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Camera review: Me and my Exakta VAREX IIb by Louis Sousa

You may recall the scene below from Rear Window (1954). Jimmy Stewart is fervently seated in a wheelchair, using an Exacta camera and massive telephoto lens, Jimmy is photographing scenes from the rear window of a neighboring building. He fears a murder occurred.

Note the name (Exakta/Exacta on some models) is covered in black tape on Jimmy’s camera. Unless Jimmy is a freak of nature–and from the ergonomics of the camera–taking a sharp image in this pose is bordering on impossible.

You see, the shutter button is behind his right thumb.

Rear-Window-James-Stewart

Rear Window – James Stewart

Onto this beautiful but maddening camera. My Exakta, the Exacta VAREX IIb to be precise, was built in East Germany between 1963 and 1967. The company, Ihagee, began in Dresden in the mid 1930’s and was a pioneer of SLR manufacturing. The company did not manufacture lenses for this interchangeable lens system camera, however.

Exacta mount lenses were manufactured by Zeiss, Meyer Optik, Steinhill, Schneider, Vivitar and similar legendary manufacturers. A sought-after Exacta lens is the Meyer Optik 100mm f/2.8, the famed Trioplan. It is revered for its unique soap bubble bokeh and like other Exacta mount lenses, is often used today on modern cameras with an adapter.

[EMULSIVE: The Meyer Optik 100mm f/2.8 lens is so sought after that in July 2015 Meyer Optik successfully funded a Kickstarter for a modern version. The lens is now available for order on Meyer Optik’s website.

The camera is an ergonomic nightmare (see use of the self-timer described below), and the camera manual is a riddle inside of a riddle. But damn, I adore it! It is a marvel of precision and the most beautiful camera I have seen.

 

Camera layout

Top plate

Varex IIb - Top Plate

Varex IIb – Top Plate

Looking at the top of the camera moving from right to left:

The large right dial serves a number of functions. It acts as a self-timer and as the slower (below 1/30th of a second) shutter speed dial.

Exacta Varex IIb - Self Timer and Film Cutting Knife

Exacta Varex IIb – Self Timer and Film Cutting Knife (bottom)

Timed exposures of up to 12 seconds can be set using this dial. To use these features requires Exacta-mad steps. For self-timed exposures 1/30th and above set the speed using the shutter speed dial on the left side of the camera then lift the ring around the right dial and set it to a red speed setting.

Turn the right dial all the way until it stops. Press the shutter. To set speeds below 1/30th of a second set the main speed dial to T or B then follow the same process as above to set the slow speed.

Exacta Varex IIb - Waist Level Finder

Exacta Varex IIb – Waist Level Finder

Moving left you see the view from the waist level finder. The viewfinder on my model is clear and bright. There is a pop up magnifier to fine tune focus. There is also an eye-level prism finder discussed below.

Continuing left is the “fast” shutter speed dial, allowing one to set shutter speeds from 1/30th to 1/1000th of a second in single-stop increments. To set your desired speed, align the chosen speed with the small black dot. The shutter speed can be set before or after the shutter is cocked.

Exacta Varex IIb - Shutter Speed and Lever

Exacta Varex IIb – Shutter Speed and Lever

The post at the bottom left of the shutter speed dial is the film rewind button. In true Exacta fashion it must be held down while the film is rewound (more on this later).

The film advance lever is on the left side of the camera and has 300 degrees of forward travel. If the shutter functions properly it will return to position automatically.

Finally for the top panel, the lower left corner is where you will find the exposure counter. The counter must be reset to 1 manually after loading.

 

 

 

Bottom plate

Exacta Varex IIb - Bottom

Exacta Varex IIb – Bottom

On the right had side of the bottom plate is the film winding lever. Film rewinding requires another Exacta gymnastic exercise. The film rewind post on the top left of the camera must be held down to disengage the shutter.

The rewind wheel will not engage unless the lever is unfolded – very Germanic!

To the bottom left of the rewind lever is a screw mechanism, which engages a film cutting knife. Unscrew it and then pull the shaft towards to cut the film mid-roll. It has a sharp point and the knife remains sharp to this day.

In the center of the rear plate is a standard 1/4″ tripod mount screw.

Finally, on the left of the bottom plate is the wheel used to open the film door. Mine was stuck and a small bit of oil resolved things. Pull the wheel out and turn it counter-clockwise. When it locks into place and the back can be opened.

 

 

Rear

Varex IIb - Back (with finders)

Varex IIb – Back (with finders)

Nothing eventful happens on the back of the camera. Regardless of if the waist-level, or eye-level finder is mounted, the shutter must be cocked in order for the scene to appear in the viewfinder – there is no automatic mirror return. The viewfinder is bright and clear and shows 100% of the scene.

Exacta Varex IIb - Open Back

Exacta Varex IIb – Open Back

With the film door opened, you will see a sprung pressure plate on the door (right). There are three chrome nubs that help to keep the film flat.

The film canister is loaded on the right of the film bay. It passes left to a take up spool, which is held onto its post by way of a small sprung ball bearing. The spool can be removed to insert the film leader, then reinstalled and held in place by the ball bearing. Clever.

Just to the right is the cutting knife I mentioned in the previous section.  Be careful putting your fingers near it, it has a sharp point and the knife is razor sharp.

 

 

 

Front

Exacta Varex IIb - Front

Exacta Varex IIb – Front

Varex IIb - Front Left

Varex IIb – Front Left

Mounted on the camera in these pictures is a beautiful 35mm Carl Zeiss Flektogon F2.8 lens. As you see, the shutter button is on the left side of the lens (and in fact, forms part of the lens assembly). Being right handed I am having trouble with this feature.

The shutter can be locked-out by turning the turning the knurled mechanism that surrounds the shutter button anti-clockwise.

The lens mounted on my camera at the time of purchase was a 50mm Zeiss Panacolor F/2.8 lens.  It suffered from very stiff focusing and the focusing ring’s knurled grip had come loose. The stiff focus shows in the sample photos below taken with this lens. The mounted 35mm lens you see here is buttery smooth and razor sharp. It does the Zeiss name proud.

Varex IIb - Front Right

Varex IIb – Front Right

When the on-lens shutter button is pressed, it engages the body’s shutter release. On my copy, the shutter button on the camera body was sticking intermittently at all speeds. I put a small drop of oil into the button and it fixed the problem perfectly. The camera fires and resets fine now.

Finally, the front of the camera also provides three PC flash ports, M, F and X (medium, fast and xenon).

 

 

My impressions on the Exakta VAREX IIb

Bottles and Leaves - Exakta Varex IIb - Ilford HP5+ - Zeiss Flektagon 35mm

Bottles and Leaves – Exakta Varex IIb – Ilford HP5+ – Zeiss Flektagon 35mm

If you are a lover of vintage cameras I highly recommend the Exacta line. Several cameras in the line have shutter speeds to 1/1000 sec. That is why I opted for this particular model.

It is a beautiful camera; well-engineered and precise.  Its ergonomics are very difficult with the shutter button on the left, so much so that my plan is to use a shutter release cord for right-handed firing.  If you are left handed you may like it.  It is quirky but in a good way.

One will be hard pressed to find a more beautiful camera. It is well engineered and precise. Several cameras in the line have shutter speeds to 1000 and in fact, that is why I opted for this particular model.

Being on 50 years old, the purchase of this camera comes with risk. A common problem is deterioration of the shutter curtain. My copy shows some wrinkling in the second curtain (before the shutter is cocked). There is a bit of wear on the curtain that becomes visible after the shutter is cocked.  Many complain of curtains resembling swiss cheese. I haven’t had any issues with spotting or light leaks from my curtain but replacement is inevitable.

Painting and Window - Exakta Varex IIb - Ilford HP5+ - Zeiss Flektagon 35mm

Painting and Window – Exakta Varex IIb – Ilford HP5+ – Zeiss Flektagon 35mm

My Glasses - Exakta Varex IIb - Ilford HP5+ - Zeiss Flektagon 35mm

My Glasses – Exakta Varex IIb – Ilford HP5+ – Zeiss Flektagon 35mm

Abandoned Building - Exakta Varex IIb - Ilford HP5+ - Zeiss Flektagon 35mm

Abandoned Building – Exakta Varex IIb – Ilford HP5+ – Zeiss Flektagon 35mm

Service on the cameras is difficult and self-service will be a chore. There is not much in the way of repair literature available. I have found a few technicians in the USA that will CLA an Exacta but this (with a shutter curtain replacement ), will cost up to $300. I only paid $75 for the camera and original lens! The end-result at $375US is a marvellous innovative vintage camera performing as intended.

The Exacta is heavy, akin to the Nikon F and F2. Mine came with its original metal camera strap. Beware of this strap, mine broke and luckily I caught the camera before it fell to the ground. The weight works well for neck-strapped waist level shooting.

Shutter speeds may not be accurate but my exposures indicate speeds are satisfactory.

Coke - Exakta Varex IIb - Ilford HP5+ - Zeiss Panacolor 35mm

Coke – Exakta Varex IIb – Ilford HP5+ – Zeiss Panacolor 35mm

Minding the Nets - Exakta Varex IIb - Ilford HP5+ - Zeiss Flektagon 35mm

Minding the Nets – Exakta Varex IIb – Ilford HP5+ – Zeiss Flektagon 35mm

Book - Exakta Varex IIb - Ilford HP5+ - Zeiss Panacolor 35mm

Book – Exakta Varex IIb – Ilford HP5+ – Zeiss Panacolor 35mm

Despite the quirks what matters is image quality. Zeiss lenses available for this line are very good and inexpensive (subject to condition). With readily available adapters these lenses can be mounted on digital cameras. A 58mm Zeiss Biotar in good shape costs about $90USD and the outstanding wide Zeiss Flektagon lens is available for ~$50USD.

The 100mm Meyer Optic Trioplan is a legendary exacta mount lens fetching high prices due to its great image quality and soap bubble bokeh. The lenses suffer from dried lubricants and separation due to age and lack of use. Inquire about condition, especially focus stiffness if buying sight unseen.

~ Louis Sousa

 

Exacta Varex IIb specifications

Camera nameExacta Varex IIb
(US-martket: Exakta VXIIb)
Camera typeInterchangeable lens SLR
Format35mm film
ManufacturerIhagee Exacta
Manufacture dates1963-67
Lens mountUnified Exacta mount (EXA + Varex IIa)
44.7mm flange distance
Lenses2400+ covering 12-2000mm
ViewfinderPentaprism / waist level finder
100% coverage (alleged)
ShutterMechanical horizontal focal plane
Double cloth
12 sec - 1/1000th sec
B mode
Mirror lock-up (slow modes)
Shutter release includes cable release thread
MeteringNone
ISO / ASAN/A
Flash3x 2-pin flash PC sockets:
(M, F and X)
Wind / RewindSingle stroke - 300 degrees
Screw-lock film back
Manual frame counter reset
PowerN/A
FinishSilver with black leatherette
Weight~580g excluding lens
Dimensions
(WxDxH - mm)
TBC
AccessoriesWaist level finder
Eye level finder

 

 

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About The Author

Louis Sousa

I am an enthusiast photographer happily shooting life in Southern New England.

8 Comments

  1. Loved reading this! Its bizzarity (to coin a phrase?) makes for an interesting review! It seems very German – add four more pieces than necessary to each component and you have German engineering 🙂

    Until you addressed it in your review I was going to ask if the shutter curtain was meant to look like a theatre curtain!

    So what exactly would one use the knife for? Wouldn’t it leave a big portion (or 95%) of the roll on the take-up spool, requiring you to unload in darkness and straight into your dev tank? Or could you use it for snipping the leader after rewinding?

    Reply
    • Hi Mark I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I just shot a Exacta today an older VX. From another quirk I lost the roll since on this model the rewind spool has a center button that must be pushed in to rewind. Live and learn. The blade would be used to cut the film in mid roll and unload the exposed film in the darkroom or dark bag and develop it right away or store it in a light tight container for later development. I nicked my finger on the VX today, the darned knife is razor sharp. I experimented with it and it works as intended. I can’t imaging my using the knife but it’s a cool feature. The VX had a 58mm F2 Zeiss lens on it. This lens is quirky. The aperture is set by pulling down on a ring near the end of the lens. The problem is that it is easy to move the aperture ring after one chooses an aperture. I’m curious to see how my shots turned out. The 58mm F2 Zeiss was tested to be the sharpest Exacta lens according to an Exacta dedicated page I found. There are devotees to the Exacta brand and a dedicated FB page also. It’s a fun diversion. Certainly not the norm!

      Reply
  2. This is a great review, I enjoyed reading this and looking at your photos 😀
    I have a camera very similar to this… The Exakta Varex (or in my case here in the USA, the VX). My VX took some time getting used to since the camera is designed weirdly. I mean, I am right handed, however, like your camera, Mr. Sousa, the shutter and film advance are on the left side. This to me is disorienting.
    When I bought my VX, the shutter curtain was punctured, but what I did was paint over the hole with black acrylic paint and it worked. There was no light leaks 😀
    I am not sure if this is how it works on your camera, but in order to shoot at the lower shutter speeds,you have to put the left shutter on bulb or time, and then you rotate the right dial until it stops, lift up the ring and put it to your desired shutter speed (the numbers are in black, the red is for the self timer or something like that). I think the Exaktas are interesting and quirky cameras especially mine 😀 I love my Exakta, I got great results with mine. My Exakta came with a Carl Zeiss Jena Tessar 50mm F/2.8 lens. It is such a great camera 😀

    Reply
    • Thank you PJ. You can see the “wrinkling” on my shutter curtain before the shutter is engaged. When engaged the shutter is in good shape. I have not had any affect on image quality from the current conditions. The shutter curtains do seem to be somewhat feeble. There are repair shops that will service the cameras but it is expensive. However as I indicated from the low cost ofthe bodies the repair may be worth it if you enjoy the camera as I do. The choice of glass is great, however like the cameras the quality of the glass will depend on how it was cared for and the affect of age. On Ebay you will often read that the Zeiss Panacolor lenses in paticular seem to suffer from stiff focusing. My copy had this problem and I struggled with it leading to some softness in the images shown from this lens. I have read that the best prime is the Zeiss Exacta mount 58mm F2 but I don’t own that lens. I have read the the Steinhill Auto Quinon are also good lenses for Exacta mount and they command premium prices. There are lenses that are called “pre-set” Exacta lenses and I am unsure of how they differ from “non-preset”, perhaps someone reading the review can explain this. A long lens coupled with the native weight of the body would be quite a load to carry. It is a great camera brand I agree. Glad you enjoyed the review and the images.

      Reply
  3. Jimmy Stewart was not shooting the Exakta, only using his long telephoto to watch what Raymond Burr was doing, in “Rear Window”.
    Never-the-less, the Exakta stole the scene.

    Reply
    • Understood. Maybe he didn’t take photos because he was not double jointed!

      Reply
  4. Canny article:) The bit about the left-handed shutter release/film advance made me laugh like a drain!! I thought Violet(my FED 3) was a bit complicated! But yours…….:) Mr Sousa, I salute you:)

    Reply

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