exakta varex iia


If ever there was a camera of which it could be said, "They don't build 'em like they used to," it is the Exakta VX IIa, arguably the finest of a noble lineage which stretched from 1935 to the (very) early 1970s. It is the epitome of German fine engineering, a Precision Instrument with capital letters.






Those who are accustomed to more modern cameras may however breathe a short prayer of thanks at the fact that they don't make 'em like this any more. Compared with the vast majority of cameras past or present, many of the controls are upside down or backwards or both. It is not so much a camera with some eccentric features built in, as a collection of eccentric features with a camera hiding somewhere behind them.






All 'real' Exaktas (the name was later stuck on other cameras, essentially Praktikas) are trapezoidal in shape, as are their cheaper, simpler sisters the Exas. The two pictures above were taken under slightly different lighting; between the two, it is easy to see the left-handed film wind lever and left-handed shutter release with external diaphragm linkage on the lens. What you cannot see is the fact that the film wind lever has a travel of 270 degrees and cannot be 'inched' in a series of small strokes: it must be pushed all the way to the end of its travel. Forcing it back any earlier will strip lots of small, irreplaceable gears. The centre of the film counter on the left is not really red, just rusty.


The rust is more clearly visible here, but you can also see the precise layout of the wind-on lever; the film counter with its remote, unidirectional resetting knob (the small knob with the clockwise arrow); the unidirectional shutter speed dial; and the rewind clutch, the post between the film counter and the end of the wind-on lever. It is pushed down to free the film for rewinding.

This is the main shutter speed dial which is automatically locked when the film is wound on; the bigger shutter speed dial on the right is for the delayed action and slow speeds.

The slow shutter speeds (illustrated below) and the delayed action train are on the right of the camera. Speeds of 3 and 5 seconds are represented by dots.







Turn the main dial (above) to B; set the desired slow shutter speed using the black numbers, 1/5 to 12 full seconds; wind the knob clockwise as far as it will go; and the slow speed will fire when you press the shutter release. Use the red numbers instead, and you will get the slow speeds (1/5 to 6 full seconds) after a 12-second delay. For delayed action at faster speeds, set the desired speed on the main dial.

Concentric with the right-hand shutter speed dial there is a film reminder for DIN 6-23, ASA 25-400, plus C and NC in both black and red. Presumably these are Color and Negativ Color, black for daylight, red for artificial light.

The film transport teller lurks under the tiny, murky window to the right of the film speed reminder. It is a little windmill that rotates if the film is winding on or being rewound: it is driven by a roller that contacts the centre spool of the feed cassette. After 50 years you can only just see it spinning but it must have been clearer when the camera was clean and new.


other features

There two major surprises about what is not there, and several more about what is there. The two major omissions are an instant-return mirror, and an auto-diaphragm: the diaphragm is only semi-auto, and has to be winched open manually (with a little lever on the lens) after each exposure. It is true that instant-return mirrors appeared only slowly through the 1950s, but 1967 (the year Exaktas grew them) was late by anyone's standards in 35mm. The same goes for semi-auto diaphragms and twin shutter speed dials, though the slow speed train is, as far as we know, unique in that it has to be wound separately.


On the left (in this shot) the film rewind knob with, immediately to its right, the film cutting knife. This is secured by a screw; undo it a few turns and the knife can be pulled downwards. In the centre, the tripod boss with 1/4 inch thread. On the right, the back lock: pull down and twist (see below).

The camera sits flat on these three protrusions and will not tip forward unless long, heavy lenses are fitted.




Unexpected additional features include a choice of rewind or cassette-to-cassette operation; a built-in film cutting knife; and a direct vision finder as well as reflex. Then there are the things that are merely unexpected, such as the rewind knob on the bottom on the right and the way that the rewind dog in its centre has to be manually engaged. Even getting into the camera is quite fun.






In the left-hand picture, the back lock (on the base, on the near end) is pushed home in the lock position. In the right-hand picture it is pulled out (to release the back) then twisted (so that it does not accidentally close again).


Contrary to all expectation, the back lock then swings out attached to the rear door. Neither a feed cassette (right chamber) nor a take-up spool or cassette (left chamber) is fitted here. Both the dimpled pressure plate (which on this particular camera was excessively willing to self-detach) and the film knife are clearly shown: the film knife blade is the vicious little hooked bit at the top of the bright rod to the right of the film gate, and is normally used for cassette-to-cassette loading to allow the removal of part-exposed films. The cloth horizontal-run shutter has an X synch speed of 1/50 second.



Rewind dog fully engaged for rewinding. The centre of the rewind knob must be pushed in (see below).



Rewind dog in normal position: in this position, the rewind knob (below) does not rotate as the film is wound on.



Rewind knob and dog pulled back for removing the film; knife part out. Below, an external view with the dog engaged.












The lens mount is Exakta's own, a 3-claw bayonet with a tiny throat (38mm diameter) with no internal linkages. When the mount was designed there was no need; later, there was no room. Note the very simple release lever on the right. Lens mounting is the usual red-dot-to-red-dot system.

You can also see the shutter release (at about two o'clock by the lens mount) and the cover that swings down to stop it being released inadvertently.

The three flash synch contacts are X (electronic flash, upper right), F (long-peak focal plane bulbs, lower right) and M (conventional bulbs, lower left).


Finders and screens are both interchangeable. The prism is removed by pushing down on the switch on the face plate between 'Jhagee' (the Germans often used 'I' and J' interchangeably) and 'Dresden'. The screen is pushed into the bottom of the finder.










The pentaprism finder shown has both a selenium-cell meter and direct-vision finder built in, but plain prisms and 'waist level' finders are more usual. The direct vision finder seems to correspond to 50mm, but it is close enough for a 58mm. The hood on a 'waist level' finder can usually be converted to a simple sports finder: there is a small hole in the back and a larger one (to be pushed open with a finger) in the front. The finger-cutaway in the base of the prism allows the focusing screen simply to be pulled out; it is a push fit. Note the remains of green paint in the engraving.

ASA speeds from 10 to 1000 are shown here; hidden under the rotating panel with the f/stops on it are the corresponding DIN speeds. The sloping, variable-width bands between the meter needle and the arrows (black with the trapdoor closed, red with it open) are to compensate for the non-linearity of the meter. As shown, for example, follow the needle from the middle of the bottom of the black band to the middle of the top.


The overall finish is exquisite in engraved (and paint-filled) and embossed chrome, black paint and first-class leatherette, though it is slightly let down by the light-alloy finish of the Biotar. As already noted, the body screams (or perhaps quietly mutters) 'German Engineering'.

Usability... Well, read on beyond 'lenses' and 'some history' and you'll find out more.



Countless lenses were available for the Exakta, and in the 1930s, many were state-of-the-art. Like most things in the communist world, however, they slowly fell behind and by the late 1950s the best Japanese and West German lenses were much better than most of what was available for the Exakta. Even those that were good for the period, such as the 20/4 Flektagon (1966) are not as good as the better late 20th or 21st century lenses. On the bright side, many of the less exotic lenses can be bought for next to nothing at camera fairs and can be excellent for portrait.

Manual, semi-auto and full-auto lenses were available as time went on. Semi-auto and auto lenses have an external linkage to the shutter release.








To fit lenses, the 'spar' with the shutter release may be used as the index on semi-auto and auto lenses. The lens drops into the camera when the spar is pointing straight upwards; a one-sixth clockwise turn then engages it.

The f/2 Biotar was one of the best 50mm lenses available, with a 49mm filter thread. Other 50mm options included the f/2.8 Tessar; the f/2.9 Meritar triplet; and the f/1.9 Meyer Primoplan. Some of the worst lenses (including the Meritar and Primoplan) required considerable artistic ability to conceal their technical shortcomings, especially at full aperture. The very small lens throat limited exotic designs, including long tele lenses and zooms.




The lens diaphragm lever on the bottom of the lens, left, is used to winch the semi-auto diaphragm open.

The small screw on the inner end of the shutter release on the lens, right, is used to match the lens to the camera body so that there is the minimum delay between the semi-auto diaphragm closing down and the shutter firing. When it is nicely adjusted, though, the shutter lock cannot be swung between the body release and the lens release. You can also see the small, bright pin that engages with the shutter lock.





some history

The Kine Exakta was the first series-production 35mm SLR, introduced in 1936; it derived from the 127 or VP (Vest Pocket) Exakta of 1935. The Russian SPORT, which looks like CYOPM in Cyrillic, is often claimed as the first, but it seems certain that only a few handbuilt cameras appeared before the Kine Exakta entered series production. The production sequence was as follows:

VP Exakta


Took 127 film

Kine Exakta


With bulb flash synch, 'waist-level' finder only

Exakta II


Interchangeable finders, including pentaprism

Exakta Varex/V


Interchangeable hood/screen unit; twin synch sockets for bulb and electronic flash. The name 'Varex' was dropped for the US Market where it was already registered by someone else.

Exakta (Varex) VX


Hinged (instead of removable) back; option of cassette-to-cassette working. After 1955, coaxial PC-type sockets instead of two-pin

Exakta (Varex) VX IIa


Flash synch sockets for Bulb, FP Bulb, X

Exakta (Varex) VX IIb


Cosmetic differences only: ugly new name-plate. Allegedly less well engineered with cheaper components (stamped gears instead of hobbed, etc.)

Exakta (Varex) VX 1000


Instant-return mirror

Exakta (Varex) VX 500


Last classic trapezoidal Exakta; low-cost, low spec as compared with others.

Of course Dresden ended up in the German Democratic Republic in 1945, which accounted for a certain lack of innovation. It is at least arguable that production quality declined steadily throughout the 35 years or so that Exaktas were made, though the rot really seems to have set in after the IIa.


putting a roll of film through it

The first thing to do was to plan a shooting location. We decided on a stroll around the village, looking for an undemanding range of slow-moving subjects. The film was outdated Paterson Acupan 200, developed in Ilford DD-X, scanned direct from negative and manipulated in Photoshop. No physical prints of these pictures have ever existed. So here goes:

Open the back by pulling down the left-hand knob (of the three on the bottom -- the middle one is the tripod socket) and twisting it to hold the catch open. Pull open the back door (right hinged) by pulling back on this knob, which opens with it: illustrations ix to xi above.

Oh, dear, there is already a film in it. Never mind: it was a scrap roll, just to make sure it was winding on and to demonstrate the film knife. Try to rewind. Fail. The rewind dog (on the bottom of the camera, on the right hand side) has to be pushed in to help it engage the centre of the rewind spool: illustrations xii to xvi above. Succeed in rewinding.

The original take-up spool is missing. Try a film cassette spool. After a good deal of trimming of film end, go search out a spare take-up spool from something long forgotten (possibly Exakta). Success. Another possibility (probably easier) is to use cassette-to-cassette loading, as this also allows the removal of part-exposed films with minimal loss of exposures.

Set the (additive) film counter to zero using the tiny knurled knob at two o'clock from the counter (illustration vi).

Set the ISO speed on the meter (using ASA/DIN scale, illustration xxi). When tested against a hand-held Gossen we found it as accurate as could reasonably be expected: the trapdoor helps to prolong the life of the meter cell. Some things to note:


  1. Engraved speed numbers are tiny (ASA 10 to 1000, DIN 10 to 31)

  2. Odd slanted stripes of varying width are to help you line up the needle position and the index arrows

  3. Black arrow is for bright light with the trapdoor down, red arrow is for dim light with the trapdoor up

  4. Lining up arrows is hard work thanks to very small serrations on the thin rotating disk on top of the meter

  5. There's a 1/150 second shutter speed marked on the meter, but not on the camera. One Exakta model did however have a 1/150 second speed and this was the top speed of the Exa (Exas were simplified Exaktas). The finders were interchangeable between Exaktas and the Exa I (the Exa II had a fixed prism).

Banks of the River Dive, Moncontour


Probably the most successful of the pictures on the roll, a very old-fashioned pastoral scene that must have looked much the same when the Exakta was originally built 50 years ago -- or when the original Exakta was designed in the 1930s. Red 25A filter.



Actually using the thing to take pictures revealed no fewer than eight main difficulties:

First, although the plain focusing screen is surprisingly clear and bright at f/2, there are no focusing aids at all and it is easiest to 'see-saw' the focusing mount either side of correct focus to get a good average. The focusing travel on the Biotar is very long at well over 300 degrees from 0.5 metres/1.65 feet (both are marked) to infinity.

Second, winding on is no fun at all. Not only is the wind-on is left handed with a very long throw; it also tends to hang up on the strap, both coming and going. The stroke is so long that it is often easier to push the first 180 degrees or so with the left thumb, then take over with the left index finger. There is next to no stand-off and the lever must be pushed all the way to the end of its travel before it will fly back.




Third, the main shutter speed dial can only be rotated anticlockwise, so while 1/100 to 1/50 is one step, 1/50 to 1/100 means going via 1/25, T, B, 1/1000, 1/500 and 1/250. The setting is lift-twist-and-drop, and the whole shutter speed dial (together with the index mark) rotates when winding on or shooting.

Fourth, the shutter release is in precisely the wrong place and because it is continued on the lens itself, it sticks out a very long way. The index finger repeatedly falls naturally on the lens release button.

Fifth, the semi-auto lens has to be winched open via a little lever on the bottom of the lens after each shot: that, or focus and compose at the working aperture.


Tour de Moncontour

This is just under 1000 years old, having been built in the early 11th century. The verticals have been trued up slightly in Adobe Photoshop, probably using more computing power than existed in the entire world when the Exakta was built. Red 25A filter again.

Sixth, because the semi-auto diaphragm is built into the lens, not the camera, the lens stops down at one point on the shutter release, darkening the image, while the shutter fires a little later. As noted earlier there is an adjustment screw on the back of the shutter speed actuator on the lens that can be screwed in or out to bring the two as close together as possible; screw it out too far and the shutter will fire before the lens stops down.

Seventh, the control layout on the lens is unusual. Although the focus is the same direction as a Leica (clockwise for closer), the aperture scale on the lens is the other way around (biggest aperture on the right). Or if you use Nikons, the focus is in the opposite direction and although the diaphragm is in the same direction, it's at the front of the lens, not the back.

Finally, although it did not matter on the short walk, setting slow speeds is a real rigmarole, as noted above (illustrations vi/vii).

On the other hand, there were at least three good points.

First, the auto stop-down before each shot (point six immediately above) is helpful for checking composition, because it reduces the image to broad areas of tone without detail.

Second, the long focusing travel allows easy use of a well-spaced depth of field scale.

Third, using the separate direct-vision finder seems to make it easier to hold the camera steady for long exposures: odd, but true.

Castle chapel

This 16th century chapel next to the castle in Moncontour is pretty much falling down. The red 25A filter made surprisingly little difference to the sky.




The rewind clutch is a little post between the film counter and the rest position of the wind-on lever. Remember to push in the rewind dog on the rewind knob. You can check whether the film is rewinding via the film indicator (illustration vii above). The rewind knob is not the most comfortable in the world.

Alternatively, again as noted above, you can shoot cassette-to-cassette. After one roll, this would be the approach we would adopt, because the pressure plate on this particular camera is very lightly secured (illustration xi above) and has a filthy habit of coming detached during rewinding. This fault was unique to this camera among all the Exaktas we have owned (probably half a dozen over the decades).


the bottom line

There are weirder 35mm SLRs than the Exakta, but not many and they are not common. For example, some Alpas had not only a direct vision finder built into the body (the Exakta's is in the removable prism housing), but also rangefinder coupling and retractable lenses. Others had right-hand lever wind, but 'backwards': the rest position was at the front, not the back. On the other hand, both Exaktas and lever-wind Alpas are wonderful when mounted upside-down on a microscope or copying stand: the wind-on is suddenly in the right place and easy to operate.




Detail from centre of shutter. 


Some subjects, of course, just look sharp because we know what they look like and our brains supply most of the information. But the Biotar isn't bad for around half a century old, as the detail (scanned at 5400 dpi) shows. If we had nothing else, the Exakta would be a usable camera, indeed better than some. And purely for fun and recreation, as amateurs, we'd rather have an ancient Exakta than 99 per cent of all digital cameras ever made.


Overall, then, there are three different sets of problems involved in actually using an Exakta. Taken all together, along with the camera's other idiosyncrasies, they add up to a camera that you can't really use alongside anything else: it is Exakta or nothing. For most people, this relegates the Exakta to curio status.

The first set derives from its unusual layout (such as the wind-on, the shutter release and the twin shutter speed dials). You can probably get used to these if you use the camera enough.

The second set is a consequence of the age of the design, and includes such features as a lift-twist-and-drop shutter speed dial and a semi-auto diaphragm. These were no doubt as inconvenient when the camera was new as they are today, though of course a semi-auto diaphragm is still much better than completely manual.

The third set arises because the camera under test is now around half a century old: other Exaktas go back more than 70 years. Controls stiffen up -- the meter reading ring was particularly stiff -- and speeds wander: on the IIa in question, the fast speeds are slow (1/1000 is more like 1/500) and the slow speeds are fast (12 seconds is more like 7 seconds).

Of course all of this last set of problems can often be solved by a good strip, clean and overhaul, a 'CLA' in American terms (clean, lubricate, adjust), but this is likely to cost more than the camera is worth. We are currently working on an exciting possibility in this area with an English repairer friend: we'll post more information when we have it.


Steps, Moncontour

The shutter to the left of the door is the one that appears in the shot above. Both pictures were unfiltered, at around f/5.6.



Overall, the Varex IIa is still a camera that can be used (albeit slowly). The main question is why you would want to, when there are many more usable cameras available for the same sort of money -- Nikkormats, for example -- and others that are not a great deal more expensive. It's big, heavy, refractory and frankly weird, but then, that's part of its charm.


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2006 Roger W. Hicks