So what’s all the fuss about?
Obviously, it’s the camera that started the whole Lomography thing. It’s a Russian copy of the Cosina CX-1, made at the Lomo factory in (what is now) St Petersburg from 1984. The camera was discovered by some people in Vienna in 1991 and led to the formation of Lomography International in 1992. In 1996 the factory intended to cease production, but were persuaded by Lomography to keep going. Mine has a serial number started with 96, so is likely to be one of the crossover ones.
Everyone raves about the look of the lens – sharp, fairly wide angle, contrasty and vignetting in the corners. But, being groovy, the cameras are expensive new. I never thought much about them as I had them tagged as too expensive for a casual experiment. But then a cheap one turned up on fleabay. Needed batteries and new light seals and it had a ding on the front cover. So I slid in a low bid and won it.
I already had batteries and light seal material, so it was a quick clean-up and refurb and ready for action. I had loaded some film in my Olympus XA but not shot it, so I stole it for the LC-A. It also made me think: I am very familiar with my XA, so perhaps I should compare them? Consider in this that my XA dates from around 1982 so is about 14 years older than my LC-A.
Size – not much in it. The LC-A is a touch taller and thicker than the XA but feels bigger.
Weight – about 280g for the LC-A and 240 for the XA, both loaded.
Lens – the LC-A has a 32mm f2.8 and the XA a 35mm F2.8. But there’s more to it than that. The Olympus has a telephoto design with internal focusing and is a clever thing. Reviewers say the LC-A lens is sharp in the middle and fuzzy at the edges.
Exposure – the LC-A uses program mode – the camera decides what combination of speed and aperture you get and it doesn’t tell you. You can use the flash setting though to shoot in manual mode with a choice of apertures at a fixed speed of 1/60. The XA is aperture priority and shows you what the shutter speed will be in the viewfinder. There is no manual control, but there is a little lever on the bottom of the camera that gives you +1.5 stops for a backlit subject. One reviewer said that the LC-A has the equivalent of rear-curtain sync for flash: it triggers the flash when the shutter closes, not when it opens. This might be worth a play.
Range – the only real difference is that the meter on the LC-A tops out at 400ISO while the XA goes to 800. The XA offers speeds from 10s to 1/500 while the LC-A shutter will stay open for up to 2 minutes. The LC-A will stop down to f16 while the XA goes to f22.
Handling – the viewfinder on the LC-A is very small and I find it difficult to align, making it hard to see the frame lines. The XA viewfinder is much bigger and clearer. The difference is that the LC-A viewfinder is about 8 by 7 mm, while the XA is 13 by 7 – which is 60% bigger in area. This is why the Lomo crowd shoot from the hip.
Both of them will zone focus, although the XA also includes a rangefinder so it’s easier to focus accurately in the dark or close up. The LC-A has a normal shutter button, while the XA has the notorious red patch. This either fires when you look at it, or you find yourself moving your finger around to find the sensitive spot.
The XA comes with a little dedicated flashgun, while the LC-A has a hotshoe. If you move the aperture lever on the LC-A away from the Auto position to use a flash, you will need to know the guide number. The shutter fixes at 1/60 and you have to set the aperture to suit the distance. Or use an automatic flash.
Pictures – this is supposed to be why people use these cameras. The XA is known for having a sharp lens; the LC-A for having a contrasty lens with vignetting. The XA is supposed to show a little bit of barrel distortion, the LC-A a lot of pincushion.
The first issue though was that it seemed to drain the batteries. A half-press on the shutter button should illuminate an LED in the top right corner of the viewfinder. It did when I first put batteries in, and then it didn’t. A quick check with a voltmeter said that the batteries were ok. A quick check with the Google said that they often don’t fit very well and lose contact. The cure is to pack them with a bit of folded foil behind the positive end of the end-most battery. Simples. It works, too.
I noticed too, when I was playing with the battery compartment, that the camera has fittings for a power-winder. What an odd idea for a snapshot camera. The Lomography website says the LC-A models had this but the winder was never produced (or at least, never sold in the West).
Then I had a crisis of confidence. The viewfinder, tiny as it is, has a couple of red LEDs hanging down in the top corners. One was the confirmation that the battery was ok, the other a warning that the shutter speed will be slower than 1/30. But the slow-speed warning on mine stayed on while the battery confirmation would light then go out. I was sure I had a bad connection somewhere. Luckily I had the sense to download the manual (and I was grateful enough to pay for it). I had the meaning of the LEDs the wrong way round. Eejit! And I had already rewound the film to avoid wasting it as I played with the LEDs. So how do you load a part-used film into an automatic exposure camera? You put in a darkbag, put the aperture control on f16 for flash (which puts the shutter onto 1/60), wind on and count. This makes it easier than the later LCA+ model that doesn’t have a manual setting.
So, back in business (and to my shame as an IT person, I had to RTFM). The other compelling reason for it actually working and not malfunctioning was that the shutter speed was obviously changing with the amount of light.
With the camera reloaded, off we went for a walk. Then, film shot, I developed it. The first good sign was that there were visible frames on the film when it came out of the tank. The frame spacing on the film is a bit irregular, but the camera has probably not been used for a while so this may improve with use. It also showed one of the camera’s difficulties, which is the tiny and fiddly ISO setting. This is a minute toothed wheel protruding from the front of the camera. It can be knocked off setting by careless handling of the camera and the visible setting is so small as to almost need a magnifying glass (for these old eyes). So there were a few overexposed frames from when I nudged the ISO dial with my fat fingers. This camera needs fairly careful handling – you need to check that you haven’t bumped the ISO setting, or knocked the aperture lever off the A position, or knocked the focus lever away from where you want it. Those aside, it’s quick to shoot with if not easy to frame. It makes it tempting to go all Lomo with it and shoot at arm’s length though and rely on the wide lens to get some of your subject in. The metering, crude though it might be, did a reasonable job. The zone focusing was good enough. But did the pictures show that LC-A magic?
Probably not in the same way as they get displayed on t’interweb. I shot mono so that I could develop it quickly myself, so I didn’t get the high colour contrast you typically see. But there is some vignetting in the corners and some definite pincushion distortion. You probably wouldn’t know this was the famous LC-A though. I don’t think I got that so-called LC-A look, probably because I’m not shooting cross-processed colour. And you know what? If I want vignetting and contrast, I can dial them back in later.
So does it have a place in my bag? It is small and quick to use and makes me look like a groovy hipster. I think the XA is a better camera all round and easier to use though, and my Espio has a wider lens. The LC-A is, or should be, a cheap snapshot camera that introduces a bit of chance into the results, not a cult. It’s a one-trick pony though. So I may be selling this one.