The Kowa Six Medium Format Film Camera

Love for the The Kowa Six

Guest Blog by Mike Sherman

I’d like to introduce you all to one of my favorite cameras – the Kowa Six!  The Kowa Six takes 6x6 photos on 120 or 220 film.  They made three versions of this camera; the Kowa Six, the Kowa MM, and the Kowa Super 66.  The first model was launched in 1968 and the line ended with the Super 66 just six years later.  This system had to compete with Hasselblad quality on the high end and Bronica’s lower cost on the other, and the first models did not have interchangeable film backs.  A combination of poor marketing and brand loyalty may have played a part in the short life span of the Kowa line. 


                 80mm – Varanasi, India

80mm – Yangon, Myanmar

The Kowa Six has a really unique design.  The MM version added a multiple exposure switch and mirror lock capability.  The Super 66 has removable backs (6x6 and 6x45) as well as a Polaroid back.  The waist level finder slides out forward and can be exchanged with a 45 or 90 degree prism or a chimney finder that has a light meter, though I’ve never been able to get mine to work reliably.  I use a hand held light meter as it’s much more accurate anyway, but I prefer using the prism as my eyesight isn’t so hot anymore and it blocks out more light.  One of the nice features of the Super 66 is the interchangeable backs, so there’s no need to move the 45 or 90 degree prism to open the back.   If you use a tripod, you have to use a special tripod plate if you want to open the back without taking the camera off of the tripod.  Ross Yerkes has some of these for sale.  If you don’t have one, just take it off the tripod between rolls. 

                     80mm - Varanasi, India

It’s a leaf shutter lens camera, meaning that the shutter is in the lens and not the camera body.  One advantage is that it will flash sync at any speed.  This is huge compared to most cameras of this era with sync speeds of 1/60th of a second.  You can use ‘mirror lock’ on the MM or Super 66 and the self-timer for macro shots where you want minimal vibrations.  These have very little vibration handheld and good mirror dampening, and the weight help too.  The leaf shutters have three settings built in to the lenses - M (flash bulbs), X sync (flash strobe) and V (a self-timer of roughly 10-12 seconds).  The camera uses a non-instant return mirror, so you have to advance the film by turning the knob before you will see through the lens again.   

The Kowa Six, MM and Super 66 all take left handed grips that insert into a bracket on the left side of the camera.  These grips have a cold shoe flash mount and a chrome button to release the shutter that can also lock to prevent accidents.  I always use the grip with mine unless I’m using a tripod – it makes it easier to carry and makes handheld shots a breeze. 

                                   
150mm - Yangon, Myanmar

80mm – Yangon, Myanmar

The most popular lenses are the standard 80mm f2.8, the 150mm f3.5 and the 55mm f3.5, which translate roughly to a 50mm, a 75mm and a 28mm in 135mm format.   There is also a very rare and wide 19mm f4.5, 35mm f4.5, a 40mm f4, a 110mm f5.6 macro lens, 200mm f4.5, a 250mm f5.6 and a 500mm f8 lens (also extremely rare).  The standard lenses are pretty cheap compared to other brands in their class and they are extremely high quality.  A quick search on flickr or google for photos taken with any of these lenses will give you a good idea of their sharpness and great reputation.  The lenses come in chrome or black versions, and aside from the chrome being slightly older and some variation in filter sizes, there isn’t much real difference between them.  Some people avoid the black 85mm due to reports of back focusing, and I use a chrome 85mm for this reason. 

Shutter speeds range from T, 1 – 1/500th of a second.  There is no ‘B’ setting, so to get around this you use the ‘T’ setting, which is not really a shutter release.  It opens the shutter but it must be closed by gently turning the shutter speed ring.  I just cover the lens with a dark cloth before I touch the ring to avoid camera shake.  The camera is easy to load – be sure you line up the start arrow with the black dot on the side of the film chamber before you close the back.  Then crank the knob forward gently until the number ‘1’ appears in the counter window.  I recommend using the knob to advance the film and not the winder arm as it can crack or break under pressure. 


80mm – Varanasi, India

80mm – Varanasi, India

The Kowa cameras have interchangeable focusing screens ranging from matte, horizontal prism and grid, and these are fairly easy to find on the bay if you’re patient.  In general, don’t expect to find much Kowa Six gear out there – it was a short lived line of cameras that was not produced in great numbers, and some of the lenses like the 35mm or the 40mm are really hard to find.  Accessories include a very useful focusing lever (similar to the Hasselblad style), three different extension tubes for macro work, lens hoods, a bellows system, a sports finder and some other gadgets.  You need to use a Kowa strap with it because the strap lugs are one-of-a-kind as far as I know.  Some of the Optec straps might work but I haven’t tried it.  I use an extra wide strap attachment that you can add to the thin straps by wrapping them around it with Velcro – they sell them everywhere and your shoulder will thank you for getting one.  The cameras are a bit heavy, but not quite as heavy as a Pentax 67.  More like a 645N.  I find that the quality of the lenses, sharper photos and the square format more than makes up for the weight.  



You should be able to pick up a nice Kowa Six body with an 85mm lens for around 250 to 400 dollars, sometimes much less depending on condition and luck.  Just be patient and do some research before buying one.  Download the manual and when you shoot with it don’t force anything on the camera.  When you advance the film, do it slowly and gently.  As Mike says, ‘no violence’ – or if you prefer Lezlie’s motto, ‘it’s all about the love’.   I recommend having it mailed directly to a serviceman for a CLA before you even see it. 

I’ve had all of my Kowa bodies and most of my lenses CLA’d and have never had any problems with them.  These cameras are forty years old.  You wouldn’t expect a 40 year old car to run well without even giving it a tune up first, right?  The small extra cost is worth the lack of frustration in the future.  I can recommend two repairmen, Ross Yerkes at (323) 256-1018 or yerkescamera@aol.com.  Another is Mike Jenkins at (503) 236-6109 or NEDSNAKE@msn.com.

Mike Sherman is a long-time FPP podcast listener. His images can be for on Flickr here.

Comments

halka's picture
Just a note, any back- or front- focusing issues on an non-autofocus SLR are the fault of the body, certainly not the lens. What you see on ground glass is what you get, unless the glass isn't shimmed correctly.
Michael Sherman's picture
Good to know - thanks! So I guess the black 85mm is nothing to fear. Just a lot of jabber from users who do not know any better.
McFortner's picture

I have an original Kowa/SIX with two lenses, a f2.8/85mm and a f3.2/150mm. I got lucky and mine came with the original strap as well. It's a very nice camera, and is sturdy, all-metal construction makes it heavy enough (4 pounds/1.81 kg) to be used as a self-defense weapon too! :)

One thing about the SIX is that you can use 22o film in it as well. You just rotate the pressure plate 180 degrees and turn a knob on the right hand side to "22" and you're ready to go. While you can't unload mid roll, it is still a nice feature to have.

And the lenses are really nice. The rolls I've shot through mine have resulted in very sharp and pleasing photos. And you have a DOF lever on the lenses that stop it down for composing if needed, but you have to hold it down or it snaps back up once you release it. Now I haven't experienced the focus shift that others talk about, but I don't take multiple shots of the same subject back-to-back either so your mileage may vary.

I have the waist-level hood chimney and the 90 degree (unmetered) prism finder. Both are nice and the view is bright for focusing and composure. The only problem is that for glasses users, the prism eyepiece is solid metal and will scratch your glasses. Since I've found no evidence of a rubber eyepiece for it, I had to get creative. I ended up using black Sugru around it to cushion it. Sugru is a silicone-based glue/adhesive that cures soft and won't scratch my glasses that removes easily if needed. I use it on all my older cameras that have metal eyepieces to save my glasses.

And as I was typing this I found the Super 66 grip shown on the last photo here for it. From what I've read it will fit the SIX with little to no spacers on the left hand side. I had been using a cold-to-hot shoe adapter on the left hand side rail but the grip comes with a cold shoe on it so the adapter will have to move when I mount the grip.

So, all in all I've been very happy with this camera and I'm glad I got it.

Michael

---useful links---

Camera Wiki entry: http://camera-wiki.org/wiki/Kowa_Six
Kowa SIX, 6MM, and Super 66 FAQ: http://kowa.tuberadio.ru/faq
Sugru: https://sugru.com/

shakmati's picture
Thanks Michae (McFortner), Great tip about surgu - that is really useful stuff and should work well on a lot of my cameras. That tube radio link swiped all its images from my photo stream without asking, and some of them were taken with other cameras. Still, it's a good resource for information. Glad to see you are enjoying the camera. Thanks for the DOF lever info too - I never noticed that before but now I will use it. Take care, Michael
Bill Kirby's picture
Thanks for the review. I got a Kowa 6 on the bay for a very good price about a year ago. I lucked out and it seems to work perfectly. At first I wasn't thrilled with it, but I find that the more I use it, the more I like it. I have one of the left hand grips, but I'm still dithering on how much I like it. It is useful for carrying but I find the high torque of a heavy camera at the end of a long lever a bit difficult to hold still. Also, the shutter button on the grip has a long travel that sometimes forces me to stab at it, which can be a problem at slow speeds. Still, it's been a very pleasant surprise for a camera I bought as a "flyer" on a very low purchase price.
ckirby's picture
Sorry about the double post. Didn't allow enough time for processing.
Dave Bryan's picture
Great article on the Kowa, I only knew about them from the magazine in Modern Photography when I was kid. But Mike, I really like your pics from India, they are evocative and truly special. Best, Dave b.
shakmati's picture

Thanks Dave - what is your flickr address?  I'd like to see some of your photos.  

Ross Yerkes's picture
Kowa users, don't worry about using the crank and winding fast. The problem arises when the camera jams up and people try and force it to wind. The Six and Super 66 do not have mirror up provision but the Self Timer serves that purpose very well. I recently got in quite a few lenses and accessories, including a 35, - a 2x Tele Extender, and a 500.
Michael Ward's picture
Handled a used 66 when I was a student and it was a choice between it and a cheaper Rollei T the Rollei won! But like a lovely long past girlfriend it was never forgotten!
James Mickelson's picture
I had a Kowa Six for years and loved it. It worked superbly. But being a dumb-s$%t I dropped it. So I bought another one which came with a 150mm lens. I lost (broke) my 85mm. Nice camera except when I put in a roll of 120 film. Then it jambs as soon as I wind it to the first frame. If I release the tension on the back cover by twisting the locking lever it frees up the firing mechanism and all is well. Until I lock the back down again. Then it jambs. Any answers would be helpful. Yes I know Ross Yerkes is still around but retirement rears it's ugly financial head. Hoping I can get an answer here. Thanks a bunch. James Mickelson

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