LOMO LC-A – The lomography machine
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Film photography’s existence in 2022 owes a significant amount to the lomography movement. The lomography movement itself owes much of the inspiration of the movement to the LOMO LC-A, a camera manufactured in the Soviet Union. If it was not for the chance finding of this camera in Vienna by some students, the fun and addictive form of photography might be quite different today.
When I carry my LC-A with me, it is quite interesting that my mindset does change. No longer am I worried about taking time to set up the shot. It is very much a shoot and enjoy the results, whatever they may be. It is freedom from process to some extent.
Interestingly there is the concept of the ten golden rules of lomography. To me that goes against the grain of the concept. Why introduce rules when the whole idea is to break free from them? That in itself is a circular question as the rules actually encourage you break them. Mind bending stuff!
One thing I hear often from photographers is that if they are feeling a little lacking in creativity, they load some film into the LC-A, often slide to be cross processed, or very expired negative or even red-scaled and have some fun. While this is not a replacement to a photographer being creative, it can knock off the mental block. The challenge of producing attractive images with a camera which is quite basic, does have a certain appeal and gets the grey matter juices flowing.
The LOMO LC-A has become so synonymous with the lomography movement, that Lomography themselves re-released a modern day LC-A, the LC-A+. You can tell the difference between them, as the older ones will have Cyrillic writing on them. Generally, they will cost less based on the availability of them.
I was very excited to receive the LOMO LC-A, but I must admit it took me a while to load it up and start shooting with it. When I eventually did, I wondered why I didn’t do it sooner. I have enjoyed using the LC-A and put quite a high number of rolls through it during a whole year that I have been using it. It is true, it is addictive, fun and freeing.
So, I have been using the LOMO LC-A for about a year now. During that time I have experimented with few different techniques regarding the film. After a bit about the camera background and the camera itself, let’s see how I got on with it.
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Generally, cameras were created by someone in the optical industry, or an inventor of some sort. In the case of the LOMO LC-A it was by a military general, though not necessarily directly creating a new design. General Igor Petrowitsch Kornitzky, of the USSR Ministry of Defence and Industry was taken by the design of the Cosina CX-1. So, in 1982 he put it in front of Michail Panfilowitsch Panfiloff, who was the Director of the Leningrad Optics and Mechanics Association (LOMO) Russian Arms and Optical factory.
They were both quite impressed with the quality of the lens, the build quality and that it could handle some lower light scenarios. On that basis the St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) factory was tasked with producing a better version. The LC-A was finally based, from what I can understand, on both the CX-1 and to a further extent the CX-2, its replacement.
The Cosina CX-1 was a compact zone focus 35mm camera released in 1980. It has been referred to as a Minox style compact, as the size is similar. A unique feature on the CX-1 is that doesn’t use a drawbridge or clamshell to cover the lens and turn the camera off. It uses a front panel which, to operate the camera, is twisted to the side and it uncovers the lens and viewfinder. The CX-2, its successor, is a very similar camera and shares many of the same design features.
In 1984, two years after the General was inspired, the LOMO LC-A went into production. The aim was to produce enough for the domestic Russian market only, so it was ramped up to 1100 units per day. This took 1200 workers to produce. It soon gained a lot of popularity and became in demand in other Soviet and communist countries.
Normally that is where the story ends, the camera is manufactured and sold for some years and then replaced with a new model. In the case of the LC-A it actually started another chapter. A chapter that is lomography folklore now.
In 1991 a group of Austrian students were in Prague soon after Czechoslovakia had moved to a democratic model. At this point the LC-A’s popularity was starting to wane considering the competition of newly founded and cheaper alternatives. Being curious, they bought the LC-A and started shooting with abandon. Little did they know that the results from this camera would impact photography for decades later.
The film shot on that trip in the LC-A was not processed until the students got back to Vienna. When they saw the results, they thought they were strange but beautiful. They soon had friends and family asking where they can get a camera like this.
With interest growing, the founders of Lomography travelled into Russia and started to come back with bags full of LC-As. Rather than continue with this approach in 1992 the Lomographic Society International (LSI) was formed. The same year the 10 Golden Rules of Lomography were published. Again, in the same year the first exhibition was held where over 700 LC-As were sold. It was held in the headquarters of LSI, which was provided to them as an empty house by the Vienna City Council. In that house the famous Lomo Wall was first established.
While Lomography through some iterations went from strength to strength, the LOMO factory decided in 2005 to discontinue the original LC-A. That is a twenty three year run, which is quite an achievement for a camera which is basically a copy of another one.
It was succeeded by the Lomography LC-A+ and even a 120 version afterwards. The LC-A+ is a very similar camera but does have a few upgrades including multiple exposures, a highest ISO of 1600 and even a threaded cable shutter release button. The initial ones until 2007 used the Minitar 32mm lens manufactured in Russia, but from then they were manufactured in China, as per the rest of the camera.
This review is on the original LC-A made by the LOMO factory until 2005.
The LOMO LC-A is 35mm fixed lens, zone focus camera with a leaf shutter. This copy is an original Soviet manufactured one for the local Russian market in 1988, according to the camera passport. It is a compact camera with automatic exposure either in full auto or aperture priority.
The body of the camera is a compact form, with a plastic “leatherette” covering across the high touch areas. On the front of the camera is the lens and viewfinder assembly, which closes and opens with a switch at the bottom. Photography is not possible unless this has opened completely.
The lens is a Minitar 1 32mm f/2.8. Aperture is controlled by a lever on the right of the camera with options from f/2.8 through to f/16 and Auto. The selection will drive the shutter speed based on the metering, where Auto will also choose the aperture for you as well. There is no shutter speed selection option as this is automated.
Focusing is achieved through a lever on the left side. Options are 0.8, 1.5, 3 metres and infinity. In the view finder this equates to a person, two people, a crowd of people and a building with a tree next to it.
Film speed is selected by a dial to the left of the viewfinder window at the front which has a tiny window. Being the domestic Russian version, the selections are with the GOST system. Options are 16, 32, 65, 130 and 250.
On the top plate starting from the right is the frame counter in a round magnified window. The shutter release button is to the left of it and is plastic and does not have a remote thread. A hot shoe is in the middle above the viewfinder. At the far left is the rewind crank which when pulled up opens up the back.
The bottom of the camera has a tripod thread, and the shaft for a battery drive. To operate the light meter it requires three 1.5v SR/LR44 batteries which are inserted at the bottom too.
The viewfinder has the frame outline and the symbols mentioned above. Based on the focus zone selected a needle will point to the appropriate symbol.
Loading the camera requires opening the hinged back by pulling up the rewind crank and threading the film from left to right. The frame counter is reset with loading film.
The LC-A was sold in a red box with the manual and passport to prove ownership.
I came to the LOMO LC-A party quite late. I only got my copy a couple of years ago and then took another year to get to it. When I was searching for it, I was very keen to get an original with the Cyrillic logo on it, and if possible, with the original red box. Why? Because it exists.
When I finally put film in it, I worked out the hype has some merit to it. The camera is great to have handy, easy to use, and produces results which are quite unique. I was surprised on how small it is. Holding it next to the Minox 35 GT, it is not much bigger.
The first film I put into the camera was Ilford HP5 Plus. I thought I would start with something standard and see how it performs. Even with my well known film of choice the results have an interesting look. Technically the softening of focus dramatically from the middle is considered a flaw, but the way the Minitar lens renders the scene almost feels like it balances that out.
I followed up with some Kodak Gold 200 and then I started to see what it does to colours. With the rather heavy vignetting that this camera is famous for, I can see where a significant amount of the social media filters originate from. Even with fresh film there is a shift in the colours which tends to give them a muted old time look.
Using the camera is a lot of fun. And very easy which contributes to the fun. I did not move it from Auto mode very often, and let the camera do its thing. Even with focus on infinity it will handle most situations, so it effectively becomes a point and shoot.
Considering I have been shooting like that, I have not had a lot of failed photos, at least from the technical point of view. Also considering this camera was made in the 1980s and unlikely to have had a service that is quite impressive.
The one area where I did have some difficulty is setting the GOST number. Not so much in getting the equivalent in ISO, there are comparison charts all over the internet. More so in that the dial only rotates one way, is small and only protrudes a little. I end up having to move it with my fingernail. To further exacerbate the issue, the window showing the GOST number is so small that it takes some effort to see it (until one day I can transplant a fighter pilot’s eyes into my sockets). Luckily this only has to be done once per roll.
I then decided to step it up in the creative stakes and rewound a roll of Gold 200 backwards to red-scaled it. The camera came with me to work, when I was out shopping and even when walking the dog. Looking through the viewfinder I did find it a little hard to see the outline, especially on the top, when the lighting was not the best. When verifying focus, I could see the symbols clearly, but the needle is a little difficult to see too.
That did not matter much though, as the LC-A is built for quick snaps. It was very nice to pull it out at work during my lunch break and give me a purpose to do some decent walking. Knowing the film was red-scaled I started to look for graphic subjects to give a sense of film noir to it. Again, I was really pleased with the results.
The processing did require some increase in the contrast, as the lens can be a little soft for this type of photography, but nothing that could not be handled very easily in post. What this did do is that it also ramped up the fun. I was suddenly shooting things that I would normally leave because they would be not interesting in “normal” photography. You could argue that is the case when shooting any red-scale in any camera though.
Of-course, using the LC-A would not be complete with some slide film cross processing. I got wind of a seller selling some Agfa Precisa CT 100 that had been cold stored from new. It was even in the old tin like container, all ten rolls. I quickly jumped on that. The seller insisted I pick up the film myself and that he would be visiting Sydney soon. I organised to pick it up in the northern part of Greater Sydney, across the harbour.
My patience was very limited, and I could not even wait to use it on the way home. So, I stopped over at Milsons Point, a suburb on the Sydney Harbour edge and rolled some in. Over the next few months, I used a fair bit of that slide film and had it cross processed. Cross processing is not new to me, and the results were quite exciting. I can see why so many people use the LC-A in this way.
One thing to remember with the LC-A is that you have to open the slider completely for it to function. It will not fire even if it looks open but is a few millimetres from a complete opening. That is there to save firing into the lens cover, so I understand switches only know either open or close. It did get me a few times though.
Focusing was quite good when I wanted to focus on something close. Easy enough to work out the metric distances for myself and as most of what I shoot is 3 metres away at least, infinity works quite well.
In the end the LOMO LC-A has been and is a very fun camera to use. Part of that is the camera itself and part of it is the lure of experimentation. While I know I can use film in the same way in other cameras, I do not think they will have the same type of results and not as much fun.
Considering that there is quite a few available and you get to choose either the cheaper Russian versions or the more expensive Lomography ones, I would wholeheartedly recommend getting one to have some fun with.
Stephen Dowling has outlined the LOMO LC-A Family on Kosmo Foto. He has also reviewed the LC-A in LOMO LC-A review.
Alan Duncan of Canny Cameras wrote a slightly different approach to the LC-A and targeting black and white film in Film Noir with the LC-A: How the LOMO learned to love B&W.
Lomography have a great timeline of how the LC-A came to be and led to their version the LC-A+ here.