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A walk(y) with the Zorki

December 29th, 2010

A few years ago, when I was first trying to figure out how to take photos with a manual camera, I read that you could buy manual film cameras very cheaply if you picked up ones made in the former USSR. And whoever wrote that was right: courtesy of a local pawn shop I grabbed a Zenit E SLR, with lens, for about a tenner.

It needed a few spare parts, though, so I ended up buying another one (another tenner) from Ebay and combining the two into a working Frankencamera. And because when you start buying cheap cameras on Ebay it's hard to stop, I also ended up grabbing a Soviet-era rangefinder: a Zorki 4.

Zorki 4 with Jupiter 8

The Zorki is, as I understand it, a couple of generations down the line from models first made largely by copying the (vastly more expensive and better made) Leica 2. It's a completely manual rangefinder camera – no meter – that takes 35mm film and M39 screw-mount lenses. Mine came with a "Jupiter 8" 50mm f/2 lens.

It's a pretty little thing, and in remarkably good condition given that it rolled out of a factory in Krasnogorsk back in 1970, but as I was mainly interested about learning to use SLRs it was carefully boxed up. Until this week. Stuck in the flat suffering the lingering long-tail of the flu, I thought I'd pop out for some fresh air and take some photos. So, one roll of cheap C41 film later, here's what I found.

The good points

First and foremost – it works! Everything inside the Zorki seemed fine, and because the rewind knob's permanently engaged it's easy to see when film is being pulled across properly. Impressive. The rangefinder does the job – it's bright and easy to focus – and with an f/2 lens you can easily get most stuff in focus:

Canada Place

.. or make it a bit narrower if you prefer:

Red leaves

The film counter ticks along nicely (you need a screwdriver to reset it), and at the end of the roll I was able to disengage the sprockets (you turn the dial thing around the shutter) and rewind the film without ripping it to shreds. Always a bonus.

The not-so-good points

There are a few annoyances, though. For one, the Zorki's viewfinder might be bright – much better than the Zenit, in fact – but it's pretty much unusable if you wear glasses. There is a (comically huge) dioptre adjustment lever, but with glasses on it's impossible to get your eye close enough to the finder to see much of the frame.

More annoying still is the shutter speed. You set the shutter – after cocking it using the film advance knob, and never before – using the big dial in the centre:

See, now, here's your problem..

Unfortunately most of the markings have rubbed off my Zorki's dial, and even the ones you can see are hard to select using the pick-and-drop wheel. In the end I stuck it on what I'm pretty sure is 1/60 and just used the aperture control. Call it the "one sixtieth and hope" rule, perhaps.

And speaking of the shutter and aperture, there's no light meter. Which is good, as it means no battery to die, but also means you're stuck with guessing / Sunny 16 / carrying a separate one. But with the light and shutter sussed I did manage to snap even a few moving targets:

Flying rat

.. as well as some landscapes in the murk, which have a nice 1970s-browny-orangey kind of feel:

The Lotus, 1970s-style!

Oh, and a bauble-self-portrait, too:

Self portrait (oops)

Not too bad for a cold, foggy, bleh kind of day in the docklands. And for all its many downsides, using the Zorki was fun – my plan now is to wrap it up in a hoodie, chuck it in my luggage and get some Zorki shots from CES Las Vegas in January. Oh, and a strange coincidence:

docklands clock #2

That's the same Docklands clocks, shot in the other direction on the Zenit E, five years ago this month. Time flies, and all that.

More pics from the Zorki 4 here.

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