Built like a tank (and weighing almost as much), the Kiev 88 takes amazing pictures! Compared to other medium format cameras of it’s class, it’s inexpensive and yields crisp, clear pictures, much like the camera it was modeled after—the Hassleblad.
image from here
One of the things I always wanted as a photographer, even before the conversion to toy and vintage cams, was a really good medium format camera. Images of Ansel Adams-like crisp black and white pictures filled my imagination.
A logical first step towards medium format for me was to check out some old Russian cameras. I’d learned a bit about them through my forays into Lomography, plus I have the good fortune of knowing a gentleman who is an expert on Russian vintage cameras and has an impressive arsenal himself. I set my sights on the Kiev 88 and prayed to the eBay gods that I could find one that was affordable .
They didn’t disappoint! I found an amazing kit, complete with 2 film backs, waist-level viewfinder, TTL prism and 2 filters for a very affordable $199. The reason I dub it ‘the Beast from the East’ is because it is hefty! The lens is a finely crafted MC Arsat 80mm/f=2.8 lens (the MC standing for Multi-layer antireflective Coating). This coating enhances the contrast making for a higher-quality image. I love this lens and have found it to be pretty flexible thus far. The relative aperture is 1:2.8 with a diaphragm setting limit of 22. The best part of the lens is the minimum focal limit of 0.6 meters (a little less than a foot) which allows you to get pretty darn close to your subject before needing any kind of macro attachment or diopter.
Looking through the waist-level viewfinder you’ll find a couple of horizontal and vertical lines that assist greatly in composition and getting those horizons straight. In just the two rolls that I’ve passed through this camera I’ve been able to use the guides to my advantage to compose better and more interesting pictures that are straight—something that is tricky at with toy cameras.
As for the body itself, my 88 has a metal shutter curtain that the manual stresses you must not touch when the film backs are removed. It is absolutely imperative that you cock the shutter before doing almost anything with this camera. Much like my beloved Fed 2, not cocking the shutter will result in some ugly damage to your camera.
Aside from it’s sheer weight the other drawback to the Kiev are it’s film backs. I love the fact that I got two of them and you will need at least that many in the beginning. Unlike loading a toy camera, it is quite complicated to load film in the Kiev. I don’t normally read the directions to anything but I really studied and used them when loading my film the first few times. I won’t go into the details but suffice it to say that if you need to shoot more than 2 rolls of film at the same time you need an assistant. You must make sure you load your film the right way, that is, the frame numbers on the paper backing of the film and the exposure number on the film back need to match, otherwise your shots will be misaligned or overlapped. This happened to me with my black and white roll. Another thing about the film backing is to make sure to remove the light protecting metal sheet before taking pictures. I forgot to do that the very first time I tried to use the camera and missed 7 frames worth of a really cool, decrepit gas station. It’s akin to leaving your lens cap on.
Despite their reputation for being shoddily made, Kievs are really fantastic cameras. The bodies tend to break easily and can sometimes be non-functioning right out of the box. The same friend who collects old Russian cameras even suggested buying two Kiev bodies, since they’re so inexpensive, so that I always have a back-up or extra parts. So far (knock on wood) I haven’t had any problems with my 88. I really hope it keeps trucking along like a champ because despite it’s heavy weight and pain-in-the-ass film loading characteristics, it’s an amazing camera that I look forward to using for a long time.