Zenit, Kiev, Praktica, Zorki…..Unless you’re a vintage camera geek you won’t have heard these names before. No, it’s not the back four from that great Steaua Bucharest team from the 80s, but defunct camera brands that were based in the old Soviet Union back in the day.
Whilst they don’t roll off the tongue as easily as Canon, Nikon, Fuji and the other “big boys” still around today, if you’re looking for a great starter camera to help you get into film, we’re going to tell you why you should consider some of these lesser known brands.
But first, a very brief history lesson….
As the “Iron Curtain” fell across Europe after the second world war, there became a market for camera companies based in East Germany, Russia, and other parts of the Soviet Union. If you lived in one of these places you could forget about trying to import one from one of the “big” Japanese names – it just would not happen. Ever.
Whilst we might not usually associate the Soviet Union with cutting edge manufacturing, for some reason they got cameras right. Maybe it’s because they were, back then, pretty much all mechanical, with the focus being on design, style and ergonomics, rather than complicated and expensive electronic circuits.
One name in particular stands tall about all others – Zeiss.
If you’re into photography at all, you’ll know this name. Zeiss still make incredible lenses for the modern digital market. They are also incredibly expensive. Back in the 50s and 60s though, they made a lot of incredible lenses that were not so expensive. In fact, some of these today can be picked up for the cost of a night out, and they still take incredible pictures.
Zeiss lenses are known for being full of character, particularly if you’re shooting in colour – they tend to have a magical purple tinge to them. Because of that they’ve got a huge cult following.
They were a big player back in the day too – they were once such a big employer in East Germany that there was once a football team called Carl Zeiss Jena, and they weren’t bad either – they reached the Cup Winners Cup Final in 1981!
So that’s the background. Here’s why we love these cameras, and why we think you should give them a chance.
Value for Money
Because a lot of people don’t know about them, and because they are no longer household names, they cost a fraction of the price of cameras from Nikon, for instance.
And yet because it is the lens that affects the quality of the image you get rather than the camera, you don’t get any drop off in image quality. Put a Zeiss lens for instance on a Zenit camera, and you’ll get the same image if you put that same Zeiss lens on a Nikon camera.
Like any cameras built in the 60/70s, they are built to last. In fact a lot of these soviet era cameras are even more sturdier and reliable than some of the budget cameras the big brands were realising around the same time.
So put all that together, and you can see why we think these are great value for money. If you are thinking about taking the plunge with a fully manual camera, then definitely give something from the Soviet Union a chance.
Our favourites would be the Zenit 12XP – known for being ultra-reliable - and the Praktica MTL3, with its uber-cool retro styling.
Perhaps because of the fact these companies didn’t have access to all the same technology as the Japanese giants of the day, and perhaps because they were to a large extent cut off from them, these Soviet cameras tend to have their own individual style and design.
Take a look at the Zenit 11 for instance;
It only takes a second to realise how different that is compared to the SLRs the big brands were making at the same time. And we think it’s bloody gorgeous too.
The Universal “M42” Lens Mount
Back in the very early days of SLR cameras, the vast majority of companies used the same lens mount i.e. the bit where the lens ‘mounted’ on to the camera. Unsurprisingly therefore this mount soon became known as the “universal” mount, and after that the M42 mount.
As time went on, a lot of the big companies realised they could make more money by fitting their cameras with their own mounts, so you could only use their lenses on the cameras.
Pentax were one of the brands to stick with the M42 mount though – at least until 1973 when they switched to the Pentax K mount. Given Pentax were a huge brand in the 60s, lots of third party companies kept making M42 lenses. Carl Zeiss in particular made virtually all of their lenses in the 60s in M42 mount, as did other great brands from the time, like Vivitar and Pentacon, as well as Pentax of course.
So why does that matter? Well, if you’ve got a camera with a M42 lens mount that means you have access to lenses from, quite literally, hundreds of different brands. So lots of choice.
And guess what – because there’s lot of choice, they’re really cheap too. So great value.
Oh, and on top of that you’ve got access to all the Zeiss lenses and Pentax ones too, if you want something top of the range, but which still doesn’t break the bank.
So if you’ve got an M42 mount camera you are in a win-win-win position – a great choice of affordable lenses, including some of the finest glass ever made from Pentax and Carl Zeiss.
You’ve probably guessed this already, but the vast majority of Soviet SLRs were built with the M42 mount. Fantastic hey!
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