Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Smena Symbol Camera Review

The Smena Symbol is a camera which is as strange as its name. "Smena" is Russian for "The Young Generation", and so would've been a perfect name for a Russian rock group slated for the Ed Sullivan Show back in the day- except back then, at the height of Cold War I, that never would've happened! I feel like an absolute traitor writing about this camera in the early days of Cold War II, as Mr. Putin is making his point that his oligarchs are no more corrupt nor plentiful than American oligarchs (and he's probably right - remember Wall Street in 2008, but why can't all the oligarchs just leave us poor people be free???)

So, OK - Smena cameras have been around for a long time - introduced as a low cost Bakelite bodied camera for young people in 1953, and typically in Soviet Russia, these were over-produced by a huge margin, to keep the people working, but unfortunately, the people probably couldn't afford to buy them. So that Russia could get back some capital, quite a few made it to the West along with Zenit and Zorki cameras, and that's why there are still some kicking around today. Now, of course, they are being sold by the Lomographic Society.

Before my review begins in earnest, I just want to mention why I love this camera. I generally love Russian cameras, and have owned a few. I love them because they're just so weird, and using them really gets you thinking about photography. This Smena Symbol is no exception, but further to that, as you can see from these sample pics - it's turning my very familiar world into a dream world - that's why "Lomography" is all the rage among "the young generation" (and so the circle closes). Actually, the Smena 8M and Symbol are probably the two most capable cameras sold by "The Lomographic Society" (a German company) - they are fully manual, with a real glass lens in a metal barrel, a proper aperture-diaphragm, flash sync at all speeds and even an available optional rangefinder unit called the Blik. Lomography is more typically about all plastic toy cameras, with next to no provision for adjustment - very much like the beloved Kodak Brownie and low end Instamatic cameras from the same era.

Now let's talk about some of the Symbol's features. First of all, it's called the "Symbol" because it uses little icon weather symbols on the lens barrel to aid in exposure. Actually, these are directly connected with shutter speed selection, with the dark and stormy symbol being the slowest speed of 1/15 and the bright sunny symbol being 1/250, with the symbols on the lens' topside, and the numbers underneath. Surely those smart Ruskies must've gotten the idea from the little cardboard information flap that Kodak used to pack in every box of film? So, in addition to this rather limited range of shutter speeds, there is also a "B" (Bulb) position for holding the shutter open for long duration exposures. Unfortunately, the camera has no place for connecting the "bulb" to!! Strange.... indeed.

OK, I've already mentioned how the camera has a proper aperture built into the lens, and it appears to be a generous 8-blade design, with the blades well shaped to give an almost perfectly round diaphragm opening. Nice. But unless you've got some real old 25 ASA film in your freezer, don't expect to get great bokeh with this camera, because with a top shutter speed of only 1/250, and the slowest film available today being ISO 200, you'll typically have to have that aperture stopped way down to f8 or f11. The Smena Symbol is built to exploit slow film speed, and like I said, you can't buy that stuff no mo'.

In fact, the camera itself has a way of proving this point nicely. The aperture adjustment "ring" is on the very front of the lens, ranging from f4 - f16 in red numbers. You line up a little white dot pointer at each f# and there are no click stops. But get this - roughly a third way around the ring, there's another little white dot that lines up with another set of numbers which are black, laid out in two rows, one marked "DIN" and the other marked "ASA". Here in North America, we're used to ASA, which is now exactly the same as ISO, and the range of black numbers for ASA (ISO) is from 16 to 250, indicating the extremely slow film speeds this camera is meant for. It so happens that if you set your aperture at f8, the other dot is pointing to ASA-85. Never mind ASA and DIN, my first response was "WTF" naturally! My second response was to download an instruction manual. Then, after a quick read, it all became clear. The way the Symbol is supposed to be used is, well... "symbolically". All you really need to do to get well exposed pictures is set the aperture dial on the front to the FILM SPEED you're using (forget about f-stops, that's too complicated) - so if you've got ISO 200 film, set the pointer somewhere between ASA 130 and 250, and then set the "SYMBOL" on the lens, which actually sets the shutter speed- remember, to whatever the weather is doing - if it's partly cloudy, set accordingly, and then just keep shooting until the weather changes. Simple, and it would work. As for me, I did it the photographer's way - using ISO 200 film, but ignoring the ASA dial, which is directly connected with the aperture dial, I used my camera I always have with me in Manual  Mode and metered my shots, so as to get actual f-stop and shutter speeds, and set the Smena to the same values. It worked just fine. In other words, in spite of the constant aperture / ASA idea with variable shutter speed set according to a symbol representing the weather, you can still use this camera in a manner we're more accustomed to - use a light meter set to the film ISO you're using, take light readings, and set the recommended f-stop and shutter speed. If you're not packin' a compact digital camera with manual mode, there's an awesome Smartphone App called BeeCam, which is a light meter that's never let me down yet. Remember, the Smena Symbol not only provides the symbols, it also provides the numbers.

The camera also has a great 5-blade leaf shutter built into it's 43mm f4 lens. This alone makes the Smena Symbol a far better camera than the somewhat similar Olympus Trip-35, or the 35RC, both of which combine the shutter and aperture into a crude 2 bladed affair.

Finally a word about focussing. It's a totally manual focus, with conventional focus numbers on the lens barrel, in both feet and metres, ranging from 1 Metre through Infinity. But, in keeping with it's namesake, there are little symbols along the way for focusing too -  the little "stick-people and mountain" icons that are commonly seen on many older cameras, like the Trip-35. And, although there's no DOF Scale to help with Hyperfocal Distance, there happens to be an Icon on the lens, just to the left of the Landscape Icon, which approximates the focus position for Hyperfocal. And, if you want to be more precise, there's also an App for that, called DOF Calculator. Better still, for $20 on Ebay, you can buy the Blik Rangefinder attachment.

Now for the pros and Cons:


  • It's downright loveable!
  • Lightweight and fairly compact, although not pocketable.
  • It turns Film photos into instant art every time
  • Very tough plastic construction
  • Nice faux leather case
  • Optional rangefinder attachment
  • Separate multi-bladed leaf shutter and aperture
  • Flash syncs at all speeds
  • Wonderful shutter release lever on the side of lens barrel - sure beats a shutter button
  • Lens is good, but wonderfully bad at the same time - this is had to explain until you look at some photos taken by this camera.
  • Hyperfocal "Symbol" on the lens barrel.


  • Very bad viewfinder - it only covers 66%, meaning you need to move in closer than what the finder is telling you
  • Limited shutter speeds intended for film that has been out of production for decades
  • Shutter lever (by itself a "Pro") makes no provision for a cable ("bulb") attachment
  • Weird Aperture ring is fixed to film speed ASA scale - takes some getting used to, but it does make sense when you think about it
  • Loading film seems somewhat tricky - not sure why, as it is very conventional

So why would anyone even want a camera like the Smena Symbol nowadays? Mainly for two reasons - 1) there's no other way to get pictures that look like this, and -2) "Russia must be treated as an equal and its interests respected"  -Vladimir Putin, and he's right.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Smena Symbol

Retro Camera Retro Bike - Smena Symbol with Unknown Film
Just when I thought  I was going to shut this site down because I'd run out of things to talk about... an amazing little camera comes into my life!

As promised, two days ago, I would introduce you to my latest $4 yard sale find - a Russian Smena-Symbol camera. (Poor kid in this video - paid $100 bucks for his, and he's lamenting how he coulda had it for $60!!)

Now, keep in mind that I was using a very very expired "no-name" film for my first trial run - said film I had no idea even where it came from. Anyway it was ASA (ISO) 200, and it did indeed work. Here are eight shots off the roll which I posted to Flickr.

First, I'd like to start with some comparison shots I made during the same evening walkabout with both the Smena and my trusty Digital Compact - the DMC-LX5. This will help us see what's really going on here. All of the Digital pics were shot RAW and processed with DxO optics Pro; the Smena shots were developed at Walmart and scanned by me with my Epson V500 - so here we go:

DMC-LX5 My Car, My Driveway
Smena Symbol - My Car, My Driveway
The digital shot, as you'd expect, looks perfect. But doesn't the Smena shot look so yummy you could just eat it? In this first comparison, you can see how "bad" the Smena's viewfinder is - it only covers 65%, so it makes the view look closer than where you really are standing. I'll talk about this, and all the other idiosyncrasies in another Post - tomorrow.

DMC-LX5  The Thing in the Park That Never Moves
Smena-Symbol  The Thing in the Park That Never Moves
This (above) is the closest comparison pair I managed to get. I'm surprised at how much the digital camera over-exposed; oh wait - I was using it in Manual Mode so as to get light meter readings so I'd know how to adjust the Smena's shutter speed and aperture! Somehow I mis-read things and both pictures overexposed by about one EV. But I am glad this happened - notice how much better the Smena handled the over-exposure? This is typical of negative film - it over-exposes much more gracefully than digital - especially a compact digicam like the DMC-LX5; and don't forget, this was very long expired film, but it still took it on the chin. My verdict on this pair? Digital - "a bit disappointing" in sharpness and color;  Smena - "soft and dreamy" with surprisingly good detail.

DMC-LX5  Swan
Smena Symbol  Swan
Tthe Swan (above) - Why is the Digital Camera making the grass so green in all these shots? Even though the expired film is really muting the colors here, I find it looks far more natural. Again, you can see how I'm struggling with the Smena's viewfinder coverage, making me stand back too far. They say you shouldn't get too close to a Swan anyway.

DMC-LX5  Campus Building
Smena Symbol  Campus Building
Here's a great pair for comparison (above). Once again, I can only describe the digital shot as "perfect" - no other words come to mind, but I'm beginning to realize why digital photography is considered by some to be boring. Now, with the Smena, I must say there is no way anyone could possibly emulate the overall look I'm getting here with software from a digital camera. It is very natural, but soft and surreal at the same time. I'm all for Film Emulation, and use it with just about every shot, but now I can see how it means "emulation" with an elaborate and expensive lens using a film SLR, in much the same way as when I was comparing my EOS 5D (digital) with the EOS Elan-7 (film), using good film and the same lens on both cameras - I really wasn't seeing a whole lot of difference, other than a marked color variation. But there's no way of emulating film in a funky plastic Russian camera! You actually have to use the funky camera if you want pictures that look like this.

DMC-LX5  "Things" on Campus

Smena Symbol  "Things" on Campus
Time for just one more (above). I purposely shot directly into the sun with both of these, and in so doing, I finally got something great happening with the digital camera. Detail is stunning, textures are fabulous, and the light got diffused in a very lovely way. Nothing boring about this one. With the Smena on the other hand, we still see the extreme greying out of the color I assume to be caused by the expired film - also, I'm still struggling with that viewfinder - this time with bad parallax error which is always far worse with a vertical shot. The light from the direct sun didn't behave nearly as spectacularly as it did with the DMC-LX5, and there is simply too much loss of texture. So for this pair, I have to give top marks to the digital shot. With all the others, I really prefer what the old Russian Smena Symbol film camera was giving me.

Tomorrow, I'll talk more about actually using the Smena, and how it's just a little bit weird enough to be super cool. Stay tuned! Oh, I should add - Mike, it's great to be back!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Yard Sale

Taken With Lumix DMC-LX5, Processed With DxO Optics Pro, and Film pack - Kodak Elite Pro 200
I thought this was a perfect looking Yard Sale. We go to a lot of them, and oh yes - this past weekend, I happened to pick up one of these for $4.00 at a yard sale -

It's a plastic Russian camera called the Smena Symbol. I've already shot one role of film through it, but said film is questionable - I found it among my junk, it's an off-brand called "Snap Innovation" and I have no idea how old it is, or even where it came from. If I get any success at all with getting it processed today, I'll be posting the best shots here tomorrow, along with a very brief review of the Smena Symbol camera.

Friday, May 16, 2014

More, More...

Deep Crops

In my last Post, I had pretty much said it was going to be the "last post". But I was cheered on by my friend Mike, addressing my problem that I've run out of things to say, so "why not simply post some pictures, and maybe, maybe not offer a very brief description. I had been thinking along those lines anyway, and so... why not?

There's not a whole lot to say about these pictures I took in Amherst yesterday, but I thought they might be of great interest to Smartphone Photographers, or people with otherwise great cameras with fixed, or limited zoom lenses. This is simply to show that when you're using the camera you always have with you (a good Compact film or digital, or more likely a Smartphone), a very common problem is that you can never get close enough to the centre of action in sufficient time, because, especially with Smartphones, you're likely dealing with a wide angle lens.

This Post is simply to show you that using an App, or a Computer Editing Program (like GIMP), you can easily crop out most of the wide-angle picture, and still have a great picture remaining. You may need to rotate or do a perspective adjustment on what's left, to get rid of the wide-angle artefacts, (such as the leaning lamp-post). Also, you might find that you can't make a large print, because you've reduced 8 MegaPixels to maybe 1, but you can certainly make a small print, and Social Media viewing will still be great.

This may not be a "professional approach", but having a small camera with you at all times is better than no camera at all, especially when you hear one of your favourite things (a train) nearby, but you don't have time to get close-up; doing a deep crop will usually give pleasing results.

This Crop...

Was taken from this view

This crop...

Was taken from this view

Monday, May 5, 2014

Something to Leave you With

Mackerel Sky Sunset - DxO Optics pro and Film Pack Porta-160NC

I have decided to take some time off from Blogging, and cannot say when I'll be back at it. The reason is that I feel I've said all that I can say about Photography, and until I discover something new and great in this art worthy of discussion, I've simply hit a wall. The Blog, with all of it's existing posts, will remain up - otherwise, there will probably be no new content for quite awhile.

I thought I'd leave you with a very recent picture, and strangely, I think of it as one of the best I've ever taken. I know it doesn't look like much, just a pair of old houses' back yards no less. But there was something about the sky which caught my eye at first, and then I immediately saw a strong composition. Using the camera I always have with me, I exposed on the sky (using RAW of course), and made just the one shot. The JPG output looked like this:

... quite dark and fuzzy, although the sky is what I actually exposed on, so it's not bad. I did a work-up on the RAW file using many different software RAW processors - RawTherapee, UF-Raw, Rawstudio, Photivo and DxO Optics Pro. It was the DxO final product that got the prize - time and time again, I've seen that nothing comes close to beating DxO, although Adobe Lightroom is the industry standard, and I've never tried it. Perhaps I should give the trial version a go, but I know right now that I will not be buying it, as it's not worth the high price of admission.

The important thing here is the degree of latitude that Raw File Processing can give you. I re-set the white balance a little bit - just a touch warmer, and in DxO Optics Pro, it was all single click after that, simply using the software like a camera, which is what I love about it's interface - I can take the photo all over again, so to speak, using Centre Weighted Exposure, instead of Matrix, then selecting stronger light, and finally, selecting the Leica M camera body for the highest, but still natural, colour saturation. (yes, you can do that with DxO).

After doing this basic re-exposing of the picture, I exported the file as a JPG, and then opened the JPG wit DxO's other product, called "Film Pack". I tried every colour film choice available in the software, and decided that Kodak Porta 160 NC did this photo the most justice, and so this is what I ended up with (top picture), and this is what I think my sub-concious saw in the first place.

So these are my closing words - if you don't have a camera that shoots a Raw Data File format (RAW, or also known as "DNG" - short for "Digital Negative"), you're shooting with your hands tied. With a RAW equipped camera, you can take, and then re-take the picture to give it all the glory you originally saw in your mind's eye.

Well, for now - God-Speed, and I'll see you sometime on the other side of everywhere.