A few months ago, while killing time on an Analog Photography Whatsapp group, I came across a Smena Symbol for sale. Though the camera seemed in rough cosmetic condition, the price was really good, so I bought it. At that time, I was up to the gills in M42 and pre-AI Nikon gear, and was looking for something simple to break the creative paralysis that comes from gear clutter. (I know. shut up.)
The camera arrived, and to my dismay, there was fungus in the lens. I decided to take it apart and clean it out. Based on my experiences with a few German and Japanese leaf shutter cameras, I had expected to spend half a day on this exercise. However, I was pleasantly surprised! The lens elements were easy to remove and clean, and the aperture mechanism took me under five minutes to remove and reinstall. Though the engineering flourishes in Soviet cameras have bred eccentric beasts which are ruined by minor errors (Zorki 4, I’m looking at you) – this camera proved to be an ingenious example of elegant simplicity.
That evening, chatting with a Russian friend, I told him about my disappointing purchase experience. My friend, also a photography enthusiast, told me more about this camera. The Soviet expedition to Mount Elbrus carried this camera, and as my research later revealed, this camera has been up Mount Everest too!
It made sense – the generous tolerances that allowed me to dismantle and reassemble the mechanism despite my coffee shpilkes would have protected this camera from jamming in sub-zero temperatures. Also, the “Symbol” system would have made exposure calculation intuitive for expeditioneers who were mostly military personnel lacking photographic training.
Perhaps impressed by my passion for Russian cameras, my friend graciously offered to send me a nicer Smena Symbol straight from Russia, and I gratefully accepted. I waited in anticipation for the camera to arrive. A few weeks later, I received a mint condition Smena Symbol with a Lomo reusable cartridge inside. It appeared to never have been used.
While still riding high on the joy of receiving a shiny new camera, I had to deal with some usability issues. The Smena Symbol lacks strap lugs. The (n)eveready case that it comes with does not have a detachable top section as seen on Praktica and German Voightlander cases, and thus is really fiddly to use. To resolve this, I sacrificed the case from the older camera. I detached the top section by cutting it away from the rivet at the back, and snipped off its ageing synthetic strap. As the case’s loops proved to be in good condition, I secured an inexpensive cotton strap to them.
Operating this camera is as simple or as complex as you want it to be. It has the usual aperture settings on the front of the lens, and shutter speeds underneath. However, if you don’t want to grapple with the exposure triangle, the “Symbol” system offers an effective alternative. Setting film ISO on the front of the camera automatically selects an aperture setting. Using the weather logos on the top of the lens barrel selects a shutter speed. This setup gives you the perfect Sunny 16. For instance, the ISO 250 film setting selects an aperture of F16. The “sunny” setting on the barrel gives you a shutter speed of 1/250; sunny with clouds gives you 1/125, Cloudy gives you 1/60 and so forth. Setting the film speeds to 125 will automatically select an aperture of F11, making these speeds appropriate for that ISO and aperture. Genius, Comrade!
Focus too, is intuitive. The lens has about 270 degrees of throw from 1 metre to infinity, progressing from 2 metres to infinity in about 90 degrees. With a widest aperture of F4, nailing focus is not too difficult if you’re able to guess the distance to the subject. However, being a viewfinder camera, it lacks the compositional ease that I’ve become accustomed to with SLRs.
My first roll in this camera was expired Fujicolor 200. I shot most of it with the “Symbol” system on the camera’s lens. My first few shots were a bit flippant, as the camera felt like a toy compared to my usual Nikomat. The Symbol system works – look at the highlight detail in this expired film.
However, within a few minutes, I evolved a completely new style of using this camera. As I tend to wear my slings short, with the camera just above my navel, I started “shooting from the gut”. Focus obviously wasn’t an issue because the camera was set to a narrow aperture just short of F16 for ISO 200. Also, with the film advance having a mere 90 degree throw, and the shutter button being at the front, I developed an instinctive rapid fire style that will probably work with only this camera. As you can see, this camera helped me produce my first body of “street” work!
Shooting from the gut doesn’t always work though – operating the camera with one hand adds some shake – particularly on speeds slower than 1/125. Obviously, my technique needs improvement – but then you can always explain your blurry shots by saying that Daido Moriyama has been a major creative influence in your work.
The camera has a nicely contrasty 40mm lens. Though my preferred focal length is 35mm, I have got some great photos on my Yashica Electro 35 GX that has a 40 mm F1.7 lens. I’m beginning to understand why some people swear by the 40mm focal length though it’s just a little bit off from both 35 mm and 50 mm.
Another great feature is the hot shoe that allows you to use a flash. I brought out my Vivtar 2800 Auto Thyristor and loaded up a roll of Orwo 100. Well, that didn’t actually go as planned. The 30-year old flash seems to have lost some of its vigour, so most of my pictures came out underexposed. At one point, the metal frame of my glasses touched the hot-shoe frame and resulted in a painful electric shock to my forehead. But, it works, and if you know how to use your flash, you can get some pretty awesome pictures!
So, in a time when the costs associated with film photography are literally rising by the day, is it worth owning the Smena Symbol?
The answer is a resounding Yes.
Sure, if shallow depth of field and critical focus are important to you, it cannot be your daily driver. But, being lightweight, simple to use, and equipped with a sharp enough and contrasty lens, it’s a great camera for situations where I do not want to risk pricier gear. Like me, do you struggle with calculating exposure after eight beers / Mimosas / Jynnan Tonix? Hallelujah! The Smena Symbol is the perfect Brunch snapper for you.
Loaded up with 100 ISO film, this camera could rock a picnic or a day at the beach; and with ISO 200 film – perhaps a trip up Mount Everest. Pub crawl? Get some Eastman 5222 or Expired Fujicolor C200 and Push to 1600. The fact that it can trigger a flash opens up a whole range of creative possibilities that I am only just beginning to explore. With its highest ISO of 250 within the Symbol system, it’s perfect for use with Eastman 5222 – my favourite Black & White film. If a bunch of Soviet mountaineers took this to the top of Mount Everest, you can find suitable use for it in and around the comforts of urban domesticity.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to chat with my Russian friend about the alarming shortage of Stolichnaya Vodka and Helios 40 lenses in Hyderabad.
If you’re based in India and are just starting (or resuming) your film photography journey, check out my guide here.
For information on camera dealers, processing labs, film sellers etc., check out the resources page.
The photos in this article were processed and scanned by Abhinav Karhale: +91-91687-17457
Eastman 5222 is available from Sarbajoy Paul: +91-89812-84362
I bought my Fujicolor C200 from Manish Patil: +91-93248-67555
Disclaimer: I am not being compensated for any endorsements.