The Zenit E is a 1960s survivor; short on features, but solid and tough in a way only Russian cameras can be. Cheap, cheerful, and made in the millions, it's an often-overlooked camera deserving a re-appraisal. Quantity has a quality of its own, after all.
They lurk in flea markets, junk shops, second-hand stores, garage sales and camera stores from Vladivostok to Valencia; nigh on a kilo of no-nonsense Soviet design, low on frills and features but big on retro charm.
Long after the system which produced them passed into history, the Zenit E soldiers on. Many millions were made in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, proving a photographic stepping stone for snappers either side of the Iron Curtain.
In the UK, Zenit Es are cheap as the proverbial chips; thousands upon thousands were imported from the USSR, and they were a great deal cheaper than their more sophisticated German or Japanese cousins. A generation of photographers cut their teeth on the E – and then usually moved on to something more sophisticated when they could afford it.
The E is not big on features; its speeds go from only 1/30 to 1/500 of a second. The all-manual camera has a selenium meter which isn’t viewable from the viewfinder, and requires you to match shutter speeds and aperture with the meter readout, both of which you have to then set on the camera. It’s a good bet few award-winning photojournalists of the 1970s had a Zenit E to thank for their prizes. But simple can be a good thing; less fiddly little bits to break down for one. And that M42 screw mount – shared with Praktica, Pentax, Fujica, and many more — means an unparalleled array of lenses. The viewfinder is considered dim but perfectly usable.
The Zenit E in my camera drawer was bought at London’s Greenwich Market. It cost me £4, complete with a tatty half case and a 58/2 Helios lens that had seen much better days. It’s inscribed, on the top right face, with the logo of the 1980 Moscow Olympics; a reminder of the days when East and West glared at each other over a divided Europe and sport was sometimes a victim.
Four quid might, if you’re lucky, buy you a roll of film or its development nowadays; rarely both. What are the chances that a camera costing that actually works?
Well, this may be the best £4 I’ve spent in my photography. I’ve taken it on holidays to Croatia and the Amalfi Coast, usually with a Takumar 55mm lens from an old Spotmatic which suits the Zenit’s retro look.
It turns out the Zenit’s selenium meter – which should by rights have faded to the point where any readings are way off – is right on the button. I took the pic of the scooter below in Amalfi on Fuji Velvia slide film – film that needs pretty much precise exposure. The Zenit’s readings were spot on.
The lack of speeds might mean it’s not as versatile as an OM-1 or a Spotmatic, but the Zenit’s a camera capable of taking great pics if a patient photographer’s working the controls. Not all of the Zenit Es available second-hand are in such good quality, obviously, but they can be had so cheaply taking a punt is unlikely to break your bank.
I’ve embarked on a photographic project shooting on film cameras and all manner of film – black and white, colour, slide and xpro, and the Zenit E’s delivered lovely results; the xpro shots from Amalfi having a blown out, 70s feel, like old prints bleached in the sun, and the colour neg shots on old Agfa Portrait 160 full of lovely gritty grain.
I’m looking forward to another trip away and seeing what else it can come up with. More photos can be found on Flickr.