The giant Soviet camera industry in the Cold War included a vast number of design bureaus and production facilities, but just like in Japan, the industry was dominated by just five names.
In the Land of the Rising Sun, those five names were Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus and Pentax. In the Soviet Union, four of them were Lomo in St Petersburg, KMZ (makers of Zenit and Zorki cameras) in Moscow, and in Ukraine Kiev-Arsenal in Kiev and FED in the eastern city of Kharkiv.
The fifth is the least well-known of them, given that fewer of its designs managed to make their way to the West during the Cold War. It was known as MMZ-BelOMO, and was based in what is now the capital of Belarus, Minsk.
Belomo was an enthusiast’s brand, rather than making pro-level cameras. Founded in 1957, the factory was founded on the banks of the Vilia River. The river would later be paid tribute in one of BelOMO’s most successful camera lines.
More camera reviews:
- FED-50: Take a Trip, Soviet style
- Lomo LC-A: A Russian revolution
- Ghetaldus King Regula: A Cold War curiosity
BelOMO never produced a Leica-clone, unlike almost all the other major Soviet camera makers. Instead, they concentrated on simpler cameras, intended more for amateurs and beginners than those wanting a Leica-like with a cheaper price tag. Their Chaika family was a well-made, pleasingly designed range of half-frame cameras produced during the 1960s and 70s. When KMZ could not keep up with the demand for their Zenit-E SLR – the first to feature the universal screw mount – production lines were also set up in. Minsk. Millions of Es, and following Zenit models, were produced in Minsk instead of Moscow.
BelOMO’s biggest success, however, was their Vilia family of viewfinder cameras. A rival to Lomo’s Smena range, the Vilias were mostly made of plastic, did away with rangefinders, and were aimed at students, beginners and anyone else wanting a camera on a strict budget. What they did have, however, was a decent Triplet-design glass lens, just like the Smenas.
The simple Vilia was first released in 1973, and was in production for 13 years; more than two million were produced. It was Minsk’s equivalent of the Smena 8M, a camera with just enough features to be flexible in different lighting conditions but basic enough to be built for very little money. The Triplet-69-6 40/4 lens contained a leaf shutter, with speeds as fast as 1/250. The Vilia was simple and streamlined and a great example of Soviet consumer design from the early 1970s. And like the Smena, the basic design proved to be sound enough to accept further development. The Vilia Auto, which followed a year later, added an Olympus Trip 35-style selenium meter on the front of the lens.
Selenium meters, of course, were already becoming old hat by the mid-70s, so BelOMO’s engineers started looking at battery-operated meters. This is where the Siluet-Elektro story begins.
The Siluet-Elektro was the first of the Vilia family to feature a CDS meter. The batteries also powered the camera’s aperture-priority autoexposure system, still a novelty in the mid-1970s. The Siluet-Elektro’s shutter range only reached 1/250 at the fastest end, but the battery-powered brain would keep the shutter open as long as eight seconds at f/4 if needed, a forerunner to the system used in Lomo’s cult-creating LC-A compact a decade later.
Like the rest of the Vilia family, the Siluet-Electro production wasn’t done in half measures. Made for 16 years from 1975, how many were made isn’t known. But look at its simplified cousin, the Orion-EE, which was only produced for six years in comparison: at least 500,000 of these were made.
Given its decade-and-a-half in production and its cheap price, it’s a wonder why this camera isn’t more common, at least in the UK. I’d never seen one before spying one at the Photographica camera fair ion London back in 2017. The seller was asking £8 for what looked like a Vilia but was obviously something else. The “Elektro” name obviously gave the game away that this was packing some kind of electronics. I took a quick peek through the viewfinder, and the camera’s metering system blinked into life, an orange light in the bottom right-hand corner as the camera’s leaf shutter clicked. For the price of a roll of Kodak Ektar, I had what looked like the Soviet Union’s answer to the famous Yashica Electro – with some corners cut, you understand, comrade.
In some 20 years of collecting and using Soviet cameras, I’m surprised just how little information you see of certain models produced in mind-numbing numbers. A camera likely made in the hundreds of thousands – at least – had managed to pass me by for nearly 20 years.
Few cameras are as no frills as the Siluet-Elektro. Its design is as unencumbered with frills as its possible to get outside of an engineering model. The top plate only has two features: A hot shoe on the right and a rewind knob on the left.
It’s on the lens that most of the camera’s artistic control takes place. Being an aperture-priority automatic camera, this is bare bones. Closes to the camera body is the aperture selection, from f/4 up to f/16. Next up is the ISO selection: these are marked both in GOST (the Soviet version of ISO film speeds) and ASA. Further out is the distance selector, stepless but punctuated with cartoon symbols for common distance settings: a single head for one metre (3ft), a pair of people for 1.5m (5ft), a crowd of three for four metres (13ft) and a fetchingly cartoonish modernist tower block (and tiny forest!) for eight metres (26ft).
The lens’s minimum focusing distance is 0.8m (2.5ft), exactly the same as the Lomo LC-A and a good half-a-foot shorter than cameras like Lomo’s Smena Symbol.
There’s another little touch that adds a sprinkle of street photographer sophistication to this plastic and metal brick – the lens is marked with hyperfocal distances, just in case you want to practice your Cartier-Bresson techniques on a camera costing less than a roll of slide film.
The Siluet-Elektro’s film winder is a metal lever that travels through a groove cut into the plastic top plate of the camera, much like Lomo’s Smena Symbol, but the Minsk-made camera lever lacks a plastic cover. BelOMO, perhaps, cut cost corners where they could to save money.
Like the Smena Symbol and KMZs 60s-era ‘compacts’ the Zorki-10 and 11, the camera’s shutter is operated with a shutter lever on the right-hand side of the lens. It’s a great position for a shutter button, but the drawback for designs like this is the relatively long travel which greatly increases the chance of camera shake during longer exposures. The Siluet-Elektro doesn’t have a threaded leader for cable releases, so long exposures are always going to be a challenge. And if you want a self-timer, you have definitely come to the wrong camera.
This being an aperture-priority camera, there are only three possible shutter settings: ‘B’, a flash setting (1/30 and your choice of aperture) and “A” for automatic, the setting the Siluet-Elektro was very much designed for. This automatic function calls for a battery compartment, and the Siluet-Elektro’s can be found on the bottom right side of the camera. The camera originally took a 4RC-53 battery, a type discontinued in the 1980s; a modern equivalent would be four PX625s. The battery not only powers the metering system but also the shutter – no battery, and the camera’s leaf shutter won’t open.
The Elektro signals a slow exposure (slower than 1/30) with the orange light in the bottom right hand corner and overexposure with a red light in the top right. At least in theory. In practice, every working example I’ve found has a blinking orange light even if the exposure’s spot on.
The Siluet-Elektro is a camera Lomography fans will certainly gravitate to. The Triplet lens is sharp stopped down but exhibits a definite lo-fi look around the edges of the frame as it’s opened up; again, familiar stuff to those who might have picked up a Vilia or a Smena camera before.
The Siluet-Elektro I bought in 2017 came ready-loaded with batteries, so as soon as I was out of the camera fair I loaded a roll of Kodak Ektar 100. My mum was over visiting from New Zealand, and we walked from the camera fair in Victoria to the Victoria Tower Gardens near the Houses of Parliament. The bright, sunny conditions were perfect for shooting saturated Ektar, and the Siluet-Elektro’s contrasty lens added further bite. The softer edges are most noticeable on the pics below, shot reasonably wide open. In the pedestrian pic the effects are quite sympathetic – the eye is drawn to the two women in the centre of the frame anyway. I realise that’s a totally subjective view, given that I’m the kind of photographer who likes shooting streets with a Lomo LC-A.
In this shot, the focus fall-off has heavily smudged one of the towers at the Palace of Westminster. This, it would be fair to say, is not the camera for taking group portraits at a wedding, unless the happy couple are happy with some very 1930s contact-sheet aesthetics.
Part of building a collection of cameras is realising which suits different conditions. I decided, on a hunch, to take the Siluet-Elektro with me to India when I got married there later in 2017. Not that I had a lot of time to go sightseeing, but I knew there would be a few islands of sightseeing amid the chaos. Along with a Cosina CX-2, I thought the Elektro would work well with some cross processed slide and some bright Indian sun.
And, as it happens, my favourite pics taken with the Siluet-Elektro were shot in Mysore, a historical city a few hours drive away from Bangalore in the south of India. I was particularly pleased with a roll shot around Mysore’s famous Flower Market on a roll of Kodak E100VS, which produces the most spectacularly saturated pictures when its cross processed. In such conditions, the lens’s slightly unreal edge rendition is offset somewhat. Sometimes I want pictures that bring back that shock to the senses from a country like India, and cross-processed slide definitely pushes those buttons.
Not that I’m going to pretend the Siluet-Elektro is a pocketable compact camera like the LC-A. This is not a small camera; it weighs in at around 400g, but it’s more the size. The Siluet-Elektro is a solid rectangle with a prominent lens. It takes up more room than a small SLR like the Olympus OM-1. There’s not strap lugs (another cost saving presumably) and the camera is a real two-hand effort, partly thanks to that long-travel shutter lever. I’ve idly wondered if some kind of 3D-printed grip, screwed into the tripod mount and running to the left-hand side of the camera, might be a nice addition. It would also fit the Vilia too, and there’s certainly no shortage of those.
On one of the last trips out with my original Elektro I loaded it with a roll of Astrum 100, a film packaged in the old Soviet-era Svema factory in the east of Ukraine. This is an atmospheric emulsion and the results I got were impressive.
Since finding that first example at Photographica, I’ve somehow inherited two more: one bought off eBay for a tenner and another kindly donated by Alan Duncan of Canny Cameras, one of the only other bloggers I know who has actually put a roll through this austere automatic. His review highlighted some issues – mostly around film winding problems – that I didn’t encounter.
Alan does describe the Elektro’s viewfinder as “the worst ever made”. I’m not going to say that, but it’s certainly nothing special. There’s no kind of focusing aid – not even the symbols viewable in the corner of the viewfinder.
It’s not as versatile as the FED-50, or as characterful as the Lomo LC-A. It lacks the sharpness of the Smena Symbol’s lens, or the pocketability of the Smena-8. You could argue that it lacks the flexibility of the all-manual camera it was built on, the Vilia, thanks to the limits of its electronic brain. But, like the Vilia, it’s worth putting a few rolls through, at the very least as a salute to the least-remembered giant of Soviet camera production.
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