Well, not forgotten. But let’s face it, the marketing geniuses at Lomography haven’t exactly promoted the Lomo Smena Symbol. Its price on ebay reflects this. A brand new Lomo LC-A+ from lomography.com can set you back almost £300. Ouch! But you’re really buying a brand. You’re buying a brilliant piece of marketing.
The Smena Symbol (and it’s relative the 8M) costs a fraction of the price of an LC-A+. £20 should get you a decent one. Admittedly it’s bigger, clunkier, and not in any way automatic. But it is a Lomo. Really, it’s a Lomo!
Unfortunately it also has a major disadvantage for Lomographers: it actually takes pretty decent photos. Oh dear.
Everything on this camera is manual, but it manages to make itself sort of easy to use with a cleverish symbol system. Hence the name. You set the aperture without really realising it by setting the film ISO setting. 250 ISO is the maximum speed, and sets the aperture to f/16. Meanwhile setting the shutter speed involves nice little sun/cloud symbols. Sun equals 1/250sec, very cloudy equals 1/15sec.
How do I know what all these settings equate to? Weirdly both the ISO and symbol settings also tell you what aperture and shutter speed you’re using. Do you really care? Isn’t this camera meant to be taking the complexity out of photography? Presumably a camera geek helped design the Smena Symbol, and they just couldn’t resist making sure there was just a bit of technical geekery in there somewhere.
Being mostly plastic, the Smena Symbol is nice and lightweight. Not as light as a Diana or Holga, but not too bad. So you won’t be all that bothered carrying it around, if like me it tends to get used as a backup camera to a digital camera. But because of the Symbol’s size, you won’t fit it into anything other than a very large coat pocket. I don’t know quite why it’s so big. It’s not like it uses 120 film, or is full of complex electronics and gadgetry. But there you go. Soviet engineering.
So on balance the people at Lomography perhaps had a point in not promoting the Smena Symbol. It doesn’t have any of the ease of use or compactness of an LC-A, and doesn’t have the weird toy camera charm of a Diana or Holga. It does have a certain charm all its own however, but at the end of the day it’s basically a cheap, functional, bulky Soviet camera which takes reasonable photos.
I’ll admit it: I fall for every single Apple and Lomography marketing trick. They never fail to reel me in with their cunning promises of life-changingly cool gadgets at exorbitant prices. Somehow the price-tag always seems worth it though. You’re buying something more than the physical thing. You’re buying the design, the packaging, the overall brand, blah, blah. Yes, we all know that.
The Diana Mini is the little brother of the legendary Diana camera, and is yet another triumph of Lomographic marketing and design. What’s basically a plastic toy camera which should sell for about a tenner on a good day retails for around £40. Even worse it seems to be aimed mainly at the Japanese and Korean teenage girl market. I’m a man. I’m 42. I’m not Japanese or Korean. Why am I even writing about this camera? Help!
It is worth pointing out that a lot of photographers hate everything that Lomography stands for with a vengeance. But a lot of people love it. I’m not going to get rants in my pants about all this right now.
So is the Diana Mini worth buying?
Yes. If you like playing with film cameras of all sorts and enjoy the lo-fi effects these sorts of toy cameras give (and have £40 or so to spare). You don’t have to be a teenager, or Korean. Then a resounding Yes. Here are the reasons why I think that.
The Diana Mini is a small, plastic camera. It weighs almost nothing. If you keep dropping things then this is the kind of thing you’d not want to drop. Buy it and don’t drop it.
Otherwise build quality is surprisingly solid for a plastic camera.
Looking at photos on stock photography sites is a depressing experience. Technically very good. Technically very dull. These photos suck all the joy out of photography.
Luckily no self-respecting stock photo site will go anywhere near your Diana Mini photos. They want the kind of sharp, perfectly-focused, perfectly-lit photos that you’ll never get from a Diana Mini. If you like taking high-quality perfectly-exposed photos of yachts, flowers, animals, trees, fruit, semi-naked muscular men holding tiny babies, etc. then don’t get a Diana Mini. You’ll just hate it.
The whole ethos of toy cameras like this is to have fun taking interesting photos.
Half or square
The Diana mini is unique (I think) in its ability not just to take square format photos on 35mm film, but to be able to switch between this and half-frame format. You can switch between the two formats as many times as you want on a film, although as I discovered this can get very confusing when you’re processing and printing your photos.
Focus? Bah humbug! The focus ring is fiddly and none too easy to change in a hurry (I much prefer the little lever you get in Lomo LC-As.) The fact that the focus ring sticks on the 4m-infinity setting suggests this is the default setting which you can pretty much keep the camera set on all the time. Which begs the question: why bother at all?
The Diana Mini is easy to use once you’ve realised that absolutely spot-on exposure really isn’t all that important. Take photos of something interesting.
There are two shutter settings: ‘N’ for normal (1/60sec) and ‘B’ for… erm… bulb. Of course. The name comes from one of those freaky accidents of history, but it means the shutter stays open as long as you hold the lever down. A second or so is fine for indoors.
There are two aperture settings: cloudy weather and sunny weather. To be honest there’s not much difference between these (one f-stop). As with the focus ring: why bother?
The Mini’s instruction booklet suggests 100 ISO film for a sunny day, and 400 for a gloomy day. Great if you live somewhere permanently sunny and happy (the two are apparently linked) like California. Not much use if you live in the UK. Oh well.
Developing and printing
A very major issue with this camera is what to do with the film once you’ve taken your photos. Taking them down to your local automated film processing lab may work. Probably not. Film processing is becoming less and less common, and processing/printing half-frame or square format 35mm film is almost certainly going to be beyond the cababilities of a standard high street lab. There are still some places which specialise in this kind of niche film photography, such as West End Cameras in London or Digitalab in Newcastle. Black & white home processing/printing is an option for some people of course.
Flash and other bits
The Mini also has a mount for a tripod. A tripod?!? Why would anyone ever want to use a tripod with this camera? It also has a remote shutter release connection, presumably so you can make sure you don’t wobble your tripod-enabled Mini as you take a long-exposure shot.
Slightly more useful is the flash connector, which lets you put a Diana F+ flash on the camera. I have one of these, but I don’t have any example photos yet. You can even insert coloured filters over the flash to get weird Lomo effects. But in all other repects it’s just an oversized flash.
I think it’s worth mentioning that the Diana Mini has at least one rival in the miniature toy camera world: the Golden Half. This is made by the Japanese Superheadz people, and takes half-frame photos. I don’t have this camera, but by all accounts it’s about the same price and size, but a little more robust. Importantly it can’t switch to full-frame square photos like the Mini.
I like the Diana Mini. It’d be lovely if you could buy one for a bit less money than it typically sells for, but there you go. Isn’t that true of everything?
It tries – and succeeds – in replicating the epic Diana camera in 35mm format rather than 6cmx6cm 120 film. In theory this opens up the world of the Diana to mere mortals. But 35mm in square or split-frame format is not really going to be any easier to process than 120, so in practice using this camera will take as much dedication as the original Diana.
If you want an easy photographic experience just get a nice point and shoot digital camera for £100 or so. The Diana Mini offers a nice way to go somewhere different. But you will have to put in a bit of time, effort, and money to get there.
The FED-2 is a solid Soviet rangefinder camera built during the 50s and 60s. In an age of tiny digital cameras which employ magic to allow you to take thousands of perfectly exposed photos of your cat, there’s something reassuring about occasionally dipping into a past where cameras were real, mechanical objects that mere mortals could just about understand. Taking a photo of your cat was a challenging, artistic experience.
The great thing about these old cameras, and FEDs in particular, is that there are so few moving parts that almost nothing can go wrong, and as an extra insurance they built the things to last anyway.
Even better FEDs are pretty cheap. £20 or £30 on eBay should get you a reasonable FED from some bloke in Eastern Europe, where they abound. When you consider that these were pretty reasonable copies of Leica rangefinders of the period, and that these will set you back hundreds or even thousands, FEDs really do seem like great value. And you’re not buying into that whole Leica inflated-price nonsense, so you can actually take your camera out its case and use it without fear of damaging something close to a museum piece.
Below is a photo of my FED-2. It’s a B4 with a blue case. Weirdly they decided to colour their cameras in black, blue, green, and red. Don’t ask me why, because the colours are pretty dull. But I guess in the exciting world of the late 50s Soviet Union these colours must’ve seemed pretty wacky. It dates from c. 1957 and still takes good photos.
OK it doesn’t have a light meter, and is totally manual. But if you want to take photos – really take photos – then what better way? A great way to learn the art of photography, certainly. Guesstimating light levels (or using the Sunny 16 rule) based on your film type, shutter speed, and aperture give you a really good feel for what you’re actually doing when you take a photo, and help you really focus on your surroundings, your subject, light quality…
Of course, you make lots of mistakes. Digital photography takes care of stuff for you much more. True, you can learn very easily on a digital camera because you can see instantly that your photo is crap. Maybe the learning process with an old manual camera is slower, but somehow more rewarding. Or am I just getting old and weird?
The name “FED”, by the way, comes from F. E. Dzerzhinsky, the man in charge of what later became the KGB. Scary stuff. And by all accounts conditions at the factory in the Ukraine where FEDs were made were not good at all. Not good at all.
But hey, we all buy cheap goods made in the sweatshops of the far east. I own an iPhone after all… So to the uber-cool liberal thinkers and artists of the pre- and post-war eras, “Soviet” often meant something more positive than we understand today. They could brush aside the small details of the crushing brutality and unfairness of the Soviet regime with the broad sweep of Ideology. It’s therefore likely that Picasso, famously interested in photography as art, made a point by owning Soviet cameras such as the FED-2.
Here’s a photo of him with a FED-2. So there you go. He owned a FED.
I’m not sure who took the photo, or when, or quite why (two watches? Making a point about something I guess…) But that’s definitely a FED-2 round his neck, despite some people on some flickr forums I’ve seen thinking it might be a Leica.
Even better, I’m pretty confident in saying it’s a FED-2 B4.
Nerdy? Well, ok. But as far as my nerdiness can tell, Picasso’s camera is identical to the one I have. And that seems a pretty cool fact to me.
The key things to look out for in a FED-2 B are:
- case with two buttons
- flash sync socket just to the side of the lens
- Industar-26M lens
You can see all these clearly in my comparison photos below.
Unfortunately identifying it as a B4 rather than any old B is trickier, because you can only tell for sure from the serial number, and the style of shutter speed dial. But I’m sure it must be a B4 because of the Industar lens.
For those of you interested in such things, I found the sovietcams.com site particularly useful for identifying Soviet cameras.
The Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II – a truly classic lens. Cheap, plasticy, but excellent image quality. It’s just about as good as my 24-105 L series lens which is many times more expensive. I regularly use my 50mm 1.8 as a lightweight alternative on my Canon 5D2.
Here’s a shot I just took on my 5D2 at f/3.5 which gives pretty crisp results.
Another shot, this time at f/1.8
OK, these images are relatively lightweight ones on a webpage. And ok I’m not a lens nerd, so I can’t go into the various optical nuances of this lens versus a more expensive one. But to me the above images don’t seem too bad for a lens which costs somewhere around the £80 mark from Amazon. Even blown up to full 20 megapixel glory I find it hard to tell the difference between this lens and my rather more expensive 24-105mm L-series. It still seems amazing to me that it’s possible to get such great image quality from a little lens that’s a tenth the price of its L-series cousins.
By the way, on a lower-end APS-C DLSR the lens works really well as an 85mm portrait lens equivalent.
- good image quality
- very cheap
- lightweight. With a heavy camera body like the 5D2 this is sometimes actually more important than you might at first think.
- Hopelessly noisy and slow autofocus. But how often is fast autofocus crucial when you’re using f/1.8 anyway?
- No image stabilization. Hmmm… not a deal-breaker really.
- Plasticy body which doesn’t feel like it would stand up to much. In fact, mine ‘fell apart’ once when I dropped it. However it snapped back together easily enough! Works fine still, as the above images testify.