The camera made for the young soviet generation, the Lomo Smena 8M, has made its place in history. Smena (CMEHA) is Russian for “Young Generation” which is the market this camera was aimed at. Production over 35 years ensured millions of soviet families recorded their memories with it. It is somewhat of an enigma though, where it is very easy to classify it as a toy, but it is also part of a photographic movement which was named after the company, namely “Lomography”. A modern-day company is also called Lomography, such is the popularity of that photography style.
Lomography tends to divide the photographic community. “Serious” photographers tend to classify it something Hipsters do, while people with more of an open interpretation of art, or said Hipsters for example, love to experiment beyond the normal. Personally, I feel anything that gets people to use film and helps re-grow the film community is a great thing, whatever the form. If the photographer enjoys the process and the results, it is a good thing.
I found this little gem at a collector’s market for a few dollars. There was no way I was going to leave it there. I got quite excited, I had heard contradicting but interesting things about the lens. When I picked it up, it felt like a toy as it was so light. It intrigued me, as there are even a group of people that have had the lens removed from this camera and adapted them to not only mirrorless digital cameras, but to even Leica Thread Mount (LTM)! So, a camera which produces unique results but in a way which is very successful, how could anyone resist trying it out.
There is a misconception that the Kodak Instamatic was the camera with the largest production number. Kodak achieved this by creating multiple models, reaching 60 million units. When you break this down to individual models though, the Smena had a production run of 21 million of pretty much the same camera. This technically makes it the most produced camera in history.
The Lomo Smena was produced from 1952 until the late 1980’s. It was mainly produced for the local soviet market, but there were some exports too. My copy is the Smena 8M, from the late 1970’s, and is one of the exports as I suspect “Made in the USSR” in English was not something the local ones had stamped on the camera.
It was quite a strange approach to sell these in the 70s and 80s, as automated cameras with relative good metering were already in the market and the Lomography movement had not even been invented.
Interestingly I could not find much information about this camera, like who designed it etc. When I then looked up information about Lomo I understand why. Lomo (in Cyrillic it is “ЛОМО”) is short for “Leningradskoe Optiko Mechanichesckoe Objedinenie”. The company and manufacturing was based in St. Petersburg. This was one of the largest and most secretive companies in the Soviet Union. It was renamed to Lomo in 1966, before that, it was called GOMZ.
I can see why the Smena 8M is considered by many as a toy camera. It is mostly made with a plastic body, mixed in with a brushed aluminium housing around the lens. What a compliment of materials! It is so light I originally thought someone must have removed the insides. My copy is an updated second model, designated the PK3440.
One of the surprises though, was that within this wonder of lightweight plastic it houses a glass, three element triplet lens, the T-43. I must admit that I originally thought the lens must be plastic due to the lightness. The exposure controls are all on the lens, which allows for apertures from f/4 though to f/16. Interestingly the apertures are also the ISO control. For instance, f/8 is the setting for ASA 100 or GOST 125 in the old Russian scale for the older models. The DIN scale is also on the lens.
On top of the lens are the speed settings for the shutter, expressed in weather symbols. The speeds in numeric form are represented on the side towards the bottom. The range is from 1/250 to 1/15 of a second and Bulb. The idea is that the symbols, combined with the aperture, which also represents the film speed will have the right exposure settings for you. For instance, if you are shooting on a cloudy day using ISO 100 film, the aperture would be set to f/8 and the shutter speed on the full cloud symbol would equate to 1/60th second. You can of course use the manual approach and set all these manually.
Focus is also on the lens, by twisting it through the usual symbols showing a person through to mountains. Closest focus is 1 metre, and being a viewfinder camera has to be estimated. A scale to determine depth of field is also printed on the lens.
The top of the camera has the shutter release with a cable thread, a cold shoe and a film rewind wheel. The back of the camera has the film advance wheel, the finder and what is termed by most people, the most useless film counter in any camera, ever. The view finder is plain with no parallax correction.
Opening the back generally means dropping the film spool which is not attached. You must remember to set the film counter to zero manually too.
When I found the Smena 8M at the market, I recognised that it was a Lomo and since I had spent a year working in Moscow I thought it would be good to get another Russian camera. I also recalled that several these cameras had the lens removed and converted to Leica Thread Mount, and mainly used on digital cameras. So, I made an offer and took it home.
When the time came to load some film, I hit the first problem. I was originally going to use colour film, but all my film is rated at ISO 400. As the camera has a top shutter speed of 1/250th second, a fast film would not be possible to shoot during the day. I loaded it with some Kodak T-Max 100, and initially set it to f/8. We have all heard of “f/8 and be there”.
Loading the film itself was not that hard, once I picked up the spool as it fell out of the camera back. I even remembered to reset the counter to zero, not that it mattered as true to the reports, it was pretty much useless. It tended to just spin around randomly as I advanced the film.
Shooting was easy enough, I used a combination of its “auto” exposure with the weather symbols and manual override. My first time was when I was out shooting at Maroubra Beach, south east of Sydney. Ironically, I was there to shoot the sunset with the Mamiya RB67, so it was a matter of the big and small of it.
What I did love was that it pretty much made me invisible. I could photograph anywhere and no one would pay attention, as it was a little plastic camera. I did find that I kept forgetting cock the shutter, as this is a manual lever on the side of the lens and not something you tend to have to do with a camera with this form factor.
The focus throw is something that I had to get used to as well. It is huge! To move from 1 metre through to infinity takes almost a full wind of the lens barrel. I must admit though, all these quirks aside, I had really good time with this.
Second time out I took it with me to North Sydney, just over the harbour. Again, it was very easy to shoot without attracting much attention. The shutter is very quiet, which definitely helps.
When I finished the film, and got back the negatives I was pleasantly surprised. In the middle this lens is sharp. Contrast is also good. It did not take much to bring out the details, especially in the middle. It is when you start to move out of the middle of the frame that things get a bit funky. There is a big drop off in sharpness and contrast. The blacks also get a bit muddy.
I also got some strange lines of overexposure on both sides of the frame, so suspect there is some light bouncing around in the lens. Instead of detracting though, these imperfections add to the charm. I can understand now that for people which want a different look, this is an attractive lens.
I have seen examples of colour film and this lens seems to have a very strange rendition. In the future, I will probably try some slower colour film to try it out as I had a heap of fun with this camera. Considering they are so cheap, and if you use the exposure symbols on the lens, very easy to use, find one and try it out. Just make sure you know what you are getting out of it.