Thursday, October 11, 2018


© jmse
By José Manuel Serrano Esparza

The presentation of the 24 x 36 mm format and 24 megapixel Zenit M rangefinder digital camera (based on the body of the Leica M Typ 240) coupled to a Zenitar 35 mm f/1 has been the great surprise of the recent Photokina 2018 held in Cologne (Germany).

© jmse

© jmse

And though being a limited series of 500 units, it has undoubtedly been something truly amazing, meaningful and unexpected, particularly if we bear in mind the market maelstrom brought about by the great quantity of new top-notch and breakthrough photographic products likewise presented during this historical Photokina 2018, the most important one in the digital era celebrated hitherto : the 45.7 megapixel Nikon Z7 mirrorless EVF full frame and its Nikkor S lenses (whose first prototypes had been shown in Tokyo on August 23, 2018), the 30.3 megapixel Canon EOS R mirrorless full frame and its RF lenses  (whose first prototype units had been displayed in London on September 5, 2018), the Panasonic full frame mirrorless EVF 47 megapixels SR1 and 24 megapixel S1, the L Mount Alliance between Leica, Panasonic and Sigma, the 64 megapixel Leica S3 30 x 45 mm medium format camera, the 50 megapixel Fujifilm GFX 50R rangefinder styled 33 x 44 medium format camera, the 24 x 36 mm format 37.4 megapixel Zeiss ZX1 premium compact camera with fixed Zeiss Distagon 35 mm f/2 lens along with integrated Lightroom CC as well as a 512 GB inner SSD storing unit for roughly 50,000 images, and others.

© Zenit

Within such a context, when Dr. Andreas Kaufmann (Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Leica Camera A.G), Vadim Kalugin (General Director of KMZ) and Ivan Azhgikhina (Deputy General Director of Shvabe) presented the new 24 megapixel Zenit M digital rangefinder camera coupled to a Zenitar 35 mm f/1 lens in a joint press conference held on September 26, 2018 inside Photokina Koelnmesse, there was astonishment to spare, which skyrocketed when the attendees could behold from near distance the great appearance of the camera and its shape.

A wave of enthusiasm spread and most people commented that it was an exceedingly beautiful camera, whose visual impact was enhanced by the impressive Zenitar 35 mm f/1 attached to it.

© jmse

Inevitably, a question arises : Why the digital Zenit M appearance is so gorgeous ?

The answer is not easy, but it´s highly related to the halcyon days of analogue photography.

To begin with, though clearly inspired by the Leica M Typ 240 and sharing with it the same rangefinder, sensor and innards (with the exception of some software modifications), the Zenit M doesn´t copy designs of the legendary Zenit and Zorki cameras, as has been stated, because the shape of the analogue rangefinder FED Zorkis made between 1948 and 1978 (from the first FED-KMZ camera production batch manufactured in Krasnogorsk in 1948 and designed by N.A.Gabrilov, the first FED-ZORKI 1948, the best sellers Zorki Type-1e from 1954-1956, Zorki -S from 1955-1958. Zorki-2S from 1955-1960, Zorki-4 from 1956-1973, Zorki-6 from 1959-1966 and Zorki-4K from 1972-1978 to the last thirty-six Zorki-4K cameras made in 1980) featured much more rounded shapes than the Zenit M 24 x 36 mm digital rangefinder, specially in the front extreme areas.

And regarding the Zenits, as well as featuring a big pentaprism not existing in the digital Zenit M rangefinder, the contours of the Zenit from 1953-1956, the Zenit S from 1955-1961 and the N. Marienkov designed Zenit-3 from 1960-1962, Zenit Kristal from 1961-1962 and Zenit-3M from 1962-1970 boast much rounded shapes than the Zenit M.

And generally speaking, the Zenit reflex cameras manufactured between 1964 and 1990 feature much more square shapes than the Zenit ZM, though the lateral extreme front areas of the prototype Zenit 66 from 1965-1966 and the best sellers Zenit-B from 1968-1973 and Zenit EM from 1972-1984 bear a resemblance to the ones sported by the 24 x 36 mm format Zenit M digital rangefinder from XXI Century.

But the unutterable beauty of the Zenit M goes far beyond regarding its DNA, because its appearance, a bit rougher than a Leica M Typ 240 and oozing a nice retro look, includes a compendium of the cream of the crop of the German and Russian analogue 24 x 36 mm format rangefinder cameras of XX Century.

© jmse

That´s to say, the vertical straight stretches located at each front corner area of the Zenit M and departing from the utterly rounded contours of the Leica M Typ 240 are mainly related to:

a) The front corner areas of the 24 x 36 mm format German Zeiss Ikon Contax II rangefinder camera from 1936, designed by Hubert Nerwin, a very significant model in the history of photography, since it was the first camera combining an RF and VF in a single window, in addition to boasting an exceedingly large rangefinder base of 90 mm with a magnification of approximately 0.75x, attaining an effective baselength of 67.5 mm, even superior to the one boasted by the queen Leica M3 in 1954, and enabling a great focusing accuracy superior to the screwmount Leicas of the time.

b) The front corner areas of the 24 x 36 mm format Kiev rangefinder Soviet cameras, copies of the Contax II, manufactured at the Zavod Arsenal Factory between 1947 and 1987, particularly the Kievs 48 A20 from 1948 and Kievs 49 A30 from 1949 coupled to 50 mm, 85 mm and 135 mm Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar lenses and Carl Zeiss Jena 35 mm Biogon ones, the Kiev II A40 from 1950-1955, the Kiev IIa A60 from 1955-1959, the Kiev-4A A81 from 1958-1974 and the Kiev-4a Type 2 A85 from 1974-80.

c) The front corner areas of the 24 x 36 mm format Rodina prototype camera from 1952 (designed by I.M. Marensov and unveiled by P.A. Tikhomirov and the world-class expert on Russian cameras Jean Loup Pricelle in his milestone book The Authentic Guide to Russian and Soviet Cameras), which was an attempt to create a camera boasting the best traits of the Leica III screwmount camera (rubberized cloth shutter), Zeiss Ikon Contax II (coupled rangefinder with large RF base and focusing through a knurled wheel) and Exakta (flash synchronization with two contacts). It would have been a great camera, but the huge accuracy needed to build it meant an exceedingly high production cost, so it wasn´t possible to implement a series production. The front extreme areas of this model are also very similar to the ones in the Zenit M.

It all speaks volumes about the thoroughness with which the Smirnov Industrial Design and S.A. Zvereva (CMH) have made things designing this exotic digital 24 x 36 mm rangefinder camera which has been manufactured in Wetzlar (Germany).

On the other hand, two further major details embellish even more the 24 x 36 mm Zenit M digital rangefinder camera, turning it into a riveting sight:

- The very attractive colours of the two versions available : a Zenit M camera featuring silver color on top plate, upper front area and lower cover, with the rest of the body in black color, and the completely black Zenit M.

© jmse

© jmse

- The big screw located on top of the lens, between the small window of the rangefinder and the large window of the viewfinder, paying homage to the fabulous Leica M10-P including the most whispering mechanic shutter ever made and also boasting this highly meaningful screw in the same position, instead of the Leica logo, to foster the maximum discretion feasible on shooting handheld with available light, specially when doing street photography.

As to the Zenit M dimensions and size, they are identical to the Leica M Typ 240, id est, 138.6 mm x 42 mm x 80 mm and 680 g with battery, in addition to sensitivity ranges from ISO 200 to ISO 6400 and shutter speeds up to 1/4000 s.


© jmse

If the announcement of the Zenit M was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the recent Photokina 2018, because of the far-reaching significance of the agreement between Leica Camera A.G and Krasnogorsky Zavod im. S.A. Zvereva for the design and construction of the camera, when it was known that the coupled kit lens was nothing less than a 35 mm f/1 objective, emotions skyrocketed and many people couldn´t believe it.

And it couldn´t be other way, because evidently, such a huge maximum aperture lens as a kit is something absolutely unusual, since until now the widest aperture 35 mm lenses for 24 x 36 mm format had been the legendary 10 elements in 7 groups and 12 aperture blades Voigtländer Nokton 35 mm f/1.2 ASPH Version 1 ( very sharp and delivering moderate contrast, optimized to get maximum detail in shadows, and with a minimum focusing distance of 70 cm) and the 10 elements in 7 groups and 11 aperture blades Voigtländer Nokton 35 mm f/1.2 ASPH Version 2 (delivering superior contrast and boasting an improved minimum focusing distance of 50 cm) in M Mount, giving photographers half stop more light than the 35 mm f/1.4 lenses for M rangefinder cameras and already considered highly luminous lenses.

Id est, both versions of the Voigtländer Nokton 35 mm f/1.2 ASPH are deemed to be tremendously luminous for their focal lengths and with a remarkable advantage in comparison to 35 mm f/1.4 lenses when it comes to photograph under low or very low available light conditions and when trying to get subject isolation with respect to backgrounds and foregrounds.

© jmse

© jmse

Therefore, the Zenitar 35 mm f/1 made in Krasnogorsky Zavod, outskirts of Moscow (Russia), is the champion of luminosity of all the 35 mm lenses for rangefinder cameras created in the world hitherto, significantly more luminous than the aforementioned 35 mm f/1.2 Voigtländer lenses and even more adequate to highlight persons or subjects with out of focus areas.

And inevitably, if the Voigtländer Nokton 35 mm f/1.2 ASPH Version 1 from 2003-2010 (489 g and 63 x 78 mm long) and 2 ( dimensions of 60.8 x 62 mm and weight of 471 g) lenses were large and heavy, the kit lens coupled to the Zenit M couldn´t be small.

© jmse

The Zenitar 35 mm f/1 lens featuring 9 elements in 6 groups, dimensions of 138.6 x 42 x 80 mm and a weight of 740 g is a big and heavy lens, but not excessively large at all for its widest f/1 aperture.

On the other hand, as is usual with so highly luminous objectives, part of the barrel of the Zenitar 35 mm f/1 protrudes in the viewfinder of the Zenit M, particularly at the nearest focusing distances, in addition to feeling a bit front heavy in relation to the camera body.

© jmse

This is a non aspherical lens whose mechanical performance is linked to the halcyon days of manual focusing lenses like the legendary Nikkor AI-S from eighties, Asahi Pentax Takumar Super-Multi-Coated from early seventies, Canon FD from seventies and first half of eighties, Olympus OM Zuiko from seventies and eighties, etc.

Therefore, the Zenitar 35 mm f/1 has got a very long focus throw enabling an exceedingly accurate focus, so it is a very good lens for videography.

© jmse

It features the Leica M bayonet mount, so it can be coupled to any Leica M digital camera.

Nobody should expect at all stratospheric performance in terms of resolving power and contrast in center, borders and corners at every focusing distance and diaphragm as happens with reference-class aspherical wide angle Leica M lenses like the 9 elements in 5 groups (one aspherical) Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 ASPH or such an extraordinary optical calculation and mechanic construction as the one carried out by Michael Heiden and Holger Wieland with the 9 elements in 6 groups Summicron-M 28 mm f/2 ASPH.

But though obviously being a far cry from the best Leica M wide angle f/1.4 and f/2 aspherical designs in terms of image quality,

© jmse

the Zenitar 35 mm f/1 utterly made in Russia is a good lens delivering an acceptable optical performance at its widest f/1 aperture which significantly improves from f/2 onwards, and this is something undoubtedly great, since the combination Zenit M + Zenitar 35 mm f/1 for approximately 5.500 euros would have more than double that price tag with a Leica M10 and an aspherical 35 mm f/1 Leica M lens.

© jmse

The Zenitar 35 mm f/1 is a classic lens mostly designed and manufactured according to handcrafted parameters linked to the golden days of Krasnogorsky Mechanikansky Zavod, when the legendary Russian photographic factory located in the outskirts of Moscow churned out such top-notch lenses as the 4 elements in 3 groups Tessar design Industar-58 75 mm f/3.5 for the Iskra 1 and 2 6 x 6 cm medium format rangefinder camera, the 6 elements in 4 groups Helios-40 8,5 cm f/1.5 earliest version (a Planar derivative design with thickened optical elements and generating great swirly bokeh at full aperture and very good for portraits), the 6 elements in 5 groups Zenitar 50 mm f/1.7, and others with excellent price/performance ratio like the 6 elements in 5 groups Mir-1 37 mm f/2.8 based on the Carl Zeiss Jena Flektogon 35 mm f/2.8 and designed by D.S.Volosov (which won the Grand Prix Brussels Expo of Photographic Lenses in 1958), the 6 elements in 3 groups Jupiter-8 50 mm f/2 (inspired by Ludwig Beterle´s CZJ Sonnar 5 cm f/2) and others.

The Zenitar 35 mm f/1 is a very special lens,

© jmse

whose raison d´etre is to be able to use it at its huge f/1 aperture with acceptable levels of resolving power and contrast on the focused areas of the persons or subjects photographed, highlighting them with a nice bokeh (enhanced by the 10 blade round diaphragm) in the out of focused zones, with the further possibility of getting pictures using diaphragms from f/2 onwards to get very good image quality and more depth of field as a standard lens.

© jmse

Its manual focusing is smooth on its whole travel from infinite to the nearest focusing distance of 80 cm.

On the other hand, though it lacks the black and white 6-bit coding spots enabling to know the specific lens coupled (as happens with the Leica M digital cameras able to make some optical corrections, particularly vignetting, through firmware), the Zenit M features manual selection of parameters for different lenses.

On top of the viewfinder of the Zenit M 24 x 36 mm digital rangefinder camera is the famous logo showing the scheme of an optical prism influencing the path of a light beam
© jmse

Whatever it may be, if the introduction of the digital 24 x 36 mm Zenit M rangefinder camera has been a flabbergasting and unexpected event,

© jmse

the Zenitar 35 mm f/1 attached to it hasn´t trailed behind in terms of excitement.

And a further question arises : Why Krasnogorskiy zavod im. S. A. Zvereva factory within the Shvabe Holding has made this strenuous effort to design and manufacture the most luminous 35 mm lens for 24 x 36 mm format in the world ?

The answer has got a number of major aspects explaining it, particularly the following ones:

© jmse

1) The agreement with Leica is something of huge importance for Zenit, because Leica has got a huge historical prestige as a photographic brand, as well as boasting a second to none know-how and experience in the manufacture of benchmark highly luminous lenses for 24 x 36 mm format rangefinder cameras, both non aspherical ones harking back to the times of analogue photography of XX Century with foremost figures of optical designing like Max Berek, Hugo Wehrenfenning, Prof. Helmut Marx, Dr.Walter Mandler, Lothar Kölsch, Horst Schroeder, etc, and aspherical ones in the digital XXI Century incepted by other eminent optical designers like Peter Karbe, Sigrun Kammans and Dietmar Stuible.

Therefore, this alliance with the German photographic firm for the creation of the Zenit M, though being a limited series of 500 units, can be a pivotal factor for the expansion and international projection of Krasnogorsky zavod im. A.A. Zvereva factory and the Shvabe Holding, so they needed to make a great lens striving upon matching the camera body designed in Russia and manufactured in Wetzlar (Germany).

© jmse

And undoubtedly, Zenit has made a strenuous effort designing and manufacturing this fascinating and unusual Zenitar 35 mm f/1 kit lens made in Russia, trying to equal as much as possible the top-notch quality of the camera body.

2) Albeit featuring highly improved anti reflective multicoatings and top class optical glasses which have enabled to attain a 0.86 transmission value, Zenit top brass do know that the DNA of this amazing f/1 lens belongs to the golden era of Krasnogorsky Mechanikansky Zavod between mid fifties and nineties of the XX Century, in which after a period between mid thirties and early fifties manufacturing copies of the Leica II Model D from 1932, Contax II from 1936 and the 6 x 9 cm Zeiss Ikon Super Ikonta C, along with copies of the best lenses designed by Max Berek and Ludwig Bertele, the Russian photographic industry had to set its own route from mid fifties onwards, in the midst of huge economical difficulties and political upheavals.

Those were the times in which engineers, industrial designers and technical experts like Yuri Soloviev, N.A. Gabrilov, P.A. Denisov, I.A. Korolkov, N.M. Egorov, I. Michoutine, D.M.Krivorotchenko, I.M.Marensov, P.A. Tikhomirov, G.M.Dorsky, V.I.Ploujnikov, A.P. Orlov, I. Zamanskaya, I.D. Schifman, L.I.Kogan, V.M.Bakovitski, R.M.Belenki, along with lenses calculated by great optical designers like Mikhail Roosinov (Deputy Chief Engineer at Zenit and creator in 1956 — though its nearly symmetric negative-positive-negative construction improving very much the illumination at the edge of the field with respect to older designs dates back to 1946 — of the well-known Russar MR-2 20 mm f/5.6 superwideangle lens that would have a seminal influence in the history of photography), F.S. Tsemekhman, Z.I. Zaitseva (who made the optical calculations of the Tessar type 4 elements in 3 groups KMZ Industar-61 50 mm f/2.8 featuring lanthane elements and manufactured from 1963 onwards), Dmitry Maksutov (creator of the Zenit MTO 500 mm f/8 and Zenit MTO f/10 mirror lenses) and others had to develop the Russian photographic industry with very few means in comparison to the great Japanese and German multinational firms, and working themselves into a lather.

3) The remarkable influence exerted by Leica throughout the history of the Russian photography.

As a matter of fact, from late twenties of the XX Century there were a number of internationally acclaimed Russian photographers using 24 x 36 mm format screwmount rangefinder Leica cameras like Alexandr Rodchenko, Yevgheni Khaldei, Max Alpert, Dmitri Debabov, Georgii Zelma, Simon Fridland, Georgy Petrusov, Roman Vishniac and others.

A tradition that has kept on already in the XXI century, now with 24 x 36 mm analogue and digital Leica M cameras with such renowned photographers like Alexandr Lapin (an outstanding black and white documentary photographer, writer and teacher of History of Photography), Igor Mukhin (a great street and documentary photographer), Evgenia Arbugaeva (Recipient of the 2015 ICP Infinity Young Photographer Award, Leica Oscar Barnack Award 2013 and her work having appeared in National Geographic magazine, Mare, Le Monde, The New Yorker and others, as well as portfolios published in LFI magazine), Dmitry Pavlov (a great photographer of glamour and artistic nude, with images published in LFI magazine), Emil Gataullin (a remarkable photographer of the rural Russia villages, mostly getting pictures with a Leica M7, and 1st Prize in the Art Photography category of the 2010 Grand Prix of the Best Photo of the Year, 1st Prize in the 2009 Evertday Life Section of the My Best Photograph Competition by Epson, 1st Prize of the 2015 International Festival of Photography " Photovisa "  and author of the great 256 pages and 129 black and white photographs book Towards The Horizon, published by Edition Lammerhuber), Aleksey Myakishev (a documentary photographer using Leica M Monochrom), Ekaterina Solovieva (author of an amazing black and white essay on the village of Kolodozero, hidden deep in the woods, 1,000 km in the north of Moscow, near Karelia, published in LFI and a further one in color on the German iron works of Völlingen in Saarland), and many others.

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4) The present moment is very important for the future of  Krasnogorsky zavod im. A.A. Zvereva factory.

They are already manufacturing manual focusing photographic lenses with very good optomechanical performance/price ratio, highly improved anti reflective multicoatings and excellent bokeh like the Zenitar-C 50 mm f/1.2 for APS-C format Canon EF and Nikon F digital reflex cameras, the new 8 elements in 7 groups Zenitar 50 mm f/1.2 for Canon EF and Nikon F digital full frame cameras, the Zenitar-1C 85 mm f/1.4, the Helios-40-2 85 mm f/1.5 and the 9 elements in 8 groups and 14 blade diaphragm Zenitar 50 mm f/0.95 for Sony full frame cameras and the Zenitar-N 85 mm f/1.2 for Canon and Nikon full frame cameras.

But Zenit needs to increase its lineup of lenses in different focal lengths and luminosities if it wants to really expand its international market chances with these objectives lacking autofocus but delivering very good image quality for the price, a frequent vintage aesthetics of image and gorgeous bokehs, whose potential at full aperture is fostered by the great performance of digital cameras at high and very high isos in comparison with chemical emulsions of the analogue era over ISO 800 which produced a lot of grain.

© jmse

And it seems that with this Zenitar 35 mm f/1, Zenit is trying to show its optical prowess and experience and that they are able to design and manufacture the most luminous 35 mm wideangle lens ever made, a lens working like a charm under dim light conditions, delivering good image quality and a great rendering of the out of focus areas.

5) And of course, there has been a mutual search of synergies between Leica Camera A.G and Krasnogorsky Zavod im. S.A. Zvereva within the Shvabe holding.

It´s widely known that Russia is currently along with China, United States, Japan, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Singapore and other countries, one of the best markets of the German photographic firm, to such an extent that the Leica Store Moscow Leninsky opened in 2009 has become the Eastern Europe Leica hub, with a first-rate maintenance center, where highly qualified staff services and repairs all kind of Leica cameras, both analogue and digital ones, in synergy with the highly efficient work fullfilled by Vadim Berezkin, its owner, Dmitry Borgachev (Representative of Leica Camera A.G in Moscow) and others.

In the same way, the Boutique Phototechnique Novinskiy, also selling top gear from other respected brands like Hasselblad, Sony, Olympus and Fujifilm, has turned into a Leica core in Moscow.

On the other hand, some major Leica exhibitions have been held hitherto in Russia, like the milestone Leica, Magical Moments of Classic Camera, celebrated at the Multimedia Art Museum of Moscow between April 4 and 29 of 1996 and organized with the support of the Goethe Institute.

But coming back to the role of Krasnogorsky zavod im. A.A. Zvereva factory in this story, it seems that the Russian firm has taken the decision to manufacture more lenses for both digital 24 x 36 mm rangefinder cameras and full frame mirrorless EVF cameras.

To begin with, it has already announced the Zenitar 21 mm f/2.8 and a Zenitar 50 mm f/1, both of them in M mount, in the same way as the Zenitar 35 mm f/1.

Likewise, Zenit has announced that it will also start making new lenses for Nikon and Canon full frame digital cameras, as well as a further camera with new design, electronic and lenses in 2019.

If all of it is in progress, it will be interesting to see those new Zenit lenses and their optomechanical performance.

Because though the Russian photographic industry made very good lenses in the analogue era, with a stunning quality/price ratio, it isn´t less true that the quality control was far from the German and Japanese photographic industries, so there were often significant differences in image quality depending on each sample and production batch, to such and extent that connoisseurs frequently bought two or more units of the same lens.

Obviously, Zenit has significantly improved its lenses, but it needs to better a bit their resolving power, contrast, sharpness and the overall uniformity of production lens by lens, because though manual focusing objectives are a market niche, it could be profitable (because apart from being very interesting photographic lenses, their excel even more in videography, a scope where the Zenit lenses with widest apertures f/1, f/1.2, f/1.4, f/1.5 and f/2 are a real bargain and excel with their very precise manual focus, stemming from their very long throw, and the very special image aesthetics they deliver, particularly thanks to their unique bokeh) and there are already particularly three brands which have made things really well for years, having gleaned tons of experience manufacturing manual focusing lenses in different mounts and boasting impressive price/quality ratio: Cosina Voigtländer and a bit behind Samyang and Zhongyi Mitakon.

© jmse

Perhaps the Zenitar 35 mm f/1 coupled to the Zenit M is the beginning of a surge of Zenit as a manufacturer of manual focusing lenses with the beautiful image aesthetics and bokeh traditionally inherent to a significant percentage of Russian lenses, but if they want to really be able to compete they will have to design and make lenses not only for reflex Nikon and Canon cameras and Leica M rangefinder cameras, but also for other different cameras and mounts : SL for Leica, Panasonic and Sigma, E-Mount for Sony mirrorless full EVF full frame cameras, Z for the new Nikon mirrorless EVF full frame cameras, R for the new Canon mirrorless EVF full frame cameras, etc.

Anyway, this Zenitar 35 mm f/1 has been a good piece of news for every lover of manual focusing lenses for rangefinder cameras and the history of Russian photographic industry that seems to be gaining momentum.

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