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Zenit-EM camera (Pic: Hubregt Visser
The Zenit-Em was a slightly tweaked version of the hugely successful Zenit-E (All pics: Hubregt Visser)

By Hubregt Visser

Some time ago I came across a very interesting web article on Kosmo Foto by Roman Yarovitcyn, entitled “Amateur Photography in the USSR”. In this article the Zenit-E camera is discussed and most photographs shown are taken with this camera. In my camera collection I do have a Zenit-EM, which is basically a Zenit-E, with added automatic diaphragm functionality. A few years ago, I got this camera nearly for free with the purchase of a Zorki-4 rangefinder camera. I never intended to actually use the camera and it ended up somewhere in the background of my camera collection. Now, this article on Kosmo Foto awoke the desire in me to go out and use the camera.

But even though film transport and all the shutter speeds seemed to be working I had great difficulty in using the camera. The viewfinder was so hazy that I was not able to focus properly. The fact that only a ground glass is present, without the help of a split prism centre, was not helping either. It turned out that this haziness was caused by a de-silvering of the prism, a common problem in Zenits of this age.

Prism desilvering

The image that you see in the viewfinder of a single lens reflex (SLR) camera is the image that will be projected by the lens on the film. Through a mirror and a pentaprism this image is brought to the viewfinder window. This pentaprism is a five-sided (penta) piece of glass made reflective by having a silver (or actually aluminium) coating on the top layers.

Then, the image coming from the mirror in the camera is – through reflections in the pentaprism – corrected for upside-down and left-right, so that the image that you see in the viewfinder corresponds with the image that the lens “sees”.

Prism of Zenit-Em (Pic: Hubregt Visser)
The top cover being removed from the Zenit EM camera, showing the pentaprism. The image from the mirror comes in at the bottom. The front and top layers have a silver/aluminium coating. The deteriorating foam on the top is ‘eating’ away the metal coating

The picture above shows that a metal clamp is used to keep the pentaprism in position. The picture also shows that more than 40 years ago, a protective strip of foam was added between the metal clamp and the metallic top of the pentaprism. This foam now has deteriorated over the years, absorbing moisture and decomposing into the petroleum derivates it was made from. These derivates now have etched away the metal coating at the top rim, leaving a visible vertical line in the viewfinder, as shown in the next picture.

Black line in prism (Pic: Hubregt Visser)
De-silvering of the pentaprism visible as a dark vertical line in the viewfinder

This de-silvering process is a time-bomb that threatens every SLR camera of over 40 years of age. Only when the camera has been stored in a very dry environment, the foam may not have been deteriorated into a jelly-like substance – etching away the metal coating – but rather into a harmless powder. Re-silvering is not easy and the way to deal with the effects is to live with it or to replace the pentaprism (and the foam). I could have lived with a vertical line in the viewfinder that may be annoying but is not hindering the focusing process. However, in this prism the de-silvering process had so much progressed that I decided to replace the prism. Luckily, I found a defective Zenit-TTL with a clear pentaprism that I have used as a donor.

Now ,et us look a little at the camera’s history. The first Zenit SLR camera stems from 1952 and is evolved from the Zorki rangefinder camera (a Leica copy) at the mechanical factory of Krasnogorsk, or Krasnogorski Mekhanicheskii Zavod (KMZ), near Moscow. The Zorki rangefinder optics was removed from the top and a ground glass was placed instead. Underneath the ground glass, a mirror was added and on top of the ground glass a pentaprism was positioned. The first Zenit models still used the M39 Leica thread used for the Zorki rangefinder cameras, but could not use the old rangefinder lenses since the distance to the film plane had increased for housing the mirror.

In 1967, the production of the Zenit-E started. The Zenit E had a die-cast body with a hinged back, instant-return mirror and M42 thread. It also featured an uncoupled selenium meter. This battery-less meter, positioned above the lens had a match-needle display on the top left of the camera. In a mechanical exposure calculator around the rewind knob, the film sensitivity is set. Then by rotating a dial, a ring is positioned over the needle readout, after which combinations of shutter speed and aperture can be read from the calculator. These values need to be set on the camera and lens then by the photographer. We will explain this in more detail later on in this piece.

The Zenit-EM was introduced in 1972 and is an upgraded version of the Zenit-E. Apart from introducing a shutter release no longer integrated into the winding lever and film counter, the main new feature was the introduction of an automatic aperture stop-down mechanism for appropriate lenses. With this mechanism, the picture can be composed with a full open aperture – using all the light available – and only when pressing the shutter button, the aperture is closed to the set value.

The Zenit-EM was also sold in the USA as Kalimar SR300, EM and Cosmorex SE. In Western Europe the camera was also sold by Foto-Quelle in West Germany as the Revueflex EM.

The Zenit EM specifications are listed below.

  • Produced 1972-1984, Krasnogorski Mekhanicheskii Zavod (KMZ), near Moscow, FSU
  • Type Single Lens Reflex (SLR)
  • Film type 135 (35 mm)
  • Negative size 24 mm x 36 mm
  • Dimensions 141 mm x 100 mm x 93 mm (with Helios-44-2)
  • Weight 1 kg (with Helios-44-2)
  • Lens mount M42 x 1
  • Lens Helios-44-2 (58 mm, f/2 – f/16)
  • Focal range55 m to infinity
  • Filter size 52 x 0.75 mm threaded, 54 mm slip-on
  • Shutter focal plane, horizontally moving cloth curtains
  • Shutter speeds B, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500 s
  • Viewfinder field of view 28 mm x 20 mm, magnification 4.3x
  • Exposure meter uncoupled selenium cell
  • Self-timer
  • Accessory shoe (cold)
  • PC sync flash contact MF, X

Camera functions

The camera operation is straight forward. From left to right, we have: the rewind knob and around it the exposure calculator, the light meter needle, the light meter itself on the front of the camera, the lens with aperture ring, depth of field scale and distance/focus ring. Then the shutter speed selector with the flash synchronisation selector underneath, the shutter release knob with the rewind selector around it and finally the film transport lever with frame counter.

Features of Zenit-EM (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

On the front of the camera we see, next to the light meter, the flash connector, the self-timer lever and the self-timer release button.

Front of Zenit-Em camera (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

On the bottom we find a standard ¼” thread tripod screw connection.

Bottom of Zenit-EM camera (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

Handling the Zenit-EM

The camera is opened by pushing up the latch on the left back side of the camera, see the figure underneath.

Rear of Zenit-Em camera(Pic: Hubregt Visser)
Opening the Zenit EM for loading a film

Like its predecessor – the Zorki rangefinder camera – and like for most FSU cameras, the shutter must be cocked (by transporting the film) before the shutter speed can be changed. Failing that order can result in erroneous shutter speeds and – when excessive force is used – in damaging the camera. For changing the shutter speed, the selector must be lifted and turned into the correct position and be let down again. The black line in the middle of the shutter speed selector will indicate the shutter speed. Note that the shutter speed selector does not turn continuously; it will stop at the B position, from which point it must be turned (backwards) in the opposite direction.

Shutter button of Zenit-EM (Pic: Hubregt Visser)
Setting the shutter speed (after cocking the shutter!). The selected shutter speed here is 1/500 of a second.

The frame counter needs to be set by hand after the film has been inserted. After making about two exposures upon loading the film, the counter is set to zero by turning the frame counter ring using the protruding knob until the indicator shows a zero, see the figure underneath.

Setting frame counter (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

After completing a roll of film, we need to rewind the film. To do that, we will first have to set the collar around the shutter button into the correct position, i.e., turn it counter-clockwise. On the top of the body this is indicated with the arrow. For rewinding, turn the collar into the “R” direction, see the picture above.

The rewind knob is found on the left of the camera body and is released by pressing it while simultaneously twisting it counter clockwise, see the next figure. The film is then rewound by turning the knob clockwise. This direction is also indicated on the knob itself.

After the film is rewound, the knob is pressed in while simultaneously turning it clockwise.

Do not forget to turn the rewind collar around the shutter button back to forward, ie twist it clockwise. If you forget to do this you will notice that upon inserting a new film you cannot advance the film. That will be a reminder to turn the collar clockwise at that moment then.

Rewinding knob of Zenit-EM (Pic: Hubregt Visser)
Releasing the rewind knob

Flash photography

For flash photography, we have to turn the selector around the shutter speed dial on “X” or “MF”, see the next figure.

Zenit-EM shutter (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

An electronic flash gives a very short burst of light that is in general shorter than the shutter speed. If no measures are taken, using an electronic flash would result in the traveling slit only covering a small part of the focal plane during the flash and a picture only being exposed in a small vertical band. Therefore, for electronic flash (X), also the special shutter speed “30-X” must be chosen. For this shutter speed the first curtain first travels completely from left to right, and 1/30 of a second later, the second curtain travels from left to right. So, when the flash synchronization signal is given, the whole focal plane will be exposed and it is the flash intensity and duration that determines the exposure.

Note that the accessory shoe on top of the camera is just that: an accessory shoe. It is “cold”, meaning that it does not have electrical contacts for firing a flash gun. Flash guns – that can be slid into the cold shoe – are activated through the cable connection on the front of the camera.

Light meter and calculator

Using the light meter and calculator starts with setting the film sensitivity. This can be done in ASA/GOST or DIN.

ASA stands for American Standard Association and gives the sensitivity on a linear scale. ASA values are the same as the nowadays used ISO values (ISO = International Standard Organization). DIN (Deutsche Industrie Norm, ie German Industry Norm) gives the sensitivity on a logarithmic scale and has been overtaken by ISO. GOST is a Russian film sensitivity indication and the values are 90% of the corresponding ASA/ISO values. Due to the exposure latitude of films, GOST and ISO/ASA values may be considered equivalent for practical purposes.

Clearly the Zenit EM camera we have here was made for the Western market, with ASA, GOST and DIN being marked on the exposure calculator. (Also, the Roman engraving “Zenit” and the mark “Made in USSR” are clear giveaways in this respect).

In the figure underneath, the setting of the film sensitivity is shown on the left. The top dial of the exposure calculator is rotated until the desired ISO/ASA/GOST and DIN values are set in the readout windows.

Meter operation of Zenit-EM (Pic: Hubregt Visser)
Operation of the light meter and exposure calculator. 1. Setting the ISO/ASA/GOST or DIN film sensitivity value. Here, it is set for ISO 400. 2. Turning the dial to line up the ring with the light meter needle. 3. Reading aperture and shutter speed combinations. Here, e.g., f/2 at 1/250 sec., or f/8 at 1/15 sec.

Then, the outer dial of the exposure calculator is turned to move the ring over the light meter needle in the meter readout, see the above figure in the middle. When that is accomplished, combinations of aperture values (inner ring) and shutter speeds (outer ring) can be chosen that will give the correct exposure, see the above figure on the right.

Using the Zenit-EM

As said in the introduction, I got this camera nearly for free with the purchase of a Zorki-4 rangefinder camera. Before being able to use this 1979 Zenit-EM, I had to replace the prism with one from a donor camera. De-silvering of the prism, most often resulting in a visible vertical line in the middle of the viewfinder, is a common Zenit SLR camera problem. It may be a nuisance, but it doesn’t really hinder using the camera. In this camera, the de-silvering had gone much further though. While having the camera open for replacing the prism, I also replaced the foam around the ground glass, to prevent light leaks and of course the foam between the metal bracket holding the prism and the prism itself, the cause of the de-silvering process.

FSU cameras have a very bad reliability reputation, but part of this reputation might be based on people’s experiences with these now over-40-year-old cameras. In my experience, FSU cameras consist of robust parts that – when correctly assembled (and I admit, this might sometimes be a problem) – will give a functional and reliable camera. The ones I have given a CLA all had problems with dried up grease and – in the case of Zenit SLRs – deteriorated foam parts.

But after more than 40 years it is not strange, in my opinion, that parts need to be regreased and that foam has deteriorated. Only in the very top end cameras, like the Nikon F and F2, do I see grease still functioning. But even in those cameras the de-silvering due to deteriorating foams is now becoming visible. I don’t think that these cameras (Zenit as well as F and F2) were ever expected to last for over 40 years, at least not without getting serviced. And who would have expected, half a century ago, that foam could end up as the gooey substance it now often has turned into? And even if it was known, who would have expected that the cameras would still be used after half a century?

With that all said, let’s have a look at the Zenit-EM as a user camera. I have never used a Zenit SLR before. I don’t think that they were very popular in the Netherlands in the 1970s and 80s. In that time the bottom end of the SLR market here was occupied by East German Prakticas. My first SLR (in 1983) was a used 1980 Praktica Super TL1000 that I still own.

What strikes me first is the box-like appearance of the camera, much more than contemporary Praktica SLRs for example. The camera is made of straight planes and angles.

Zenit-EM (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

The body is not covered in leatherette, like Western SLRs, but in some textured nylon material that looks cheap but actually provides quite a good grip. The weight (more than 1 kg with lens attached) is considerable. Notwithstanding that, the feel is not totally wrong, although the position of the shutter release is a bit awkward and the swing of the film transport lever is huge, about 225 degrees. The shutter release shows the Zorki origin of the camera.

The camera has shutter speeds ranging from 1/30 to 1/500 of a second, which is quite limited but enough for taking handheld pictures on a bright day with a fast to medium speed film. All shutter speeds on this camera did work and so did the light meter that I have tested against a handheld (reflective) meter and “Sunny 16”. Working with this meter – normally having a TTL meter – needed some getting used to. You will measure from waist level, pointing the camera into the direction of the scene to be photographed, reading the light meter on top of the camera and setting the dials of the exposure calculator. Then you will set the chosen aperture value on the lens and the chosen shutter speed on the camera, after which you will raise the camera to eye-level and make a composition of the scene after which you’ll finally take the picture.

When looking through the viewfinder, you will only find the ground glass to assist in focusing on your subject of interest. There is no split prism or any other focusing help.

All of this, ie the exposure metering and setting and the focusing, helps in slowing down the photography process which was my main reason for going back to film photography. So, I don’t see this as negative aspects of using the Zenit-EM.

The image seen in the viewfinder is only a part of the image ending on the film. This is no problem if you do your own printing but can be a nuisance otherwise.

I did not use a strap with this camera, but carried the camera around in a padded bag. Lifting the camera out and in the bag resulted in shifting the frame counter so after a few shots I lost track of the number of pictures taken.

The Zenit-EM’s open-aperture operation means that – with the appropriate lens – the correct aperture can be set, after which the composition can be made with the aperture full open. Thus, all the light available can be used to compose and focus. Upon releasing the shutter, the aperture closes down to the appropriate value.

Since the Helios-44-2 58mm f/2 lens in my possession did not have this automatic feature (like the Helios-44M), I also used a Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 lens having this feature.

Zenit-EM with Helios-44 and Pentacon 50/1.8 (Pic: Hubregt Visser)

Both lenses worked well. The Helios-44-2 had obviously been well used, showing some slack. I did not find the absence of the automatic aperture functionality, forcing a stepped-down focusing, problematic. The Pentacon does have the automatic aperture function, but I especially like this lens for its minimum focal distance of 30 cm.

The next pictures are taken with the Helios-44-2 58mm f/2 on Ilford FP4+.

I was pleased with the results. Despite the slack of the Helios-44-2 58mm f/2, the focusing worked well. I really like Ilford FP4+ when used in brightly lit scenes.

The next pictures are taken with the Pentacon 50mm f/1.8 on Fomapan 100.

Also, these results are not completely disappointing. I like the real close focussing capability of the Pentacon 50mm f/1.8. this was my second roll of Fomapan 100 and I still need to gain experience with this film. For the moment it lacks too much contrast for my taste. Nevertheless, the body and lens combination works well.

Conclusion

A Zenit-EM at introduction in 1972 did cost about a sixth or a fifth month’s wage (A Nikon F at introduction costed more than a month’s wage in the 1960s). That made this camera affordable for a large group of amateur photographers. I believe that for many people in the UK this has been the first SLR camera and therefore it has real nostalgia for some people.

My nostalgia comes more from Praktica cameras supplying the bottom end of the market in the Netherlands. Notwithstanding that, I think that the Zenit-EM is a good, albeit a bit limited, camera that has been a very good value for money.

It is heavy, has a limited number of shutter speeds, has a large film transport swing, a bit awkward shutter release button placement and the focusing is extremely basic. But the camera is also very maintenance friendly and made of robust parts. So, when correctly assembled (I believe that the UK importer reassembled every SLR or at least checked every SLR before selling) and regularly maintained, this is definitely a good camera.

Over the years I have changed from a collector of cameras with the intention of displaying them into a collector with the intension of using them. Therefore, I’m not impressed with the Olympic Games logo on this camera. It seems artificial to me. It would never be an argument for me to pay more for a camera.

Although the camera is good and although I enjoyed shooting with it, I don’t think this will become a regular shooter. The reason is that it does not arouse emotions with me, like a Zorki-4 or a Kiev-4A does. There is nothing rational about this. It is just me. For someone else it will probably be completely different.

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