5 frames with...

5 Frames with a Zenit EM – By Greg May

March 7, 2018

I sort of remember when my father handed me The Brass Brick as I unaffectionately called it for years. Not precisely, but at least withing the ten year bracket that was the 1990s. It was a camera he had bought years before in St. Petersburg during a Russian winter when his trusty Canon failed to function, a solid block of pointless weight in his bag. Some things we can’t overcome, batteries and severe temperatures still don’t play well to this day.

My pre-teen arms grew strong under its weight, while my spine and shoulders rolled inexorably forward as it hung around my neck. My bank balance precluded me from using it much in those early years. My ability to focus on anything for more than a few hours probably didn’t help much either.

Throughout the ’90s the Zenit came with me wherever I went. To school, hiking with Scouts, around town on bikes with my friends, until finally it was replaced with a smaller compact 35mm camera. It sat in a box unloved for many years, a box that had successive film cameras added to it with the acquisition of a run of digital cameras.

Eventually The Brass Brick came to see light again when I cleared out my family home for sale after my fathers death. Unknowingly I’d left film in it, some shots a rare pre-digital glimpse into my forgotten past. After putting some film in, and assuming the selenium light meter was dead, I went for a wander around Manchester to see what I could capture.

From early morning train journeys, to family portraits, the 44mm F2.8 lens can deal with most things. Yes it is soft. Yes it doesn’t focus that well. Yes it is unbalanced, unwieldy, and unfailingly slow. But it works. Even if it does leak light like a sieve in bright weather.

Website – https://gregorymay.ie
IG – https://www.instagram.com/gregory.c.may/

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  • Reply
    Art Tafil
    March 7, 2018 at 3:24 pm

    I had several Zenit cameras over the last 40 or so years. They were magnificent examples of former Soviet bloc craftsmanship. I’ve always said that using any Soviet camera especially Zenits is reverse snobbery! My latest Zenit is the “new” KM. This uses the Pentax “K” mount lenses. Just like the M42 Pentax screw mount lenses before it, this allows the mounting of world class SMC Takumar or SMC Pentax glass on the bodies. This allows stellar results from the Kievs and Zenits. My KM Zenit is an aperture priority camera with a full program mode as well. It is the complete opposite of the early Zenit bodies. Everything is plastic! Even the film rails and the vertical travel, multi-blade shutter curtains! I haven’t shot with it yet. In reality, I’m almost afraid to use it much because of its construction.

    • Reply
      Greg May
      March 7, 2018 at 6:59 pm

      Art I agree wholeheartedly with you. Zenits are well made, if a tad heavy *subtle cough*. Never come across a KM, but I too would be interested to see how that plastic has held up! Cheap thermoplastic and 40+ years….hmmmm.

  • Reply
    Dan James
    March 7, 2018 at 7:20 pm

    Greg, if the lens you used for these shots is the one pictured at the top of the post, it’s a Helios 44M 58mm f/2, not a 44mm f/2.8 as you say in the text. I’ve had a number of Helios 44s and have got fantastic results with them. Try it on a Spotmatic, or on a digital SLR or mirrorless with an adapter (M42 are the easiest lenses to adapt to other mounts, dozens of different adapters exist at very low cost) and get to know it better. I think you’d be rewarded. The light leaks are unlikely to be due to the lens, more probably the seals around the film door of the camera, which is pretty easy to fix if it bothers you. I kind of like the charm of them!

    • Reply
      Greg May
      March 7, 2018 at 7:23 pm

      Interesting, thanks Dan! There is some play on the lens at the body end which I thought may lead to the leak, but you’re probably correct about the seals. I do have an a7 so I could pop it onto that to try it out. Thought hadn’t occurred to me!

      • Reply
        Dan James
        March 8, 2018 at 8:10 am

        Maybe check the screws that affix the lens mount part to the camera, if they’re a bit loose there will be some play. Try taking the lens off and seeing if there is any play when you hold the screw thread in one hand and the main body in the other. Yes definitely give it a try on your a7, the adapters are pretty cheap on eBay and there’s no moving parts the lens side as it a simple screw thread. Have fun!

        • Reply
          Greg May
          March 8, 2018 at 9:41 am

          Thanks Dan, I’ll give that a shot.

  • Reply
    Tim Sewell
    March 8, 2018 at 8:29 am

    This was my first camera. I sold my skateboard to buy it when I was around 12 or 13. I could barely afford film, but I used to lug it around and just play around with it, practising my focusing. I far preferred my view of the world through its lens to that without it – it made everything seem like it was in a film I was watching, allowing me to step back and be an observer. I can’t actually remember, now, what happened to it but I know that by the time I moved away from home at 18 I no longer had it, or any camera – a situation that continued until I managed to scrape together enough for an Olympus OM-10 in the summer of my twentieth year. Blimey! Such memories.

  • Reply
    Peter Boorman
    March 16, 2018 at 7:41 pm

    My first camera was a Kodak Instamatic. When 126 film for the Kodak started to vanish my grandmother gave me her old Agfa. That took 828 roll film – lovely square transparencies – which in turn also became unavailable. So, while visiting, Grandma told me that she thought she might have located a stock of some film for me, and took me along to the local camera dealer. He duly, with a solemn face, told me that no, they had none. My fifteen or so year old face fell, and Grandma turned to me and said “Well, I suppose I had better get you a camera that you CAN get film for then…” and the shop owner, who was obviously in on the gag, produced a Zenith E from beneath the counter.

    So after that, it’s no wonder I have very fond memories of that camera. It was my first to have control over a range of both apertures and shutter speeds, my first to take 35mm film, my first to have a light-meter, and my first camera to take interchangeable lenses. I used that camera for many years, first borrowing a 35mm lens to supplement the 58mm f2 it had come with, and then saving and buying a 28mm. Later, wanting a better body and already having some M42 lenses because of the Zenith I bought a secondhand Pentax Spotmatic, the first of three I eventually owned – so in a sense that Zenith was the direct ancestor of the Pentax SLRs and dSLR I still use. Finding there were things I liked about the Soviet era lenses got me to get a Kiev 4a, so I guess the Zenith is also to blame for my continuing liking for lenses in the Contax RF mount – and from there indirectly to my fondness for the Fuji X-Pro as well.

    Yes it was heavy, yes the placement of the meter meant it had to be used with some care(!) and yes the Jupiter 44M lens has a distinct ‘character’ – but that camera taught me a huge amount about focus and exposure and pretty well determined the path I would take with my interchangeable lens systems thereafter. And it reminds me of my Grandma 🙂

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