I spent the better part of a recent Saturday traveling and photographing a number of towns in central Virginia. In the town of Orange it was a vintage Coca Cola advertisement painted on the side of a hardware store. In Culpeper it was American flags and grilled corn. Outside of Madison it was canons on a Civil War battlefield.
I was photographing things quintessentially American, and I had to laugh at the fact that I was shooting them with the Zenit-E, a camera as American as Vladmir Lenin or borsht. My laughter was short-lived, however, as both rolls I loaded that day were ruined by my Western arrogance. In Soviet Russia, it seems, camera shoots you.
But that’s okay, because even though the Zenit is the most stubborn and bare-bones SLR I’ve ever used, it’s a wildly fun machine and an absolute joy to shoot.
The history of the Zenit, and that of Soviet camera manufacturing en masse, goes back to 1942 when Krasnogorsk Mechanical Works (KMZ) started production of cameras in the Moscow suburb of Krasnogorsk. So important was this camera manufacturer to the region that the town included a prism and light rays in its coat of arms. Their first popular camera was a Zorki rangefinder that did its best to copy the Leica II. Quickly they got into the SLR game making a number of cameras under the names Zorki and Zenit.
The first 15 years of production was hard going for the company. Production was far from streamlined, exports were low, and domestic sales numbers dismal. This was a luxury item in a society where luxury items were not affordable for most folk in the years following the “Great Patriotic War.”
But in the late sixties, things began to change for Zenit. The company started using die-cast molding and mass-production methods. The M39 lens mount was replaced with the M42 screwmount thread, and the poorly copied Leica interior was overhauled with an instant-return mirror. All of this led to the birth of the Zenit-E, which would become their first successful, and ultimately their best-selling, camera.
It was produced from 1965 to 1986, a span of time to rival legendary machines like the Nikon F3 and Pentax K1000, almost entirely within the Soviet Union’s Brezhnev Era. And though this era may be bookended by international crises like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Able Archer exercise, nationally speaking the Soviet economy was booming and prosperity was on the rise. With that came an increased demand for consumer goods – like cameras – that were beyond possibility in the post-war years.
The Zenit-E‘s very design is a reflection of this new economic upswing. From the first time you pick it up, the weight is somewhat shocking. With its die-cast chassis and harsh edges, it wouldn’t be surprising if it were made from the leftover scraps of Soviet T-55 tanks.
The Zenit manual says one of the camera’s biggest advantages is its lightweight design, which makes one wonder what sort of cinder blocks were taking pictures in Russia before the Zenit came along. All I know is you only drop it once before learning to be careful. Not for the well-being of the camera, mind, but for the health of your foot.
This model was then the height of camera design in the USSR, boasting an uncoupled light meter, five shutter speeds, a series of M42 screw mount lenses and a self-timer. Holding it in the hand it’s easy to imagine countless Russians enjoying one in dachas, holidays to the Black Sea, or along the Crimean coast. And the numbers back that up. Zenit sold 3.3 millions of these cameras domestically and throughout Europe.
But that was then and this is now. How does the Zenit-E hold up in 2017?
To fully appreciate the laborious experience of shooting this camera, here’s a step by step guide to taking a photo –
First, load up your film and carefully advance it. The teeth that move the film can be sharp, and as I found out, tear through the film perforations leaving you with dozens of shots on one frame. This will make you mad.
Next, compose your image by turning the small ring on the front of your lens to its widest aperture. That’s the only hope of brightening the viewfinder enough to focus accurately. At f/3.5 I can reasonably focus. At f/5.6 it’s a struggle and by f/16 it’s almost impossible to see anything. Seriously, this is the darkest viewfinder on Earth. I almost used it to watch the recent solar eclipse.
Now that you’ve composed your image, take out your handheld light meter since the one on the camera is inevitably broken. Selenium cell light meters are great if you’re looking to save money on batteries, but Selenium has a shelf life. You may be better off, anyway, since the camera’s metering system uses the Russian GOST film rating system, so even if you find a Zenit with a working meter, you’ll be working with film speeds of 130, 250, 320, 500, etc.
After that, set your shutter speed by pulling the shutter dial up and twisting it until you get the dot lined up with the desired speed. This can be confusing, so it’s best to push it all the way to the Bulb setting and work up from there. Fortunately the camera doesn’t give you too many options, with speeds ranging from 1/30 to 1/500 of a second and bulb mode. This means that film speed is a very important consideration.
Now that you’ve set shutter speed, check your focus again and then rotate the aperture ring until you get the one you need for a proper exposure. Since it doesn’t click into place with each stop, you’ll have to try to be as precise as possible.
Recompose your image for a third time. Consider where the sun is. Is it anywhere but behind you? If it is you’ll almost certainly have significant lens flare to a degree that even J.J. Abrams might blush. Don’t worry – we’re almost done.
Push the shutter button, and smile at how loud and brutal the action sounds. Congratulations, comrade, you’ve taken a picture.
Advance the film slowly because you don’t want to tear the film’s perforations, a common pitfall for users of the Zenit. You’ll quickly learn the difference between when film is being advanced and when it isn’t. If you’re at the end of the roll, get ready to use the rewind knob that’s been happily texturized to resemble the head of a meat tenderizer. You’re in for a long rewind, and your hands won’t be thrilled.
Needless to say, shooting with this camera is a process. One of the things to love about film is that it slows down the photographic process and makes you work harder for quality images. If this is a true virtue, the Zenit may be the most heavenly film camera ever made. It is 35mm photography at a glacial pace.
Because I’m impatient, I don’t particularly enjoy using external light meters. As such, I only have an app on my phone. It’s accurate enough, but there’s something disturbing and jarring using an iPhone and a Zenit-E in the same process. It’s like best friends from very different parts of your life meeting each other.
So if the camera is bare bones, horribly difficult to use, and heavier than a beluga sturgeon on its way to the caviar factory, you might be wondering why we’d ever use one. You may be thinking that Zenit’s lenses are what makes the camera worth your time. You’re wrong, and also a little right.
The Zenit come with one of two standard lenses; the Helios 44-2 or the Industar 50-2. Don’t let the designations fool you. The Helios is actually a 58mm f/2 and the Industar is a 50mm f/3.5. Mine has the Industar, which is a unique nifty fifty pancake lens. Both standard kit lenses produce the swirly bokeh Russian lenses are famous for, and both are as prone to lens flare as Siberia is prone to snow. There’s probably a lot of technical data one could gather to explain these lenses in clinical terms. But when you finally see the images they produce, specs fall by the wayside. Because while this camera is basic, a brick, a pain to use, has a penchant for tearing up film, a light meter that isn’t terribly helpful (even in the rare case it works), uses glass that leaks light like a sieve, and will develop calluses on your hands from rewinding, it might be my new favorite camera.
Well, I should rephrase; it’s the camera that makes my new favorite images.
Like most photographers, I easily succumb to marketing, image, and reputation. Of course I’d like to shoot an M3 and Mamiya 7ii, but budget has made me choose a Canonet and Pentax 645 instead. Sometimes I don’t know whether I want the “better” cameras because they make incredible pictures or because I’ll look cooler doing it. I’m guessing it’s the later.
If you judge a camera by price and reputation, then you wouldn’t treat the Zenit as anything more than a novelty. I sure didn’t. But once I got the hang of its wonkiness and stopped ruining entire rolls of film, the Zenit came alive.
Taking pictures with this camera is just fun. I love the loud clank of its shutter, the confusion on whether I’m using the correct shutter speed and the closeness with which I listen to the sounds when I’m advancing the film. Shooting with the Zenit makes me feel closer to my photos than ever before.
When my shots came back from the lab, the first look brought with it an ear-to-ear grin. Not only were the photos imbued with a visually distinctive look from the Russian glass, they looked exactly like photos my parents made and subsequently allowed to age for 25 years. Here I am taking photos of battlefields and small towns, and in just a few days I’m seeing images that look old enough to buy a beer. These photos feel like a step out of time. They may not be technically great pictures – cameras aren’t supposed to make the “mistakes” this one does, and we wouldn’t buy new cameras if they did. But more than almost any other images I’ve taken, the shots made with this camera are shots I’d like to hang on my wall.
These are the images you get from a camera that requires patience and extra work. A camera that feels stubbornly proud and unwilling to indulge in luxury – a camera severely reflective of its creators and place in time. Seeing the images it creates, I feel the rising waves of annoyance toward premium cameras. This time it’s not because I want one, but because I know what can be achieved with much less money and features.
I won’t be tearing at the chains of capitalist oppression anytime soon, but the Zenit-E has shown me the photographic power of the people.