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:

Pros:

  • 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.


Cons:

  • 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.



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