Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Communism, Child Labor, And Cheap Leica Cameras - The Story of The FED Rangefinder

Leica changed the photography world in 1932 by introducing the Leica II rangefinder 35mm camera. Up until this time, what we now call medium-format and large-format were kings of photography. Because 35mm film was smaller, it was considered inferior. It was the amateur's format. But the Leica II rangefinder would throw the photography world upside down.

Leica knew that in order to make a serious 35mm camera they needed a superior lens to go with it. They were going to make up for the small film size by having exceptionally sharp glass. And so they did.

Photographers soon realized the advantages of using 35mm film. The Leica II was much smaller and lighter (and often easier to use) than the larger format cameras, yet it also provided superb image quality. It didn't take long for 35mm to become the standard format in photography.

The newly formed Soviet Union very quickly took notice. They wanted the Leica camera, but had no interest in supporting Germany. So what does a communist country do? They reverse-engineer the camera and manufacture it themselves.
Camera In Hand - Redlands, California
In what had been the Ukraine, the Soviet Union put orphaned children to work in a factory. They manufactured all sorts of different things, most notably electric drills. In 1932, almost immediately after the Leica II was introduced, they began work reverse-engineering the camera, and in 1934 they began to manufacture a copycat Leica II. They called this camera FED (which were the initials of the founder of the Soviet's secret police).

The FED camera was a very close match to the Leica II. In fact, some were made with Leica engraved on them (instead of FED), and to this day they are sold as Leica II cameras to unsuspecting buyers. Only a very close inspection shows some minor differences. However, the lens that was manufactured for the FED camera was inferior to those found on Leica cameras.

In 1954 Leica introduced the M3 rangefinder, with several improvements over earlier models. Many regard this as Leica's greatest camera. One year later the FED 2 was introduced, which was similar to the Leica M3.

While the FED 2 was similar to the Leica M3 (both in looks and functionality), it was not an exact copycat like the original FED was to the Leica II. Instead, it stole the improvements Leica made, and incorporated those improvements into the original FED design. Some of the improvements include a combined viewfinder and rangefinder window, a self-timer, slower shutter speeds, and a detachable back. The lens mount remained M39 (also known as Leica Thread Mount), while the Leica M3 used the new Leica M system.
Summer Dream - Redlands, California
The biggest improvement for FED came shortly after the introduction of the FED 2, when they abandoned their original lenses and began using Industar lenses. These lenses were reversed-engineered from Zeiss Tessar and Leitz Summar, and are absolutely excellent. A FED rangefinder fitted with an Industar lens is pretty much like owning a Leica.

The FED 3 rangefinder was introduced in 1961. It's almost identical to the FED 2, with only minor improvements. The FED 4 came out in 1964. It added a selenium light meter to the otherwise unchanged design. The final rangefinder, the FED 5, was introduced in 1977. It's a slightly improved FED 4, with the most significant change being the addition of a hot shoe. There were several variations made of each model, with only tiny differences.

The last FED cameras were made in 1996, a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. A total of 8.5 million were sold over 62 years.
Above The Valley - Tejon Ranch, California
FED rangefinders were unethical. They stole their designs from Leica. The original FED was built by orphaned children. Heck, the man that the camera was named after was far from a good guy. It was a communist camera.

Leica cameras are really expensive. It is difficult to find one for under $1,000. Even beat up well-used Leica cameras will cost at least $500. Lenses can be even more costly.

On the other hand, good-shape FED cameras can easily be found for under $100. It is not too hard to find one with an Industar lens for under $50. I paid $40 for a FED 5c with a 50mm Industar lens, and that included shipping. If you are willing to overlook the sordid history of the FED rangefinder, you can get an exceptional camera for a really good price.

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