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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.

Mamiya 6 vs. Fuji GA645

mamiya6.jpg

Part 1: Configuration and Basics

I chose to compare these two cameras because when I borrowed a Mamiya 6, I figured out that although they have different feature sets, they are aimed at the same types of applications.

Generalities: the Mamiya 6 MF is a 6×6 cm (55x55mm) camera that takes 12 shots on 120 film and 24 on 220 film.  It has manual focus, manual wind, and both manual and automatic exposure.  It has three available lenses, a 50mm, 75mm and 150mm, all of which fit in a collapsible lens mount.  Each lens has an electronically-timed leaf shutter and couples to the rangefinder in the camera.  The 6 MF with its 75mm f/3.5 lens runs about $900-1200 used.

The Fuji GA645 is a 6×4.5cm (55x42mm) camera that takes 15 shots on 120 or 30 shots on 220 film.  It comes in two variants, one with a 60mm f/4 lens (corrected for angle of view and film grain, it would be a 35mm f/2 on a 35mm camera) and one with a 45mm f/4 lens (like a 24mm on a 35mm camera).  It has autoloading; auto or manual zone focusing; program, aperture and manual exposure modes; a built-in data imprinter; and built in flash.   These sell used for $500-600.

Build quality: despite complaints about its “plastic feel” seen on the internet, the Mamiya is a pretty solid camera, quite a bit heavier than older-style 6×6 rangefinders like the Super Ikonta A.  It has a metal chassis and black plastic covers.  All markings are done in paint, including (incredibly) lens distance and aperture markings.  It feels like a very substantial camera, and there is no play in the lens. Focusing is smooth and solid.

The Fuji GA645, which is of almost identical size (except front to back) to the Mamiya, is much more lightweight.  Its covers are a dark grey and they are reasonably tough. The camera’s frame, lens barrel and focusing mechanism are metal.

Design influences:  The MamiyaÕs collapsing lens mount looks a lot like the one on a Retina IIc, right down to the internal bellows.  The grip and shutter release feel a lot like the one on a Nikon MD-4, albeit a tiny bit rounder. I don’t know where the huge shutter speed dial came from.

The Fuji GA645 came in on the same alien satellite that brought the Andromeda Strain to earth.  Actually, it appears to have been carved from a single block of soap. I have had this camera for four years, and I still could not tell you what it is supposed to look like.

Loading: On the M6, the pivoting pressure plate (rotates 90 degrees) sets the film plane and the counter for 120 or 220.  It also activates a window on the camera back which shows you what type of film you are using.  You pop out the spools by sliding two rectangular levers.  Film loads from left to right.  You line up the arrows on the paper backing with metal arrows in the film chamber by advancing the wind lever (one stroke per frame).  You then close the back and advance to frame 1.  Note: you cannot dry-fire a Mamiya 6 Ð if you want to play, you can wind discarded paper backing onto a 120 spool and use it that way.  Or you can pop the back open. After 12 frames with 120 or 24 with 220, the camera will keep winding.  The Mamiya is slightly harder to load, because it has a key-slot spool for the supply side Ð this provides extra tension on the film (supply side), apparently to prevent light leaks.

On the Fuji, you slide the pressure plate off its two pins and flip it over.  The camera then shows 120 or 220 on the LCD panel and sets the digital counter accordingly.  Loading is exceptionally simple.  Two red push buttons pop the spools.  Bring the backing over left to right, turn the control wheel to wind on, and as soon as it catches, close the back.  The camera detects the film start and winds to frame 1 accordingly.  There is no tensioning mechanism other than the spring on the supply spool, but I have had no light leaks from this arrangement. Film winds automatically with each exposure.  At the end of 15 or 30 exposures, the camera will wind up the film automatically (there is a button for doing that early, too).  You can set the camera to beep on the 14th or 28th frame to warn you that you will soon be out of film.

Viewfinder: The Mamiya 6 MF has an approximate 0.7x magnification and has aluminized (color-neutral) beamsplitters).  It features a rangefinder spot with vernier (hard) edges, a red LED shutter speed scale, and a warning light which comes on when the darkslide is closed or the camera is not cocked.  The 6 MF (as opposed to the 6) also has internal frame markings for 6×4.5 (horizontal) and 24x55mm panoramic.  These switch sizes depending on which lens you have mounted.  Framelines are parallax-corrected (position) but not field-corrected (image size). The Mamiya 6 viewfinder (except for the shape and the particular framelines) is identical to that on the Hexar RF.  The viewfinder is about the brightest, clearest I have seen on a medium-format rangefinder.  The shutter speed scale tends to get lost when you are shooting in bright light (just like it does on the Hexar).  This is a little problematic, since shading the VF affects the metering.  So the trick is to set the aperture for something you know will work if you have the camera on AE.  Camera reads exposure from the viewfinder.  Diopter correction is via supplemental lenses which push into the generous rubber eyecup. Like Leicas and Hexars, the Mamiya 6 finder is a little bit sensitive to eye position.

The Fuji GA645 carries forward the gold-beamsplitter rangefinder from the GS645S (“crash bar”) model and the GS645 folder.  It has framelines that shrink to show the parallax- and field-corrected view. I suspect that if this is like older Fujis, the framelines show 100% of the field at the closest focus and something like 85% at infinity.  It also has a central crosshairs for the AF system.  Across the bottom of the field is a segmented LED display which shows aperture (f/4 to f/22), shutter speed (slow to 1/700 sec), distance, flash (if enabled) and over/under indicators for manual metering.  The Fuji finder is not as bright, in part because the meter cell (as it does in other Fuji 645s) reads off the reflection on the front of the beamsplitter.  This makes the meter fairly sensitive to yellowish light and makes the field look bluish.  Diopters are standard Nikon FE/FM/FA size Ð not that you really need dioptric correction on an AF camera.

Both cameras have ample eye relief for glasses.

Shutter release: both cameras have both an electromagnetic shutter release and a standard cable release socket on the side. The Mamiya shutter release has far less travel (because it is a 2, not 3 stage switch).

Flash: both cameras have an X-synch hot shoe.  The Mamiya also has an X PC terminal on the back, right under the flash shoe.  The Fuji has a built-in pop-up flash that while wimpy, is pretty handy in a pinch. I am not sure if either camera would be fried by high-voltage synch, but I seem to remember sticking a Vivitar 283 on my Fuji at some point.

Lens: Aha!  Here is where the fun starts.  The Mamiya standard lens is a collapsible 75mm f/3.5 with 6 elements in 4 groups, multicoated.  The incorporated electronic leaf shutter has speeds to 1/500 sec.  Filter size is a massive 58mm (consider that a 28mm filter covers a RolleiflexÕs lens of equal size, coverage and speed).  This lens is the equivalent (horizontally) of a 45mm lens on a 35mm camera.  With a 1m minimum focus, this reaches 0.081x on film.  If you consider this lens on a 6×4.5 image, as you can with the optional mask, it is also a 45mm equivalent.

The Fuji has a 60mm f/4 lens with 7 elements in 6 groups, multicoated.  Maximum shutter speed is 1/400 sec, with 1/700 sec at f/11 and f/16.  Filter size is 52mm.  This lens is the equivalent of a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera.  With its 0.7m minimum focus, this lens reaches 0.093x, or 15% bigger than the Mamiya, despite the wide-angle lens.

Ok, time for an editorial.  With any interchangeable lens medium-format RF,  the highest-magnification lens there is is the normal lens.  Telephotos for these cameras never exceed the coverage of an 85mm lens for a 35mm camera, and even then they tend to focus at 2m or more at the closest.  So if you pick up a telephoto, you might consider it primarily a landscape lens. You might want to consider that apparent distortion picks up closer than about 1.5m, so you might consider enlargement as a better way of “zooming-in.”

Part 2: Operation

Collapsible lenses: both cameras feature collapsible lenses.  These make the cameras more compact, but even then it is a tight fit for the Fuji in a pocket.  The Mamiya is about 1 cm bigger, which makes it easier to fit in a bag but just about a total loss for a coat pocket.

Focusing: the Mamiya has a wonderful coupled rangefinder that is very bright and very clear.  That said, it is somewhat slow to focus because the grip on the focusing ring is quite small.  It does have a lot of snap, but when you are focusing on human eyes at the minimum focusing distance, you need to turn the camera 90 degrees to focus on an eyelid.  This is mainly a feature of the magnification, which has to be low enough to accommodate 50mm framelines.  The rangefinder does not work when the lens is collapsed.  In practice, the Mamiya is quick to focus and shoot.

The Fuji finder is not as bright and not as clear, but it does not need to be, since it is a framing aid only.  There are three focus modes with the Fuji: auto, manual and auto with hold.  Manual focus lets you set predetermined distances with which you can hyperfocal-focus (as I do 99% of the time).  The AF mechanism uses both active and passive elements and in more than 150 rolls of film now has missed maybe once.  The viewfinder display indicates distance and confirms where the camera is focused.  The Fuji is quick to shoot if you have some idea of what you are doing.  I think that the AF is most useful for low-light situations and it is pretty accurate.

Exposure: On the Mamiya, you set the exposure mode (AE or AE lock) or shutter speed via the large (yeah!) shutter speed dial.  You can also set film speed and exposure compensation (+/- 2 stops in 1/3-stop increments) via coaxial dials.  Aperture you set yourself on the lens.  There are over and under indicators for out of range, you match-diode by matching indicated shutter speed with the flashing one, but there is no exposure compensation warning.  In essence, if you can hack a 70s SLR or a Hexar RF, you can handle this one.

On the Fuji, the exposure mode (P, A or M) is set on the back of the camera.  In A, you turn the control wheel to set apeture and in M you press the Tv button down to change the shutter speed.  Exposure compensation (+/-2 stops, half-stop increments) is set by pressing the +/- button and turning the wheel.  There are up and down arrows in the viewfinder.  If the shutter is out of range, the speed flashes.  The EV compensation warning shows up on the LCD panel.  This takes some getting used to Ð unless  you are already an EOS owner.

Shooting: the Mamiya has no shutter lag and is very, very quiet (a lot more quiet than a Bessa-R).  Winding feels a little rougher than a Nikon F3, but it is similar in feel.  Single stroke advance is a welcome innovation for someone like me who is used to huge double-stroke Fujis.

The Fuji has some shutter lag if you have not already focused, and its winding mechanism and focus can be loud (although they are not obtrusive indoors).  The Fuji advances about 1 frame per second, single shot only.

Focusing: the Mamiya has interlocks to prevent you from focusing or shooting with the lens retracted or with the darkslide activated (the farbic internal darkslide is well-engineered not to be activated or opened by accident). The Fuji has no interlocks because when the lens is retracted, the camera is off, and it does not have a darkslide because it has a fixed lens.

Part 3: Format wars

One reviewer has called the Mamiya 6 MF’s multiformat finder “idotic,” “stupid,” and “cockamamie” and has decried the viewfinder as being full of “distracting blips.” His conclusion is that “Smart people just shoot the full 6×6 aperture and crop later.” This is something of an overreaction.

First, starting with the 6MF finder, the “blips” are small marks along the frame edges. They do not intrude into the frame by more than 1mm, viewed in the “virtual” size of the finder. These are actually quite useful, because the horizontal 6×4.5 frame defined in the viewfinder shows you what can be cropped into a 6×4.5 aspect (or more practicaly, an 8×10 print). While some people can apparently shoot a 6×6 frame and crop it perfectly down to 6×4.5, it helps to have some indication of how much scene fits into 6×4.5. So framelines are good.

Second, on the format adapters, I have to agree that any 6×4.5 mask that doesn’t increase the number of frames per roll (i.e., is not vertically-oriented) is not very useful. One aspect which should not be overlooked is that most 6×4.5 enlarging masks have the long side of the frame perpendicular to the length of the film. So you would have to use a 6×6 enlarging mask (or glass carrier) to print 6×4.5 negs turned out by the Mamiya 6 MF. Contrast this to the Rolleiflex T 16-frame adapter, which converted the Rolleiflex’s 6×6 frame to a 6×4.5, giving normally-oriented 6×4.5 negatives. The Rollei was a far more practical setup. Nor am I certain whether or not the 24×55 adapter is very useful. Although it has been pointed out that 35mm film, when shot in 55mm widths is just as expensive as MF film, there are a ton of 35mm films that do not come in medium-format (Kodachrome, Supra and Neopan 1600 being notable examples). The panoramic format does not look too terribly wide, but to each his own.

On the greater issue of 6×6 and 6×4.5 (Mamiya vs. Fuji), I think it is something of a wash.

If you anticipate that your final output will be rectangular, 6×4.5 has just as much usable film area as 6×6 and requires an equal amount of enlargement to reach a given size. Against this, the shorter lenses used on 6×4.5 cameras provide more depth of field. Film cost is something of a non-issue if you do black and white work, since TMY is $2/roll at B&H.

On the other hand, 6×6 is good if you like square compositions. You can, with a lot of discipline, compose so that it can be “cropped either way,” but in my experience, you will back up too far from the subject in an attempt to leave room for cropping. This means that the on-film image will actually be smaller than it would be on 6×4.5. Moreover, most subjects I have seen just don’t crop both ways. Head shots in square format can look really good.

Part 4: Optical Performance

Above is a shot taken with the Mamiya’s 75mm f/3.5 from the second floor of a parking deck across a street from Comerica Park in Detroit. Exposure was on Verichrome Pan, f/8 and 1/500 sec. Below is the tiny section of the negative that shows a batter, the catcher, and the umpire (visible as dots right above the center of the five statues). As a section at 4000 dpi brought up to 1:1 on screen, this is more than a 50x enlargement. Not too shabby, and you almost have to wonder if with a finer-grained film (is there one?), the Mamiya would be even better.

mamiya6general

mamiya6detail

Part 5: Bear vs. Shark – Mamiya 6 vs. Fuji GA645

Ok, kids, this is what you’ve been waiting for. The $1200 Mamiya 6 vs. the lowly $450 Fuji GA645. The test shot is on Verichrome Pan 120, shot at the same mid-aperture (f/8), developed in Aculux 2 and scanned on a Sprintscan 120 with a glass carrier. The differences in comparison pictures are due to the different viewing angles of the lenses. The Mamiya 6 is the equivalent of a 42mm lens; the GA645 has the equivalent of a 37mm lens. Black point was set to the film base; white point was set to the imprint.

m6test

Above: Lower end of the tonal scale. Mamiya 6 (left); Fuji GA645 (right). No advantage either way – both cameras are resolving details as small as the film grain. The Mamiya has a slight edge in the stone seams.

Above: Highlights. Mamiya 6 (above); Fuji GA645 (below). Fuji has a slight edge in separating highlights, but it may well be that the Mamiya is giving marginally more exposure, putting the film over its shoulder (admittedly taking a lot of exposure to do that on VP).

Above: High-contrast object. Mamiya 6 (left); Fuji GA645 (right). No palpable advantage either way – the Mamiya looks more contrasty, but this may be an exposure difference (more) or even a higher magnification.

So what’s the call? Hard to say. It’s a dead heat between the two, and it may boil down solely to your personal preference in terms.

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