Technology

Read this before you buy a Soviet camera

It begins in October 1927, with a single camera exhibited in Moscow at an Exposition of Photographic Technique in the new Soviet capital, Moscow. Bostelman’s camera is a small 35mm camera with a simple, single-speed shutter and a winding key to advance the film. The camera’s back is removable, and removing it turns the rest of the camera into an enlarger which can be used to make prints.

It never makes it into production, but Bostelman’s simple snap-shooter is the first Soviet camera. What comes after this is first a trickle, and then a flood.

Fifty years later, and the Soviet camera industry is the second-largest in the world – second only to Japan, whose bands such as Nikon, Canon, Minolta Olympus and Pentax have become household names. The Soviet Union has its own heavyweights, and between them they have churned out dozens and then hundreds of different camera designs as the decades tick by.

Thanks to a mix of espionage, war reparations, ingenious design and a desire to show the West a thing or two, the USSR’s camera makers come up with a Soviet answer to almost every camera type made in the West, though not necessarily at the same time. Soviet designers devised a myriad of different models, some of the brutishly simple, others showing real flair and ingenuity.

Odd, then, that the entirety of a photographic industry spread across the largest country ever formed and spanning more than 60 years can get judged off first impressions. In the last 20 years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people declaim the quality of all Soviet cameras based off a single flea-market Zenit-E which might have mouldering in someone’s basement for the last 30 years.

This is something I’ve learned having spent the last 20 years collecting and using Soviet cameras. The first one I came across was a Soviet-era Lomo LC-A compact in a camera shop in London’s West End; a solid black rectangle with surprising heft and exotic Cyrillic lettering. That Lomo sparked an enduring love for film cameras of all shapes and sizes, and a particular interest in those made behind the Iron Curtain.

In New Zealand, where I grew up, Soviet cameras were almost unknown. But that wasn’t the case in Western Europe. The boom years of the Soviet photographic industry during the Cold War coincided with a new age of prosperity and consumerism west of Berlin. More people had the money and time to travel, and they wanted cameras with which to document it. The Soviet Union wanted hard currency and had a smorgasbord of cameras that could be sold at subsidised prices. Along with the Praktica cameras of East Germany’s vast Pentacon, Soviet cameras appealed to a huge swathe of photographers with a limited budget.

Zorki-3C (Pic: Paulo Moreira)
The Zorki-3C is typical of Soviet rangefinder design from the 1950s and 60s (Pic: Paulo Moreira)

This article – and it’s a big one, so get a drink handy – is an attempt to dispel some of the myths that have developed around Soviet cameras, especially since the 1990s. It’s not trying to pretend that it’s only politics got in the way of the USSR’s cameras, and that every Zenit and Zorki is a match for a Nikon or a Leica. Some of the horror stories you might have heard about Soviet camera quality are 100% true. But not every Soviet camera is a lemon, and some are capable of taking fantastic images if you take the trouble to learn their strengths and, yes, their weaknesses.

The big five

But first, a little history.

The Soviet camera industry was dominated by five big names: KMZ (Krasnogorskiy Mechanicheskiy Zavod) in Moscow, Lomo in St Petersburg, Kiev-Arsenal and FED in Ukraine and MMZ (the home of BelOMO) in what is now Belarus. Some of these bureaus concentrated on one particular style of camera – FED, for instance, became known for Leica-copy rangefinders they started making in the 1930s and they were kept in production until almost the end of the Soviet Union itself.

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The cameras created ranged from rudimentary compacts simple enough for children to ambitious designs intended to compete with the very best the West had to offer. The latter were a kind of photographic soft power – with no internal market to pay top dollar for them, the higher-spec cameras were touted as evidence of Soviet ingenuity and engineering prowess

Zenit-e (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
The Zenit-E is the most-produced 35mm SLR in history (Pic: Stephen Dowling)

Much simpler cameras were made in Soviet industrial quantities: million after million. This model became the dominant one from the mid 1970s. Camera designers were no longer urged to make cameras to compete with the best of the West, but to tweak tried-and-trusted designs a little each time. You can see this in the successive designs that came after the ubiquitous Zenit-E SLR and Lomo’s simple Smena viewfinder camera. Despite cosmetic changes on the outside, underneath little changed from camera to camera.

A leading Soviet camera collector named Viktor Suglob recently produced a Russian-language book called ‘1200 Soviet Cameras’, an encyclopaedia of almost every prototype and production camera devised over nearly 75 years of the USSR. Many of these, of course, were never produced beyond a few samples or pre-production models. But hundreds of designs did make it into production. Today, millions of these cameras – from KMZ and Lomo, MMZ and FED – still survive in working condition.

The major models

If you’re curious about Soviet cameras, you’ll find the easily available cameras falling into seven main groups:

  • Leica copy rangefinders: Mostly made by FED in Kharkiv in the Ukraine and under the “Zorki” name from KMZ in Moscow. These cameras use the same L39 screw mount that Leica rangefinders did up until the mid-1950s. These cameras were produced, in various forms, until the early 1990s.
  • Contax-style rangefinders: The Kiev brand started out copying the Contax II rangefinder produced in Germany before the war, initially with Contax parts taken as war reparations. The “Kiev Contax” line of cameras was made until the late 1980s
  • Zenit SLRs: KMZ produced the Soviet Union’s widest array of SLR cameras under the Zenit name. The earliest versions were little more than a Zorki rangefinder with a reflex prism attached, but the line grew more popular in the late 1960s with the Zenit-E, the first Soviet SLR to use the M42-screw mount. M42 Zenits were made until the early 2000s, and a narrower range of cameras from the mid-1980s until the mid-2000s used the Pentax K mount. Lomo, and Kiev also produced SLRs, but these are far less common.
  • Simple viewfinder cameras: Both Lomo in St Petersburg and MMZ in Minsk produced very similar families of snapshooters, rectangular viewfinder cameras with a simple shutter and a three-element glass lens. MMZ’s were called Vilia and Lomo’s were known as Smenas. Just two Smenas – the Smena-8 and the 8M – were built to the tune of around 21 million, making them the most-produced 35mm cameras of all time. These cameras are cheap and rudimentary, but their glass lens definitely elevate them out of toy camera territory.
  • Simple TLRs: Medium format cameras were not produced in the same breadth and scale as 35mm cameras, but there were still some successful models. The Lubitel family of cheap 120-format TLRs are the easiest to find. Built out of plastic but with glass Triplet-style lenses, these Lomo-made cameras were produced from the 1940s until after the fall of the Soviet Union.
  • Medium format SLRs: The Soviet Union’s equivalent to the Pentax 67 was the Kiev-6C, which eventually evolved into the Kiev-60. These are big, heavy SLR cameras with a rougher finish than their Western counterparts but with a range of very well-regarded lenses.
  • Hasselblad-style medium-format cameras: The Kiev factory also produced a series of Hasselblad-style focal plane cameras, the Kiev-80 and 88 being the best-known of them. The lenses made for the Kiev-6/60 were also produced for some versions of this camera range. They are cheap – especially compared to Hasselblads – but they don’t come with a great reputation for reliability.

There were many other brands and minor camera ranges made in the USSR (the plucky Lomo LC-A compact spawned a movement in photography all on its own), but these are the main ones. They are all reasonably easy to find – very easy in the case of Zenit SLRS and FED rangefinders – and there’s no shortage of spare parts or repairers that can coax them back to life should anything be wrong.

Kosmo Foto released the video below last year as a guide for common models to investigate:

Better dead than Red?

Make no mistake – many film camera shooters regard Soviet cameras as uniformally awful, junk that should live in a landfill rather than a camera cabinet. Most of these photographers would sooner cut off a limb than handle a clunky Zenit or Zorki.

But the Soviet camera industry had peaks and troughs – periods when construction and quality control were high and times when standards were lax and reliability low. A Soviet rangefinder from the mid-1950s is from a very different system to one produced in the “Year of Stagnation” of the late 1970s.

Zorki 1 (Pic: Paulo Moreira)
The Zorki 1, fitted here with an external turret finder for different lenses (Pic: Paulo Moreira)

The bad reputation which Soviet cameras isn’t undeserved,” says Jay Javier, the Filipino photographer and camera collector behind the Fed Zorki Survival Site. “Many were really badly designed or made. As these creatures become more known, thanks to the internet, the bad ones get to be publicly shamed and justly avoided. Many of the generalisations in this respect turn out to be valid.”

Soviet quality control, especially in later years, sometimes left a lot to be desired. Cameras leaving the factory were supposed to be inspected and given a passport signed by a factory foreman ensuring they were working correctly. This The older the camera (1950s up to the late 1960s) the more likely it is to have left in full working condition. As the Soviet economic system slumped in the 1970s and 80s, so too did construction standards.

“There were several cameras I bought, boxed and with factory seals and signed certificates of worthiness, and yet when opened revealed a camera which could never work,” says Javier. “One was a compact Kiev-35 whose shutter blades were not even opaque. Quality control was so bad that even a non-working camera could pass through “inspection.”  I presume that it was the quota system of Soviet industry, where success was measured in term of how many were produced, with no concern if the products worked or not.”

Read the full interviews:

“Why did the myth about the low quality of Soviet cameras appear? Because today we judge Soviet photographic equipment from cameras that have come down to this day,’ says Oleg Khalyavin, an expert Soviet camera repairer who runs OK Vintage Camera. “Cameras more than half a century old. And cameras that have not received any care and maintenance for all these years. If today we take any mass-produced Soviet camera and service it, then it will work well and flawlessly.”

A question of politics

Yuri Boguslavsky, who runs the Soviet camera shop and repair service Fedka.com in New York, says it is vital to understand the USSR’s different economic system when appraising Soviet cameras. It’s key to understanding why the finished cameras sometimes fall far short of the intended design.

KMZ cameras from mid-1970s (Pic: KMZ)
Some of the Zenit, Zorki and movie cameras produced by KMZ in the 1970s (Pic: KMZ)

Soviet factories built their cameras to a different philosophy to those in the West. If a West German or Japanese camera model proved unpopular, the plug was pulled. In the USSR, a factory might be told to build 250,000 of one design over the next five years, and until they were told different, that’s what they did. It would not even matter if it was found the underlying design was unreliable. Until the factory manager was told to stop production, the assembly lines churned and chugged away.

“The Soviet economy had no incentive to produce quality products,” Boguslavsky says. “This is why Soviet cameras and lenses are known for their spotty quality. One can have a super sharp Jupiter-8, and another can get a soft one from the same year, same version, etc.

“As a former Soviet engineer I want to point out that the designs were generally good,” he says. “But when the manufacturing started things often went wrong. FED, Arsenal, BelOMO, other factories, had to crank out hundreds of thousands of cameras and lenses, and their quantity, not quality, were the only thing that counted. To meet a quota factories could substitute brass parts for aluminium, skip calibration steps to speed up assembly – the list goes on.”

Portuguese photographer Paulo Moreira adds the poor reputation is sometimes as much about politics as engineering; all Soviet designs denigrated equally. “There is a great deal of ignorance and prejudice about Soviet cameras,” he says. “I think their communist heritage puts off many people, many seem to think that they are some kind of evidence of my political orientation. The internet gave more voice and space to people who have never held a Soviet camera, much less shot with one, paving the way for the most untruthful allegations. Actually, I deal with that snobbery quite well, I have pictures that speak for my cameras while detractors have nothing.”

Foreign-market favourites

Foreign markets were a crucial source of hard currency for the Soviet Union, and cameras sporting names written in Western script rather than Cyrillic tended to be built to a higher standard.

Most Soviet cameras were produced in such huge numbers that they were cheap to produce and further subsidised to make them more attractive in foreign markets. In West Germany, the Revue brand from photographic retailer Foto-Quelle include models such as the Zenit-E and the FED-4. In the US, Zenit SLRs were rebadged by the importer Kalimar. Even Australia had its own rebadged Zenit family – here the cameras were known as Global.

Zenit-E camera (Pic: Alvintrusty/Wikimedia Commons)
Many Soviet cameras were exported to Europe, bearing names in Western script (Pic: Alvintrusty/Wikimedia Commons)

In the UK, Soviet cameras were imported in huge numbers for sale in electronics chains such as Dixons. Another importer, TOE (Technical & Optical Equipment), sold several Soviet camera models in camera stores across the UK. Aware of the issues around quality control, TOE sent technicians to the factories in Moscow and Leningrad to learn how to calibrate the cameras properly. Every camera imported by TOE was taken apart on its arrival in England and rebuilt. These cameras are often still working correctly 40 years later and a common find in UK car boot sales.

These imported cameras were sold to retailers at subsidised prices and so affordable for those on a strict budget. But that “beginner’s camera” tag was difficult to shrug off. It painted all Soviet cameras as something to be tolerated before you could afford something more sophisticated.

The exotic factor

Part of the allure of Soviet cameras may be the fact they are so exotic. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are very few working examples of Soviet consumer design you can buy and use in the 21st Century – apart from cameras and lenses.

“There is no question that Soviet cameras are exotic,” says Javier. “This exoticism is what I believe to be a major factor in the interest.  I tend to regard them as the kangaroos and platypuses of cameras. These evolved on their own, with odd and unique features, after they got cut off from the rest of the world.”

Zenit-3 camera (Pic: Artem Beliaikin/Pexels)
Cameras like the Zenit-3 were intended to show the capability of Soviet industry (Pic: Artem Beliaikin/Pexels)

“Back in the mid 1980s, when I was still in school, I attended a function of a camera club,” Javier says. “The big boys there sported Nikons (which they considered to be on top of the pecking order), followed by Canons, with Minolta, Pentax, and Ricoh following.  They thumbed their noses down at Zenits. They would tell the Zenit owner to get a ‘real camera’. It was no surprise that those who panned the Zenits severely have never held nor used one.  Their opinion of the camera was based mainly on uninformed opinion. None of them knew that the Zenit lenses were largely Soviet versions of legendary German glass. Or that the Zenit was the only camera (then) that could claim to retain as a true Leica descendant by virtue of retaining the original Leica II shutter.”

“Twenty years ago, FEDs and Zorkis could be bought off eBay for about US$20-30,” Javier says. “Zenits for about $10. These cameras were true alternatives if cost was the factor.  But not anymore. The Helios lenses which used to go with those US$10 Zenits now sell for as much as US$50, thanks to the hype. Or maybe it was the discovery and realisation that these lenses were as good as the best German or Japanese equivalents.

“Zenits were usually brought home by people who worked abroad in the Middle East where Soviet cameras were available, or by Soviet merchant seamen who would sell their cameras for cash to buy some Levis or Adidas. It would be worth mentioning that cash from a sold Zenit was enough to buy just one pair of Levi’s and perhaps a dozen sachets of dried mango preserves.”

Soviet Leica-likes

Javier is a particular fan of Soviet Leica copies. First produced by FED in the 1930s, a decade after the first 35mm Leicas, the USSR’s Leica-like industry initially made cameras as close as possible to the Leicas which inspired them. After World War II, FED was joined by KMZ, which produced an equally long-line of Leica clones until the 1980s.

“The first Soviet camera I got, in late 1985, was a FED-3 with an Industar-61 lens. My Leica had a badly scratched Summar on it so I replaced it with the Industar. This was what convinced me of the quality of Soviet lenses,” says Javier. “The Industar made the colours pop and I’ve never seen so much snap in B&W before. This was still in the days when negatives were printed directly on paper without digital software intervention, so those wonderful qualities were really attributable to the lens.”

The very earliest Soviet rangefinders are based off the very earliest Leica cameras. These can be a bit of a learning curve for 21st Century photographers because of their idiosyncracies, such as having to be loaded via a removable bottom plate rather than a hinged back door, and the fact fast and slow shutter speeds are often selected via two different shutter speed dials. Early “Barnack-style” Leicas also sometimes had two viewfinders – one for composing the picture and the other to focus with. In the 1950s, Soviet rangefinders started to combine viewfinder and rangefinder in the same window, and all the shutter speeds on the one dial.

Zorki-3 camera (Pic: Paulo Moreira)
Soviet cameras like the Zorki-3 are often easier to use than similar Leica camera (Pic: Paulo Moreira)

Moreira is another photographer who enjoys shooting with Soviet rangefinders, and gravitates to these postwar designs.

These Soviet models weren’t the first rangefinder cameras Moreira used, so his transition to using them was a little smoother. But he says there are “certain precautions that one has to take with most Soviet rangefinders, like winding the film before choosing a shutter speed”. Apart from that, he says, “the Soviet rangefinders provided the same photographic experience in terms of shooting process, camera adjustment and the shortcomings of a rangefinder”.

Soviet rangefinder tips

Leica devotees might be loathe to admit it, but some of these 1950s Soviet cameras are probably more user-friendly than the refined German rangefinder they copied. The FED-2, first released in 1955, is one of the most approachable Soviet rangefinders. It’s an extremely well-balanced camera and very easy to use. Even better – though harder to find than the 1.6 million FED-2s made – is the Zorki-3M.

There is one golden piece of advice when using the cameras – don’t change the shutter speeds on a FED or a Zorki unless you have wound the camera on. Changing speeds when the camera’s not wound on can cause serious damage to the shutter. Technically, not every single model needs to be treated this way (it comes down to how this dial interacts with the shutter itself). The clue is – if the shutter speed dial marker rotates when the shutter is fired but the rest of the dial does not, you’ll need to wind on before changing speeds. In practice, it’s much easier to just remember to wind on again after you’ve taken a shot.

Rick Oleson, a well-known camera collector, says this on his site: “Overall, for all its little quirks and foibles, I think I prefer the FED/Zorki single-dial design over the two-dial system in the screwmount Leica series: beyond the convenience of a single dial, it seems to be more robust and require less frequent cleaning and adjustment to stay in trim.”

FED Atlas camera (Pic: Andshel;/Wikimedia Commons)
The FED Atlas is one of the less-well-known rangefinder cameras from the boom years of the Soviet camera industry (Pic: Andshel;/Wikimedia Commons)

One quirk with these rangefinders (which they share with some early Leicas) is that they don’t have a take-up spool integrated into the camera. The take-up spool is loose and can be very easy to lose. It can be a good idea to buy a spare, or make sure you’re not opening the camera’s back in a hurry or while on the hoof.

“Soviet camera operation is largely intuitive, but there are certain peculiarities in handling which must be followed,” says Javier. “Incorrect handling can be fatal to many cameras.

“If there is one tip which I feel strongly about, it would be the proper loading of bottom-fed cameras like the Zorki or Zenit 1. Cut the leader as required and load as instructed,” he adds. “The people who designed (mostly Oskar Barnack) and made these cameras knew what they were doing and the instructed method wasn’t made to torment users. The hipster methods which involve lens removal and insertion of cards just to avoid film leader cutting are clumsy, ridiculous, and potentially perilous to the camera.”

“It is very important to have a camera that was recently serviced by a qualified technician,” Boguslavsky says. “Set your expectation right. Soviet cameras are not as refined as Leicas, though most of them are well made. Understand that the camera is a tool, and will not take pictures by itself. And being fully manual rnagefinders these cameras require a skilled operator. So be patient and develop these skills. You need to do it all – determine exposure, set the aperture, shutter speed, focus. No automation to help. In a sense, this is a definition of a professional tool. So become a professional!”

USSR SLRs

Postwar Soviet rangefinder development ultimately led to the first Zenit SLRs made by KMZ. Though you can also find SLRs made by Lomo and Kiev, the vast majority of Soviet SLRs were Zenits; the brand survived the USSR itself by some margin, with models still being released as late as 2004.

Zenit SLR development falls into five distinct groups:

  • M39 cameras (1952-1970): These cameras use a lens mount very similar to the Leica L39 thread mount. The earliest Zenits are essentially a Zorki rangefinder with a prism on top. This family includes the very earliest version of the Zenit-E and the very popular Zenit-3 and 3M.
  • M42 cameras (1967-2000): The vast majority of Zenit SLRS fall into this camp. The Zenit-E, the first to use the universal M42 mount, is the most-produced SLR camera ever made, with more than eight million made in Moscow and Minsk. These cameras all feature a few similar features, including a shutter with a fastest speed of 1/500. Later cameras replace the metal body with a plastic shell.
  • Leaf-shutter SLRs (1964 to 1968): In the late 1960s, KMZ produced a small range of leaf-shutter SLRs to rival the likes of West Germany’s Voigtlander Bessamatic. They are much more complicated than the usual Zenits and relatively rare – only around 40,000 were made.
  • Semi-automatic M42 cameras (1973-1987): A handful of Zenit M42 SLRs, starting with the temperamental Zenit-16, include such advances as an electrically powered shutter and automatic exposures. The most common is the very useable Zenit-19.
  • Pentax K-mount SLRS (1984 to 2005): The Zenit Auto was the first to use the Pentax K-mount lens, with a number of cameras following until the Zenit-KM Plus, the last Zenit film camera. These cameras added more and more automation, but are still have a relatively unsophisticated feel; the KM Plus looks and shoots like something from the 1980s but was released in 2004.

Just like the rangefinders, Zenit SLRS tend to be more robust and reliable before the 1970s. Brett Rogers, a camera collector and repairer from Tasmania in Australia, is particularly fond of the Zenit-3M from the early 1960s. “The 3M helped me rediscover the pleasures of focusing a 35mm SLR with a plain ground glass. No microprism or split wedge rangefinder aids in sight – none needed! It’s a delight to use with its original lens, (an M39 version of the 58mm Helios 44 f/2), even if the viewfinder coverage is – ahem – slightly less than my Nikon F!”

Zenit-3M (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
The Zenit-3M can still be found for as little as £25, with lens)

Javier has used many Zenits and says “the Zenit-12XP, CD, or TTL” are his picks. “These models are nearly identical, save for some details. Based on experience, these would be the peak of Zenit design.”

From basement to eBay

In the 1990s, it suddenly became a lot easier to import foreign goods behind what had been the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union’s camera and film industry was massively affected. People could suddenly buy Western goods – such as cameras – that had previously been forbidden. Soviet cameras that had been the only tool for taking family photos got replaced with all-singing, all-dancing Japanese cameras and left in a cupboard, attic or basement. Some sat there for year after year.

It became a lot easier to find Soviet cameras once the internet arrived, and even easier again after the advent of online auction site eBay. This, and the gradual ease of international money transfer services, allowed you to buy goods from countries that only a decade or so before had been almost completely closed off. Enterprising sellers in countries like Russia and Ukraine realised there was a market for Soviet cameras in the West, and started buying them up for a pittance and selling them off.

Here’s where a particular problem arose. Take a camera that might have been made during a period of less-than-stellar quality control – a Zenit or FED from the early 1980s, perhaps – and leave it lying in its case in the back of a wardrobe for yar after year. Cameras are mechanical, and mechanical devices like to keep moving. If they don’t, thinks tend to seize up. If you’ve ever left a car in a garage for six months, you’ll recognise this.

Smena 8M camera and box (Pic: Andrew Khludeyev)
(Pic: Andrew Khludeyev)

Some cameras will work perfectly after being unused for years, but it’s more likely that they’ll need to be coaxed back to working condition, says Rogers.

“I can only speak to my own experiences finding old, used cameras from various sources and getting them back up to scratch. I certainly don’t expect perfection from a 50 or 60-year-old camera I’ve bought for beer money – regardless of its country of origin. Perhaps I am more forgiving of minor faults than some owners? But I’ll also take matters into my own hands by repairing a problem myself, so maybe I can afford to be more charitable than some.

“Case in point, my Kiev requires replacement shutter ribbons now (which I can do myself easily enough) but I do not regard this as a fault, per se. With a fundamental understanding of the mechanical design and technology in the Kiev rangefinder, it’s obvious that ribbon replacement isn’t a catastrophic failure – every few decades some periodic maintenance is needed. A newcomer to film photography, on the other hand, who’s just acquired their dream camera only to find that it has some age-related faults, might be less forgiving.

“The other thing is that once an idea gets out onto the web, it can take on a life of its own – I think this can apply to any camera, from any country,” says Rogers. “After all, if one believes interweb film photography lore, the only decent Rolleiflex TLR is a 2.8F, and Fuji should have stopped making and selling film five years ago.”

Repairing and restoring

Boguslavsky says a CLA for any Soviet camera is imperative, for two separate reasons.

“One is simple – to clean, lubricate, adjust (CLA) a camera that has not been used for several decades. Second, less obvious – to correct possible manufacturing defects that were present in a camera from the day it was built.

“This is where a Leica is different from a FED. A Leica only needs CLA, but a FED needs both CLA and overhaul. Sometimes a simple disassembly and a careful re-assembly would transform a rough mediocre FED into a smooth accurate camera.”

KMZ Drug (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
Less common cameras such as the KMZ Drug can be harder to get repaired (Pic: Stephen Dowling)

You shouldn’t reasonably expect a Leicaflex sat unused for 30 years to work perfectly first time, and nor should you a Zenit-E, it’s just that you have far less an idea of how well that Zenit was put together in the first place.

Rogers adds that Leicas are probably the most serviced film cameras, because it is easy for owners to justify regular upkeep because of their price. “That Fed or Zorki you scored at your local car boot sale for £15, on the other hand, is expected to function equally well without remedial attention. When it doesn’t, it’s condemned as sub-standard and inherently mediocre. By any objective analysis, it’s not a level playing field – how can it be?”

Soviet cameras are still being used 40, 50, 60 years after they were made, and it’s unreasonable to expect Leica reliability without Leica owner levels of upkeep. “People expect Soviet cameras to work flawlessly after 50 years of existence, while being extremely understanding with other charismatic brands needing technical maintenance,” Moreira says. “Make no mistake, Soviet cameras were made down to a price, their creators would never have imagined that they still would be used in the next century. Apparently it’s acceptable to service in a special way a car made in the 1930’s, to be vigilant and sympathetic with its woes but not with a Soviet camera.”

Where to buy and what to look out for

You can still find boxed Soviet cameras from former sellers in the USSR, but it’s worth bearing in mind some of these cameras may have now spent 30 years without being used – with all the attendant problems that come with that.

Boguslavsky is even more cautious in this regard: “It is quite possible that the camera ended up in a cupboard for 30 years because it never worked well out of the box.”

Soviet lubricants were definitely inferior to their Western counterparts, and have a tendency to gunk up and dry out over time.

“The main problem with vintage cameras is the natural ageing of materials,” says Khalyavin. “Yes, metal doesn’t age. But inside the old photo-camera we can find cloth, rubber, glue, grease. The fabric breaks down and loses strength, the rubber becomes brittle, the glue loses its binding properties, and the lubricant becomes a hard and thick substance, like glue. Due this reasons the parts that should move stop moving, glued together with old grease. Optical parts fixed in place with glue begin to move randomly. Fabric ribbons break, rubber curtains lose their rubber coating. Time does its job.”

Selenium light meters may fade too; in one sense, being kept in the dark is actually good for them, because exposure to light hastens their decay. But if the cell seals are compromised, moisture will seep in and cause them to fail over time, even if they’re kept out of the light.

Personally, I’ve had many good experiences with sellers in the former USSR over the years, but I would now be cautious about buying cameras that are sold in their original box. It’s great for collectors, but also points to a camera that might have been sitting forgotten for some time. At the very least, you’re going to have to factor in the cost of a CLA on top of the cost of the camera and its postage costs. Add all of that up together and it might be better to buy from a shop or camera dealer who can guarantee it works.

“I never buy online, I want to be sure that the camera works as it should and this goes for all cameras and makes,” Moreira says. “The first thing I do is to remove the lens and back door to inspect the shutter curtains condition. I fire the shutter at low and high speeds and watch the curtains movement, to see if any slowdown or hanging is visible. I then go to the viewfinder and focus on a near object and infinity to check its accuracy. I don’t care for the lens condition as I have so many lying around waiting to get used.

(The images above were taken by Brett Rogers on a Kiev-4a and a Zenit-3M)

There are a large number of Soviet cameras that don’t have any kind of electronics at all which makes repairing them less complicated. Soviet camera automation definitely lagged a long way behind Japan and West Germany. Zenit cameras didn’t move over to battery-operated meters until the late 1970s, and relatively few use the battery for anything more than running the meter. The good thing is electronics can’t go wrong if they’re not in there in the first place.

“Soviet cameras were NOT as well made as German or Japanese,” says Boguslavsky. “But most of them can be serviced to the point where they will approach smoothness and accuracy of German cameras.”

Heroes and villains

“For the curious and serious, I recommend the Zorki models 1, 2S, 5, and 6,” says Javier. “The popular Zorki-4K is perhaps the worst of Zorkis. I see it as a last-ditch effort to improve on a camera whose platform was a design from the 1930s. The additions are just crazy. Slow speeds can be debilitating – their presence is what makes the shutter shifting error fatal. Slow speeds are also rarely used.

“The Zorki-6 is underrated. It was the only LTM Zorki with a hinged back with a fixed spool. These make it perhaps the best for user-friendliness. Kiev RF are wonderful pieces of engineering.  The dictum that “older is better” holds true for Kiev.  My best Kiev date from the 1950s and 1960s.  The worst one I got, my first Kiev, was crap made in 1984.”

 

(These images were taken by Paulo Moreira on his Soviet rangefinders)

Moreira says some of the post-war Soviet Leica copies are much easier to use than the Leicas that inspired them. “Post-war Zorki were more advanced than the Leica II that they tried to emulate at the beginning. The Zorki-3 corrected and surpassed the old master with a big, bright combined viewfinder or normal loading with detachable door. The Barnack Leica never had these innovations.

“I use only the Leica style rangefinders, all post-war, as I don’t like Barnack cameras because of their bottom loading or their primitive viewfinder/rangefinder viewing system,” he says. “I use mainly the Zorki 3, 3C, 4, the Kiev-5 and occasionally the FED-2.”

Khalyavin singles out two of the Soviet Leica copies as his favourite shooters: “Which camera should be chosen by someone who wants to shoot using Soviet camera? I have an exact answer to this question. This is Zorki 1 or FED-2. Both of these cameras have a simple design, are made with a good technological level and they are mass-produced. They are always easy to find on sale, and most likely they will work even if they have not received service for their entire life. And if you find such a camera that has been serviced, consider yourself lucky. A well-maintained Zorki 1 or FED-2 with repaired shutter curtains is able to work for a long time, and reliably.”

There are several camera designs that are particularly problematic, and only worth buying if you are sure the camera has been adjusted. In my experience, and that of other experts over the years, these include:

  • Kiev-35a compact: Poor reliability compounded by several design flaws, including the green plastic camera body’s inability to keep light out of the camera.
  • Kiev-19M: One of Kiev’s small range of Nikon F-mount 35mm SLRs, this camera’s metering system is almost completely unreliable. A shame, as the lenses are fantastic.
  • Lomo Almaz SLRs: Lomo’s attempt to create an SLR family produced the Nikon F2-alike Almaz series, all of which have questionable reliability, partly due to the use of cheap materials.
  • Zorki-10: A stylish-looking rangefinder modelled after the Ricoh Auto 35, the camera uses a giant selenium meter to help choose shutter speeds in Auto mode, otherwise the camera can only be shot at 1/30. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to find a Zorki-10 with a working meter these days. Camera shake is almost unavoidable at slower speeds thanks to the clumsy shutter lever.
  • Kiev-80/88: Kiev’s medium format cameras can have a sketchy reputation for reliability, and the Hasselblad-styled Kiev-88 has more than its fair share of them. Some of the issues include a notoriously delicate shutter and temperamental film advance. A fully refurbished example from the likes of Arax or Hartblei is much more likely to work.
  • Zenit-16: One of the most interesting of the Zenit cameras, the 16 looks much more modern and has a TTL meter. The intricate design, however, was plagued with problems and repair is more complicated (Read this piece by expert Soviet camera repairer Oleg Khalyavin.)
  • Kiev-6C/60: Fantastic lenses and a familiar layout for those who have shot SLRs, these cameras suffered from a number of issues, such as erratic frame spacing, light reflections from shiny internal paint, and camera shake caused by the massive mirror. The good news is that refurbished examples from the likes of Arax and Hartblei have fixed these problems.
  • Kiev-10/15: Personally, I absolutely love these cameras, especially the Kiev-10, which looks like something from a 1960s episode of ‘Doctor Who’. These cameras have brilliant lenses and an ingenious design – a fan-shaped shutter! – but suffer from the production issues. Working examples are a lot of fun, but I would always get them CLA-ed by one of the relatively few repairers who can fix them.

There is something in common with these more troublesome models – none of them were made in huge quantities. Once you start moving away from the more common Zenits, Zorkis and FEDs, problems start to appear, says Khalyavin.

“These are not mass-produced cameras, usually they have a complex design,” he says. “And it is these devices that are problematic and unreliable. The sophisticated technique did not fit into the Soviet ideology of mass production. Usually these devices have an interesting design, but they are made at a low technological level. The main problem is the low quality of materials and low precision in the manufacture of parts.

Kiev-10 SLR (Pic: Stephen Dowling)
The Kiev-10 is an innovative 1960s design but can be challenging to repair if anything goes wrong (Pic: Stephen Dowling)

“It was for the sake of quantity that Soviet factories preferred to produce the same camera models for a long time, and during the production process, the cameras were simplified as much as possible,” Khalyavin says.  “German cameras developed towards complication, and Soviet ones towards manufacturability and simplification and cost reduction of production. Such development fully corresponded to Soviet ideology: maximum production for more people. In such mass production, of course, there were problematic items. But the absolute majority of cameras worked good.”

It may also be worth considering another point regarding reliability – just how many cameras were made by the USSR. “People don’t realise how gigantic the Soviet photo industry was,” says Moreira. “They have no idea of the huge numbers of cameras that left those factories. When a camera is manufactured 20 million times, the number of breakdowns is always huge, even if the percentage of cameras affected is small.”

Realistic expectations

Buying a camera made in the 1950s or 60-s, when production standards were reputed to be at their highest, is an often-repeated piece of advice. “It is a common opinion that cameras made in the 50s are better than those made in the 80s,” says Khalyavin. “In principle, this is true. This is absolutely true for the factories FED and Arsenal (Kiev), where the decline in production quality occurred after about 1975 due to the growth in the production of cameras.

“It should be noted that such a drop in quality did not happen at KMZ (Zenit, Zorki). Zenits made in the 1980s are no worse in quality than cameras made in the 60s. But in general, if we consider the period before 1975, all cameras are approximately equal in quality.”

As the price of certain models hyped on blogs, Instagram and YouTube continues to rise, it seems the popularity of some of the more common Soviet models is increasing – price is drawing people to them, just as it did back in the 1960s and 70s. In some cases, some of the better-regarded Soviet cameras might be getting a little of the respect that had long eluded them.

“As a long-term film user (and self-confessed gearhead) I can’t help noticing that in many cases, the costs of acquiring a Soviet camera and lens – say, something like a Kiev 2 or 4a – are not that different to what was asked for the Contax II they were based on five or 10 years ago. Is their market placing today, somewhere near what Japanese or German equipment was at, say a decade ago (more or less?). Arguably, I think much of it is. In any event, I reckon it’s good to take the long view, and act accordingly. 

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Soviet camera resources:

USSR Photo

Soviet camera collector Vladislav Kern’s exhaustive directory of Soviet cameras, drawn from both his own collection and fellow archivists. An absolute goldmine for those interested in USSR cameras. 

Soviet Cameras

Aidas Pikiotas’ site is a fantastic compendium of Soviet camera models, from the common to one-off prototypes.

Zenit Camera

The archive of Soviet-era camera maker KMZ, this wonderful archive includes manuals, images and stories drawn from Soviet press. Though originally in Russian, browsers should automatically offer an English version.

Alfred Klomp

Back in the early 2000s, this was the work of the then-teenage collector Alfred Klomp in the Netherlands. Though not updated for years, there’s some great articles and hands-on

Stephen Dowling
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