By Anthony Fisk
I’ve been a fan of cameras from the Former Soviet Union (FSU), particularly the ones made with more metal than would be excusable under capitalism, ever since being gifted my first SLR (a Zenit-E) a few years ago. I love the feel, the unbeatable price, and knowing that an admittedly rare good one can be near indestructible.
I’d also been craving a camera that packed all the utility of a Zenit with a Helios-44 or a FED with an Industar-61 in a simple standalone package. So when I first stumbled upon a cheap near-mint Sokol-2 whilst wasting away an evening trawling eBay, I simply had to pick up.
As with most cameras/lenses from the FSU, the year of their manufacture can be found in the first two digits of their serial number. Mine was made in 1982; during the middle of their 1977-1986 production run. Apparently, these were made in enormous quantities, yet somehow I hadn’t heard of them before that fateful night.
The first thing that caught my eye was the brutalist aesthetics. The top is mostly bare metal, save for a CCCP insignia, a hot shoe, the cable release socket, and the battery cover. The front features the viewfinder and nameplate, which each sit recessed into chunky rectangular metallic extrusions one might consider windows. Also a black plastic wedge with a downwards arrow on it that serves as the shutter release slide (not a button). The nameplate itself is in the plainest font imaginable (think Arial) with the same metallic silver and black colour scheme as the rest of the camera.
More camera reviews:
- FED-50: Take a Trip, Soviet style
- Yashica Electro 35 GSN: Living an Electro dream
- Lomo Lubitel 166U: More than a toy
As in the case of the shutter release, everything on this camera is somewhat strange, or at least in a strange place/orientation. The crank is absent from the top because it is on the back and winds all the way around the side of the body to the front of the camera. The frame counter is on the bottom of the camera alongside the rewind release. Not to worry; my frame counter doesn’t work anyway. The re-wind lever is on the user’s left of the camera, perpendicular to the direction you’re winding your film.
In addition to being a bizarrely laid out camera, it’s a camera of strange contradictions. On one hand, it features some relatively advanced features for FSU cameras; such as a shutter priority mode, parallax correction, and flash synching at all of its copal-leaf-shutter speeds. Yet simultaneously its lowest shutter speed (before bulb) is 1/30th, you’re stuck with the built-in 50mm f/1.8 Industar-70 lens, and it is considerably larger and heavier than a FED rangefinder and Industar-61 combo.
All of this raises the questions such as, why does this camera exist? What untapped market did it serve? Why would anybody use it over its peers? Why would anybody write an article on it today? While I can’t answer the first two questions, I can answer the latter two. At least in terms of my personal experience.
Before the Sokol-2, I must admit I was very apprehensive about “Lomography”. I was still very much in the mindset of maximising the image quality (sharpness, resolution, etc) I got for my buck. In fact, I first got seriously into film photography to save money (I know, hilarious, right?). A full-frame digital camera was out of my budget, but 35mm film at the time barely left a dent (as they say, your first hit is free…). I saw the objective “quality” of my images as independent of, but equally important to the “art” I was trying to depict in them. Like thinking of the mind as independent of the body. Fortunately, like a few shots of vodka, the Sokol-2 straightened that misconception right out.
Seeing my first negatives created with the Sokol 2 was an eye-opening experience. By my usual criteria, the whole endeavour was a flop. Frames were overlapping (later found this was only happening with my bulk-rolled film) and it seemed like a lottery as to whether a shot was sharp or not. However, the more I looked, I stopped seeing a lack of sharpness, and started seeing dreaminess. In many cases I stopped seeing overlapping frames and starting seeing Bob Ross-esque “happy little accidents”.
Subsequent times I’ve taken the camera out, my expectations have been adjusted. I still largely compose my shots as usual, but I do so knowing that there is a good chance that the unexpected might happen, I no longer feel burdened by ensuring my vision is precisely realised. I’m embracing the chaos at play. I still do my usual what-I-see-is-what-I-get style of photography with my other cameras, but when the Sokol-2 is in hand, it’s Lomography time!
The Sokol-2 is a perplexing camera which seems to be completely nonsensical until you
realise that apparent detachment from sanity is its killer feature. It’s a gorgeous camera which demands you don’t take it or yourself too seriously. In my opinion it deserves a similar cult status to that of the LC-A, but I hope it doesn’t gain that kind of street cred any time soon because I’m considering buying a second one and they’re currently dirt cheap.
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