The Lubitel range of cameras was many photographers first experience with medium format; a marque of bug-eyed twin-lens reflexes (TLRs) built in the Soviet city of Leningrad. Lubitels rolled off the LOMO factory line in their millions. Based on the 1930s-era Voigtlander Brilliant from Germany, this simple, no-frills camera continued in production from the late 1940s until a few years before the demise of the USSR.
The last of the original Lubitel line was the 166U; made predominantly from plastic, it was a cheap way of trying out 120 film. But the 166U was not a toy camera. Much of the body might have been plastic, but the lens was proper glass.
My Lubitel 166U works like a charm, and has spent too much time sitting in the camera cabinet. A few days break in Malta last month seemed like the perfect opportunity to put it through its paces.
All Lubitels shared a few similar characteristics; all have a 75/4.5 Triplet lens, and shutter speeds up to 1/250, and a “sports finder” that aids with critical focusing. It’s definitely a camera that works best with bright light, though that also means that given that modest fastest shutter speed, the photographer tends to be working with very narrow apertures.
TLRs require some practice to get the best out off. You see the scene in front of you via the top ‘taking’ lens, and the camera records the image from the bottom one. There’s no mirror to slap, which means TLRs are excellent for taking street photography; the shutter is whisper quiet, and the act of focusing the camera, peering down through the top, makes it much easier to blend into the background. The main thing to watch out for is the fact the view in the camera is revered, move left and the image moves right. This can be a little disorienting at first. The best thing to do is to shoot only on a TLR for a few days. You’ll get used to it.
Malta is an incredibly photogenic country, especially its charming, old school capital, Valletta. The Grand Harbour is aptly named, a vast natural harbour ringed by forts, formidable city walls and stone buildings. You can walk around Valletta in a couple of ambling hours, and in true Mediterranean style the streets are always full of life.
In tandem with a Lomo LC-A 120, I shot nearly a dozen rolls of 120 in a few days; the Lubitel 166U turned out to be a really capable shooter, especially on rolls of expired Fuji Provia 100 slide film. You hear photographers talking about the massive difference in sharpness and definition between 35mm film and 120; on slide film, that’s very easy to see. For what is often derided as a toy camera, the Lubitel’s capable of beautifully sharp shots.
The single-coated lens of the Lubitel suited the atmosphere of Mdina even better. Mdina is a medieval walled city called ‘The Silent City’ by the Maltese; it’s an atmospheric place, full of beautiful old buildings and quiet cobbled streets. It’s been used many times a location in film and TV.
The first day I was there, a medieval parade celebrating Mdina’s past was in full swing; the Lubitel allowed me to get close to the performers taking a break, allowing me to shoot unobtrusively. You understand why so many legendary street photographers used TLRs to get natural shots. You can be just a few feet away and no-one knows you’re taking the shot.
It was while I was padding around Mdina’s quiet streets that an old Maltese gent caught sight of the Lubitel and came over to have a look. He asked me if it was a Rolleiflex; very much not, you can buy a crate of old Lubitels for the cost of a just one of those precision-made German classics. He was overjoyed to see someone shooting film.
That’s the thing about cameras like the Lubitel. You’re not going to confuse this with a digital camera. And while it’s no Rolleiflex, this quick trip to Malta showed it’s no slouch.