Zorki 4 – Attempted equaliser

Very often it is considered a form of flattery to be copied.  It means you have achieved something causing envy amongst others and they would like to also have it, but not necessarily have the means to get it.  That is the case with Leica cameras.  Whilst not everyone covets them, there is many people that do. This spurred on a whole sub-industry, for decades, to make copies or similar designs of the earlier Leica cameras.  In some cases people even adapted the clones to Leica-ish looks to fool others into thinking they snagged a bargain.

The Zorki 4 was never really designed into fooling anyone that it is anything than other a Soviet made machine based on a Leica type design, even though adopting the Leica Thread Mount (LTM). Interestingly it has a feature or two which was much more advanced than the Leica itself at the time.  The Zorki 4 gained inspiration from the Leica iii, but was constructed in typical Soviet manufacturing standards of the time.  It was also the most popular of the Zorki models and was the first to be exported in large numbers into the West.

There is a lot of debate about Soviet cameras online but the one thing that is agreed universally is that there is a massive variation in quality, even from the same factory.  The quality standards of the Soviet factories were notorious for being on the light side, but even in those conditions some really spectacular outcomes were achieved.

The Zorki 4 in this review is paired up with a Jupiter 8 50mm f/2 lens, but this is not a review of the lens and its output, that will be held for another time, possibly with a comparison to the Industar 61 53mm f/2.8, the other lens the camera came with.  It will be included only as part of the experience.

A classic looking rangefinder at a plastic fantastic 90s compact camera price is all well and good, but how does it perform in use? First, a little about the camera.

History

Zorki (Зоркий) in Russian means “sharp sighted”.  That is a really fantastic name for a brand of camera.  Zorki cameras were produced by Krasnogorsk Mechanical Works (Красногорский механический завод) or KMZ (КМЗ) for short.  KMZ was set up as an optical factory near Moscow in 1942, as the Red Army was in heavy need for optical instruments during World War II and the established factories, FED and LOMO were not accessible during to this period. The initial output from the KMZ factory was binoculars, scopes, and cameras used for scouting, investigation and reconnaissance.

It was not until 1945 when KMZ started producing photographic lenses, which were based on the Carl Zeiss designs, as a lot of the information and equipment was taken for war reparations from the factory in Jena, Germany.  It would be another three years until the Zorki is introduced, in 1948, when availability of other factories to manufacture lenses were established allowing KMZ to concentrate on camera production.  During its long history, the KMZ factory was also responsible for producing the Zenit 35mm SLR and the worlds first subminiature SLR, the Narciss, which command a very high premium in the collectors market these days.  It also produced the Moskva medium format cameras, the Horizont panoramic cameras and even the Krasnogorsk 16mm movie camera.

The original Zorki was very much based on the Leica II rangefinder as was the Zorki 2 which followed in 1954 and was kept as a very similar camera with few changes, mainly on the rewind mechanism and the introduction of the self-timer. The Zorki 2 ran in parallel with the Zorki 3 introduced in 1951, which had an updated design based on the Leica III.  Where it outpaced Leica was that it included a consolidated viewfinder and rangefinder window.  It usually came with a Jupiter 8 lens, a Zeiss Sonnar design 50mm lens with a f/2 maximum aperture.  The Zorki 3M which was released in 1954 included a combined shutter speed dial which had all speeds on one dial, and the Zorki 3S in 1955 introduced flash synchronisation into the line.

The Zorki 4 made its appearance in 1956 and was basically a Zorki 3S with a self-timer added.  It was the breakthrough model in the West and KMZ produced 1,715,677 Zorki 4 cameras which helps keep their value lower.  The camera did vary from early to later models in that the early models had vulcanite coverings, engraved shutter speeds and had strap lugs.  The later models, especially into the 1960s, had fabric coverings, painted shutter speeds which fade over time and the strap lugs bizarrely completely disappeared.  The Zorki 4 continued in two variants with the Zorki 4K incorporating a wind lever advance instead of the thumb wheel used in the original version.  The Zorki 4 was produced until 1973, with a 17-year production run.

The Zorki 4 was followed by a variety of models, including Zorki 35M, 5, 6, 10, 11, and 12.  These departed from the Leica copy design and moved more in the direction of the Zenit SLR design but as a rangefinder.

Camera Specifics

The Zorki 4 is a Soviet manufactured rangefinder camera made from metal in a very Soviet way.  The one in this review is one of the earlier models, as it is covered in Vulcanite, has engraved shutter speeds and has strap lugs. As it has a knurled film advance thumb wheel, this copy is dated at roughly 1959, when this was introduced. It also has shutter speeds of 1/50 and 1/25 second, which were replaced with more standard speeds in later versions.

The lens mount is a Leica Thread Mount (LTM), allowing the camera to take a wide variety of lenses.  It would have been sold with Jupiter 8 50mm f/2 lens with either the white or black face depending on the exact time of release. This camera came with a black face Jupiter 8 and Industar 61 53mm f/2.8 lens, and a very damaged Jupiter 8 for parts if needed (lens elements themselves are very badly scratched).

The shutter is a double cloth curtain, and the camera is capable of speeds from 1 second to 1/1000 second and Bulb. The shutter speed is selected by a dial on the top plate, with the slower speeds, from 1/25 to 1 second, selected on a secondary dial underneath the main shutter speed selector.  As there is no meter, and this is a fully mechanical camera, there is no ISO selection.

Also on the top plate is the shutter release, which takes a standard cable release for remote shooting.  The shutter release also incorporates a dial selector to select advance and rewind modes of the camera.  The rewind will not work unless this is selected.  The film advance is on the right of the top plate with engraved frame numbers which require a manual reset when film is loaded. It also cocks the shutter when the frame is advanced.  It is linked to the shutter speed dial in that when the camera is fired, the shutter speed dial moves half a full rotation and only resets to the selected film speed when the frame is advanced and the shutter is cocked.  This combination makes it crucial the user does not change the shutter speed unless the shutter has been cocked, otherwise it may break the camera.

On the left side of the top plate, the rewind thumb wheel is pulled upwards when the film is finished and turned to the right to rewind it back in.  A nice surprise is that there is a dioptre adjustment lever for the viewfinder located around the rewind wheel, something that many cameras until even the 1980s did not incorporate.

The viewfinder is integrated with a rangefinder.  The rangefinder is a middle length, as it is half way across the camera.  The rangefinder patch is quite a dim fuzzy round rectangle in the centre of the viewfinder.  At least there is one, the Leica cameras still had a separate rangefinder window when this was introduced.  There is no frame lines and the viewfinder is only for a 50mm lens, requiring an external viewfinder if other focal lengths are used.

On the front of the camera is a self-timer lever and a button to release it.  The strap lugs are almost to the front of the camera encouraging it to leaning depending on the weight of the lens.

The camera is opened from two twist knobs on the bottom and the whole back and bottom comes off.  The film is threaded through a removable take up spool, which can be lost very easily.  Also on the bottom is the tripod mount, which is a 3/8” size, but easily adapted to the standard 1/4” of which this copy has already.

The Experience

I’d seen the Zorki cameras online in eBay for quite a while and always wondered how good they really did perform. I also spent a year working in Moscow, unfortunately while film was the norm, so never considered buying a Zorki then as I had my Nikons.  When this one came up with the highly regarded Jupiter 8 lens included (as well as the Industar 61), I put in a bid and had it in my hands a few days later.

The first time I picked it up, I was pleased to see there is some heft to the camera.  This is a solid piece of equipment.  I was also worried about all the horror stories online of the quality issues.  I have in the past had a very negative experience with a Kiev 88, so I was quite worried this would jam up or something as bad.

The first time I loaded film into it, Ilford HP5+, I was shooting late into the evening, so exposed for ISO 1600. I was very careful, to the point of paranoia, to ensure I wound on the frame and cocked the shutter before I changed film speed.

The viewfinder is quite bright, so framing the composition was quite easy and enjoyable.  The rangefinder patch, even with the dioptre adjustment, was not great.  I have heard they do fade due to age, so whether it was to that or just the way it was made, it is hard to use. In terms of reliability I cannot complain, the camera worked flawlessly.

I next tried it with some colour film, Kodak Portra 400, and took it to a trip out to Parramatta, out west of Sydney, as one of my sons was playing in a football match there.  I took the opportunity during the warm up time to go for a walk along the river.  Again, the camera worked very well with my only gripe being not of the camera but of the Jupiter 8 lens, where it does not click apertures so it was very easy to get lost on what was set.

All in all, and in a subsequent trip to Centennial Park, the camera performed quite well.  Was it as easy to use as a Leica?  Compared to the M series, not even close.  Compared to what it was designed to match, it was in fact a little easier.  I can judge that with the IIIf that I have to compare it to.  Having the rangefinder patch in the viewfinder window alone makes it much easier to use.

The engineering and general workmanship is where these cameras are poles apart.  With a Leica winding on and cocking the shutter is a joy.  It is smooth and precise and fills you with confidence that as species we can create something beautiful and worthy.  With the Zorki, it was as if instead of grease, they used sand to lubricate the mechanisms.  It felt a little like the drill a dentist uses to clean teeth properly. Having said that though, it worked well.

I was one of the supporters of a new film released recently, Silberra out of Russia.  I ordered a couple of rolls of Silberra Ultima 200 B&W film and waited patiently while it was organised and sent out.  When it arrived, what else would you use Russian film in, but a Russian camera.  If you have used this film, one thing you will notice is that it is has an extremely thin base.  I mean super thin, the technician at the lab told me he thought he was going to break it. This is where I experienced some issues with the Zorki 4.

When I used the camera with this film, I noticed when I got to the end of 38 exposures, it was still advancing. I tried another frame, and it still advanced.  I realised something was not right, and when I got my film back it was clear. Initially the camera spaced out the frames as normal, but as it progressed though the roll, they got closer and overlapped.  My suspicion is that it is not exactly a clear cut issue with the camera, but as the film is so thin it started to slip out of the film take up spool and only when winding was enough to create tension, it would move forward.  That would explain why it continued on cocking the shutter etc. The next photo is one of the overlapping ones, which I think came out quite well.

The lab technician mentioned he studied where he felt they could be cut and as he knows me quite well felt comfortable in judging it.  He did quite well.  I have included a couple of the overlapping strips at the end, without any adjustments.

In terms of performance, I was getting quite used to the camera by this point and it felt good.  While not being very specific in this review about the Jupiter 8 lens, the quality of the photos were quite good.  I would like to really give that lens a working on both the Leica cameras and on digital to see what it can do.

The Zorki 4 is a great way in as an entry into more advanced rangefinders.  Not what I would recommend for someone entering photography for the first time, it does have it peculiarities.  These sell for very low prices and even with the risk on workmanship and possible camera failure, they are still worth a getting one and trying them out.

Strip of overlapping exposures, Zorki 4, Jupiter 8, Silberra Ultima 200.

Strip of overlapping exposures, Zorki 4, Jupiter 8, Silberra Ultima 200.

3 Comments

  • Nicole Evans June 3, 2018 at 9:43 am

    I enjoyed this review, while not contenplating a Soviet camera I wonder about using their lenses on a Leica iiif. I have a 35mm in mind. I believe the pitch of the focussing helix is different to that used on Leica. Any thoughts / experience on this.
    Nice to read about a local, I’m on the Central Coast.

    Reply
    • Theo June 3, 2018 at 4:04 pm

      Thanks Nicole, always nice to hear from someone in this part of the world. I am actually in the process of using the Jupiter 8 on both my mirrorless (Micro 4/3) and on my Leica M3, both with adapters. Focus is ok on the mirrorless, as you focus through the lens, but it looks like slight softness through the M3 which leads me to believe the pitch difference can impact focus. It is a shame, as I wanted to get the review out earlier, but now I want to discount it being the adapter, so next I will be trying it out on either a Leica iiif or a Tanack IV-S.

      Reply
  • Nicole Evans June 3, 2018 at 4:58 pm

    Mmmn sounds as if zone focussing might be the go although with the Jupiter 12 the DOF should take care of minor issues when at f8 to f16. Time will tell.

    Reply

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