By Roman Yarovitsyn
Everyone who has dealt with Soviet cameras remembers the Zenit-E 35mm SLR. Outside of Soviet Union it was perhaps most famous photographic tool with ‘made in USSR’ label. This is not surprising: according to different sources from seven to eight million cameras of that type was made from 1965 to 1988 at two factories in Krasnogorsk Mechanical Plant (KMZ) and Vileyka (Belarus).
There are many articles about the Zenit-E already on Kosmo Foto, and everything seemingly seems to have been told. However, in 20+ years of production much changed in the design and these changes can tell us many interesting things about KMZ and even about the Soviet camera industry generally.
The most important change of Zenit-E was a transition from old Soviet lens mount with M39 thread to international M42. Historically, all first Zenits were equipped with a thread mount, borrowed from Leica, and used by the FED and Zorki rangefinders made in the USSR. Such a step was the easiest way to make new type of 35mm camera without a radical reconfiguration of industrial machinery.
Focal flange distance had to increase, because of the appearance of moving mirror behind the lens, but the chosen size of 45.2 mm also didn’t match with the international 45.5. This standard M39×1/45.2 were used in such Soviet SLRs as the Kristall and the Zenit-3M. Zenit-E was the very first Soviet SLR to adopt the international M42×1/45.5 standard, first seen in the Contax S of 1949. But the first Zenit-Es, made in 1965, were equipped with the old screw-mount of M39. The mount was changed, but when and how is a mystery for researchers.
There are several reasons for that. First of all: the KMZ is a defence plant, and most production information is classified. The major products of plant were cannon and tank sights, submarine periscopes, night-vision devices and lenses for spy satellites. General-purpose cameras have always been a by-product here and partly a front. Therefore, archives of their release were kept carelessly, even if not classified.
The second reason is abrupt reformatting of KMZ during the 1990s after the economic restructuring of Perestroyka. Production went down due to lack of defence orders and opening of domestic market for Western cameras. Most of the employees were fired and nearly all documentation was lost. In addition more than 50 years have , almost all designers are dead. Official website of KMZ says, that transition from M39 to M42 was implemented in 1967, but studying camera examples of those years of release leads to completely different conclusions.
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First of all, the M42 thread we can discover in cameras made in 1967, and M39 was available even in 1970. There is a simple explanation for this: KMZ mounted to the same cameras different flanges. It was possible to mount two different threaded rings on the same landing pad of the body with wide hole: thicker M42 or more subtle M39. Focal flange distance depends according to the ring thickness.
These flanges are easy to distinguish visually by their width, when the lens unscrewed. The M39 ring is wider and screw holes seem shifted to outer diameter. The M42 ring is narrower and screw holes are located symmetrically. Such decision was justified: for the domestic market M42 mount was unnecessary, because of a large number of lenses of Soviet standard, already accumulated in the bags of photographers. But for export sales M42 was just needed.
Finally, KMZ realises in the same cameras two different standards: M42 for abroad and M39 for domestic photographers. The share of the M42 mount gradually increased until it completely replaced the outdated M39. The same goes for tripod mount: 1/4” for export and 3/8” for domestic consumers.
You could conclude the Zenit-E was originally designed with the prospect of switching to M42 with a margin to the diameter of a hole in the body. But at this summer I’ve got one more Zenit-E from 1966, which left me astonished. It’s one of my luckiest acquisitions, because I got a whole set: camera with lens, leather case, original box and even manual! This manual may be of the very first issue, printed back in 1965.
But that’s not a most interesting thing. When I opened case and unscrewed the lens, my eyes widened: the mount flange appeared narrow, like for M42. But the lens was M39 Helios-44, not 44-2! I stacked ‘new’ Zenit side by side with a verified other, and my surprise increased: for the naked eye both bodies look identical. Intrigued, I took out my caliper and discovered that the mirror housing of ordinary Zenit is 2mm wider, then the oldest ‘new’ version, but it’s cleverly done. On the ordinary Zenit-E, the sides of the mirror mask are slightly curved and the front is wider at the bottom. But in the first Zenit-Es the same facets are straight and strictly parallel. At the same time, at the top, where the body mates with the top shield, the width and shape of the mirror mask are the same in both cases. So, the flange landing pad of early examples smaller than normal and useful for only the M39 ring, not for the M42.
I can confidently say that such a transition was realised in the mid or early 1966, because I have in my collection two examples of that year. The earliest has serial 66017886 and the later 66032978: remember, two first digits of most Soviet cameras indicate a year of production. Both have the M39 mount; the flange of the second is a wide ring mounted in the center of a large hole, and the first is equipped with a narrow flange, the same as its predecessor Zenit-3M.
Unfortunately, the accompanying manual does not have a production date, but with a high degree of probability we can assume that the oldest produced in the first half of 1966. So, body casting shape was changed at least in the middle of 1966. Then, cameras were produced in two standards before 1970. One could stop at such a date, but literally at the time of writing the article an insider came to me from the factory. I have a good friend who is a photojournalist in Moscow, who frequently visits KMZ and can communicate with some employees there. So, Master Akimov, which has worked at the Zenit division since 1977, told him exclusively for this article one interesting story about serial numbers.
It turns out, that not the first two, but four digits denoted the date of issue, until the total count did not exceed 9999 copies. First two digits means the year while the third and fourth marks the month of production. So, my oldest Zenit must be produced in January 1966, and the other one in March 1966. After this story I had an obvious question: why then are the last numbers of the earlier camera larger? I received an answer for it without the slightest pause: serial numbers were considered exclusively an internal matter of the plant and could go in the order necessary for internal accounting.
If the number of released cameras exceeded 9999, the rule changed and only the year was indicated. This is due to strict observance of the length of the serial number and the number of characters in it.
Whether this is true or not is impossible to say with certainly today. However, Zenit-E that fell into my hands is really very early and we can see a lot of small differences from the most popular versions of this camera. Besides the lens mount this is corrugation of release button top and a rewind knob, inherited from Zenit-3M and quickly abandoned in the E-model. And now we can zoom to 1970, when the M39 thread was almost completely forgotten. This year is not accidental, considering one little-known fact. The Zenit-3M and its successor the Zenit-E were produced in parallel for five years from 1965 to 1970!
Knowing this fact and the desire of Soviet manufacturers to unify everything that is possible, you can notice a lot of interesting things in the design of camera. Those who know the internal design of Zenit-E and Zenit-3M do not need to explain that they are very similar. So, many parts of these two cameras are identical, or were identical at the beginning of E-model production. Most notable is a “white” shutter speed dial, which was the same in both cameras during just about first two years.
In 1967 the Zenit-E was equipped by more fashionable black anodised dial, usual for the next 20 years and familiar now. By the way, the old dial was better, because digits and division were engraved, but not painted as later. Similar too were most shutters parts, pentaprism, ground glass and more internal details, such as a take-up spool. This approach reduced the cost of reconfiguring machines and equipment for the production of new models. The lenses that came with both cameras were the same too. That’s why it is not surprising that on the cover of manual Zenit-E is depicted with “white” Helios-44, also useable on the Zenit-3M.
This allows us to assert that the first copies of Zenit-E were equipped with just such ‘white’ Helioses, despite the fact that I got a black “Zebra”-type. It is known that the later Zenit-3M was also equipped with Zebras. In addition, there is a widespread legend that it was for the Zenit-E that lenses began to be painted with black paint so as not to blind the photocell of the light meter.
But there is one more part common to both the 3M and the early E, which can tell us an interesting story about film loading. This is back cover. To explain what we are talking about, you have to start further back. Some of the very first 35mm cameras, primarily Leica and Contax, were intended for loading of a cassette consisting of two metal sleeves inserted into each other. When the inner cup rotated, its side window could be combined with the same in the outer cup for free passage of the film, or close it blocking the light from outside. When closed, the cups form a cassette body and a light labyrinth that reliably protects film against fogging. Inserted into camera, such a cassette is opened by a rotary key at the bottom cover. So film passes through the wide window without coming into contact with any parts.
The 135-style cassettes with flocked slit were invented later, in mid 1930s, but there were designed as disposable and risked film scratches. That’s why professional photographers, who still loaded film cutting it from bulk reel, preferred good old reusable metallic two-cylinder cassettes. After WWII, camera designers came to the conclusion that the hinged back cover is more convenient than a removable one. But such a cover is not suitable for Leica and Contax-type lockable cassettes, which is inserted into the camera from the bottom.
It proved a difficult problem to fix , and designers began to come up with various tricks. For example, the Voigtlander Vito B and some other cameras were equipped with a hinged back and hinged part of the camera’s baseplate to support Contax cassettes. It was not as convenient as a usual hinged back, but better than a removable back and compatible with pro cassettes.
The Nikon F2 system can be called most reckless. Engineers designed a special cassettes Nikon AM-1 similar to the Contax-type but not compatible with any other cameras except the F2. These cassettes can be inserted through the hinged back cover and unlocked by rotating a key on the bottom of the camera. In the camera manual such cassettes were strongly recommended when motor drive was used for film advance. However, the risk of fogging remained with the wrong procedure during loading. The photographer had to close the cover first, and only then turn the key to ‘lock’ position. If to do it the other way around the cassette will open and subject the film to light.
Finally, disposable cassettes spread everywhere and all these design tweaks became unnecessary. Only their traces remained, incomprehensible and imperceptible to modern eye. For example, few of us wonder about the strange lock of the F2’s back cover. Far before my photographic career began, I discovered unusual cassette for 35mm film, which my father used for his Zenit-E (which later became my first). This cassette consisted of two zinc sleeves one inside other, but it was not similar to any classic Leica or Contax cassette. Sleeves could not rotate relative to each other, and could be fixed in the assembled state with a curly spring. One of the edges of the windows, present in both sleeves, was covered with velvet, and a flocked slot was formed in the assembled cassette.
By and large, the assembled cassette looked and acted like a regular disposable type-135. However, it was too complex and obviously expensive design raised an obvious question: what is it for?
Father did not know the answer, he used it as a regular 135 cassette like many other amateurs and pros. Such type of cassette was compatible with any Soviet 35 mm camera and sometimes discovered in other cameras when I started my photographic career. But no pro photographer also tell me this cassette’s purpose, and added some strong words about damn scratches. Velvet tends to wear out quickly and cassettes had felt falling into disrepair. They did more harm than good and they were quickly thrown away by many. More than 40 years passed before I accidentally found the answer to that question. The slit of such cassettes could be opened in some dedicated cameras when their hinged cover closes!
This system was designed especially for the Zorki-6 rangefinder, the first KMZ 35mm camera with a hinged back cover. Inside this cover was a stud, which pressed to the edge of an inner sleeve holder at the moment of back closing. The holder twisted an inner sleeve and a slot opened, freeing the film.
This technology was soon applied to the Kristall and similar Zenit-3M SLRs. The Zenit-4 family with leaf shutter also adopted such cassette system. Of course, the back cover of early Zenit-Es was identical to the same part of Zorki-6, Kristall and Zenit-3M. Such cover with a pin we can find in Zenit-E of 1968, 1969 and even 1970. Remember, what this date means? That year the production of Zenit-3M finished. As a result, the back cover design was changed due to complaints from amateurs: ordinary 135 cassettes could skew in camera slot. So, the pin was changed to a flat spring for correct fixing of ordinary film cartridges. This matched in time with general abandonment of complex reusable cassettes in favour of the now ubiquitous disposable.
Most Zenit-Es that have survived this long are equipped by a new back cover without the pin. That’s why the cassette’s purpose was unclear. However, traces of this technology still remained in the later Zenits. In addition to the pin on the back cover, to keep the outer cassette sleeve from turning a tiny locking screw was screwed on the upper edge of film cartridge socket. In later cameras the recess in the casting can be seen in this place, once intended for further drilling of the thread.
However, we delved into the details, and most striking otherness of our first issue Zenit is immediately evident. There is no cold shoe at the top cover of camera. I personally never seen such a Zenit-E, despite the fact that a lot have passed through my hands. There are no traces of cold shoe fastening: just a naked circular eyepiece.
So we can make one more conclusion. Before mid-1966, the Zenit-E did not have any bracket for flash mounting to camera. This was traditional for that years and its predecessor Zenit-3M also provided external flash mount. At least in the second half of 1966 KMZ began to mount a cold shoe bracket of the first type, as we can see on my example 66032978. This bracket was demountable and consisted of two parts. The first part is fixed around eyepiece slides from above into the first piece. The same design is used in Zenit-4 family of cameras and even in Zenit-7 and Zenit-D (“Зенит-Д»). I can bet, this standard was copied form a Western camera system for accessories compatibility, but I can’t determine which.
Oddly enough, the Zenit-4 and Zenit-E have more in common than they seem. Today few people remember that the Zenit-4 was in 1964 considered the flagship model of KMZ. The Zenit-E was made as a slightly advanced version of mass production middle class Zenit-3M. At that moment it could not have occurred to anyone that Zenit-E can outline the top camera family. The careful look sees that external design of Zenit-4 is simply stretched to outdated Zenit-3m and turned it into Zenit-E. Comparing release dates reinforces this thought: Zenit-4 launched a year before the Zenit-E. Additionally, both models were the first SLRs made by KMZ with a selenium light meter, so similarity of design suggested itself.
A detail comparison of the photocell mask of both cameras only confirms the hunch. Any early Zenit-E has two lines of large square mask cells while later there are three rows with reduced cells. The photocell mask of Zenit-4 is almost identic and also double-rowed. The only difference is the length of mask: Zenit-4 has 15 cells, and Zenit-E has 13.
But here we are in for the next surprise. The sensor takes 13 cells in Zenit-4, at right and left edges cells are empty. The photocell of both camera families is identical. I bet that a transition from double-row to three-row mask of Zenit-E must be realised in 1968, when the Zenit-4 discontinued.
Understanding the desire of Soviet industry for further unification can be explained further evolution of Zenit-E design. Around 1980, the demountable cold shoe bracket was replaced with an integral shoe, first used in the Zenit-EM in 1972. Most likely the replacement date is related to the release of Zenit-TTL in 1978. This camera was equipped with the same cold shoe as Zenit-EM, and the plant management most likely decided to unify this bracket for the Zenit-E too. Especially since the old one was flimsy and the flash unit dangled in most cases.
The Zenit-TTL also donated to the E the new film advance lever. Unlike the old one, the new one lever rested on a rubber shock absorber which appeared at the camera top shield. In addition, the plastic pad increased for a more comfortable grip. One more Zenit-TTL donation was a take-up spool, made to fit with the new penchant for a ‘quick-loading’ system.
This spool has a several slits in order to grab the film more effectively and fortunately was absolutely interchangeable with the old type. But the metal clamp of the good old spool from the Zenit-3M effected a more reliable ‘film grab’ than new marvel of technology. I would replace the new take-up spool for the old at the first opportunity, cannibalising unnecessary broken Zenits. While sorting out old things recently, I stumbled upon a whole stock of these spools collected early in my career.
In general, most of the changes, oddly enough, worsened the design. Why a plastic film rewind button with pusher instead of the metal one? This button near the shutter speed dial was inherited by the Zenit-E from the Zorki-6, but on the newest cameras we can see this button of cheap black plastic. Instead of engraving the scales and dials over time both KMZ and BelOMO began to apply them with paint. All this was done in order to reduce the cost of production as much as possible.
Unlike other countries, in the USSR any modernisation was not carried out to increase quality, but to reduce cost. This was the general setting for the entire Soviet economy to stop its degradation, already visible in the end of 1970s. The general slogan we were inspired already at school: “The economy should be thrifty.” All this led to a drop in quality, affecting all Soviet cameras, issued in those years.
The Zenit-E reflected this quality degradation better than others. Note, the metal of later cameras is completely different to the touch: cheap and rough. You can trust me: I have handled dozens of them. Therefore, the opinion that the old Zenits are much better and more reliable than the newer once is absolutely justified. One camera can in fact reflect a whole period of the country’s history.
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Very interesting read. The Zenit E was my first slr in 1976 I think. I wore it out shooting sports in high school and for Christmas in 1978 or 79 I got a new Canon AE-1. I Every shot with the Zenit turned out but hardly any per roll in the auto exposure AE-1. I have been a sports photographer for the last 19 years and work at a store part time selling modern cameras.