The Certo Six is a camera I will own for a long time. If you’re looking for the short version of the article that follows, here it is: the Certo Six is light enough to carry up a mountain, and takes sharp, beautiful photos, with less faffing around than a large format, with more consistency and control than a Holga, and with easier to scan negatives than 35mm film.
For everyone else, allow me a bit of a preamble about who am I. Or perhaps this would be better titled as what I am not. I am not a writer, and I am not a Film Photographer (capitals intentional!) Whilst the latter may be a heretical statement for some, I simply consider myself a photographer. I own and love an M4/3 camera (Panasonic G9) and a generous handful of lenses. I have owned and loved a DSLR in the past (Nikon D80 – more about that below). And, for film, in addition to the Certo Six, I also own and love a Cosina-Voigtlander Bessa R2M, an Olympus XA2, a Holga 120N, a Holga WPC, a RealitySoSubtle 6x12F and an Intrepid 4×5 Mk4 with a single 90mm f/8.0 lens.
…and of course, a small fridge well stocked with film.
I try to use all these cameras frequently (rather than regularly), so yes, I am a photographer.
Each of these cameras demands a different approach and a different thought process – and it is that process (as well as the resultant images) which I love. I can’t imagine shooting grizzly bears in Yellowstone with a pinhole camera, and I can’t imagine using a hugely sophisticated digital camera to have documented the passage of time under lock-down.
With all that said, why do I now own a 1950s era folding rangefinder?
Some cameras I have owned, and now sold: Canon AE1, Hasselblad XPan, Nikon D80 (and its collection of f/2.8 glass), Pentacon Six. I have deliberately left them in that order – the Canon was the first camera I ever owned, and absolutely loved. The XPan was replaced by the Bessa for weight, complexity and because I didn’t get on with the panoramic format.
The Nikon was replaced by a Panasonic G5 (and subsequently my current G9) because I was taking it and its lenses out less and less due to their weight. I’m not sure the Pentacon ever left my house because of its weight, and because of that, I never got around to learning how to use it’s square format.
I like being outdoors – my hobbies (other than photography obviously!) revolve around being away from civilisation as much as possible. I like travelling, hiking, paddling and climbing, all things which weight makes more difficult! You may have noticed that I mentioned “weight” three times for those four cameras, and this is also what drew me back into medium format film photography and folding rangefinders specifically.
Whilst the Certo Six is not a light camera (compared with the Holga for example, which it pre-dates in my ownership) it is positively featherweight compared with its Communist Cousin! Historic cameras were never really a “thing” for me until I stumbled (almost literally) over a collection of folding cameras in a thrift store in Boulder City, NV. I very nearly bought one, with almost no idea what it was (other than that it was made by Kodak), but a play with the shutter made me lose confidence (the times sounded the same all the way from 1/10 to 1 second).
When I got home and started Googling, I found a whole new world of (relatively) lightweight, compact, high-quality cameras, for a non-exorbitant cost. Knowing my own limitations, I set my sights on an Agfa Isolette III or a Certo Six – a built-in rangefinder was my only real “must-have”, although I think I would now struggle to move away from the coupled rangefinder in the Certo.
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A few emails back and forth with eBay seller certo6, and I was the proud owner of his namesake. I can fit the camera, a holder with red, yellow and orange filters, and a couple of spare rolls of 120 film in a small and light pouch, which hooks on to my rucksack. There is no way I could carry a Pentacon Six like that!
On to the camera and I will caveat everything I am about to say with this: the Certo Six is the only folding rangefinder I have used, and one of only a handful that I have picked up (see above for my thrift store experience!)
Closed, it is maybe the dimensions of a large phone (is phablet still a word?), but significantly thicker and heavier (about 900 grams, or less than half the weight of a Pentacon and its equivalent lens). The lens bed is mounted on what becomes the base when the camera is open, and the camera is finished in the classic stainless steel / black leatherette look.
Function-wise, the camera is slightly compromised by its form. Whilst it is admirably compact when folded, the ergonomics open are definitely not modern! I grip the base/lens cover with my left hand a have a tendency to use the focus lever with the thumb or ring finger of that hand. I frequently confuse the film lever with the tripod mount (both protruding and knurled, although one is smaller and slightly less stiff than the other).
You cannot fold the camera with a filter mounted (even the thinnest one I could find) or with the shutter cocked; and you really should not change the shutter speed after it is cocked (I learned the hard way, but the shutter was eventually persuaded to release with the use of a cable release). And the final compromise is that the film can de-tension and un-flatten itself after winding. The latter features are easily enough worked around with a methodical shooting process:
- Unfold camera
- Wind on film
- Meter / estimate exposure
- Set exposure
- Cock shutter
- Focus / compose / shoot
- Refold and put away!
I love the photos this camera and its 80mm f/2.8 lens takes. And now that I am used to it, I also rather enjoy the process of taking them. The lens is sharp, the rangefinder coupling is accurate, and whilst I think my shutter runs a little slow (if I shoot at a metered speed, it overexposes compared with my large format lens’ shutter), it consistently disagrees with the metering by a third to a half a stop. I have shot more ILFORD FP4 PLUS thorough this than anything else, and metering for EI 200 with that film gives me exposures as near perfect as makes no difference.
I have a few dislikes I should make mention it. The focus lever is weird and yet to find find a cable release that will trip the shutter on its own, and the release itself is difficult to operate on a tripod without moving the camera. Other than that – it suits me down to the ground!
To wrap up and reiterate how I started this article, the Certo Six is a camera I will own for a long time. It is light enough, takes sharp, beautiful photos and requires less messing around than large format, with more consistency and control than a Holga. It’s not that well suited to a studio, or for close-up work, but that’s not what I tend to photograph. The only way I will ever move on from this camera is if a Makina 67 were to fall into my possession – perhaps one day.
I don’t have a favourite camera, but this is near the top of my list!
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How does the Franka Soliida III camera and the last version Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta 531/16 and 534/16 compares? I’m thinking of getting one. The Certo Six are rather hard to come by.
How does it compare with a Mamiya 6 folder?
Just how much contrast does the lens provide compared to modern lenses?
Hi Alex! Very fine photos! I acquired my Zeiss Ikonta folder from Jurgen about 15 years ago. It uses the three element Novar. I shoot Tri-X at ISO 400 exclusively. Stop the lens down to f5.6 and it will produce negatives that will easily enlarge to 11×14. You can bang the thing around hiking in the mountains of Crete, or leave it for 20 minutes on a Montenegrin coffee stand. It has negligible commercial value. All it does is create very fine negatives.
I’m surprised these cameras are not more popular.
Nice write up, thank you! I own a Certo as well, which I love for it’s portability. I had to smile a bit on “compared with its Communist Cousin”, I suppose you refer to the Pentacon Six as the cousin (I used to have one myself btw). Well, the Certo is in fact a communist cousin itself, as it was built in Dresden, Saxonia. The Certo company even belonged to the Pentacon Company later on. Dresden and it’s surroundings once were famous for their cameras, even during the times of the GDR (name Pentacon, Praktica, and lots of brands on the “western” marked, just branded differently). Nevertheless, a wonderful little piece of mechanic and for me, as for you, a liberation on taking a medium format on a hike or such.