Smena 8m: not a toy, but a serious little camera

Smena 8m is the camera of my childhood, which I still use. When I was leaving Bulgaria years ago, my Smena was one of the few things I took with me on what was going to be a long trajectory across several countries with just two suitcases. Throughout the years, the multiple geographic moves and the acquisition of other, much better cameras, my heart didn’t let me throw away my Smenka. And I was rewarded of that sentimental attachment when I finally took it out of the box again and loaded it with film, a few years ago. Reliving the forgotten experience of shooting with Smena took me back to my childhood. But most of all, the images surprised me with their clarity and precision. Seems that I had underestimated Smena and all that recent talk about it being a toy camera had made me downgrade its reputation.

A basic entry level Soviet camera from the Cold War era, it’s ironic to see Smena becoming more and more popular recently. That has become possible thanks to Lomography, an Austrian merchandising company that put in motion the aggressive marketing machine of toy cameras. First came LOMO LC-A, a medium-format camera produced by the LOMO factory in Saint Petersburg in Russia, now refashioned as a charming old time, “artistic” toy with unique quirks. Lomography took the manufacturing license for LC-A from the LOMO factory (which now produces industrial equipment only) and, along with the resurrected LC-A, started promoting the lighthearted approach to photography, whereas the low fidelity characteristics of cheap gadgets were championed as artistic advantages. They were now called “toy cameras”, because photography was not a matter of serious work and serious expectations but instead of serendipity and living in the moment.

Since Smena 8m was also produced by LOMO, it became part of the Lomography merchandising campaigns and, consequently, of the toy-camera craze. And I am both happy and disappointed to see that. On one hand, it’s nice to see a piece of my  Cold War childhood and experience validated so forcefully. But on the other it’s sad to see it become part of a marketing push that totally misunderstands it. While it is popularized as a “toy camera”, Smena 8m is absolutely not one.

Yes, it is a Soviet-produced camera that used to be a staple for kids and youth because of its low price. But if the general understanding is that toy cameras are simple photo tools made of plastic, with little control and guaranteeing no reliable results, Smena is far from that. Even though its body is indeed partially plastic, it has a brushed aluminum nameplate and lens housing and, most importantly, a coated glass triplet lens (40mm f/4 T-43), as well as manual control of speed, aperture and focus. That triplet lens produces a sharp image with saturated colors and great contrast. Moreover, the manual control teaches you technique and gives you confidence of what you’ll get.

This summer I had the chance to use Smena in the very same setting in which I first trained on it, in Bulgaria. Wandering around Sofia, I tried to figure out what kind of pictures would be worthy of this symbolic revisit of the past. I decided to take a series of pictures with Smena that would represent scenes and people from the past just as they could’ve been found 20 years

ago. That way it would be Smena taking in and reproducing the same kind of reality – same landscapes, city scenes and people – that it used to do.

Above is a photo of an unassuming place in my hometown that hasn’t changed at all since I left it. And here is an old woman dragging some tree branches that reminds me of someone I knew in that neighborhood. It almost feels like I took the time machine and got back to my childhood, with the help of the pictures that came out of my Smena.

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2 responses to “Smena 8m: not a toy, but a serious little camera

  1. Pingback: A German Holga: Certo-phot camera and the pull of nostalgia | Parasol Photography

  2. Very nostalgic! Well said! 🙂

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