Zenit EM [1972]

FSU, Primitive, Mechanical SLR


I got my first camera when I was 10. It was a 110 plastic model whose make I can't remember but, that being the 70s, I know it came in a groovy padded denim case. I can't remember why I'd asked for a camera; I think it was because I only saw adults carrying cameras and I wanted to be a grown up. My dad was a grown up and he carried a decades old rangefinder with a molded leather case, lots of knobs and doodads, and it was covered in chrome and leatherette. As I wasn't a grown up I wasn't allowed to touch it. My little point-and-shoot was crude and simple but that meant there was less to get wrong or break.

In my early teens I started to read some photography books and they all told me that I needed an SLR if I wanted to be serious. Once I'd actually worked out what an SLR was I found that the catalog store in my home town, Argus, carried a Zenit EM SLR camera complete with flash gun and camera bag for 35 pounds. I didn't actually have 35 pounds but some negotiating with the parental units about taking on some additional household chores and I got the huge, black, solid metal, Russian camera for my birthday. Actually, I think I even got the camera a few weeks early, which was unheard of in our household, but we were going away on our first family vacation abroad. Abroad meant instead of pulling our tiny caravan to the northern extremes of Scotland we were actually taking a ferry and going across the Channel to France! Whoopdeedoo I hear you say but when your hormones are going crazy as a young teenager and you get to go to beaches where half the women were topless instead of beaches were you needed to wear your anorak, to protect you from the rain, and a bottle of deet, to protect you from the midges (tiny mosquitoes only worse), it is a big deal.


But back to the camera; in a geeky habit that remains part of my make-up to this day, I'd read just about every book I could find at the public and school's library on photography in anticipation of getting an SLR. I already knew a fair bit about light readings, shutter speeds and apertures before ever holding the camera. This was a good thing or I may have quickly abandoned the Zenit and moved on to the next toy. There was nothing automated about the EM. EM could have stood for "Everything Manual". There wasn't even a battery in the beast although, unlike some earlier models, it did at least have a built in light meter. The meter resided over the top of the lens. I would be another few years before the Russians worked out how to take readings through the lens in their consumer models.

On the long drive down to France I devoured the camera's manual, loaded one of the three films I'd bought for the trip, and taken my first two shots. Little did I know that an obsession with photography was beginning in me, as a love for all things French took over my Mum and Dad. The Zenit EM was my constant companion on that vacation and many that followed.

I loved the EM in spite of all it's quirks. Perhaps this was because my first real camera; it looked, felt and smelt like a real camera. Perhaps it was because I didn't have an alternative; I was a kid and couldn't just take the camera back to the store to exchange it for something simpler to use. The shutter made a slurp noise as you advanced the frame and primed the fabric shutter. Pressing the shutter release took some effort and resulted in a loud mechanical slap as the mirror bounced up and down. The shutter release had a small surface area which you could easily see embossed in your index finger after giving your digit the work out required to expose a frame. You had a limited range of shutter speeds to choose from and it was hard to physically pull, turn and release the selector to get the speed you wanted.


You had to take your light reading to find the appropriate aperture long before you put the viewfinder to your eye. When you did you were greeted by a ground glass screen with a small, round microprism area at its center. No split prism focusing here which meant it took a good while of focusing back and forth until you were reasonably confident that your subject was focused. There was nothing else to see inside the viewfinder but the view; no meter reading, shutter speed or aperture. The view in my modern pro-sumer digicam can get so cluttered with feedback, including where it is focused, what the exposure will be, how much battery and memory I have left, the white balance and what the histogram of the current subject is, that it's hard to see the actual subject. No such issues with the EM. You had to be deliberate and patient to take a picture which was all right by me as film was expensive on my limited pocket money.

As for ergonomics, that word wouldn't reach England for several more years. There was nothing subtle about the EM. It was square and angular. It was heavy. If your camera strap was too long and this thing swung and hit you on the hip while you were carrying it from one shoulder, you'd know about it. Rewinding the film with the tiny thumb wheel was a long winded affair that led me to open the camera back prematurely more than once on exposed film as I was convinced it all must be back in the canister already.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the Zenit's crude mechanical nature and tractor-like engineering it made a great learning tool. I learnt about photography because I had to if I wanted to get a good shot, and the embarrassment of not getting a good shot after lugging this monster around was not an option. I'm not sure where newcomers find the inspiration to learn the technical aspects of photography anymore. Modern cameras, even, and sometimes especially, the modest models, are technological marvels that want to do everything for you and often take a lot of persuasion to be convinced to let the picture taker set anything manually. Focus, aperture, shutter speed - why learn any of it when a computer inside your camera knows it all already? I sometimes hear people asking how they can learn the technical aspect of photography. Part of me wants to lend them my old Zenit so they can shoot a few rolls of film for a cheap education but it's long retired now, sitting on a shelf to remind me of how I learnt those lessons myself.



My dad recently sent me a Zenit EM to use with a lense I have....I have just returned from the camera shop after purchasing a tripod and flash for the thing. I have no clue how to work it...lol. I will just experiment I guess. Any advice would be appreciated.

Posted by: Sharon at February 28, 2004 6:57 PM

You can find the manual for this camera here -
or here -

I haven't used this camera in a good few years but here's the little I remember / know.

To start off, don't trust the light meter on the camera - at least until you've checked it against another camera or known good light meter. These old selium meters are now well past their prime and unlikely to be accurate.

Second, set your lens to automatic (A) unless you have a good reason not to. Automatic means that you are able to focus with the lens wide open and your dialed in aperture will be applied when you press the shutter.

Read the camera carefully about loading and unloading the film. It takes a little getting used to. A tip is to take up the slack using the rewind knob when you load a new roll, before you close the camera back. Now, when you advance through the blank frames to get to frame 1 watch the rewind knob. If it turns anti-clock wise while you're advancing frames there's a good chance that you film is loaded correctly.

The rewind release is on the shutter collar. Remember to set it to R before trying to rewinding an exposed film and set it to lock before trying to load a new film.

Don't touch the shutter - it's fabric and easy to damage. Don't store the camera with the shutter clocked i.e. only wind on to the next frame when you're ready to take the shot.

You mentioned getting a flash - remember that the flash will only sync at 1/30th of a second or less. That's pretty slow and pretty useless
for any daylight fillin flash situations. The flash sync selector is on a collar under the shutter speed selector - remember to set it to X for your electronic flash gun. This camera comes from a place and time when bulb flash guns were still around and you have to let the camera know what kind of flash you're using.

When you're removing or changing lenses, be careful of the little pin at the rear of the lens. If it gets bent or broken the automatic apeture sync won't work and you'll have to use them manually.

That's all I can think of for the moment. If you have any specific question, ask away.

Regards - Martin

Posted by: Martin at March 1, 2004 1:07 PM

My grandfather gave me one of those a few years ago. It's actually the only non-digital camera that I use these days, but it does it's job well.
The light meter still works well! :)
It took a while before I learnt to use it, but I'm going to read the manual; I jus wanted to say thanks for a great info page!
// Connie

Posted by: Connie at May 2, 2004 10:10 AM

Thanks for stopping by and commenting Connie. I tried to answer you via email but your address bounced. The Zenit SLRs are decent cameras as long as you aren't in a hurry. Let me know when you get the images part of your site up - I'd love to see what kind of results you are getting.
Regards - Martin

Posted by: Martin at May 4, 2004 10:13 AM

A bit like you, my first "real" camera was a Zenit, a 12 XP. I leaned a lot with it, and I never had so much fun making pictures with any other camera.

Posted by: jean-luc at June 5, 2004 11:53 AM

My first camera was an even older model, a Zenit 3m. I was 12 and had just grown out of my Konica Pop, entering the world of available light photography with the Helios-44 lens and the Zenit.It had no automatic mirror return (when you fired, the finder went all black) and no built-in light meter whatsoever. Luckily I was given a handheld at the same time, and even more luckily I figured out how to use it... A great start in photography.

Posted by: Martin at September 29, 2004 11:32 PM

Dear Martin,

I just got the Zenit EM as a gift ( it was collecting dust in an attic for the past 10 years). The whole thing seems to be in working order, I had it cleaned, dusted off and oiled. Though it is hard to find the correct settings on the camera, pictures turn out to be overly lit, shaken or otherwise unsatisfactory. Can you advise me on some standard settings (aperature etc) for general, daily usage so to speak?. Furthermore, the camera did not come with a flash. Do you happen to know which flash will fit this camera?
Any help is greatly appreciated,

Posted by: Thomas at November 11, 2004 5:37 PM

Hi Thomas,
The EM is one of the last old school Russian cameras with the lift and drop shutter speed selector which can feel a little awkward at first. It's also pretty bulky so I wouldn't try to handhold a shot below 1/125.

Don't rely on the EM's light meter. After all these years it is very unlikely that it will be still accurate. Instead, either carry a handheld meter (these are so unfashionable that you can pick them up quite cheaply) or learn the Sunny 16 rule (http://www.camerareview.com/templates/sunny16.cfm). The sunny 16 rule allows you to calculate the correct exposure without a meter - it days gone by it was the way many photographers worked.

I would stick to modern negative/print film. I don't think an old EM is accurate enough for transparency work.

As for the flash; the EM does not have a hot shoe. A hot shoe allows you to mount a flash in the shoe and then just use it. The EM uses a little connector called a PC socket. Any flash that has a cable accessory is likely to work and these are still readily available today. PC connection is still the most common way for a photographer to attach their flash to their camera if they want the flash "off camera" i.e. they don't want the flash sitting right over the camera lens. When you use the flash you have to set the shutter speed to 1/60 - this is known as the 'sync speed'.

Hope this helps. If I haven't been clear or you need to know more, ask away. Also, if you have scanned and can send me one of your "unsatisfactory" pictures I might be able to advise you better.

Good luck and regards -

Posted by: Martin at November 12, 2004 7:24 AM

My wife bought one of these for UK£5, about US$8, at a car boot sale in Chester. It came with two lenses, a flash and a proper camera bag. I was absolutely amazed that these things go for so little, considering the robustness and build quality. By all accounts, these cameras weren't cheap when they were first made in the 70's. I haven't used it yet as it's my first SLR but am I am looking forward to using it. I'll keep you posted on the results.
Top site BTW!

Posted by: Richard at December 7, 2004 10:11 AM

Finally got a film developed using the Zenit. The daylight exposures were superb and very clear. I took some close-ups and they came out very well, although slightly out of focus around the edges. The indoor exposures however were very poor. I did not use a flash at all with the first roll of film and all pictures taken under unnatural light appear washed, out of focus and shaky.
I have started using the flash for the second roll but as the manual states to use a very slow shutter speed to ensure flash sync, I'm not expecting good hand held results. I haven't got a tripod yet but a cheap one is on my shopping list.
All in all, mixed results but some further experimenting is still required. Will keep you posted.

Posted by: Richard at January 8, 2005 1:46 AM

Richard -
I can't remember what the flash sync speed on the EM is. I could be as slow as 1/30. It sounds like you can't hand hold the Russian monster at that slow speed but don't worry. When you're using the flash 95% of your exposure will come from the strobe firing for a tiny fraction of the 1/30th of a second. Any camera movement or the rest of the time the shutter is open when the flash does not fire will hardly register. The reason the sync speeds on these older style cameras is so slow is that both shutter blinds have to be fully open when the strobe fires and the designers could only ensure that this would be the case at these slower speeds.

The Zenits take some getting used to. The are very old school cameras but you learn so much from using them. I hope you continue to enjoy and use your EM.

Regards - Martin

Posted by: Martin at January 8, 2005 8:29 AM

Thanks for the reply Martin. As you guessed, the flash sync speed is 1/30. I haven't any flash exposures developed yet but I know the first 3 or 4 I had the wrong shutter speed set. Ah well!
I'm not going to give up so easily. The exposures under natural light have strengthened my belief that these are good cameras. Even if I abandon the flash, there's still plenty of opportunity for it's use.
Once again, I'll keep you posted as I always welcome positive feedback and advice.

Posted by: Richard at January 8, 2005 8:42 AM


I'm after a bit of advice, please. Following the OK'ish results of my first developed roll of film, I decided to invest in a few accessories for the camera. Having scanned ebay for a number of weeks, I plucked up the courage to bid on a 80 - 200mm auto zoom lens. Ended up paying the princely sum of £8.20 incl. delivery, what I thought was an abolute bargain. Although I can use the lens, I have no idea how to 'use' the lens, if you get my drift!

As a keen photographer, my father in-law gave me some vague advice on shutter speed to use (the shutter speed should always be greater than the focal lens, i.e. 1/250 > 200mm) but no clues on what apertures to use. I understand why these are critical when using a zoom lens (potential camera shake at max magnification!) but no idea how to put them into practice.

Is there a simple rule of thumb that can be easily followed?

I also invested in a x2 Auto Tele Converter so I assume that the rules will once again be different for this.

Any help is greatly appreciated.


Posted by: Richard at January 18, 2005 10:31 AM

I read your Zenit review with the realisation that I could have written the very same words!
I started with a Zenit E so I suffered even more ergonomic injuries!
Still, its basic nature taught me more about light and exposure that any camera since.

Posted by: gerry at January 19, 2005 5:49 AM

Martin, thank you for the nostalgic review!

My first camera, back in 1980 in Russia, was Zenit-S, made in 1957 or 58, ten years older than me. My dad had gotten it for his birthday from his grandfather and it was working properly till my brother lost it in a Caucasus mountains three years later. I am still a bit upset about it. The camera was loading from the bottom (!), viewfinder was going black after each esposure, film rewind was done by rotating a pretty tight knob in a deep recess on the side of the top plate - but it had been working properly for 25 years, survived multiple field trips, including in Russian winter; The lens was 50/3.5 Industar. Handheld light meter I used to use then was a German one - I think pre-WWII era, but not sure. By the way, my grandfather used to shoot transparencies only - and did not have any problems metering with a Russian double-scale handheld light meter. Then I got EM - first Russian camera with automatic ("jumping") diaphragm - what an advance! I have to say quality of pictures improved drastically. It took many nice pictures, in- and outdoor, and was not bad at all. Shutter speeds range had been the same for al Zenits since 50's at least - 30 or 25 to 500, and Bulb, synch at 30. Could take some creative thinking in moderately low light. Night shots with exposures longer than a second were not a problem. Multicoated Helios-M 55/2 is a decent lens. Flare was a problem. Otherwise it was OK if you thought about what you were doing. We used to develop and print at home, and I can testify that absolutely most of the pictures were having very consistent exposure. Manual flash setting was not a problem either. Next step - Zenit 12 SD with a reliable and responsive TTL metering served me well for 8 years. All my cameras took a lot of abuse - kayaking, mountaineering, cycling, just banging around across all the cities a lived in - I never left a house without a camera; dropped them on the ground, exposed to temperature extremes and high humidity, sometimes outright rain - although I managed not to drop either of them in water. Required repair once - you guess right, the last model, Zenit 12 - stuck curtain - repaired in Moscow for 10 bucks. Still missing them - although I like my current stuff, manual Pentaxes, better. Thank God, I did not start with any automatic camera. Thank you for your notes - I could never imagine people abroad will know about Zenits and use them...

Posted by: Maxim at January 19, 2005 9:22 PM

Sajtot e super samo da bese i na makedonski ke bese podobro

Posted by: Filip at June 2, 2005 2:38 AM

I just bought a Zenit E (I think, no manual) that came in a box of cameras in an auction for 20ukp. I have no idea if the thing is working properly (films yet to be developed), but I must say I love using it. The fact that you have to do everything makes you really think about what you want to achieve and how you want to go about it. I've always wanted to learn how to take photographs, and it appears that the Zenit is a good place to start. Thanks for the site!


Posted by: Aidan at August 8, 2005 4:36 PM

hey martin i jus started my as level photography coarse other in the uk and the teacher said it would be best to have our own slr's, i already have a digital slr style camera but its all automated an theres no manual selction for shutter speeds and so on so i thought i should get my self a cheap enough lil slr camera. iw ent on ebay and baught myself a zenit em ive still not actually sent the money off for it nor have i recieved it lol but i jus thought id ask in todyas world was it a good desicion for me to buy this camera or am i gunna regret it. i mean i really wanna have an indepth understandin of photography so im hopein it will help urthoughts would be nice

Posted by: rob at September 25, 2005 11:06 AM

Hi Rob,

I think your teacher is right, (old-school but right) that you will learn a lot by using a manual camera. Even if your digital camera did have manual settings the temptation of automatic exposure and autofocus is all too easily available. You can't get any more manual than a Zenit EM. It doesn't do any "thinking" for you. You will be responsible for the exposure and focusing as well as composition. You will be limited to the number of shots you have available by the amount of film you're carrying. Without a zoom you have to move your feet more to get the composition you want.

I am warning you that you might hate the Zenit EM to start with. You'll probably have more misses than hits to begin with. It will slow you down but that is not always a bad thing. If you give the Zenit a little time and really learn the basics there's a good chance it will make you a better photographer. Even if you never pick up the Zenit again after your course, if you take away the basics of exposure, DOF & aperture, focusing, blur and shutter speeds from your experiences with a mechanical camera you can then apply that knowledge to any camera - even a fully automatic one.

Good luck with your studies and the Zenit - Martin

Posted by: Martin Taylor at September 27, 2005 3:36 PM

thanks alot martin well the zenits in the post so im now really eager to get it an get some practice im not really one for giving up so hopefully ill start to love the zenit pretty fast, have you any where we can view photos which u took useing the zenit ? thanks for the advice i think its really cool that you woul go to the effort of emailin us all back just to inform us of the camera you so obviously fell for thanks and bye

Posted by: rob at September 28, 2005 5:40 AM

hey martin,
i just got this camera, and i'm not sure if i am using it properly. i'm quite used to cameras, and photography, seeing as my dad uses a 1984 Nikon FG-20 and it's amazing. It's more automatic, for SURE than the Zenit EM. I have a roll of film in for developping right now at Shoppers Drug Mart, and it was Colour film, so i'm hoping it turns out decent, you know? I just put in some black and white photos, and had some at nice, natural lighting outside on a sunny day. I'm wondering, does the shutter speed on my camera change the fact whether or not my pictures turn out clear and non-blurry? or, what does it do? If it improves the quality of my images, how do i increase or decrease the shutter speed? what dials do i turn, and what not.

it'd be awesome to hear back from you.

Posted by: jensen at September 30, 2005 8:53 PM

>> I'm wondering, does the shutter speed on my camera change
>> the fact whether or not my pictures turn out clear and
>> non-blurry? or, what does it do?
The shutter speed will certainly affect the quality of your images. Before you think about shutter speed on its own you first have to consider exposure as a whole. There are 3 things hat affect exposure:
* Shutter speed (the amount of time the shutter is open)
* Aperture (whole big the hole is through which light can pass to get to the film's surface)
* Film speed (how sensative the film is to light).

Lets ignore film speed for a moment; there are two things you can control to get the right exposure. For every lighting situation there is more than one correct exposure; e.g. an exposure of f4 at 1/125th lets the same amount of light hit the film as f11 at 1/15th. If you are hand holding the camera, however, the exposure at 1/15th is likely to be blurry. Why? Because the camera shakes or moves enough of a distance during the exposure that the image is not rendered sharply. At 1/125th, however, if you're careful camera shake is minimal.

>> If it improves the quality of my images, how do i
>> increase or decrease the shutter speed? what
>> dials do i turn, and what not.
The shutter speed dial on the Zenit is on top of the camera. It's a small black dial with the shutter speeds etched into it. To change the shutter speed you pull the dial up, away from the top of the camera, turn it to your chosen shutter speed and then release it. It should snap back to the down position. A line in the center of the dial indicates the selected speed.

Hope this helps.
Regards - Martin

Posted by: Martin Taylor at October 3, 2005 3:58 PM


Great article. And I do agree wholeheartedly. I have many Zenits and if there is one thing I love about them than it is that they are totally manual. No tiny microbrain computer that decides what is best. That is my job. :-) And the old Zenits let me do that. They also let me make mistakes.... but I don't mind, they are my mistakes and if you really want to learn photography then a manual camera is the way to go. I started out with the E :-)

L8tr.... Tom

btw, there is a Zenit Camera Group on Yahoo groups. :-)

Posted by: Tom at October 14, 2005 11:19 AM

I just went to a deceased estate garage sale and the first thing I saw was this camera. I didn't know how much it was worth (the price tage read AUD$30) but I couldn't leave without buying it! The lady sighed when she looked at the price tag and gave me a sympathetic look. She felt bad and looked at me to see if I would still buy it at $20. I've been excited ever since (this was about 4hours ago). There is so much information on the internet and even if I never use it the history lesson was worth the money! The one I bought was the olympic version (with the games icon on the front) with a standard 44m helios lense. This is my third slr camera (my mum's hand-me-down pentax mz50, my latest D70s digital SLR and now the ZENIT!). I think this will help me learn a lot!
Thanks for everyones comment and of course to Martin.



Posted by: Sarah at February 10, 2006 8:54 PM

I would complement you on building such a nice site. Hi, firstly I'd like to say your site is great and very impressive.

Posted by: Niromad at February 16, 2006 3:11 AM

A Zenit was my first SLR and I realy did enjoy experimenting with it. Kids these days are spoiled with digital cameras that give instant results. I had to wait for the pictures to come back in the mail to see it my experiments were succesful

Posted by: Tony at April 8, 2006 3:51 AM

I love my Zenit EM 1980 OLympic special. But after my recent forage into the world of digital, I'm sold. Anyone intrested in an EM?

Posted by: Erika Menendez at May 6, 2006 11:49 PM

It seems everyone got they'r Zenit from theyr Grempa. I got one today :)

Any tips for it? He (my grempa) tryed to explain things to me but they are very complicated. I also have 4 lens. 1 default, 1 medium, 1 small and 1 long with has a great ZOOM!!...

Posted by: PET at May 23, 2006 8:36 AM

in response to Erika, where do you live and how much are you looking at for it?

Posted by: andrew at May 27, 2006 9:39 PM

Hi there. I've just read your Zenit article. My first SLR, in 1970, was a Zenit 3m, with the 58mm Helios lens. I used a hand held light meter, and was able to produce properly exposed slides with it. I only traded it in on a Praktica because I was seduced by the thought of all those M42 lenses with automatic diaphragms. I bought another Zenit 3m a year ago, and one of these days I will shoot some film with it.

Posted by: John at October 12, 2006 5:51 PM

hi im here to find out how much my zenit em camamer is worth its the same as the pictures above just in silver

Posted by: rich at February 10, 2007 1:25 PM

My dads just given me his old zenit. Its more than half my age, im very confused with how this thing actually works.

Posted by: Lauren at April 23, 2007 6:57 AM

You can find the manual for the Zenit EM here: http://cameras.alfredklomp.com/zenitem/manual/ however, it can be a little confusing if you haven't used a manual, mechanical film camera before. Here's a brief run down:

* Take a light reading either from the on-board meter (if it's still working), or a hand held meter or my guessing (google "sunny 16").
* Set your aperture and shutter speed according to your reading - note that your lens should be set to A (automatic aperture) via the switch on the lens body and the shutter speed is set by pulling up the shutter speed dial, turning to the appropriate setting, then releasing.
* Wind on your film.
* Now focus using the using the view screen in the viewfinder.
* Compose, again using the viewfinder.
* Press the shutter release.

That's all there is to it - take your time and it will become easy.
Happy shooting - Martin

Posted by: Martin Taylor at April 24, 2007 5:03 PM

Thank you, Martin, for the great write-up of the EM. The only part that made me sad was the point when you described your EM as "long retired". Manual cameras still remind me of why I love taking pictures. Perhaps because whenever I use a modern camera I can't help feeling that it's a better photographer than I am. The Zenits, like old Praktica's are stupidly cheap now. There has never been a better time to buy into manual 35mm cameras. Using them reminds me that the joy of photography is in the process of taking pictures, not just admiring the result.

Posted by: Steve at July 12, 2007 12:16 AM

So, the ideea is that i've got a Zenit-EM. I don't know where my mom find it, but I have it. In Romania it's expensive to learn shoting with an reflex camera, so i've bought an Fujifilm F40fd and i've downloaded some manuals to learn. In this moment I'm learning about the photography and about the digital cameras. I hope I will be able to shot on Zenit somewere in the next year, but i have a lot to learn, that's true. I will read this site to learn more about the reflex camera. I thank you now for this site, later i hope i will thank you for the good pictures i'll made with my Zenith.

Posted by: Alexandru' at December 3, 2007 2:23 PM