Making quality movies is usually an
expensive proposition. But thanks to a formerly socialist government
which now chooses to compete in something other than an arms race,
the U.S. is seeing an insurgence o• "techno-goods" from
Several months ago I read a one-inch blurb in a video
magazine about a Russian-built 16mm spring-wound camera. I can’t
find the article now, but I remember making a mental note of the
less than $400 dollar price tag.
After testing one recently, I can say that the Russians
have made a friend for life out of this tightwad producer. I live
by the age-old rule of "putting the bucks on the screen."
We all know that camera rentals can be costly. Often would-be filmmakers
lose the urge after they read the rate card at the camera rental
company. But there is now a viable alternative – that can capture
beautiful issues/08/images at a bargain-basement price. A camera company named
Zenit, located about 20 miles northwest of what most maps refer
to as Moscow, in the town of Krasnogorsk, manufactures no-nonsense,
built-like-refrigerator movie cameras. Zenit has crafted quality
movie cameras for a number of years. As can be imagined, the factory
artisans who construct these cameras are not the highest paid in
the world. They do, however, make an incredibly inexpensive camera
named after the city from which it originates. The "Krasnogorsk-3,"
or simply "K-3" could be the best buy in filmmaking today.
A company named Mentor USA, Inc. started importing
the K-3’s in December of 1992. The original K-3’s were surplus inventory
which had sat on factory shelves for a few years after production
of the model had ceased. "Quality control had not been monitored,"
states Dohn Thornton, President of Mentor USA, Inc. He says the
first batches of cameras had bubbles in the lenses and poor polishing
on the aperture plates. Owners of these cameras were given replacements
when the defect was discovered.
Since May, 1993, the K-3 has been back in production.
Support documents and camera labels are now in English and the quality
control is at a level acceptable to discerning filmmakers. Mentor
initially imported several 16mm models and a 35mm movie camera.
Because of the popularity of the K-3 and problems with the other
16mm and 35mm cameras, the K-3 camera is now the only one they stock.
Mr. Thorton sent me a sample K-3 (which had just cleared the customs
house) for evaluation. To my surprise, this is not a cheap plastic
toy, but a real honest-to-goodness made-of-metal camera. It tips
the scales at approximately 13 pounds with its included accessories.
On-the-shoulder weight is just over 10 pounds with a 100-foot spool
of 16mm film stock.
The K-3 comes packaged in an ominous looking blue
box labeled "CINE CAMERA – KRASNO-GORSK-3". It’s styling
is what I refer to as "Early MIG." Like the Russian MIG
fighters, the K-3 is heavy but very functional. The camera body
has a black colored crinkle finish, with a vinyl-like covering on
On the right side of the camera body you’ll find a
large key which can be lifted and wound like a huge wind-up alarm
clock. To wind you turn it counter clockwise (which is opposite
to most wind-up devices). The wind-up is tight-feeling, giving the
impression of a really substantial main spring.
Adjacent to the wind-up key are two small knobs. The
one closest to the top of the camera is used to match frame speed
to the exposure index (E.I.) or ASA rating of the film. This setting
must be made to get an accurate indication from the built-in light
meter, and to expose film correctly. The scale has ASA numbers up
to 200 and a tick mark past that which I assume is about 250 ASA?
The small knob on the bottom right side selects frame
rates. You simply turn the knob in either direction until a red
dot adjacent to the frame rate on the inner scale aligns with a
red dot on an outer fixed scale.
The eye piece on the upper right rear of the camera
is oriented in a straight-ahead position. It can be focused by screwing
the eye piece in or out. Tightening an adjacent set screw with your
fingers fixes eyepiece focus. This is a true reflex viewfinder with
a polished metal shutter, providing the eye with a dimmer image
than a glass shutter found in more expensive cameras.
On the left side of the camera is a single lift-and-turn
tab which allows access to the film compartment. Opening the film
compartment requires a clockwise quarter turn. The K-3’s interior
is simple but effective. The upper reel feeds the lower take-up
reel. Loading requires feeding the film between a sprocketed drum-and-roller
assembly. Pushing the power trigger threads film through to the
take-up reel. It’s not quite that simple, though, as IT explain
A 17-69mm f1.9 screw-on zoom lens is standard on the
camera, which incorporates a nifty lever-actuated zoom. Mentor also
stocks additional Russian-made lenses at very reasonable prices.
A company in New York called ICBM is selling lens adapters that
will allow the use of Arriflex BL mount lenses. They also sell a
matte box, video tap, etc. designed exclusively for the camera.
The power trigger is a push-to-activate and release-to-stop button
located on the front lower right side of the camera. Some people
may complain about its weight, but the added mass felt good in a
hand-held position and should equate to steady hand-held or great
I spoke with several people who had used the camera
in a production environment. Gary Spradling (Scarlet Red Pictures,
Redmond, Washington) used the camera to film the trailer for a picture
he shot last summer called Flak Jacket. (Note: Gary shot
a documentary on an award-winning music video I recently produced.
He’s an incredible talent whose opinion I value highly). He had
nothing but praise for the camera, but at first was admittedly apprehensive
about the quality of picture that would materialize from the K-3.
After the first roll of film was processed and viewed in post he
was ecstatic at the on-screen quality. He had used Kodak 7291, exposing
it at 100 ASA, and said only slight color corrections were made.
His most tedious task was the winding of film stock from larger
reels to the 100- footers that fit the K-3. (Note: Most popular
film stock is available on daylight load 100′ spools).
Loading the camera with the small reels was initially
awkward, so he cut off a few feet of film stock and practiced in
the daylight. Gary said this is a good idea for anyone, even experienced
loaders. He also had to make a screw adapter for the mounting plate
he uses. (Note: Mentor’s K-3 now comes with a mount adapter).
The accompanying photo shows you the $375 dollar package
(including shipping) provided by Mentor USA, Inc. Here is a list
of what’s included:
(1) 16mm spring-wound tine camera body with built
in light meter and frame selectable rates of 8, 12, 16, 24, 32 or
(5) 100 foot reels
(1) Screw on hand grip.
(1)Thread adapter to allow use of base/mounting
plates common in the U.S.
(4) Light filters with M77 X 0.75 thread mounts.
(1) 17-69 mm f1.9 zoom lens and mount.
(1) 1734 mm supplemental close-up lens (screws
to zoom lens).
(1) Cable release for use in single frame photography.
(1) Battery for the internal light meter. (Mentor
has a huge supply of these unique power cells for $5.00each if you
want extras, otherwise use your ownhand held light meter).
(2) Lens caps.
(1) Sun shade.
(1) Extended activation leverfor the zoom.
(1) Screw on shoulder brace.
(1) Wrist strap.
(1) Felt-lined leather case with shoulder strap.
The spring-wind on the K-3 takes about 20-22 winds
before a stop is felt, Gary reported. This provided him 20 seconds
of run time, certainly adequate for most projects. If you want longer
takes you’ll have to acquire a motor drive. The K-3 can be fitted
with a crystal sync motor for roughly $900 dollars. Dohn Thornton
told me that Zenit is also developing a retro-fit motor drive, but
has not released an availability date. Tobin Cinema Systems in Seattle
can do the job for about the same price.
For those requiring 6-minute takes, a 400-foot housing
is due out in the near future. You can send your camera back to
Mentor for this modification. This should eliminate some of the
loading difficulties, particularly the winding of the 100-foot reels.
Although this camera was designed for MOS filmmaking,
it }s perfect for documentaries or commercials which utilize V/O
and even music videos which have the talent acting out roles to
their music backing track. The prestigious USC School of Cinema
and Television has fifteen of the K-3’s. Mr. Dick Martin, Director
of Operations and Facilities Management at the school, provided
me with a telephone commentary on USC’s use of the K-3’s. His comments
were both positive and negative. On the plus side he stated the
camera was an excellent buy for the price; the filters included
in the accessory kit were good for black and white photography,
and their K-3’s provided a very stable picture.
His down-side comments were that the camera is heavy,
not well-balanced with the standard zoom lens, and was difficult
for some students to load. (Note: Northwestern University uses the
K-3 in its film school, and has a staff person to load the camera
because of the student loading difficulties they encountered). Martin
also noted that despite the K-3’s minor annoyances, several USC
students liked the camera well enough to purchase one for themselves.
At present USC is using the Arri-S as their main student
camera, and have relegated the K-3s to backup status.
As a veteran owner of lots of cameras I have to agree
with the purchasing departments of these film schools. This camera
is a steal at twice the money.
Jack Watson is President of The Olympic Production
Company in Gig Harbor, Washington, He is an award-winning producer,
director and camera operator. In his spare time he can be found
in the cockpit of a Boeing 747 which he flies for Northwest Airlines.