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5 frames with...

5 Frames with the Zenit E – Built in the USSR – By Sacha Cloutier

July 23, 2020

The Zenit-E was such a unique experience for me that I wrote this article in a few different formats. In the end, I found my review too technical – and besides, it has already been reviewed for 35mmc here. For me, the thing with this camera is that it can pretty much speak for itself, although you may need to learn its language.

If youโ€™re a newbie to film photography, and especially if you are coming from digital, this is a camera to avoid. Not that it is a bad camera, it is probably one of my favorites, but it is a finicky beast. It was just the perfect hunk of metal for me to return to film. The Zenit-E is basic, but also basically annoying depending on what you are trying to get from it. Everything is manual here.

Without getting too much into specs, it sports only six shutter speeds (30, 60, 125, 250, 500, and Bulb), that are controlled by a knob on the top, which can break if you donโ€™t advance the film first. There is a selenium cell light meter, which is essentially light powered so no battery needed, giving you a reading in a little window. As you adjust your settings, you try to get a needle to align with a little loop in the meter window. The gem though, is the Helios 44-2, a 58mm f2 lens that came partnered with most Zenit-E cameras.

Zenit-E top plate

Zenit-E top plate. The light meter window is on the left

I had been wanting a Soviet Era camera for quite some time after watching an episode of Ted Forbesโ€™ The Art of Photography on YouTube. This had led to me learning about Kiev, FED, and Zorki. I had a decision to make and on eBay were hundreds of choices.

One evening, while browsing online, my wife-to-be chilling behind me, watching TV, I found the Zenit E. I started reading more about it and researched more about other Soviet Era camera companies. Up until then, I had only ever researched the Kiev models deeply. I was not too keen on trying out rangefinders just yet as they seemed to be a pain to use. A little voice told me to sleep on it before making the eBay purchase.

The next day, we headed out to an antique store that we had spotted off the highway on the four hour drive to Quebec City the weekend before. They had a couple of cameras here and there, mostly folder cameras that either took 120 or 620 film. I was disappointed with their selection, but there were at least two other shops to visit on the way. As we were about to leave the shop, Annabel had to pee, so I perused the many wares, although nothing was of interest. On her way out of the bathroom, Annabel saw something on a cluttered and mostly mundane shelf: A Zenit-E with a working light meter!

My first adventure with this tank from the USSR was at the Montreal Botanical Gardens. I had two rolls of familiar Kodak Gold 400 and a roll of Ektar 100, a film that I had been wanting to try. It was a very bright sunny day with harsh light. Little warning: my copy of this lens is not super clean as it had been on the antique store shelf for quite some time. It still has its charm though!

None of these pics were edited, although maybe slightly adjusted by the lab.

Zenit-E w/ Ektar

Butterfly Exhibit at the Montreal Botanical Gardens – Kodak Ektar 100

Zenit-E w/ Ektar

Look at that swirly bokeh! – Kodak Ektar 100

Zenit-E w/ Gold 400

One of the unique wooden structures at the Montreal Botanical Gardens – Kodak Gold 400

Zenit-E w/ Gold 400

No idea what this flower is but I thought that it was beautiful – Kodak Gold 400

 

Zenit-E w/ Gold 400

The color rendition on these beautiful red flowers is amazing – Kodak Gold 400

Was this camera what I hoped it would be when I started my quest for a Soviet Era camera? Absolutely! Is it an annoying, fussy lump of metal and glass? Yes it is. There is no doubt that I love it though. I have run quite a few rolls though it and I’ll be giving it more attention shortly.

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10 Comments

  • Reply
    Craig Schroeder
    July 23, 2020 at 4:40 pm

    My Dad bought one of these (same lens, too) as my introduction to photography. Actually, I had been using his Bantam 828 to get some basic darkroom experience and I think he just didn’t want me using that as a youngster. Many old shots from this rig still surprise me at being good, solid images that show how little progress I’ve gained from high end German gear (and 50 years experience) in the meantime…. Thanks for post!

  • Reply
    Martin
    July 23, 2020 at 4:51 pm

    The unknown flower looks like the Corona virus ๐Ÿ˜‰
    My first self bought camera was a Zenit, but a 12 XP. I still have it and it works. Must take it out again.
    Thanks for the post!

    • Reply
      Sacha Cloutier
      July 23, 2020 at 9:46 pm

      Yeah, the flower looking like a virus crossed my mind too!

  • Reply
    John Duder
    July 23, 2020 at 9:39 pm

    It was such a common camera in the Sixties and Seventies: the UK importers even ran a ‘Zenith Man’ competition for a year or two. Built like a T-34 tank, and very possibly in the same factory.

    I bucked the trend, and bought an Exa 500, which had a fully automatic diaphragm and shutter speeds down to 1/2 second…

  • Reply
    Sciolist
    July 23, 2020 at 10:32 pm

    I doubt I will be alone in saying my first camera was a Zenit (my memory is convinced it was called Zenith, but hey-ho). In my case , an EM, Moscow Olympics edition. I remember the reviews even then acknowledged it had a good lens, and that was good enough for me. When cameras had both interchangeable lenses and sensors, the body was essentially a light tight box. I paid it off over 52 weekly payments through the Kays catalogue (do they still exist?).

    I eventually passed it to my brother-in-law, who used it for years before passing it to his son. Only purchased 40 years ago, so it wouldn’t be beyond the realms that somewhere, it’s still going ‘click’. Actually, I think it went ‘clack’. God I cherished that camera.

    Thank you Sacha.

    • Reply
      Sacha Cloutier
      July 23, 2020 at 10:51 pm

      I find myself lucky in that I got into photography at the tail end of film photography. Although I have spent the last 15 years shooting digital after only 5-6 years of film photography, it stayed with me. My start was on a Minolta XG7. That died after I lent it to someone and it was replaced by one of the more “recent” Nikon automatic SLR cameras that I never took a liking to.
      While I know that it probably does not compare favorably to a Nikon F3 and my Canon A-1 is much simpler to use, there is something about the basic tank that is a Zenit camera. I can understand why a lot of people got their starts on Zenit.
      With this current “new” wave of film photography, I hope that a lot of people will once again get to learn on Made in USSR cameras.

  • Reply
    Eric Woods
    July 24, 2020 at 6:25 am

    Good read. Have one and still shoot with it occasionally with a Helios.

    • Reply
      Sacha Cloutier
      July 26, 2020 at 11:55 pm

      The Helios defies all expectations. Somehow I feel that if the lens was from a bigger name, like Canon or Nikon, it would have been written off as being flawed.

  • Reply
    eric
    July 25, 2020 at 7:36 am

    You prove: it is not the camera which makes the photographer, but the photographer makes de camera.
    Great pictures with an iconic simple camera : Bravo

    • Reply
      Sacha Cloutier
      July 26, 2020 at 11:54 pm

      Thanks! It is one that I will probably never give or sell. It really forces you to pay attention to your basics.

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