The Zenit E : Film Star or Russian Brick?

The Zenit E : Film Star or Russian Brick?

Written 13 years ago by Mark Evans

Rummaging through huge piles of once-loved bits of brick-a-brack in a cramped, dark garden shed. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you’re probably more likely to find a huge spider nestling amongst the junk than a camera. But surprisingly, that’s exactly what sprang from the heap. A Zenit E Olympic Edition, to be precise. Now once you go digital, you don’t really expect to go back to shooting films. But that’s exactly what I’ve done; well, for a day at least!

I managed to dig out an old roll of Fuji Velvia 50 from the bottom of one of my drawers and proceeded to load it into the camera. The very first thing I noticed was that although the Zenit is seemingly basic in operation, it is definitely not very intuitive! The problem I was immediately presented with was whether or not there was actually a film still in the camera from years past, but I couldn’t find any indicator, or little window to tell me if there was, so eventually, very tentatively I opened the back. Fortunately there was no film in it, but this again presented me with another problem, how do I load the film? Messing about with it for 5 minutes without success, I reluctantly gave in and consulted the dreaded manual. Turns out you had to slide the leader under a tight fitting curved plate, with little means of pulling it up to get the film under!

After finally getting the film loaded I began to get acquainted with this archaic yet ingenious piece of camera technology. Aperture, shutter speed and focus are all set manually; I had to remember to check all settings before taking a picture. Being completely manual, with no batteries does have its advantages though; bulb mode exposures for as long as you like and no batteries to charge up when you’re on holiday somewhere. Very cool. The Zenit also comes with it’s own piece of cunning Russian technology in the form of its built in light meter. Fitted into the front of the camera, making it look somewhat like a Darlek, it actually works surprisingly well. The meter itself is fairly easy to use; all you need to do is line the metering needle on the exposure/metering knob up with a circle that moves when you turn the dial, then read off your fstop/shutter speed combination which you then set and take the picture. Sounds simple enough, but the meter does have one fundamental flaw. Being a selenium light sensitive meter, the selenium will eventually run out (20-30yrs), outputting wrong readings, and being a 1980’s Russian Olympics model maybe I should reserve judgement till I get my film back from the lab!

The Zenit-E is basic, but a good camera to learn photography on nevertheless. Although I wouldn’t dream of using it for anything else than hobby photography. Having used it for a few days now I can say that I will definitely be looking forward to using my 5D again! A star of its time, and a well worn classic, the Zenit-E will no doubt now take its place in the back of my wardrobe!

Zenit E

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Brianslade20  13 years ago

I started taking pictures as a teenager in about 1978, (yes I have to accept thats me in the bathroom mirror) I had an F3 (Aperture Priority and Manual) I was able then to produce images I was proud of. Then came along life and work and photgraphy faded into the back ground.
Now have digital but find the new technology a hindrance to getting the fundamentals right. I was pressing so many buttons, menus and worst of all checking each shot in the lcd. So i have recently purchased ,on ebay, a Nikon FM. Fully manual. Using the FM has slowed me down, and given me some great shots. Reminded me to look for the light. When , now, I pick up my digital I can concentrate on the image and can slowly work my way through the endless menus at a slower pace.
I recommend buying a manual camera, good for the soul and good for your photography.

George Bunea  13 years ago


I would like to let you know that the Zenit E is a very good camera, if used by someone which cares about it and knows how to handle it. It was designed and made in a time when the people didn’t use so often the words: “intuitive”, “grip” , “brick” , “bokeh”, etc.

The olympic logo is stamped on it only to remember about the Moscow Olympic Games, otherwise the camera had no other technical or mechanical improvement generated by this event.

“Old rolls” of 50 ISO film never help anyone to realize if a certain camera is good or bad. And if the “old roll of film” is processed in a lab located at a street corner and operated by careless operators, a Zenit owner will have no chance to realize that in fact he owns a very good camera.

After picking the camera from the garden shed where it was left unattended for years, one can check very simply if there is a film inside by covering it with a black/dark colored cloth(pullover, etc) , then slightly opening the back cover and touching the left side to see if there is a film cassette inside.

I wonder how many cameras of the ’80 had film presence indicators or windows…

Loading a film into a Zenit takes only a few seconds, as the “tight fitting curved plate” is there for no other purpose and can be seen very clearly.

The “archaic yet ingenious piece of camera technology” is in fact inherited by the Zenit from two great German cameras, i.e.: pre-war and post-war Leica and Contax. The same thing is valid for the optical glass of their lenses.

As about the built in light meter, you are right: if the camera is used all the time only in it’s “half-case” and kept with the selenium light meter pointing to the sun it will die fast ! Otherwise it will last a lot more than anyone can believe, if kept it in it’s complete leather case when it is not used. Or you can take a piece of black, plastic, sticky tape and cover the selenium meter with it when you don’t use it.

Please do not look at or use a Zenit when having in your mind a 5D or any other modern, digital camera! There is no connection between them at all. And yes, please feel free to call the Zenit a “brick”. As only this brick is the camera that will never let anyone down in a tough climate(snow, rain deep cold or high desert temperature) and in areas far from civilization like the ones in the Siberian North or far North covered by everlasting snow, with temperatures below 35-45 degrees C or in the south part of the ex-USSR which is covered by desert sands.

That is why this camera is made like that, as they had to take into account the Russian climate first of all!

Please allow me to recommend something: take a Zenit lens(a Helios), buy an adaptor ring(if need be), put them on your digital camera, take pictures and then see the results. I’m sure that you will like what you see!

And no, I am neither Russian nor a defender of the Russian cameras or products. But long ago, I bought such camera brand new, from a camera shop ) .I still have it and continue to use it. The Zenit doesn’t deserve it’s bad reputation if purchased from reliable source and used with care and attention after reading the user manual.

I had my own darkroom, developed my films and printed my photos by myself. I sold it in 1993. Bad idea, as now I know very well the difference between a film and photo processed by myself, and the ones I get from the street corner lab!



PS: I would like to thank you for you time and please feel free to delete the whole text if you do not like it.

Mark Evans  13 years ago

Thanks for your comments George. You no doubt have a passion for these cameras, and its good to see someone still has a keen interest and knowledge of these cameras.

vianney pereira  12 years ago

I just purchased one and I know the shutter does not work, but got it cause to me it looked beautiful with all the knobs and dials. It has a Industar 50 mm lens and came with a clean case. waiting to see how it does when i go home

Laszlo  12 years ago

I just started using a mint condition Zenit and it works excellent. Its one of the all black versions with the Helios lens. Very nostalgic!

Erin  12 years ago

What a ridiculous article. “I had to remember to check all settings before taking a picture,” of course you did, using your brain before taking a photo is not a crime.

Michael J Nicholls  12 years ago

The Zenit E has a build quality that you won’t get on a modern camera for less than about £500. Used in conjunction with the most powerful computer of all – the human brain – wonderful pictures can be taken with such a basic, robust piece of kit. I would not be without my Russian cameras.

Mike Nicholls  12 years ago

Russian cameras are not only very collectable, but they are also fine tools with which to learn the craft of photography. Once the photgrapher can master the releationship between shutter speed and aperture, the will have at their disposal all the tools needed to cope with any photographic situation.

Now, it is true that I have taken some very pleasing pictures with digital equipment…but I always find that there is something ‘missing’ from them. Film has a quality that will never be replicated by digital equipment.

The bottom line is, Russian cameras were always far better than a lot of photographers would have you belive.

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