I bought a Zorki 1 rangefinder camera while in Ukraine in early 2018. The first impression of the Zorki when I wound it up and clicked the shutter was that is felt bad. (Spoiler! Keep reading it’s not bad) The Zorki felt as if it had been long dormant and that every shot I took was the camera’s first in 50 years. I didn’t think much of it right away as my expectations were low, I bought it simply because I wanted to own a soviet rangefinder that I bought myself, on the ground, in a former republic of the soviet union - a much cooler story than eBay-ing a [Rare! Top Mint ++++] from Japan as one sometimes does.
As you read on see if you can spot whether a picture was shot with the Leica Elmar 50mm f3.5 (around $300) or the FED 50mm f3.5 (around $25). Answers at end..
I bought it from the one and only shop selling analog camera gear in Lviv, Ukraine (Kiev was not much better either). The store had one glass case a meter long and stocked head to toe with Zorki, FED, Kiev, Zenit, KMZ, and the rest of the apparatchicks. They wanted $60 for a soviet rangefinder body and lens, or at least that was my special American-Male-Price (that is, the actual price of an item in Eastern Europe multiplied by 3). After a few months in the gear-barren region and with no new purchases to satisfy my American-Male mind I decided to just buy it and never return. Even if I owned it for a year and gave it away for free after, that’s a cost of about $1 a week, something I could live with.
But before I walked away I made them show me every bit of twenty 50mm f3.5 lenses so I could choose the best one for my new Zorki. I found a good looking FED 50mm f3.5 that had a very smooth and even focusing rotation, and the paint front of the lens was either missing or never applied, which looked appealing to me. It is one of many lenses known as a Leica Elmar copy - that is a lens whose specifications, design, and function strongly or exactly resemble a Leica Elmar 50mm f3.5 lens.
The first version of the Zorki rangefinder is officially named the Zorki. As time went on and multiple variants and models were released, people began to affix the number one to the end of the name. The same was true for the Nikon (or Nikon 1) which was released the same year as the Zorki 1 in 1948.
Zorki 1 Body vs Leica Screw Mount Body
Since I first purchased the Zorki and began sharing images of it on my Instagram, I was regularly at a loss for how to describe the Zorki shooting experience, specifically how it felt and more specifically how it felt compared to a Leica.
Shooting with a Leica Screw Mount Body
I still haven’t quite figured out exactly how to describe the tactility of the Zorki. So let’s start with the Leica. The operation of all Leica screw mount cameras feel very similar to each other in my opinion. I have personally owned a Leica Standard, Leica IIIf, Leica IIIg, and borrowed and shot with a few others. When winding the knob the few third turns it takes to advance from one photo to the next, the Leica evokes a subtle “wow” within the user.
Turning the knob one can feel a pleasing steady resistance of the multiple gears working together, turning the transport sprocket and take up spool, gently pulling the film out from the canister and along the focal plane, like a team of sea men working in rhythmic unison to hand-raise the rope of large anchor out from the darkness of the sea. And just as you get lost in the motion the knob abruptly stops, the next picture is queued awaiting the push of the shutter. Pushing the shutter gives all at once, the sound of snapping a stick, and the hiss of ripping off scotch tape from its spool, with a hint of bass given from gently closing a heavy door. The whole process is so subtle and beautifully underwhelming, an experience that would flood any German with a warm glee.
Shooting with a Zorki Rangefinder Body
As I said earlier each shot on the Zorki feels like its first - or last. Over time I came to enjoy the rudimentary feeling of firing the shutter of the Zorki, some days I even preferred it over the Leica. When winding the knob the few third turns it takes to advance from one photo to the next, the Zorki evokes a feeling of “am I doing this right?”
Turning the knob one can feel a coarse resistance of the rough gears pulling the film out from the canister and along the focal plane, like a dog trying to escape his long chain leash with the chain woven between the legs of a chair. And just as you wait for some additional feedback the knob abruptly stops, the next picture is queued awaiting the push of the shutter. Pushing the shutter gives all at once, the sound of snapping a branch, the gurgle of a pepper grinder, and the bass of slapping a padlock shut. And finally the chain breaks and the dog is free.
Leica / Zorki Differences
The difference between the shooting experience of Leica vs Zorki is a bit like the difference between camping in a trailer vs sleeping in a tent. One is not inherently better than the other only preferred by the person given the choice. Sometimes I’m in the mood for the security and comfort of the trailer, while other times I prefer to sleep atop the sticks flanked by unknown sounds and experiences.
I also shoot without the aid of a meter, this in conjunction with the brut tactility of the Zorki give for a very elemental and comprehensible shooting experience.
Elmar 50mm f3.5 or FED 50mm f3.5?
Ok now for the truth, there are no Leica images here. This is all one roll, shot with the Zorki 1 and FED 50mm f3.5 lens. This is only to hopefully strip away the stigma of a cheap lens and point out that you don’t need a “Leica” to get good images, but if you want it, there’s nothing wrong with that. I wanted one too and I got one.
I own the Leica Elmar 50mm f3.5 lens which I use on my Leica IIIg and Leica M4-2. To be honest I have yet to notice my pictures from the Leica lens as better than those from the FED lens. I’m not making any claims here, just pointing out I have not seen the difference in the results of my own work, I’m perfectly happy with both. For reviews of the Leica Elmar 50mm f3.5 check out my Elmar reviews. On either of these lenses the front element of the glass is very close to the front of the lens as a whole, I would recommend a FISON Leica hood. It will cost you over twice as much as the FED 50mm f3.5 lens itself but it’s a must if light-leak-type flaring bothers you.