My Lubitel 166U

I THINK YOU can learn a surprising amount from vintage cameras; lessons about light, composition, line, tone, subject. From there you may want to know more about aperture, shutter speed, focus and depth of field. The fine technical details needed for you to become the friend who knows a thing or two about photography. From here, perhaps you buy a different camera. You raid your bank account for a few more pounds to go get yourself an SLR or Medium Format or Large Format, depending on your budget, intention and vision. I think it’s wise though to take a brief moment from all the excitement and consider what it is you want from all this creative activity? The world is full of photographs stitched into the fabric of our lives both digitally and in film. The capacity now to share our best, worst, finest and most humiliating moments through social media is so vast and dense it can feel as if we’re simply adding to the weight rather than pondering our own unique vision.

What is a Lubitel anyway?

With this in mind, I thought I would write a series of posts inspired by my small collection of point and shoots. First up is my vintage Lubitel 166U. I bought mine when I was in my twenties and at art college studying for a degree in fine art photography. Jessops, down the road, had a run on them at £19.99 so I figured it was worth a try. There was no way I could buy anything more expensive on the income from my part-time job, but 20 quid seemed do-able. Lubitel cameras didn’t have a great reputation for quality and often fell apart quickly. Mine is made of sturdier stuff and is still going 24 years later.

Made by Lomo for the amateur market, the Lubitel is a twin-lens medium format camera. Mine is a 166U. The U stands for Universal due to the camera’s ability to take pictures in two different formats. I can slip a thin plastic frame into the back of the body and the 6×6 camera is then enabled to take photographs in 6×4.5. Oh, the technology! Over on the Lomography website is an article where I discover that ‘lubitel’ in Russian actually means ‘amateur’. And yet, the fact that it is fully manual with no light meter, means that even as an amateur you need to learn the mechanics of a camera to get a decent exposure. This isn’t your typical point & shoot where the equipment makes all the decisions.
It’s also pretty difficult to focus.

Back to front

Looking down through the viewfinder, the image is back to front. When I try to line up a vertical or a horizontal line, I always seem to turn my body the wrong way. It’s a significant workout for my brain. To add to the difficulty, the viewfinder glass is slightly curved which means sometimes I can see the end of the barrel of the lens when I don’t quite have my eye in the right place. There’s a tiny flip-up magnifying glass to help focus through the, not very generous, 10mm circle of ground glass etched into the viewfinder.

There’s no way to measure light in the camera and the battery in my old Minolta meter gave out long ago. I decide to use the Sunny 16 rule. But sometimes I forget I’m doing this and take a number of photographs with the aperture and shutter speed at the same setting for different situations. Annoying. I persevere. I get used to its quirky focusing and my inconsistent metering. As it has no batteries to add weight and bulk, the camera is very light and fits comfortably in my hands. In the past, I’ve tried to use it as if it was a more robust, serious piece of kit. I used a tripod, cable release and carefully spot measured the light. But really I’d missed the point. Its very lightness makes it ideal for handholding. If I need to be still for a low shutter speed, I’ll hold my breath.

12 exposures

I decide to go full frame, the full 6×6 square. I’ll only have 12 exposures on a roll of film. 12!

With 3 rolls finished and no idea at all, if any exposures will be successful, I post out the films to a warehouse in Sheffield, UK where they will be processed, scanned to CD and posted back to me. Turnaround takes about a week. I need to be patient.

Once my pictures arrive back and I’m looking at them on my computer I am amazed. Not only does the camera still work, most of the images are in focus. The exposure is pretty good, despite my erratic light measurements, probably due to the fair amount of exposure latitude inherent in colour negative film.

On a few images there’s a smudge of translucent pink in the corners. I’m not sure if it’s light leak (very possible) or the fact the film is a few years old and hasn’t been stored properly. I don’t mind this though. It’s one of the quirks of the camera. There’s space, I think, for a delicate touch in the world of photography. It’s very easy to get hung up on equipment and technology. And yes, knowing the rules means you know how to break them, but it’s good to remember that mistakes, sometimes, can be beautiful.

I’ll carry on putting films through my Lubitel. There’s one in there at the moment. The other day I made some lovely photos of my eldest daughter in the reflected evening light while shadows crept across the walls. At least in my mind’s eye, they are lovely. I’ve yet to see the actual images. There’s room for 5 more exposures but I’m waiting for a moment. A moment of light, a moment of colour, a moment of transformation. These are the things I’m looking for when I pick up my old, plastic, slightly battered Lubitel.

To see more of my library of Lubitel photographs, please click here. Enjoy!