The first of three Kowa medium-format 6x6cm cameras, someone familiar with the Hasselblad will recognize many of the same selling points in the Kowa. I've been shooting with a Kowa/SIX for two years now.

Conclusion

I'll save you time and give you the dessert first. The Kowa/SIX is a fine camera that gives photographers a solid tool to create amazing work ... but its quirks make it outclassed by its competitors.

Ok, great. But why?

With the 85mm lens attached.

Film

The Kowa/SIX takes 120 or 220 roll film natively. Neat! You switch the camera between the two formats by turning a knob on the side and twisting the pressure plate. It works well and I take advantage of this all the time.

The film path is "L" shaped, which Kowa claims prevents film curvature. Was film curvature an issue? Not on any of the other cameras I've used. But I guess I'm glad we're fighting against it, whatever.

And then things get obnoxious.

Film is loaded directly into the camera – this is not a system with removable backs. The camera must be flipped upside-down with the film door propped wide open while you thread the film from the bottom of the camera up through the top. The latch to open the film door abuts the tripod socket. It's so close that if you have a tripod plate attached, it must be removed to reload the film. This is a terrible design that wastes a lot of time.

The film advance knob.

The film advance knob is flimsy and feels like it's moments away from falling off. And it's not the fancy kind that's supposed to come off – it's permanent (hopefully) and unimpressive compared to the Hasselblad V system advance knob. There's a flip-out crank, too. I dare you to try it out. Double dare you. I never could bring myself to, it looks like a recipe for a broken camera.

Do either of these stop you from using the camera? Of course not. But they're annoying!

Lens

The normal lens for the Kowa/SIX is an 85mm f/2.8. The two most common accompaniments are the wide angle 55mm f/3.5 and the long angle 150mm f/3.5, which I have. Rumors claim that other lenses exist for this system, but rumors also claim the Loch Ness Monster exists, and I have never seen evidence of either.

Kowa/SIX and its lenses.

Kowa lenses have the shutters and flash-syncs built right in, just like the Hasselblad V system, and have shutter speeds from 1 second to 1/500th of a second, again just like the V system.

The Kowa lenses feature a "T" exposure mode. It stands for "Terrible", since the way it works is that you start your T exposure by pushing the shutter, and end it by twisting the shutter speed ring on the lens. Thanks, Kowa, for ensuring that our long exposures have some good solid camera shake.

The 85mm normal is a great lens. It is everything you hope for in a lens, and is what I recommend using on the Kowa/SIX as much as possible. It is nice and compact, features easy to set settings, makes super-sharp images, is fast, focuses easily, et cetera et cetera blah blah blah.

The other two lenses, not so much.

The long and wide lenses look similar to the normal. But they lack contrast, go blurry in the corners, and are prone to flaring. And I'm not talking small, cute flares that give you that hipster golden hour portrait look. No, we're meaning big, ugly, gross flares that'll decimate your photo.

At least 15 pieces of flare

Ok, fine, you work around these issues. You load the film around the L, attach your tripod, carefully advance to the first frame, don't point your camera anywhere near the sun. What next?

Let's focus! There's a quick-focus ring. It's flipping amazing. I'm serious, for whatever reason the Kowa/SIX has one of the best quick-focus rings I've ever seen. If we were rating cameras purely on the quality of their quick-focus ring, Kowa/SIX would be king. It works on all the lenses!

Oh, wait, you want to change lenses? I hope you're ready to earn that degree in Kowalogy because you're in for a wild ride through at least three more mixed metaphors.

The changing of the lens

First, the shutter must be cocked. "That doesn't sound too bad," you say. "I hope you don't accidentally fire off a frame!" I say.

So lock the shutter first, which requires turning a small, stiff, hard-to-reach knob encircling the shutter button. Hope you don't fire the shutter while locking it, that'd be too ironic.

Ok, now, push the weird lever on the left side of the camera. Do it. You know you want to. Something gives, a little mechanical action. Oh yeah, that's right. You think you need to hold it down or push it again? Well, maybe you do, maybe you don't. It un-pushes itself. It's supposed to. Nobody knows why. Keep changing the lens, baby.

Third, holding the camera in one hand, use your other hand to twist off the giant locking ring between the lens and the camera body. Very little turning is necessary, maybe 1/8th of a full loop. Use your third hand to hold the lens because oh fuck there it goes tumbling forward off your camera.

Ok. Lens off. Next lens ready to mount. Slide that baby into the mounting hole, red dot straight up. Give that locking ring a twist in the other direction. Marvel that this process successfully and consistently gets the lens the correct distance away from the film plane. Push the lever on the left back up, assuming it hasn't already done so on its own, and watch as it limply falls back down for some reason. Pause to ask yourself if you've missed a step (you haven't) and now you're ready to try to take your photo, only to remember that the shutter is locked.

That sounds easy

No. Yes. Sometimes. You'll get used to it. It's fine. Just don't... I dunno, just leave the 85mm lens on. It's better that way. It's fine.

Making pictures

The Kowa/SIX comes with a crotch-level viewfinder that folds down flat when not in use, and has a pop-up magnifying lens for detail focus work, just like every other camera this shape. This is interchangeable, but I've never had need to do so. The viewfinder works well, and I enjoy composing with it. It also folds down quickly and easily when you're finished.

A peak out the viewfinder.

Setting the aperture and shutter speed, focusing, and composing can all be done looking top-down at the camera, and the shutter button is in a convenient place, making this bulky camera handhold-able.

Sort of.

You'll need to brace yourself. You see, the camera's got the shakes in a bad way. The thing is, this mirror slaps. When not held firmly, and that fat thirty-six square centimeter slab of finely polished glass and metal slaps itself out of the way, and the camera makes that loud thunk, the jarring reverberations shudder and echo, ruining your photo with massive blurriness.

I shudder to imagine

Online, people will also tell you that the shudder will actually turn the focus wheel, and cause mis-focused photos. I haven't seen that, but I don't doubt that it could happen.

The Upshot

Look, can this camera make the photos I want to make?

Every camera has caveats and quirks, the things you merely tolerate while relishing the camera's unique capabilities. Where does the Kowa/SIX sit in this spectrum? I've complained plenty, but none of those things have been deal-killers. This is a creative tool, maybe a weird, mostly forgotten one, but it is not a joke or toy. If a Kowa/SIX is what you've got, then you've got a powerful 6x6cm medium format camera, no doubt about it. But I'd probably not recommend this camera to someone who has other options available.

At the end of the day, I've come home with some Kowa/SIX photos I'm very proud of, and that's really all I can ask of a camera.