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Zenit Cameras

11/17/2016 – 15:45Author: Andriy

Zenit Cameras

Zenit is the brend of soviet film SLR cameras of amateur level. They was 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 at 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 towns which sold cameras and accessories with Zenits which took the most respected places.

Photo amateurs and many ordinary Soviet people who lived at Zenits era has emotion attachment to them. In those days, Zenits occupied a kind of top segment among amateur cameras. They allowed to make a decent image quality and in spite of cost more then rangefinder cameras, but still affordable. The only obstacle to the possession of 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 at 1980 was 670 thousand copies.Source: Zenit-Camera.

Zenits gave opportunity to millions of people at the huge Soviet and then post-Soviet space to record important moments of their life.

Now we are accustomed to communicate and share with each other visual information instantly through Internet technologies: smart-phones, 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 was also often sent by mail.

Each family had a huge photo albums with different-sized photos. Even if some family had not own camera they still had a lot of 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 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 the photos were sent to you by mail.

Zenit-3M front view

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

After all they have shortcomiens. In those days there was no competition and the products often become popular simply because there were not other analogs. Thus, the popularity of Zenith was based on a kind of monopoly. A monopoly leads to problems with the quality and stop in development.

This 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 make a choice 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

ModelBeginning of
End of
Amount of years
of production
Total amount of
produced copies

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 a small, even at non-market economies.

Top Zenits

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

Most popular - Zenit-Е

Most popular camera Zenit-Е (1965) with lens Helios-44-2. It was produced during 22 years, total amount – more then 8 milions.


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

Lenses Helios and their successors had good reliability and luminosity. This versatile lens that can shoot starting from almost macro – flowers close-up, good portraits, and even landscapes. In many cases, kit lens was never removed from camera.
In general, these lenses gives 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 fall at the backlight. Improving the lenses went to a large extent by the addition of a progressive mechanism automatic apperture 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 a large range of exposures and viewfinder that covers 90% of the frame. Positioned as a semi-professional camera.


Early Zenit models were focusing only by the matte screen. But since Zenit-EM focusing screen with mock split-image center and micro prisms collar appeared that greatly facilitate 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 frame 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 cropped the image to the desired size. You just needed to know about this and consider while shooting.
Exeptions: Zenit-19 and Zenit-18 had 90%  frame coverage, Zenit-Auto — 95%.


Zenit-ЕМ (1972) had focusing screen with mock split-image center and microprism collar and autmatic apperture.

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 to expose the exposure „by eye“.

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

The next step was the coupled TTL lightmeter, which appeared in 1977 at Zenit-TTL camera. TTL lightmeter measures illumination through the lens and allows you to more accurately determine the correct exposure. Zenit-TTL and followed models had semi-coupled lightmeter – while you press the button partially the shutter aperture closes to the selected value and 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 luminance. Seemingly progressive step, but Zenit-automat as well as its continued Zenit-AM (1988) and did not reach a tenth of the popularity of their mechanical counterparts. Electronic control complicated and therefore increases the cost of equipment and reduces its reliability. Auto exposure did not become a leading trend Zenit.

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 the 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

Shuter speeds

Poor set of 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 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 plastic body instead 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 assembling workers on the factory and 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 untill the last camera Zenit-412.

These shutters did not easiely alow to extend the range to the short shutter speeds up to 1/1000 sec because 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 implamantation into Zenits new solutions and modern electronic technology would inevitably lead to a sharp drop in the reliability of the cameras, and eventually the producers refused to use them returning to the old proven mechanism.

The main product line of Zenit cameras

In general, there are the main line of 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 simplifies the basic models to reduce the cost, such as Zenit-B – is the same as Zenit-E but without a lightmeter, and Zenit-BM – the same Zenit-EM without lightmeter. Popular models Zenit-ET and the Zenit-11 also not included to the table becouse they are hybrids of Zenit-E and Zenit-TTL and it did not make any construction improvements.  

Changes in cameras in main produc line

Zenit1952First model was developed on the basis of „Zorki“ rangefinder camera
Zenit-С1955Added sync contact, changed the mechanism of lowering the mirror
Zenit-31958Film advance lever, self-timer
Kristall1961Hinged back
Zenit-3М1962Another body
Zenit-Е1965Built-in non-coupled lightmeter, dropped mirror, swiching to the M42 lens mount
Zenit-ЕМ1972Autmatic apperture, mock split-image center and microprism collar
Zenit-TTL1977Swiching to TTL lightmeter
Zenit-12sd1983LED indication of TTL lightmeter
Zenit-1221990Plastic body
Zenit-212k1995Advanced shutter speed range, K-mount
Zenit-312m1999Back to the old M42 mount lenses, the old speed range
Zenit-4122000Automatic input of film ISO

These all models of Zenits are modification of the same camera during 50 years without changing the basic principles. For 50 years cloth focal-plane cloth-curtain shutter with 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 was 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 any changes in the principle of work with the same old cloth shutter and poor set of speeds.

Present situation

ZMZ stop production of Zenit cameras in 2005. Today, 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 very good shots. Because 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 trough adapter, and give good pictures.
Now Zenit models which were released in small quantities have collection value (and hence also have a higher price).


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