They share a name, but to a casual eye, that’s really where the similarities end.
One is a solid rectangle of plastic, almost devoid of features apart from a lens, a viewfinder, a rewind knob and a shutter button. It’s like somebody had to produce a rangefinder camera during a national emergency, and pretty much all they had to hand was plastic.
The other looks a little more stylish – well, as stylish as you might expect from a plastic-heavy 1960s camera. It’s dominated by a giant plastic thumbwheel and a kink on the left hand side that makes the camera a little more comfortable with one hand.
Both these cameras sport the same lens – the Lomo Triplet T-43 40/4 lens. And shutter speeds? No less than five of them (1/15 to 1/250), plus ‘B’. Everything you need to shoot a roll of film, and few frills to distract you.
The fancier looking member of the pair is the Smena-8, the rectangular version is the Smena 8M. Both of them were made by Leningradskoye Optiko-Mekhanicheskoye Obyedinenie (Lomo), the Leningrad-based camera and lens maker which built a vast array of models during Soviet times. The Smena-8 was made from 1963 until 1971; the Smena 8M from 1970 all the way up to 1995, long after the Soviet Union itself had fallen apart.
Soviet cameras tended to be produced in large quantities; the Zenit-E SLR, for instance, was built to the tune of three million examples over 17 years, and that was just one model in a whole family of similar Zenit SLRs. Compare that to the Nikon F, in comparison, which notched up a production run of 862,000 over 14 years.
“For every Trip 35 produced, four of these Smenas rolled off the production lines”
Well, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the two Smenas. Add these two different models together, and you come up with a production total of more than 21 million. Compare that to the ubiquitous Olympus Trip 35, a camera often regarded as one of the most-produced film cameras of the post-war periods. In all, some 5.4 million these were made between 1968 and 1986. For every Trip 35 produced, four of these Smenas rolled off the production lines.
As their names suggest, the two cameras were not the only Smena models made. Lomo’s first model appeared way back in 1952, an angular bakelite viewfinder camera sporting a T-22 45/4.5 lens similar to the one on the Lubitel TLR. Apart from a shutter whose speeds ran from 1/20 to 1/200 and the slightly less flexible lens, the original Smena was broadly similar to the vast family of cameras which followed it for the next 40+ years.
The Smena was a people’s camera, cheap to produce, and more flexible than it might first look. Though the camera is extremely rudimentary, it still includes a tripod mount and a cable release socket. And the lens might have been relatively unsophisticated, but it wasn’t the plasticky kind you’d find on the front of a Diana or a Holga – Lomo’s Triplet lenses are capable of taking very sharp images stopped down, if you don’t mind living with a touch of vignetting. The glass T-43 is no different; they can yield really sharp pics.
The only major headache with the Smenas were – in order to keep them as simple and cheap as possible – the film winding transport wasn’t linked to the shutter. You had to cock the shutter via a lever on the lens, just like the one found on a Lubitel TLR.
The Smena-8 was widely exported, especially in the UK. There. They were imported by Technical & Optical Equipment (TOE), a British company which was the only official importer of Soviet photographic equipment. This was, of course, smack bang in the middle of the Cold War, when the USSR was at political odds with the West but still perfectly happy to sell it some of its vast photographic industry’s cameras.
Lomo and KMZ (the home of Zenit SLRs and Zorki rangefinders) had plenty of cameras to sell at cheap price, but Soviet cameras had a reputation for not being the most reliable; factories were told to produce certain amounts, and it didn’t always matter if their cameras left them in working condition. Cheap Russian cameras didn’t have to be as highly specified as those being made in Japan and West Germany, but they were still expected to work properly. TOE sent over technicians to Leningrad and Moscow, where they learned on the factory floor exactly how the cameras should work.
The cameras sent to TOE were then all checked to make sure they worked properly by these technicians – and stripped, repaired and rebuilt if not. One such camera was the Smena-8. To make it sound slightly less Russian – at a time when Britain and the USSR weren’t exactly on back-slapping terms – TOE changed its name to the Cosmic 35, selling it in a box with some particularly beautiful Constructivist art.
TOE released a book in 1971 called ‘Discover Rewarding Photography’, a handbook for amateur photographers that not-so-subtly only references certain Soviet models when it mentions particular cameras. It says this about the Cosmic 35: “This camera has a quite remarkable specification at its very low price, and is capable of producing very high quality work.”
As the Lomography craze started in the early 1990s, the Smena 8M especially enjoyed a new audience, one that made the most out of the camera’s simple charms. After all, there were plenty to go around. No junk shop, market stall or antiques store east of Berlin was complete without a scattering of Smenas in their black vinyl cases, usually going for pocket change.
Sometimes you can find a lot more – a few months ago, a Kazakh camera fan found a stash of 800 Smena 8Ms sitting in a disused warehouse in Kazakhstan, forgotten for nearly 30 years.
(Note: The Smena 8M in the picture at the top of the post is one of a new batch made by Lomo in the early 2000s – the original production did not feature any cameras with a blue faceplate – thanks to Vladislav Kern for this extra info.)