I take photographs for my own pleasure. Like many in recent years I have returned to film photography and now have several cameras. Before digital took over, I had used a couple of 35mm cameras, but in the 1950s and 1960s my devices had been cheap, plastic medium format cameras and the Box Brownie. Although I tried 35mm in my return to film and have a couple (Nikon F3 and Mamiya 1000 DTL), I prefer medium format. 

With a number of bellows cameras and a couple of Hasselblads (500C/M), I tried a nice Bronica ETRS, although gave that to a student of mine. I was reluctant initially to move to a TLR camera, but a recent Rolleiflex acquisition impressed me and that is a keeper.

One brand that sometimes featured in my online searches was the East German brand, Pentacon and its medium format SLR, the Pentacon Six.  For looks, this has everything going for it, but like certain Russian brands, there are stories about Pentacon regarding reliability. This put me off for a couple of years, although I maintained a passing interest. Among other sources, I had a close look earlier this year at a detailed article on EMULSIVE regarding the Pentacon Six TL by Ludwig Hagelstein. Some of the points concerning the way the camera should be treated reignited my interest, and I found what appeared to be a reasonable example from a seller in Germany. 

As I had anticipated, the camera immediately felt right. I was pleased not only by the look and feel of the camera but by some of the sounds. As I turned the lens to adjust the aperture, so each step had an audible click. Most lenses these days turn silently with the motion slightly damped.  I also experienced clicks and the physical sense of mechanical movement when using the film advance lever. I noted the comments of Ludwig Hagelstein with regard to using this:

“never let the film advance lever jump back in its initial position on its own”.  Braking that return with my thumb added to the feeling that the camera had been well-designed. 

The Pentacon looks just like a standard 35mm SLR, although it is a little taller, a little wider and a little deeper. It is also heavier although does not feel particularly unwieldy in use. The size is more apparent when directly compared to other cameras, such as the Nikon F3. It is also larger than my current Nikon D850.

The Pentacon 6 TL came with a waist level viewfinder and Carl Zeiss Jena f/2.8, 80mm Biometar lens designed for the P6 mount. I have a number of other nice lenses from Jena, but of course, none are interchangeable. The Pentacon was delivered with a sturdy, black leather case.  I removed the top half which covers the lens and viewfinder, but continued to use the lower half for some protection, but also because this has neck-straps.

There are 2 small lugs for a strap on the camera body and I will have to look for a suitable one.  The clips for the Hasselblad 500c/m strap were too large. The only disadvantage to this half-case is that it has to be removed to change the film, but this is a matter of a few seconds only. It would also need removing if a tripod were to be used: the securing screw for the case uses the same threaded bore-hole.

When I loaded the first film (ILFORD SFX 200) I took particular note of the comments by Ludwig on filmtransportmesswalze as well as the ways in which the film counter should be reset and the film loaded. I wound the film to the start by moving the advance lever four times. 

With no in-camera metering, I resorted to my usual app on the iPhone: Pocket Light Meter. I have used this for several years, but it has not been updated for a while. With Apple requiring App privacy details, I hope this does not disappear as it has served me well.

I am used to looking through ground glass but the Pentacon seemed slightly different to the Rolleiflex and Hasselblad viewers. I later found a number of the pictures were slightly askew and needed minor straightening in editing. The way I hold the camera is affecting this and I am now aware of this.

The top of the viewfinder has a small hatch (called the action finder). When open, and with the loupe moved out of the way, I was able to look through to the subject or scene without the need to re-examine the image on the glass. Alternatively, I could look through this first to frame the scene, then make adjustments. As with the Hasselblad, when a smaller aperture is used, like f/22, the viewfinder image is darker.  Like the Hasselblad, I would check the focus first using f/2.8 then revert back to the aperture setting I wanted. 

With Covid-19, like many cities, movement is still limited here in Bangkok. I tend to stick to a few locations on my way to the stores, although I have a list of potential sites to visit when there is some more latitude. I went through the first roll fairly quickly, enjoying the slow-motion and clicks of the advance lever. When the last frame was taken the film advance locked. I remembered Ludwig’s comment on the “small lever on the side of the right side of the camera” that was used to unlock it.  I wound the film forward four more times.  This was a mistake.

When I opened the camera in the shop I use for processing, some film had still not been taken up on the spool. I expected that I might have exposed some of the film end, but this was not too bad in the event. When I finished the next roll, I kept winding. There is a palpable difference in the tension when the film has been wound on fully. 

When I picked up the negatives a week later, I saw immediately that the camera had the problem with overlapping frames. After scanning, cropping and some editing there were half a dozen images that had some potential. The Zeiss lens producing sharp images when I had it right.

For the second roll I used Kosmo Foto Mono 100. This, ILFORD SFX 200 and Bergger Pancro 400 are my favorite films. I do experiment with others from time to time like a recent try with Lomography’s Fantôme ISO 8 film. When I collected the developed Kosmo Foto images, the frame overlapping was reduced, although there were 4 blank images. There were clear spaces between each frame. I speculate that this improvement was due to the conditions in which I use my cameras.

Ludwig and others have mentioned that one of the suspected causes of the overlapping, apart from thinner emulsions used today, is that the cameras are underused and the grease becomes less viscous over time.  My camera had been in storage for a while in Northern Europe, but when I started to use it in a somewhat warmer Bangkok, this (and the more frequent use) began to free up the grease, so the second roll benefitted. Even with air-conditioning, the temperature in the humidity cupboard I have stays in the mid-20s °C.  Outside, of course, temperatures are higher.

The camera itself has a number of idiosyncratic points that might have been improved with longer product development (and better management), such as the film counter and the unlocking lever for the film end, but these oddities are for me to work round.  Accepting that I may lose some images, or there might be some overlapping, this is still a camera I enjoy using. Photographs taken with the camera were from the Siam area of Bangkok and locations in Thonburi on the west side of the city.  Images of the camera were taken with the Halide app on an iPhone 11. 

[The original meaning for the Curate’s Egg was from a 19th Century cartoon in Punch: an overly polite churchman declined to admit that his egg was bad. It was “good in parts”. The meaning now is that something has good features but also has flaws.]

Thanks for reading!

~ Graham

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About the author

Avatar - Graham Rogers

Graham Rogers

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs. After 3 years writing a column...

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  1. Great article Graham! I hope this encourages others to try this legendary camera from the GDR. Often misunderstood or underestimated, the Pentacon Six is a capable and reliable performer, IF the right steps are taken: above all, ensure the camera has a full CLA by a competent repairer; replace the focus screen with a modern brightscreen; pay careful attention to film loading/winding and keep that roll tight!

  2. Funny this article just popped up in my feed because I just bought a working Pentaconsix at a flea market in Krakow. The lens in broken so I need to find a “new” lens for it.

  3. The corrct way to load a film is demonstrated by Mr PentaconSix and results in no overlapping. Google ‘ Pentacon Six Camera Loading for 13 frames’. Welcome to the best camera of the col war!