it a goal to figure out a brand and model that I wanted, what a fair price would be and how to tell if it was in decent working condition. After a few days of ruthless internet research, I decided I wanted either a Fed 2 or a Zorki 4. I planned to visit several shops this past weekend to get an idea of what cameras Bishkek had to offer, in what conditions and at what prices.

Here are my results.

First I went to Tsum, the big, old department store in town. On the fourth floor, there are many vendors selling mostly the same stock of felt slippers, kalpaks, postcards and other souvenirs. Some of the stalls have a small quantity of cameras, or there’s one or two dedicated antique shops. I knew beforehand that souvenirs here are mostly overpriced, but I was under the impression that while the cameras that were available might be expensive, it was because they were better quality than what I might find elsewhere. I took diligent notes and thoroughly annoyed several vendors by spending 15 minutes carefully pulling apart cameras, testing various shutter speeds, looking for defects, and asking very specific, technical questions.

It turns out, Tsum doesn’t sell pristine cameras, they just sell overpriced ones. Massively overpriced. I found a Fed 2 with serious shutter issues for 3800 som (~$80). As I was busy discovering various flaws with the camera, the woman working there called the store’s owner and told me, “She said it’s in great condition!” Oh, really? I guess we have different definitions of what “great condition” means. Other cameras I checked out were all in questionable working condition and a few were downright busted or absolutely disgusting (covered in blue mold). The cheapest one was 2200 som (~$46), which was way too much in my mind.

The next day, I went with a group of friends to the weekend market at Orto Sai bazaar (which you may remember is where I took my dad in January and bought my Smena 35). I was still planning to just look at what was available, open some cameras, ask some questions, take notes and maybe return the following week if I found a particularly fine specimen.

…and then I bought three cameras.

First, I came upon a guy selling a lone Zorki 6 among some old books and clothes. It worked well and the price was 600 som (~$12). Me, being an expert bargainer, talked him down to 500 som (~$10). My thinking was, maybe I’ll use this camera, or maybe I won’t and then I can easily resell it for at least as much as I bought it for.

About 15 minutes later I came to the same guys I bought my Smena 35 from. They had several Fed 2’s and Zorki 4’s and I found a pretty decent one of each. The Zorki 4 was the nicer of the two, so I thought, “Okay, if I were to purchase one of these, then I guess I’d go with the Zorki 4.” Then I asked the price; 600 som each.

Psssssh. Shut up. How about 500 som each? He agreed. Sold!

He threw in a few rolls of expired film for free. Then I convinced one of my friends to drop 1500 som (~$30) on a medium-format camera. I must have been his favorite customer that day.

So despite trying to be pragmatic about my next camera purchase, I impulsively jumped on a good deal. I feel good about my purchases though; I thoroughly examined each one and feel confident that they will probably work once I clean them up a bit and pop in a test roll (I won’t use the old stock until I’m sure that they work).

So now what? I have nine cameras with me here in Bishkek; a Canon 7D that gets tons of use (obviously, it’s my only digital camera), a Kodak rangefinder from the 50s that I bought on Etsy just before moving to Bishkek (I’m fairly certain it doesn’t work), a Lubitel 166B that I bought soon after moving to Bishkek (from Tsum, paid too much and something’s wrong with the film advance), a Nikon FG (gift from my stepmom), a Smena 35 (I broke the film rewind lever, but I’m assuming it’s still functional), a Smena 6 (from Karakol, I’m 99% sure it won’t work), and now my Fed 2, Zorki 4 and Zorki 6. I guess I should start shooting.

Like a proud parent, I’d just like to gush a bit more about my cameras. The Zorki 6 is, surprisingly to me, the oldest of the bunch, having been produced in 1960 (“before the Beatles!” says Farrell). The Fed 2 is from 1962 and the Zorki 4 from 1967 (they’re both fairly late models of their respective brands). The Zorkis both have the same lens, an Industar 50, while the Fed has an Industar 26m. I’m hoping to find a few different lenses while I’m here, maybe a Jupiter 8 or a Fed lens. If any of this makes sense to you, please feel free to comment and gush about your own Soviet cameras too!

6 replies on “Soviet camera obsession”

  1. Oh man, so jealous! I am always so tempted by the old soviet rangefinders when we’re travelling but always chicken out of actually buying them. I’ll be very interested to hear (or see!) how they go. Possibly heading to Kyrgyzstan later in the year, so I might just have to stop by the bazaar.

    1. So cool that you might come here! Let me know if you need more clear directions around Orto Sai. So far I haven’t tested any film, but the Fed 2 definitely has some issues at the slower shutter speeds 🙁 I suppose that’s what I get for 500 som, but the Zorki 4 seems okay so far. If anything, they make great display pieces.

  2. Hi Kirstin, I’m Jorge and i live in Santiago, Chile.. I’ve been reading your blog for a quite a while, i learned about you form house hunters international… i think you and your husband are pretty brave to go to live to a different country, completly different culture.. I wanted to ask if i could interview by email, i have some questions for you.. about how is your life in bishkek.. I’ve been interviewing alot of chileas, that live abroad.. in exotic parts of the world.. like israel, china, russia, south africa.. and it would be interesting to have your your take on what it means to be an expat, the place that you live, your fam,ily, the country your living, different cultural activities in bishkek.. visa, how to get to bishkek.. etc!!
    thanks i would mean the world for me if you contact me!! following you for 2 years.. wowthe time has gone by really quickly

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