Saturday, June 29, 2013

Lomography Belair: Do want? Maybe? Maybe not so much?

Sorry I haven't had any posts for awhile, just been busy with other stuff. I know this review is a bit late as the Lomography Belair has been out since October 2012. But it really took me this long to figure if I really liked the thing or not. You can see my previous introduction to the camera here.
I'll go into this review saying that before receiving the Belair, I didn't have any particular expectations about the quality of the product or the images it might produce. I've had a couple Lomography cameras before and they always seem to me to be an odd mix of quality and cheapness. I wasn't expecting a Hasselblad as some people on the interweb seemed to hope for. I knew this was a toy camera and at best I was hoping for a wide angle Holga. It almost lives up to that expectation, but, in the end, falls short. But, then again, maybe I like it. So confused!

I preordered mine at the "special" price of $174. I guess that is fair for a newly designed camera. And I do have to give credit to Lomography in that least they are trying to do something different and are still supporting film. I can only think of a few new film cameras in the past 10 years, and only a couple toy cameras (one being the Blackbird Fly, which I didn't much care for). So, yeah, it's cool that they designed a brand new 120 camera. But it's a toy camera at a decidedly non-toy camera price. And I bought mine "cheap". I think $250 is the regular price. You can buy a lot of nice cameras for a lot less money. But, whatever, it's a niche item, and it is Lomography, who aren't exactly known for cheap cameras.
So what did I get for my money? Actually, not a bad package. A slick box, the camera, two lenses (58mm and 90mm), three masks (6x12, 6x9 and 6x6), two viewfinders (58mm and 90mm), a manual and some prints. And some black cloth that the camera was wrapped in that I guess I can use to wipe off lenses. No battery, though. Had to go buy them myself. Times two, I believe. So the package is decent enough.

So the camera comes with two plastic lenses...a less wide 90mm and a very wide 58mm. I almost can't say I prefer one over the other. In some shots, the 90mm works better, and the 58mm works better with others...but I think generally the 58mm has better focus, though there is a lot more fall-off at the edges, of course. Lens performance is all rather arbitrary, which is my main problem with the camera. Focusing with the lenses is exactly like the guess. Use your eyes to estimate the distance, and then set the focus distance on the lens, and then take the shot. I haven't quite figured out the lenses yet. Somewhere in there is a sweet spot, but finding it is pretty much luck. Some shots are flat out blurry for some reason, like these 6x9 shots using the 90mm...

While other shots are spot on and beautiful. It's the super soft shots that make me think the camera is crap, and then I get one that works (90mm)...and even at infinity, I think!

And it makes me want to use it more. I wish I could figure it out. I actually think that the entire frame is out of focus to some degree, but it's comparative. What seems sharper only appears to be because the rest of the shot is so soft. But it really works sometimes. Infinity in the center definitely does not seem to exist. I think at infinity, the focused area is actually around 15-20 feet away. Pretty sure this shot was at infinity and the only thing "in focus" is the phone booth about 15 away with the 58mm.

The above shots also shows another of my complaints with the camera...framing and parallax. Framing inside the finder sucks. It always shows waaay more than what actually shows up on the film (the entire sign shows up in the finder). And you have to aim up from what you see in the finder or you will get a lot of ground and what you wanted in the shot will be cut off. Most toy cameras are like this...both the Holga and Diana suffer from this (and even my Polaroid 190 has a touch), but it's even worse with the Belair. Combined with the viewfinder showing too much, you mostly have to hope you get what you want in the shot.

It is a camera that works better for objects close to you, for both lenses. But even the sweet spot seems to float around the photo, not necessarily being in the center, as shown in these 58mm shots.

And I think that color works better than black and white generally, maybe just because the color helps accentuate the lines through the softness? But some of the color shots look fantastic, I think, like this Ektar shots, focused close up with the 58mm.

 At 6x12, the 58mm is almost fisheye.

After writing this up, I think I must prefer the 58mm over the 90mm, because I can't find many 90mm shots I really like, except for this.

And the shot is most certainly out of just happens to "work".

So, one thing I do like about the camera, and it works quite well, is the auto-exposure (the reason for the batteries). I've taken the camera out on the crappiest, darkest days to test the exposure, and it works great! If anything, it handles darker rather than lighter. I don't have any full on sunny day shots yet, but the rainy day shots work quite well, while white snow seems to "blow out".

There is some set exposure limit, though. It is long enough that you have to hold the camera steady or you will get shaky shots, but I had a couple photos that were very underexposed, taken under awnings in the shade.

So it's a camera that is somewhat infuriating, because a large number of shots taken with it are complete garbage and make you feel like you are wasting your time with it. But then you get some really nice shots, with beautiful focus and that great toy camera blur around the outside. At first I considered selling it, but now I honestly want to shoot with it more.

I didn't shoot the camera at 6x6, because I have plenty other camera for that. And it seems kind of pointless when the camera was designed for larger shots. Plus, if that sweet spot is off to one side, it won't be in the frame! And all you will have is blur. Aside from trying to get more shots for your money, I say leave the 6x6 frame in the box. Sometimes the 6x12 can feel like you just have a slice of a photo, but it works really well when you get close to your subject. 6x9 is "okay", I guess. But the camera was built for 6x12, and that is something that doesn't really exist elsewhere, aside from maybe a panoramic 120 camera.

Lomography is also releasing some (expensive) glass lenses for the Belair, 114mm and 90mm. But I honestly wouldn't buy either lens unless I was absolutely sure I was getting something that would consistently focus. Plus, I like the toy camera look, which I don't really see in the two examples.

It's not a camera I can really recommend, but then again, it's something you have to try yourself to see if it is your thing. I am keeping mine and will continue to use it. Not as a "main" camera, but it will see some use.

In other news, I am building a Duo. It will probably be awhile before I am done and test it out, but I will post about it eventually! Seeya.