Back at the start of 2022, I made myself a vow. Since getting back into film photography in 2018, I had made it a point to buy new film rather than looking to score deals on expired stocks. My logic was simple: support what appeared to be a struggling market in the hope that manufacturers will keep making films. This isn’t out of any particular love for any of the film companies out there, rather an economic reality that if I wanted film to stick around. As we’ve seen with the diminishing number of film stocks in recent years (hi Fuji!) this isn’t guaranteed to work. But there’s enough of a market out there that 2022 is proving to be a banner year for new(ish) film stocks, so I’m happy to have played my infinitesimal part.
But over the last few years I’ve increasingly realized there is another part to the film ecosystem that the film community often doesn’t talk about, the camera supply side. Sure, we hear about it when a celebrity or popular YouTuber highlights a camera and prices suddenly skyrocket. Times like these, the realities of a market with largely a fixed supply and varying demand become all too apparent. But there seems to be a solution to this that not many people take. Buy new cameras. Not “new to you,” but like, new, from a company, with a box and everything. You don’t even have to go to eBay for them.
So that’s what I decided to do this year. If I wanted to buy a camera, it had to be new.
Now for 35mm options, I’m pretty well stocked and don’t have much of a need for a new camera. My Pentax KX was my first camera and it’s still my favorite by far. If I had to pare down to just one camera, it would be an easy choice. The KX is a glorious piece of kit.
Medium format was an entirely different beast. Up until 2020 I had never shot a medium format camera. Despite taking some photography classes in college, it just never came up. But after doing some research, I initially got into the format with the Mamiya C33 TLR, picking up the 65mm and 105mm in a kit. Fantastic camera, amazing glass, loved the system, two-thumbs up. Would buy again. But I mostly shoot documentary family stuff, so a camera with no metering and longer lenses made it not ideal for the everyday shooting I do. I then turned to a Pentax 645n, which solved both of those complaints. But it’s a big camera. It doesn’t pass my critical “fits in my car’s center console” test, which means I often don’t take it with me and the family, and thus it’s a bit of a shelf queen. Plus it’s possibly the loudest camera in existence. So maybe medium format just didn’t meet my needs.
The Solution Presents Itself
While researching for medium format options that might thread my rather specific needle, I happened upon Eduardo Pavez Goye’s review of the Lomo LC-A 120. What stood out to me was the form factor, a 6×6 camera that was coat pocket-able and weighed less than the Pentax 45mm f2.8 lens for my 645n. It’s nothing fancy, basically a 6×6 full auto point-and-shoot, but it seemed to meet my requirements. Eduardo’s review piqued my interest in its capabilities. It offered a glass ultra-wide lens, and seemed to have decent metering.
The one thing I was concerned about was the camera’s zone-focusing. I hadn’t really done much zone focusing in the past, and it seemed like a completely unreliable way to try and grab a shot. But while I was debating about the camera, I got a hold of a Rollei 35, with a similar focal length to the LC-A 120 (40mm vs 38mm). After a few rolls and being able to get a good hit rate with it, I was encouraged to take the plunge on the Lomo.
Struggling to Make It Work
As someone who’s ordered a fair amount of camera gear in the last few years, there was something exciting about getting the LC-A 120. Rather than arriving trapped in bubble wrap and smelling musty, it came fully sealed in a brand new box. Honestly, Lomography’s packaging was almost too much, very stylish and ornate, with an included photo book of sample photos from the camera, a manual, cable release, and a strap. I appreciate the accessories, but all the paper and space seemed a little wasteful. I’m sure it looks good on a shelf but give me the option for minimalist packaging.
That being said, everything seemed very thoughtfully included, down to the LR44 batteries needed to operate the camera. This was my first sign that maybe these cameras weren’t selling like hot cakes. The batteries included were expired and starting to corrode. Not the end of the world; they remained safely nestled in their packaging and I had a bunch of spare batteries around, so I was off to the races.
I quickly shot off two rolls with the camera, and everything seemed to be operating as expected. In my haste, I neglected to put on the camera strap included with the camera. When I decided to add it on, I noticed that one of the strap lugs was super dented. If this was an [EXC!!++++++] camera from eBay, I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But, it came like that straight out of the box. The camera had a warranty from Lomography, so I contacted their support and got an exchange.
This is where things got frustrating. I am now on my fourth copy of this camera, all returned under warranty. While the first two rolls from my original dented unit turned out fine, every other copy has given me not insignificant light leaks on my photos. With the first roll, I thought it was something I did during loading. But after being extremely careful and even trying to load it in a dark bag, I was still getting light leaks.
Throughout this process, Lomography’s support has been top notch. They are quick to respond to emails, and turned around the exchanges very quickly. But it was extremely frustrating when the returns didn’t seem to resolve the issue. This is either a design flaw with the camera or perhaps an effect of these cameras sitting for some time, maybe both.
A Word on Lomography
At this point, I’m sure some readers will think to themselves, “What did you expect, you bought a camera from Lomography. They make cheap plastic junk.” While my own experience with the LC-A 120 was less than ideal, I can’t abide this kind of knee jerk negativity. I’ve heard Cameradactyl’s Ethan Moses talking about the capital costs involved with making a camera using plastic injection molding, and they are daunting. You can say that Lomography chases fads or doesn’t make cameras that you like, but you can’t deny they are investing in building out both sides of the analog photography world in a way that very few companies can today. A lot of this is bringing new products to market, like the Lomograflok.
While my experience with the LC-A 120 may have been frustrating, and quality control might be something Lomography should double down on, the reason I was attracted to the camera in the first place was because it was genuinely innovative. It filled a niche like no other available camera could. I remain impressed with it as an idea, even if the execution didn’t live up to it. Do I wish Lomography could do better in some regards? Sure. But I refuse to view them as anything other than essential to the future of analog photography.
Life After Leaks
Setting aside the light leak issues, let’s talk about using this camera. Remember how I said that zone focusing the Rollei 35 gave me the confidence to take on the LC-A 120? Well I was partially justified in that act of hubris. Focusing on it is fairly reliable, but operates much differently than on the Rollei. With that camera, you’re essentially using a fully manual camera, with a traditional focus scale on the lens. This matters because I really only shoot the 35 at f/8 or slower, meaning that I know how much depth of field I’m going to have to help hedge my guess about guessing distance wrong.
You don’t have that luxury on the LC-A, since the aperture (and shutter speed for that matter) are all handled by the camera. Instead of a set focus scale, you have a little lever with set markings and detents for 0.6m, 1m, 2.5m, and infinity. You can also set the lever in between these, but you’re really guessing at that point. There are some advantages to this arrangement. Unlike the Rollei 35, you can both quickly confirm and change focus with the camera up to your eye, perfect for quick shots. Since there are only four options, you can just rack the level quickly to move the focus. Given that the lens only goes down to f/4.5, you’ve always got a little depth of field to play around with, especially beyond 1 meter.
Overall, I actually really like the design of this camera. The body is all plastic, but when handling it, you don’t get any creaks. Lomography uses a softer touch plastic where you grip the camera, embossed with a leatherette styling, and feels good in the hand. The shutter button feels really nice, with a long throw but a solid actuation. Like the 35mm original LC-A, the 120 is designed for quick street work. The lens cover needs to be slid down to shoot. Having it up blocks the viewfinder and locks the shutter, so you can’t accidentally shoot a frame, a nice touch. I was afraid that moving the lens cover would also move the focus level, but luckily your focus stays put.
A lot of what makes me put up with the travails of the LC-A 120 is the lens. At 38mm on a 6×6 negative, it offers a 21mm equivalent field of view, which is always wider than you think it is, especially vertically. This alone makes the camera unique, as getting a lens that wide in medium format generally requires buying a lens that’s considerably more expensive and heavy. That wouldn’t mean a lot if it was bad, but I find it sharp enough and punch as hell. In all of the sample photos Lomography puts up for the camera, they show a heavy vignette. I haven’t found it to be nearly as dramatic, often there’s no vignette, so your mileage may vary.
Areas of Improvement
I suspect that Lomography isn’t actively manufacturing this camera any more and selling through old stock. All the replacements I received showed signs of sitting for a while (one was quite dusty). If that’s the case, there are a few features I’d love to see Lomography add to a refreshed model, maybe a Lomo LC-A 120+.
Asking for aperture priority on this camera seems silly given that it’s a simple device electronically. But I wish there was a way to lock the aperture into a set stopped down position, say f/8. That’s something you can do on a flipping Holga. Not only would this make it easier to focus critical shots, but it would also be nice for working with flash. Right now using flash means everything is shot wide open, which is rarely ideal.
Speaking of flash, the camera does have a hot shoe but hacks a PC sync port. I know I could get an adapter for the shoe, but it would be nice to get some off-camera flash a little easier with this camera. While I’m at it a proper bulb mode would be great for long exposures. You can sort of do this by blocking the light meter, but just give it to me as a proper option. Exposure compensation is that other glaring omission on this camera. Given that you can only set ISO in full stops from 100-1600, even having a ∓ 1 option would add a lot of flexibility. Again you can sort of hack it with the ISO dial, but it’s a hassle.
Would I Buy It Again
Honestly, if I had known about the light leak issues, I would have just kept my original copy and done without a strap. The camera is pocket-able enough that I just would have used a wrist strap on the other good lug. I’ve ended up with a lot of wasted, or at least compromised, film as a result of this camera. A lot of it was original frozen Acros, that hurts.
But I keep wanting to love this camera. It’s truly unique in the photography world. The look you can get from the lens is great, made even better because you can take it anywhere. While expensive compared to a lot of other Lomography gear, compared to other ultra-wide, portable, or just more recent medium format cameras, it’s priced competitively, if not a bargain. With everything I’ve gone through with this camera, the one thing I would never do is buy it used. I can’t reiterate how nice it was to have a warranty on this camera, with actual company support, rather than hoping that I could get a refund on eBay or something like that. While you can definitely find bargains on these used cameras online, I’d hesitate to pull the trigger unless you get it in writing that it’s in light tight condition.
Overall the LC-A 120 is sticking around for now. When it nails a shot, it’s just so dang fun. Right now it fits really well into my need for packing light. Combined with my Rollei 35, I can pack two cameras on my without needing a bag (although if both are in my pockets probably a belt). I now know its limitations quite well. It’s serviceable as a fun documentary camera, where I’m not strictly look for precision. I thought that this might be a great landscape companion, but until I can tame the light leaks, I think that’s asking a bit too much. I’ve recently found a lot of fun using it with flash, dragging the shutter to get some striking motion blur and a relatively crisp subject.
Knowing what I do now, I’d probably pass on buying it. I don’t need a medium format camera for my work. But now that I have it, it’s still a striking and supremely unique camera.
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