The Zenit E with the standard Helios lens lives up to it's reputation as not only a great camera, but also a technical nightmare.
After acquiring 5 new cameras in the past few weeks I’ve been eager to try them out and it was no question which one I was going to test drive first. I’ve been coveting the Zenit-E for months but just couldn’t bear to pay outrageous prices. It just didn’t seem worth it for a camera that has such an inconsistent reputation in the durability department. After all, there aren’t very many Russian camera repair guys in my neck of the woods. Imagine my shock and surprise to find a well-preserved specimen at a local flea market for just 15 measly American dollars!! I loaded it with a roll of Fuji portrait film 400 iso and took a trip to my backyard—the test subject for most of my cameras.
The Zenit-E is not a lightweight camera. It’s metal body is sturdy, the knobs and buttons substantial and smooth-moving. The choice of the standard Helios lens is a fine complement to the Zenit for it too is well-made. Nothing on this camera feels cheap. If you’re familiar at all with vintage Lomo cameras then you’ll feel right at home when you go to shoot film. There’s the manual film counter that you reset to zero at the beginning of every roll (much like the Fed series cams), the shutter speed knob which you pull up, rotate and drop into placed (but only with the shutter already cocked so as not to screw up the works) and the relatively slim body.
However, there were a few features that were new to me that I had to figure out on my own. The film rewind knob? Couldn’t find it to save my darn life. I went online to rugift.com and checked out their translated manual to see what I was doing wrong. The directions were a bit confusing, even with the accompanying illustrations. You’re supposed to disengage the shutter, push the little button beside it and move the knob counter-clockwise. Not realizing that the knob I needed to be rotating was on the left side of the camera and needed to be pulled up, I inadvertently kept turning the film advance knob counter-clockwise causing that entire knob to loosen (I’m still trying to decide how to fix it). When I finally found the knob I pulled it all the way up to try and rewind the film which didn’t work because the spool is not engaged at that point. This is what you do when you want to take the film canister out of the camera. Pulling it up half-way should do the trick next time and hopefully I won’t have to sacrifice a few frames of film in the process. The light meter is also a new feature. It does seem to work although I’m so unused to having this feature in a vintage camera that I haven’t really paid it any mind. The only feature that doesn’t work on my camera is the self-timer. It’s missing on my model but I don’t really use it that much so it’s not really a concern.
Looking through the viewfinder is quite easy. It seems really roomy in there (if that makes any sense). I don’t feel like I’m missing things in the periphery of the frame. The viewfinder opening itself is probably the largest I’ve ever seen on a camera—the size of a dime. After squinting through tiny range-finders and other assorted cameras this is a welcome treat.
As far as pictures go, I was blown away. Really and truly. Russian glass is so freakin’ great. The Helios-44-2 lens has f/16-2 which gave me remarkable depth of field. It’s tough to find a lens nowadays that goes to f/2 that doesn’t cost a-gazillion dollars so I feel like I hit the jackpot with this lens! It’s got to be one of the best lenses I’ve ever found in a cheap, vintage camera. The pictures really do speak for themselves.
Like the title says, the Zenit-E really is all it’s cracked up to be: a great little SLR that takes amazing pictures and at the same time is technically challenged. As far as repairs go, I’ll try the DIY method until things get super-complicated or until the shutter dies, whichever comes first. Then I’ll probably go right out and buy another one because it’s well worth spending the money for this Russian workhorse.
Update: After trying in vain to tighten the film advance/film counter mechanism I’ve decided to purchase a Zenit body on eBay. It only costs $9 and I’ve already got the most important part of the camera—the Helios lens.