1980 Russian Olympics Special Edition Zenit-E
There's been a Specsavers marketing campaign going around Melbourne recently featuring Kylie Minogue and a film camera. It's plastered all over the trams and billboards in the city. If you don't know what we're talking about, you can see the photos on the Specsavers website. So, I thought we would take this opportunity to detail the camera featured in this campaign and what makes it special.
Marketing campaigns with girls holding cameras are not exactly rare. There was an accounting automation tool campaign that featured an x100 series camera but the choice of camera in this Specsaver campaign seems quite particular. The Zenit is perceived to be neither a luxury nor lifestyle-oriented product despite plans of them now wanting to go down this path. I'm not sure how the significance of the Zenit fits the ethos of Specsavers as a brand. In my eyes, the Zenit is industrial, utilitarian and full of history.
The Zenit had a series of SLR cameras manufactured by the Soviet camera manufacturer KMZ from the 1950s until the demise of the Soviet Union. The "no nonsense" design fits the soviet philosophy signifying that a crude camera is better than no camera. But this stark utilitarianism breeds its own aesthetic, which is quite foreign compared to Western norms of camera design.
Various flavours of Zenit
An early Helios 44 Mounted on a Leica II (signifying the M39 threads, you should note though that this will not focus properly)
The camera was initially based on the Zorki LTM Rangefinders, in fact, the first few models used the same 39mm thread (with a longer flange distance to accommodate the SLR mechanism). The fact that it was based on a rangefinder bares a certain resemblance to the Nikon F series being based on the Nikon S rangefinder system, which are based on the old Contax rangefinders. So where Nikon went with Contax, Zenit went with Leica 😉. This heritage in camera manufacturing became possible because the end of World War II and the loss of German Reich resulted in an opening of many German patents.
The "Daddy" of the Helios 44: Zeiss Biotar 58mm f2 for Exakta, (there was an older 50mm f1.4 Biotar from 1927 but for cinema use and does't cover the full 35mm frame). Image from Wikipedia.
The Zenit cameras are practically indestructible but what sets them apart are the lenses, particularly the Helios 44 series. The 58mm f2 lenses are based on the famed Zeiss Jena Biotar 58mm f2 and have a certain quality that is really quite special. The rendition you achieve is different to that of any Japanese manufactured 50mm standard lenses despite having a shared heritage with Zeiss. The center sharpness wide open is incredible for a lens design with heritage that dates back to 1927. The Biotar design achieved this sharpness achieved through the adoption of the Double-Gauss lens design philosophy, one of earlier optical correction technology. However, modern lens design has now moved to aspherical and floating elements for optical corrections.
It's a great entry camera if you want to get into film photography, although it will punish the user if used incorrectly. Much like Barnack Leicas, it uses a similar cloth shutter so one should avoid changing the shutter speed before advancing the film as this can possibly damage the shutter mechanism. Another quirk is the sharp metal teeth on the film advance, which will easily rip your film if you didn't engage the rewind setting before you try to use the rewind knob. The selenium meters are also not very reliable but are a novel feature – a light-meter app will probably be more accurate.
But where the Zenit lacks in features it makes up in the images it produces. The Zenit was my first foray into the world of film photography. The first roll I shot was a roll of Kodak Tri-x 400 and from then I was hooked and never looked back. I traded up from my first Zenit to my current Leica M2. I had many cameras in between but the images I like the most were produced by these 2 cameras. Even as I look back to my old Zenit photos they stand up next to the photos I take today. I should probably get one again before this Kylie Minogue campaign kicks the price up, like what Kendal Jenner did to the T2. 😂
South Beach, Fremantle WA 2015
Words and photography by Emil Raji
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