In spring 1982, Soviet camera designer Mikhail Grigorievich Kholomyansky unveiled a camera he had been working on in secret for the last 18 months.
The camera was a copy of a Japanese compact camera released a few years before, the Cosina CX-2. The CX-2 was a relatively unremarkable camera – a zone-focus compact for amateur photographers – but was ingeniously designed. The camera’s lens lay behind a front cover that kept it protected from dust and scratches. To open up the lens and ready the camera for action, the entire front panel was twisted to one side, the action also flicking the lens cover open at the same time.
The Soviet Union’s vice minister of defence, Igor Petrovich Kornitsky had encountered the quirky Cosina at Cologne’s Photokina trade show in 1980 – and wanted the Soviet Union to produce something even better. Kornitsky had instructed the State Optical Institute (GOI) and the LITMO Institute of Precision Mechanics and Optics in Leningrad that he wanted them to build an “excellent lens”.
The demand didn’t end there: “Tell me immediately where I can find the best factories for the construction of a modern camera, such as I saw with my own eyes at the Photokina Cologne,” the Soviet apparatchik is reported to have told designers. Kornitsky did not want to flood the West’s camera shops with this new camera but instead produce it purely for domestic consumption. Favoured Soviet citizens would take their holiday snaps on a camera intended from the very start to be better than its Western inspiration. (These historical insights come from Lomography’s history of the Lomo LC-A, ‘Lomo LC-A Big Book‘.)
This was quite the Tall Cold War Task, given that Japan had become world leader in compact camera design.
Two Soviet camera manufacturers were recommended, the Arsenal factory in Kiev (now the capital of Ukraine) and the Leningradskoye Optiko-Mekhanicheskoye Obyedinenie or Lomo in Leningrad. Kiev took their inspiration not from the CX-2 but from slightly closer to home – the Minox 35EL camera from West Germany. The resulting camera, the Kiev-35a, featured a stunning Korsar lens but erratic electronics and a semi-transparent plastic body which sometimes failed even to keep light out of the film chamber. Many thousands were produced, but few are in working condition today.
Lomo’s camera, however, was not only a more faithful clone of the Cosina but would in time completely eclipse its place in the cult camera hall of fame. It would outlast the Soviet system which spawned it and kickstart a school of experimental film photography throughout the 1990s and beyond. You could also argue that amid the enormous disruption caused by digital technology, it helped keep film photography on life support in the early 21st Century. By any measure, the Lomo LC-A is quite some camera.
Lomo’s LC-A could have been a footnote in camera history, but it ended up having more impact on photography than just about any other Soviet design. The LC-A was relatively little known during its 1980s heyday. It was only in the 1990s that this curious little device became better known, and that was largely down to a happy accident in Prague.
In 1992, a group of Austrian art students found an LC-A for sale in a junk shop in the Czech capital. The camera looked little like the usual Soviet cameras and the Austrian students discovered it was an electronic camera with some very noticeable quirks.
The Lomo LC-A is a viewfinder camera, with zone focusing, a leaf shutter and an automatic exposure system. The lens that Soviet designers laboured so long over is a 32/2.8 called the Minitar-1, noted for its sharpness, contrast and heavy vignetting. The Cosina’s lens had traces of vignetting, but the LC-A’s is far more dramatic.
Some 6,000 of the first batch of this camera were given away at the 27th Communist Congress in Moscow in 1986, the first to be presided over by Mikhail Gorbachev. These cameras, emblazoned with a special badge on the top plate, regularly come up for sale on sites like eBay.
The LC-A’s designers paired this with an auto-exposure system that could keep the shutter open from 1/500 to as long as two minutes, making low light shots possible without a flash. The LC-A was intended to be shot on Auto (hence the “A” underneath the aperture scale) but this could be over-ridden. Apertures from 2.8 to 16 could be chosen, with the camera then defaulting to a shutter speed of 1/60.
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The Austrian students discovered a few things about the camera. The saturated, contrasty lens was one. The trippy results from the ultra-slow shutter speeds, light trails and blurred movement, were another. They were so impressed that they set out on a mission to find every example they could lay their hands on, trawling East European markets and camera shops for surviving LC-As. The camera inspired them to come up with a new school of experimental photography – Lomography – built around their new discovery and 10 rules to break free of creative constraints.
Production of the original Lomo LC-A ended in 1994, just after the Lomography pioneers had discovered it. But the camera had become such a craze that the new Austrian company managed to persuade post-Soviet Lomo to restart production. Marketed by the newly formed Lomography Society, the LC-A became a vehicle to bring some esoteric analogue practices – such as cross-processing slide film or using long-expired colour films – into the mainstream.
I discovered the LC-A in 2000, a few years after the Lomography craze began. A now sadly defunct London camera shop called Clock and Camera had a Lomo on sale for £70; it wasn’t one of the new Lomography remakes but a genuine Soviet-era example made in 1986. Where most contemporary Japanese compacts were lightweight, the Lomo was surprisingly heavy, partly thanks to the metal trim around the outer body.
The original Soviet LC-As were… well, not crude, exactly, but with a finish that was definitely less shiny than their Japanese ancestors. Lomo’s mechanics, working against the clock, had not been able to mimic the Cosina’s twisting front plate, and so opted for a much simpler cover opened and closed with a switch on the bottom of the front panel. Where Soviet designers couldn’t replicate, they simplified. Like the Cosina, the LC-A used a simple advance wheel on the back of the camera to advance the film, just like in a disposable camera.
Flick the switch on the bottom of the front panel and the camera is ready for action. On the right-hand side of the panel (looking at the camera front on) is the selector for the camera’s four focus zones. These are 0.8m, 1.5m, 3m and infinity. The LC-A’s three-foot minimum focusing distance is pretty impressive, especially given that the lens’s 32mm focal length packs a lot of the world into the viewfinder. The chosen focusing zone is shown in the viewfinder using symbolic pictographs, a helpful aid that was lost when Lomography redesigned the camera as the LC-A+ in the 2000s.
On the left-hand side of the panel is the aperture selector, with the bottom setting being fully automatic exposure, the camera choosing both the aperture and the shutter speed. I don’t think that in 20+ years shooting on the LC-A I have taken the camera off the “A” setting. This Soviet-era exposure computer is, along with the lens, part of the camera’s idiosyncratic charm.
The LC-A takes three batteries – happily the ubiquitous A76 button cells – in a battery compartment on the bottom. When the shutter button is pressed, a battery indicator lights up on the top left-hand corner, and if the camera believes the lighting will lead to a shutter speed slower than 1/30, another one will light up on the top right-hand side. One light good, two lights some caution required, no lights…. no good at all (maybe check your batteries).
Batteries and film loaded, aperture set to “A”, ISO set to the right speed and the lens flicked open, and the LC-A is ready for action.
(Images taken on a Lomo LC-A during a trip across Russia in 2004)
The camera’s operation includes a few hangovers from the old Soviet era. The USSR used a completely different system to the ASA/ISO used by the rest of the world. The Soviet system – GOST – was about 90% of the numeric value of ISO, though it doesn’t seem to be exactly that with the LC-A. The camera’s highest GOST rating is a lowly 250, which according to the system is more like ISO 320, but in reality seems to be more like ISO 400. You’ll certainly be able to use 400-speed film without any issues.
The LC-A Minitar-1 lens is at the heart of this camera’s enduring charm. While purists declare it’s not as sharp as the Cosinon lens in the CX-2, and its vignetting is much more intense, the Russian lens is plenty sharp in the centre of the frame and incredibly contrasty. Lomography’s founders discovered the Minitar amped up the contrast of colour prints films, and meant even long-expired colour negative films would have punchy colours. To this day, if I have expired colour film in my fridge, my LC-As are the camera I choose to shoot them in.
If I could lay my love of analogue photography at the feet of one single camera, it would probably be the LC-A. From the first rolls I shoot with it in the winter of 2000, I was hooked. At the same time I was learning the exposure triangle and how to meter properly on an old Praktica, the LC-A was like being let off a leash: pure play. My 1986-era LC-A still soldiers on, though the camera has been used so much that the “Lomo” name on the top left has long been warn away; I’ve glued a Soviet badge to differentiate it from the other LC-As I’ve picked up in recent years.
Because here’s the thing – a trip away doesn’t feel right unless there’s an LC-A in the camera bag. Over the last 20 years my LC-As have travelled across the globe with Moscow all the way to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian railway. Criss-crossing Greek Islands in the height of summer. The length and breadth of New Zealand on trips back home. Moldova and the breakaway Soviet timewarp of Transnistria.
For me, the LC-A is an under-rated travel and street camera, one that takes pictures with an unobtrusive click. That contrasty lens is perfect for using cheap colour film you might encounter on your travels (or at the back of your fridge) and becomes even more dramatic with certain cross-processed films in sunny weather.
Lomography weren’t foolish; the combination of the skewed colours and increased grain from cross processing and the LC-A’s saturated lens made the LC-A a bona-fide craze in the 1990s. Lomography ended up rebadging one of the best of these films, Agfa’s Precisa CT100, as Lomography Xpro Chrome 100. When that film disappeared thanks to the collapse of Agfa, Lomography replaced it with another film perfectly suited to cross processing, Kodak’s Elite Chrome Extra Colour 100 (or EBX 100), right up until the withdrawal of all remaining Kodak slide films in 2012.
Through 20 years of film photography and shooting on scores of different cameras, the combination of an LC-A and cross-processed slide film is still one I keep coming back to. Shooting with a Lomo LC-A still feels like play in the best possible way, but it’s also one of a few cameras that I’ve properly bonded with. I’m not searching for anything on the LC-A. I don’t need to check in the viewfinder if I have the right focusing distance because my fingers instinctively know where they need to go. Now you could argue that that’s less to do with the LC-A’s quality and more the fact I’ve shot with it so much. That may be true. But it’s a camera I’ve wanted to shoot with so much.
(Shot on a Lomo LC-A in Sri Lanka with cross-processed slide film, 2016)
The LC-A’s tough metal-and-plastic shell means it’s relatively robust. One was never quite the same after falling a fair height onto concrete paving stones a few years back and now sits in the drawer as a parts camera. The original one I bought back in 2000 is still going strong. Aside from a bust film counter, it shoots just as well as the day I bought it, despite the many bumps and scrapes along the way.
The LC-A does have a few foibles: for a camera designed to keep its shutter open for as long as two minutes, the lack of a cable release attachment is a mystery. You can, indeed, take pictures for as long as two minutes, but even if you prop the camera on a handy surface, the resulting images are going to be very shaky. LC-A long exposures are fuzzy, trippy light trails rather than pin-sharp landscapes. Using a small flash – and I’m not usually in the “shoot flash” camp – which fires with the rear curtain is an agreeable halfway house, with well-exposed subjects but psychedelic, light-crazed backgrounds.
Lomography fixed the cable release issue in the LC-A+, which started production in Russia in 2006 before moving to China. It also raised the meter’s sensitivity to ISO 1600, meaning the camera could be used in even dimmer light conditions. But the LC-A+’s improvements came at a price. Its build quality is not nearly as robust as the original LC-A. I can’t imagine many of these cameras chalking up two decades of regular use.
Lomography’s success drew many critics, who saw the company dumbing down film photography with glorified toy cameras. But the LC-A is a cut above the simple one-speed plastic fantastics that make up much of the Lomography range.
(Cross-processed slide images from Moldova and Transnistria, 2018)
This place as a cult compact has long been supplanted by far more expensive designs like the Contax T2, their influence amplified by social media. LC-As in the UK can sometimes be found for as little as £50, though a check and guaranteed example might go for twice that from a camera shop.
Born in secrecy at the peak of the Cold War, this curious compact started life as a copy but ended up finding its own place in photographic history. To me, it’s a perfect tool for the simple joy of taking photographs. Roll on the next 20 years.
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- Review by James Cockroft
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- Profile on SovietCams.com
- Review on Canny Cameras
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