Zorki 4 and lens (Pic: Caleb Snyder Dicesa)
The Zorki-4, the first Soviet rangefinder to be widely sold in the West (All pics: Caleb Snyder Dicesa)

By Caleb Snyder Dicesare

Ever since I discovered photography, with a Nikon D40 lent to me by a family friend, I’ve had my hand held. I was spoiled by auto-focus, auto-exposure, image preview, and photo-editing software. Even years later, when my dad lent me my first film camera, a pristine Pentax Super Program, I could still rely on its internal computer to fix any error on my end.

I think this is what has led me to pick up and shoot my Zorki-4 time and again. There is no safety net, only myself and the camera. Some might view the Zorki as a daunting camera for beginners, and in truth, it is. To be VERY clear this is not exactly an extremely refined tool, and certainly not a camera I would recommend to those just starting out.

When I received it in April, the rangefinder had been knocked out of alignment during shipping, requiring a quick disassembly, and fixing. Nothing too difficult, but still more work than I can imagine the average person wants to commit to.

But in spite of the flaws, it’s become a camera that truly excites me to go out and shoot with. This might seem a bit strange, as Russian cameras have a reputation for flaws. But this one has a charm which I’ve found hard to explain.

First thing is the shutter mechanism. Unlike most SLR shutters, the Zorki’s shutter speed dial is linked to the shutter mechanism in such a way that, when you press the shutter release button, the dial moves as well. Because of this interesting feature, any turning of the speed dial before winding your film on will permanently damage the camera.

Zorki-4 and city background (Pic: Caleb Syder Dicesare)
The Zorki-4 is perfect for street photography Pic: Caleb Snyder Dicesare)

The Zorki has a great range of shutter speeds, especially for its costs. With shutter speeds ranging from one second all the way to 1/1000 of a second, you have the freedom to play around with most major film stocks, without having to deviate too far from the Sunny 16 rule.

This is complimented by what I personally consider to be the Zorki-4’s best quality, its rangefinder. With its 1x magnification (meaning that objects seen in the rangefinder are the same size which you would see with your eyes), you can keep both eyes open when composing. It also allows for extremely smooth focusing, and the large, square rangefinder patch proves to be excellent, even in some extremely low light conditions.

The only drawback here, is that you are entirely limited to using the viewfinder when shooting. The camera has no frame lines. If you want to use lenses other than the 50mm you will need to buy a KMZ Turret Finder. (Note: I had planned on including this in the review, but at present, it is lost somewhere in the US postal system.)

Now, on to the not so good. Many Soviet cameras were built in their millions but don;’t always have the best reputation for reliability. As I am writing this, I have picked up my Zorki, and taken two photos of my window at 1/30th of a second. While the first seems to have worked just fine, the second had a noticeable, momentary lag before closing. Often times, these cameras need a “warming up” before putting film in, to  ensure that your speeds work correctly. That being said, I almost never do this, and I have never seen any of these issues directly impact image quality. Plus, these were the first shutter issues I’ve had in several months, and they seem to have gone away just as fast as they’d come.

Also, though not a deal-breaker, this camera feels rough. The shutter button is quite literally spiked (see images below), and winding knob occasionally requires an act of God (or well-developed callouses) to turn. Even setting the shutter speed dial can be a bit difficult, and appear slightly imprecise.

Now, you may be wondering what exactly this camera is good for, and why I enjoy it so much. First, the Zorki’s size, and bright rangefinder make it a perfect camera for street, and architectural photography. Over the past two to three months in particular, I have been quick to throw it in my bag when I go into the city to run errands. When the lens and body are separated, they fit cleanly into a laptop bag’s side pocket. I would also point out that those same traits make it a prime candidate for traveling.

On top of this, there are hundreds of excellent Leica Thread Mount (LTM or L39, lenses. Though I have yet to buy them myself, the Jupiter-12 (f/2, 35mm), and Jupiter-9 (f/2, 85mm) are prime candidates for those looking to expand into either portraiture or street/landscape photography with this camera. Though not a universal issue, by any means, I would like to point out that this camera does frequently come with either a Jupiter, or Industar-branded lens.

Boat marin (Pic: Caleb Snyder Dicesare)

Depending on which variation, model, year of manufacturing, etc these can produce wildly different results, particularly with colour film. For this reason, my go-to films tend to be black and white, especially Bergger Panchro 400, and Ilford FP4. Some colour films, particularly Fuji C200, do seem to produce colors reasonably well with these lenses.

The Zorki-4 is a perfect rangefinder on a budget (ie much less than $600). A good one, cleaned, lubricated, and adjusted, with a warranty can be had for a price of under $100. Although it doesn’t have Leica-level reliability, if you’re interested in a pure experience, looking to get started with rangefinder cameras, or are simply interested in having a Soviet built camera, this is a great buy!

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Stephen Dowling
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Harry Machold
Harry Machold
1 month ago

Stephen, very enjoyable to read on this quiet Friday evening over here in Austria. I have several Soviet cameras and enjoy using them very much, despite of their shortcomings at times. The lenses are usually very sharp but in the “ancient” way, with a sharp center and a lovely softening towards the edges.But is this not the way how our eyes are seeing this world…? I think so. A mechanic and friend of mine is here in Vienna and able to repair those beasts with lasting success. I also like the re-skinning of your camera, something I also aim to… Read more »

Peter lee
1 month ago

I thought the article was way off base right from the start. Learning on a fully manual camera is something that I did and it helped developed my photographic skills- that’s how you learn. Its not hard .The writer obviously got an rough unserviced Zorki as he complains about the stiff shutter release and rewind knob ( did he read the handbook which is available online ?) and he is judging all Zorkis like his eg as not being reliable or ones picked up in a garage sale for $5. Would you buy an old unserviced Leica – of course… Read more »

Stuart Lloyd
1 month ago

Hi, good read, thanks. If get a red soft release and that will illiminate the rough shutter button then get your camera serviced and the other little niggles will almost all go away. Most of the negatives you describe about this wonderful camera and not design faults, merely your particular camera crying out for a good CLA.

Last edited 1 month ago by Stuart Lloyd
Caleb Snyder Di Cesare
Reply to  Stuart Lloyd

Hey Stuart, glad you liked the piece, I may try to do a few more in the future. I agree with you and Peter above, I should probably send this thing somewhere for some servicing. Let me know if you’re aware of any places in North America or Britain that would be up to the task!

Caleb Snyder Di Cesare

I’d appreciate that! Everyone I’ve contacted either doesn’t service them, or is in Russia/ Ukraine