Zenit 3M Reloaded

Last time when I wrote about my Zenit 3M, I could not show any sample photos as the shutter was very slow and ran uneven. It was the case only until I have found a neat little article Zenit E: Shutter Curtain Repairs with repair tips. I noted the risks stated in the article, but eventually I decided to engage some screw tightening in hope of bringing the camera back to service. Thankfully the Zenit E on which the tutorial was based on is very similar to my older Zenit 3M, and so the important screws are located exactly at the same spot. I grabbed a screw driver and after 15 minutes of careful tinkering the shutter was good as new. All speeds became distinct and I have not noticed any more the uneven operation. I had no idea if the speeds very accurate, but considering what I had before, it was a definitive improvement.

The next step was to load some film, attach a stylish neck strap and take the camera with me everywhere for a while. Because the camera was with me for a longer time, I had a chance to take some photos of it in all it’s glory in different environments.

I have to say that shooting with the Zenit is a lot of fun, but at the very least a special experience. Operation is very minimalistic, I have hard time to imagine more stripped down SLR experience. The mirror does not return automatically after firing the shutter. When the shutter is not cocked, the viewfinder is dark, only when film is advanced the mirror is being lowered. Only when the mirror reached it’s position the full image is projected to the screen. Speaking of viewfinder, it is simply a ground glass with round edges and no additional information presented. My finder has a light orange tint and the world simply looks like if I were watching  an 80’s movie through it. The unique image in the finder is perfectly complementing the retro look of this camera which combined with the simplistic operation is what makes the experience appealing to me.

Zenit 3M finder
Zenit 3M finder

First I have shoot a roll of badly expired Kodak Gold 100 and I have left my light meter at home to thrown in some more variables into the mix. Despite all the odds, the first roll came out just fine. Swirly bokeh from the cult classic first generation Helios 44, plenty of noise and shifted colors from the expired film, but no issues with exposure.

Next I loaded a fresh roll of Ilford HP5 Plus and I taken the camera to a trip to the mountains. The camera worked fine for the most part. But the temperature started to drop as we hiked higher. At the end the camera was really cold and the shutter sounded like it has started to struggle again. I guess my fix was not flawless after all.

I (over) developed the film in Rodinal and again it came out with flaws which was due to my errors and not because of the shutter except the very last frames where the shutter got “frozen”.

Nowadays, I am experimenting more with the Helios 44 lens on digital bodies, but it is good to know that I can mount this really lovely lens to it’s native camera. The Zenit will come in handy because my desire for old school SLR experience is proven to be recurring.

At the end of this post, I have to place here a warning. Repairing cameras are always risky, one may damage the camera and film could be also lost if repair is not successful. Please be careful and let your gear serviced by experts unless you are really know your way. In any ways always watch out for the risks.

Zenit 3M

Zenit 3M silhouette

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.

My Zenit 3M with Helios 44

Weegee with a Zenit 3M in Coventry England in the 1960's © Richard Sadler
Weegee with a Zenit 3M in Coventry England in the 1960’s © Richard Sadler

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

Zenit 3M box
Zenit 3M ever-ready case
Zenit 3M top (really small little camera)

Final words

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.

Test Shots

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.

Canon 450D, DIY adapter, Helios 44 58mm f/2 @ f/2,  L39 mount
Canon 450D, DIY adapter, Helios 44 58mm f/2 @ f/2,  L39 mount

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.

Zenit E, Helios 44 58mm f/2 (M42), Kodak Gold, Fuji lab scanned
Zenit E, Helios 44 58mm f/2 (M42) with extension ring, Kodak Gold, Fuji lab scanned
Zenit E, Helios 44 58mm f/2 (M42) with extension ring, Kodak Gold, Fuji lab scanned
Zenit E, Helios 44 58mm f/2 (M42) with extension ring, Kodak Gold, Fuji lab scanned