By Paulo Moreira
Oh dear, another broke guy wanting a Leica he can’t afford? Normally, this is what comes to mind when someone shows their Zorki 1. Well, if you’re one of them, then congratulations, you’ve scored 50%, I am a broke guy but I don’t want a Leica that I can’t afford (modesty prevents me from telling you why). There are no “excuses” in order to have a Zorki 1, just the will and pleasure to take pictures using film.
My Zorki 1 was made around 1950, descending not from the Leica II that it tries to emulate but from the Soviet FED that was the very first Leica copy in the 1930´s. I won’t bother you with historical details, suffice to say that the Zorki 1 enjoyed a long life, right into the end of the 50’s, with minor changes to cut costs down.
For a 70-something-years-old camera, my Zorki 1 is in a remarkably good condition, the chrome sparks, no rust, spots, dings. It is hard to believe it came from a flea market in Moscow during one of my stays there. It had a thorough CLA sometime ago and it works as it did when it first left the factory. The design is not Soviet, of course, the camera copies the Leica II from top to bottom. It’s very compact, not too heavy and great to use.
If you like the “less is more” philosophy, then the Zorki 1 may just be for you. You only have seven shutter speeds, in the old style for my variant, starting at 1/20 and culminating at a bullet-stopping 1/500; there are no slow shutter speeds. Of course, there is “Z”, from the German zeit, time for you and me, commonly known on other cameras as “B”. To be honest, I don’t feel the need for slow shutter speeds in the cameras I own. I know that people have different shooting styles, for my kind of photography, street photography, the shutter speed range is more than enough.
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There is a technique for selecting the shutter speed, you can only do it after winding the film/cocking the shutter. It’s a sort of ritual, click, advance the film, lift the shutter speed dial to place it in the desired speed. People say that if you fail to follow this small ritual, all sorts of bad things can happen to the camera. Besides mechanical armageddon, if you choose a shutter speed before winding, the camera will ignore it, as the shutter dial rotates during exposure and winding, losing its reference point. This is the price of using almost one-century-old camera technology.
If you thought that setting the shutter speed seemed complicated, it means that you’re unfamiliar with the viewing/focusing system. The Zorki 1 is a rangefinder camera, meaning that it uses a rangefinder device, coupled to the lens to ensure accurate focusing. Unfortunately, just like the original Leica II, it’s a two-step process, as the rangefinder isn’t coupled to the viewfinder, that’s why you get those two round eyes and the viewfinder in the middle.
So, how does it work? It’s simple, you focus on the left eyepiece where the rangefinder is. It magnifies the image to 1:1 to allow an easier focusing via a superimposed image. After having done this, you can then peer into the next neighbour eyepiece, the viewfinder for composing, framing the picture. The windows are small, the rangefinder one isn’t particularly bright, but it’s manageable.
The viewfinder window is small, it covers the 50mm focal length (sort to speak), no frame lines but reasonably bright. Is it easy to compose with the Zorki 1? Frankly no, the tiny size doesn’t make composition easy, but I have seen worse – a lot worse.
If you haven’t quit reading this review yet, it means that I haven’t done my best yet, and that’s about to change. The Zorki 1, just like the Leicas (oh yes, not just the first models), uses a peculiar loading system, called bottom loading. There is no conventional hinged door, so you can’t comfortably put the film cartridge into the film chamber and insert the tip of it into the take-up spool. No such luxuries here, you have the bottom part of the camera and you have to insert the film cartridge and detachable taking spool at the same time through a very narrow gap between the camera body and the shutter cradle.
It’s truly a nightmare, it’s time consuming, you have to prepare the film (trimming 10 cm extra of the film leader), there are university courses far easier and simple than acquiring the skills of bottom loading. Fortunately, there is extensive literature in the internet and numerous tutorials available on YouTube.
I regret to inform you that the camera has no metering whatsoever, you are completely on your own, this is a camera for grown-ups. I use an exposure method called Paulo“O”Matic, I don’t use a meter, it’s a variation of the sunny 16, except I use all apertures. If you don’t feel comfortable with the idea of being on your own, metering wise, the good news is that the Zorki 1 is fully compatible with whatever values you want to input, it really doesn’t care how you came across them. It goes without saying that there are no batteries in this camera or ISO setting.
The camera uses a Leica screw mount lens, otherwise known as L39, this means that it can take lenses made by other manufacturers. The good news is that there is a plethora of lenses to choose from, the bad news is that they can be either very cheap or very expensive. Leica, Canon, Nikon (among others) and nowadays Voigtlander are expensive, but if you stick to Soviet lenses, they are dirt cheap.
My Zorki came with the Industar-22 50/3.5 collapsible standard lens. In terms of optical design, it’s just like the Elmar or Tessar, meaning that there is a level of decent quality assured. Sadly, if you want to change your focal length, you will have to fit an external viewfinder in order to frame properly with your new lens.
I am really good with the doom and gloom about cameras but it’s time to lighten up things a bit. The Zorki 1 is a really nice picture taking machine. It comes from another world and era, what you see as quirks was the norm back then and not specific to it. It lacks the mechanical finesse of its German role model, it’s not a quietest of cameras either. Its engravings aren’t really comparable to the German original’s. The thing is, smoothness, quietness of operation and fine engravings don’t make a picture any better. A camera just records the picture, whatever is recorded by it is our responsibility, not the camera’s.
Like I already mentioned, I basically just shoot black and white street photography. I don’t believe in ideal cameras or lens combinations, my Zorki shoots glass from 15mm to 50mm, it depends on my mood. For me the Zorki 1 does the job quite nicely, it’s unobtrusive, friendly, people react very well to it and it can be an ice-breaker, these are real life qualities that matter in street photography.
Finally, a word of caution, it’s not easy to be an FSU (Former Soviet Union) camera user, you instantly become the joke among your photo friends. The bright side to this is that you will never read anyone making nasty comments of how bad your pictures are considering the money you spent on your gear!