Cosina was a camera company that never quite became a household name.
Canon and Nikon slugged it out when it came to SLRs for professionals. Olympus, Pentax and Minolta battled for the heart and soul of the serious enthusiast photographer with their OM SLRs and Spotmatics and SR-Ts, brands for those who wanted quality but didn’t need armour-plated toughness.
Cosina ran with the second tier of Japanese camera makers: the Ricohs, Chinons, Mirandas and Konicas, making cameras for amateurs rather than the deep-pocketed pros.
Launched in 1959, initially as a lens company, Cosina found its groove making a range of M42 and the Pentax K-mount SLRs in the 1960s and 70s. Their line-up of unremarkable M42-mount cameras later included innovative models like the auto-exposure Hi Lite EC. The latter K-mount SLRs included the CT-1, which would be rebadged as entry-level SLRs for Canon, Nikon, Olympus and more until well into the 21st Century.
But Cosina had other irons in the fire too; as the era of the plastic compact camera gathered pace, they released the CX-1, a zone-focus viewfinder camera with a particularly intriguing design. To turn the camera on, the entire front plate of the camera was twisted to one side, an action which lifted a lens cover out of the way ready for shooting. The CX-1 was designed for fuss-free shooting – well, as long as you didn’t count choosing the focus zone as a fuss – and almost as small as Olympus’s diminutive XA rangefinder.
The CX-1 had an aperture scale next to the lens cover but these could only be used with a fixed 1/60 shutter speed; the camera was designed to be shot in auto mode where the camera would choose both shutter speed and aperture for the best result.
The CX-1 was introduced to the world alongside an improved version with some added touches at 1980’s Photokina trade show in Cologne, West Germany. This was the Cosina CX-2.
The CX-2 had a few important improvements on the CX-1. First of all, it had a self-timer. Secondly, the 35mm Cosinon lens had a maximum aperture of f/2.8 rather than f/3.5. Otherwise, it looked pretty much identical to its stablemate: a pocket-sized compact for photographers on the go.
The compact camera market was fast becoming a battleground in the early 1980s, and camera manufacturers big and small were intent on snapping up as much of it as they could.
A little bigger and heavier than Olympus’s XA2, the little Cosina was aimed at the same kind of photographer – someone who didn’t want to haul around an SLR outfit or a chunky rangefinder everywhere they went.
Cosina, it turned out, had created not just a capable little compact, but one of the cult cameras of the period, with an influence that would still be felt decades later.
The CX-2 is certainly small; it’s barely 10cm (4in) lengthwise and 6cm (2.4in) high and small enough to stuff in a jacket pocket. Compared to compacts a decade later, however, it definitely feels a lot heavier, thanks to the mostly metal body.
Like the CX-1, the CX-2 doesn’t need a lens cap when it’s out of action – the twisting frontplate protects the lens when it’s not in use, and also prevents the shutter from tripping accidentally. As 35mmc’s Hamish Gill put it in a review a few years ago, it’s an “ingenious bit of industrial design”. Cosina really thought out of the box with this. Closed, the camera’s front has one smooth, almost rectangular faceplate with a metal cover with CX-2 emblazoned over the lens. Twist the panel to your left and it comes to rest at a 90-degree, at the same time sliding the protective away from the lens. The camera is now ready for action.
The CX-2 is an appealing mix of automatic and manual. The camera’s exposure system might have only limited over-rides, but everything else requires human input.
Apart from the shutter button, all of the settings are on the front of the camera. On the camera’s right side is the aperture selector; select one of these, and the camera will shoot at a fixed speed of 1/60. Right at the bottom is the “Auto” setting, which probably 99% of all CX-2s have been set on since they rolled off the production line more than 40 years ago. Choose this, and you let the camera decide what both the shutter speed and the aperture will be.
Loading the camera is the traditional pull up of the manual rewind crank. Film is easy to load into the slotted take-up spool and film is advanced with a plastic thumbwheel you advance with your right thumb.
The camera’s ISO is manually selected, meaning you can push film if you need to – useful if you want to use the camera’s idiosyncratic features in low light. The ISO is selected via a wheel near the top of the faceplate. Moving it from ISO to ISO it is real fingertip stuff, and the ISO window is not easily readable unless you’re in good light. The ASA dial betrays the fact this camera was intended for holidays and summer trips – the highest film speed you can select is 400. No low-light Lomogrtaphy adventures here…
… well, not entirely. One trick with the CX-2 – and repeated in the Soviet disciple which would follow it – is that the camera’s shutter will star open as long as the exposure system thinks it needed give n the light conditions, for as long as 30 seconds. Thirty seconds! That’s as long as the ambient-street-sound intro to the Pet Shop Boy’s ‘West End Girls’ or the average duration of a Superbowl advert. The CX-2 has no cable release, so these long exposures have to be carried out with a finger pressed firmly against the camera and generating a great deal of camera shake unless you have surgeon’s hands. But the effects are pure psychedelia, and create trails and blurs of light and movement that have helped turn this camera into a truly cult compact.
Underneath the faceplate sits the camera’s zone focus settings. The focus zones are set at 0.9m (3ft), 1.5m (5ft), 3m (10ft) and infinity. Helpfully, the chosen focus zone is shown in the viewfinder, which has person/two people/three people/mountain pictograms in the bottom of the viewfinder.
Though the CX-2 was never intended as a professional camera, it came with a few accessories that set it apart from most of its amateur-intended zone focus contemporaries. The CX-11 was a dedicated flash which attached to the camera via the hot shoe. The CX-2 was also offered with a dedicated CX-W motordrive which clipped on to the bottom of the camera. Powered by a pair of AA batteries. CX-2s were often sold as a presentation set which included these, a hand strap and roll of colour film.
Even more fun was the dedicated CX-M underwater housing. The housing was a snug fit for the CX-2 (with its motordrive and flash attached) with big external knobs for setting aperture and focus distance on the front of the camera. The CX-M was an intriguing accessory for a camera like the CX-2 – a zone focus camera is an odd choice for an amateur photographer to take underwater when focus-free models were already widely available.
The CX-2 is thought to have remained in production for only three years before being discontinued in 1984. But its influence on late-20th-Century film photography underplayed. The quirky little Cosina came to the attention of no less a figure than the Soviet Union’s vice minister of defence, Igor Petrovich Kornitsky, who had seen it at Photokina. Kornitsky instructed camera designer Mikhail Grigorievich Kholomyansky to come up with a Soviet-made rival to the CX-2. After much trials and tribulations Kholomyansky’s camera would be released in 1985 as the LOMO LC-A, and would become a cult camera for experimental photographers the world over after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Soviets, however, could never quite work out how to replicate the little Cosina’s twisting frontplate, resulting in the major difference when it comes to the camera’s exterior. But it’s not the only difference.
I’ve shot with the LOMO LC-A for more than 20 years and unreservedly love it; but Lomography themselves would admit the LC-A is a very faithful tribute act to the CX-2. Its’ Cosinon lens is undeniably sharper, with five elements compared to the LC-A’s three. The 35mm focal length is a fraction narrower than the LC-A’s 32mm, but you’d be hard pushed to notice while shooting it.
Despite the professional accessories like a motor-winder and an underwater case, the CX-2 isn’t a serious camera; that’s not a reflection of is quality but about what it was designed to record – holidays and nights out and family gatherings. But its quality lens and useful automatic exposure system make it a lot more interesting than many humble compacts of the period.
By the time the little Cosina was being unveiled to the world, the age of autofocus was upon us. Zone focus might have felty positively pedestrian in comparison, but the CX-2 doesn’t feel particularly outdated compared to them, at least to those who might have shot with both kinds of camera.
Zone focusing confuses some photographers – they worry so much about whether their shot is precisely focused they miss the shot. With a bit of practice, zone-focus shooting can be pretty intuitive. Cameras like the CX-2 help because the selected zone is shown in the viewfinder, but you’ll also register this with muscle memory the more you shoot. I usually have the camera set to either 1.5m or 3m depending on what I’m shooting, and adjust accordingly. The thing to remember with the CX-2 (and other cameras like it) is that distance is a guide, especially if you’re shooting in good light. In sunny conditions the exposure system will more than likely to choose a narrow aperture.
The CX-2’s sweet spot (for me at least) is as a summer street shooter, pairing that Cosinon lens with cross-processed slide film. Cross processing slide requires lots of light to make the most of those eye-popping colours – which depending on which film you choose will include super-bright reds, saturated golden yellows or deep, deep blues. Like the Lomo LC-A, the CX-2’s contrast-heavy lens really suits this experimental approach. The Cosinon doesn’t have quite the dramatic vignetting of the Lomo’s lens, but the effect is similar. Lomography certainly championed this camera alongside the LC-a in the q1990s and early 2000s, which for a while led to prices zooming well above $100, though in recent years they’ve settled down again as the cult compact crowd have set their sights on other cameras.
I’ve alternated between taking the LC-A and CX-2 on many holidays; the CX-2 is small enough to slip into a coat pocket or just carry around with you. I usually shoot it with Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Colour 100 or the original Agfa Precisa CT100. Both films produce incredibly saturated images when they’re processed as C-41, but minus the garish green/purple tinges that you find with Fuji slide films. If I’m shooting with the CX-2, I’ll make sure I have a few rolls of these films in the camera bag. If you’re lucky to find some of these long-expired films, definitely try cross processing them.
Despite the camera’s perfectly usable flash settings, this isn’t a camera I’ve ever felt the need to shoot with a flash; the idiosyncratic exposure system makes low-light pics hit and miss (lots of camera shake) but much more interesting. You can see the effect in this shot below, taken on the Italian Riviera the night Italy beat Spain in Euro 2016. The swoosh of the passing motorcyclist zooming past the Fiat Bambino’s pure atmosphere; exactly how I remember that night, with the heat of the summer sun still radiating off the pavement and the streets filled with the cacophony of car horns.
Since I became a convert to the CX-2, my compact camera drawer has been filled almost to overflowing. The CX-2, however, remains near the top of the pile. It’s a cult camera that’s still affordable, robust enough to soldier on year after year and with just enough electronics to make shooting effortless. I can see why LOMO’s designers paid so much attention.
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