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Lomo LC-A 120: same disillusion, bigger package

When I was a second-year high school student, my English teacher came in, opened his copy of Adventures in American Literature to a poem, and (purported to) read the following:

I think I shall never see /
A poem as lovely as a tree /
Blah blah blah. Bullshit /
I hate Robert Frost /

It obviously was Joyce Kilmer and not Robert Frost whom he was skewering, but he was making a point. Although teaching methods like this might not seem as radical today, it’s hard not to have that Robert Frost feeling about “Lomography.” Some talent. But mostly boring pictures that are made interesting by lens defects, art defined by intentional and random flaws in raw materials, and a semiotic that has become so routine as ot disappear into the noise of Flickr.

The Lomo LC-A 120 fails of its one essential purpose. Its lens is actually excellent. When you think about wide-angle lenses for 6×6 and up, the 38mm f/4.5 Minigon XL is quite wide. I use a 35 APO-Grandagon on a Horseman SW612, so I have some pretty developed ideas both about what is wide and what is good.

The spoiler alert here is that the LC-A 120 is a combination of a phenomenal lens with what might qualify as the worst $450 camera. In the history of ever. Not the G.O.A.T. but an actual goat.

Lens. Let’s start with the 38/4.5 XL. It is not a real XL like a Schneider 38mm; this barely covers 6×6 at anything but the smallest apertures. But it does have a couple of principal virtues when you shoot it with TMY: it has virtually no barrel distortion and is sharp from edge to edge when stopped way down. You almost have to wonder if this is an Arsat PC lens repurposed into a medium format one.

With black-and-white film, one comment on lateral color shift, which seems to be what gives Lomo pictures their unique “color.” That and film that is way past its color prime.

Click on the picture below and then scan from side to side. Yes, it’s scanned on a Flextight and straightened slightly. But holy frijoles, it looks a lot like a $2k lens on a pano camera (granted, such a lens would cover a frame a lot larger than 55×55).

Focus. Focus is a bit more problematic, having steps of 0.6m, 1m, 2.5m, and ∞. The focusing lever snaps from position to position with a non-reassuring plastic “pop,” does not exactly match the marks, and stays put(!) when you slide the lens cover (and focusing scale!) upward to close the camera. The difficulty of zone focusing when you don’t know the shooting aperture is an unknown margin of error. A 38mm lens on medium format does not exhibit pan focus except at very small apertures. I did test operation with a Contameter external rangefinder (the late plastic one that actually goes to infinity), but if you drop four hundred and fifty on a camera and another hundred on a rangefinder, you might as well buy a Fuji GA645w.

Exposure controls. The original LC-A was zone-focused and aperture priority. With that setup, at least you know what will be in focus. The LC-A 120 has fixed program exposure that only has one combination of shutter speed and aperture for any EV. The nominal spec is “unlimited” time to 1/500 second, but it’s unclear whether the stopping down is linear to the light level or not. You would think that on a camera like this, you might want to keep the shutter speed low to keep the aperture small. Sometimes the unintentional shallow depth of field works:

You effectively can apply exposure compensation (important when using Diafine) by changing the star-shaped ISO dial on the front.

Viewfinder. The viewfinder is clean and clear. And plastic. And lacking any horizontal or vertical reference marks that would tell you if the camera is level (or square to objects in the picture). This would make architectural photography difficult absent either a tripod and level – or a shoe-mount electronic leveling device. On a half-press of the shutter button, one light means the camera is reading and two means underexposure. Coverage looks like it is about 90%.

Shutter. The shutter operation in the camera is like a press shutter – pressing the button cocks and fires. If you engage the MX switch, you can repeatedly make exposures onto the same piece of films. You can even do it by accident, like this:

You will actually need the MX button for those situations where you mostly press the shutter (releasing the wind and locking the button) but don’t actually take the shot.

Flash. Flash is actually a place where aperture control is important. Lomo has no explanation for how you should use flash except that you should set your automatic flash for 4.5 (as if any automatic flash doesn’t just jump from 4 to 5.6). Shooting with flash does not trigger a short synch speed; everything is essentially rear-curtain.

Build quality. Burying the lede, or not. It is terrible. Horrible. The camera body is plastic. It’s not flexible, but it has all the charm of the pebbled plastic around the back seat of a family sedan. The camera back compensates for its lack of sophistication with wide foam seals.

The film tensioning leaf springs (note to Lomo: thank you for including these, unlike the foam blocks in the Belair) are attached to the film gate, which popped out of the camera the first time I tried to load it. The film gate has two significant (and apparently intentional) light leaks at its upper corners. Oddly, these were not plugged with foam seals. They should be.

Loading is not easy. You need to release the hubs with little switches. Pull the hubs down to release the spools. When you install a spool, at least theoretically, as long as the ramped portion of the hub is facing you, it should be possible to snap the film in. It’s not that easy. This seems like another place where a simpler mechanism (like a metal hub on a leaf spring) would work better and make people happier.

The frame counter does not depend on the movement of the film, just the movement of the takeup spool. Many LC-A 120 users seem to get fewer than 12 pictures on a roll. Presumably this is the product of fat-rolling the film, worsened by the imprecise frame counting that does not compensate for thicker films and backing papers.

I was able to nail it by putting the start mark of TMY right at the right “edge” of the lower-left film guide (i.e., halfway to the camera’s own start mark). I was lucky. Twelve frames took you to within 1cm of either end of a 120 film. Frame counting would better have been left to a red window here. At least the framing would be consistent.

But where from here? The heartbreak of this camera (if you can call a feeling about an inanimate object such) is that like the Lomo Belair 6×12, the camera started with some good bones and a great concept and was executed terribly. The Belair had bad light leaks and poor focus but decent lenses an an automatic shutter. Looks like Lomo landed in the same place here: great lens, functional autoexposure system, rickety everything else.

Maybe the fault is that the lens suggests the camera is better than it is. Maybe I just received an unusually good copy. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic.

You might think for a hot minute about remounting the lens, but when you add up the cost of a (controllable) Copal shutter and a focusing mechanism, plus whatever you are attaching it to, it’s far too much money. It’s also unclear how this lens is mounted in the camera – you might have to replicate a fair amount of the physical setup of the Lomo to make it work. Two of these lenses in a twin-lens setup? That would be neat, but you’d probably be close to the price of a bargain bin Rollei when you finished with it. Well, it was a nice thought, anyway.

Cameras like this are bought by fools like me /
But only F&H can make a Rollei.

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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