They lurk in their thousands upon thousands in junk shops, camera stories, boot sales and flea markets from Vladivostok to Valencia. Designed in the Soviet Union at a time when battery-operated meters were a relative novelty, production only halted at the dawn of the autofocus era.
They are almost laughably limited compared to many other SLR camera of the time – a handful of handhold shutter speeds, a primitive viewfinder which lacks even a basic central focusing point and a meter which can’t be read through the viewfinder. And yet, the Zenit-E is partly responsible – along with a handful of Praktica’s screw mount models – at bringing an entire generation in Europe into SLR photography at an affordable price.
For those who lusted after cameras like the Pentax Spotmatic or Olympus OM-2 – but whose budget fell far short – Zenit-Es were often an acceptable alternative. Zenit-Es were exported in their hundreds of thousands to Western markets at the chilliest peak of the Cold War, rebranded by photo chains and electrical stores in places like West Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. Countless amateur photographers cut their teeth on the E, often moving to more expensive and feature-packed Western cameras once they could afford them.
Even today, a working Zenit-E can be found in camera fairs for around £10, usually with a Soviet-made Helios-44 58mm lens attached. It’s amongst the cheapest ways to get into film SLR photography.
The Zenit-E was first produced in 1965, and signalled the start of the second generation of SLRs made by the giant Moscow-based camera maker Krasnogorsk Mechaniski Zavod (KMZ). The factory had been making SLRs for more than a decade, using the chassis of the Zorki Leica-copy rangefinder as the springboard. The first of these cameras, the Zenit, appeared in 1950. It looked very much like a Zorki rangefinder, albeit with a viewing prism above the lens. A series of prototypes (including one with a selenium meter built into the prism) were produced before the first proper production camera appeared in 1955 – the Zenit-C. It sported a lens mount based on the Leica screw mount (in fact you can mount Leica screw mount lenses on the Zenit, though you can focus with it).
The Zenit-C was decidedly refined compared to some of the utilitarian Zenit SLRs which came long after it. Soviet cameras in the first two decades after World War II were well built, and rangefinder like the Zorki 1 and the FED-2 are as useable today as the post-war screw-mount Leicas.
The Zenit-C was built to the tune of almost 250,000, and paved the way for even more successful cameras – the Zenit-3/Kristall series. This lost a little of the leather-blessed refinement of the first Zenit, in favour of a stamped top-plate which made it look much more like a natural SLR, and less like a rangefinder with a prism added as an afterthought. The most popular of these was the Zenit-3M, first released in 1962; more than 780,000 were made, and they were widely exported to the West.
More camera reviews:
- Zenit-TTL: Evolution, not revolution
- Zenit-3M: Sputnik-era style
- Olympus Trip 35: The holidaymaker’s favourite
KMZ then made an about-turn to release a family of large leaf-shutter SLRs, built to rival cameras such as the West German Voigtlander Bessamatic. Heavy and expensive, they were built in a fraction of the numbers of the earlier models. Another family of cameras, the Zenit-7, were equally ambitious but far more unreliable, and only a few thousand were made.
The E was an attempt by KMZ to build on the success of the 3M and make a mass-market camera. Out went the smooth, almost Art Deco design of the 3M in favour of something more brick like and utilitarian. Aimed as it was for enthusiasts and amateurs, the camera had the same handful of shutter speeds aimed at handheld shooting; the only shutter speed slower than 1/30 is “B”. This was definitely not a camera intended for landscape photographers.
The E couldn’t compete with the 3M on looks, but where it did show it a clean pair of heels was in usability – the E included an uncoupled selenium-powered light meter with a readout in the top plate. The meter seems very similar to the one KMZ had already installed on the Iskra-2 medium format camera a few years before.
The E first featured the M39 lens mount, just like the first generation of Zenits, but from 1967 it was redesigned to use the M42 mount. Also known as the Universal Screw Mount, and used on SLRs since the late 1940s, the mount had been adopted by Pentax for its SLRs, and the East German Praktica range already proving popular with enthusiast photographers in Europe. It must have seemed a no-brainer for KMZ.
It turned out to be a very good decision indeed. By switching to the M42 mount, the E and was suddenly compatible with an ever-expanding universe of lenses and accessories – not just Pentax and Praktica, but Chinon, Cosina, Ricoh, Fujca, and Edixa, as well as a huge number of third-party lens producers.
Despite first being produced in 1967, production of the M42-mount E only ramped up in the 1970s, even as the M42 system started to look decidedly old hat compared to other mounts which made it easier to transfer settings between lens and camera. It’s quite common to find Es marked with a special commemorative stamp for the 1980 Moscow Olympics (some of them may have been stamped with the emblem later to sell them at a higher price). Though obviously sold in the USSR, the Es greatest success came in Western Europe.
During the Brezhnev Years of Stagnation, the Soviet Union needed foreign currency, and some of its more mass-market cameras were very actively promoted outside of the USSR. Zenit-Es were rudimentary compared to the cameras coming out of West Germany and Japan, but being products of a centralised state economy they were a lot cheaper to buy. Several of Europe’s biggest photographic chains imported huge numbers of Es. In West Germany, Photo-Quelle sold the camera under the name Revueflex E, and in the UK the Dixons high-street chain sold it as the Prinzflex 500E. The E even made its way to the US, with the photo importer Kalimar selling it as the SR 200 and SR 300, and Boston’s Cambridge Camera renaming it the Cambron SE.
The E is a simply specified camera, designed to be churned out in tens and hundreds of thousands every year. The shutter speeds range from 1/30 to 1/500, with “B” in case of slower exposures. The camera has a timed release on the right hand-side on the front of the body. On the top plate, from left to right, is the metering set-up – an uncoupled meter with a dial to transfer the meter reading to shutter speeds and aperture. The E being a completely mechanical camera, this of course all has to be done manually. Then there is the flash shoe (missing on earlier models of the camera), the shutter speed selector, the rewind button, and the frame advance/shutter button, linked to a film counter which must be manually reset to zero when you change films. On the bottom of the camera there’s virtually nothing except an offset tripod socket (which is also where you screw in the camera’s case).
When rewinding the film, the rewind button has to be depressed and a rewind crank within the meter calculator. This has a knurled metal head to make it easier grip when used in cold weather; remember, this is a Soviet camera, so would have been expected to work in very cold conditions.
Unlike a lot of the Soviet rangefinders of this period, the cameras has a conventional hinged back which is opened with a lever on the top left-hand side. No fiddling with keys on the bottom and removing the back plate a la cameras like the KMZ Start or the Zorki-4.
The Zenit-E’s viewfinder isn’t the biggest, or the brightest, or the easiest to focus in dim ,light or if your eyesight isn’t the best. It’s a favourite “flaw” of the camera that other reviewers or photographers have latched onto. Alfred Klomp, in his in-depth review of the camera in the early 2000s, said: “When looking through the viewfinder, what you immediately notice is the green-brownish taint, and the unheard-of barrel distortion, that resembles that of old-fashioned bulged TV screens.” In an effort to keep costs down, the E doesn’t have any kind of Fresnel focusing aid in the viewfinder. The entire screen of ground glass focuses. That’s both a curse and a blessing; not helpful when it comes to critical focusing, but useful if the subject isn’t dead centre in the frame. mirror. Most Zenit-Es have an instant return mirror, which resets after a shot is taken.
Klomp, in almost the same breath, said the viewfinder was amongst the worst he had ever seen when it came to serious photography, but that it also had a certain charm. That’s definitely in keeping with the overall experience shooting the E. The E has a certain agricultural heft to it, hewn as it is from an almost solid one-kilogram lump of aluminium. The E is rectangular and a bundle of corners – this is definitely not the smoothest, most ergonomic SLR ever made – but it’s easy to operate, with the shutter button and frame advance lever able to be operated naturally with the right hand. The E doesn’t have strap lugs on the body (another sign of its no-frills construction), though it can be carried around with the lower half of the camera case, which has a strap, or you can attach your own onto its strap lugs.
When I first got into using Soviet cameras 20 years ago., I soon learned just how ubiquitous the Zenit-E was, especially living in London. In the 1970s and 80s, Technical & Optical Equipment (TOE) imported thousands upon thousands of these cameras, aiming them at amateur enthusiasts. TOE, who imported a range of Soviet cameras and lenses, sent technicians to KMZ in Moscow and Lomo in Leningrad where they learned how each design should work fresh out of the box. Most Soviet camera designs were perfectly sound – it was more often that the construction itself was lacking. TOE engineers learned on the assembly line, then went back to the UK and stripped and reassembled every single camera that came into the UK. These UK import Zenit-Es, in my experience, are much more likely to work as they should now that ones that were made to less stringent standards for sale within the Eastern Bloc.
The Zenit-E was in production itself until 1986, but was the basis of a whole line of Zenit SLRs that were made until the turn of the 21st Century. From the meterless Zenit-B to the automatic diaphragm-equipped Zenit-EM, the Zenit-11 and the tank-like Zenit-12, the E was the basis of many more SLRs pouring out of the KMZ factory in Moscow and Belomo-Vilieka in Minsk. The combined production of the E series is thought to be at least seven million.
The Zenit-E I’ve used the most I found in a market in a market in Greenwich in London in 2003. People weren’t quite so clued up about how much certain camera models were worth so it was definitely easier to snap up a bargain. The Moscow Olympics-emblazoned silver E, along with a somewhat dented early-version Helios-44, cost £4. The Olympics insignia was a little worn off and the meter window had a tiny crack in it, but the meter seemed to be working just fine. I paid the £4 – the price of a roll of film – and figured that if the camera turned out to be a donkey, I hadn’t really wasted too much money on it.
Last week, that Zenit-E went to PPP Repairs for its first proper CLA since I bought it 17 years ago; the only major issue I’ve had with it was the metering dial and rewind spool disassembling in the bottom of my camera bag, the Zenit-E has soldiered on with typically Soviet fortitude.
This review isn’t going to try and paint the Zenit-E as some kind of Moscow-made Leicaflex; it’s about as no-frills as an SLR with a meter can get. But its simplicity is something of a virtue. There was old Soviet saying allegedly inspired by the revolutionary T-34 tank, a mass-produced model that often went into battle minus radios or sophisticated gunsights: “It can’t go wrong if it’s not in there.” So too is it with the Zenit-E. There’s no temperamental 1960s electronics to go haywire because the E doesn’t have a battery. There’s no slow-speed mechanics which might require a trip to the repairers because it doesn’t have any. Should the selenium meter fail, which is a definite possibility over time, then you can just use an external meter.
Zenit-Es are often maligned as yet another example of compromised Soviet camera technology, a camera that would never have been so ubiquitous if it hadn’t been so cheap. But much of this bad reputation seems to stem from mildewy examples rescued from the forgotten corner of a musty basement after 30 years. I’m always a little suspicious that many of those who sneer at the E have done little more than peer at the limited shutter speeds, peered through the viewfinder and had flashbacks of childhood TV shows, and put it down again. Perhaps more useful is the fact that so many people remember the E as a first camera; British photographic magazine Amateur Photography used to run a feature where photographers would list their milestone cameras, and the Zenit-E was often the camera that started that photographic journey.
I’d played around with the E for a few years before deciding to take it on a few trips: a cheap, go-anywhere SLR is always a good inclusion in a camera bag on a summer holiday – you don’t want to be dropping a mint Nikon FM3A into the drink if you manage to miss the jetty getting off a boat. On a trip to Dubrovnik in 2010, I shot several a few rolls on an E and a Pentacon standard lens. The Zenit behaved impeccably, the shutter accurate, the selenium meter taking perfect readings in strong light or in shade – not bad considering that by that stage it was around 30 years old.
On a trip a year later to the Amalfi Coast for a friend’s wedding, I took the E along with a Pentax ES and some Takumar lenses – making the most of the Zenit’s M42 mount. The shot you see here was taken on an SMC Takumar 55/1.8 standard lens, one of Pentax’s standout primes from the early 1970s.
One sunny morning I walked through Amalfi with the Zenit loaded with Fujifilm Velvia 100 – a roll which had cost me considerably more than the camera itself. Amalfi is a town nestled along one of Italy’s most picturesque stretches of coastline, the epitome of dolce vita lifestyle a stone’s throw from the Med. Walking up from the hub of the crowded town centre, I entered a tunnel with this two-tone retro scooter with a partly busted windshield – and realised just in time that the figure in the yellow t-shirt was walking into just the right part of the frame. I had just enough time to take the reading off the meter dial, change the aperture and fire. Click – or in the Zenit’s case ker-thunk, a not-so-subtle sound magnified by the tunnel. But when I got the film back – it was spot on. That’s not bad at all for a selenium meter dealing with bright light and open shade in the same frame.
The Zenit-E is no rival for the bullet-proof Nikon F3 or the watch-like refinement of the Olympus OM-2. A mass-market tool for the amateur, it was designed for no-nonsense photography, a job at which it still excells.
Read more Zenit-E reviews:
- Review on Simon Hawkett’s Photo Blog
- Review by Mike Eckman
- Review by Alex Luyckx
- Review by Alfred Klomp
- Review on 35mmc
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