Some time after acquiring the Minox, my interest in photography waned for a while. (Actually my interest in everything waned, it’s part of the deal with depression.) Then a couple months ago, it all started back up again.
I looked at my little cameras, but I knew none of them was just right. I did some more research, checked with teh interwebz, to see what else was out there in the same class as the Rolleis and the Minoxes. It was about this time that I realized this was an actual quest-shaped thing.
Anyhow, my searching led me in two different directions. One of them, the one that this entry is about, was the Compact-Automat. Yeah, the Lomo LC-A. (I’ve recently expressed my opinion about that Lomography thing, so I won’t get into that again here.)
I’d first heard about this camera a couple years ago, but it was overpriced back then. (It’s more overpriced now.) I knew I was getting fleeced but after a recent frustration with another acquisition, I was impatient to get something else to play with, so I figured what the heck.
Manufactured from 1983 and into the new millenium, the original Soviet / Russian-made LC-A cameras are still available on the used / refurb market, but I had heard mixed reviews about their reliability. Getting a newly-made LC-A+ directly from the Lomo store at least came with a warranty. (The plus-sign indicates that it is the new/modern Chinese-made version.) However, the Canadian shop was out of the normal one, all they had was the “RL” version: for a few $ more, this “collectable” has the genuine Russian lens made by the real LOMO company in St. Petersburg.
So all that aside, first impressions: It is a tad larger than the Minox. It is also a bit heavier than the Minox but lighter than the Rollei – the weight feels “right”. It has both plastic and metal in its construction and it actually does feel fairly solid (though if you shake it, some parts do rattle a bit). Unlike the Rolleis and the Minox, the lens does not need to retract / extend.
The original LC-A had an exposure switch that was a bit odd – it did have an “A” mode for fully automatic exposure, but you could also choose your own aperture settings. This was not Aperture Priority AE however – when you selected an aperture other than “A”, the shutter speed was then locked at 1/60th. This oddness apparently led to a lot of confusion among owners and generally the advice was to just leave it on “A”. As a result, the LC-A+ camera does not even have the aperture switch – the only mode is full AE.
Focusing is achieved by a lever on the left side of the lens. It is a zone focus / distance guess system, though unlike the Rollei cameras or the Minox, the LC-A+ has detents in the switch so it ‘clicks’ to the four zone ranges. You can move the lens to intermediate focus ranges but in practice it wants to click into place. The LSI advertises this as the fastest focusing system ever, as you don’t need to take your eye away from the viewfinder – just click it up (for nearer) or down (for further).
It works and it is fast – but if you suck at estimating distance, then this just means you can really quickly pick the wrong zone. The four ‘zones’ are 0.85m, 1.5m, 3m, and infinity. With the fully auto AE, you have no idea what aperture the camera will select, and therefore you don’t know what sort of depth of field you will have, so the best solution I can think of is to use the fastest film you can, and / or stick to bright sunny days.
So far, I’m batting about .750 with the zone focusing on the LC-A+. I used the fast-film & bright sunny day strategy on Canada Day, and had pretty good results. With slower film, or poorly lit conditions, I found it was much less reliable. Adding a flash doesn’t help as the LC-A+ (and the original LC-A) does not adjust exposure for the flash – they both will use the widest aperture (and narrowest depth of field) and hold the shutter open as long as it takes to satisfy the AE circuit.
Speaking of using a flash with the Compact-Automat, these cameras are wired for ‘rear curtain sync’ – this means that the flash does not fire until just before the shutter closes, rather than the normal sync which is right after the shutter opens. This allows for some interesting effects. When shooting at night with the flash, you don’t need to wait for the shutter to close on its own – if you let go of the shutter release, the shutter will close right away, firing the flash.
Another quirk of the LC-A+ (and the original LC-A) was that there is no minimum shutter speed – and therefore, no minum EV level. The way the AE works is that the CdS sensor is continually measuring the available light, and the shutter will remain open until enough light has been gathered to make the image. So if you have a cable release and a tripod (to keep the camera steady) you can take shots in almost total darkness. I tested this one night with some black-and-white film:
I didn’t even realize there was a cat in the room until I processed the negatives. The only light in the room was the thermostat on the wall, and a bit of a glow from my computer screen (which was behind the camera.) This pic was tens of seconds exposure, and would have been maximum aperture.
The original LC-A did not have a cable release socket but the LC-A+ does accept the standard cable release and has a standard tripod socket as well.
One final feature the LC-A+ has which was lacking in the original LC-A is the plus model sports the now-obligatory Multiple-Exposure switch. The MX switch allows you to re-cock the shutter without using the film advance – so you can take take double or tripple exposures very easily. If double-exposures aren’t your thing then just ignore the MX button: in normal operation, the shutter is coupled to the film advance.
Details: Minitar 1 lens, 1:2.8 32mm. Battery, three LR44 alkaline cells. Shutter, no maximum to 1/500th. Aperture, f/2.8 to f/16. Standard tripod socket, standard cable release socket.
Pros: Small. Comfortable weight. Fully automated exposure. Closed cover protects both lens and front of viewfinder. Fast & easy 4-position focus lever. MX button for artsy doubles. Hot shoe.
Cons: Requires battery to function. No control over exposure, no way to know what exposure the camera selected. Focus seems a bit touchy to me. Very expensive.
Summary: 4 out of 5. Despite being overpriced, and despite “Lomo” being a four-letter word in some circles, this camera does have some things going for it. Using modern, readily available batteries is a welcome change. The AE seems to work pretty well. The focusing is an issue but I have this problem with every zone-focus camera I’ve tried so far.
Is this my ideal compact camera? Well, if I can get over the stigma of using a Lomo… we’ll see.
Part 5 is coming soon, so stay tuned!