This month we celebrate Red Oktober with a series of reviews and articles about using “commie cameras”. First up, Lilly Schwartz with her review of her Zorki 3C and Zorki 4K.
I started my journey into film photography with one goal in mind: I wanted to buy a Leica. I fell in love with that Leica look during my first year of taking photography more seriously and I just couldn’t get that dream out of my head for years. A digital Leica was of course way out of my price range, so every time I ended up on the website of a Leica shop became frustrated and disappointed. When I looked in the “Used” section though I suddenly noticed that film Leica's were way cheaper, almost affordable! Suddenly that dream became a whole lot more realistic and I started hatching a plan, which involved buying a Soviet Leica copy first.
I used to be a very digital person - I even hold a degree in Robotics - so my experience with film photography was restricted to the silly point and shoot camera I had as a kid. My first “proper” camera was of course a digital camera, so I knew that I would be hopelessly out of my depth with a film Leica. Switching to a fully manual camera and trying to learn how to deal with film at the same time seemed overly ambitious. Would I even like it? What if I bought a really expensive Leica and then hated every part of the process? I couldn’t take that risk and still had to save for a long time, so I decided to get a cheaper film camera first. I knew one of my friends was shooting film with a Kiev which is a Soviet Contax copy, so I started looking for a Soviet Leica copy and found the Zorki. I chose the prettiest looking one I could find, a Zorki 3C, got myself some cheap drugstore film and embarked on that wild adventure that is film photography.
Not so fast though! You can’t just buy a soviet camera and expect it to work just like that, especially not one that is as easy to break as a Zorki! The shutter of my Zorki wasn’t only old and slow - I expected that - no, it was actually completely stuck! This will be the case with many Zorkis that you can buy nowadays, because the shutter will get stuck if you change the shutter speed without cocking the shutter first. Anyone who tries to use this camera without having read the manual, will have a pretty good chance of breaking the shutter on the first attempt. Don’t worry though, like all soviet cameras Zorkis are meant to be fixed easily, so you can get very far with a screwdriver and a toothpick, unless you were silly enough to try and force it after it got stuck. If the shutter speed pin is completely broken off you’ll have a real problem. Well, isn’t that a nice bonding experience? Never trust a Zorki that you haven’t seen without its top plate! Of course, for a digital shooter my own Zorki bonding experience was a little scary, but in the end we started to get along just fine.
Even though we had a bit of a rough start, I’m very glad I got that Zorki first, because my first roll already showed me that I still had a lot to learn. It was in fact horrendously bad and I didn’t even develop it myself. In retrospect it actually wasn’t really my fault though - slow shutter, severely misaligned rangefinder, light leaks, a misaligned Jupiter-8 50mm f/2.0 lens full of fungus - how could it not have been bad? For some reason I loved it though. And in those moments where I somehow magically worked around all the flaws of that almost broken camera it produced some pretty awesome pictures that had a special something to them.
Pretty much everything on this camera is as Soviet as it can get. It’s definitely not designed for usability and most of the time it gets in the way badly. The lenses don’t have click stops, the shutter speeds are not predictably spaced and you’re likely to break your fingernails on both the shutter speed dial and the film forwarding dial. The shutter also makes a horrendous noise that sounds somewhat as if a robot just ripped his (metal) trousers - which can be good since it doesn’t really sound like a camera shutter at all. It’s basically stealthy by being completely weird and obnoxious. Also, the earlier Zorkis were not designed for Western film cartridges at all and Soviet film probably had a thicker base. Depending on the model you will have some part of the picture on the sprocket holes and the camera will relentlessly chew up film with a thin base like Kentmere or Delta 3200. Also fun: the shutter pretty much stops working reliably in weather under 0°C. A weird quirk to have for a camera designed in a country that gets really cold in winter!
And did I mention the horrendously bad quality control on the lenses? Finding a good Soviet lens is a matter of luck and probably depends very much on the size of the vodka ration among the workers at the factory on the day of production. Also, the 35mm Jupiter-12 has the aperture ring on the front which in my case caused an awful lot of accidental out of focus selfies until I got used to it. And of course you will have to use a hot shoe finder with anything but a 50mm lens too!
This all sounds pretty bad, right? Well, yes, it is. In a good way though! Zorkis are quirky cameras that can be awfully unpredictable, which is of course fun in a way. And if you’re lucky with the lens and know how to align rangefinders you might even end up with pretty good image quality. I shot a Zorki as my primary film camera for quite a while and was often stunned by the image quality of my cheapo Jupiter-12 lens.
By the way, my Zorki 3C retired rather quickly because it was really a bit too broken for my taste. The cheapest way of getting a Jupiter-12 lens was to buy it bundled with a camera and it came with a slightly less broken Zorki 4K. The Zorki 4K also has a film forwarding lever instead of a dial, which is much less frustrating to use. On mine the plastic end of the lever was missing, so I made a handle on the metal end with heat shrink wire insulation - another typically Soviet camera bonding experience. In any case, for a camera I didn’t even want to have, it served me pretty well. The lettering is plain ugly since it’s not in cyrillic - the main reason I didn’t go for it in the first place - but it does its job pretty well when it doesn’t chew up film like a misbehaving puppy. Less of the image ends up on the sprocket holes than with the 3C, but that doesn’t make it rip through less film. In fact this problem is slightly worse on the 4K, because on a camera with a dial you’re more likely to forward the film carefully. This problem is also worse in winter or when it’s raining pretty hard, because the film gets brittle when it gets cold or wet. In summer I often shot thin film in it without any problems, so it’s just something to keep in mind with adverse conditions.
All in all I was pretty happy with my Zorki learning experience. It was of course a bit like learning to drive a tank when you plan on buying a Porsche, but after I got my head around a couple of more or less broken Zorkis, switching to a real Leica in pristine condition was a buttery smooth transition! I don’t really use my Zorkis anymore, but keep them around for sentimental reasons and decoration. They are really too broken to inflict on anyone else anyway and I don’t have a particularly good reason for repairing them either, since I don’t want to part with them. If you are on a budget and don’t mind having to repair slow / stuck shutters and misaligned rangefinders they are pretty decent cameras to love-hate though and I can definitely recommend trying them out.
Lilly Schwartz is a documentary photographer based in San Sebastián, Spain. She has a broad interdisciplinary background in Cultural Studies, Philosophy and Robotics, and enjoys the whole range of film photography, from the perfectly developed negative to the serendipitous accident. You can learn more about her and see more of her work at www.lillyschwartz.com