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Zenit-E: Camera Review

Guest post written by Stephen Dowling. A New Zealander based in London, he is devoted to film photography. He also writes about music, current affairs and anything else that takes his fancy, and he’s never happer than when he has a film camera in his hands. See more of his work on his website, Flickr stream and Facebook Page.

History

One advantage for film photographers since the majority of the photo-taking world has gone digital is that there are some unbelievable film camera bargains to be had - with one of the biggest bargains being the Zenit E.

The Zenit E is a no-frills SLR, manufactured in the Soviet Union from 1965 to 1982. Millions of models were made and widely exported, giving the USSR much-needed hard cash while at the same time giving a new generation of photographers a cost-effective way to get into 35mm SLR photography.

In Europe, you’d be hard pressed to find a flea market or second-hand camera store that doesn’t have one of these on its shelves. Many photographers ditched their dirt-cheap Zenits as soon as they could afford something more sophisticated, making them surprisingly easy to find. When you bear in mind up to eight million of these sturdy beasts were made, that’s a lot of spare Zenits to go around.

Using the Zenit-E
 
Bells and whistles won’t be found on this heavy, roughly-finished camera. With a body made from a one-piece block of aluminium, the Zenit is much heaver than its contemporary counterparts. At the front is the meter window - the Zenit E doesn’t need batteries, instead taking its light readings using a selenium cell. Selenium cells die over time, and are very difficult to replace once they do. The shutter and advance are all mechanical, which means you’ll never have to worry about running out of batteries with one of these.

So how easy is it to use? Pretty easy, though to someone raised in a digital world, a few of the features might appear a little mysterious.

Opening the back is simple; pull up a latch on the back-left of the camera (from behind), and it swings open. Put the film into the left hand side chamber and pull the film leader out until the film sprocket holes catch on the teeth of the film transport on the right hand side (one on top, and one on the bottom), and tuck the end of the film leader under the metal strip which wraps around the take-up spool. Wind on, and if the film is loaded properly you’ll see the film start wrapping around the take up spool. Don’t worry if it takes a few goes. Practice is practice.

Once the film is loaded and wound (don’t forget to close the back!), you’re ready to shoot. Looking at the top plate from above, the meter readout is on the left hand side . Point the Zenit towards a light source and a needle will move in a little readout window - if your selenium cell is working. Next to it is a dial which allows you to set the film speed and turn the dial – this moves another needle with a circular head. When the two needles meet, they will then match a range of shutter/aperture combinations. There’s no exposure info in the viewfinder, which has the feel of an old TV screen – if the light changes drastically you have to recheck the meter and change the lens/shutter settings if need be. If your selenium meter is dead, consider purchasing an external light meter (always a good investment) or trying out the Sunny 16 Rule.

The shutter speeds on the right hand side of the top plate are pretty basic – 1/30th to 1/500th of a second, plus B – and you have to pull the speed selector up before you can select a different speed. The shutter button sits on the right hand side, inside the frame counter/wind on dial. When you’ve finished the film the camera won’t advance anymore. Pop the rewind knob up (it’s inside the exposure calculating dial) and press the button in between the shutter speed selector and frame counter. Turn the rewind knob in the direction of the helpful black arrow, and you should feel the film being returned to the cassette. There’s a definite “bite” when you reach the end.

Lenses

Most Zenit Es came with a version of the Helio-44 58/2 lens – which is capable of truly excellent results. (link to this pic: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephendowling/5289827285/). The earliest version are preset – meaning you have to open the aperture up to the maximum to focus, then stop down to expose correctly. This can take a lot of getting used to, so it’s best to go with a later version, which doesn’t close the aperture down until you take the pic. Most Zenit E’s take the M42 mount, which means other excellent lenses for the likes of Pentax, Praktica, Fujica and Chinon cameras can also be used.

When I mentioned at the start of the post that the Zenit was a bargain, I wasn’t joking. My model – inscribed with the logo of the 1980 Moscow Olympics – was picked up at London’s Greenwich Market nearly a decade ago, for only £4. Simply putting a roll of slide film in it doubled its value. The camera’s is great nick – no dents, dings or bits missing. Paired up with a lens like a Pentax Takumar 55/1.8, this is an inexpensive intro into film photography which can still deliver decent results. Even the selenium meter is working perfectly – check out the shot of the scooter, taken in Amalfi last year on Fuji Velvia. That’s four pounds well spent.

Check out Stephen’s blog, Zorki Photo!