MACBA Abstract with the Lubitel 166 Medium Format Camera

MACBA (Barcelona Museum of Modern Art) Architectural Abstract in Black and White.

A high contrast abstracted image of the MACBA (Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona), shot on Ilford Delta 100 using a Lubitel 166 Universal medium format camera and processed in HC110 1+63 for 13:40 at 19c.

This is the first of a set of images taken with the Lubitel, which is possibly the cheapest medium format camera available today. This particularly camera was bought by Marco in the 1980s while on a trip to Greece, from which there are sadly no photographs.

You can still find original cameras on eBay in good condition for around 30€, which strikes me as a much more sensible and authentic option than Lomography’s rather more expensive modern clone.

The camera takes 120 format film, which dates back right to the beginning of modern photography and the 1901 Kodak Brownie cameras. Amazingly, this format has outlived numerous other formats and is still available today in both colour and black-and-white. A single negative on the Lubitel can be up to a huge 6cm x 6cm – more than 4x the area of a 35mm negative. The means much more detail, and even a fairly mediocre lens can give good results.

MACBA Light and Shadows, Barcelona.My first attempts at processing the 120 film did not go well. I tried to spool the film directly on to the spiral while simultaneously removing the backing paper. Unfortunately, doing this in a sealed dark bag rather than a dark room means not having much space, and the unreeling paper catches on the bag, twisting the film and causing it to jump out of the spiral rails. The solution has been to first separate the film and paper, before loading the film on to the reel.

The Lubitel 166 is a twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera, meaning that there are two lenses: one for the viewfinder and the other for actually taking the picture.


The Lubitel 166. The upper circle is a lens – the opaque white look is due to light entering from the viewfinder on the top.

The camera above is shown with the view finder open – you look down in to a mirror in the top of the camera to frame and focus. The two lenses are connected via a toothed cog, so that adjusting focus on one automatically adjusts focus on the other.

The camera is extremely basic. The lens is a simple three-element 75mm f4.5 design, which is roughly equivalent to a 35mm f2.2 lens on a more conventional 35mm camera. Film winding is via the knob on the side, and you have to check how far you have advanced by squinting through a red window at faint markings on the back of the film. It is too easy to forget to wind (giving a double exposure) or to wind too far (given a blank frame).

One mistake that I made at first was incorrectly loading the 120 film in to the lower spool. This is a very basic camera, and the film spool just sits in an empty slot and is held in place by a crude metal spring. Make sure that you push this down against the bottom of the camera when loading film, so that when it springs up it lightly holds the film in place. If you do not do this, the film will jam about half way through the reel.

Unfortunately, even if you do this correctly the film winder will sometimes jam before a finished film is completely wound off the original spool. Although the manual says that it is safe to open the camera if this happens, I still saw some light-leaks at the film edges as a result.

The Lubitel 166 Lens: Made in the USSR.

The Lubitel 166 Lens: Made in the USSR.

Unlike most 35mm cameras, the film winding does not prime the shutter. Instead, you pull one lever around the lens to tension some springs, and another to trigger the shutter release. There are also levers around the lens to control the shutter speed (up to 1/250th) and aperture (f2.5 to f22). There is even a self timer, which is useful if you don’t have a cable release handy. Even after 30 years, everything works just fine.

All the controls are manual and there is no exposure meter. Despite this, I found that the sunny-16 rule seemed to work just fine, even with films like Ilford Delta that have less exposure latitude.

The biggest challenge with this camera is framing using the viewfinder. At first, the viewfinder looks fantastic: a huge bright window compared to the tiny viewfinders on 35mm cameras:


Looking through the viewfinder on top of the Lubitel 166. The central circle is ground glass, and is allegedly to help focusing…

Unfortunately, it turns out that there is more to a good viewfinder than just size and brightness. The most immediate problem is that it is seemingly impossible to frame anything without twisting and tilting your entire body. This is partly because of the unfamiliar act of peering in to the top of a camera, but also because everything in the viewfinder image is mirrored horizontally. As a result, you look at the image and instinctively turn the camera the wrong way to adjust the framing…

Another problem is focussing. The central spot is an area of ground glass, and in theory can be used to adjust the focus. In practise, the image quality is too poor to tell reliably what is and is not in focus, even using the slightly comical plastic magnifying glass that you can unfold inside the viewfinder.

I usually find it simpler to use scale focusing, although even this needs care as when the lens is set to the closest focus distance a quick glance at the focus scale will show the infinity focus symbol (yes, I managed to take two images which I thought were focused at infinity but most definitely were not…).

Using my favourite portrait mammoth as a subject, a took one shot to try to determine how well the focus works. This was taken wide-open at several meters range, with the intention of focusing on the eye:

The Barcelona Portrait Mammoth!

The Barcelona Portrait Mammoth!

Not too good – this was front focussed by about 50cm, as the following crops of the eye and closed tusk illustrate:

Pixel peeping will also show that the resolution from the lens is quite a long way behind most 35mm lenses (and even the budget Industar 61 has more elements and a Lanthanum coating). The sheer size of the negatives more than compensates for this, although I am probably being a bit optimistic in making  3200dpi scans (50 megapixels) from a 30€ camera…

The film comes on open spools that can take 12 images in this format, so there is even more incentive to slow down when taking images than there is with 35mm film. Expect slower blog updates…

The Lubitel 166 Universal Camera.

The Lubitel 166 Universal Camera.