If you own a DSLR camera, you're probably at least a little bit of a techie. You love that high ISO capability, the aperture-priority setting and those beautiful, high-resolution images that can be blown up to poster size without any discernible loss of quality. You probably can't remember how to load a roll of film (if you ever knew how to at all) and you think a dark room is what happens when the power goes out.
If that's you, it might be time to get back to your roots. Because while there aren't very many people who would say that all that high-tech is a bad thing, sometimes a little low-tech can be good for you.
Now you can dig out that old film camera or you can try something even more low-tech: lomography. Wow, that sounds kind of high-tech. So what IS lomography?
[ Top image Web of steel by Flickr user kevin dooley]
A Short History
The word "lomography" is derived from the Lomo LC-A, a compact 35mm film camera that was first manufactured in Russia in the mid 1980s and originally sold for about $30 US. Now the funny thing about this camera is that it was junk. It suffered from a myriad of quality issues, which included light leaks, over-contrasty images, soft focus, vignetting and inaccurate colors. But there was a small group of Viennese students who didn't see these problems as problems, but as opportunities. In 1992 these students formed the The Lomographic Society International, which eventually became the primary voice for this new branch of photography (as well as, of course, the exclusive distributors of the Lomo LC-A outside of the former Soviet Union).
Lomo LC-A+ Camera
And you have to admit, photos taken by the Lomo LC-A do have a certain amount of charm. Those problem qualities aren't so subtle as to ruin a good picture - in fact they are so decidedly unsubtle that they actually make the picture. These so-called "lomographic" images are surreal and unique and almost always interesting, even when they are photos of otherwise ordinary things.
Where to Start
The Lomographic Society maintains a website at lomography.com this is by far the best place to go if you're interested in lomography but don't know whether or not you want to invest the time and money in the techniques and equipment you'll need to get started. The site features forums for photo sharing and discussion as well as a shop where you can order your camera and film. There are also literally thousands of Flickr groups for lomographers, so there are plenty of places to go in search of inspiration.
Untitled by Flickr user LdDH
Of course the Lomo LC-A (since upgraded to the Lomo LC-A+) will no longer set you back just 30 bucks. Such is the beauty of being an exclusive distributor. Today's generation of Lomo cameras run somewhere in the neighborhood of $250 - the same as a basic point-and-shoot digital camera. This is a little ironic when you consider that the qualities that make lomographic photos so interesting are in large part due to the poor quality of the camera. Lomographic cameras have cheap plastic bodies (which is what gives them that tendency to leak light) and cheap plastic lenses, which are largely responsible for vignetting, over-contrasty images and all those other quirks that lomographic photographers love so much.
Basic Lomgraphic Cameras
Besides the Lomo LC-A+, there are many other cameras that will give you that classic Lomo look - so you're not married to buying a Lomo if you don't want to spend that much money before you've even had a chance to decide whether or not lomography is for you.
The Holga 120n - a cheaper alternative to the Lomo
Another option is the Holga 120N, which retails for about 30 bucks. It takes 120 film, which is larger than 35mm and also difficult to find and process. The advantage of course is that the larger size makes for better quality images. Which does seem a bit silly when you think about it, since the primary goal of lomography is low-fi, not high-fi images.
If you don't want to mess around with 120 you can also get a Holga 135, which sells for about 50 bucks. Or just buy the 35mm adapter for your 120, which sells for about $13 and will give you the flexibility of choosing either type of film, depending on your mood and what happens to be available.
The Holga features a fairly standard 47mm lens and a minimum aperture of f/8. It has a tripod mount, bulb setting, a cable release adapter and is capable of taking multiple exposures. It is so low-tech that it doesn't even require batteries. You can also get a pinhole version and a dual lens version that takes 3D images.
Specialized Lomographic Cameras
A basic lomographic camera like the Lomo LC-A+ or the Holga will take quirky photos, but you can also get lomographic cameras that take specialized quirky photos, so if this is a photographic genre you enjoy you could eventually end up with quite a collection of these plastic cameras.
Summer Action by Flickr user Chema Hdez
Try a Spinner 360, for example, which is a panoramic camera with an extraordinarily low-tech ripcord. That's right, a ripcord. Pull it, and the camera spins. What you'll end up with is a 360 degree panoramic photo.
Images taken with fisheye lenses already look strange even without the lomographic quirks. So for even cooler shots, try a Fisheye one, which has a 170 degree field of view and retails for about 50 bucks. You can also get other lomographic cameras with varying degrees of wide angled lenses, from the 22mm La Sardinia to the 30mm Sprocket Rocket.
But wait, these cameras get even wilder. There's the ActionSampler, which has not one but four lenses. This camera takes four exposures (about 1/200th of a second apart) on a single frame, giving you a final image with a very Andy Warhol appeal. Or maybe four lenses isn't enough for you - try instead the Pop 9, which has nine lenses.
if color is your thing, you might be interested in the Colorsplash, which features a color wheel flash that can be rotated so you can apply different colors to your scene using the camera's built-in flash.
Yes, you heard me right - lomographic cameras take film, not SD cards. This may seem a little inconvenient at first, since we digital photographers are used to instantly seeing what our cameras have captured without having to wait for it to come back from a lab. But there are more than a few reasons why you shouldn't be afraid of film. The first is because film can be manipulated in ways that you can't really manipulate digital images. Sure, you can make tweaks in post processing or even apply filters and techniques that will come close to what you will get from a lomographic camera, but you will never have that element of accident that gives lomographic images so much charm.
leaky shore by Flickr user angies
Light leaks, for example, are common in these cameras, and they can create some interesting effects. You can also have your film cross-processed, which means you can buy slide film and have it processed with the chemicals that are used for negative film. You can experiment with different types of film - from standard color to black and white to that special film designed just for lomographers. You can use expired film, which may also produce images with strange color hues. And don't forget that delayed gratification can be a good thing - if you ever shot film in the past, you remember how much fun it was to pick up that roll of pictures from the lab and see what you got many days after you took the image, rather than just a half second later.
Lomographic cameras don't have light meters, so getting a decent exposure will depend on either your own guesswork or an external light meter. They also perform poorly indoors (no surprises there), at night and on cloudy days.
Arizona State Fair 2008 - Vivitar Ultra Wide & Slim XPRO by Flickr user kevin dooley
And of course there are ongoing expenses associated with lomography that you don't really have with digital: film isn't cheap, and neither is processing. Fortunately you can use any kind of film for a lomographic camera (provided it is the right size), though the more expensive film designed for lomography will give you potentially quirkier results. And unless you are wise in the ways of the darkroom, you'll need to have your film processed in a lab, preferably one that understands what you're trying to achieve with your images. This may mean making special requests for cross-processing; it may also mean that you ask the lab not to make any corrections to your image's contrast or saturation (some labs may do this automatically).
Part of the Lomographic Society's mission is to return photographers to their roots. When you use your lomographic camera, you are encouraged to "shoot from the hip," keep your camera with you at all times, shoot without thinking and not worry too much about the details.
So now that you've just been overwhelmed with information about all those different cameras, films and potential drawbacks, you might be asking yourself: "Why deal with all that extra hassle when I could just simulate lomo effects in post-processing?"
Well, you certainly could do that, but true lomographers will gasp in horror at the idea. Digital manipulation doesn't have that same element of accident that makes lomographic images so charming, and a photographer who manipulates his digital images to make them look like lomography isn't going to be allowed into that exclusive lomography club, where all images have to achieved through pure, low-tech means.
Of course, not everyone cares about being part of a club, and if this is you you might want to play with some of the smart phone apps out there that simulate lomography. Apps like Hipstamatic allow you to change your "flash" and "lens," so you can apply lomographic effects to your standard smart phone images. It's cheating of course, and don't think you can get away with posting those resulting images to that Lomography group you joined on Flickr, because you're going to get caught.
So now that you've got your lomographic camera and you've vowed not to cheat, you probably won't find yourself traipsing around those scenic vistas in search of that perfect exposure. Of course not, because the spirit of lomography is to pocket that little camera and take it out during those every day moments. Shoot things you would never dream of shooting with your Nikon D800. The dumpster at work. Your gravel driveway. A tube of lip balm.
When you're carrying your lomographic camera, do your shooting without looking. Some lomographic cameras make this easy, because they don't have viewfinders. When the Lomographic Society says "shoot from the hip," they mean that literally. Hold your camera at hip level and shoot. See what you end up with.
divieto? by Flickr user bastet in the sky with diamonds
Now forget about everything else you ever learned about photography. Are you concerned about the depth of field in that shot? Don't be. White balance? Forget it. Rule of thirds? Lomographers laugh in the face of the rule of thirds. The basic premise of lomography is freedom. Just have fun taking pictures and forget about technique, composition and all that unimportant stuff.
While doing all this, keep in mind that your lomographic camera is not a digital camera, and your hobby is going to become expensive if you start shooting as if every frame isn't going to cost money. This probably goes against that whole spirit of Lomography that we were talking about earlier, but sometimes you have to be practical. Also, don't forget to remove your lens cap, because that viewfinderless camera isn't going to be very forgiving if you don't.
Lomography may encourage you to break the rules and experiment in ways that would make Ansel Adams turn over in his grave, but taking this strange little art form up as a hobby is probably going to make you a better photographer overall when you get back behind that DSLR. Because breaking the rules is one of the best way to learn the rules - and experimenting in this way will help you develop an understanding of why those rules exist in the first place, and when it is the best time to follow them - or choose not to.
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