Photo-Philosophy Thoughts on Cameras

The Smena 8M – Sometimes you just have to play – Guest post by Carlos Argott

Smena 8m

In photography, as in life, it is easy to take ourselves too seriously. Once you go beyond being a simple snapshot photographer and move unto the realm of finer craftsmanship, the drive to learn more, to practice more, to try more complex ideas all the time is always there; but it can push us too far.

Surrounded by the constant articles comparing the precise optical properties of the newest lenses, the detailed technical specifications of the latest sensors, sometimes we forget to just let ourselves be free of expectations. Not every picture will be a masterpiece of technical achievement, nor does it have to, and perhaps this is why sometimes the art world leans away from the search for perfection and instead embraces the rough edges that we sometimes think of as defects in an image, as a way to remove the focus on craft and remember to tell a story, to transmit an emotion.

I am not an artist, at least I do not consider my pictures to be truly art yet, though I do aspire to someday achieve that distinction. I have, however, managed to get a decent grasp on the finer theoretical and practical pieces of knowledge of our craft to the point that for most situations, I can make the camera capture what I am envisioning as I stand in front of a scene. This, however, has also caused me to be, on occasion, too serious. Too unwilling to take a picture because I don’t have the right camera with me, too dismissive of moments in which the light isn’t right. And I needed to be reminded, to let go.

The reminder came about a year ago, when a friend with whom I will sometimes talk shop, told me about a camera her mother had brought back from Russia; a toy camera we would call it nowadays, in a way that instantly conveys the idea that it isn’t meant for real” photography. No self-respecting photographer would really use it for serious work, is the implied judgement. But it’s not every day that one gets to play with a relic of the USSR, so I agreed to take a look and run a roll of film through. That camera, beyond any other I’ve used so far, has helped me remember to sometimes just let go.

It didn’t start its life as a toy; unlike some other fully plastic cameras that were just novelties, the Smena 8M was meant to be a real camera for young people, and seeing how it was built by the now famous LOMO production house from which the Lomography movement takes its name, it very much was the Instagram of 70’s USSR, but while other countries were busy adding all sort of modern features to their cameras, the Soviet scene was decidedly more old school, this camera is manual…very very manual. How manual? Well, so manual that the shutter isn’t tied to the film advance, so every now and then you’ll get a double exposure because you forgot to advance the film before taking the next shot.

That is part of the charm though, all the defects, the light leaks, the mechanical shutter whose action takes it right through where your finger will be resting which makes any semblance of a predictable exposure hopeless, the advance mechanism that is only tied to the shutter button but not the shutter itself; all of those issues will at some point force you to give up, not on the taking of pictures mind you- but on trying to predict what will happen; you will learn that it’s impossible to keep everything in mind every time, when you reach for this camera you will panic for a second, you’ll wonder if you’ll get the picture, if it will be even usable. But that is not the point, that’s not the point of these toy cameras, they are, after all, a toy, a thing of play, a thing of fun, and maybe, they can teach you to not worry all the time. 

Sure, you won’t shoot like that if you’re doing an assignment or a commercial shot; and I’m not advocating throwing all our knowledge and technique by the wayside; but maybe, sometimes we are overly harsh with our own work; we dismiss photos that aren’t perfect, or we stress too much over every little detail in a shoot, when perhaps we should’ve trusted our own instincts a bit more, let our experience work its magic, we’ve been shooting for a long time after all. So, if you, like me, sometimes feel like you need a lesson in easing out on the need for control, maybe give a toy camera a try.

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9 Comments

  • Reply
    Dan James
    June 17, 2017 at 8:56 am

    I’ve had a couple of Smena 8M cameras, and though they are regarded as toys they are surprisingly controllable. Whereas most toy cameras are fixed aperture, fixed shutter speed, even fixed focus, with the Smena you can set distance, shutter speed and aperture. And like the article says, the manual shutter cocking allows for easy multiple exposures. I had great fun with mine!

    They aren’t the most robust camera, my first lasted maybe three rolls of film, the second one little more. But they’re still very cheap and available, so replacing is fairly easy. Definitely more fun than say a 90s AF point and shoot.

  • Reply
    Frank Lehnen
    June 17, 2017 at 9:28 am

    Very nice review, Carlos.

    And you’re right to say that sometimes we have to let go and just hit that shutter button and marvel at the results….

  • Reply
    Spehmaster G.
    June 17, 2017 at 10:53 am

    I prefer the slightly newer upgrade.. The LOMO Smena Symbol.. It was the same quality lens and leaf shutter, but has a standard thumb rewind.

    The notion that these are ‘Toy’ cameras is an unfortunate and misleading monicker.. They are not.. The SMENA’s lens is excellent (as good as the terribly overpriced Lomography LC-A) and it shouldn’t have any light leaks, if it does, your camera needs attention.

    I think this strange Lomography marketing ‘cult’ has slandered film photography, or is at the very least guilty of misinforming young people that film is meant to be unpredictable, ‘2nd rate’ or mediocre.. Nothing could be further from the truth.. It requires thought, skill and patience.. Attributes all young people should embrace.

    • Reply
      C. Argott
      June 17, 2017 at 2:08 pm

      Agreed, the TOY adjective does make them sound like second class citizens, even though a lot of them are perfectly capable and have their own charm even if they aren’t the most perfect pieces of engineering. And regardless of their limitations, they can still be used to create great images. One of my favorite youtube videos is the collection of Pro Photographer Cheap Camera challenges that Kai from DigitalRev TV does, because it really drives home the point of how even the simplest of cameras can still give you amazing results.

  • Reply
    Theo
    June 18, 2017 at 6:19 am

    Great write up Carlos, fully enjoyed reading it. Like you, I love using mine, once you know what you are getting out it. Mine doesn’t have light leaks, so to speak, but more light bounce coming in from the lens. I also laugh at the totally useless film counter, I should use each number that comes up after an exposure for my lottery ticket!
    Just in case you’re interested, I wrote about my experience with it here: http://photothinking.com/20170507lomo-smena-8m-the-comrade-for-the-young-generation/
    Keep up the great articles!

  • Reply
    George Appletree
    June 19, 2017 at 9:49 pm

    Some confussion in all that.
    A toy is designed for playing… kinda the lomography philosophy: make it fun.
    “Toy” cameras became fashionable as some reaction to the rigour of photography technical side.
    As always that worked in a wavy manner, it’s toy it is not, is good is it bad, is it serious or art or etc (while lomo made its business, even “embassies”)
    All that is annoying for me.
    As you mentioned cameras should be at least controllable.
    … no chocolate cigarettes please
    Those samples are rather contrasty and well composed.
    The statement “it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer” comes here well. Because at last it’s none of both, it is just the photographs you get.
    You can drop lots of words on philosophy, but, at last watch your photographs and see what they tell. If they do don’t break your mind thinking if thanks or not to that cheap or expensive camera or lens.
    Just learn to use the one you do. If its a toy only allowing you saying “say cheese”, just drop it out fast

  • Reply
    Bob Dungan
    July 14, 2017 at 3:10 pm

    Nice article. I bought three from someone in the Ukraine a few years ago. I sold two and kept one until recently. I thought they would be great camera for a beginners film class. The adjustable lens with F stops and cloud symbols would make it easy to teach sunny 16 rule. It is certainly a step above toy cameras, but, still has toy camera qualities (shutter release is not smooth). Having to manually set each shot is a great way to learn. I sold mine because I have moved to medium format and my 35mm stuff sits in the closet. I wanted to pass on to some one else to have fund with.

    • Reply
      C. Argott
      July 17, 2017 at 6:24 am

      Oh, you know, I hadn’t considered the use of these cameras as teaching devices, but it makes sense; instead of approaching from the automatic side and removing helpers, start with as basic as it is and work up from there, would be interesting to see how someone would approach photography if taught on one of this.

  • Reply
    I love black and white photography
    July 17, 2017 at 6:05 am

    I bought my Smena 8M when I started to take pictures because is a cheap good camera, but mine had a problem with the shutter speed, and it was working only in bulb mode, and I thought I was the problem not the camera! I lost too much money trying to take pictures… I’ll probably buy another one to try it again, because I really liked the way it works.

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