Recently, fellow blogger/photographer Mike Eckman sent me his three favorite Leica copies to compare to my originals.
I introduced this four part blog last Tuesday and will pick up with the first Leica copy review today with Mike’s Soviet-built Zorki-1c.
Despite having nearly two decades to improve or just modify it, the 1951 Zorki-1c and 1953 Industrar-22 are near-exact clones of the 1932 Leica II and 1930 5cm Elmar. In fact, the rig is so similar that this camera was often wiped clean of its original Soviet engravings and re-engraved with Leica text to be sold at inflated prices to unsuspecting buyers. Perhaps its similarity to the original is a compliment. Perhaps it’s just a lazy cash-grab. Let’s have a look!
Soviet camera proponents are sometimes quick to claim that Zorki-1c’s not only look no different than Leica II’s but are every bit as good as Leica II’s. Having no desire to actually use this camera, I can’t substantiate their claim. However, I can tell you, slight cosmetic differences aside, this camera feels quite a deal less refined than a genuine Leica. If that affects ones photography or not is most certainly subjective but I think it’s pretty undeniable that there are substantive differences.
My first “Barnack” was one of these re-labeled Zorki-1’s. I only used it a handful of times, finding it finicky, slow and annoying. It wasn’t until I handled a real Leica IIIf by chance, that I suddenly understood how inspiring the design could be and wanted nothing more than to use it regularly. So I do believe that Leica’s adjust-and-fit assembly method can and does influence how we use a camera. But maybe one needs to believe a particular narrative to click with one camera or the other!
According to this Zorki’s massive 6 digital serial number, it was built between 1951 and 53 and is a Zorki-1 Type C. I don’t see many folks making the distinction between variant models of Soviet cameras like Leica shooters do. In fact, Mike himself identified this camera as a “Zorki 1.” In searching around, I also don’t get a lot of hits when I call it a -1 (C) or other variation of the model name. This may be because there only appear to be cosmetic differences between models.
If you believe that Leica cameras are overpriced, you may find a Zorki-1c to be close enough to the original for the cost. A quick eBay search today showed Zorki-1’s, with lens selling for between about $40 and $150. Whereas a Leica II and 5cm Elmar is selling for between about $175 and $500. Those are sold auction prices with the top and bottom-most thrown out. If one isn’t picky like me, it’s easy to see why someone would choose one or maybe half a dozen Zorki-1’s over a Leica II. They may just want to get that early rangefinder experience or enjoy collecting. For more serious and/or frequent shooting, however, handling Mike’s pristine -1c has not convinced me that if I turned to team Zorki, I’d be getting a more pleasant or reliable camera. Is the cost difference worth it though?
The satin chrome finish of the 1951 Zorki-1c is quite a deal duller than my chrome 1947 Leica IIIc and doesn’t have that “deep” look to it. Likely it is also much less durable in terms of resistance to abrasions. However, the 1c’s body is largely made up of die-cast parts, whereas Leica was still stamping their body plates until 1940. So the Leica II that the Zorki-1c mimics is actually less rigid despite looking more refined. Because the Zorki’s top plates are cast, the shapes are less detailed, particularly the frame around the front center window. (Correction: apparently the top plates were stamped brass, just like a pre-IIIc Leica. Only various internal components were die cast. So, the lack of cosmetic detail is even less justified! Thanks, DAVID!) And if one looks closely, the -1c exhibits tiny tool marks around the edges of its top plate. This is most prominent beside the rewind knob where there is a bit of sculpting to these cameras’ top plates. This area is perfectly smooth on the Leica but the Zorki shows numerous little striations.
The Zorki’s identification engraving is not as fine as my Leica’s either. It is professional looking; smooth and straight but not made with as fine-tipped an instrument. Additionally, it is not paint-filled like my IIIc or bismuth-filled like my I/III. The lettering was left in bare chrome without any contrast from the surrounding area. Of note, however, where the Zorki’s identification engraving is not as fine as the Leica, the SS dial, and frame counter lettering is finer on the Zorki than my IIIc. It’s as if Leica decided to use thinner lettering to ID the camera and bolder lettering on the controls for ease of sight, whereas Zorki took the opposite approach. And on the Zorki, the controls lettering is black paint-filled, though not as neatly as the Leica. While many will say that the Leica engraving is superior, I’d agree when compared against my 1930, but the 1947 is not appreciably better, just different.
When loaded with a roll of test film, the Zorki-1c did not advance and rewind very smoothly. In fact, there were definite rough areas in the advance that I can only conclude are common with Russian Leica copies because this echos my previous experiences with less well-kept examples. My fake Leica’s advance and rewind have a rough action to them, almost like I have to coerce the thing to do what I’m asking of it. Mike’s -1c isn’t rough per se, and is fairly benign but just uneven or inconsistent in feel. There’s nothing remarkable about it and the camera feels as old as it is in this regard. Leica is of course praised to the point of cliche for having “buttery smooth” controls. Each knob wind Leica I’ve handled, even prior to service, has operated as if it were built yesterday and not 70 or 90 years ago. And this difference is one of the things that pushed me away from using my fake Leica and investing in the three original Barnack’s I’ve owned. When shooting a Leica, I truly feel a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment by the cooperation of the camera to work without being a distraction to my photography.
Similarly troubling about the Zorki is the movement of the shutter speed dial. The Zorki-1c’s dial doesn’t pull up, fall back and click into place as precisely as Leica. It doesn’t work precisely at all! There’s considerable wobble and indecision to the whole mechanism. With some practice, I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with setting my Leica’s shutter speed, up or down a stop or two by feel only. I was unable to do this with the Zorki due to all the play in the dial.
The Zorki has a different sound also. The shutter release and whirring unwinding of the shutter curtains are a bit loud and are punctuated by a hard “Ka-Kunk” as oppose to that whisper fall-off of a real Leica. I’m not one to obsess over the sound of a shutter though. Either brand would be effectively inaudible in a chatty room. But traits like this put to bed any notion that the cameras are identical beyond cosmetics. Differing shutter sound is evidence that the internal mechanics differ to a degree, for whatever reason.
Focus and aperture on the 1953 Industrar-22 worked okay but were not particularly satisfying. Leica shooters may recognize that the Industrar-22 is a little longer than the Elmar 50mm 3.5 despite its formula and barrel being derivative. While Zorki made exact replica’s of the 5cm Elmar also, the -22 features a front aperture control ring that is perhaps a bit easier to grip than the Elmar as well as a slightly revised optical formula. Soviet shooters might argue that this potential improvement to the aperture control is yet another bit of evidence that Leica stubbornly clung to antiquated features while competitors, as we’ll see in my next two blogs, progressed. However, I am not sure this control is a smart change. You see, Leica made a hood for the 5cm Elmar that contains a coupling mechanism so that aperture can be controlled from the side of the lens. In my mind, this is likely the reason that they stuck with this somewhat unusually shaped front-mounted aperture control. Such a mechanism probably couldn’t be devised for the reworked -22 aperture control. But you know, it’s not exactly a common thing to see Soviet cameras sporting important accessories like lens hoods!
Needless to say, I didn’t shoot this lens so I’ll reserve any presumptions about its optical character. In fact, I’ve seen some great images taken with Soviet lenses and I’ve seen some terrible images taken with Leitz. I think sample variation, age, shooting conditions and talent/skill of the photographer cloud much objectivity in assessing vintage lenses anyway. The same can certainly be said for camera bodies also. Which is why I was so interested in Mike’s challenge.
The -1c’s view and rangefinder are as clear and easy to see/focus as my Leica’s. In fact, I think that the beamsplitter in Mike’s -1c is in better condition than the one in my IIIc; its RF patch is contrasty and definitive. Given that the RF is a direct copy, all things being more or less equal, with correct adjustment, the Zorki should focus as accurately as any Barnack Leica. Same EBL etc. As to how durable the mechanisms are and how often they need calibration is something that would be more difficult to determine.
One might imagine a similarly favorable comparison with shutter speed accuracy, which, honestly, has never been Leica’s strong suit anyway!
Maybe the main issue with the Zorki-1c is sample variation moreso than abject inferiority. Which I’ve heard about Soviet lenses too.
And as Mike cheerfully added in a recent conversation, “Not all Zorki’s are shit. Just a lot of them!”
The Zorki-1c and Industrar lens that Mike sent me are quite nice examples. They’re very clean and sound/appear accurate. By all means, I’d consider them museum quality in terms of cosmetics. But the Zorki’s leatherette feels plasticky and the whole camera, sans lens, is a bit lighter than my I/III or IIIc. Between these shortcomings, the thinner chroming, looser tolerances and poor control feel that I’ve mentioned, even this fine example of the Zorki-1 simply lacks the gestalt of a genuine Leica camera.
To be completely fair, the negatives I’m pointing out here are mere comforts of use and evidence of possible longevity/durability under use, not complete hindrances to quality photography to those who are talented and motivated.
If money is not an object, I see no reason why one would choose to purchase or use the derivative Zorki-1c over an original Leica II. But, if money is an object or merely a principle, a good copy of the Zorki-1c, like Mike’s, would be quite enjoyable to someone who’s never owned a Leica II or III, or doesn’t want to.
Mike’s Zorki-1c is not quite “there,” but for the small cost of between $40-$150, it may be as close to “there” as it needs to be!
A Zorki-1c could be a great purchase to help decide if one wants to invest in an early Leica. Afterall, those porthole viewfinders are just intolerable to some and the loading completely insufferable! Some folks just don’t have any desire or need to commit to a knob-wind Leica. Whereas the Zorki-1 requires negligible financial commitment and can be enjoyed as a fun whim or curiosity.
Like all LTM cameras, the Zorki-1c may also be a good, cheap body to use in conjunction with and to offset the cost of a Leitz or other high quality lens. Which is why I bought my faux Leica originally, to use with a cheap, but well-rated Leitz 90 Elmar and get Leica-quality images with a small outlay. A plan that still makes sense to me and is exactly what Joe, at The Resurrected Camera does with his Canon 7, Leitz Summarit and Summaron.
Have you used a Zorki? What condition was it in and what were your results? This camera won’t reverse my Leica snobbery but I do see that this camera has a place in the world of photography. What do you think?
Next up, the advanced Zorki-3! Zorki may not make a higher quality Barnack but can they make a better featured one?
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