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News & Insight

Zenit Is Looking For A Cold War Style Comeback To Take On Leica

By Kishore Sawh on February 12th 2016

When we think of Belarus, not that we do very often, many think of unstable and shifting governance, Eastern Orthodoxy, and in my experience, some astonishingly beautiful women. It’s the former Soviet Union that would typify our thoughts and all that goes along with it; the only way cameras fit into that generally is the association with ‘spy.’ Zenit, or Zenith, as a camera brand, is a relic of the Cold War, and like the Cold War, it’s trying for a comeback.

The Russian tech firm Rostec is the parent company to some 700 or so organizations. A large part of their business is the exporting of Russian-made goods and is often referred to as ‘state corporation,’ given its strange and special entity status. As recently as 2014, Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev brought up the topic of exhuming the camera brand, and now Rostec is going to do just that. Not only are they going to do that, but they’re aiming for the heart of the red sun that is Leica.

This is a very high demand product, we want to make it a luxury device, by analogy with the Leica.

That’s the news in brief, but what does this mean? It actually warrants a little bit of reflection about our current industry because Leica, whatever your feelings about them may be, are still the producers of just about the finest photographic pieces; even if you don’t buy that per se, the world does. So trying to take on Leica seems extremely ambitious. To quote the immortal genius of Jesse from The Fast & The Furious, “…you just can’t climb in the ring with Ali ’cause you think you box.’”

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Zenit never enjoyed much success in North America, despite producing some 15 million units. Actually, they’ve never enjoyed much success period. I’ve only ever played with one, in England, and it was an old Zenit E; a heavy, lumbering, cumbersome, pile-driver of a thing. It was hideous, and apparently rather crap, despite even in its birth years trying to take the comparison to Leica. Zenit even had their screw mount be 39mm, making for a tasty likening to the Leica thread mount, L39. They’ve been trying to be Leica from the start in some ways, but wanting to embody something totally different in others.

The Zenit cameras were made with an approach similar to how many Soviet and Russian military pieces are designed, somewhat reminiscent of then young tank sergeant Mikhail Kalashnikov and his AK47. Kalashnikov was wounded and in the hospital when he dreamt it up, and what he dreamt up was a completely simple machine, no more sophisticated than a mousetrap. You could abuse an AK to no end, submerge it in water, mud, forget it was there for years, and it would still work when you found it again. The mentality of machinery from this area at this time was simplicity, durability, and affordability above all else (not ability), so it could be taken apart, fixed, and rebuilt in the middle of a Russian winter, by someone aged 5, with his pocket money.

*The irony isn’t lost on me that the AK47 was born to put the Germans in their place – though it came about 2 years after Hilter was no more.

This can’t work with cameras, and Zenit’s failure is example of that. Cameras aren’t like guns, despite Zenit’s ambitions to prove otherwise, as evidenced by the Photosniper12S modeled to work like a gun. Cameras are objects of finer materials – of character, precision, and personality if we’re talking about Leica here. There is nothing refined or beautiful about a Zenit, the product or what it produces. Walking around with one looks like you’re carrying Optimus Prime’s face, and feels like it too, whereas walking around with a Leica is like walking around with Heidi Klum.

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Credit: Wikicommons

So what are they talking about in terms of ‘high demand product’? What is it they’re going to bring to the table? This to me is a feeble attempt to prop up their economy and honestly, there is a void in the market that they could possibly be placed to fill, like that left by Voigtlander, and possibly even better if they went with film bodies to begin. In terms of digital with a lower-priced vintage feel, but a modern built style is what we get with Fuji, and Sony to some extent, but to get that older film vibe of higher quality, it’s really only Leica.

[REWIND: WHY I CHOOSE THE LEICA M9 OVER THE NIKON D4S – MY LEICA EXPERIENCE]

Here’s the thing too, those that want a Leica, aren’t just buying it for superior optics and form, but the whole ‘golden glove’ feel of buying into a heritage Leica worked hard to develop and maintain. A Leica tends to be more than the sum of its parts, whereas a Zenit is just a collection of them.

Sources: Sputnik News, PetaPixel, Rambler News Service, Wikipedia

About

A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ralph Hightower

    Zenit spokesperson: “Ve are cheap Leika and better!

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  2. Michael Burnham

    In the final months of WWII there was a German assault rifle deployed in limited numbers that appears to be eerily similar to the AK-47 that appeared two years later. The light-weight rifle was designed for the German military for street fighting were soldiers would be shooting down the block instead of to the next hill. There are those that say that Kalashnikov saw it and created a beefed up and very simplified version of it for the Soveit army. But saying so could start a nasty flame war on certain boards and forums.

    Anyway, many years ago I bought a Zenit 19 film SLR and got 2.5 rolls through it before it jammed up completely. Now that we are on the digital era I wonder if they would have about the same quality? Personally I think this is just more “New Cold War” posturing by the company. A proprietary mount of their own would doom it to failure commercially. But if they do come out with a decent product and system to go around it, a digital camera with 39mm screw mount? 42mm screw mount? Lots of old glass around, likewise with a PK or Nikon F mount. THAT would open up a small but welcome new front in the digital camera wars. Just my two cents.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      This is one of the few ways I could see the company having any kind of success – But you’d have to consider why that portion of the market even exists and why this company would be the ones to fill it. I really think likening themselves to Leica is a dumb ploy, and entirely posturing.

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  3. Alex Petrenko

    I think it is not that hard to produce Zenith with Leica quality. Just go to Leica, tell them that you have great idea and billions from oil and they will let you to put your logo on their bodies. If it worked one way with Panasonic why it may not work other way round?

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Well, that’s actually an interesting point, but one has to wonder why Leica would actually do that for a company like Zenith. I think if Zenit was able to create something quite extraordinary for their first re-incarnation. We all know engineering expertise is Russia is there, but the precedent of the last century is to focus on mass appeal at the cost of quality.

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    • Alex Petrenko

      Money: more Leica bodies (Branded Zenith, sold at higher price) + lenses (which is more important) sold, + service by Leica service centers, + Leica spare parts, – marketing expenses.

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  4. Stephen Glass

    What is the life expectancy of a street photographer in NYC using the Photosniper 12S?

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    • John Sheehan

      Not long.

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    • Michael Burnham

      With the current vigilance of the NYPD, not long. I have gotten hassled serval times just for taking picture of certain building WITHOUT a rig that looked like a gun.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Ha, so true. We’ve all been hassled too many time like that. Carrying around this 12S, today? Asking to get shot in some places

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    • Stephen Glass

      What is up with that? Take pictures with your cell phone all day, no problem. As soon as you pull out a DSLR you’re suspected of terrorism. Because everyone knows that terrorist buy the latest DSLRs wandering around the city waiting for great light don’t you know.

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    • Michael Burnham

      The line I loved the most came from a plain clothes NYPD office when he along with a uniformed office stopped me while taking pictures of a particular building in NYC. “Your not doing anything wrong, but you just can’t do that.”

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    • Kishore Sawh

      well doesn’t that just about sum it up? I’m into aviation and years ago was standing on my car with a Nikon with a large zoom at Ft. Lauderdale Int. airport dedicated viewing area, photographing the aircraft livery. Policeman came over and asked me what i was doing…with a camera in hand…looking at the planes. I told him, after blinking a lot, i was a photographer. He asked if I was also a pilot, and why i liked planes, and that i seemed suspicious. … not very bright, he was

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