Camera review: Fixing a bad rep… It’s time for the Pentacon Six to shine

Can the Pentagon Six take pictures as sharp and contrasty as a Hasselblad or a Rolleiflex? After all, this is the only question that matters apparently and — spoiler alert — I would not have written this review if it couldn’t.

Overlapping frames, unreliable shutter times, frame counter off sick, jammed self timer, blurry images with weird flares… Most reviewers of this medium format camera system are too quick to dismiss it as half baked and strange, not worth the investment and the effort. However, what really separates you from good results is not the camera itself. It’s a professional CLA, proper handling, as well as a good understanding of its technical features so you can harness them to your advantage in achieving rewarding images.


Now that you have a feeling for what’s going to follow, let’s cut to the chase with a couple of photographs to start backing up my claims. These and all other images in this article can be clicked/tapped to view them full screen.

For those of you new to this camera, the Pentacon Six is fully mechanical medium format film SLR which takes 6x6cm negatives. It has a waist-level finder (WLF) in its standard configuration, which can be swapped out for metered/unmetered pentaprisms.

It is a utilitarian camera with many limitations when compared to its more famous alternatives. However, it is well built and has a great lineup of lenses and accessories. With proper maintenance and skill, this camera can take you very far in exploring medium format film photography.

The P6 isn’t as cult or attractive as its Swedish and West German counterparts. Additionally, owning one does not bestow you with status. VEB Pentacon’s logo, the East German Communist factory that produced Pentacon Six cameras, will not trigger the brand affection that its West German counterpart’s logo does (the coat of arms of Franke und Heidecke, manufacturer of Rolleiflex and Rolleicord cameras).

BUT, cult-ness and brand affection have little to do with the quality of images this Communist-era system can produce:

Since Communist countries did not have functioning markets, products were made without any competitive pressure. Innovation and quality depended to a large extent on pre-Communism industrial traditions prevailing. Fortunately for us, these traditions prevailed in East Germany’s and Czechoslovakia’s photo industry (the latter produced the Flexaret TLRs and Meopta enlargers). Both countries managed to produce photographic equipment that was marketable in the West. The Pentacon Six is one example


The original version was called simply the “Pentacon Six”. A few years after its release, a new “Pentacon Six TL” model was released which is identical to the original in every way. the updated name was given to signify the release of a new Through-The-Lens metering pentaprism…that’s it. If you are interested in a deeper look into its history, make sure you read Ludwig Hagelstein’s review here on EMULSIVE.

More examples follow. First, a workshop. There’s a lot of detail here in this 4 second exposure on a tripod. Second is The Tupolev Tu-134. Look at the engines. Contrast and sharpness anyone? And this is a cropped image with the kit lens.

Yes, the Pentacon Six with its Pentacon 6 mount lenses can take pictures as sharp and contrasty as a Hasselblad or a Rolleiflex, though due to the limitations discussed below it is more difficult. This means that in the beginning (most probably) fewer shots taken with your Pentacon Six are going to turn out as good as those with its more prestigious and expensive peers, you will need more practice.

One more thing.

Don’t even try shooting a freshly acquired Pentacon Six until you get it cleaned, lubricated, adjusted and calibrated by a competent mechanic. The specifics of the camera, such as the delicate film advance and frame counter mechanism, as well as the large shutter, make it more reliant on maintenance than say the Compur leaf shutter of the Hasselblad’s C, CF, etc., lens system and the Rolleiflex.

This is not a camera for those who need the instant gratification of our plug and play world. No, an unadjusted Pentacon Six is likely to have frame advancement, counting and spacing issues, as well as inaccurate exposure times. Oh, and there could also be the jammed self-timer. Again, these are due to age and mishandling and can be fixed. A properly calibrated Pentacon Six will have no issues at all.

Notice the shallow depth of filed of this tele lens even at f/8.

Some describe the operation of the camera as quirky. I don’t agree with that but you will have to read up on how to use it, especially on film loading and advancing. Make sure you bookmark the most comprehensive online database for this camera system created and maintained by TRA at pentaconsix.com.


Another sample image: overexposure and significant cropping resulted in more grain and lower sharpness but still retains a lot of character.

Why is it harder to make those sharp and contrasty shots with the Pentcon Six than with a Hasselblad or Rolleiflex? For the following reasons I believe:

Large focal plane shutter, which by the way, is made of rubberised cloth but it ages remarkably well, i.e. it doesn’t crack or peel. A shutter of this size means a lot of vibration upon exposure. 1/30th is the slowest you can get away with with the 80mm Biometar. After that, you will need at least a second or two in bulb mode for a sharp shot, on a tripod of course.

Note that between 1sec (on the speed selector) and 1/30th you can see motion blur even on a tripod. You need to go even faster if you shoot with the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180mm f/2.8. It is large and heavy, you can see as its tip shakes upon exposure when mounted on a tripod. However, 1/60th can still be sharp when handheld.

The image below demonstrates what motion blur and lens flare look like. I shot this at 1 sec by putting it on a table and did not use a lens hood, see the resulting blur and the flaring in the upper left corner.

A large pop-up mirror with no mirror lock-up like on some Hasselblad models (the Rolleiflex is a TLR, it has no pop-up mirror). Again, more vibration. With steady hands and camera pressed against your body, you can go down as slow as 1/30th, however, if you are not cautious you can get camera shake even at 1/125th.

A relatively small focusing screen, you will need the loupe a lot for critical focus. In medium format, even the standard focal length of 80mm has a shallow depth of filed. This makes framing more difficult because the magnifying loupe will cover most of the focusing screen. I still have to crop my images a lot for better composition whenever I am not shooting landscapes.

Cropping reduces resolution, sharpness and contrast. So practice, practice and practice or get a bright split prism screen from ARAX, note that its installation can be tricky according to the description. Speaking of the focusing screen:


Continuing with those reasons, the Pentacon Six’s slow flash sync speed of 1/30th second isn’t ideal. It means that you cannot really use the magnificent Sonnar 180mm f2/8 with flash as 1/60th is the slowest shutter speed its focal length can take without producing motion blur. You will need continuous lighting in a studio setup, fast film and wider apertures but the Sonnar 180 is razor-sharp and contrasty at f/2.8, really amazing. Couple that with T-MAX 400 and Kodak Xtol and you will achieve digital-like smoothness and sharpness.

The build of the Carl Zeiss Jena Biometar 80 kit lens allows greases to evaporate more easily in heat through the aperture mechanism, potentially leading to oily vapour deposits on the lens that can decrease contrast. Keep it away from intense heat as any other vintage lens. However, the glass itself is good.

Another sample image? Sure! If this isn’t sharp enough I don’t know what is. Click/tap to zoom in to see the numbers on the doorbell.

The lenses need hoods! Even the multicoated later versions and in all circumstances, i.e. even indoors. I don’t recommend shooting them without one. The Biometar and the Sonnar are both prone to flaring though the latter is far less than the former. However, with hoods, you can tame them and the Biometar can reward you with aesthetic flares.

See the star in the circle in the bottom right quarter of the image below? That is a flare from the street light.

Whit all those limitations, why would anyone invest in the P6 system then? I did for the following reasons:

The magnificent Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar 180! And there are other world-class lenses out there with the Pentacon 6 (P6) mount — the later Schneider Kreuznach line-up is definitely worth a look. Note that zebra-striped lenses from the sixties are slightly radioactive due to their thorium content, later black finish models aren’t. Radioactivity wasn’t a Communist Block fetish, many Japanese and Western lenses of the same era contain radioactive thorium.

The proceeding image is a crop of approximately 60% of a 6×6 frame. See how much detail is retained, how powerful the resolution of the lens is. It was shot at f/8 with the Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar on ILFORD HP5 PLUS (a traditional grain film) and developed in Xtol 1:1.


The Pentacon Six camera system is the least expensive of the professional-grade medium format lineup, and yes, it is professional-grade. A CLA’d body with the kit lens (CZJ Biometar 80mm), the CZJ Sonnar 180 portrait lens, as well as the CZJ Flektogon 50mm wide-angle lens can be had for around $850.

If you live in Europe, or Eastern Europe in particular, you will find it widely available as it was made in large numbers basically unchanged for several decades. A wide range of accessories are also available and some, like the split prism finder, are still made by ARAX.

The camera will give you 13, well-spaced exposures on a roll of 120. You get 13 frames for the price of 12. My Pentacon Six is calibrated in a way that frame #0 is the first frame.

A final photo before I leave you follows. Notice the cranes in the background.

In closing, yes, this camera will make you sweat for good results but I hope you agree that they are well within in reach.

Thanks for reading,

~ Al

Pentacon Six technical specifications

Camera namePentacon Six / Pentacon Six TL
Camera typeMedium format Single Lens Reflex
Format120/220 rollfilm
220 film counter enabled by manually releasing lock mechanism.
ManufacturerVEB Pentacon / Kombinat VEB Pentacon
Manufacture dates1968-90
Viewfinder coverage~80%
ShutterMechanical focal plane
B, 1 sec - 1/000 sec
FlashX-Sync PC connection
MeteringASA 6 - 1600 (with TTL Prism)
Lenses30mm fisheye to 1000mm mirror lens and zoom lenses. 20+ in total.
AccessoriesTTL Pentaprism
"Plain" prism
Waist Level Viewfinder
Focusing chimney
Angle finder
Close-up bellows
Macro extension rings

Focus screens:
Plain groundglass (207250)
Plain groundglass + clear spot + crosshairs (207330)
Plain groundglass + gridlines (207340)
Clear glass with edge-to-edge crosshairs (207350)
Plain groundglass with edge-to-edge crosshairs (207360)
Plain groundglass + fresnel split (207370)
Plain groundglass with fresnel and microprism (207251)
Power1.35v PX625, PX13 or equivalent (TTL prism only)
Weight1.36 Kg
Dimensions
(appx)
Body + Waist Level Finder + Arsat/Biometar 80mm f/2.8 lens

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Al Kattintotta
Al Kattintotta
Al shoots 35mm and medium format film under this name when not busy with his professional career and raising his kids with his wife. He does not have a DSLR or MILC. He is setting up his own darkroom.

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12 COMMENTS

  1. One important thing : the mirror is not return until the next winding !
    I left my camera on the sun for a couple of minutes – focus on infinity.
    The Sun burn a hole on the shutter curtains – I figured out when developed the film . Repaired whit a small drop off rubbery black paint – work but bugs me.
    One other advice : if you’re on honeymoon – do not hide your Pentacon 6 whit a 300 mm Sonnar under the pillows in your hotel room bicouse you’re have to explain a lot !

  2. I have a great deal of respect for Zeiss in Jena’s lens making prowess, even in the 1930s they were making spectacularly good lenses. I found it interesting to read a magazine report at the time, by one owner who purchased a P6 new, who found that image quality was initially unacceptable. He established that it was due to inadequate film flatness, and had the film gate machined to take a plane glass. His before and after images left no doubt this improved matters substantially.

    None of this is intended to deride the P6 cameras. No, I don’t think they’re up to the build standards of Hasselblad or Rollei, but I’ve seen enough excellent images from them to know they’re capable of excellent photographic quality. I do agree with your suggestion to have one carefully examined and adjusted. Whether film alignment can be optimised with the standard pressure plate arrangement, I don’t know. I suspect however that it may be prudent not to wind film on until just before exposure to improve likelihood of accurate film flatness.

    • The pressure plate could be the reason with some units though more often lack of sharpness is due to the characteristics of the camera. Since it vibrates way more than the Hass or the Rollei and the focusing screen is smaller so it is much harder to achieve sharpness handheld. You can do it but you need to anticipate the shot, I mean the shutter and mirror working, you need to dampen that and practice focusing. My sharpest handheld shot was of the tail of the airplane while the window grille shot which is also very sharp was of course taken on the tripod.

  3. Yes, I guess a full fledged overhaul would be needed to ensure the shutter works properly but I still don’t know if it will be resilient enough to travel on bumpy roads.. On another note, actually I was quite surprised to read about your “wind 50 times before loading film to prevent frame overlap” because I normally ensured the leader of the film was super tight on the take up spool. Tight to a point where you actually see a dotted line on the edge of the film after you develop it. This prevented overlapping frames from the get go without having to fire and wind for 50 shots.. but its something I’ve never heard of so it was interesting to read this alternative method.. Thanks for writing this by the way.. it was a great read..

  4. I don’t think the Zeiss Jena lenses’ performance has ever disappointed as far as the P6 lenses are concerned. I have the 50, 80, 120 and 180 and they are all superb lenses. The only issue is that the body is built a bit too delicately.. The camera cant stand a bumpy rickshaw ride. Mine died twice (stuck shutter or non functional shutter) and spending $50 every time to get it fixed is really not an option. The camera is gorgeous and has the best balance between weight and performance (when it works well). And I can even live with the special loading method to prevent overlapping of frames.. The default focusing screen is a pain to work with especially when doing indoor portraits with window light but I had to stop working with it when it died on me on two important projects. The accompanying FM2 and Arax went through the same bumpy rickshaw ride but came out unscathed.. I love this beast but it could’ve used a sturdier construction.


    • You have a point that the body is quite delicate. My camera was taken apart down to the strings and reassembled. I suppose such an overhaul increases reliability as it eliminates the misalignments that developed over the decades. The Biometar is perhaps the most modest of all lenses in terms of its capabilities but it is good enough for it not to be a limitation, f8 is its sweet spot.

  5. Great to read a good article on the Pentacon 6 , Ive had one for a number of year now and enjoy taking it out. If you treat these cameras gently and do your homework on loading it properly it will last forever and reward you with great shots as proven in your article .

  6. Absolutely true. As a “socialist” set, it was intended for people that had to care about manteinance of their painfully earned goods, every day of their life, and so it’s natural to “arrange” solutions, both in using accessories and in “conforming” yourself with some oddities of the system.

    I own 5 lenses and feel that at least 3 are great (but also the other are good: in its genre, old Primotar 80 is really a nice Tessar, and even not-so-appreciated Biometar 80, after all, is not SO bad, as you clearly show above… although I had just few occasions to make side-to-side confrontation with Swedish stuff).
    Furthermore you can mount the Zodiak 30. And the Sonnar 180 is a wonder also on the Contax in 135, although you need good neck and shoulders to go around with an extended set.

    Unfortunatly, an Exakta body and a Xenotar 80 would complete the line but are slightly out of budget 🙁

    The only heavy drawback is actually the impossibility to lock the mirror. But also here, wartime (or commie?) tricks can help sometimes: counterweights, bean bags etc.

    • Sergio, you described the socialist experience so well that for a moment I was thinking you were Eastern European 🙂


  7. Thanks for this review. I am using paid with kit 80 and Mir 26b (45), very pleased with results. Required CLA only once after buoying few years ago. Agree, hoods are a must!

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