This is all about using selective focus to emphasize a subject, and use of exaggerated perspective to draw the eye into and through the image. This is one of the things I like extreme wide-angles for – the exaggerated foreground-background relationships that happen when you put them very close to something give you a new non-eye-like point of view on your subject that really forces you to consider it formally, abstractly and within its context.
A street find while walking around with the LC-A 120. This is under the railroad tracks that cross the South Bank pier of London Bridge, just across the street from Southwark Cathedral.
I happened to look down, and then saw this admonition to “Look Right ->”. I found it mildly amusing that traffic flow was considered so confusing that it was necessary to tell people which direction to look before crossing the street. And I love the crunchy texture of the pavement and sidewalk. This is at the corner of Finsbury Square where it abuts City Road in central London.
This is another image from the Lomo LC-A 120. The only real reason I ever mention the cameras I use nowadays is to prove a point about there being little to no correlation between the “quality” of camera you use and the quality of the images you make. I have very little control over the LC-A beyond what I point it at, when I choose to trip the shutter, the film I load in it, and the rough guesstimate of the distance between me and the subject. Everything else is really out of my control. But the decisions that are most important are the ones I do have control over – what to point it at and when to trip the shutter.
Knowing my camera and how it records images is also helpful to getting what I want out of the image, of course. But this image above would have not been any more successful if I shot it with a Hasselblad Superwide, a Rolleiflex TLR, or my Fuji XT-1, each of which offer far more control and precision than the LC-A.
I’m entranced by the range of things happening in this photo. The geometry of the space (especially the grid on the floor) leading your eye back toward a vanishing point, the contrast between the stark modernity of the room structure and the gnarled, organic forms of the ancient Greek temple, the static, permanent nature of the architecture (all the moreso thanks to the twenty-five hundred year old temple in the room) providing backdrop for the hustle-bustle of people circulating the room, and the movement around the people stopped stock still to contemplate the temple. This was probably another 1/2 second exposure, maybe 1/4, hand-held with the Lomo LC-A.
As many of you who have been following my blog for any period of time are now aware, I’m a camera-toy junkie. My latest foray in camera toy land has been into the world of “toy” cameras. I’ve been working for several years on my Sinister Idyll series using my Lomo Belair X-6/12. Many would call it a “toy” camera because it is a plastic fantastic body, with aperture-preferred automatic exposure only, only two aperture choices, and manual guesstimate focusing only. It’s upgradeable (as I have done) with two Russian-made glass lenses (which are absolutely superb), but beyond that, it’s a glorified point-n-shoot that takes panoramic images on 120 roll film.
Well, I just acquired its spiritual cousin, the Lomo LC-A 120. The LC-A has a super-wide lens, also a Russian glass lens, and a fully automatic shutter and aperture (you have no say whatever in the exposure other than if you game the system by changing the ISO, and no idea which aperture it’s using because there is no indicator in the viewfinder, just a slow-shutter warning light). Focusing is achieved by selecting one of four focus zones via a lever on the side of the body. I’ve been plinking around with it here around Washington DC, and just gave it its first serious workout on the road when I took it with me to London.
One of the most obvious characteristics of the lens is a noticeable vignette in the corners. Applied properly, this is a very effective tool. Thanks to the automatic aperture, it’s not always predictable how much you’re going to get (see comment above about the aperture – with wider apertures and infinity focus, you get more vignetting. With smaller apertures and closer focus, you get little or no vignetting).
As you can see from the people moving around in this scene, the camera is quite sharp even at a larger aperture, and the extreme wide-angle (the same field of view as a Hasselblad Superwide) lets you hand-hold at speeds that would be very difficult with a normal lens on a reflex camera. I’m guessing this was somewhere between 1/8th and 1/2 second.
Even with the lens being so wide, you can achieve selective focus effects with it if you get in close. I highly recommend getting in close!
An extreme example of hand-holding (yes, I know – I have supernaturally steady hands). This was at least a one-second exposure.
The LC-A is a great travel camera because it’s so wide, it allows you to include a near-human-eye field of view, and the extreme light-weight and compact form factor make it very easy to take anywhere and carry all day. Ditto for the minimalist operation technique – you really just point, set focus range, and shoot.
Back here in DC, you can see another example of the vignette effect. I did tweak this a little to amplify it, but this is not a significant manipulation beyond what the camera did.
I like getting multi-layered images with partial reflections in glass. And it’s a bit of a self-portrait too, with my shadow falling in the image. I love how the construction workers have the microwave set up and working in the middle of a kitchen remodel – you have to have your priorities straight and keep the coffee warm!
A demonstration of not only the extreme field of view, but the color rendering of the lens. The camera has a reputation for deep, saturated colors. This was taken with 10+ years out-of-date Fuji Pro 400 H.
Again, you can never really get too close. This was a test of the close-focus/selective focus capability (the minimum focus setting is 1.5 feet).
Nice saturated colors even on decade-old film.
One of the things I’ve been enjoying about these “toy” cameras that give you very little control over your photograph is the way that they in many ways demonstrate the lack of need for that level of control to make good images. The extreme wide-angle of not only the LC-A but also the Belair force you to think very seriously about your composition, use of perspective, and manipulation of forced perspective to emphasize/de-emphasize compositional elements. With the Belair, I do have a “B” setting for the shutter to do long exposures and intentionally play with time, something I don’t have on the LC-A (but wish I did). Time is the one other critical component to a photograph that we do and simultaneously do not have control over – I can control when I open the shutter, and to some extent when I close the shutter (if I want a “correctly” exposed image, I must close it when it needs to be closed, not when I want it to be closed), but beyond that we have no real control over what happens WHILE the shutter is open. Things happen on their own. Movement is never fully predictable. Moving subjects speed up, slow down, change direction, or stop without warning.
I’ve started thinking of these cameras that I’ve been using – the Belair and the LC-A – as “serendipity boxes” because to use them successfully, they require an acceptance of serendipity, chance, and fortune. They’re life-metaphors in a way – just like in my own life, I can point them a certain direction, look at specific things, get closer, and turn away. But if I don’t learn how to see through them, to take in the periphery, work within the uniquely skewed perspectives that they offer, I’ll miss out on things that are presented to me because they didn’t fit in the tightly-controlled box I wanted them to fit into.
For those curious what the heck I’ve been talking about when I mention my Lomo Belair X/6-12, and the Russian glass lens for it, here you go. The Belair is an odd little beast – collapsible folding strut camera, takes 6×6, 6×9 or 6×12 centimeter negatives depending on which insert you use, is manual focus, scale focusing (you guess the distance and set it on the lens, and compose through an un-coupled viewfinder), has only two aperture options – f/8 or f/16, has manual film advance via red window, yet has an automatic shutter over which the only control you have is changing the ISO dial. Bulb exposures are an option.
The camera out of the box comes with some plastic fantastic lenses (a 90mm and a 58mm). The 90 has perceptible but not egregious distortion, reasonable contrast, and acceptable sharpness. The 58 is, well, not so good. The viewfinder for the 58 has less distortion than the lens does! After the Belair had been out for maybe 6 months or a year, they introduced a limited run of Russian-made all-glass optics for it – a 90mm and a 114mm. I got into the Belair game too late to be able to buy the glass lenses from Lomography, as they were sold out. The lenses were also quite expensive from Lomography, the Belair vendor. I believe they were something on the order of $300 apiece.
After having used the Belair with the plastic lens for a while, I got the itch to try and find the glass lenses. That’s when I discovered that they had all been sold, and nobody had any old stock sitting around. They didn’t show up with any frequency on Ebay either. I had particularly wanted to find the 90mm, but no dice. Then along came someone selling their 114mm. The price was good, so I jumped on it rather than take a chance on missing out.
In addition to the primary reason for getting the glass lens – the glass in the lens with its exceptional sharpness and flare resistance – the ability to precisely control focus is another benefit. The plastic lenses have four distances marked on the barrel – infinity, 3 meters, 1.5 meters and 1 meter (infinity, 9 feet, 4.5 feet and 3 feet for the metrically challenged). If you wanted to focus in between, you had to guess at the distance and hope the depth of field would carry the day. The Zenit-made 114mm and 90mm lenses have many intermediate distances marked on the focusing ring, which is silky smooth without being loose. The ability to much more precisely place your focus means that you can intentionally place objects in or out of focus. This is a major artistic control and a very welcome addition.
I’m including this scan of a negative made by the 114 so you can see the sharpness and particularly the flare resistance – I’ve had more flare on my Rolleiflex with the lens hood attached with the sun NOT in the picture. While Russian camera bodies may have been shall we say quality-control challenged (particularly in the Soviet era), their optics are truly outstanding. This should be proof enough to put doubt to rest that Russian lenses are up to par with their German and Japanese peers.
The image was shot on ten year out of date Ilford FP4+, and developed in Pyrocat HD.
I’ve been having so much fun lately with my photography. As it should be – it should never be WORK – it should be fun. And the Lomo Belair X/6-12 is part of the reason. Yeah, it’s lo-fi, it has a plastic fantastic lens, it’s auto-exposure with virtually no feedback (you never have any idea what shutter speed you’re using). But you’re shooting medium format panoramics! And for $250!! Where are you going to find a (useable) Brooks Veriwide or a Horseman 6×12 for $250? Even a 6×12 roll back for a 4×5 will set you back $400. So there’s a lot to like about it for the money.
And although the negatives themselves are, shall we say, less than razor-sharp, they do make awesome contact prints (witness my Roman panoramics and my recent Sinister Idyll series). This triptych was inspired by a vertical panorama series I saw someone else do. Theirs was a landscape, but I thought this office/apartment/retail complex in Washington DC would make a good urban subject to try it out on.
Another fun experiment with my Lomo. This time a vertical panoramic triptych. I intentionally skewed the middle panel to give what is otherwise a very static subject some visual movement and dynamism.