The Lomo LC-A has always been the high priest at the centre of Lomography’s analogue cult.
Commissioned as Soviet answer to the quirky, pocket-sized Cosina CX-2, Lomo’s designers were compelled – by no less than the USSR’s deputy minister of defence, and no doubt with an unwavering stare – to come up with a Soviet equivalent, something that could be given to apparatchiks at Communist party congresses.
More than a million of these chunky compacts were built in Lomo’s Leningrad factory during the 1980s, though the camera was little-known outside the USSR. But, as the fable goes, the chance discovery of an example in a Prague junk shop in the early 1990s created the Lomography movement, one which eventually restarted production of the little camera in psot-Soviet Russia.
The little compact was built to the same specifications as the Soviet-era models, save changing the film speeds from the Soviet GOST system to the ISO range used in the West. Long after the Cosina CX-2 had faded into obscurity, the little Lomo was still in production.
The Lomo, however much it was lauded by the Lomography movement, still had room for improvement. Though the camera would keep the shutter open as long as it needed, it could only meter up to 400 ISO; that meant high-ISO films perfect for low-light photography were unusable. The lack of a cable release mount in the shutter button meant the photographer had to hold the camera during long exposures, which greatly increased the chance of camera shake. And bear in mind low-light photography and long exposures are definitely part of the LC-A’s raison d’etre.
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For inspiration, Lomography turned to the short-lived – and extremely rare – successor to the LC-A, the LC-M, released in 1987. This camera had a more reliable shutter, a cable release socket in the shutter button, and a meter which could cater for films up to ISO 800.
In 2006, Lomography released the LC-A+, the first major rethink of the humble LC-A to make it into full-scale production. The initial versions still featured a Russian-made lens, though the rest of the camera was built in China. After a year or so, Lomography moved the lens production to China aswell.
New and improved
So what exactly had Lomography done? The extra specifications included:
- Multiple exposure switch
- Film ISO settings increased to 800 and 1600
- Film cartridge window on rear door
- Standard cable release for long exposures
- Front groove accessory mount for filters
An enthusiastic LC-A shooter since I first picked one up in 2000, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the LC-A+. Towards the end of 2007 I finally stumped out the cash for a new Lomo, despite the fact my original Soviet-era was still (in fact still is) going strong.
I kept that first LC-A+ for about five years before trading it for a Kiev-60 owned by a friend in Finland. About the same time I was gifted a wide-angle LC-Wide by Lomography London, and also picked up an LC-A 120 after that camera was released in 2014. I realised that my little family tree of LC-A cameras was missing the LC-A+, so when the Lomography London store closed for good in 2019 I picked up one of their 25th Anniversary LC-A+s. This version of the camera is identical to the normal model apart from being covered in rust-brown leather. Back in the summer of 2018, I’d decided to shoot my old LC-A as much as possible and it seemed a no-brainer to do the same thing with the LC-A+ in 2019.
That LC-A I bought back in 2000 is not one of the new models commissioned by Lomography since the fall of the Soviet Union, it’s an original, Soviet-era model from the mid-1980s and it’s chunky. Even though Soviet camera manufacturers had been using plastic since the 1950s – on cameras such as the Smena compact series, for instance – the LC-A featured plenty of metal. One of the biggest differences between it and the LC-A+ is sheer weight. It feels like more plastic parts have been used, and the cameras feels about 20% lighter than the original model.
The LC-A+’s specs axe some of the LC-A’s in favour, and add others originally intended for the LK-M if it had gone into full production. As outlined before, the LC-A+’s meter is sensitive enough to use film as high as ISO 1600; once, this would have included emulsions such as Fujifilm’s Superia 1600, but today mostly means you’ll be pushing black-and-white films like Kodak’s Tri-X a couple of stops. Given the little Lomo’s fans are taught to take this with them to document nights out in dim light, this is an obvious improvement. And it’s not the only one.
As mentioned before, the LC-A’s lack of a threaded shutter button meant a cable release couldn’t be fitted and camera shake was therefore much more likely during long exposures. The LC-A+’s threaded shutter button does allow a cable shutter release, and you can then pop the camera on a tripod or flat surface and – hopefully – get shake-free long exposures. That’s not really the kind of photography I do with my Lomos, but it’s nice to know the camera has the option should I feel the need.
The original LC-A had an auto option, but it also had an over-ride which allowed you to choose your aperture, from f2.8 to f16. Doing so, however, meant you had only one shutter speed – 1/60 – which made this option less useful than it appears. I can think of only a handful of times I used this in 20 years of shooting the LC-A. The rest of the time the aperture selector has happily sat on ‘A’. The LC-A+ gets rid of this manual over-ride option; Lomography had realised the vast majority of users kept the camera in auto mode. You don’t need to complicate the camera’s inner workings to create a function that most people will never use.
One useful feature in the LC-A which wasn’t taken over into the LC-A+ was the pictograms in the viewfinder. The LC-A is a scale-focus viewfinder camera, and can be set at four different focus zones – 0.8m, 1.5m, 3m and infinity. With no traditional focusing aid in the viewfinder, the LC-A followed the lead of many other scale-focusing cameras and had a series of cartoons viewable at the bottom of the viewfinder corresponding with the distance. This is a simple but really useful tool for finding the right focus zone until you get a feel for where they sit on the front of the camera. In what I can only guess what was a cost-cutting move from Lomography, the LC-A+ gets rid of them.
The LC-A+ includes a groove on the side of the viewfinder’s front with allows accessories to be attached such as the Splitzer, which exposes only part of the frame. This is particularly useful with multiple exposures – the LC-A+ was the first of the LC-A family to feature a multiple exposure function. Just flick the “MX” switch on the bottom of the camera while shooting and you can take as many exposures as you want on the same frame.
I’m a big fan of the LC-A’s evolution along the years: the LC-Wide’s wide-angle lens gives it a really dramatic, cinematic feel, and the LC-A 120 is just about the most fun medium format camera I’ve used in the last 20 years. But the modern Chinese-made Lomo cameras don’t have quite the same heft as their Soviet-made cousins.
One issue fairly quick on the scene with my example was that the rewind crank handle no longer sits tight within the rewind knob. It’s a pretty common issue with the LC-Wide too; the metal rewind crank appears to rub off the surrounding plastic. Turn the camera upside down or on its side and the rewind crank handle flops out. It’s not an issue I’ve had with any of my three Soviet-era LC-As. Chalk up one to Soviet construction.
This is a minor quibble, however. And, thankfully, shooting the LC-A+ is simplicity itself. The film chamber has a prominent tooth to catch the perforations on the film. The thumb-wheel – similar to that you would find on cameras like the Olympus XA or the Trip 35 – travel smoothly. Close the back, select the right ISO, and set the focusing zone on the left-hand front of the camera. Like the LC-A, the lens cover is opened using a switch on the bottom of the front panel. It’s much simpler than the twisting panel used on the Cosina CX-2. Lomo’s engineers couldn’t work out how to copy this feature, so plumped instead for a simple sliding cover.
Scale focus cameras might seem a bit of hit and miss, but shooting in good light, where the camera will most likely choose a fast shutter speed and a narrow aperture, means getting the distance exactly right isn’t really an issue. To be honest, if you’re shooting anything more than 3m (10 ft) away, you’ll just have the camera set at infinity. It’s only when you’re shooting in slightly more compromising light closer to the camera that you’ll need to make sure your focusing skills are a little more accurate. It’s something you learn, and after 20 years shooting with the LC-A and other scale-focusing cameras, I’m a lot faster shooting with them than I am with a rangefinder camera.
Lomography’s popularity in the 1990s came partly from the LC-A’s affinity with cross-processed slide film. It’s certainly something that made me buy my first Lomo. Lomography urged its fans to use cheap films rather than putting more expensive pro-spec films in it, and budget-conscious Lomographers often turned to consumer-grade slide films, such as Agfa’s Precisa CT100 or Kodak’s Elite Chrome films. Cross processed in negative chemicals, these slide films get more saturated colours, boosted contrast and heavier grain. Each slide film has a slightly different colour profile, with Agfa Precisa and the Extra Colour edition of Kodak Elite Chrome being the standouts. If you ever find some of these sadly long-discontinued films, this is exactly the kind of camera to shoot them in.
The Minitar marvel
Though the LC-A+ might suffer from some shortcuts when it comes to construction, but the lens is, happily, just as good as the one in the LC-A. Though production has now mostly shifted from Russia to China, the LC-A+’s 32mm Minitar-1 32/2.8 is as dramatic as its 80s predecessor. The Minitar-1 is certainly not one for test charts purists; it has very noticeable vignetting around the edges of the frame, similar to the Triplet lens used in Lomo’s cheap-and-cheerful Lubitel TLR. Stopped down, or when you manage to get the subject in that zone-focus sweet spot, the lens is nice and sharp. Not Leica-sharp, you understand, but plenty sharp enough.
After buying my first LC-A back in 2000, I discovered they were a fantastic travel camera. In the past 20 years I’ve burned through score of rolls of cheap print film and consumer slide in various pocket Lomos. The LC-A+ went with me to the north of Italy, a weekend break to Budapest, a week in Spain and a half-dozen photowalks around London. Perhaps the only thing I haven’t done with it – yet – is push film in lower light. It’d be interesting to shoot a few rolls of pushed Kodak Tri-X around the city at night, and see how that Minitar deals with even more grit and grain.
Worth the price?
A brand new Lomo LC-A+ costs about £250, the special editions around £350. Lomography produced a raft of limited-edition specials, including the following:
- LC-A+ 25th Anniversary Edition
- LC-A+ Gold
- LC-A+ Silver Lake
- LC-A+ Russia Day
- LC-A+ No Nukes
- LC-A+ White Edition
Soviet-era LC-As can be bought for as little as £50 on eBay, and even shop-bought copies (with guarantee) shouldn’t crops the £100 barrier. While it’s a more limited camera in terms of meter sensitivity and doesn’t have a multiple exposure function, the Soviet-era LC-A is a more robustly built camera. This was underlined a few weeks ago. Finishing another roll for this review, my LC-A+ lens cover stuck open. It’s a common issue with modern Lomos – the fix requires the front cover to be removed and the blinds aligned with the arms around the lens which move up and down with the shutter latch is moved back and forth. It’s a five-minute job with nothing needed other than a small Phillips-head screwdriver. The thing is, it’s not a job I’ve ever had to carry out on my LC-A, and I’ve had it for 20 years.
I’m glad Lomography gave the LC-A some much needed improvements, especially for those shooting in low light. But at at least £250 new, the LC-A+ costs some three times the price of a working LC-A, and in some areas it’s more shoddily built than a camera built in the dying days of the Soviet Union.
While I’ve enjoyed shooting the LC-A+ – it is a camera that’s hard not to love – most of its “improved” functions remained unused. Unless you plan to be shooting at 800 or 1600 ISO, want pin-sharp long exposures or can’t bear the thought of a camera that can’t do multiple exposures, you’ll have to ask yourself whether the LC-A+ delivers things the humble LC-A doesn’t.
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