Fed — a Soviet Leica clone

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The Soviet-made Fed (or FED, as the name is really an acronym) was not just one of many Leica clones which were made all over the world. It was perhaps the historically most important camera in the Soviet Union, and the only one named after a mass murderer, and made in a prison.

It was built in the then-Soviet Ukraine, in a factory at the "Dzerzhinsky Labor Commune" in Kharkov, really a detention center for underage "delinquents" (in those years you could be classified as such because your uncle had ten acres of land twenty years ago). The "commune" was run by the Soviet secret police (NKVD) as a home for "homeless children". (Ukraine had then millions of those, as their parents were deliberately starved to death by Stalin's policies. Twelve million perished.)

"FED" are initials of the founder and first head of the Soviet omnipresent and omnipotent secret police, a Polish-born Feliks Edmundowich Dzerzhinsky (really: Dzierzynski), a man responsible for millions of deaths in the years between the Soviet Revolution and his death in 1926.

The industrial-scale production of this Leica (model II) clone started in 1934 and lasted, with very minor modifications, until 1955. This was the model referred to as just FED, without a number following the name. (Fed-2 and others followed, lasting up to the Eighties.)

The six or so major versions of the first, original FED did not differ much. The only significant change was that post-WWII models have the lens mount fully Leica-compatible (M39 Leica Thread Mount), while earlier ones — similar, but not quite.

A cosmetic, but notable, change: after the war, initials of the secret police (NKVD) were taken off the camera logo engraving. Also, the shutter speed sequence became standard, unlike in Leica.

The resemblance is obvious: the camera looks very much like the Leica II of 1930s. This one was probably made in 1954, being the last variant of the original FED.

Like the Leica, it has a collapsible lens, dual-image rangefinder, and to load the film you remove the camera bottom (not the back), with limited access to the film channel; a clumsy way, but claimed to provide better dimensional stability.

The camera is compact and sturdy, and the finish, while not first-class, is passable.

I bought this particular one in 2001, on a Warsaw photo flea market, for $25; barely, if at all, used. I wasn't planning to buy a Fed, but would you pass such an offer?

S/n 464323, with a FED (Industar) lens 50mm/3.5 lens.

The top of camera is uncluttered: you do not need an instruction manual to start using it right away. Note the two eyepieces: the left one for the rangefinder, and the right one for viewing.

Important: Like with many focal plane shutters of those years, the shutter speed dial should not be turned until the shutter has been cocked. It is very easy to break the shutter otherwise!

The accessory shoe was not intended for flash: this Fed did not have flash synchronization at all. The shoe was rather for auxiliary viewfinders. Yes, the lens could be removed after unscrewing the tall pin (clearly visible in the picture below), and you could mount another one.

The camera was usually sold with the standard FED 50mm/3.5 lens, very similar to the Soviet Industar one. Generally it was not bad, although the quality could vary quite widely.

The lens collapses almost flush with the body, and the focusing lever would lock itself in the infinity position, requiring a press of a button to move it from there. There is a depth-of-field scale provided.

A number of other lenses for this camera has been made, ranging from 28 mm to 105 mm, but these are not easy to find.

Camera specs at a glance

Not much to elaborate upon: just what is needed to take a picture.

  • Shutter: focal-plane (cloth, horizontal); 1/25s to 1/500s and B.
  • Standard: coated FED (similar to Industar, or Leica's Elmar), 50 mm/3.5; focusing from 1 m.
  • Aperture: F/3.5 to F/16, strong fingernails required.
  • Film transport: winding knob at the right, rewind knob at the left.
  • Flash synchronization: none.
  • Viewing: a Newtonian viewfinder, and a coupled dual-image rangefinder with separate eyepiece.
  • Self-timer: none.
  • Film loading: detachable bottom secured by a single rotating knob.

Later FEDs and other Soviet Leica clones

In the late Forties, with the not-yet-rebuilt FED factory being unable to satisfy the demand (or rather, in Soviet terms, to meet the quota), some FEDs started to be assembled in the Krasnogorsk Optical Factory in Russia. After a year or so, those cameras got a separate brand name: Zorki, still being an exact clone of the FED.

In mid-Fifties both factories released newer, improved models, and the lines diverged, both from each other, and from the original Leica.

FED-2 (1955) had, notably, a wider-base rangefinder combined with a viewfinder, and a detachable back, which makes the camera usable even today. FED-3 added slower shutter speeds. The later models went the mass-market way and are not really interesting.

Web resources

Here are some resources I was able to find. Remember, however, that Web articles come and go, so I cannot guarantee that these are still alive when you are reading this.

  • FED pages at the Communist Cameras by Nathan Dayton, a major source of information, and enjoyable reading, too.
  • Stephen Rothery's Guide to Fed, Zorki & Zenit, which seemed off the air in 2006, is back, better and more informative than ever.
  • The Web site of Stephen Gandy, a camera collector and dealer, has a page on Soviet Leica Screw Mount cameras without a reference to FED (original), but useful to find your way around various models.
  • A priceless FED resource: fedka.com, a site by Ukrainian-born Yuri Boguslavsky of New York, vintage Soviet camera lover, collector, and dealer. Among others, the site has a copy of Oskar Fricke's article on the FED and Dzherzhinsky Commune.

Unfortunately, an enjoyable and informative, article by Stephen Rosenbach, Rangefinder Cameras of the Soviet Era, accompanied with serious photography done with those vintage cameras, seems no longer available at the original URL.

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Posted 2003/12/07; last updated 2007/08/26 Copyright © 2003-2007 by J.Andrzej Wrotniak.