Lomo Belair X 6×12: Not as silly as it might seem.

Lomo Belair X 6x12Ok, one of these is on the way. We have a thing for old Polaroids, particularly the ones with the electromagnetic (automatic) shutters. In addition, the Lomo Belair X was ridiculously cheap after the 30% preorder discount and the extra ILOVELOMO discount code. For the metal version not to merit $180 with two lenses would require it to be very bad – even by the relatively low standards of Lomography.

The following is a list of features and pros/cons that might (or might not) make it interesting to people trying to take pictures in some serious (or semiserious way). We will use as frames of reference the Brooks-Plaubel Veriwide 100 (the small one) and the Noblex 6/150.

As to the optics, it is very easy to be dismissive of plastic lenses. It is likewise hard to say whether these are engineered to be “bad” like other Lomo products, but if these lenses are even halfway good, they will probably be good enough for normal uses (granted, the higher-end Lomo user probably uses an Epson V750 to scan negatives). Consider that the object is a 6×12 negative, enlargement (in any context) will probably be very limited. Next consider that a lens with an f/8 maximum aperture has a high likelihood of being adequate, since it doesn’t challenge manufacturing standards (even a one-element plastic meniscus can be a good performer on 120 film if it has a small aperture). But the other thing to remember is that if you wear eyeglasses, you have been looking through plastic on a daily basis for years. Although it is not clear in  the Lomo-sponsored product descriptions, Belair lens comes with its own finder, neither of which competes for the hot shoe accessory mount (first accessory to buy: Seculine Action Level Cross).

On the distortion front, you can see from Lomo’s own sample pictures that the lens has the typical perspective distortion (objects near the edges are wider) plus the usual barrel distortion of cheaper wides.  This is like the Veriwide 100 but different from the Noblex, which has a very distinctive cylindrical distortion that is all but impossible to correct without higher math (to be fair, it is not a big problem unless you are working very close-up).

Zone-focusing, likewise, is dismissed by rangefinder and SLR users, but it is completely normal with panoramic and superwide cameras.  The Veriwide 100 had a Super-Angulon 47mm that focused via click stops (and many of its successors also use helicoid mounts for zone-focusing). Most variants of the Noblex have fixed focus (with additional items being brought into focus by stopping down).  In the rangefinder world, it is completely normal for 12, 15 and 18mm lenses to lack focus coupling, and many fisheye lenses for SLRs have fixed focus too. And once you are used to it, it is not challenging to estimate hyperfocal distances. In fact, considering that the 58mm lens is the equivalent of a 21mm lens for a 35mm camera, it will actually be quite easy.

The shutter appears to be a press-type, meaning that your pressing the release lever cocks and releases the shutter, and the camera holds the shutter open until capacitors inside collect enough electricity. One interesting feature is that the release is on the front standard, which enhances the overall stability in your hold – but the force of releasing the shutter could throw things off.  Early reports indicate that this is a traditional leaf in appearance (not the guillotine associated with the old Polaroids).  The construction of the lenses is, at this point, unclear. Given that the 58mm and 90mm have the same approximate size – and that the back-focus is fixed – there are three design possibilities:

  1. The lenses all sit in front of the shutter, and the 58mm is a retrofocus design. This seems likely, although the curvature of the 58mm lens’ front end strongly suggests that it is symmetrical and not retrofocus.
  2. The “lenses” are really interchangeable front groups, and a fixed rear group is fitted behind the shutter. This has antecedents in the Kodak Retina cameras, but given that one lens promised by Lomo is a Russian glass lens, this might not be the case.

If #1 is the case, it would not be a big deal to install a conventional lens board and 4×5 barrel lens (or lens and shutter), provided that you could deal with a fixed back-focus (you could always just fit a lens of approximately the same focal length as an original). Even with #2, you could simply remove the rest of the glass and go from there.

One surmise is that the 1/125 top speed of the shutter is a function of its size, particularly if it is a behind-the-lens type (a shutter placed at the nodal point of the lens would be much smaller).  Is that speed an impediment?  Probably not. Outdoors, it’s highly likely that people would be shooting ISO 100 film at f/16.  In low light, the top shutter speed would provide no impediment at any ISO. In fact, the real problem would be the small maximum aperture of the lens.

It is nice to have a hot shoe with X-synch. Not many flashes work well with ultra-wide angles, but it’s better than nothing. And a shoe takes not only a flash or an electronic level; it can also be used to mount a Jobo-style geotagger.  Although the Veriwide 100 has a sync post on its Synchro-Compur shutter, its accessory shoe is usually engaged by the accessory viewfinder. Noblexes have no flash sync at all, although it seems vaguely possible to rig an arc of shutters to go off in sequence.

With the exception of the bellows, which look pretty solid, the rest of this camera strongly says “low-spec.”  It’s not really that much different from any 6×9 of the old days, chrome finish notwithstanding.  Three aspects of the camera look like they came right off the Moscow-5 folding 6×9/6×6 – the removable back door, the multiformat mask, and the ruby film advance window. They could also have come off many other folding cameras over the years, albeit individually.  The removable back portends a possible Polaroid back; the multiformat mask is probably just for fun; and the ruby film advance window is an efficient way to deal with multiple formats without a lot of gears and rollers (though the lack of any kind of advance-shutter interlock will make for many unintentional double exposures). In fact, the “automatic” frame counter on the Veriwide 100 is a flaky piece of engineering, and given the two position shutter release in the Noblex (a contact triggering the drum and a mechanical release allowing winding), it is very easy to accidentally double-expose.

So on all of this, we’ll keep an open mind until we can feed some negatives into a 4000-dpi negative scanner to see just how much information is in them. One might suspect that this camera will perform better than people think. But then again, the bar is pretty low when a company’s user base is so, ahem, starry-eyed. Tune in early next year.
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