A mix of frustration and fun.
On a whim, I decided that I'd purchase the Pentacon Six TL partly because I saw on Flickr how beautifully the Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm lens rendered. Also it was cheap (two cameras and one lens was $330). For the past six months I have been shooting with the Pentacon Six, sometimes as my only camera, and I'd like to share my thoughts and experiences with this quirky East German era camera.
After waiting about a month for my cameras and lens to arrive from Romania, I was eager to play with it! What first struck me was how heavy these cameras were. They were solid and felt like you could bludgeon someone to death with it. Although I had gotten two cameras, only one was specified as fully functional. The other camera was included as a kind of spare parts camera. The spare Pentacon Six camera did work, but its frame counter was broken and the leatherette was peeling badly.
I won't go into the details of how the Pentacon Six works or its features are there are plenty of good resources already available. In particular, the Pentacon Six website by TRA is a very comprehensive resource for all things relating to the Pentacon Six system.
So with the "good" camera in hand, off I went shooting...
Loaded with Ilford Delta 3200, my first venture was to a bar for some drinks and slightly drunken photos. The night went on and the roll of film was spent. After development using 1+50 Rodinal, the resulting negative was blank!
Well I chalked that one up to the alcohol and tried it again. This time with an very impromptu fashion shoot.
After developing this roll, the shots were kind of hit or miss with the exposure, but at least I got some images back! From the photos, I learned that the Biometar 80mm lens is very flare prone. To the point that using any kind of backlit subject is just a bad idea.
After the photo shoot, I took the Pentacon with me on a small road trip and proceeded as normal. The developed negatives still indicated there was a problem though. I checked the shutter and it was working fine. So next I checked the aperture ring on the lens and... huh.
The aperture ring on the lens didn't change the aperture!
It seems that my lens is permanently stuck at f/16 or f/22! I'm a little ashamed of myself that it took me so long to figure out such a basic problem! Well not much can be done except to get another lens.
Let's Try Again
A month passes from finding out I received a bad lens to when I receive another working lens. This time I checked the aperture ring to make double sure that the iris was opening and closing as expected! Now I have a functioning camera again!
Things were going well. Too well.
This time I managed to brake the frame counter! From what I've read on the matter, it's a common problem. However, not knowing how many shots I've taken is a real pain. I've definitely lost some shots.
As I use this camera more, I am becoming increasingly frustrated. While not a mechanical marvel like a Leica M film camera, I didn't expect this tank of a camera to be so finicky.
My Usage Experience
While not comprehensive, these are the sticking points that I find are representative of my experience using the Pentacon Six.
The camera is solid and heavy. It's a bit uncomfortable to hold in the hand after long periods of time. Thankfully it has a tripod mount so I can attach it to my harness from Hold Fast as the camera strap lugs are the clip on type.
As for mechanical quality, the camera is a bit lacking. Over the course of six months, I've managed to get the frame counter stuck at frame 16. Then I managed to fiddled with the advance lever to get to frame 24 where it stops and locks the shutter release. Opening the back reset it back to 16 again! In my frustration I used the multiple exposure tab to crank the frame counter back into the single digits, but it still won't zero out. Good enough I guess.
For the most part, everything worked as expected except the frame counter.
Ease of Focus
Out of the box, focusing using the waist level finder was tough. The finder was very dim. Even when using the pentaprism, it wasn't very clear. The focusing screen is milky and opaque with a slight yellowish tinge. I replaced the old screen with a newer focusing screen from Arax which is much brighter.
Even with the newer focusing screen, I still find it hard to nail focus. I guess I'm spoiled by Leica's excellent finder! While I don't know if the Biometer 80mm lens exhibits any focus shift (I didn't care to test it out yet), my guess is that the thinner depth of field combined with my poor eyesight (I wear corrective glasses) probably contribute more to my out of focus problems.
Less about the camera and more about the lens; the Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f/2.8 lens is the raison d'etre for picking up this camera. The rendering is smooth and the bokeh is pleasant. I wouldn't call this a very sharp lens, especially in the f/2.8 to f/5.6 range, but it has a pleasing softness to the images that work well for portraits.
The biggest achilles heel is that the lens is extremely flare prone! You won't have to try very hard to get it to flare outdoors.
For landscape and architectural subjects, the lens performs well when stopped down from f/8 to f/16. That being said, the Pentacon Six wouldn't be my first camera of choice for those kinds of shots if that was my primary focus.
Overall, I'm pleased with the image quality of the lens.
Total Cost of Ownership
I went in thinking that this would be a cheap purchase that would provide loads of fun. I thought wrong. In total, I had spent close to $500 for this camera; $330 for the cameras and dud lens, $120 for another working lens, and around $50 for the new focus screen. While my case of faulty camera and lens is hopefully not the common case, at the end of the day this ended being a much more expensive proposition than I expected.
For the total sum spent, a much more solid 6x6 medium format camera system could be bought into, such as the Mamiya C220 and C330 TLRs.
My advice would be to allow for additional budget when purchasing into the Pentacon Six system. Whether it be a CLA, replacement parts, or upgrades, I feel that the camera will need some work to get it into a solid state.
My hope was to use this camera as a secondary to my Sony A7rII on the harness. Since it's cheap and solid I wouldn't feel too bad about it being banged around while I'm on location, plus 6x6 medium format film is just fun!
Would I purchase this camera again knowing what I know now? Probably, but not at this total cost. The camera is honestly fun to use, despite its quirks. My opinion may change in the future, but I'll continue to slog this guy around with me to places.
In the future, I'd like to try to adapt the Biometar lens onto the Sony A7rII. Perhaps one day...
Thank you for reading!