Lomography. The painfully hip (although probably not so much these days) trend for making photographs with hopelessly bad cameras, where the whole point is in the flaws and general eccentricities. Or, alternatively, a company in Austria making a nice little sum turning out garishly packaged plastic boxes promising aforementioned hipness. Either way, the argument seems to be that Lomography is especially creative. I find this somewhat hard to understand, as the artist (the photographer, presumably) has little to no control over the creative process, having a few wildly inaccurate, crude controls, and the random lens, light leak and framing behaviours to deal with. Fun, maybe. Creative, not so much. But what do I know, I’m not hip.
Having said all that, back in November, in a fit of retail therapy I ordered Lomography’s latest creation, the 612 format Belair panoramic camera. I’ve always wanted to work with the 612 format, and while a Linhof 612 would cost around $4000, the Belair costs approximately 1/20th of that. While their first attempt at a panoramic camera, the Sprocket Rocket, in my view verges on the insulting, they seemed to be sort of serious about this one. So what the hell.
So it turned up in January, and to be honest I took one look at it and shoved it in the back of a cupboard. I wasn’t in the mood for it. But last week, I took it for a spin.
The Belair 612 comes in various finishes. Mine is called a “Jetsetter”. It’s plastic with some kind of a metal (I think “tin” best describes it) shell, and boasts a plastic faux-leather wraparound. It looks cute from a way off. It comes with two interchangeable lenses, a 58mm and a 90mm, both with f/8 and f/16 settings (cloudy & sunny…). And it has automatic exposure, with settable ISO. Focussing is zone only. Both lenses have dedicated viewfinders. These are truly, truly awful.
As far as operation goes, it’s basically a no-frills medium format film camera, which is fine. However the film loading is unnecessarily tricky, as the take up canister has little wiggle room, and you need to be careful to keep tension on the spool. It’s not exactly a Hasselblad A12, let’s put it that way. The shutter release is a bit of angled metal sticking out of the front standard. It is almost impossible to avoid camera shake when triggering it, and there’s neither remote release nor timer.
So, ok, it’s not that impressive out of box. Even if it is a comparatively classy box. And even considering the price. So how well does it work ? I loaded it up with some Lomography X Pro Slide Film (Agfa RSX II, apparently) and tried it out, both handheld and on a tripod, with both lenses. I made a few standard mistakes that can catch you out with any camera of this type, including double exposures, and winding on the film too far. But generally it worked. Here are some results, scanned at 2400dpi.
A 100% crop from the centre of the second image shows pretty much what I see through a loupe on the light table: not exactly medium format resolution. Just mush, basically.
So, the results from the plastic lenses are as one could predict. I have got one of Lomography’s Russian-sourced glass lenses on order, but they have been repeatedly delayed. The camera does not seem to be too prone to light leaks, which will surely come as a big disappointment to the hipsters, and given that I was using slide film, the exposure was in general ok. But it would be safer to use negative film. On the plus side, it is sort of fun to use, and I could immediately confirm that I like the 612 format.
But with those lenses, no pressure plate to keep the film flat in the camera, and adding to that the relative difficulty of scanning 120 format film, sharpness is not a characteristic which is going to be associated with the Belair 612.
It’s got a certain allure, but it doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be a “serious” camera or a Lomo post-modern toy, and given the expense of feeding it 120 roll film, I’m not sure it makes that much sense. You could get far better results simply by cropping an image from pretty much any point and shoot digicam - and then run it through Instagram or whatever if you really must.
In conclusion, I didn’t really get on with the Belair. But that’s just me - it may well work for you and inspire your creativity. There’s certainly no cheaper medium-format, interchangeable lens, panoramic camera on the market. I wish I could recommend the Belair 612, but I can’t. Let’s see what it can do with a real lens. If it ever arrives.