Kowa E Review — a Cheap Mechanical Fixed-Lens SLR

With a Leaf Shutter!

6 min read by Dmitri.
Published on .

Kowa E is a mechanical Japanese 35mm film SLR with an excellent (fixed) 50mm 𝒇2.0 lens and a leaf shutter — a very unusual combination of features.

This model (E) features a selenium light meter for battery-free operation at the cost of reliability. Broken Kowa SLRs are notoriously difficult to fix due to their complex shutter construction. Yet the surviving models deliver excellent results and unique features in an otherwise well-designed, quality-made package.

Guide to Classic Cameras describes Kowa’s product strategy as “seeking not only high quality but also inexpensiveness.”

A brief history of Kowa Optical Works.

Kowa Optical Works (興和光器製作所) was born out of a business that had little to do with optics. Founded in Nagoya in 1894 as a textile shop, the company started making lenses in 1945 — but those lenses were for just eyeglasses. As time progressed, Kowa moved to make projector lenses, and, finally, in 1954, they released their first camera, Kalloflex 6x6 TLR.

Kowa E (or Kowaflex E) was introduced in 1961 — marketed as a quality camera for less. It was the second SLR in Kowa’s 35mm series that featured a selenium light meter, an upgrade over the first Kowaflex. Subsequent models, H, SE, SER, SET, SET R, SET R2, and UW 190, iterated on light meter technology (including coupled and through-the-lens metering designs). SER, SET R, and SET R2 were the only models with interchangeable lenses.

1974 was the last year they made cameras — nearly fifty years ago!

Kowa still exists today, but their focus now is their tanQest brand of brushes and vacuum cleaners. They also make cosmetics and a variety of fabrics as manufacturing components.

Kowa E with Kodak Gold.

Kowa E specs and controls.

I got my Kowa E as a part of the thrift shop bundle my mom generously shipped from across the country to my home in Vancouver (Canada). Most of its contents were cameras that didn’t work, and none looked fancy or well-known. There wasn’t much to expect from an old SLR with a dysfunctional selenium light meter.

But having learned about the leaf shutter at the center of the lens, I got curious.

Kowa E isn’t exactly light or compact. It weighs 870g (nearly two pounds). The lens is fixed; thus, there’s no way to use anything other than the native 50mm 𝒇2.0 design with a minimum focus of 0.7m (2’3⅝”) and shutter speeds of 1-1/500s + Bulb.

The light meter, if it works, accepts films rated between DIN 11-27 (ISO 10-400). Thankfully, it is not coupled, which means this camera can be used with an external light meter or Sunny 16 to create precise exposures.

Kowa E in use.

Loading film into Kowa E is fairly straightforward. There’s a tab on the left-hand side of the camera (when looking at its back) that you need to pull up to open the film door. Film winding is smooth, and the shutter button is very comfortable. It has the right amount of give — combined with its quiet, vibration-free leaf shutter, there’s very little camera shake, which makes this SLR one of the easiest to shoot hand-held in subdued light.

I really like the viewfinder on Kowa E. It’s large and has excellent eye relief, making it easy to use with glasses.

If you have a working light meter, you can change the film speed (set in DIN, which you can convert to ISO using this app) by pulling on a pin at the bottom of the barrel and rotating it while looking at the window where the numbers are listed. This is one of the most comfortable film speed dials I’ve used.

This camera was built more than 50 years ago, and yet, the lens’ (~160°) focus throw remains smooth. The shutter, as I mentioned above, is this camera’s weak spot; but on my copy, it is surprisingly accurate. And if you plan to use flash, it’ll sync at all speeds — something few SLRs and no rangefinders with focal-plane shutters can do.

 ☝︎Further reading: A Guide to Using Flash on Manual Film Cameras.”

Kowa E with Kodak Gold.

Kowa 50mm 𝒇2.0 lens image quality.

The lens on Kowa E exceeded my expectations.

Kowa E with Kodak Gold.

Kowa’s 50mm 𝒇2.0 lens renders images sharply corner-to-corner. There are indeed lenses out there that may be sharper — but not at this price, and those same lenses often perform well only in the center.

Kowa E lens shows some swirling in the corners when the objects are out of focus, but for the most part, this glass creates images that appear to be a mix of unmistakably vintage appeal with modern corrections.

The lens will flare when pointed at the sun, less than most lenses of the era and more than expensive modern glass. It is not very contrasty.

Being the only lens, it is somewhat limited by its closest focus distance of 0.7m (though already better than practically all rangefinders).

If you’re using it for portraits, it will not fill the entire frame with your subject’s face, but it will be enough to make it the clear focus of your image. And given the lens’ excellent resolution, you may crop your image liberally to create the desired effect.

Kowa E with Kodak Gold.

Kowa E build quality.

Kowa cameras are made almost entirely out of metal. You may not find another camera in this price range (around $50 a piece) with such a high-quality aluminum finish. Nothing jiggles, nothing falls off, there are no gaps where the materials meet, and for a really old camera, it’s doing wonderfully. Some versions of this camera can be found in black paint, which I would guess is just as sturdy.

If you need an SLR, don’t want to worry about which lens to use every time you take it out to shoot, don’t mind a little weight, and ensure that the copy you buy has a working shutter — Kowa E (and its siblings) may be the camera you seek.

By the way: Please consider making your Kowa E camera purchase using this link  so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!