A Zenit 11 review? Why on Earth are Light Stalking reviewing an obscure, 40-year-old, Soviet film camera? Well, its partly a labour of love and nostalgia, and partly because if you want to dabble in film photography, then there is probably no cheaper option than a Zenit SLR.
Built like tanks and ruggedly simple, many of them have stood the test of time. A quick search on eBay will reveal many Zenit’s, EMs, 11s, 12s and various other models. All are pretty similar, most will not set you back more than $50 and that includes the lens. So what of this nostalgia?
I Chose The Complicated One
As a teenager, I wanted to be many things. A pilot, a doctor, a vet. However, the idea of being a photographer had never crossed my mind. Until August 1983, my 16th birthday. I wanted a camera. I had no idea why, to be honest, but my parents agreed to buy me one. The decision, in the local camera shop, came down to the sleek modern looking Olympus Trip, or the heavy lump of pig iron and buttons, the Zenit 11. I am guessing you know which one I chose.
Fast forward a scarily high number of years to December 20th 2018. Wandering the snowbound back streets of Lviv in North West Ukraine, I stumbled upon a small obscure second-hand camera store.
Failing to resist the urge to walk past, I entered into a cavern of warm light and cameras. Immediately to my right was a shelf containing a row of Zenit cameras. Standing proudly in the middle of them was my camera, the Zenit 11.
Now, obviously it was not my original Zenit but it was identical in every last way. Needless to say, I bought it. It cost me the princely sum of $20 and had been lovingly restored by the owners of the camera store.
A Little Soviet Karma
There is a further twist to this particular nostalgia trip. That Soviet camera I bought all those years ago, not only led me into a career in photography, but also in a fascination with Eastern Europe. I walked into that camera store in Lviv because, during my career, I met and married a Ukrainian woman, and moved to Odessa. Karma seemed to come full circle. So what of the Zenit 11?
The Zenit 11. Your Next Camera?
Well, it might be, if you are looking to try out film and to get back to absolute basics. Anyone who has ever used a DSLR will be immediately at home with the Zenit. The SLR/DSLR ergonomics have barely changed in well over half a century.
The right of the top plate features a film wind lever and shot counter, the shutter speed dial, a chunky shutter button. On the left, we have an exposure meter (more of that in a moment), the film rewind knob and exposure calculator.
It’s Full Frame
Of course, being a full frame camera, the viewfinder is large and bright. And that's a good thing because the only aid you get to focussing is a simple fresnel screen. And focus you will have to do, as this is an entirely manual camera. The film back is opened by pulling up the film rewind lever and the film is loaded simply by placing the film leader into the spindle and winding on.
The lens supplied with the camera was the Helios 58mm F2. It used the 42mm screw mount and even by today’s standards had a sterling reputation for decent quality.
The front of the camera features a wind-up self-timer, a PC socket for flash and sitting pride of place and giving the Zenit its distinctive look, a Selenium cell.
No Batteries Required
That Selenium cell is the exposure meter. It’s external and requires no power, meaning the Zenit 11 requires no batteries. It sends the exposure reading to a small window on top of the camera. Here, you align a small circle with the meter reading then read the relevant exposure off of the dial surrounding the rewind knob.
It’s simple and accurate, anyone that has ever used a Weston will know the drill. It’s accurate of course only if you understand light and exposure and can mentally correct for issues such as the brightness of snow.
Shutter speeds range from just 1/30th to 1/500th of a second and Bulb for anything slower. Flash syncs at a mighty 1/30th, so forget any fashion shoots on the beach.
The build quality, for a Soviet-era camera, is pretty good. Zenits, on the whole, were well made. This is perhaps due to the fact that they were exported to the West as a much cheaper alternative to Nikons and Canons of the time.
The shutter curtain works well and seems to be open for the right amount of time. The film advance is also slick and reassuring. For $20 you can get a day’s worth of coffee or a fully working Soviet film camera.
Seems like a no brainer to me.
To be honest, I had never intended to put a film through the Zenit. It was meant as an ornament, to sit upon my desk reminding me of where I started from. Yet, as it sits proudly (on a beautifully designed, black Fuji X-Pro box) it seems to be begging me to feed it some celluloid.
It’s an old camera, it may not have seen film for quite a while. I have not seen film for quite a while. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to do something about that.