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.
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.
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.
Here’s what’s covered in this article:
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.
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 of 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.
Moving left you will 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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Exacta Varex IIb technical specifications
|Camera name||Exacta Varex IIb
(US-martket: Exakta VXIIb)
|Camera type||Interchangeable lens SLR|
|Lens mount||Unified Exacta mount (EXA + Varex IIa)
44.7mm flange distance
|Lenses||2400+ covering 12-2000mm|
|Viewfinder||Pentaprism / waist level finder
100% coverage (alleged)
|Shutter||Mechanical horizontal focal plane
12 sec - 1/1000th sec
Mirror lock-up (slow modes)
Shutter release includes cable release thread
|ISO / ASA||N/A|
|Flash||3x 2-pin flash PC sockets:
(M, F and X)
|Wind / Rewind||Single stroke - 300 degrees
Screw-lock film back
Manual frame counter reset
|Finish||Silver with black leatherette|
|Weight||~580g excluding lens|
(WxDxH - mm)
|Accessories||Waist level finder
Eye level finder
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I have just got one of these and am trying to figure out how to use it. Your review has helped, no idea there was a knife in there. The viewfinder is the brightest I have seen for ages. A stunning camera and a great post, thanks.
Thank you Peggy, I am glad it helped and hope you enjoy using the camera. It is certainly a handful to use. I personally like using the waist-level finder.
Let me add my thoughts here. I have been shooting with Exaktas since 1966 when my parents brought me one back from Europe when they went to visit my Grandma in Slovakia (Czechoslovakia back then). I now have a nice collection of Exaktas and Exas. First, Exaktas are NOT A LEFT-HANDED CAMERA! They are one of the few right-handed cameras around. The thinking of Ihagee when designing the Exakta was that the most important and intensive function that you do with a camera is focusing, so it should be done with your dominant hand. Makes a whole lot of sense. Pick up an Exakta and after a short period of use and if you give it a chance, you realize that focusing is quite intuitive. Remember in 1936, camera designs were in a period of flux and innovation. Whenever, I pick up my Canon F1, (which is a great camera), I find myself focusing it with my right hand. Also, advancing the film and tripping the shutter takes just a second and can be done with your less dominant hand. Also, while the film advance is a wide 300 degrees, the film advance lever is relatively short and to me doesn’t take any longer to accomplish than a shorter stroke lever (maybe I am just used to it). Second, the viewfinder is surprisingly bright for a camera designed in 1936. I once had a Nikon FTN but gave it to my brother. Could never warm up to it. Its viewfinder was not near as bright as an Exakta and the focusing screen did not focus as well. Oh, and that clunky meter prism on top was just too unbalanced to use. Again, my point is that the Exakta was designed in a very logical and functional way. Obviously, it was the SLR of choice for professionals from 1936 to 1959 and whose basic design soldiered on nearly up to the 1970s. Go with its “Flow.”
Good points Tom.
I have an Exakta Varex 11b and an additional Flexagon Jena lens and other Exakta equipment my late German husband had. It is all in good condition. How can I find interested buyers and the value of these items?
I’d recommend checking for local darkrooms which might have interested parties, Facebook groups (of which this website manages a few), or internet forums like Fred Miranda. It really depends on which medium (online/physical) you’re most comfortable working in.
I looked through a 400mm lens on my Minolta (8x magnification) and compared it to looking through 7×50 binoculars (7x) and as far as comfort and detail, I preferred the binoculars. From an artistic point of view though, Hitchcock gave the scene more impact with this huge lens and beautiful camera. Still surprised he didn’t take any pictures with itin the movie for evidence. I bought the Rear Window Dvd and loved it.
Update on curtain repair. I highly recommend Camera Repair Service Inc at 433 Market St. Pittsburg, PA 15222. Ph 412-261-5225 firstname.lastname@example.org. My camera was repaired perfectly within 2 weeks. They are experts at repairing Exakta and other vintage cameras like Topcon and Leica.
If you grind down the little protruding knob on the lens release lever 1 mm you can then use Topcor RE Auto lenses on the Exakta VXiia. Otherwise the knob gets in the way of attaching the lens.
I think the Exakta are the most striking and beautiful cameras of anything I have ever seen. I’m in love with mine and keep having to examine and hold the ones I have in my collection. I think the Varex 11a with the bubble relief script and pyramid shaped prism is the most beautiful of all the models.
I had a Varex2b in the 60s I got rid of it as the shutter kept sticking despite being sent back to Ihage twice. I moved on to a Nikkormat Fun and discovered how soft the 50mm Tessar was compared to the 50mm Nikkor.
But whilst I had the Varex I got a lot of pleasure out of it
In the “Rear Window” movie, L. B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart’s character) wasn’t using the camera to take photographs, but was using the camera and the telephoto lens to be able to more clearly see the suspicious events taking place in the apartment to the rear of his apartment.
Always get a CLA and a shutter replacement for these cameras as they are prone to locking up and the shutter curtain usually has pinholes. Just a beautiful camera though. I have 3 Exakta VXiia’s and it took me a long time to find technicians that could do a CLA and replace the shutter. The two places I have found are Blattworld in New York (email@example.com). Email them to get their correct address. Another repair shop that works on Exakta. is called Key Camera Service in Longmont Colorado. Expect the CLA to take 6 months as they are backlogged. If you would like to use the very fine RE Auto Topcor lenses on your Exacta camera you can carefully file/grind down the tiny knob that protrudes from the lens release lever on the Exakta from 4 mm to 1 mm. This will allow the RE Auto Topcor lens to fit on the Exakta camera without hitting this tiny knob.
I Buy this beatyfull device with 30€ and i spend whole night trying to understand how i´ts working. My first problem is that i can´t loose the shutter. Camera is in somehow in a jam. Nothing moves, the film does´nt move anywhere, no matter what i do. Same happends without film. So i take little action and screwdriver allso tiny drops PRF oil what i dropped inside very carefully. Now it´s in my worktable waiting next 24 hours, praying hard to hoping some miracles over night to happend.
I have been raised on Exaktas + Zeiss Tessar and Meyers trioplan lenses beginning in the fifties and used it until the Contax RTS came on the market around 1976. A couple of years ago, while in Berlin the camera was overhauled by an expert. Last summer I took it along with my Leica6 for the street photography. I can shoot holding Exakta with a 80mm lens in my left hand while holding the Leica with a 35 mm lens (or any “r-hand camera”) in my right hand. The knife is handy. You can cut the film for developing without waiting until all 36 frames are exposed. Salut!
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?
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!
Actually, the knife is intended to be used with two cartridges for mid-roll film changes. Basically you unwind from one cartridge (unwind cartridge) and rewind into a second. After you cut the film, you remove the rewind cartridge in daylight, then the unwind one, then load a different type of film into the camera along with another empty cartridge in the rewind section. You can develop the rewind cartridge film. With the remainder of the unwind cartridge film, you can cut another leader section and re-use it later also (I suspect you need to notate how many shots are left).
Leica’s, Contaxes, and I suspect other cameras used the two cartridge system a lot in the early days (1930s, 40s, probably into the 50s). In fact Leica and Zeiss Ikon made special cartridges to fit into their rangefinder cameras. Ihagee (Exakta) did not.
Great review! I picked up an Exakta Vares (VX) with the Zeiss 58mm f2 Biotar (and a Meyer 50mm f2.8 Domiplan), and have had a lot of fun shooting it.
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 😀
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.
I also used a mixture of “liquid electrical tape,” which can be bought at any hardware store, diluted with mineral spirits to a very watery consistency that will “flow” unto the rubberized surface of the curtain. This is a very good flexible material. Very carefully brush with a small brush onto the surface of the curtain – usually on the surface facing the lens. DO NOT TRIP THE SHUTTER FOR A DAY OR TWO UNTIL THE MATERIAL IS COMPLETELY DRY!!!! (Usually, about a day) After it is dry, check with a flashlight to see if there are any more pin holes. For a couple of cameras, I had to repeat the process three times. Not a big problem since it only takes a few minutes to do. Helpful hint – If the shutter curtain, is the second curtain this won’t be a problem because the mirror is up and out of the way. However, if it is the first curtain and the shutter is cocked and the mirror down, you have to trip the shutter but stop the mirror from traveling all the way up with a piece of plastic or something that won’t scratch the mirror. Be real careful not to move the plastic piece (or whatever) because if you do the shutter will trip and the wet diluted liquid electrical tape will be rolled up and might mess up the whole process. I got three Exaktas and one Exa II actually working nicely in spite of the fact that originally their shutter curtains looked like swiss cheese. One Exakta is a very rare VX IIa version 4 with that had the “VAREX IIa” stamped out by the U.S. importer, re-chromed and engraved with “VX IIa” because the “Varex” trademark was owned by Argus in the U.S. and the Ihagee factory had run out of VX IIa name plates. The liquid tape material also seems to be holding up. Enjoy your Exaktas. They are always lots of fun.
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.
Understood. Maybe he didn’t take photos because he was not double jointed!
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:)
Thank you. I appreciate it!