A Retrofitted Exakta II

A fixed-prism Exakta II? Nah...

I bought this Exakta II, as it was different. Instead of the non-interchangeable waist-level finder it had a fixed prism on the top. Strange. Obviously, a rare version, or a private retrofit.

Exakta II *2.2 (A&R v2) #671607, unmodified Exakta II *2.2 (A&R v2) #668119, retrofitted with a prism

The Vivisection

Taking off the bayonet flange and the front plate brought the answer. This, after all, was a retrofit; neatly done, but not a factory modification. It also revealed one more thing: Exakta II bodies were already internally prepared to take prism finders. Clearly, the rounded cut-off in the front had a specific purpose: to provide room for the finder lock mechanism.

The finder well of an Exakta II *2.2 (A&R v2) #671607, unmodified

The finder well of an Exakta II *2.2 (A&R v2) #668119, retrofitted to accept prism finders

This indicates that Ihagee must have been getting ready for interchangeable finders for some time already. It was time: the competition Contax introduced a prism finder, so much more convenient than a hooded one, in the same year (1949) as Exakta II was released.

In their new, 2003 book Aguila and Rouah list a rare Exakta II model (*2.3, A&R v3) in which finder could be replaced by the user after removing the front plate.

A close look at our modified body shows that just a few modifications had to be done, quite simple even for the proverbial village blacksmith:

  • A large, rectangular cutout in the rear of the finder well;
  • A smaller one in the rear part of the camera top, to accommodate the bottom part of the prism finder eyepiece;
  • Taking off the four outer vertical edges of the well to let a prism finder slip on;
  • Taking off 2 mm or so off the vertical protrusions at the sides of the mirror chamber front. Note that in the unmodified camera (with a slightly later s/n), these protrusions are already gone;
  • Sloping the interior of the front wall of the finder well. In the original camera that wall has a constant thickness; in the modified one it is almost sharp at the top edge. This was needed to accommodate the sloped, chromed "apron" over the finder base front.

Lo and behold, the modified camera accepts all early prism (P.1) and hooded (H.1) finders!

Still, these modifications, as simple as they were, had to be done, as the Exakta II would not use the Varex prisms, in spite of being almost prism-ready. We may only guess the reasons of this incompatibility. Most probably, the new finder specifications were still evolving when Exakta II was being manufactured.

I have never seen the rare Exakta II *2.3, but its hooded finder is shown in the A&R 2003 book, and it does nor have the big protrusion in the back (which in all other hooded finders serves as a placeholder for the prism finder eyepiece). Perhaps the originally planned prism finder was taller, with its eyepiece located higher?

A story behind the camera

Quality cameras of those years are special; there is a personal story behind each. We can also figure out some things about this one.

First of all, the camera has an engraving on the top plate: "Cz". These are not initials (lowercase "z"). I have no doubt this is an abbreviation for the Polish name Czeslaw: no other language I know has a first name starting from these letters, pronounced as one sound and often used as a pair in abbreviations.

Czeslaw must have been a well-heeled, advanced amateur, or a professional photographer: the camera cost him more than six month's average pay in Poland. You could buy a decent Soviet-made Leica clone (Fed, or Zorki) at a one-fourth of that price.

Then, in 1951, the Exakta Varex is released, with prism finders available — so much more convenient to use than the hooded ones. Instead of going through the totally unreasonable expense and buying the new model, Czeslaw gets the old one retrofitted with one of the new prisms. His Exakta is as good and as current as any model to appear in the next twenty years, and perfectly usable beyond that.

Actually, my old hometown of Lodz (where I bought the camera in 2000) for many years hosted the best place to do the job — the state-run Central Photo-Repair Shop, the best-equipped and best-manned place of this kind in the Communist Poland. Its technicians were regularly trained at Ihagee and Zeiss. (In the Sixties my girlfriend's father worked there, what a convenience for a teenage photographer!) Even my current Exakta fixer-upper, Mr. Zenek ("If it is an Exakta, it can always be fixed"), is a graduate of that enterprise, which means that I have to carry from Maryland to Poland any camera I need lubricated or fixed. It is easier just to buy them there.

Anyway, I am sure Czeslaw was using his Exakta II well into the Eighties. He must be over eighty now, if still alive, but he would be glad to know that his prized tool has found a good place for dignified retirement.

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Posted 2003/01/07; last updated 2004/01/25 Copyright © 2003-2004 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak