toy camera store

the lubitel 166B

The Lubitel is a Russian-made twin lens medium format camera that uses 120 roll film. The camera has a long history and there are many models available. Mine is the fairly recent 166B which takes twelve 6cm square pictures on a roll of 120. If I had to buy it again, I'd probably try to get the 166U which does 6x4.5 (16 rectangular shots per roll) as well as 6x6.

Sadly the Lubitel is no longer in production, but since they are not 'collectible' cameras second-hand Lubitels are cheap, and come up fairly regularly at reasonable prices on Internet auctions. You can even find them new in their boxes at some camera shops if you are prepared to hunt around.

'Twin-lens' means that the lens used for looking through and focusing is separate from the actual lens used to take the shot. The focusing lens on the Lubitel is set above the shooting lens. The Lubitel manages the problem of keeping the viewing lens and shooting lens focused on the same thing using a simple cog mechanism. As you turn the viewing lens, so turns the shooting lens.

The lenses and focusing screen are glass, the mechanics metal, and the body a rather cheap plastic. The thinness of the body plastic makes this a wonderfully lightweight camera (approximately half a kilo). The disadvantage is that even on a secure tripod, the bottom of the camera is still slightly flexible and the whole thing will shudder if tapped or knocked. I've fixed this on mine by gluing a cut up cork coaster to the bottom, between the raised feet, so that I have a larger flat surface making contact with the tripod head.

Focusing can be a little tricky - a little magnifier flips up above the focusing screen, which enlarges the image on a small ground glass circle in the center of the focusing screen. Framing is also a bit hit and miss, particularly at close range due the distortion of the focusing screen, and the viewfinder and shooting lenses being in different places (parallax).

The Lubitel 166B has all the standard manual features: shutter speeds from 1/250 to 1/15 and a bulb setting, aperture from 4.5 to 22, and focuses close at just over a meter. It has a hot shoe on the side of the body, a socket for a mechanical shutter release, and a flip down section in the front of the focusing hood that provides a framing window designed for framing a moving subject (tracking a moving subject on the glass focusing screen can be a bit disorientating). There's no built-in metering, and hence no need for batteries. This is a fully mechanical camera.

The process of taking a shot is roughly as follows:

1. Take a light reading with a hand-held light meter or guestimate the exposure
2. Set the shutter speed and aperture with the dials around the shooting lens
3. Frame using the flip down framing window in the hood
4. Focus using the magnifier to view the ground glass screen
5. Cock the shutter with the cocking lever
6. Trip the shutter using the release lever or a shutter release

The Holga is often said to be a good inexpensive way to get into medium format photography, but personally I'd recommend the Lubitel. The Holga's funky blur and dark edges are charming for many types of picture, but if you want more sharpness in your edges, and more importantly, control over exposure, then the Lubitel is a better choice. Mounted on a tripod the Lubitel can give some very respectable pictures, and even hand-held it is capable of good results. Comparing the picture quality with my other medium format cameras, it comes somewhere between the Holga and the Kiev - closer to the Kiev than to the Holga.

Some would argue that you'd be better off getting a used Japanese twin lens like the Yashicamat or Ricohflex. Certainly the Japanese cameras probably have better optics and will give you sharper pictures, but I you'd have to pay more, and you'd have a heavier camera to carry. If you get the Lubitel 166U, you also have the flexibility to take both 6x6 and 6x4.5. I'm certainly glad I have my Lubitel, and I get a lot of use out of it.


Photos I took with the Lubitel include Shrine Door, Birch, and Fens

Here's a larger scan from a Lubitel neg at 720 dpi (408kb)

Here's a PDF of the manual that came with my 166B (770kb)

Lubitel 166B Operation Manual

Here are some links for further reading on the Lubitel:

Wikipedia entry