Kowa/SIX Compared

a blog by Branden Frederick

The Kowa/SIX was produced from 1968 to 1974, and was the first of three Kowa medium-format 6x6cm cameras. It competed against (and was cheaper than) the Hasselblad V system – and 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 about two year now, and have become familiar with the camera.

What's your point?

If you don't have time to read the rest of this article, I'll save you the effort and tell you my conclusion now. The Kowa/SIX is a fine camera that gives photographers a solid tool to create amazing work, but despite that, it is still outclassed by high-end equipment, such as the Hasselblad 500C/M. To learn why, read on.

With the 85mm lens attached.

Film

The Kowa/SIX takes 120 or 220 roll film. That's right, it works natively with both formats. To switch from one mode to the other, you turn a knob on the side and flip the pressure plate around (there's a built-in guide). So that's pretty neat, and I take advantage of this all the time. Also, the film path is "L" shaped, which supposedly is to help fight film curvature, but that's an issue I've never ever seen outside of Holgas, so I'm unimpressed.

Where the film situation gets sticky, is pretty much all the rest of it. There's no interchangeable film cartridges – rather, film is loaded directly into the camera. 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. Further making this a pain is that the latch to open the film door is adjacent to the tripod socket, meaning to change film you have to not only remove the camera from the tripod, but also remove the tripod plate. This is probably the biggest failing of the camera.

The film advance knob.

And we must also discuss the film advance knob. Hasselblad spoiled us, what with that removable interchangeable feature-laden film advance knob. That's not the case here. No, with the Kowa/SIX you get a wobbly, permanently-attached (hopefully) film knob with a quick-advance lever that no Kowa shooter trusts to not break off. Seriously, all advice spoken regarding the Kowa/SIX is to avoid use of the lever for fear of it damaging the rest of the camera.

This is silly, and not a "big deal", but not inconsequential to the prospective Kowa user.

Lens

The standard ("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. Supposedly other focal lenses exist, but I have never found them being sold, ever, on any website (I haven't looked too hard, though).

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 also feature a "T" exposure mode, which 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. I am unimpressed by this.

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.

The other two lenses, not so much. For the most part, the long and wide lenses are similar to the normal. But the major differences I see are lack of contrast, being prone to flaring, and image degradation in the corners. With the flaring, I'm not talking small, cute flares the type that 3D artists try to re-create in their renderings. No, I'm talking big, ugly, gross flares that dominate the image.

At least 15 pieces of flare

Ok, fine, you work around these issues. What else is there to say about the lenses? One thing I love is that all three lenses share the same quick-focus ring. This ring is great, and I highly recommend one to any Kowa shooter. The other topic I can't help but avoid mentioning, is how difficult changing lenses is. Even for the experienced Kowa shooter, changing lenses is obnoxious. You basically need a degree in Kowalogy to change the lens.

The changing of the lens

First, the shutter must be cocked. "Ok," you say, "that doesn't sound too bad." I would agree, except now you've made it very easy to accidentally fire off a frame while changing lenses. So lock the shutter first, which requires turning a small, stiff, hard-to-reach knob encircling the shutter button.

Second, push the weird lever on the left side of the camera. You can feel something give a little when the lever is sufficiently pushed, although you may need to hold it down or push it several times, as it tends to un-push itself during the lens changing surgery.

Third, twist off the giant locking ring between the lens and the camera body, and be careful not to drop the lens which is probably now tumbling forward off your camera. Very little turning is necessary, maybe 1/8th of a full loop.

Now you've got your lens off, and you've got your next lens ready to mount. Slide the lens into the mounting hole, red dot straight up, and retwist the locking ring, while marveling that this process successfully and consistently gets the lens the correct distance away from the film plane. Now 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.

It is really this bad?

No. Yes. Sometimes. You'll get used to it. 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 the Hasselblad (and many other cameras). 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, even better than the Hasselblad's does.

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. When I first was learning this camera, I used it exclusively on a tripod, but after getting comfortable with it, I now use the tripod only when longer exposures require it.

One thing to watch for, though, is the mirror shudder. When that big 6x6cm mirror slaps itself out of the way, this camera makes a loud, jarring shudder which can and does ruin photos. This is frustrating, and the only advice I have to counter this is to hold the camera tightly while shooting.

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 noticed that myself, or at least I'm already holding the camera tightly enough because of the previous paragraph's reasons that this problem doesn't manifest.

The Upshot

What it all comes down to, for any camera, is: can this camera make the photos I want to make? No camera comes without caveats and restrictions, and some are kind enough to include advantages and opportunities. So how does the Kowa/SIX align? The restrictions I've outlined above can be frustrating, but none of them are deal-killers. Mix that with some good mechanics and you've got a solid contender in the powerful 6x6cm medium format world.

But while the Kowa/SIX is fine, I can see it being phased out of my personal workflow. I recently got my hands on a Hasselblad 500C/M, and it is leaving a wide wake. The Kowa/SIX is a fine looking camera – the one I've got my hands on is in excellent condition – but its future on my shelf is ... undetermined.

For now, while the majority of my Hasselblad lenses are still being CLA'ed, I'll still carry the Kowa/SIX, because I can work around it's limitations and make awesome photos with it.

First published on 2 Dec 2017; last updated on 4 Dec 2017.

about Branden Frederick

I am a photographer: I have fun taking photos, and I always have.

I've had a camera in my hand my whole life, a 110 camera as a kid, and the high school's 35mm SLR later. In 2008 I spent six months doing nothing but taking photos and loved it. From that point on I've had my camera surgically attached to my hand (I lie). I went digital in the year 2000, and I came back to film in 2013. My parents tell me my photos are "nice".

bf@branfred.com