The Pentacon Six TL is a phenomenon of a camera. When I first got mine, I almost fell in love with it, because I liked the idea of shooting 6×6 and was fascinated by the bulky yet somehow elegant design of the camera. Prior to owning the Pentacon Six, I only shot 6×7 in my RB67 Pro SD, so using the P6 seemed like a quite pleasant change from my usual shooting habit.
But as it with so many things, be it cameras or amorous relationships, at some point in time routine kicks in and brings every little flaw into the bright and unforgiving light of day. In some cases, love begins to mutate into hate, or something in between.
Table of contents
For me, shooting and relying on the Pentacon Six is a personal story of love and hate. The old ZEISS lenses I got alongside my P6 are outright spectacular, for what they are on the one hand but on the other, issues like film transport or shutter-speed inconsistencies, alongside the camera’s awkward ergonomics are what made me dislike this camera that I really wanted to like.
When I got my Pentacon Six, I was basically the first person to really use it: The camera lay dormant in its original packaging for over 25 years until I got it from my aunt, who is a fulltime professional photographer and has been one for almost four decades now. She had bought the system after the collapse of East Germany and used it a few times but quickly disliked the camera and then put it on the attic for storage. I understand her reasons for doing that now but before I begin my review, I want to give you a…
A quick history of the Pentacon Six system
The Pentacon Six TL was the latest and final model of the Pentacon Six produced in the GDR (German Democratic Republic / East Germany) by VEB Pentacon in Dresden; a company that from the 1920s until the end of WW2 was known by the name ZEISS IKON, and after Worl War II was divided between East and West.
During the course of its history, ZEISS IKON (EAST) and a few other East-German camera manufacturers were ultimately renamed and combined to form VEB Pentacon Dresden in 1964.
The first model of the Pentacon Six – back then called Praktisix – was introduced at Photokina in 1956 and was almost instantly regarded as one of the most exciting new cameras on the market, even by renowned international magazines like “Popular Photography”.
For a limited time, the Praktisix was the most modern camera on the global market and as an SLR type 6×6 camera with a focal plane shutter that allowed speeds up to 1/1000 of a second, it was the first one in its class.
21 years producing exactly the same model of camera – imagine that today.
The Pentacon Six was introduced at 1965’s Photokina, ten years after the Praktisix. It featured a revolutionary Accessory: The TTL metering prism. Later models following the first Pentacon Six, therefore, went by the name Pentacon Six TL. The introduction of the TL model, however, marked a halt in overall development of the Pentacon Six – from 1969 to 1990 the same model with minor alterations and fixes was built by Pentacon in Dresden. 21 years producing exactly the same model of camera – imagine that today. All in all, around 250,000 Pentacon Six cameras were ultimately built.
Another interesting aspect of the Pentacon Six’s history is that it was alongside other Pentacon 35mm cameras used as the standard camera for Soviet space exploration since 1969 – and if the Soviet Union had conducted a manned moon landing, it probably would have been documented with the Pentacon Six.
The specific Pentacon Six model which is being reviewed by me today was built in 1988 and was sold at retail on January 10th 1989 alongside four lenses, a Biometar 80mm f/2.8, Biometar 180mm f/2.8, Flektogon 50mm f/4 and Sonnar 300mm f/4. The price paid by this lucky customer was 3,357 DEM (Deutsche Mark) which was about 2,116 USD in 1989. In 2019 terms, that’s approximately 4100 USD.
The reason why I mention pricing is that the Pentacon Six is often regarded as a cheap and unreliable entry into medium format – which it often is today due to the poor mechanical condition many cameras are in. In fact, most Pentacon Six cameras today would greatly benefit from proper servicing, but more on that aspect later on.
In 1989, the year when my camera was purchased, it was a quite expensive workhorse of many professional photographers in east and west alike, and since I strive for an even and accurate review of this camera I felt the urge to mention this.
Before you shoot
As mentioned above the Pentacon Six TL is an SLR type medium format camera that produces 6×6 negatives on either 120 or 220 film. Like the Pentax 67, the Pentacon 6 TL is like a “supersized” 35mm camera and as such, has no interchangeable film backs like other 6×6 SLR cameras. Film loading can my opinion sometimes be a bit tricky, especially if you have rather large hands. Sometimes the spool release knob underneath the take-up spool will jump out during loading and you will have to reload the film, but that can be avoided by firmly pushing the knob in its place.
Learn to load your film.
Another common problem that occurs while loading the film – and which mostly can be avoided by following the correct loading procedure – is frame overlapping caused by the film counter. This phenomenon occurs when the film is either not wound tight enough around the take-up spool or when the film counter is not reset correctly. How to correct the first issue should be obvious. Learn to load your film.
The second issue concerning the frame counter is in my experience also quite easy to fix, if it only occurs sporadically. By design, the Pentacon Six does not tend to deliver film transport errors, but occasionally they appear because of minor malfunctions with the film advance measuring roll (an awkwardly long German word called “filmtransportmesswalze”).
This mechanism measures the required distance of film which needs to be spooled onto the take up-roll. It partly fails because modern medium format films often have a thinner base, which messes with the calibrated distances of a small turning gear inside the film transport mechanism.
To reset the film counter correctly and thus to correct the issue, press and hold the shutter button, then open the back of the camera and depress the shutter button. Now wind the film advance lever fully until it is at its farthest position and gently let it slide back.
If you have mastered loading the Pentacon Six you’ll also be rewarded an extra frame.
It’s important that the advance lever doesn’t jump back, since I suspect this jumping to cause the problem in the first place. Now close the back of the camera, wind four times and the frame counter should be at one. Open the camera back and load your film. The film counter should have resumed its initial position by now. Close the back, wind 4 times and you are at frame 1. Now you may begin shooting.
Overlapping frames caused by faulty film counting/advance should be minimized. If the problem is persistent however, send your camera in for inspection and maintenance.
A list of workshops that still service the P6 is provided at the end of this review.
Remember: To avoid problems with film transport in the first place, wind the film tightly and never let the film advance lever jump back in its initial position on its own. Guide it with your thumb. The Pentacon Six is a solid and useable camera, if you treat it right. If you have mastered loading the Pentacon Six you’ll also be rewarded an extra frame, so instead of 12 frames on a 120 film you will get 13, which on the long run saves you money.
Shooting the Pentacon Six
I don’t want to be a smartass here and I am very well aware of the fact that many of us – me included – have financial limitations that guide our choice of gear. But like everything in life, photography and especially chemical photography with all its different and wonderful processes comes at a cost.
You simply can’t expect 30-year-old equipment that has been idle for the last 25 years or so, to work just like it rolled off the production line yesterday.
You wouldn’t buy an old-timer car and dare to win a race with it just after you turned over the engine for the first time in decades, would you? Some cameras, however, still work mostly flawlessly and if you own such a model, consider yourself a lucky person. For the rest, I have to say: invest in proper maintenance and this camera may last the next 30 years for you to enjoy.
My word of warning
If your Pentacon Six shows any signs of incorrect shutter speeds, which many cameras of this type have developed over time due to hardened lubricants, those shutter speed inaccuracies will almost certainly be amplified in cold weather. The first sign is usually the 1/125 shutter speed not working properly. If the lubricants are too old and tenacious however, they should be exchanged with new and far more stable greases. But this again will involve getting the camera serviced, which in return costs money, which in return is contradictory to “cheap medium format” and so on and so forth.
Invest in proper maintenance and this camera may last the next 30 years for you to enjoy.
There exists a quick and budget-friendly temporary fix for the hardened lubricant issue though: bake your camera. Yes, you read that correctly. Various users of the Pentacon Six I questioned for this review suggested to warm and thus liquefy the hardened grease by putting the camera in a kitchen oven at the lowest temperature (50-60 °C) for about half an hour. Ultimately this will only be a temporary fix since the greases will harden again over time due to their chemical deterioration.
Now to the fun part…
…actually shooting the Pentacon Six. If you have a rather documentary style of shooting and either don’t have the money to buy a Mamiya 6 or Mamiya 7 or don´t like rangefinders or TLRs like for example, me, you will love the Pentacon Six.
It is a comparatively lightweight camera which offers a great variety of lenses to choose from (my go-to comparison for weight is my Mamiya RB67 Pro S, though). The Pentacon Six system with its P6 bayonet mount offers over 50 different lenses from 30mm fisheye to a 2000mm super-telephoto to choose from.
Some lenses such as the early Russian designs may suffer from excessive flaring and other issues, while lenses like those from Schneider-Kreuznach (with the blue ring) are outright fantastic. You get the point, there is enough choice. In my opinion, the Pentacon Six is generally an easy camera to shoot with, once you have overcome the initial difficulties that may go alongside it.
Unlike with the RB67, the film advance lever is coupled to the shutter cocking mechanism and thus speeds up shooting and prevents the silent and awkward moment when everything is set and you press the shutter-button only for nothing to happen because the shutter is not cocked.
For slower shutter speeds from 1/30 downward I recommend using a heavy and sturdy tripod because the vibration produced by the returning mirror is quite remarkable and may affect your image. Here it is also worth mentioning that the Pentacon Six by default does not feature a mirror lock-up mechanism, although it is possible to retrofit such a feature. This, however, is a very unique and individual alteration to the camera that I have only seen once so far, and unfortunately, the camera’s owner doesn´t recall when, (over 20 years ago) and by whom the upgrade was conducted.
It seems the camera was not designed with ergonomics in mind. If you have sweaty hands you may consider using a camera strap because it has no real grip and the leatherette and bare metal on the camera tend to be a bit slippery sometimes.
Another factor you should consider when shooting handheld with the Pentacon Six is the size of your hands. Personally I don’t have any problems holding the camera in my hand for longer shoots, but my girlfriend who also shoots with it from time to time has smaller hands and has told me that she finds it difficult to handhold the camera sometimes. Another small quirk my P6 suffers from is that the mirror occasionally gets stuck. If I detach the lens and give the underside of the mirror a gentle tap with my fingertip, the mirror will most likely return to its initial position. If not, I was told that the above-mentioned method of warming up the camera in the oven will solve the problem.
Finally, when you have shot your 12th frame, the film advance will lock. To unlock it, you have to click a small lever on the side of the right side of the camera to unlock it and only then can you spool the rest of the backing paper onto the take up-roll. Now you can take out the film-roll.
The one thing I really love about the Pentacon Six are the spectacular Zeiss Lenses I got along with the body: I mostly use the Zeiss Jena Biometar 80mm f/2.8 and the Flektogon 50mm f/4; the 180mm f/2.8 Biometar is a superb portrait lens, but my copy developed an aperture issue and won’t close the aperture anymore, so I don´t use it very often.
The huge and heavy 300mm Sonnar is an optical beast and can deliver incredible sharpness but using it without a tripod is almost impossible because the lens is just too heavy and attached to the body it shifts the center of gravity towards a point where it gets quite difficult to hold the camera steady enough.
The 80mm Biometar 2.8 MC is an excellent all-round lens with good sharpness, contrast and color rendition, even when shot wide open. Stopped down a bit, the 80mm delivers superb sharpness and an image that has a certain three-dimensional depth to it.
It is light and compact enough not to disrupt the camera´s fragile weight balance – with other lenses the P6 tends to become front heavy and begins to tumble around when hanging on a neckstrap, which is quite annoying. Additionally, the lens is quite well corrected for perspective and chromatic abberations, as are the rest of my particular copies of Zeiss Jena lenses.
Probably the most surprising (quality wise) was the Flektogon 50 F4, though. Even in direct sunlight or when photographing into a bright light source, the lens maintains sharpness, great color contrast and shows limited flaring. It is sturdily built which is reflected in its weight – for a fairly small lens it is quite heavy.
For me, probably the most interesting lens to use is the Zeiss Jena Sonnar 300mm F4, though. This heavy monstrosity of a lens is a nightmare to use but offers quite remarkable perspectives. If you want that “medium format look”, this is the lens for you. At a focal length of 300mm, the image projected onto a 6×6 negative has plenty of background separation, subject compression and good overall sharpness. Stopped down a bit, the lens is tack sharp and almost no chromatic abberations are visible.
Pentacon Six modifications
An unusual but highly interesting alteration to the Pentacon Six I stumbled upon during my research is the fitting of an electromagnetically controlled shutter mechanism, which eliminates the shutter speed inaccuracies imposed by a solely mechanical construction.
These two ingenious but unfortunately uncommon modifications to the camera, that both were seamlessly integrated into the body tell us two things: Not only is the Pentacon Six repairable but also modifiable. This creates the possibility to further enhance the camera if need be and therefore ensures that the system is far from being obsolete.
Speaking of obsolete: To my knowledge, the Pentacon Six was built without any planned obsolescence whatsoever.
Composing an image through the waist-level viewfinder of the Pentacon Six is not a problem if the scene is brightly lit, but tends to get trickier if light is not really abundant. The standard focusing screen that is fitted in most Pentacon Six models is not really bright and therefore complicates things a little bit. To achieve critical focus I strongly suggest using the finder’s magnifying loupe to compensate for the lack of clarity and brightness in the viewfinder.
Another option is to exchange the focusing screen with a brighter model supplied by the Russian company Arax, which also produced accessories for the Kiev 60 and Kiev 88CM, a Russian medium format SLR with the P6 mount. Although I haven’t tried it myself yet, (It´s definitely on my list) so far I have only heard that it´s quite an upgrade to the Pentacon Six.
[EM: I swapped out the standard screen on my P6 with one from Arax and have to say it’s a must-have upgrade.]
Another option would be the use of the Pentacon Six TTL metering prism, which I personally despise. The TTL Prism is at best described as a pain in the ass. The viewfinder opening is smaller than an aperture diaphragm at f/22. Literally.
It’s dark, it doesn’t show the whole viewfinder and if you wear glasses, it will scratch them, because you have to get really close to see anything through it. The salted cherry on top of the burnt cake is, that it doesn’t even meter consistently and reliably, but that may be due to the fact that even the newest models are more than 25 years old.
A suggested alternative is the KIEV 60 TTL prism which is said to be considerably brighter and shows the whole viewfinder image. Also, it is supposedly far more reliable and accurate in meter readings. But if you have the choice, always use a dedicated light meter and compose through the waist-level viewfinder. You will do yourself a favour.
After a bit more than 2 years of occasionally shooting the P6, the camera’s overall performance is mediocre. The issue with my P6 is, that I wouldn’t trust the camera for an important shoot, because it has failed me too often. Be it an issue with film transport or inconsistent shutter speeds, the camera is not too reliable.
When I have shot with the P6 during the last year, the resulting images have either been shot for experimental purposes, just for fun, or to illustrate this article. My camera would greatly benefit from a complete servicing and an inspection, but up until now I simply use it too little to justify the price of getting the P6 to maintenance rather than my other cameras that probably would benefit from being serviced, too.
Another reason why I dislike the P6 is its quirky ergonomics, that come close to a slippery metal cinderblock, at least that’s how the camera feels.
All in all, the Pentacon Six system has its quirks and can be annoying. My personal experience with it is one thing, though: personal. I know many photographers who love and cherish their Pentacon Six – for different reasons, I assume, but that is none of my concern.
If serviced properly, the mechanical flaws of the Pentacon Six can be minimized and reliability concerns be dismissed. At the end of the day, it depends on how you shoot, and what you are used to shoot with. For me, using the Pentacon Six was more of a chore than anything else, mostly because I dislike the general haptic experience of photographing with it. The good thing is though, that P6´s are quite inexpensive nowadays, so I can only encourage you to make your own impression about the Pentacon Six, because as always, I’m complaining on a high comfort level.
Thank you for reading.
Pentacon Six specifications
|Camera name||Pentacon Six TL|
|Camera type||Single Lens Reflex|
220 film counter enabled by manually releasing lock mechanism.
Kombinat VEB Pentacon
|Shutter||Mechanical focal plane
B, 1 sec - 1/000 sec
|Lenses||Ranging from 30mm fisheye to 1000mm mirror lens and zoom lenses. 20+ in total.|
Waist Level Viewfinder
Macro extension rings
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)
|Metering||ASA 6 - 1600 (with TTL Prism)|
|Flash||X-Sync PC connection|
|Power||1.35v PX625, PX13 or equivalent (TTL prism only)|
Body + Waist Level Finder + Arsat 80mm f/2.8 lens
Note from the editor
In the process of putting this article together with Ludwig, I’ve also been talking to “TRA” who runs the excellent Pentacon Six System website. If you’re curious about the P6 system of cameras, lenses and accessories, or you’re just a bit of a history buff, I highly recommend you check it out. Comprehensive doesn’t come close to describing it and I spent many, many hours there myself when I was still invested in the system.
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