Zenit Cameras

11/17/2016 - 15:45
Zenit Cameras

Zenit is the brand of soviet film SLR cameras of amateur level. They were developed on the Krasnogorsk Engineering Plant (KMZ) (Moscow, Russia) and manufactured there. Some popular models were also produced at the Belarusian Optical and Mechanical Plant (BeLomo).

Zenit cameras were produced in 1952—2005 and were sold across all former Soviet Union and even exported to other countries. There were small photo shops even in a small town which sold cameras and accessories with Zenit's, which took the most respected places.

Photo amateurs and many ordinary Soviet people who lived in Zenit's era have an emotional attachment. In those days, Zenit's occupied a kind of top segment among amateur cameras. They allowed making a decent image quality despite cost more than rangefinder cameras, but still affordable. The only obstacle to possessing the coveted model in those days could be a shortage of them.

The chart of production of Zenit cameras

Zenit production at KMZ at thousands. The peak of production in 1980 was 670 thousand copies—sourceZenit-Camera.


Zenit's allowed millions of people in the huge Soviet and then post-Soviet space to record important moments of their life.

Now we are accustomed to communicating and sharing visual information instantly through Internet technologies: smartphones, social networks, emails, chats. But in those days, the main way to share with someone else the image had been printed photos. Very often, pictures were given to relatives, friends, and acquaintances with the memory wishes. They were also often sent by mail.

Each family had a huge photo album with different-sized photos. Even if some families had not owned cameras, they still had many pictures: with regular celebrations at work, children at kinder gardens and schools received from friends and even pictures for documents. Sometimes even families organized a trip to the photo saloon for family photo sessions. There were many photographers near many sight-seen places who took pictures of you in the background, and then they sent the photos to you by mail.

Zenit-3M front view
Zenit-3М (1962) was the first really mass camera, produced in 60-s.
Zenit's have served millions of people, therefore, cause emotional attachment. But let's look at them as a whole more objectively.

After all, they have shortcomings. In those days, there was no competition, and the products often become popular simply because there were no other analogs. Thus, the popularity of Zenith was based on a kind of monopoly. A monopoly leads to problems with quality and stops development.

This is also confirmed by the history of the "Zenit" cameras. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when there was competition and the market was flooded with foreign models of cameras, consumers often choose in their favor.


Common features of the Zenit cameras

There are more than 40 production models of Zenit cameras. They all have common features such as photographic film 135 and interchangeable lenses. Most models are equipped with a focal plane shutter with fabric curtains or metal lamels and only "Zenit-4", "Zenit-5", "Zenit-6" had a central shutter.


Serial models of Zenit cameras

Model Beginning of
End of
Amount of years
of production
Total amount of
produced copies
Zenit 1952 1956 5 39091
Zenit-С 1955 1961 7 232949
Zenit-3 1958 1959 2 81776
Kristall 1961 1962 2 65433
Zenit-3М 1962 1970 9 781678
Zenit-4 1964 1968 5 19740
Zenit-5 1964 1968 5 11616
Zenit-6 1964 1968 5 8930
Zenit-Е 1965 1986 22 8000000
Zenit-7 1968 1971 4 3024
Zenit-В 1968 1973 6 889617
Zenit-D 1969 1970 2 63
Zenit-ЕМ 1972 1988 17 979140
Zenit-ВМ 1972 1973 2 1239
Zenit-16 1973 1977 5 11114
Zenit-TTL 1977 1985 9 2600000
Zenit-19 1979 1987 9 121993
Zenit-18 1980 1986 7 7001
Zenit-10 1981 1982 2 19865
Zenit-ЕТ 1982 1995 14 3000000
Zenit-11 1982 1992 11 1481022
Zenit-12sd(XP) 1983 1988 6 1000000
Zenit-Auto 1984 1994 11 68002
Zenit-14 1987 1990 4 567
Zenit-АМ 1988 1999 12 11802
Zenit-122 1990 2005 16 1971745
Zenit-АМ2 1992 1997 6 27240
Zenit-АPK 1992 1998 7 6394
Zenit-212k 1995 2005 11 32149
Zenit-312m 1999 2005 7 84004
Zenit-412 2000 2005 6 46454
Zenit-КМ 2001 2005 5 15097


Most popular Zenit cameras

There are models of Zenit which, for various reasons, have not become widespread. For example, "Zenit-4", "Zenit-5", "Zenit-6" had a high price and some not very design features (shutter delay) so that the demand for them was small, even in non-market economies.

If we take Zenits which has exceeded the line of 100 thousands of production and range them by the amount of produced copies, we can get the TOP11 Zenits chart:Top Zenits


Most popular - Zenit-Е
Most popular camera Zenit-Е (1965) with lens Helios-44-2. It was produced for 22 years, total amount - more than 8 million.



An important role in the success of Zenit cameras played lens. Zenits were mostly equipped with kit lens Helios-44 with a fixed focal length of about 50mm of many different variations and modifications. At the final stage of development appeared the line of Zenitar lens.

Lenses Helios and their successors had good reliability and luminosity. This versatile lens can shoot from almost macro - flowers close-up, good portraits, and even landscapes. In many cases, the kit lens was never removed from the camera.
In general, these lenses give good quality pictures and are appreciated even today - they can be mount on a digital SLR, and they provide a good background blur at the open apertures. But also well known their shortcomings - a  contrast falls at the backlight. Improving the lenses went to a large extent by the addition of a progressive mechanism automatic aperture in the 70s, beginning with Helios-44M, and then increase the resolution.

Sometimes Zenits were also kited with a simple lens Industar-50 with a maximum aperture of 3.5, but kits with Helios-44 were the most popular.

Zenit-19 with lens Helios-44М
Zenit-19 (1979) with lens Helios-44М is notable for many exposures and viewfinder that covers 90% of the frame. Positioned as a semi-professional camera.



Early Zenit models were focusing only on the matte screen. But since Zenit-EM focusing screen with mock split-image center and micro prisms collar appeared, that greatly facilitates accurate focusing.

Another feature of the most popular models of Zenit was lower frame coverage of 67%. This led to the fact that, in reality, filmed frames contained more space than could be seen while shooting; the frame could have some unwanted parts. This was not a problem because when printing on photo paper film using frames, you can always crop the image to the desired size. You just needed to know about this and consider it while shooting.
Exceptions: Zenit-19 and Zenit-18 had 90%  frame coverage, Zenit-Auto — 95%.

Zenit-ЕМ (1972) had a focusing screen with a mock split-image center and micro prism collar, and automatic aperture.

Light metering

There were a few turning points in light metering. First Zenits had no meter at all. It was assumed that the photographer must have a separate device or expose the exposure "by eye."

Significant progress was the appearance of a non-coupled lightmeter on the Zenit-E in 1965. Although the lightmeter was built into the camera body but had no connection with its settings, it allowed more or less objectively to evaluate the lighting on the subject and set the correct exposure.

The next step was the coupled TTL light meter, which appeared in 1977 at Zenit-TTL camera. TTL lightmeter measures illumination through the lens and allows you to determine the correct exposure more accurately. Zenit-TTL and followed models had semi-coupled lightmeter - while you press the button partially, the shutter aperture closes to the selected value. The light meter indicates the degree of scene illumination, taking into account the shutter speed. These changes simplify and speed up the installation of the correct exposure on the camera and making the process of shooting more comfortable.

In 1984 came Zenit-Automat with fully auto exposure mode. Shutter speed is electronically chosen for a given aperture depending on the subject's luminance. Seemingly progressive step, but Zenit-automat and its continued Zenit-AM (1988) and did not reach a tenth of the popularity of their mechanical counterparts. Electronic control is complicated and therefore increases the cost of equipment and reduces its reliability. Auto exposure did not become a leading trend Zenit.

The main trends of camera development remained semi-coupled TTL light meter, the line started by Zenit-TTL and continued in cameras 12sd(XP) (1983), 122 (1990), 212 (1995), 312(1999), 412 (2000).
Another attempt to return to automation with the launch of Zenit-KM in 2001 also ended in a fiasco - camera reliability was low. Zenit-KM became the last Zenit camera.

Zenit-ТТL (1977) got more advanced ТТL lightmeter.


Shutter speeds

Poor set shutter speed became one of the features of most Zenit cameras. Only 5 speeds (if not counting exposure "bulb") is indicated on the speed scale of popular models: 30-60-125-250-500.
Against this backdrop stand some cameras such as Zenit-19 (1979) with an electronic shutter (shutter speed from 1 to 1/1000), and the Zenit-212 with the traditional cloth focal-plane shutter but with the addition of long speeds 15-8- 4.

A wide range of shutter speeds had Zenit-automat (1-1000) and Zenit-KM (1-2000), but they did not overcome the line of 100 thousand copies.   


Zenit-122 front view
Zenit-122 (1990) started a plastic body instead of a metal.


Zenits generally had good reliability. Many copies have survived and work even half a century later. But also, there were cases when the failure occurred just a few days after buying the camera. The quality varied from instance to instance and probably depended on the integrity of assembling workers in the factory and the quality of parts. There is also an opinion that the quality of cameras issued on KMZ is higher than those released from BeLomo.

I think that Zenits' reliability was achieved through the use of simple old technologies. So cloth shutter inherited from the first Zenit inherit from Zorki in the 50s (and it was copied from Leika of 20s) survived until the last camera, Zenit-412.

These shutters did not easily allow to extend the range to the short shutter speeds up to 1/1000 sec because it required fine-tuning expensive procedure.  But why was not expanding at least in the direction of longer speeds 15-8-4-2-1, which at that time existed in the segment of rangefinders?

Attempts of implementation into Zenits new solutions and modern electronic technology would inevitably lead to a sharp drop in the reliability of the cameras. Eventually, the producers refused to use them, returning to the old proven mechanism.


The main product line of Zenit cameras

In general, there is the main line of the development of Zenit cameras. As each successive model improves some characteristics of the previous one, but at the same time retains its basic features. This line includes, but not included in the table below, models that simplify the basic models to reduce the cost, such as Zenit-B - which is the same as Zenit-E but without a light meter, and Zenit-BM - the same Zenit-EM without a light meter. Popular models Zenit-ET and the Zenit-11 are also not included in the table because they are hybrids of Zenit-E and Zenit-TTL, and they did not make any construction improvements.  

Changes in cameras in the main product line

Zenit 1952 The first model was developed based on the "Zorki" rangefinder camera
Zenit-С 1955 Added sync contact, changed the mechanism of lowering the mirror
Zenit-3 1958 Film advance lever, self-timer
Kristall 1961 Hinged back
Zenit-3М 1962 Another body
Zenit-Е 1965 Built-in non-coupled lightmeter, dropped the mirror, switching to the M42 lens mount
Zenit-ЕМ 1972 Automatic aperture, mock split-image center, and micro prism collar
Zenit-TTL 1977 Switching to TTL lightmeter
Zenit-12sd 1983 LED indication of TTL lightmeter
Zenit-122 1990 Plastic body
Zenit-212k 1995 Advanced shutter speed range, K-mount
Zenit-312m 1999 Back to the old M42 mount lenses, the old speed range
Zenit-412 2000 Automatic input of film ISO

These all models of Zenits are modifications of the same camera for 50 years without changing the basic principles. For 50 years, cloth focal-plane cloth-curtain shutter with a poor set of speeds remained the same.
Of course, there were technological improvements: adding lightmeter, automatic aperture, improving the focusing screen, TTL-lightmeter. But these improvements were not enough to win the market.

Zenit-С & Zenit-412LS
The first and the last. At the left: one of the first model Zenit-С (1955). At the right: one of the last model Zenit-412LS (2000). Plastic exchange metal, but there are no changes in work principle with the same old cloth shutter and poor set of speeds.


Present situation

ZMZ stop the production of Zenit cameras in 2005. With the expansion of digital cameras, Zenits, together with other film cameras, lost their significance and pushed out to the periphery of amateur footage. But even now, there are many enthusiasts, fans of film cameras, which continue to shoot on Zenits and get perfect shots. Because the quantity of such enthusiasts is much smaller than the existing cameras, the mass Zenit models cost very low prices at the secondary market.
Fast lenses from Zenits have more value - they have greater demand because they can be used on digital SLR cameras through an adapter and give good pictures.
Now Zenit models, which were released in small quantities, have collection value (and hence also have a higher price).