Zenit-E: A Love Letter To The Unloved – By Dan Fernandez

Your kilo of soviet metal, your light meter which stopped working decades ago, your dark, murky viewfinder designed to just miss focus, your rewind mechanism engineered to give me blisters on one hand and arthritis in the other. Your complete lack of any sort of functions or assistance. The one and only Zenit-E. Why would anyone even make this thing, never mind choose to buy it? Nothing about you is easy. But then again if I wanted easy I’d go digital. Here I am, still faithfully putting roll after roll through you, despite having been actively interested in photography for long enough to know better.

I bought you for less than the price of a beer when I couldn’t really afford anything else. You were cheap, I was poor, I had the time to learn to love you and didn’t have the means to buy anything better. The more I fell into this hobby, the more I learnt about your reputation as the unloved, unwanted ginger stepchild. I’d follow the big websites, listen to the leading podcasts in the scene, and your name only came up as a laughing stock or as a point of reference on what not to buy. Maybe it’s my desire to prove people wrong or maybe just that I love a good underdog story, but I was determined to show what you’re capable of. I’ve even tried to learn Sunny 16 and understand the exposure triangle to get the best possible results (but please don’t test me on them).

Santiago, Chile & La Pedrera


You soldier on, despite my lack of technical knowledge. The more I put in, the more you give me back. Your resilience matches mine. You’re not weatherproof, waterproof, anything-proof, and yet I’ve faithfully dragged you up the mountains of Patagonia, across the beaches of Uruguay, through the forests of Sri Lanka, around the bathhouses of Budapest, and just about every other condition this planet has to offer, and you keep going and going.

Patagonia & Budapest

Despite your weight and bulky size, you’re the first thing that goes in my backpack for every trip. You’ve been to more countries then most people do in a lifetime. It’s your limitations that make you the perfect companion. Your fully manual, sturdy build means I never have to worry about finding batteries, or a bit of rain or sand landing on your bulletproof body. Your tactile actions tell me that everything just keeps working as it should. That tension as I wind to the next shot, the sound of your shutter crashing up and down, loud enough to turn heads, the resistance as I rewind the film after another long day of dragging you around.

And then I get home, and it was all worth it. Sure, there’s a few misses due to your unforgiving nature. For example, when I hand you over to someone else to take a photo of me, this is what I get back.

Out of focus photos

But the hits make up for it. Yes, lens choices are limited, but what more do you need? That swirly Russian bokeh when you’re open and that sharpness which turns almost creamy towards the edges when you’re stopped down give me back memories which then live in frames on my walls. I had to work for them, but show me something in life that isn’t better when you’ve earned it.


Yes, every time I go by a market I’ll inspect a Pentax, gleefully admiring its relatively lightweight form and wide range of accessories. But for the time being, you can find me being happily weighed down with my 42 year old Zenit. After all, it seems to me that some of the loudest voices in our community aren’t practising what they preach. If the cameras we love are essentially not much more than a light sealed box with some film in, why would we abandon and deride one which has proven to be such a trusty partner? If anyone else has any other cameras disdainfully thrown in the back of a cupboard in need of a loving new home, send them my way and I’ll prove what they’re capable of.

Website: frombrighterplaces.com
Instagram: frombrighterplaces

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24 thoughts on “Zenit-E: A Love Letter To The Unloved – By Dan Fernandez”

  1. I love this article. The handing-the-camera-over-to-anyone-else-but-you shots are genius. That always happens, but is also strangely satisfying when it reminds you that your camera does take a little bit of skill to operate. You are completely right about our tendency to un-love the cameras that challenge us. I finally put some rolls of Kodak triX through my KIEV 4 and didn’t make every blunder under the sun and as predicted it rewarded me with lovely results. Thanks for championing the less-loved.

    1. Thank you! It’s become a running joke now of just how out of focus will I be when my girlfriend takes the camera…it’s either that or just stand at infinity focus distance and hope for the best.

      I always say I’ll pick up a Pentax or something less challenging, but then I get a roll developed from the Zenit and those ideas get forgotten.

  2. Oh I do like this review.
    No pretence, down to business camera with results to match.
    Hits and misses happen with every camera – and we shoot with what we are comfortable.
    Thanks for this – it encourages all of us to make images with what we have

  3. Loved your story, Dan. Amazing text. Laughed so hard when I saw the photos taken of you. By the way, let me tell you, you took some incredible pics! And now I feel the urge to find a Zenit-E. Again, congratulations for this incredible read!

    1. Thank you – although I don’t know how much credit my photography skills alone deserve. I’m lucky to have been to some amazing places, that plus good lighting and you can’t go wrong (even with a Zenit)!

  4. I love this. For all the people with GAS, this one’s for you and your first love (for me, my dad’s K1000.)

  5. Craig Schroeder

    My first camera, bought new in a camera store when they were being marketed in the states. Great learning rig and some surprisingly good results when you got everything right.

  6. Dan, What an enjoyable read! I am confident you are a loyal and forgiving friend as well. While I will never buy a Zenit your missive has encouraged me to be a bit more tolerant of the foibles of a few of my less than perfect vintage cameras. I will give a couple of them another chance to show their possibilities. Looking forward to your next post.

    1. If only! The dream was to buy a car in Chile and make my way up to Mexico, but for now I’ve had to stick with the buses. Some of them are about as modern as a Trabant though…

  7. Ashokchand. Hurry

    I love so much film photography, a fan of David Bailey or even designer Lagerfeld and your articles and encouragement on using film photography is welcomed

  8. You must have a camera that was made on a Wednesday! I have a soft spot for underdog cameras as well, including the Zenit. Unfortunately though, every Zenit that I’ve tried (and I’ve tried a few) has experienced some sort of catastrophic failure. I bought one new in 1980 and it was a clunker right out of the box. Jamming, light leaks, bad shutters that often hang open. And it baffles me as to why they didn’t put strap lugs on those bodies…

    Your photos are brilliant, so that says more about you than the camera!

    1. Ha, unfortunately yours is the story that I’ve heard most often, and I think I must have been fortunate with mine. To be honest I wouldn’t have known anyway if the shutter speeds are off or anything like that, my first couple of months were spent working out how to rewind the film without giving myself calluses and trying to get my head around the fact that the aperture probably shouldn’t be wide open for every shot.

      Thank you for the kind words, I don’t know if one of the reasons I still use the Zenit is just because I know what the end result will be and can account for it’s…unique characteristics. Give me a pin sharp Canon with the bells and whistles and my amateur skills may well be cruelly exposed!

  9. Christos Theofilogiannakos

    Nice piece on the Zenit, a welcome break from the Leicas, the Contaxes and the Hasselblads. I have a -E and a -B which are still going strong like yours. These early M42 Zenits are the best models and the ones to own, perhaps along with the M39 -3m model. I think the poorly made, unreliable models that followed are the ones that gave Zenits their bad reputation, so as with most soviet products, the older the Zenit, the better.

  10. This is a great read. I love my Zenits (x4) especially the EM. I said only this morning if you hate Zenits send them to me! It’s kind of ironic that you use the sunny 16 rule when Graeme from the Sunny 16 Podcast is always slating Zenits. You also mentioned people not practicing what they preach, consider those who spend hundreds on big name SLRs that will fail soon and the Zenits like shire horses just keep on working. The view finders are not amazing but when you have an idea about what you’re doing they aren’t hard to master.

    1. Funny you say that, I had podcasts like Sunny 16 in mind when I was writing this. It wasn’t until I’d been using the Zenit for about 6 months that I came across the podcasts and other prominent sites and learnt of the wider disdain for it! I wasn’t angry, just disappointed.

  11. Mine is from 1976, bought new. It’s built like a tank. Never had any issues with it. It’s still operational.

  12. Spot on. I had one I bought for $20. Surprisingly competent and practically indestructible. I too took mine camping and on like bicycle rides. I kind of miss it now.

  13. Great stuff! Love the connection with you, the camera and your travels in life.

    I guess the early models were the ones to get. I tried with a Zenit TTL, and then a new old stock 12SD. Gave up after dealing with light leaks, shutter timing issues, shutter curtains failing, and in the brand new 12SD, shutter curtains delivered with pin holes!

    Never give yours up!


  14. Fantastic article and great images. I totally agree with you and have the thirteen Zenits to prove it ????

  15. It’s not the camera, it’s the lens! I wouldn’t touch a Soviet camera with a ten foot pole, but I absolutely love Helios 44 and happily use it on my Pentax 🙂

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