Time to Celebrate a Bakelite Wonder from the USSR

Well, I guess quarantine has finally given me the opportunity to go through all the images I’ve managed to gather up over these twenty or so years of taking pictures.

I’ve gotten around to some of my old slides and to my old pictures pictures taken with a little machine called a Lubitel.  This is a Lubitel, in case you have never seen one:


Let’s back the story up here a bit.  I got this camera in the year 2000.  I had at that point started to do photography more seriously and I had seen a lot of famous photographers using Rolliflexes and Hasselblads, which are medium format cameras.  Medium format cameras take 4 X 4 inch negatives or slides.  A huge surface area for making prints.  And these cameras have huge sensors on them, add to the sharpness of the images they produce.  Film negatives are 35mm, which does well with print making ability up until a certain point.  Now this is all past because phone cameras have ridiculously high pixelation and digital SLRs shoot images were every single corner of the image is completely razor sharp.  But this all used to matter.

Anyway, the Rolliflexes and the Hasselblads were a tad out of my price range.  The basic no lenses Hasselblad still costs about $1200.  With lenses and it’s about a $2,000 operation.  That was about $2,000 out of my price range anyway.  My dad had actually had a medium format camera when he was growing up.  It was the above mentioned bakelite wonder, the Lubitel that was mass produced by the Soviet Union.  I checked around and found out that the camera cost about $60, well within my price range.  Now the Hasselblads and Rolliflexes, they had fancy things in them like light meters and automatic film advancing but the Lubitel, it got you back to the basics.

So you know how a camera obscura was originally just a room where a painters painted an image projected on a wall from a hole made in a piece of paper?  Well, the little Lubitel was just a much smaller version of that.  The camera didn’t need any batteries because it had no actual electronic parts to it.  You loaded your film (more on that in a second) by hand.  You advanced it until it was securely in place.  You had to remember to advance the film because if you didn’t you got yourself a nice double exposure, which isn’t so bad sometimes.

Medium format film shoots a very large negative, so you don’t really get rolls of film that have 24 or 36 pictures per roll.  With the medium format film, it got you down to a tight 12.  Yes.  TWELVE.  I thought for the longest time in terms of film when I started taking pictures with a digital camera.  I’d think — wow, I went and shot six rolls of film today but really it was 120 digital pictures.  I’m back to shooting conservatively but when I started, OMG, I took 10,000 pictures every time I shot anything.  The Lubitel would have cured me of that immediately.

Oh and it didn’t come with a light meter.  It had two settings — sunny or cloudy.  You could adjust the aperture and the exposure time yourself but you had to provide your own light meter.  There was a hot shoe on the camera and I’m not exactly sure why it was there because there was no electronic signal that was to be sent by the camera to the flash anyway.  I’m surprised that the camera didn’t come with one of those curtains you could throw over your head or a magnesium flare to set off as a flash.

I do think about what a pain this all was, but it really wasn’t.  I was learning the technical craftsmanship of photography.  It was learning what makes great photographs.  I’m going to make a weird analogy so just stay with me.  If you want to skip down to the photography, go ahead.  I won’t be offended.

Ok, thanks for staying.  Back in the day, Olympic gymnastics had compulsories where the gymnasts all did the same routines and those routines were beautiful.  Some of them look like ballet with a couple of tumbling passes thrown in.  You had to have a great grounding in basics and technique to do those routines well.  I think of slides and the Lubitel as my compulsories.  Interesting as well, considering how good the Soviet gymnasts always were at compulsories.  I actually learned a lot from using the Lubitel about composition and light metering.  My photography basics also came from an uncompromising and strict coach from the USSR — the Lubitel.

Anyway, here are some pictures I took with the Lubitel in 2001, ancient times.  I was looking at them and I couldn’t believe how pin sharp they are.  They look like they were taken yesterday but alas, they were not.  I think I got my $60 worth with the Lubitel:

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