• Agatha Kempf

Soviet Cameras: What is it About Them ?

Updated: May 11, 2021

By Agatha Kempf

As a photographer (or not) you might have heard of Soviet cameras in the past, without really being sure what is so special about them. Hopefully this article will shed some light for you.

Zenit-3M camera, image by Stephen Dowling

If you hear “Soviet Russia”, you may think of its complicated history, gulags, or even those Instagram memes about Russians dressed in Adidas tracksuits, drinking vodka and fighting bears while shirtless. However, this era was too the mother of the now internationally known Soviet cameras.

Born during the USSR era in 1927, Soviet cameras were actually quite similar to German cameras at the time.

Stephen Dowling, 48, is a journalist and the founder of Kosmofoto, a photography website which has a whole section dedicated to Soviet cameras.

He explains “A lot of the mainstream Soviet lenses were influenced or even copied by certain lenses made in Germany. So the ones that are basically copies of the Leica, pretty much all the lenses from the 1940s up to the late 60s, maybe middle of the 70s, are just as good as the ones that were made in West Germany. But Leica collectors don't like to admit that because you can get this gear for much less.”

The reasons for such low prices are simple: not only the Soviet cameras were quite behind the West in terms of technology, but the production quality standards were poor despite the considerable number of cameras that had been manufactured.

The original designs would be of great quality, and the engineers skilled, but the factory would not always have the right material for specific parts of the camera, ending up using inappropriate material like certain metals that would break because of too much pressure on it, explains Dowling.

“The quality control was simply not good enough,” he continues.

“You might have 50,000 cameras made and only 20,000 of them worked properly”

Interview with Stephen Dowling on Soviet cameras

Photographs by Stephen Dowling.

From left to right taken with Zenit-E, Zenit-TTL, Lomo LC-A, Zenit-E, Zorki-4K, FED-10.

Misha Petrovich, 40, works in programming and founded the Facebook page Soviet and Russian Cameras. He says metal Soviet cameras are not enjoyable to shoot with because of how rough they are.

“A prolonged use can be painful to your fingers, you can even cut yourself on some of them.”

Even if Soviet rangefinders have a bad reputation, Soviet lenses are on the other hand highly appreciated by photographers as they remain cheap, are of high quality and adaptable to most cameras, even modern ones.

Pictures taken by Dwight Roberts, using the lens TAIR-11a (black and white) and Jupiter-9 85mm f2 (colour).

While Dwight Roberts, 54, professional photographer, agrees on the mediocre quality of the Soviet cameras, he does defend the quality of the lenses: “Soviet-made items are seen by the West largely as inferior and they aren’t 100% wrong, but they are far from being correct when it comes to lenses.”