Classic Cameras
Zorkii 4K
A Vintage Charmer

Zorkii 4K with 50mm f/2 Jupiter lens

The Soviet-made Zorkii 4K is the high point of the Leica screw-compatible Zorkii series. Zorkiis started out similar to Feds, but later became quite different. Feds, in turn, were initially arrant Leica copies but later diverged in their own account. Although the Roman-alphabet cameras just say "Zorki," "Zorkii" or "Zorkyi" is closer to the Cyrillic original.

The difference between a plain Zorkii 4 and a Zorkii 4K is that the 4K has lever wind instead of knob wind, a significant advantage. The 4K was introduced in about 1973: "about" is a word you have to use quite a lot when dealing with the old Soviet Union, where everything was a state secret. It was then made until the late '70s or early '80s, in very large numbers.

Prices Have Gone Up
Until a few years ago, $15-$20 would have bought a good secondhand 4K in most of Europe, but now prices are two or three times that--still not a fortune for a rangefinder camera with a full range of manual speeds from 1 sec to 1/1000 sec, and full compatibility with all 39mmx26tpi Leica screw-fit lenses. In the US, reckon on 50-200 percent more: Soviet-era cameras were not widely imported when they were new, and now it's (fortunately) too late.

Zorkii 4K, back removed

It's crude, there's no doubt about that. But equally, what ain't there, can't go wrong--especially the meter, notoriously a weak point on Eastern European cameras. No meter = one less problem. The standard of finish is quite high; the lens-film register is perfectly adequate (and can be shimmed, if need be); and the accuracy of the shutter is quite remarkable.

Given that the serial number of my camera--74005336--indicates '74 as the year of manufacture, and that I doubt I have put three films through it in the three years I have owned it, the shutter qualifies as very good indeed. It is a horizontal-run rubberized fabric type, like a Leica. The speeds are slow, to be sure, but these speeds would not disgrace a 30-year-old M-series Leica that had never been serviced and had been as little used. The Leica would probably be 1/3 stop better at 1/500 and 1/1000, and might be more consistent, but a true 1/1000 is unusual even from a Leica of that age. The Leica shutter is a lot quieter, though.

The "commie rat" speed dial of the Zorkii 4K

Lens Quality
What lets the 4K down is its lens(es). The standard lens was the 50mm f/2 Jupiter, essentially a pre-World War II Zeiss Sonnar with coating. The kindest description is that the best of them have a vintage charm. The worst are abysmal, and they left the factory that way. I once had a 50mm f/2 Jupiter where one of the inner elements had not been secured properly: you could hear it clicking to and fro as you tilted the lens, and if you were careful, you could catch the light on the moving element as it flopped.

Among standard lenses the much rarer 50mm f/1.5 was quite a lot worse. Otherwise there's a 20mm f/5.6 Russar (the only one I have ever had was awful, though apparently the majority are merely bad), a 28mm f/6 Orion (indifferent), a 35mm f/2.8 Jupiter (poor), an 85mm f/2 Jupiter (a good portrait lens), and a 135mm f/4 Jupiter (surprisingly good). Again, the 35mm f/2.8 and longer lenses are essentially coated versions of pre-'39 Zeiss lenses: great in their day, but hardly cutting edge in the 21st century. All but the 50mm require a separate viewfinder: the 20mm finder (still available new from Kiev/USA last time I checked) is amazingly good.

Now, of course, you can put Voigtländer lenses on the front. Ideally, buy new, but equally, these lenses have been around long enough that more and more of them are coming onto the secondhand market, sometimes at bargain prices. The camera is fully up to a 50mm f/1.5 Nokton, but a 50mm f/2.5 Color-Skopar is also a rational buy or you could go for any of the others, with an appropriate finder: 12mm f/5.6; 15mm f/4.5; 21mm f/4; 25mm f/4; 28mm f/1.9 or 28mm f/3.5; 35mm f/1.2 or 35mm f/1.7 or 35mm f/2.5; 75mm f/2.5; 90mm f/3.5.

Zorkii 4K with 15mm f/4.5 Voigtländer Super-Wide-Heliar lens

The Zorkii In Use
So, what's the camera like to use? First, let's load it. The back comes down and off, vintage Contax style, when you undo the twin locks on the bottom; also on the bottom you'll find a standard 1/4 Whitworth/0 BA tripod socket, centered under the lens. Reset the (additive) film counter once it's loaded--there's a tiny triangular index engraved on the collar around the counter--and you're away.

The plastic-tipped wind-on lever has a travel of about 160Þ, plus a stand-off of about 30Þ, for a total of about 190Þ. This allows you to keep your thumb under the lever at all times. The lever can be "inched" in a series of short strokes.

Setting the shutter speed is not easy. Small, dim figures are arranged somewhat eccentrically around the dial, which is of the lift-twist-and-drop variety and can only be set when the shutter is wound (like a pre-M Leica). In red, there is 1 sec; then a big gap; then 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15; then in black, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000; then a big gap to B; then another big gap to an out of sequence 1/30, the flash sync speed. A black line between 1/30 and 1 sec indicates that the shutter speed dial must not be turned in this area. The speeds are far from evenly spaced and 1/15 in particular requires good eyesight and a steady hand if you are not to select the adjacent speeds of 1/8 and 1/60. Concentric with the speed dial is the flash sync selector for M (bulb) and Z (electronic).

At the far end of the top deck is the pull-up rewind knob (no crank) but concentric with it is a lever for individual eyesight setting--something not seen on Leicas for decades, though my '36 IIIa has one. It works very well indeed. On the front there's a self-timer with its own release, so you can use the regular release if you change your mind, then fire the timer before you wind on. Full delay is just short of 10 seconds: shorter delays are possible, but hard to set.

Field Of View
Despite the long top plate, the actual rangefinder base is only about 40mm, but the slight magnification of the combined rangefinder-viewfinder (about 10 percent) makes for a longer effective base. The overall field of view is slightly pinkish, with a slightly greenish rangefinder patch, so focusing is reasonably easy. There's no parallax compensation, and the standard finder is 50mm only, but the auxiliary "turret" finder (for 28, 35, 50, 85, and 135mm lenses) remedies this.

With the standard 50mm f/2 Jupiter, the focusing movement is 90Þ between infinity and just under 1 meter or about 3 ft: my lens is in meters only, but I think there are feet-meter or plain-feet versions as well. There's also a PC sync nipple, X-sync only, on the front of the rangefinder housing.

Getting the film out is fun unless you know that the rewind clutch is concentric with the shutter release (as it is with the original Nikon F) and must be twisted to declutch the sprocket. There's a dot on the shutter release collar but it's otherwise unmarked.

Shooting Results
Results? Well, with the Soviet lenses, not too good by modern standards--unless, as I say, you like the vintage charm of the 50mm f/2, or can find an 85mm f/2 or 135mm f/4. Even so, they are not unpublishably bad. But equally, with modern Voigtländer or (if you can afford it) Leica screw-fit lenses, you couldn't ask for more: a classic illustration of the truth that it's the lenses, not the cameras, that make the picture.
As already indicated, I don't use mine much. With three Voigtländers to choose from (T, R, R2) and three M-series Leicas (2x M2 and an M4-P) there's not much incentive. To be honest, I bought my 4K because it was cheap: $5 (with lens), because the shutter speed dial was missing. I had another one that stood me in $15 (with lens) and had jammed. At that sort of money, they're not worth fixing--though the $15 camera was cheap because the rangefinder didn't work, and I repaired that and put a few films through it before the transport jammed--so I had the shutter speed dial off the scrapper and had a working 4K again. For a camera with which I could, if I had to, earn a living, that didn't strike me as too bad.