The Zenit 12 SD represents one of the last 'unbreakable' Zenit cameras, built like a tank. Unfortunately, it has a tendency to handle like one too, but once you master it the combination of reliability and excellent optics (58mm Helios lens) become persuasive.
The Zenit 12sd represents one of the last of the long line of all-metal Zenit cameras, and is a spin-off of the Zenit 12. Unlike many Zenits, there were not kajillions of them made, but a mere 486,956 units of them ran off the production line according to sovietcams.com (typical runs on Zenit cameras WERE in the millions, with the Zenit E model alone running at over 3 million units!). As a 1980s camera, it features battery-powered through-the-lens metering, but is otherwise still an all-manual camera; needless to say it works absolutely fine without the batteries too.
I picked up this camera in absolutely mint condition—box, receipt, case, everything—from a UK based seller who had obviously never used it, for a very reasonable price. Since it was sold in Poland in June 1989 (according to the receipt), I suspect there’s an interesting back story here about political changes in Poland at the time, and the accompanying liberation from the Soviet market! I should first of all mention the camera’s negative points, particularly in comparison to my Prakticas.
Compared to the Prakticas, which are very ergonomic and intuitive, the Zenit is still put together as if by designed people who have only just discovered how SLR cameras are made. The body is heavy and boxy, and the top is crowded with dials. The range of shutter speeds is quite limited, just B-30-60-125-250-500. The lens is set left of centre on the body rather than completely centre, making the camera slightly awkward to hold, particularly when out of its case.
The shutter release is much more awkwardly positioned compared to a Praktica. By this, I mean that it’s positioned right on top of the body and right next to the wind on lever, and in addition to that it has a two-stop pressure point, with the first downward ‘stop’ activating the metering system, aperture setting, and dimming the viewfinder at the same time, before a second push then releases the shutter. The meter indicator within the viewfinder consists of two red LEDs to indicate under or overexposure. Finally, the wind on lever itself is a slightly awkward short-stroke system rather than the single-stroke mechanism you have on a Praktica. You basically have to wind the film on with small repeated strokes of your thumb, until you can’t advance any further-the manual explicitly warns against using a single stroke.
Now that I’ve mentioned these inbuilt design drawbacks, I should point out the camera’s attractive features-tank like reliability, M42 mount, and nice pictures!
With its standard Helios 58mm lens the Zenit can take extremely nice photos indeed, with lovely vintage colour effects. This is also an extremely sharp lens, being based on the German Carl Zeiss Biometar formula (war reparations!), and is rapidly becoming one of my favourites. The M42 mount, like the Praktica series, also offers a very good range of alternative lenses if you’re in the mood. Secondly, the Zenit may be like a tank to handle—and definitely a KV-2 rather than a T-34 at that (visit this link to see what I mean!).
But with all that awkward handling comes a camera that, like a Praktica, could probably also survive an all-out nuclear war and, if there were survivors, can still be picked up and used to take pictures. Given the condition of mine, I suspect it will last decades and easily long outlive me. So all in all, a useful and interesting camera, if definitely more of an awkward customer than some other designs. It’s worth keeping an eye out for!