By Roman Yarovitcyn
My name is Roman Yarovitcyn, a photojournalist from Nizhny Novgorod in Russia. I’m the editor of the photo department at the regional office of the Kommersant publishing house. This summer marks 30 years since I became a professional photojournalist. Today I’m only using only pro-level digital gear, such as Canon EOS-1D series SLR and L-series lenses. Daily shooting is very hard test for camera. But I remember times when professional equipment was not available for me.
It’s not a secret that in the days of the USSR, pro photojournalists didn’t use Soviet-made gear to take newspaper pictures. They used Nikon F, Nikon F2 and Nikon FM SLRs, which were bought by the government for propaganda. Before the 1980 Olympic games in Moscow, the newest Nikon F3 gear was bought for TASS and APN agencies and for several state newspapers.
But this was the media jet-set in the Soviet Union. Only around one in every thousand Soviet photographers had access to the Japanese cameras. All the others used domestic cameras, such as Zenit SLRs. I was one of them, when I became a staff news photographer at small city newspaper in 1991.
All my gear was one or two (I don’t remember clearly) Zenit-Es, and several lenses I acquired after working at a factory lab. One Zenit was inherited from my father. Despite the humble gear, my work was successful, and I finally got images of enough quality, when covered several important events. The summer of 1994 was the last using these Zenits; my newspaper bought me a Pentax K1000. I never returned to Zenit-E, because this camera was almost unusable for news shooting.
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Zenit-E was not the only 35mm SLR, available in the Soviet Union. There were several Kiev SLRs, more complex and better equipped. At the end of the 1980s, the Zenit-E was the oldest Zenit model still in production! But I preferred it. Why?! It is difficult to answer, but I’ll try.
In Russia, the most fashionable model was the Zenit-TTL with through-the-lens metering, absolutely not equal to the selenium ‘decoration’ of the E. Moreover, Zenit-TTL was equipped with a winking iris mechanism [stop down], so important for SLR! But this was not as good as it sounds. The shutter release button of the TTL was extremely tense because this iris mechanism. It was extremely difficult to make sharp image at slow shutter speed, even at 1/125! The most awful thing was the TTL’s viewfinder, because of the translucent front edge of the pentaprism, reflecting light into exposure meter. It compared badly to the Zenit-E. The E’s finder was not exactly bright, but the TTL’s looked like it was wearing dark sunglasses. In addition, instead of clear matting of E, focusing screen of TTL was one of the first soviet Fresnel lens with microprisms. I don’t know, what material and technology KMZ used for that screens pressing, but the quality was awful. Sometimes it was almost impossible to focus an image precisely.
The same things is applicable to most of the later Zenit models, like EM and TTL’s descendants ET, 11 etc. All of us, well familiar with Soviet camera manufacturers, understood: most later similar Zenit models are nothing but cosmetic modernisation. On the one hand, they were newer cameras equipped with more modern features, but on the other hand they are not better than their predecessor.
The E did have an exposure meter, but for me it was absolutely useless. I shot black-and-white film only during those years, and didn’t need precise metering. It’s strange, but the western Sunny-16 rule was absolutely unknown in the USSR. There was different tables, too complex to understand and to remember. Before I started to shoot by E, I’d had some experience shooting by with the Soviet Smena 8M with exposure symbols. It was easy to remember: 1/250 sunshine, 1/125 slightly cloudy, 1/60 rainy etc. This knowledge was enough for me, and I almost didn’t use the Sverdlovsk-4 lightmeter from my bag.
But, when I look at the negatives from the Zenit compared to later Western cameras, I see a great difference. KMZ had to produce a special film scanner ‘Zenit’ with strong lamp, because we exposed our film ‘as metered but plus one step’. Just in case.
The Zenit-E was most balanced camera with smooth release button, one of the brightest and clearest viewfinders in a USSR SLR, and a great feeling in the hand. The last thing maybe is most important for the reporter. The absence of the winking iris was compensated by wide choice of lenses with preset diaphragm. I must say, Soviet auto iris lenses were less reliable, then their preset counterparts. Winking mechanisms were cranky, and didn’t work reliable longer than a couple of months. That’s why I avoided such lenses and used my favourite Mir-10A, Mir-1V, Jupiter-37A and Tair-3A with reliable preset diaphragm.
Of course, when you shoot news, the old preset could stop you seeing the decisive moment. But reliability is usually more important. I have to tell a couple of words about kit lenses. Pros never used the Industar-50, nor the Helios-44. We used it just only as a cap, to sell or change camera. Self-respecting photographers used as 50mm standard lens at least Industar-61 L/Z. This sharp lens with lanthanum glasses was well coated and in addition, had very close focusing limit. In some cases we used it as slight macro lens. Another good lens was the Volna-9. Maybe it’s difficult to trust those reviews now, but that times Helios-44 had the lowest rating of the standard lenses.
You might say: but what about Zenit-19? The greatest mass-produced Zenit! Yes, of course. Inside USSR it was like a Mercedes-Benz. But its reliability was too low for news shooting. In many ways, the Zenit-E’s that Zenit-E’s reliability was no higher. But if your E was damaged, most people could work out how to fix it without assistance. A damaged Zenit-19 with modern square-type shutter and a lot of electronics inside needed qualified service. It was a great problem in the USSR. Maybe, the ease of the E’s repair became one of most important reasons for its popularity.
Then there was the great hope of the Soviet camera industry, the Almaz-103. I bought it in 1986. But it shot fewer than 40 rolls before jamming. Such cameras were way more complex and not possible to self-repair. After getting money back in the store I understood, there is no Soviet alternative to Zenit.
Just before buying Pentax I got a Zenit-APK (with a Japanese shutter). Everything except the shutter was awful, and the viewfinder was poorer than the E’s. I used it less than a year and sold it quickly.
I must say, I never came to a shoot with just a single Zenit-E body – you might as well have gone without a camera at all. A Zenit-E may fail at any moment, for any number of reasons. If you shoot 10 rolls a year, you might wait three to five years for it to happen, and in the meantime think you have a reliable camera. But if your daily shooting is five to six rolls, the same camera might work only several weeks before a shutter jam.
This is a difference between pro and amateur cameras. Zenit-E is not a pro. But there is a way to come around this problem: to have a lot of Es. At my table there were at least four Zenit-Es. Two of them were in my bag, and 2 others were usually disassembled to glue shutter curtains or to change broken gearwheels. In fact, we used Zenits like Tuko Ramirez from ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ assembled a gun. Do you remember the scene, when he creeps out from desert asking “Revolvers?” in the store? He finally assembled one good revolver from several ordinary. We assembled good E from several damaged the same way.
There was one thing, obvious for Soviet pro photographer and surprising for uninitiated. In the Soviet Union there was an absolutely unique market of domestic photographic gear. Amateurs must buy their cameras at a store. But if you connected to professional photography sect, you can just change it for something else. What is the sect? This was pro community, which included photographers from a municipal studio and photographic assistants from a pro lab at any factory.
Every Soviet plant or factory kept photographic service, equipped very well. Most pro photographers worked at such labs and could use any equipment. The Zenit-E was not rated highly. It was a small coin in a great Soviet photographic exchange. So that meant I never had to buy a Zenit-E! If I needed a new body, I can change it for anything. Common story: pros from different plants meets at an official function they are required to shoot. One asks the other:
“Hi, pal! My hyposulfite reserve is finished, but next supply is j in a week, can you help?”
“Yes, I can give a half a bag. I remember Zenit-E on your shelf…”
“No problem, I need just shutter curtains from it.”
“OK, take it for the hyposulfite.”
This way we collect needful number of Zenit-E spare parts to fix it every couple of months.
To shoot quickly Zenit-E must be modified. It was intended to be used with the ever-ready case, and there were no strap lugs on the body. First, I threw away upper part of case, and carried cameras in the bottom half. One of most important things in news photography is possibility to reload film quickly. That’s why pro cameras were intended to carry on a shoulder strap without having to bring it out of the case first. Finally, my friends drilled my E’s bodies to attach strap fastening.
(Pictures taken in student dormitories around the USSR, late 1980s)
Any photographer in USSR had to have a good friend who was a turner or miller or both simultaneously. There were very modest accessory assortment available in photographic stores. Any simplest device we had to make ourselves or find a good metalworking specialist who could do it for us. A very weak point of Zenit-E was a door. To prevent accidental opening, I used rubber ring around body, cut from a bicycle wheel. It was not very fashionable, but was good insurance from film being fogged.
I always collected old coils, when I discovered the possibility to cannibalise a damaged body. The new coils, the kind found in a Zenit-TTL, were awful. The great thing of E was its ease of disassembly. Just screwdrivers and pliers. Instead of special socket wrenches, we used improvised tweezers.
The last modification was to make a hotshoe addition instead of a cold one. With a Zenit-E it’s VERY simple to do. You must drill a single hole in the upper cover and you can attach a hotshoe from a Zenit-TTL or something similar. Fastening is absolutely identical in any Zenits using that classic Leica shutter.
In 1994, when I left the Zenit-E behind, it was like a nightmare finished. I finally understood what is a good and reliable camera. After that were Nikons (F3, F4 and F5) and Canons.
Most of my Zenits were exchanged for some photographic goods, but one of them survived. It was assembled from several different bodies and I can’t tell exactly, what camera is it. But sometimes it reminds me about that times and about my youth. A large part of my film archive was made with Es and I understand, that without this awful/great camera I would not have been able to capture them.
- You can see more of Roman’s images on his website, Foto Escape, with prints available to buy.
- You can also buy his self-published book ‘Edge of Centuries‘ via Amazon
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- Amateur Photography in the USSR: Part Two - 12/04/2021
- Amateur Photography in the USSR: Part One - 24/03/2021
- Life as a 1990s Russian newspaper photographer, shooting on a cheap Soviet camera - 02/03/2021