Waking up a rare Exa

I discovered my Rheinmetall Exa was a bit rare only a couple of weeks ago when someone put one on Ebay. It is quite rare, but not valuable. I can’t complain; the ‘kit’ I bought on a market vegetable stall in Romania in 1993 for about £1 seems to be worth £40 – £50 now. I haven’t collected cameras for their value so most of mine are not cosmetically perfect but worked when I acquired them. The Exa still works perfectly. Evidently this in itself makes mine quite rare as Rheinmetall had a lot of quality issues and working models are not abundant.

Rheinmetall Exa with Tessat, Bonotar, waist-level viewfinder and extension tubes

My ‘Exa system’ – bought for about £1 in 1993. This picture shot with the Panasonic GF1 and uploaded in less than 5 minutes – digitals do have their uses!

I took the Exa out on Wednesday for the first time in years; I’ve been meaning to do that since I got it out of storage as it had an unknown, part-shot film in it and I was curious to see what was on it. It would most likely be 100, 200 or 400ASA so I assumed 200. I’d hoped for a conventional silver B&W film, so I could process it myself, but the film turned out to be an old Ilford XP2 Super, probably from shortly after it was introduced in 1998. It was not stored well in Romania – probably oscillating between -40degC and +40degC over several years. I took it to my local C-41 shop which does a great service – 20 mins, £1.99. The pictures were pretty much rubbish, no surprise but I thought I’d post a couple as an excuse to write about the camera. Both shot with the 50mm Tessar.

Iron gate with rubbish behind in an old deserted school building

If this is where I think it is, an abandoned school building on my walk to work at the time, it was taken in 2005

Children, teenagers, dogs and their owners - all have abandoned the local park on this cold, damp day

Children, teenagers, dogs and their owners – all have abandoned the local park on this cold, damp, frost-covered  day – 12 December 2012

I didn’t collect cameras for their monetary value so most of mine are far from cosmetically perfect, but they were working when acquired, as the Exa still is.

What I like about it is it’s ‘built like a tank’ engineering, the unusual shutter design, little touches like the release button protector so it is not released inadvertently, and the waist-level finder which incorporates a collapsible light shield formed with really sexy curves, a magnifier and a straight through eye-level finder – this is a real piece of art and craft. It would cost a fortune to make such a thing today.

The camera model itself is not at all rare but mine was not built by Ihagee in Dresden, the firm which created it, but by Reinmetall of Sommerda, which was subcontracted to build some for a year (1954/55) when the Ihagee factory was overloaded due to the popularity of the Exacta Varex. I understand Rheinmetall Exas have serial numbers spanning 20.000 or so (mine is 261301 – so about half-way through the production) but some authorities say only about 8,000 were sold, and only in East Germany as it was then.

The shutter

The shutter is not a ‘focal plane’ shutter with curtains or slats; the reflex mirror sits on top of a quadrant shaped ‘box’ which pivots horizontally. When the shutter is released the mirror swings up in the normal way but the quadrant follows a short while later so light from the lens sweeps vertically up the film – the ‘gap’ being relative to to the shutter speed set; shutter speeds from 1/25 to 1/125 are provided. There is also a bulb setting: the mirror flips up immediately but the quadrant is not released until the shutter release button is released. The mirror does not return automatically but is lowered when the film is wound on.

Mechanically the Rheinmetall Exa is no different to the Ihagee produced model, but it is engraved ‘System Exa’ rather than just ‘Exa’, as well as with ‘Rhein metall Sommerda’. It also has the communist ‘VEB’ (People’s Enterprise) engraved on the viewfinder release catch. Apart from the two flash sync sockets and the shutter release, the controls are on the top plate: a lever to set the speed and the rewind knob on one side of the viewfinder; the wind-on knob, rewind release button, and an exposure number indicator (which can be set to any number with a finger nail) on the other.

The lens mount is the Exacta mount so it will take many Exacta lenses and accessories. Mine came with a Zeiss Tessar 50mm, f/2.8 standard lens (the ‘best’ of several alternatives), a Feinmess Dresden Bonotar 105mm, f/4.5 portrait lens in a nice leather case, and a set of extension tubes, which provide about 57mm and 71mm extensions (these are a substantial piece of engineering in themselves).

This ‘Volks-Exacta’ is a lovely little machine. I must get out with it with a decent film and see what it can do.

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