Medium format wasn’t just a tool for professional wedding and portrait photographers.

In the decades before 35mm became ubiquitous, there were many budget 120-format cameras. In the first half of the 20th Century, 6×6-format Kodak Brownies helped revolutionise amateur photography, and a plethora of folding designs were squarely aimed at enthusiasts rather than pros.

Even after World War II, with 35mm film cameras becoming rapidly more popular, cameras like the West German Agfa Clack sold in enormous numbers.

There were several reasons for this. Medium format film tended to be cheaper to buy. When it came to developing, those on a budget could just get their films printed as contact sheets rather than pricier individual prints. Look through a photo album from the early post-war years and you’ll no doubt see these kind of mini prints, cut from the contact sheet.

With only 12 shots on a roll of film (and even less if your camera shot 6×9) there was no waiting weeks and weeks to finish a roll.

Brilliant beginnings

In 1930s Germany, one of the most important and far-reaching medium format cameras ever devised was released by Voigtlander. The Brillant started out as a metal scale-focus TLR camera in 1932. As the camera became more popular it was redesigned as a conventional focusing TLR aswell, and constructed out of Bakelite as well as metal.

The Brillant – so named because of its incredibly bright finder – was a huge success and remained in production until 1951; nearly 20 years. And its influence was felt behind the Iron Curtain aswell.

In the Soviet Union, the Brilliant’s success inspired engineers at Leningrad’s GOMZ (Gosularstvennyi Optiko-Mekhanicheskii Zavod or State Optical-Mechanical Factory) to come up with something similar. What followed was the first mass-production camera to be built in the USSR after World War II – the Komsomolets (Pioneer Youth) TLR.

The Komsomolets, the first of the Soviet copies of the Voigtlander Brilliant (Pic: Аскольд/Wikimedia Commons)

The Komsomolets was built for five years between 1946 and 1951 (coincidentally the last year the Brilliant was produced aswell), with more than 300,000 being built. It was a simple camera, made with few frills; the camera featured a Triplet-21 80/6.3 lens and shutter speeds of 1/25, 1/50 and 1/100 – making it perfect for handheld photography. It also had a B mode for longer exposures. The only downside with the camera was that focusing was by guestimate – the camera had no focusing aid.

On the back of the Komsomolets came a follow-up, the Lubitel (amateur). First released in 1949, the first version of the Lubitel had several improvements – its taking lens was now a 75/4.5 Triplet and it had more shutter speeds (1/10 up to 1/200). It also had proper focusing and a magnifying lens in the waist-level finder.

The Lubitel was a hit – more than 1.3 million of the first version were made until 1956, and it spawned a family of cameras produced until the end of the 20th Century, and even beyond.

Refined amateur

The Lubitel was itself superseded by the Lubitel 2, which redesigned the shutter timings to match Western settings and ran from 1/15 to 1/250. It also added flash-sync speed and a self-timer. It ended up having one of the longest production runs of any camera – 26 years, from 1954 to 1980.

By the time the Lubitel 2 ended production had changed its name to LOMO (Leningradskoye Optiko-Mekhanicheskoye Obyedinenie or Leningrad Optical Mechanical Association). In time for the Moscow Olympics of 1980, LOMO upgraded the Lubitel again, adding a flash show and a frame counter (previous versions had a red window that allowed you to view the frame number on the backing paper) to create the Lubitel 166.

Problems with both the hot shoe and the frame counter led to another redesign after only 60,000 of the 166 model were made. The Lubitel 166B downgraded the hot shoe to an accessory shoe and got rid of the frame counter, and therefore made the camera simpler and more reliable. Nearly a million were made before production ceased in 1990, the year after the Berlin Wall came down and the USSR began to dissolve.

The Art Deco-looking Lubitel 2 (Pic: Antti-Jussi Kovalainen/Flickr)

But it wasn’t the last Lubitel. Between 1983 and 1996, Lomo also produced the Lubitel 166U (U for Universal), which added a mask which also allowed you to shoot 6×4.5 format (16 shots on a roll of 120 film). This camera kept the Lubitel line into production through the end of the Soviet Union and into the era of independent Russia.

By the time the Lubitel production lines went quiet, more than 400,000 examples of the Universal had been made. As the last in the line, it’s the newest and there probably the most reliable of the line (though with Soviet cameras this isn’t often the case). In any case, the fact that nearly half a million were made means that like most Lubitels, the 166U doesn’t break the bank.

The 166U’s features

I’ve owned a few Lubitels in my time, and found them incredibly easy cameras to use. Aimed squarely at beginners and enthusiasts, they’re not overburdened with features – but then why stack a camera full of features that aren’t going to be used?

The 166U is, like all of the Lubitel line, made from a hard plastic apart from the viewing hood and the lens assemblies. It’s a reasonably compact camera for a TLR – around 12cm high without the viewing hood extended, 8cm wide and 10.5cm deep. Thanks to being made mostly from plastic, it’s relatively light – about 550g, which is positively slimline for a medium format camera.

The Lubitel series often gets lumped in with the likes of the Diana and Holga cameras as a toy camera, but that’s misleading. The former are ‘plastic fantastics’ with a plastic lens aswell – and while you can get atmospheric, intriguing pics from them, clarity and sharpness is not really part of the programme.

At the heart of the 166 Universal are its two lenses; the taking lens is a 60/2.8 and the taking lens is a glass Triplet-22 75/4.5. Triplets are pretty much the simplest form of optical lens that will still yield decent results – they use three elements to eliminate most optical aberrations. Like most TLRs, the viewing lens lacks and aperture so that the scene in the waist-level finder appears as bright as possible. The taking and viewing lenses are both interlinked with gearing teeth so that both move to exactly the same position.

The 166U is one of the easiest medium format cameras to load – a further boon since this was a camera aimed at amateurs. On the top of the back of the camera just below the waist level finder is a knob. Turn this to the 12 o’clock position and the camera back opens. Turn it to the 3 o’clock position and it ‘s firmly closed. It’s perfectly light-tight; the same can’t be said for the 166B, whose door locking mechanism wasn’t nearly so robust.

With the back of the camera open, the film spool needs to be placed at the top of the chamber. The film advance is on the right, and on the left is the take-up spool spindle. The spindle is easy to pull out thanks to the button on the outside of the camera. You can fit the take-up spool in seconds and loading a roll of film is just as easy; the film sits between a tongue-like tab of metal and the body of the camera. This keeps the film firmly in place. Simply roll enough paper to feed into the take-up spool and you’re ready to go. It’s as foolproof as camera loading gets, and a lot easier to load compared to other Soviet MF cameras such as the Kiev 60 and the KMZ Iskra.

The shutter and aperture settings on the side of the taking lens

Once the film is loaded and the back closed, you’ll need to advance the film to its starting position. The 166U has, on the back, a red window that will allow you to see the frame positioning on the backing paper. Because the camera shoots both 6×6 and 6×4, you’ll need to make sure the window is set to the right position (6×6 is to the left). The large knob on the right hand side of the camera moves the film forward. Keep an eye out for the number “1” in the red window and you’re ready to shoot.

Outside, things are not so clear-cut, especially for beginners, so it’s worth exploring the camera and getting a sense of what sits where before you take it out and actually try to shoot with it. Everything you need to take a picture sits around the taking lens. Looking at the camera face on, the lens speed and aperture settings are on the right hand side.

A black plastic-tipped lever on the bottom move the apertures steplessly (f22 through to f4.5 from bottom to top), with a silver metal lever towards the front of the lens changing the shutter speeds. There are only a handful of these – 1/15 to 1/250, plus B. This is pretty standard for leaf-shutter style cameras as it was almost impossible to make them operate faster than 1/500. Still, the Lubitel’s limited shutter speeds mean you’re pretty much having to use the camera with low-ISO films at narrow apertures if conditions are bright and sunny.

A Lubitel 166U is particularly compact for a medium format TLR (Pic: Phil Hearing/Flickr)

Around the right-hand side of the taking lens is also where you’ll find the self-timer. This is a pretty standard 10-second delay, useful for landscapes if you haven’t got a tripod handy or for group portraits.

To the left is what you need to get the Lubitel shooting. To the left on the taking lens (around 10 o’clock) is the clock arm for the shutter. Pull this down and you’ll hear a satisfying click – that means the shutter is armed and you can take a picture.

To do so you’ll need to press down the lever immediately below it (9 o’clock position). You’ll hear the shutter click and the cocking arm will return to its original position. Then it’s time to advance and repeat. Should you want to fit filters, the taking lens is threaded to take 40.5mm filters.

There’s a few other tips for getting the best out of the 166U. Below the shutter lever is a cable release socket; veteran TLR photographers often recommend using a short cable release to trip the shutter, especially if you’re using longer shutter speeds, so that the images aren’t shaky. The vinyl soft case comes with an ultra thing strap that’s pretty useless. A better bet is attaching your own to the strap lugs on the side of the camera.

Using the Universal

You’ve got your 166U loaded and ready for action. So what’s it like to shoot with?

The light weight and compact size make the 166U a decent choice for a medium format travel camera, especially if you’re going somewhere where you need to keep weight down to a minimum. It’s much smaller and lighter than the likes of the Yashica Mat 124G, and – and a fraction of the price.

The magnifying finder of the 166U

Some might be put off by the fact the 166U doesn’t come with an integral lightmeter. In reality this isn’t a problem at all. Most TLRs didn’t have one, and the photographer relied on handheld meters. A modern, reliable meter like the Sekonic L-208 can be had for around £75 in the UK if you shop around. Shooting with a TLR like the Lubitel isn’t a snap-happy exercise anyway – it suits more measured shooting.

The first thing you’ll need to get used to, especially if you’re coming from a 35mm SLR, is the view in the viewfinder. The view is reasonably bright, thanks to the f/2.8 aperture in the viewing lens. But unless your eyesight is particularly keen, you may struggle to see if the subject is in focus, pretty crucial if you plan on using this for portraits for instance.

Help is at hand, however. The 166U comes with a magnifying finder that flips out and magnifies the central part of the waist-level finder. This makes it much easier to make sure your shot is in focus. It’s worth using this as often as possible when you first start shooting with the camera, at least until you get used to its handling.

Another quirk with the Lubitel is shared by TLRs in general. The image is reversed right-to-left – if you’re tracking a subject that is moving into the right side of the frame, it will actually enter the picture on the left-hand-side of the waist-level finder. It definitely takes a while for your brain to get used to this. It’s worth starting out shooting stationery objects with a TLR just until your eye gets used to the principle.

The Lubitel 166U is perfect for taking candid portraits

The Triplet-22 is a capable lens – especially given the price of a 166U – but it’s not as refined as the lenses you’ll find in a Rolleiflex, Yashica or Mamiya TLR. Shot wide open (f/4.5) the Lubitel’s images exhibit fairly dramatic vignetting (much like that other well-known Lomo, the LC-A). This does tend to lessen as the lens stops down, however.

The Lubitel’s sweet spot is inbetween f/8 and f/22, which makes it useful for street shooting. The lack of a slapping mirror also means the Lubitel is very quiet; TLRs were often used by street and candid photographers because they were unobtrusive; it wasn’t just that they were quiet, the very act of looking down into the top of the camera didn’t make it look like a picture was being taken.

I’ve owned my 166U for about five years, and in that time taken it on trips to Malta, Corfu, Paris, Arles, Porto and Seville, as well as a few weddings and a bunch of weekends wandering London. It’s a perfect tool for exploring a new city; using a 166U forces you to slow down and take in your surroundings.

Candid shot in Mdina, Malta

You can wear the 166U around your neck and take shots on the sly; the quiet shutter can help you get very close to your subject without announcing yourself, if candids are your thing. The pic below of the owl was taken in the Maltese city of Mdina, a shooting location for the TV series ‘Game of Thrones’ – the bird had no idea I was there, even though I was only a metre away.

Medium format’s impressive depth of field can really help when you use wider apertures and isolate elements. Some of my favourite shots have come from pushing the 166U’s aperture wider and shooting café interiors or shadowy streets. The 166U is not a Rolleiflex – hell, it’s not even a Flexaret – but it’s still capable of taking decent pics, especially with the aperture stopped down.

After shooting 20-odd rolls of film, not once have I encountered light leaks, scratches or anything approaching mechanical defects. Even the frame spacing has been pretty uniform – well, at least when I haven’t mucked it up myself.

You can still find boxed 166Us for under £20 – the cameras were widely exported, as earlier versions had been hugely popular in Western Europe. Far from being a bargain basement toy camera, the Lubitel is the most affordable way of getting into medium format and getting a decent glimpse of what this fantastic format is capable of.

The 166U’s production line might have closed down in 1996, but the advent of the Lomography movement in the 1990s and 2000s eventually gave it a second life. Lomography upgraded the Universal, called it the Lubitel 166+, adding a mask that allows you to use 35mm film in it aswell. At £289, however, that’s quite a bit of a cash for a camera of the Lubitel’s modest specs.

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matthew jones

as long as you don’t get a lemon they are a great camera, I’ve had a 50% success rate so far with purchasing them, but it’s still worth it for a very capable medium format square shooter.

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