Meet the EXA 1b and Its Unusual “Barrel” Shutter

Despite its unusual shutter, the EXA 1b could be a good and cheap 35mm option for those who are looking for cameras with waist-level viewfinder.

Lovers of old cameras will probably agree with me that the biggest fear in buying a film camera is in a hidden mechanical defect. Most often, these defects are caused by not using the camera for many years, when the rust has already etched the metal, the grease solidified, and dust accumulated in every nook and cranny. Curtain shutter, the most common type of the shutter, is unfortunately also the one most exposed to the effects of years of neglect. While checking a camera before buying, everything may work quite well at first, but suddenly jams after a few rolls of film. By then, it’s too late for a complaint and repair costs often outweigh the price of the camera. But, this is where the EXA 1b comes in.

My love of photographing using waist level viewfinders contributed mainly to writing this article. My first medium format cameras, the Pentacon Six and Lubitel 166U, are equipped with waist-level viewfinders. Anyone who photographs this way knows how extraordinary it is to experience. We can view the photo as a “ready print” although it hasn’t even been taken yet. I often miss this experience when I use prism-equipped cameras, which is why I decided to get a 35mm camera with a waist-level viewfinder. However, there was one condition: low price. It was to be a camera more for fun in the spirit of Lomography than for professional sessions with models. I saw mainly from Instagram the photos of Nikon F series models with a removable prism but the prices were too high for me. My friend Tomek, who I have been supplying with analog equipment from for years, mentioned to me the EXA camera. It was the younger, “worse,” and “simpler” sister of the EXAKTA cameras, equipped with much less function and associated with a different shutter construction (more on that in a moment).

I decided to buy the 1b model because it was the first model in the EXA family that used the M42 mount, which is shared by photo legends such as Zenit and Praktica. Thanks to this solution, I gained access to countless number of great and very cheap lenses. Among this is one of my favorite portrait lenses: Helios 44M-4 58mm f/2. Thanks to this solution, my dream of having a cheap 35mm SLR camera with a waist-level viewfinder could finally come true.

A quick look at the EXA 1b’s specifications can terrify many photographers, especially professionals. The first thing that catches the eye is a very unusual and rare (if at all) set of shutter speeds: B, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/175. It’s a bit too short of a range to be able to operate flexibly in any lighting conditions, especially when working in good light with high ISO film. Precise adjustment of the amount of light entering the camera can, of course, be performed by manipulating the aperture. But we can also forget setting a small aperture on a sunny day, even with ISO 100 film loaded in the camera. However, let’s stay with the “strange” shutter that the EXA cameras are equipped with.

When taking a picture, the sound coming from the camera is nothing like the loud clicks of Zenit, Praktica, or practically anything else. The sound is dull and halfway through. This is the secret to the practically trouble-free operation of this camera: the metal sector shutter, also sometimes called the barrel shutter. This unusual shutter is a very ingenious construction based on a rotating half of the barrel, the cross section of which is the camera mirror. When the shutter button is released, the barrel rotates at a set speed, letting the light in on the film, then locks in a horizontal position. It follows that after pressing the shutter, you cannot see any image in the viewfinder. This extreme simplification of the shutter mechanism means that there are practically no faults, and even after many years from the date of manufacture, the camera works without any hitches. An additional advantage is the ability to replace the screen, which I also quickly did. I switched the usual screen with a small focusing field for a premium version with a split screen and a microprism.

Creativity comes from limitations, so the fewer functions a camera has, the better sometimes it is for creative work. Due to the need to look into the camera from above, taking vertical portrait photos is extremely inconvenient. Fortunately, other kinds of photography, such as landscape or documentary photography, use the horizontal view very often. Like a digital camera with a tilting LCD screen, we can conveniently take pictures with a camera placed directly on the ground, constantly monitoring the frame while not lying face down in the mud. For the test roll, I chose forests and fields south of Warsaw in the Kabacki Forest — one of the most popular places among Warsaw residents for a weekend to rest in the bosom of nature.

My contact sheet from the shoot with the EXA 1b

What do you need to watch out for when using this little miracle of German technical expertise under Ihagee? It’s definitely worth getting a cable release with a fairly long pin, because the socket in the shutter button is very deep. Deep enough that my old cable couldn’t deal with it and there was a need to buy a new one. Lenses can always be a weak spot in any system you have, and if you have some older gear you should take care of the least used lenses the most. Those that we do not need at the moment should be stored with the aperture closed. Unfortunately, sometimes after a few months of lying in the closet, the aperture can become oiled. This results in a very slow closing of the aperture hole during shooting (up to 2 seconds!). This automatically makes EVERY picture taken at the widest aperture. The cost of cleaning the lens can sometimes exceed the cost of buying a new one.

To sum up, as my friend Tomek said, the EXA 1b did a great job! It will now become one of my favorite equipment for practicing “slow photography!”

Ready to add this to your film camera collection? Grab an EXA 1b on eBay today!

Adrian Norbert Cuper
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Born in 1988, Warsaw-based Adrian is a portrait photographer, photography teacher, and co-founder of Whattaroll Magazine.

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