A little bit of Zenit History
The Soviet Union had a colossal internal market and the demand for a simple, affordable yet reliable SLR was just as huge. Despite the need, there was no such camera in the Soviet Union even after the Word War II apart from the East German products (Contax, Pentacon, Praktina, Praktica, Praktisix, Pentaconsix, Exakta, Exa) but these cameras did not fulfill the requirements for simpleness and they were pricey too.
Therefore KMZ constructors became a bit of Frankenstein and built the camera they needed. They took a Zorki rangefinder camera, thrown away the rangefinder, added a mirror-box and a prism so the first Zenit was born.
The Zenit is a real descendant of the Leica IIc. I know this statement is a bit harsh to hear at first but here is why. The Soviet Union had officially bought the license of the legendary Leica IIc in 1932. All the early FED and Zorki models were based on this license and as I mentioned the first Zenit was the direct modification of the Zorki. Even the lens mount was inherited from Leica being an M39x1 thread mount but because of the mirror the rangefinder lenses although fit but unable to reach the infinite focusing distance.
So the first Zenit (Zenith for export) were introduced in 1952 with Industar 50 (50 mm, f/3.5) lens which was manufactured for Zorkis as well. The proceeding version was the Zenit C which featured synchronization for single-use flash bulbs with the adjustable synch timing advance (from 0 to 25 ms). This camera was extremely reliable due to its simple construction, it was so simple that the mirror was lowered by a single string.
The next in the row was the Zenit 3 (1960-1962) which was mechanically a very similar camera to the original Zenit and to the Zorki, but it introduced the advance lever as a huge improvement over the less convenient advance knob.
You would suggest that the Zenit 3 was the direct predecessor of the 3M, but there was another camera called Crystall which has much more in common with the 3M. The Crístall was the first KMZ SLR with a hinged back, the film could be loaded and removed with ease compared to the previous bottom loaded models. The Crystall was short lived and many say because it was extremely ugly (tractor-like) of a camera due to the ridges on the top of the prism.
Finally, we have reached the camera (this post is about) the mighty Zenit 3M in the story. It was manufactured between 1962 and 1970, designed by N. Marienkov and the M in the name probably stands for modernized. The camera had all the technological advancements of its predecessors such as built-in flash synchronization (1/30s), standard shutter speeds, hinged back and film advance lever. But the mirror was still not a returning type, there was no auto-aperture support on the body and the shutter speed dial did rotate during exposure. In other words, the camera was modernized indeed but was still many years behind the rest of the word.
This camera had got a new kit lens, the Helios 44 (58mm f/2). This is an excellent lens with the exact the same parameters as the pre-war Zeiss Biotar. This lens was much more stable in terms of quality compared to the Tessar like Industars as most Helios’ are very good but the Industars could vary between fantastic and horrible.
The story of course continues and Zenit cameras are being made even today, but for the rest, you have to wait until the next post featuring some of the more advanced evolution steps of the Zenit line!
Style vs robustness
We all know that Zenit cameras are traditionally tank or tractor like and because they are all full mechanical constructions, it is literally impossible to destroy them. Soviet engineers didn’t have to face with the lack of materials but the lack of quality materials. That is why they simply made everything more robust to prepare the mechanics for the worst possible materials. The result is more like a weapon than a camera at first glance, but at least it can be used for self-protection without risking the photo taking ability.
Generally I agree with the opinions that these are not the most beautiful cameras (to be modest) ever made, but actually, in my opinion, the Zenit 3M is a pleasing exception. I really like how the Zenit 3M looks like, this is much much smaller than later models and to me, the front plate with the engravings and the shape of the prism is very appealing. To prove the point, here is a little montage about my Zenit 3M. In addition, I have found a very stylish photograph on this blog about the legendary Weegee holding this camera taken by Richard Sadler. In my opinion, the camera looks very good in Weegee’s hand.
Weegee was the pseudonym of Arthur Fellig(June 12, 1899 – December 26, 1968), a photographer and photojournalist, known for his stark black and white street photography.
Richard Sadler is one of the UK’s leading portrait photographers, shooting the famous ‘Weegee’ picture that was featured in the 2011 NMM exhibition ‘The Lives Of The Great Photographers’.
My Zenit 3M
I have found my Zenit 3M on an antique fair in Miskolc, Hungary. This fair is held on the first Sundays of every month and usually, it is a very rich and colorful occasion attracting many people even from the surrounding countries. The camera belonged to an old man trying to sell very few things and I knew he was the first and only owner from the way he showed it to me. The camera itself looked quite well and I was really touched by the lens at the first place as it was and it is as clean as new. The second thing grabbed me was, of course, the shape of the camera. I hadn’t seen such an old Zenit before and my preconception of a tractor-shape was gone as this camera was very pretty. Finally, the original box and the lens cap was part of the deal so I simply couldn’t resist.
The original price can be seen on the box (2800Huf) which must have worth way more at the time this camera was sold in 1965 (At least the production date is 1965).
Zenit 3M datasheet
- Produced 1962-1970
- Producer KMZ
- Frame size 24x36mm
- Lens mount L39 screw mount
- Lens Industar-50 50mm f/3.5, Helios 44 58mm f/2
- Shutter cloth curtain (traveling horizontally), mechanically controller
- Shutter speeds 1/30s, 1/60s, 1/125s, 1/250s, 1/500s + B
- Sync speed 1/30s
- Mirror not returning type
- Viewfinder pentaprism with simple matte screen
I did not check all the shutter speeds correctly when I bought the camera and as it turned out the shutter is not in the best shape. The slower speeds look very inaccurate and overall I don’t trust in any speeds enough to risk film and moments. I haven’t even tried this camera yet. So the shutter needs a repairman to clean and set it up, and there will be a day to come for this. The trouble is, the repair would cost more than the camera worth itself.
Otherwise, all features including self-timer work properly, the lens, prism, and mirror are clean and free of fungus so it is really a joy to look through the system especially after the viewfinder of my entry-level Canon DSLR which has a dim and tunnel-like finder compare to the old Zenit.
The way it looks
Although I have not used this camera I have enough experience from other FSU cameras to see how this would handle. This camera offers everything needed for photography but nothing more. You can have reasonable shutter speeds, a bright viewfinder, self-timer, a truly magnificent lens, flash sync, and convenient film loading and advance mechanisms.
Yes, there are things which you would miss like a self-returning mirror and the support of auto aperture lenses. You have to pre-set the aperture on the lens and the body does not close the iris when you push the button.
If you can live with this limitations and you don’t care of the L39 lens mount, this little elegant camera could be a great fun to use or it would look great in the collection and surely this one will not make you bankrupt.
I have not used this camera because of the unreliable shutter of it, but I did mount the lens to my Canon body and I used another Helios 44 on another Zenit a few years before. Eventually, the lens what matters here and not the camera as it uses film anyway.
In general, I very like the image quality of the Helios 44. I compared it with my Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens I use on my DSLR and although the test was not scientific it seems that the Helios actually beats the Canon lens in some cases wide open in terms of sharpness and contrast. I am going to repeat the experiment in a much more planned and controlled way to approve or confuse it. It seems sure that the two lenses are quite close in performance. Probably the Helios is less coated and I suggest the results will be different when I will test challenging back-light situations. We will see until that here are some test shots.
Helios 44 Digital
The following shots are taken with my Canon 450D with a half-elf made a DIY adapter. I used my M42->EOS adapter and used the lens mount of the Zenit plus some tape to securely put this two together. The Zenit mount (L39 thread in an aluminum ring) is attached to the body with four small screws. The mount almost fits perfectly into the M42->EOS adapter. Luckily with some tape, these could be connected tightly enough without the risk of damaging the M42 thread thanks to the rubber tape.
I don’t recommend to do it for anyone and it was not really stable in fact, it was really hard to focus without ruining this evil construction. So I did better move with the camera back and forth instead of screwing the focus ring. On the other hand, it was good enough for some tests, but I need to get a real adapter for more serious tests or even for portraits. Alternatively, I am thinking to get an M42 mounted version of this lens.
These shoots have been taken wide open f/2 and I did not process them at all apart from basic raw->jpg conversion and resizing for the web. I think the bokeh is very pleasing and I am happy with both the sharpness and contrast of the images.
Helios 44 Kodak 100 film
These were taken with a Helios 44 and a Zenit E camera so the picture quality must be very similar. In fact, these were one of my first shoots on film ever.