When the Soviet camera producer Krasnogorsk Mechanicheskiy Zavod (KMZ) turned their post-war attention to making a 35mm SLR, they didn’t exactly start with a fresh drawing board.
KMZ’s first SLR was the Zenit 1, produced from 1952 to 1956. The camera’s small size and Art Deco styling helped betray its origins; this tiny SLR was built on the body of a Zorki rangefinder, itself a faithful copy of the Leica II rangefinder from the 1930s.
Essentially, the only major difference to the neat little Zorki was the prism and mirror assembly, the mirror lowered into position on a piece of string which today looks like a remnant from another century. The rest of the camera – apart from a slightly redesigned lens amount – was essentially straight out of the Zorki playbook, right down to the fiddly, frustration-fuelling bottom loading.
The Zenit was a stylish-looking stopgap, but it also worked, at least as well as most early designs did. More than 30,000 were made, but the design was tweaked soon after launch to create a vastly more successful descendant – the Zenit-C (or Zenit-S in English). Released in 1955, the Zenit-C was the first Zenit camera to rack up large production figure – more than a quarter of a million were made. The Zenit and Zenit-C really did look like a Zorki with a prism attached, and even the camera’s lens mount was a derivative of the Leica screw mount on the Zorkis.
Meanwhile, most other camera makers were producing cameras with a hinged back rather than removable backs and bottom loading, so KMZ eventually turned to another of its rangefinders for inspiration, the Zorki-6.
The Zorki-6 was one of KMZ’s most usable rangefinder designs, featuring both a lever wind to advance the film and a hinged back rather than a removable one. Certainly it was easier to load and use than other some of the other Zorki models. As the 1960s dawned, KMZ took their queue from the Zorki-6 and launched a new SLR.
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This camera was the KMZ Kristall, an odd-looking SLR with a hammer-tone finish and ridged pentaprism. While a perfectly useable design, the Kristall’s idiosyncratic looks weren’t exactly a hit with the camera-buying public, and fewer than 70,000 were made between 1961 and 62.
A few years before, KMZ had also made another bottom-loading camera, but added the lever wind of the Zorki-6 too it. The Zenit-3 was a brutishly handsome design with an angular pentaprism. It was, by all accounts, an extremely well-made design but also rather expensive to make, and only enjoyed a three-year production run. KMZ soon came up with a compromise, and the result was the first Soviet SLR to see truly runaway production numbers.
This camera was the Zenit-3M. Compared to the Zenit-3, this camera is slightly smaller, but the specs – apart from the hinged back – are exactly the same. Whatever KMZ were cutting corners on to make the 3M cheaper to build, wasn’t one of the camera’s features.
The Zenit-3M was in production for eight years between 1962 and 1970, and was a massive success. More than 780,000 were produced before KMZ concentrated on an even more successful SLR camera – the Zenit-E.
It’s not often that you can describe a camera with an eight-year, 800,000-examples production run as a stopgap, but the Zenit-3M essentially served a s a halfway house between earlier cameras and the utilitarian ideal of the Zenit-E. It’s not a high-spec SLR, but it’s simple and robustly built. It’s small but very heavy for its size thanks to its all-metal body. You could search for a hundred years and find neither hide nor hair of a plastic part on it.
Like the Zenit-C, Kistall and Zenit-3, the 3M uses the M39 lens mount, one throwback to KMZ’s beginnings making Leica clones. Just like the Leica screw mount, this is a 39mm thread mount on the rear of the camera, but it’s not exactly the same – which you’ll realise if you ever try and shoot with one. While L39-fit lenses mount perfectly fine, they won’t focus at infinity due to the different position of the lens. Thankfully, KMZ made a fair spread of lenses during the 1950s and 60s.
The first thing to be aware of with M39 lenses is they are pre-set; this is an older generation of lens technology where you focus at full aperture but then have to manually stop down the lens to the right aperture, thus darkening the view in the viewfinder. It’s not as noticeable if that aperture if f/4 but it gets very dim indeed at f/16.
Zenit-3Ms were usually sold with one of two standard lenses. The first was the KMZ built Industar-50, a tiny 50/3.5 lens that’s essentially a pancake lens. It’s a reworked version of a collapsible lens made for Soviet rangefinders by the lens manufacturer LZOS. Nicknamed the “Eagle Eye”, the four-element lens is heavily influenced by the Zeiss Tessar. It’s a perfectly decent lens whose reputation has been completely dwarfed by the 3M’s other standard lens.
That lens is, of course, the Helios-44 58/2. A faithful reproduction of the famed Carl Zeiss Biotar design (which had been around since the late 1920s), the Helios-44 was produced in a range of mounts and ever-improved versions over its long life. The M29 version was amongst the earliest, alongside that for the ill-fated KMZ Start professional SLR. Like all of the KMZ M39 lenses, this version of the Helios-44 is a pre-set lens and metal-heavy. It has a tendency to flare a little more than later version which had stronger and more effective coatings, but still has that characteristic bokeh bubble when you open the lens up to its widest apertures.
The Zenit-3M is a quietly stylish camera. The top plate is a masterclass in 60s design. The film reminder and rewind known sits on the left when seen from above, with a stylish arrow printed next to it to show you which way it needs to be turned. The shoe-less viewfinder prism is all smooth angles and brushed aluminium. To its right is the lift-and-turn Leica shutter dial, the rewind button and then the all metal frame counter and winding arm. There’s nothing on here that doesn’t absolutely need to be, and everything that is there has been pleasingly designed. In my book, the top plate of the Zenit-3M is aesthetic design almost at the level of Olympus’s Yoshihisa Maitani.
That the 3M’s top plate is so uncluttered is of course partly down to the camera’s humble specs. Inside is a Leica-style cloth shutter assembly which had changed little since the days of the Leica Standard of the early 1930s. You get shutter speeds from 1/30 to 1/500 with “B” thrown in for good measure, and that’s it. There is no metering (that would come later on the Zenit-E) and no means to do double exposure. Want to shoot flash? Yes, there are flash attachments via a PC socket, but no shoe to mount it on top of the camera – you’ll be needing an old-school flash bracket to screw into the tripod socket.
Like the earlier Cristall, the Zenit-3M got rid of some of the more frustrating aspects of using the early KMZ 35mm cameras. The camera has a hinged back like most SLRs, and an integral film take-up spool – you don’t have to worry about the spool dropping out when the camera is opened a la the Zenit-C or Zorki 1. The camera is easy to load and the wind-on is a little stiffer perhaps than a Western camera of the same vintage but certainly not as cumbersome as some of the early Russian cameras.
The Zenit-3M has some weight to it but is a pretty small camera, certainly compared to most Soviet SLRs which followed it. Again, it goes back to the materials it’s made from – brass and steel rather than plastic. But size wise, it’s about the same as the Olympus OM-10.
Shooting with the Zenit-3M is definitely a learning experience thanks to the pre-set lenses. The best approach is as follows: take a meter reading (with an external meter), set the right shutter speed, set the aperture on the right aperture number, compose with the lens at its widest aperture (which means a brighter scene in the viewfinder), and then turn the aperture ring until it’s at the right aperture to expose correctly. As you do so you’ll see the scene darken noticeably in the viewfinder. It’s a rather convoluted approach, sure, but it does work and the more you practice it the easier it gets. It’s definitely something I have to get back into the sawing of when I pick the 3M up after having used more modern SLRs.
The early versions of the Helios-44 had a tendency to flare, especially when shot into the sun – it may be why the glass is so deeply set into the barrel of the lens. The M39 suite of lenses lacked the protective and anti-flare coatings which also means images may not be quite as contrasty as what you’re used to.
To those who don’t mind a slower way of shooting, however, the Zenit-3M’s a great little SLR to have in the camera bag. The usual caveats about early Soviet cameras abide: always wind the camera on before you change the shutter speed, otherwise you can do major damage to the camera’s innards that require a trip to a repairer. Also, don’t leave the camera in strong sunlight with the lens cap off. Lenses are really good at magnifying light and in such conditions you can burn a hole through the cloth shutter in just a few seconds.
I’ve owned several Zenit-3Ms over the years, and have noticed one thing about them – repeated use will cause some of the parts of the wind-on/frame advance assembly to work loose. At the worst, this will disassemble whole you’re out shooting and you’ll be on the hunt for Soviet camera parts in the grass or sand. Getting them back into the camera takes nothing more than a screwdriver and a minute of your time. Like a lot of cameras with a Leica cloth shutter, you can also find slower speeds dragging or capping at the edge of the frame at faster speeds. Unless you’re well-versed in vintage camera repair this isn’t something to do at home, but repairers can usually do it for around £30-50 here in the UK. That can keep the camera happily ticking along for another decade or more quite happily. That’s less than the cost of a roll of film a year.
Years ago, after first publishing a much shorter review of this camera, Brett Rogers got in touch from Australia. Brett is an enthusiastic film photographer and a really talented repairer who coaxes Contaxes, Voigtlanders and various Leicas back to life. It turns out he was quite a fan of the 3M himself, having shot with them in his native Tasmania for several years. Last year he sent me a few thoughts about the camera as part of Kosmo Foto’s long-read on Soviet cameras.
“The 3-M helped me rediscover the pleasures of focusing a 35mm SLR with a plain ground glass. No microprism or split wedge rangefinder aids in sight—none needed! It’s a delight to use with its original lens, (an M39 version of the 58mm Helios 44 f/2), even if the
viewfinder coverage is – ahem – slightly less than my Nikon F!”
That’s a good point. At the risk of giving vintage Nikon fans a fit of the vapours, mentioning the humble Zenit alongside the famed first Nikon Fs isn’t the apples-and-pears comparison it might first seem. It’s a camera with fewer features of course; the 3M wasn’t intended to be a camera for professional photographers, so it doesn’t have the versatility of removable focus screens and prisms.
But the inspiration was very similar. The Nikon F was a small SLR created from a rangefinder – in this case the Nikon SP. The Zenit-3M is an example of that same process from the other side of the Iron Curtain.
While it will never occupy the same place in the film camera Hall of Fames as the Nikon F, it’s a fantastic example of early SLR design from the era of Sputnik and Gagarin. And, for those who like a slower shooting experience, a perfectly usable one at that.
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