FED 5b: Vintage Soviet Rangefinder
This is a short look at the FED 5b rangefinder camera. We found this one at a flea market in Barcelona, for the price of two reels of film. With some care, these cameras can be just as usable today as when they were first made 35 years ago.
The Ukrainian built FED 5b was a very basic all-mechanical design, evolved over many years from a copy of an early Leica design. It uses the older Leica M39 lens mount and lacks modern frivolities such as a built-in light-meter. In form and function it is not unlike a stripped-down Leica M series camera.
This particular version is an Olympic special edition, built to commemorate the 1980 Moscow Olympics – an interesting decision, as a rangefinder camera is not usually the first choice for shooting a sporting event.
The camera is quite quirky. The shutter mechanism is controlled by a dial on the top plate, which rotates when the shutter fires, and winds back when the shutter is cocked. Apparently, trying to change the shutter speed without first winding on the film can actual cause damage to the shutter mechanism. Fortunately, this does not seem to have happened to this camera!
The shutter speed range is quite good, working up to 1/500th of a second. Amazingly, the clockwork mechanism still seems to work perfectly and gives accurate exposures. The shutter is louder than Leica’s newer cloth-shuttered designs, but lacking a mirror it is still quieter than any film SLR that I have used.
Next to the shutter speed dial are the shutter release button and the film winding lever. The shutter release is very smooth, but at first feels a little awkwardly placed towards the back of the camera. Unusually, to disengage the film advance mechanism before re-winding you have to press down on a collar around the shutter release – a side effect of which is that the shutter can open. It is therefore vitally important to always put the lens cap on before trying to unload an exposed roll of film…
The film advance is single-stroke and is fast and smooth, but when rewinding there is a lot of resistance due to the film take-up spool rotating in the opposite sense to the winding lever. This creates a fairly sharp bend in the film path that seems to impede rewinding and which gives the unsettling impression that the film is being shredded rather than simply rewound. Despite the resistance, the film does not seem to be damaged in any way.
Mechanically, the camera is very well engineered. To open the camera, there are two locking screws underneath, after which the entire back plate of the camera is removed. The build quality is excellent. Most parts are metal, and provides seemingly effective light sealing by means of deep metal lips. Even the shutter lever is all metal.
Unfortunately, so is the viewfinder.
The sharp, metal serrated ring is actually a useful diopter adjustment (something that Leica desperately needs). Unfortunately, it is also purpose built for scratching glasses – or pretty much anything else that it contacts. FED should probably have patented their viewfinder design and marketed it as a diamond substitute…
The viewfinder itself is not particularly great. The view is small and the rangefinder patch even smaller, although once adjusted the focusing appears to be accurate. Probably cleaning the rangefinder mechanism would help the brightness a little.
But the biggest limitation of the viewfinder is the lack any kind of bright-line frame markers. Normally, a rangefinder shows a fixed field of view with overlaid frame markings that adjust to match the field of view of the lens that is currently mounted. Here there are no frame markings at all, and I suspect that most of these cameras were used only with the default kit lens.
That lens is the Industar 61, a fairly basic 53mm f2.8 4-element design, similar to a Zeiss Tessar. While it seems to be quite well regarded in the online community, the performance of this particular copy is not great. When stopped down, it is very sharp in the centre but corners are still slightly smeared. Wide open at f2.8 it is much softer than any ~50mm kit lens that I have used. That said, it is small, light-weight and in real world conditions is perfectly usable. Focusing is straightforward, but with quite a long throw. If the focus ring is too stiff (from ageing grease) it will need to be repaired, as otherwise the lens tends to unscrew from the camera body…
This 5b was in good condition, with clean optics. Unfortunately, the first film shot showed an all too familiar problem: the rubberised fabric in the shutter curtains was starting to wear through and was leaking light. As before, this was fixed by painting over the holes using “liquid electrical tape”, which makes a good light-proof seal. I also dismantled, cleaned and re-greased the lens’ focusing helicoid to fix the sticky focusing ring. One advantage of all-mechanical cameras is that often they can still be repaired.
Below is a short gallery from the first film taken with the camera, in which the light leak has added an other-worldly visitor to the images. I will upload some less leaky pictures, taken after the repair, later in the week. These were shot on HP5+, using the “Sunny 16” rule for exposure.