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Widescreen Plastic

a field review of the Belair 612

in Product reviews , Thursday, March 28, 2013

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.

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The Belair 612 Jetsetter, fired up and ready to rock

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The Belair 612 Jetsetter flexes its bellows

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The Belair 612 Jetsetter gazes squints into the distance

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.

Bel set1 01

58mm lens, focused at 4m, f/8, tripod

Bel set1 02

58mm lens, focused at infinity, f/16, tripod

Bel set1 03

The Belair is maybe more suited for this sort of handheld shot

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.

Belair100pcent


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.

 

What, MORE cameras ?

Lord, won’t you buy me….

in GAS , Monday, March 11, 2013

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been dedicating my “photography time”, what little there is of it, to getting a better understanding of how my Sigma DP2 Merrill camera and its associated software, the much maligned Sigma Photo Pro work. And I’ve got to the point where it’s going pretty well, and I can extract optimal results from the camera. And “optimal” in this case is truly awesome - and for once using “awesome” is justified. So much so, that the idea of buying the new DP3M, with its longer, 75mm equivalent, lens is swirling around my head at each coffee break.

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coffee, sigma style

Actually, I’m also very tempted by the new compact Fuji X20 as a take-everywhere camera too. But there’s also a strong voice telling me I’ve got too many cameras. Well, what does that actually mean? To me, photography is an important safety valve that lets me blow off creative steam, which if it remained bottled up, would have serious consequences on the rest of my life. It allows me to tolerate, and try to do well at, an otherwise dull and repetitive job (relatively, that is. I consider myself lucky to actually have a well paid job with a prestigious employer, with pleasant, intelligent colleagues, and especially in the part of the world I live in. I do not forget to count my many blessings. But back to whining about toys).

So let’s do a quick camera inventory. I currently own 4 distinct “systems”.

  • Olympus micro Four Thirds: this is basically my general purpose system. I have a Pen E-P3, and 6 lenses, as well as a few older manual focus lenses which can be used via an adapter. This system easiy fits in my small Domke F803 shoulder bag and is ideal for travel, especially when photography is not the dominant objective. The technical quality is certainly good enough.
  • Olympus Four Thirds: this is my “serious” system. I’ve been using it since 2003, and at present I use the E-5 body. The strong point of this system are its fabulous range of lenses. The 12-60 and 50-200 zooms are class leaders, and between them cover 90% of requirements for relatively little weight and bulk. However I also have the speciality 7-14 ultrawide, the macro 50mm, and the telephoto 150mm. The latter pair are possibly two of the sharpest, best performing lenses ever built by any company, and that’s a widely held view. Also the whole system has tank-like build quality, has well proven weatherproofing, and with the E-5’s optimal live view coupled with its swivelling screen, the ability to get into really contorted positions. So this is my workhorse system for dedicated photography trips. But it’s heavy, fairly cumbersome (although considerably less so than an equivalent Canon or Nikon system), and I’m getting less enthusiastic about carrying it around.
  • Hasselblad XPan: this is obviously a specialist system. I’m on my second XPan body, having destroyed the first, and I have the three available lenses. The image quality from this (film) system is excellent. To some extent this is my trademark format, and while I can still buy film for it, I’ll be using it. Actually, this too fits in the Domke F803, provided I don’t take anything else, but fully loaded it is fairly heavy. And if I take this along with the big Olympus, as I tend to do, and a tripod, then I’m well on the wrong side of 10kg.
  • Sigma DP2 Merrill: well, I’ve already made my appreciation for this camera clear. In terms of niche it overlaps with both the Olympus systems, offering significantly better image quality, but considerably less flexibility. I am wondering if it could actually replace my micro Four Thirds system, but there is a lot that the mFT system can do which the Sigma cannot. But in a scenario which suits the Sigma, there’s really no contest.
  • Ricoh GRD4 (RIP): since I’ve mentioned and highly praised this camera before, I should include it, but sadly it is now in the hands of some thieving scumbug in Buenos Aires (and for the record, I do not let that all too common incident - for Buenos Aires - colour my opinion of the average Argentian. They’re wonderful people). This was my everyday, pocket camera. At present the Olympus PEN has taken over that role, but it’s really a bit too big, hence my interest in the Fuji X20.

So, have I got too many cameras? I didn’t mention my antique non-functional Canon A1, my small collection of semi-functional Ricohs, or my so far unused, bought on a whim, Lomography Belair 612. So by any sane measure, absolutely yes. But I would say I’ve got too many when they start getting in the way, when they become an end in themselves. It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially with so many desirable cameras on offer these days, but I don’t think I’ve fallen all the way in yet. Obviously any camera that just sits on the shelf is a waste of time and space, but all the above get regular exercise.

I am thinking about selling the mFT system, but the apparent promise of an Olympus body which is designed for both micro and full Four Thirds lenses is alluring. I’m also thinking of selling the Olympus 150mm lens as frankly using it is a little beyond my skill level. And it ties a lot of money up. And I will sell a spare XPan 45mm lens with all its accessories.

So should I just hit the button and buy a DP3 and X20? What will they actually bring me, apart from a few minutes of retail therapy?

What I really need to do is to at least make an attempt to get my photography to a wider audience. Then maybe I’ll have a little more justification for the shopping. Although I’m reluctant to the point of neurosis to bang my own drum, frankly I feel my photography is at the very least on a par with a lot I see out there, if not better. It’s just not very strident. I need to get into self-promotion mode, nobody’s going to do it for me. But more of that in another post.

In the meantime… should I? Or shouldn’t I?