Several Years With A Zorki-4 Rangefinder

posted 4/22/07

Four years ago, I wrote about my experiences with a Zorki camera. As that continues to be one of the most popular pages of this site, it seems only fair to add some further comments after more than five years' use.

A Zorki, if you don't already know, is an interchangeable-lens 35mm rangefinder camera - actually, a family of cameras - made in the former Soviet Union. Early models were very faithful copies of the earliest Leica bodies; later models had been much improved. Today, they sell for considerably less than a highly collectible Leica, and are relatively popular.

I purchased my Zorki 4 - technically, it's a Mir, a variation of a Zorki 4, the only difference being the range of shutter speeds - in the spring of 2001, from a dealer in the Ukraine. It was unrestored, and showed signs of it's forty-two years of age, though it still worked fine. In early 2003 I sent it off to one of the few people still repairing these mechanical machines, who cleaned, lubricated, and adjusted everything to work like new, and replaced the shutter curtains. The difference a good CLA made was remarkable, as I commented on the previous page.

Since then, I've put countless rolls of film thru the camera, both color and black-and-white, and had no problems. Though I've mainly switched to shooting medium-format, the Zorki has become my principal 35mm camera, and has performed consistently well. My only problem, indeed, has been with the original lens, the famously sharp (and flare-prone) 50mm f/2 Jupiter-8. It performed flawlessly, but had, yes, flare problems. I fitted it with a lens shade (a 46mm metal shade, attached via a 40.5mm to 46mm step-up ring) which helped considerably, but still had occasional problems. I eventually determined the problem was internal reflections off the rangefinder cam, which in my camera was semi-polished aluminum. After covering the inside of the camera, including the cam, with self-adhesive flocking, the flare issues went away, and I was able to enjoy the Jupiter without issue... for a couple years.

I still have no idea what happened, but the lens must have taken a ding, or something of that sort, because one day it suddenly stopped focussing correctly. The rangefinder still worked fine, and the distance markings on the barrel looked correct, but focus was several feet off from where it should have been. I swapped the Jupiter-8 for a collapsible 50/3.5 Industar-22, and haven't looked back. For all that the Jupiter is famed for it's sharpness and contrast, I'd say the Industar-22 is every bit it's equal (albeit f/3.5 instead of f/2.) It's worth remembering that, lingering cold-war propaganda aside, the Soviets made some excellent optics, and the best of their lenses, even from a half-century ago, are still competetive with those with considerably higher cachet.

A Zorki is not a Leica; while they're built really, really well, they're not made to the same standards of finish as their German cousins, though you might well be surprised just how good they can be. Functionally, though, a properly-working Zorki-4 is every bit the match for any other all-mechanical 35mm rangefinder out there. Yes, yes, the Leica fetishists can tell you the thousand-and-one ways their babies are better than a Zorki, and the Canon cultists can sing the praises of their old rangefinders in four-part harmony. If all you want is a classic, reliable, all-mechanical 35mm rangefinder and 50mm lens, a Zorki fits the bill perfectly, and much more cheaply than the "more desirable" alternatives.

Unlike many, many others, I can't find, even after five years' use, fault with the Zorki's ergonomics. It's comfortable to hold and use, the controls are intuitive, the rangefinder and viewfinder is large and bright, and has an adjustable diopter. It also doesn't have any of the dreaded interlocks that can make using, as one example, a Kodak Retina so frustrating. It's as quiet as any other 35mm focal-plane camera.

If you don't want a perfectly pristine shelf queen of a camera, complete with original box and paperwork, you can get a good working Zorki 4 that's been checked out and CLA'd, with lens, for well under $100, if you know where to look. While I think a lot of the bad reputation Soviet cameras have for spotty quality control is overstated, there may well be some truth to the advice not to buy a perfectly pristine older Fed, Zorki, or similar camera, but to buy one with signs of use (though not abuse.) The theory is, a fifty-year-old Zorki that doesn't look like it was ever used probably never was, and very possibly for good reason (i.e., it never worked to begin with.) My Zorki had the usual chipped paint and worn vulcanite you'd expect of a forty-year-old camera, and it's picked up a number of further battle scars in the years I've had it. A Zorki isn't indestructible, (though it's close) but neither is it a delicate flower that must only be handled with kid gloves.

On a closing note, a lot of people compare the Zorki 4 to another Soviet Leica clone, the Fed-2, and are curious which is better. It's hard to directly compare the two, because the usual evaluation metrics don't necessarily apply. A Zorki generally has more shutter speeds, which nominally makes it a higher-end camera; on the other hand, the Fed has a longer rangefinder base, which theoretically makes it focus more accurately. Then again, the Zorki's viewfinder and rangefinder are larger and brighter than those on the Fed-2, and I don't believe you ever find a Fed-2 with the painted markings and nylon covering of late Zorki-4s, just engraved markings and vulcanite. On the other hand, the late Zorki 4K has a film-advance lever, not a knob...


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