Small Is Beautiful

Exa camera

I am surely aware that this headline may not fit to the currently dominating Zeitgeist of „Bigger is Better“. But we have to move our thoughts into an entirely different time. The Exa-cameras are an expression of the meagre and modest conditions in a just newly formed entity called German Democratic Republic – the Soviet-occupied part of Germany after 1945. This region traditionally did have a high economical potential with its manifold industrial enterprises mainly structured in medium-sized businesses. But just because of this industrial characteristic this region was even more burdened with loss and destruction because of the bombardment by Britain and the US during the war followed by the dismantlement of plants and huge parts of the technical infrastructure by the Soviet Union. When this East-German state was finally formed in October 1949 the residents had to start right from scratch in many fields. And understandably in the beginning this had to be done with as much as possible output from as less as possible input.

Kiné Exacta 1948

Stating this I have to admit that there were exceptions. Luxuriousness and application of material didn't have to be restricted when the authorities were speculating for a benefit on a multiplied level. One of the really pre-eminent industrial products of that category was the Kiné-Exakta of the Ihagee Camera Works in Dresden. Being almost entirely destroyed in the bombardments of February 1945, this factory started to make the Exakta again as soon as possible. This camera was seen as one of the most advanced cameras in those days. In the mid 1930s constructor Karl Nüchterlein tried to solve every problem connected with the combination of the single lens reflex type of camera with the 35mm cinè film. He applied several dozens of patents in this regard. As a result of that the Exakta was still up to date when it was relaunched in 1948.

Exakta Adverstisment Popular Photography May 1949

Both the local authorities and the occupying forces showed huge interest in the resumption of an Exakta production because there was a huge demand for such a camera in all over the world. On the other hand there were no competitors in sight. A huge market that stood open entirely just longing to be satisfied. Especially eligible was an export to the United States of America, since a return of hard Dollar currency could be expected. This is the reason why the Exakta showed at least the same quality level it was made before the war. This meant for example that the whole aluminium die-cast camera body had to be galvanized in several steps just to get these thin shiny chromed frames around the camera. You have to remember that this took place during a period when people did not even have enough coal to get a warm room in a city that was almost entirely destroyed. Electricity was available just for a few hours a day and no one didn't have a single chance to eat one’s fill.

Exa 0 - early model with old flash contacts

But East-Germany – the Soviet satellite state – did see its economical advancement after the war, too. Of course not on the same level as Western Germany, since the East did not benefit from the Marshall Plan, etc. But there surly was a perceptible progress. “Arisen From Ruins” – this was the title of the East-German national anthem. And it wasn't an exaggeration.

Exa Advertisment Popular Photography 1951

The mechanical concept of the EXA

Confiding in its own technical capabilities and the profitability of the Exakta, the Ihagee Dresden took the risk to establish a completely new, much more basic camera which could be produced at an extensively lower cost rate. However it should offer the same fundamental characteristics of the Exakta Varex as a single lens reflex camera with interchangeable viewfinder elements. The main idea for a low cost version of the Exakta was a much simpler shutter that was conceived in a way that the parts necessary for the mirror mechanism already served as one half of the shutter. “Flap-” or “hatch-shutter” (“Klappenverschluß”) was the internal denotation for this type of shutter at the Ihagee. Since it rand down more or less directly behind the lens instead in front of the film it was not really a focal plane shutter. This peculiarity did not allow any narrow slit widths between the two hatches, as this would have resulted in massive vignetting of the pupil of the lens and therefore a huge loss in the efficiency of the lens. Thus not even a shutter time of a 1/200 of a second could be reached – the most substantial downside of this construction. The fact though that this shutter was made for more than 35 years and build into more than a million of these cameras shows that reaching short shutter times was not always the primary requisition of the photographical amateur. Obviously much more important was to be able to have a large viewfinder image for composing the picture and setting the sharpness properly. And not even much more expensive viewfinder cameras could provide these two features although they may have offered a 1/250 or even a 1/500 of a second as shortest shutter time.

Above: The two hatches that form both the mirror and the shutter mechanism. At the bottom: The principle how these two hatches work together in the chassis of the Exa camera (cut model).

These shutter times are controlled by a well-arranged lever mechanism on the left side of the mirror housing. The first hatch starts the second one by opening a pawl keeping the second hatch in place. The requested temporal delay is achieved by shifting the trigger point of that release: The later the first hatch starts the second one on its way up the longer is the resulting time of exposure. When setting the shortest shutter time the springs of the second hatch get an additional tension. This simple mechanism entirely made of metal parts turned out to be quite rigid and long lasting. But it also required a fairly high operating experience at the stages of assembling and adjusting the shutter. Adjusting the correct shutter time was carried out mainly by changing the tension of the springs of the hatches located in their hinges plus shifting the trigger point for the second hatch. Both was done by a lot of bending and inflecting of springs and levers which always requires well trained personnel. It soon turned out that this particular characteristic in the production process of the simple EXA should have a noteworthy impact on the history of this camera.

Exa shutter mechanism

The “System-Exa”

There can’t be any doubt that East Germany was a totalitarian regime. When Walter Ulbricht – the later head of the communist party and leader of the state – was sent from Moscow back to Berlin by Stalin in May 1945 he immediately started to form networks and build up a new administration that made sure Soviet interests were implemented. “It has to look like democracy, but we have to have everything in our hands” – this is how Ulbricht and his attitude was often cited by the contemporary witness and later Eastern Bloc analyst Wolfgang Leonhard. The important step that consolidated the power already came less than a year later in April 1946 when the actual erasure of the Social Democratic Party was disguised as a merger with the Communist Party. The next years until the foundation of the German Democratic Republic in 1949 were filled with ambitions to gain absolute power for this Socialist Unity Party (SED).

Walter Ulbricht 1950

Walter Ulbricht – leader of the Stalinist party and prone to a cult of personality at the same level as his idol Stalin – has himself carried arround "on the arms of the youth" in Dresden in October 1950. But in fact the East-German population hated him and around three million people fled the small country until August 1961. [Deutsche Fotothek, Datensatz 70604451.]

By 1952 all hopes for a German reunification were gone. Furthermore the Cold War began to overshadow all aspects of global politics. Josef Stalin, who was still traumatized by the German attack from 1941 and had become more and more paranoid during his last years, wanted East-Germany to become a strong bastion against “imperialism”. Moreover the GDR should function as an important armament supplier for the Eastern Bloc. This drastic alteration of the Soviet Deutschlandpolitik was officially declared in July 1952 by the SED under the slogan of a "systematic implementation of socialism". One of the drastic consequences of this step was the shifting of the economic impetus to the heavy industry to ensure the requested arms production. As a result of that the share of the consumer goods on the production dropped down immensely and therefore seven years after the war the material prosperity of the East German population was even depleting again. This economic recession combined with the long years of ideological paternalism by the party plus the leadership-gap in the Eastern Bloc after the death of Stalin in March 1953 provoked a riot of vast parts of the population that really threatened the power of the communist leaders in East-Germany. Taking back control and putting this rebellion of the 17 June 1953 down now only was possible by the intervention of Soviet armed forces stationed on the territory of the GDR.

System Exa Rheinmetall Sömmerda

Since the position of Walter Ulbricht was affected drastically for a short period after this riot he now showed the willingness for concessions. With the “New Course” the party abandoned some of the central policies of the last eleven months. One major point was to increase the production of consumer goods massively in order to emulate the West-German economic affluence (“Wirtschaftswunder”). The strategy of the party was to lower the resentment of the East-German population by giving them something to buy. And one of the really pre-eminent symbols of this New Course was this “System Exa”.


As stated above the production at the Ihagee Camera Works in Dresden was busy in full capacity for export-demands. And the GDR really needed the hard western currency earned with this export so there was no chance to divert anything for the domestic market. But since such a small amateur camera was really desired by the population government officials were looking for a surrogate producer for such a “domestic Exa”. They chose the facilities of VEB Rheinmetall Sömmerda in Thuringia – a producer of unit record equipment, bookkeeping and office machines that was underemployed by that time. Already a few weeks after the riots of the 17th of June this plant developed and produced a simple 6x6 Bakelite box-camera called “Perfekta” and actually made 100,000 (!) units of it until the end of the year 1953. [cf. Kresse, Walter: Entwicklung der Fotoindustrie im neuen Kurs; in: Die Fotografie, 6/1954, p. 153f.] This “success” was exploited propagandistically to accuse the established camera making industry in East-Germany not to do enough to secure the prosperity of the people. The above cited article by Walter Kresse also announces that there will be further production of cameras in Sömmerda. Today we know that this turned out to be the Weltax 6x6 folding camera and the System Exa.

System Exa Rheinmetall

The embossed plant number 37/286/0000 of the Rheinmetall factory in the leatherette of the System Exa. Another characteristic is the "Rheinmetall" lettering on the waist level finder of these cameras.

Unfortunately the production of the System Exa turned out to be a disaster. The staff was not trained to assemble such a precision SLR camera. Also the quality of the parts did not cope with the demanded standards. Thus the production figures of this camera remained altogether low – just several thousand were made. Furthermore there are reports that a huge share never left the factory or came back from the retailers because of huge quality problems. As a result no one can say how many of these System Exas really exist. The differing numbers stated in the German literature are contradictory and doubtful. But one thing is sure: The fact that this “experiment” of pushing an industrial development by party officials was aborted clandestinely after one year makes the System Exa the only rare model of the whole family.

Exa Advertisment 1957
Exa model 1961

Cosmetical changes, a new waist level finder and the general availability of auto-diaphragm standard lenses: Exa model 1961

Exa models with focal plane shutter

Although the Exa remained a stabile export camera the Ihagee in Dresden managed to satisfy the domestic demand nonetheless. The Ihagee Exa gradually found its way into the East German stores by the late 1950s and stayed there for almost exactly 30 years. This period around 1960 was perhaps the best era the Ihagee had experienced after 1945. The Exakta still sold satisfactorily in the Federal Republic of Germany and on the US market. The wind of change could already be sensed but yet there was no Japanese single lens reflex camera to be tantamount to the Exakta or other German cameras of that type. We all know that this situation was changing alarmingly quickly during the following years.

Exa II

But in 1959 the world was still in perfect order for the Dresden camera industry. In spring of that year the just merged Camera- and Cinematography Works ("VEB Kamera- und Kinowerke, since 1964 "Pentacon") came out with the Praktica IV – a single lens reflex with a fixed prism viewfinder. It had taken the camera constructors ten years (after the Contax S was launched in 1949) to recognize that most of the amateurs prefer the true-sided eye-levelled finder of the prism type before any waist level type. The Ihagee must have perceived this early because many customers bought the prism finder additionally to the waist level finder their Exa was equipped with or they bought this camera just with a prism finder right from the beginning. This fact must have lead to the conclusion to bring out a camera with a fixed prism finder as well. Since however the hitherto Exa model should remain on offer the Ihagee needed another feature to set the new model apart from the customary one.

Exa II shutter

The groundbreaking step was to turn away from the simple hatch-type shutter and to develop a genuine focal plane shutter that still fit into that compact housing the Exa was famous for. In order to reach this ambitious target the only chance was to construct a focal plane shutter not running in the typical horizontal direction but across the short side of the film gate. I just want to remind you that the former Zeiss Ikon AG in Dresden had failed exactly at that point when they tried to implant their metal roller blind shutter from the Contax rangefinder cameras into a single lens reflex (project “Syntax”). The general problem which occurs here is that the rolls for the shutter curtains have to be placed at a spot that is naturally reserved for the ground glass (and the prism) of the viewfinder. However the Ihagee constructors managed to place the shutter into the existing tiny chassis of the Exa without a substantial cut-off of the viewfinder image.

Not only that it was possible now to use ALL Exakta lenses without any vignetting on the Exa, but by adding an escapement this shutter provided a gapless row of shutter times between 1/2 and a 1/250 of a second. To reach this extraordinary compactness the escapement and the rest of the shutter gear were dispersed to both sides of the mirror housing. The literature names Günter Fischer as responsible constructor for the Exa II. In contrast I have found a West-German patent No. DE977,643 from 29 December 1953 which describes the shutter and especially the necessary escapement to ensure an equal exposure despite the short travelling distance of the two curtains. This patent denominates Erhard Loose and Heinz Bachmann as designing engineers of the shutter. This Exa II was launched successfully at the Leipzig Autumn Fair 1959.

Exa II Ihagee Dresden

Final check of the infinity-adjustments of an Exa II in the Ihagee factory in Dresden in autum 1959 [Photographed by Höhne/Pohl, Deutsche Fotothek, Datensatz 70602937.].

Another important step for the Exa came in 1962/63 when both the models with hatch-shutter and with focal plan shutter were put in a unified camera body. The new shape of this body with larger plain surfaces and rounded curves followed the prevailing taste of that era. The back door of this Exa IIa could be removed entirely now for easier loading of the film. And there was a hinged crank for film rewinding, too. The most substantial change however was that the angle the cocking lever had to be moved was much smaller now. This sped up the work with the Exa IIa immensely.

Exa IIa
Exa IIb

Whereas the Exa IIb from 1964 “just” added a quick return mirror to the existing focal plane models the significant and final revision came with the Exa 500 in 1966. The engineers at the Ihagee managed to trim the focal plane shutter to feature an additional 1/500 of a second. These achievements were possible without any change in the outer dimensions of the Exa. Therefore the Exa 500 can be seen as the most complete Exa ever made. Especially the versions with a bright Fresnel screen are still desirable cameras – much easier to use than the contemporary Exakta VX1000.

Exa 500

Actually this Exakta was supposed to ensure the prosperity of the Ihagee in a way it did during the last 30 years. But now that Japanese top of the line SLR cameras like the Nikon F or the Topcon RE were launched – or even the Praktica mat with TTL-metering – the competitiveness of the Exakta began to fall rapidly. Some insiders in Germany credited the reason for this development to a lack of technical capability at the Ihagee after the war. Already the disaster with the Exakta 6x6 in 1954 was interpreted in a way that a central person like Karl Nüchterlein, who was killed during the last weeks of the war, simply could not be replaced. This strong point cannot be neglected. On the other hand I just showed that there was quite a lot innovation at the Ihagee in the 50s and 60s – thus relating to the Exa models and not to the Exakta. As a result of my research on the Ihagee patent literature I made the following discovery: In 1960 the Ihagee Kamerawerke i.V. Dresden lost all its West-German patents to a just established enterprise called Ihagee Kamerawerke AG Frankfurt/Main. This was possible because the Dresden factory originally was founded by the Dutchman Johan Steenbergen and therefore never could be nationalized (no Volkseigener Betrieb). The Ihagee Dresden instead was held in trust for 20 years during GDR-time. Practically still property of Steenbergen he founded his Ihagee a second time in the Federal Republic of Germany. At this point the level of innovations in Dresden vanished entirely. It became impossible to develop patentable solutions, as there was an immediate threat to lose all the connected patent-rights to the Ihagee in Frankfurt/Main. As a result of that the Ihagee Dresden was mainly excluded from the innovation department within the new Camera- and Cinematography Works (“Pentacon”) – a photo concern founded in 1959 merging all the other (nationalized) camera makers in Dresden and surroundings. So no TTL-metering technology, no metal focal plane shutter and other developments of Pentacon for Ihagee cameras!

Exa IIb

Facing this situation the Ihagee Dresden was just slowly fading during the 1960s. It remained as an independent company as long as the Exakta was selling on the world market with profit. This situation finally came to an end in the beginning of 1968 when the Ihagee plant became a part of Pentacon. Although there was a last new Dresden-made Exakta coming out in 1969 – the RTL1000 – it was clearly visible that this camera was just a by-product of the new Praktica L series launched the same year. Therefore I tend to call this camera the “Exaktica”.

All Quiet on the Eastern Front?

However the decline of the Ihagee did not mean the end of the Exa. There were even new models of the basic line with hatch-shutter. Admittedly the innovations were quite moderate. The most substantial change came with the Exa I ("model 1963") which was launched at the Leipzig Autum Fair 1962 [cf. Fotofalter 12/1962, p. 360.]. As already mentioned above this camera got a completely new body design and the setting of the shutter times was done with a knob now instead of the previous lever.

Exa Ia

The next model Exa Ia that came out in 1964 added a cocking lever. Pentacon continued its production after the last bits of the Ihagee had vanished. The Exa Ia was made for more than a decade and got largely spread in Eastern Germany. In the second half of the 1970s Pentacon decided to relaunch this camera as the model Exa Ib. The main change was the replacement of the Exakta bayonet mount with a Praktica screw mount. Along with this conversion the Exa Ib was equipped with an internal stop down mechanism for M42 lenses with automatic aperture. The third little advancement was a rewind crank adopted from the contemporary Praktica cameras. The rest of the camera and especially the shutter mechanism were more or less identical with the original Exa dating back to 1950.

Exa Ib

Despite its simplicity the Exa remained one of the most popular cameras in East-Germany. Not only that the camera was cheap – it also was one of the few cameras to be broadly available at all. Even in peripheral regions there was a chance to obtain one of these Exas at local photo stores. This was almost impossible with the Prakticas. During 25 years from 1964 (the founding of Pentacon) and 1989 (the fall of the wall) more than 80% (!) of the single lens reflex cameras made in Eastern Germany went into export [cf. Jehmlich, Pentacon, 2009, p. 179]. Unlike the Prakticas the Exas mainly stayed on the domestic market. And since they kept their affordable price over all those years – this was by the way an ideological principle of the communist leadership – almost automatically the Exas remained an “evergreen”.

Exa Ic

But this politically forced stability of prices slowly turned into a huge problem for the manufacturer. Whereas the Prakticas were equipped with covers made of plastic since 1969 the Exa Ib still had the traditional look with covers made of chromed brass. Since the supply of metals has always been a problem in Eastern Germany the outer covers of the Exa were step by step replaced by plastic during the 1980s. Around 1985, when the surrogating-process of brass with plastic was accomplished, the last model of the Exa was born. This all black Exa Ic actually fit the prevailing taste of that era perfectly. Since the inner parts and the alumium chassis remained unchanged the Exa 1c did not feel cheap at all.

The last price of the Exa Ic in the East-German domestic trade catalogue from 1989 was still 167,- Mark for the body with waist level finder and the basic matte screen. These prices really hadn’t changed since the Exa I came out in 1963. But this was more than 25 years ago now! In fact this communist ideology of stabile prices had slowly developed into one of the main causes of the economical crisis the German Democratic Republic had to face in the second half of the 1980s. This country was on its way to bankruptcy when surprisingly the wall came down in autumn 1989...

Exa camera advertisment

Advertisment for Exa-cameras from 1961. Tenor: You, me, him, her: Exa reflex cameras fulfill the requirements of all of us.

Marco Kröger summer 2020

last revision: 10 March 2024