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Lomo Belair-X 6x12: in hand

This writeup is based on the midrange Jet-Setter model ($188 after all early-adopter discounts; $299 regular price; $254 current discounted price). The Lomo Belair-X is definitely built to a price point (cheap to manufacture, expensive to buy) but is relatively well thought out. It will take a couple of weeks to put it through its optical paces, but these are some notes on construction - and some things that have not been brought up before in "reviews." Lomo does a good job of making the first two pages of Google search hits point to its own commercial web sites. Then there are gadget sites regurgitating Lomo press releases. Then some Flickr discussions devoid of any frame of reference relevant to people who use bourgeois cameras.

Chassis. The Belair-X is based on a two piece chassis: front and back. The underlying structure is black polystrene; the covers are fairly heavy (almost 1mm) aluminum sheet with a nice sandblasted finish. The back comes off completely via two levers on the bottom; it has the hot shoe attached and connects to the shutterand front shell via two contacts. The mount for the viewfinders is on the top; it's a hexagonal opening into which you insert the foot and twist 90 degrees. It's actually a pretty well thought-out way of attaching a finder without losing it in use. The frame mask (6x6, 6x9 or 6x12) drops into the open back. Leatherette is synthetic (as you can imagine). There is an off-center tripod socket. The bellows release is a chrome button in the center of the bottom.

Winding. There is a two-position ruby window (6x6/6x12 and 6x9) that is always open to one of these settings. To load the camera, you pull up on the winding knob (not intuitive, but there are always the directions...), insert the tongue into the take up reel, turn a time or two, close the back, and look for the frame number in the window). The knob is ratcheted in the crudest way possible (quality cameras have a roller ratchet that makes no noise). The only tension on the film seems to come from two foam pads around the supply spool. It is unclear how the film stays tight on the takeup spool (usually, cameras have leaf springs pushing inward on the roll at each end). There is no pressure plate whatsoever, leading to the question of just how flat the film will stay. Small apertures like f/8 or f/16 do not put tremendous demands on film flatness (at least at the center of the frame), but even so, this is s a reason why you might want to reconsider buying the new expensive Russian glass lenses for this camera.

Bellows. Shockingly, these are made of cast rubber. They also smell a little like new tennis shoes or a rocket-style air blower. These are obviously less labor-intensive to make than folded leather, they are heavier, and they will probably not pinhole - just catastrophically fail by cracking some day (so take good care of them). The scissor-strut that supports the bellows is solid and mechanically simple. It is as about as stable as a Polaroid auto pack camera bellows and folds simply by pushing the buttons at the crossover point (top and bottom of the struts) and collapsing. Interestingly, as you collapse it, the front standard slides left and then right and then into position. It is hard to gauge front-standard alignment because the metal trim piece is slightly warped (the underlying piece that actually holds the lens looks properly aligned).

Front standard. This assembly contains two button cells, the shutter, and the lens mount. The shutter (top speed: 1/125 second) is essentially a #1 press shutter (more than 30mm wide) sunk about 1cm into the front standard. With no batteries, it shoots at 1/125. With batteries, it will go down to several seconds. The action is not as rough as some people would have you believe; as with many a target pistol, there is a long and/or heavy takeup with a tiny bit of additional pressure tripping it. There is also a tiny click that happens right before the shutter trips - the easy way to shoot this without excessive vibration is to press until the tiny click and then trip with that last little bit. It would be nice to have a cable release, but c'est la vie. There is no double-exposure interlock. The photocell is to the side of the lens, and just behind it, there is an ISO dial.

Finders. The finders are actually fairly well finished, with clear and remarkably undistorted views. There is no parallax correction, and there are little "points" (none too visible when using the finder) that show the 6x6 and 6x9 frames. It's too bad these are not available with standard ISO feet.

Lenses. The tiny lenses are uncoated plastic (no surprise), and the optical resin should not be worse than your eyeglasses (or, indeed, uncoated Zeiss folders from the 1950s). The apertures are f/8-f/16: and only those two. The f/8 setting is a natural circular opening; f/16 is a Waterhouse stop that folds in two pieces. Why just these two settings? Probably easier to link into the AE system. There are no filter threads. The barrels themselves are hideous, semiglossy plastic whose irregular gloss looks like a product of uneven molding finish. All markings are pad-printed. A nice touch, though, is the product name with a Zeiss-blue line under it (this is on the underside when mounted) The lenses friction-click into place (longevity may be a question if you are a compulsive lens changer; focusing is an unlubricated helicoid that makes the whole lens front rotate, but at least the aperture settings are snappy. The lenses do come with both caps (and the body has a cap as well).

Hacking? The thing that makes this camera hackable is its 6x12 film opening, low price, plastic frame and shutter that sits behind the lens. And it's a plus that the AE sensor is a good distance from the lens axis. One thing that might make hacking difficult is that the lenses have about a 90mm register distance (the 58mm is very clearly retrofocus) - which is going to limit what you can mount in terms of wide-angles. The workaround,might be to collapse the bellows (which brings the distance down considerably). But it would be a good idea to clamp it closed to maintain some semblance of alignment.

Shutter placement is a double-edged sword. Most medium and large-format lenses anticipate a leaf shutter placed at the nodal point of the lens. Accordingly, most such lenses and shutters have standard threads. The Belair-X has a fairly large, 5-bladed leaf shutter with a conventional-looking operation, but it lacks threads. Its intended use behind the lens is advantageous for longer lenses (which would simply mount in front - think Packard shutters and Sinar auto shutters) but would be a problem with symmetrical wideangle lenses - because you would either have to find a way to mount the front and rear cells to the front standard or mount the whole thing ahead of the shutter (which would exacerbate problems with the already-long register of the body). Of course, you could just gut the existing shutter, which would allow you to hack on a complete lens/shutter assembly from a 4x5 camera. This is in essence what happens when you hack a lens/shutter onto a Polaroid pack camera.
It is also worth noting that because the body has no focusing mechanism built in, any hacked application would involve fixed focus or a helicoid-enabled lens ($$$).

Focusing aids? None. But you don't need any. A 6x12 with a 58mm lens is like a 35mm camera with a 21mm lens. Focusing at 3m at f/16 gives you good focus from 1.52m to 146.3 meters - in essence, everything from 5 feet on. Get on DOFMaster, print some guidelines that fit your application, and go on your merry way. The owners manual for the camera also includes some DOF guides that you can photocopy and carry with you. If you get really freaked out, you can insert a Kodak Service Rangefinder into the accessory shoe and manually call the distance.

Upshot? This is a so-so proposition in the $180-200 range, promising some fun at a price point where a total loss in value would not be the end of the world. And as long as you internalize a few basic things about focusing and exposure, it should produce at least printable negatives. Beyond that price point (such as at the $299 rack rate), or for any serious (or prolonged) 6x12 use, it's worth looking into other options. As a 6x6 or 6x9 camera, it's large and satisfies the Lomo aesthetic requirements (soft lenses, double-exposures, and other low-fidelity work), but there are cheaper and better options for serious work in those formats.

Look for an update on optics in an upcoming installment.