Zenit-19 review

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The Zenit-19, with a non-standard Industar lens (Pic: Foma39/Wikimedia)

 

By Paul Farca

I was always fascinated by photography. I would watch my uncle taking a long time composed family group/portrait shots, or look through my father’s photos of his youth on the construction sites of the socialism. It was always somewhat magic – a door to a different realm.

In 2012 and after a Panasonic FZ8, I acquired a Nikon D3200. I never got along with that camera: too many buttons, x ways of autofocusing etc… A simple task like taking a picture of a meadow in the forest was impossible, it was either the trees looked too dark or the grass was blown out. A nightmare. On top of that, the lenses for Nikon mount were so expensive!

So, in 2014 I decided to take a radical step: switch to film. I wanted a simple way to photograph, which would allow me to focus on the composition and not on the settings of the camera and which would allow me to buy reasonably expensive glass.

So enter the Zenit-19. I acquired it from an old gentleman, via an online platform. Although it is considered to be “the pinnacle of Soviet camera design with the m42 lens mount”, it is a simple and sturdy camera, with nothing than the important controls, as there is no “automatic” or “aperture priority” or other automated mode; not even a compensation exposure button.

It’s a camera that requires you to do all the work:

  • You set the film speed via a small dial at the bottom of the camera that gives you the  GOST speeds. My Zenit 19 does not come with the GOST-ASA-DIN convertor on the back, but it is not a problem, as I’ve learned the equivalent of 200 and 400 speeds. A minor nuisance is that sometimes I forget to set the film speed as the selector is not so obvious, but I fix that in developing; the speeds are in a range from GOST 16 to GOST 500 (16, 22, 32, 45, 65, 90, 130, 180, 250, 360, 500)
  • You set the shutter speed on the dial that is on the right side of the top plate. The speeds range between 1 second to 1/1000, with B mode, The flash sync is at 1/60, being marked with red colour and an “x”. The speeds between 1s and 1/60 are yellow, probably as a sign of caution that the images might be blurred.
  • You set the aperture on the lens.

The process of shooting is like a form of meditation; you see, you frame, you open the lens to focus, you focus, you adjust the exposure, you breathe in, you breathe out, you shoot, you breath in, you rewind. Nothing more, nothing less.

If you are skilled at scale focusing and you have already set the aperture, you do not need to even focus; you just adjust the time for the right exposure.

I use my left hand to focus and adjust the aperture, the right little finger to press the DOF button to check the exposure and the right thumb to adjust the speed and to shoot.

The Zenit 19’s meter is a needle type. As long as you are between the minus and the plus signs, the exposure is right and I’ve not noticed any exposure failures so far.

The meters is battery-powered, but I did not have the courage to check the type and/or change batteries. If ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the batteries, the internet is saying that: “This camera will not operate without two PX625” but that “The meter is not voltage-sensitive, so 1.5 volt 625 alkaline batteries can be used in place of the original 1.35 volt mercury batteries. Without the battery, the light meter will cease to function and the shutter will only operate at 1/1000 of a second (due to the slower speeds being electronically timed).”

To meter you have just to push the DOF preview button which is on the right side in the front of the camera – it is easily accessible with your right-hand little finger.

A distinctive feature of this camera is the 1/1,000 maximum speed, which I find useful as it allows you to keep the aperture one step opened for the nice bokeh that so many of the Russian lenses have. (This is a faster than many Zenit SLRs, which had a maximum speed of 1/500.)

The camera’s prism is not particularly bright, far away from cameras like the Fujica ST901 or ST801, the other SLRs that I use from time to time. In the prism, outside the exposure needle, you do not have any other info, no aperture/time or number of photos – but this is pretty normal for m42 cameras.

To focus, you have only the Fresnel circle, you do not have the split image, which I find much more easy to use. So, if you have a ‘slow’ lens, such as a Jupiter 11, which is 3.5 it can be a little more difficult to shoot with. But in time, if you stick with certain lenses, you begin to get used to focusing.

The focusing is not fast, so you have to double check to be sure you nailed it, so the camera is not recommended for speedy street photography – as you would use a point and shoot or a rangefinder. It’s size and loud mirror slap don’t help you blend into the surroundings, either.

I tried a couple of times to use the camera in wildlife photo and it was difficult even for shooting birds on a branch from a close distance. The fact that I was using it hand held with 500mm mirror lens (catadioptric) with Contax mount + adapter meant even the slightest movement resulted in unfocussed images. But the Zenit 19 was OK in use with the 300mm Tair, used in the famous Fotosnaiper.

I find a “trademark” of the camera is the loud mirror slap that the Zenit-19 makes when in use – friends were joking that I am actually slapping the subject with each shot. But it may be just the age of my camera, as i found out that in the cold (let’s say that for less than -5 Celsius) the mirror was jamming, and not returning. After 15-20 minutes of holding my Zenit-19 under the jacket, close to my heart, it was working properly for two or three shots more.

I am sure that this can be fixed through a proper cleaning, but it was a minor disadvantage and it thought that as long as it is working properly, I will not clean it – the same approach I have with the batteries.

The Zenit-19 has a flash hotshoe on the top of the prism and in the front, on its left hand side it’s the flash sync port.

On Zenit-19’s the top plate sit, left to right: (1) film rewind knob; (2) battery check button; (3) speed dial (B, 1, 2, 4, 8, 15, 30, 60-x, 125, 250, 500 and the 1,000); (4) locking switch and shutter button; (5) film rewind button; and (6) film advance lever. The shutter seems to allow a release cable, but I have never used one. The counter is white, with black number, in front of the film advance lever.

This camera has been my main shooter for almost three years now, I think I have shot almost 100 rolls, most of them black and white but also colour films. I mainly use it with the 135 mm Jupiter-11 and with the Helios 44 58 lens. I have used it also with the 37 mm Mir 1, the 300 mm Tair and the 500mm Contax mentioned above

The camera went with me in Rome, Italy, on the beautiful Puglian cities and on the streets of Romania’s capital Bucharest, my hometown. I’ve shot in the mountains, and it has seen the Black Sea coast and the streets of Chisinau, the capital of our neighbour Moldova. It has never failed me, except the minor nuisance of the mirror jamming in cold.

I must admit that I am very fond of this camera and that it gave me what I have desired, a simpler way to shoot that allows me to focus on the composition and subject. Probably without it, I would have abandoned photography.

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