The Pentacon Six System

by TRA

Myths about the Pentacon Six

[C373-37] The Pentacon Six system.

The Pentacon Six System has a range of lenses unrivalled by any other Medium Format camera, including the world leader in Medium Format, Hasselblad.  It also has accessories to cover most imaginable photographic situations.  Yet it did not have the commercial success in Western Europe and the United States of America that was enjoyed by the Hasselblad or the Pentax 6×7.  Why not?

There were no doubt many reasons (the choice of distributor in the USA comes to mind, or a publicity budget that was much smaller than that of Hasselbald or Pentax).  But when a customer came into a camera shop wanting to buy a Medium Format camera, and prepared to spend £200, say, he was often encountered by a salesman who wanted to sell him a £2,000 camera.  That salesman had to find some powerful reasons to persuade the potential purchaser to take out in many cases a massive loan, and here – I believe – is the origin of many “myths”, half-truths and derogatory comments about the Pentacon Six.  Here are some of them, and my answers.

1.  “Film flatness is poor.”

1.  Film flatness: if the film is loaded correctly (see point four), there will not be a problem with film flatness.  I make massive enlargements of pictures from my Pentacon Six, and lack of sharpness because of poor film flatness has never been a problem.  I regularly project slides 6 feet wide, and have prints from part of the frame requiring an enlargement to nine feet square.  You can see examples of tiny sections of the frame, massively enlarged, at various places on this website.  Film grain becomes a problem before any lack of sharpness is visible due to poor film flatness.  See, for instance, here.

The Exakta 66 added a two-position film pressure plate, for 120 and 220 film (which is thinner, not having backing paper), but I believe that this was more a response to a request from the marketing department than to meet a technical need.  If the spring-loaded pressure plate is correctly installed (they have been on all Pentacon Sixes that I’ve bought), it will hold the film flat against the gate, the position of which must of course always be the same, regardless of the film used.

2.  “The rewind mechanism, if allowed to fly back over its 180 degrees, can break the inside mechanism.”

2.  The very inaccuracy of some comments shows that they originated with people who had never held the camera.  In common with other Medium Format cameras, the Pentacon Six doesn’t have a rewind mechanism!  This is actually said about the advance mechanism.  I have heard it claimed that this is a problem.  All I can say is that I have never experienced it in the thirty years that I have used a Pentacon Six, and until August 2007 all the Pentacon Sixes that I had bought had been second-hand.  I do in fact always return the advance lever with my thumb, and this is quite a natural thing to do that does not slow me down or cause any awkwardness, so if this is a potential problem, no damage has been caused in the time that I have owned these cameras, and all my cameras have been stripped down and fully serviced by the factory after purchase, with replacement of any worn parts with new.  They have never reported to me on wear here, but I have never asked for that degree of detail.

A Medium Format camera is not the same as a 35mm camera, and the way of working with it is different.  With 12 (or 24) frames per film, one does not usually fire off shots regardless.  You can get good shots of pole vaulters, runners or participants in most sports, but if you want four frames a second, no Medium Format camera will deliver this.  Medium Format is about ultimate quality, careful composition and methodical working.  Using a Pentacon Six is faster than using many other Medium Format cameras, and using one comes naturally to someone familiar with a 35mm SLR, but – like all Medium Format cameras – it cannot be used like a machine gun.  It is a high quality, precision instrument.  Treated with normal respect, it will last for years and years.

3.  “Both the Pentacon 6 WLF & meter prism don’t show a great majority of the field view.  Only 1-1/2 inches at best, instead of the 6x6cms view.”

3.  As with most cameras, the Pentacon Six viewfinder does not show the full area of the film gate, but as slide mounts mask the edges of the frame and negative mounts in enlargers do the same, there is in fact very little loss in relation to the actual viewed image.  This is designed to be a safety factor and I do not notice any difference between what I remember seeing in the viewfinder and what I get on the slides or prints.  This sensible safety factor has been exaggerated by critics of the camera.  Virtually all cameras have a similar safety factor.  The prisms (metering and plain) show slightly less than the whole of the focussing screen (and this applies similarly with the Hasselblad prisms, too – I have used 3 different designs of Hasselblad prisms), but I always use a metering prism on the Pentacon Six, and I find the results perfectly satisfactory.  I do not get unexpected distracting detail appearing at the edges of the resulting image.

4 “There are problems with overlapping of frames.”

4.  I have had a problem with overlapping frames once with my original, old model Pentacon Six, and even then it was not the camera’s fault, but incorrect loading by me.  It was the first film that I loaded, back in 1977.  To be fair to the many people who have reported this problem, the loading instructions in the manufacturer’s manual are poor and can result in overlapping frames.  For this reason, Ron Spillman wrote and published revised instructions on how to load the camera, and since the second film that I loaded in 1977 I have always followed them and they have always worked.  With permission from Mr Spillman, they are reproduced on this website, here.

I am confident that none of these factors will cause you problems with most Pentacon Sixes, although of course when buying a second-hand camera off an internet auction site, one does not know its history.  For this reason I send all of my internet purchases to the factory for a full strip-down and service before using them.

5.  “It has a slow flash sync speed.”

True.  It has the same flash sync speed as the Pentax 6×7 or the Norita – or the vast majority of other Medium Format SLRs with focal plane shutters.  See more information on using flash here.

6.  “The vibration from the mirror/shutter results in unsharp pictures.”

I think that you must be talking about the Pentax 6×7!  The Pentacon Six has one of the smoothest and quietest shutters of all Medium Format SLRs – much quieter than any Hasselblad or Pentax 6×7.  And if you are really worried about mirror shake, go for a camera with the mirror pre-release installed.  See more details here.

7.  “It’s a communist camera.”

This was the most popular reason given in the USA for not buying this camera.  Well, it was certainly made in a communist country.  I wonder what country your DVD player, video recorder, electric toaster or computer was made in.  Probably most of them, or at least the components in them, were made in a communist country.  And thanks to that, the price is at a level that you have found acceptable.  If you do not wish to buy equipment made in countries whose political or economic systems you disagree with, I certainly respect your opinion.  It is, however, extremely difficult to carry through in practice.

Remember that no-one pays me to run my website; in fact, like all hobbies, it costs me money.  And I have no hidden “political” (nor economic) agenda – communism has failed, anyway.

To see information about a new myth I have just heard (October 2008), about the self-timer or delayed-action mechanism, see here.

To go back to the beginning of the section on the cameras click: The Cameras

To see other frequently-asked questions about the Pentacon Six, click here.

To go on to the lens review, click below.
Lens review


© TRA December 2007, November 2008