Martyr’s Leica’s vs. Eckman’s Copies: Zorki-3

Recently, fellow blogger/photographer Mike Eckman sent me his three favorite Leica copies to compare to my originals.

First, I provided a brief introduction.  And last Tuesday I posted my thoughts on the popular Zorki-1c.  Today’s review is for another of Mike’s Soviet Leica copies, the Zorki-3.

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Zorki-3 with 50mm f2 Jupiter-8

So this is where Leica copies get interesting to me.  Unlike the Zorki-1, the Zorki-3 is not a mere Leica II clone but is actually an attempt to improve on the Leica II design.

The biggest complaints about early Leica’s revolve around;

1–The difficulty of loading film

2–The knob-wind advance

3–The smallness and separation of the viewfinder and rangefinder windows.

4–PRICE!

From 1932 to 1957 Leica stubbornly refused to address any of these concerns despite their competitors’ release of numerous evolutionary features in attempt to steal the market.  Between 1951 and 1956, the Zorki-3 addressed the viewfinder, film loading, and of course, the price.

Before I continue, I want to put a frame around this topic that I think is very important to consider and relevant to all “remixes” of the Barnack design.  In industrial design, whenever you give advantage to one regard, you risk disadvantaging another.  Thus things become a balancing act.  With faster lenses, comes increased size and weight.  With larger format films, comes a larger camera body.  The Zorki-3 begs the question; if we change X, do we negatively affect Y?  In grade school physics class, we called this concept; you can’t get something for nothing!

So let’s start with the viewfinder.

The Zorki-3 viewfinder has two supposed advantages over the Leica II.  Zorki not only made the viewfinder larger but combined it with the rangefinder.  With the Zorki-3, the photog has only to look through one big window to both compose and focus.  This, of course, is how pretty much all rangefinders, cheap or expensive, hailing from whatever country, have worked since probably the early 1960’s.

Let’s look at these two changes in more detail, beginning with the size of the viewfinder.

The built-in viewfinder of Barnack Leica’s has always been very small.  When bringing the camera to production, it was discussed to make the finder larger.  However, Oskar Barnack himself resisted this, wanting to keep the finder no taller than the controls had to be, both for aesthetics and portability.  Like a know-it-all teenager to their parents, the Zorki-3 thumbs its nose at Barnack, dramatically increasing the height of the top plate and making the size/height of the controls serve the viewfinder, rather than the reverse.

In basic use, with a 50mm lens, I don’t see any problem with a larger viewfinder.  Its impact on aesthetics is subjective and on portability, relatively slight.  Overall, yes, it serves its purpose to be easier and more enjoyable to look through when shooting a 50mm lens.

Leica themselves even considered viewfinder size enough of an issue that they eventually tackled it with the IIIg in 1957, a year after the Zorki-3 had been phased out.  Curiously, when Leica finally decided to increase the size of the viewfinder, they continued to keep the view and rangefinders separate.  Which parlays me into my next thought; the combined view and rangefinder.

This is something that Leica also did, very famously, with the M3 and never looked back.  Combining the view and rangefinder became the norm and Zorki did it before Leica.

But in my opinion, when Zorki combined the view and rangefinder, it was a bit of a half-baked concept that was perhaps just implemented to cure amateur Leica lust as opposed to build a real system camera.  Or maybe the -3 is best seen as a stepping stone that bridges the gap between straight up Leica clones and totally unique Soviet designs.

How ever you look at it, the Zorki-3, and all Barnack-type cameras have miniscule baselengths.  Pretty much all Barnack Leica’s have a 39mm baselength and the Zorki-3 has a 38mm baselength.  This is a physical limit to keeping the controls large and the camera tiny, as well as reliable.  The baselength; the distance between the two rangefinder windows, cannot be any longer than the distance between the controls.  And a shorter baselength makes for a more reliable mechanism, requiring less service than a longer one.  But remember, you can’t get something for nothing!

The problem with a short BL is the inability to focus faster/longer lenses accurately.  Leica addressed the short BL with a massive 1.5x magnification.  When you look into a Leica II or Zorki-1 rangefinder, the scene is zoomed in 1.5 times, allowing for accurate focus.  If Leica built a viewfinder around this, the viewfinder too, would be magnified and display inaccurate composition for a normal lens.  This is why the view and rangefinder had to be separated.  When Zorki decided to combine them, they placed more value on addressing a common complaint about Leica cameras than the resulting shortcomings.  Remember, you can’t get something for nothing!

With the combined viewfinder, the standard 1.5x magnification had to be circumcised to a mere 1x.  So while the Leica II, and even the Zorki-1, have a strong 58.5mm Effective Baselength, the Zorki-3 features a whimpy 38mm EBL.

Without the magnification, the Zorki-3’s rangefinder is perhaps alright at focusing it’s standard 50mm f2 lens at smaller apertures but is mathematically too small to accurately focus faster/longer lenses and probably even struggles with it’s standard lens at full aperture and close distances.  There’s also no parallax correction which further disables useful close focusing.

In defense of the Zorki, many rangefinder photographers love 1 to 1 finders because it allows them to shoot with both eyes open.  Additionally, if you shoot slower lenses, the combined finder with short EBL will be a welcomed design that is faster and more enjoyable to work than a Leica.  To me, the 50mm 3.5 Industrar that I reviewed last week would make more sense mounted to the Zorki-3, decreasing the rig’s overall size and it would be less challenging for the short EBL, than the standard 50mm f2 Jupiter-8.

Lenses wider than 50mm would be good too, right?  But that brings up another issue.  In order to use anything but a 50mm, one needs to mount an external viewfinder in the Zorki’s poorly machined accessory shoe.  This, again, increases the size of the camera and perhaps negates the use of a larger, built-in viewfinder.  Then you’re back to the separate range and viewfinder that this camera was supposed to relieve the photog of.

If a big 1:1 finder with no framelines was absolutely concrete for the model line, it seems like the Zorki-3 would have been better off if designed as a fixed lens rangefinder like a Konica III.  The Zorki-3 simply isn’t a good interchangeable lens camera in my opinion.  A seemingly simple thing like making a combined viewfinder destroys any hope for gestalt.  Numerous other modifications would be needed to justify the change.

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Back to back: 1947 Leica IIIc vs 1953 Zorki-3

And before the Soviet shooters throw up their hands and declare my words more Leicaphile blasphemy, please note that I am happy to say that Canon seems to have understood what I am saying and contemporaneously built a better combined view/rangefinder into the Barnack design.  That’s my next blog!

Lack of forethought for the system aside, I have to say that the larger, combined viewfinder of the -3 is pleasing to use.  While the optics aren’t coated, they’re big and clear, as was probably intended.  The RF patch is no less sharp/contrasty than a typical compact fixed lens RF like a more ubiquitous Canonet, and equally effective.

The Zorki-3 is best for the shooter who sticks mainly, or exclusively to a 50/3.5 or the supplied 50/2 at modest settings, and while I am not such a shooter, there are plenty out there.  In fact, if you don’t anticipate more than casual rangefinder use, the -3 is a fantastic platform for the legendary 5cm 3.5 Elmar.  Leica quality images made faster, easier and cheaper.

If you haven’t given up on me, let’s move onto a design deviation that makes more sense.  The Zorki-3 abandons the mysterious and sometimes frustrating bottom-loading mechanism of all Leica rangefinders.  It offers something a little different but not terribly unconventional in the mid-century photographic world.

The entire back and bottom of the Zorki-3 are removed from the body for film changing.  With the Leica I through III, the photographer is expected to slip his/her film up into a dark, mysterious cavity where it’s impossible to see the film engage sprockets.  For many, the Leica feels like a black box that you just have to pray for and trust that it works.  Because the back comes off in one piece with the bottom on the -3, the photographer can easily lay their film across the sprockets to ensure that it’s seated properly before shooting.

Leica used to say that they kept their bottom loading design to aid in body rigidity.  But with the M series, a hinged back door was added.  And it’s not as if their SLR’s ever loaded from the bottom.  So, yet again, even Leica eventually changed their ways and to me, this is evidence that the Zorki-3 loading design makes sense and can certainly be labeled an improvement.  Unlike the viewfinder issues noted above, I can’t see any reason why the loading mechanism could be argued against… EXCEPT….

The Leica only has one film door interlock key.  Whereas the Zorki-3 has two and they rotate in opposite directions!  AND THE DIRECTION TO TURN IS NOT MARKED!  Just when I want to step out of my Leica snobbery and give Zorki a point, I really can’t.  Why?

The ONLY reason I can see someone NEEDING a different film loading mechanism than Leica is due to their newness to using it.  Once one gets used to loading and unloading a Leica, it can be executed relatively quickly and very confidently.  Outside of adding a hinged door like the ultra rare Nicca 5L, it’s hard to see any other loading method as anything else than newby training wheels.  And if the intent is to cater to newbies, why not take the simple effort of labeling the keys, or using a single key with a coupling mechanism?

As I think about it, all of the improvements featured on the Zorki-3 are somewhat self-negating.  So hey, at least the camera’s consistent! 😉

And while I’m trashing this camera again, let’s talk about how I don’t even want to talk about this shitty Jupiter lens that Mike’s running on this camera!  If the optical performance is even remotely reflected in the carelessly unfinished bare aluminum barrel or the aperture and focus ring damping that calls for a strong pair of Vice Grips to adjust, well, why bother ever taking this camera off the mantle?

To be fair, Mike warned me that this lens blows.  Even if it’s optics were better than Leitz by every measure, I don’t think I’d be willing to deal with touching it.  Pardon me, I’m aware my snobbery is showing!  But come on, take some pride in what we’re doing here, people!

In any case, I don’t see either modification to the Leica design by the Zorki-3, of the finder or the film door, a true improvement but just a different take, useful only to less demanding photographers and therefore doomed to be outgrown.  I haven’t talked about build quality because I found all the same issues, albeit, slightly worse on the Zorki-3 as I found on the Zorki-1c, last Tuesday.  Rather than go over all that again, if you’re interested, please flip back to my previous blog.  In summary, to buy the Zorki-3 is to take a step down the slippery slope of comfort features vs quality/usefulness that has been more or less a downward spiral into today.

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Zorki-3 with Jupiter-8

One last time, the Zorki-3 reminds us, you can’t get something for nothing!

But hey, that’s just me, maybe I’m missing something or maybe you disagree about the importance of EBL and camera size.  What do you think of the Zorki-3?  What lenses do you run with yours?

The last Eckman rangefinder will give any Barnack Leica a run for its Deutsche Marks.  Where the Zorki-3 doesn’t make a lick of sense to me, the Canon IVSb is scary smart and may just make me a convert!  Listen to me prattle on some more next Tuesday!

Thanks and happy shooting!

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7 thoughts on “Martyr’s Leica’s vs. Eckman’s Copies: Zorki-3

  1. That was a nice read with my morning coffee. I know many FSU camera collector’s feel this is the high point of the line, but sadly I have never laid eyes on one. I never realized that rangefinder baselength affected reliability but it makes sense. I do have several of the Jupiter 8 lenses, and I think the one you have there might be a lemon, mine are shockingly good. I paid less for my Leica iii than I see these sell for all the time, so I would have a hard time justifying one unless it was very cheap. My local service tech charges about the same price for a service on a Zorki as a Leica ii, or a Canon.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jon, glad to help start the day off right! I am not part of the FSU community and wouldn’t have any gauge on the popularity of this camera but that’s interesting considering how I think it negates the whole purpose of being an interchangeable lens camera. I did an article on EBL a little while back if you’re interested. I think it’s something SLR folks coming to RF often don’t hear/know about but it’s important. That’s cool you have some nice copies of this lens, I’ve spied them on eBay before but the sellers often seem sketchy.

      https://petapixel.com/2020/01/30/whats-your-rangefinders-effective-base-length/

      Like

  2. Oh man, these reviews keep getting better! I laughed out loud when you got to the Jupiter lens. I do apologize for sending you such a crappy example on an otherwise nice body though. I can’t say that I disagree with anything you’ve said here though.

    I only ever intended on sending you the three I already did, but I might have to scrounge up some more M39 cameras to send to you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m surprised that this review is so insistent about the «wide» basis of the rangefinder of the Zorki-3, because if this is a (really?) relevant quality, other russian rangefinders are more common and offer a wider basis: the Kiev-4, the Fed-2, the Zorki’s 5 and 6.
    I own a Zorki-3M in a beautiful state but its shutter mechanism seems fragile. I’d rather take away the Zorki-1 that fits in my pocket, or if the size doesn’t matter, the Kiev-4 that has the same Jupiter lens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is the camera I was given to review so I reviewed it! I am not shopping for a camera but rather, assessing the design of this one. I believe I explained very thoroughly why the castrated EBL on the Zorki-3 is inconsistent with its apparent purpose. I am unsure of what part of this you disagree with. It seems that we both appreciate the Zorki-1 design which I reviewed previously. I’ll stick with my Leica’s though!

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