Camera review: Lomography Belair X 6-12

The Belair 6-12 is an interesting new medium format film camera from Lomography. Here’s a mini-review, mixed in with photos from a roll of Velvia 50 that I shot with the camera at La Jolla Shores.

The camera looks amazing on paper — auto-exposure medium format cameras with interchangeable lenses are usually far more expensive, and the closest thing to the 6×12 panoramic format I can think of is the 35mm Hasselblad XPan II.

It’s much harder to get good results from the Belair than the XPan, though. The problems I’ve seen, starting with the most severe:

  • “Infinity focus” isn’t infinity sometimes. This could be a lens calibration problem, or the bellows not extending far enough, or the film not being held with enough tension to stay flat against the film plane. This seems to make the camera useless for landscapes, which is what I’d want to be shooting with a panoramic medium format camera.
  • When you take a shot, the shutter lever is on the front board that the lens is attached to via the bellows, rather than on the same side of the bellows as the camera’s body. This means that your sturdy tripod is keeping the camera’s body still while your finger is moving the lens board around and making your image blurry. This is probably the largest design flaw in the camera, and I thought the lack of reliable infinity was already pretty terrible. So, you actually shoot by putting the camera on the tripod, putting your outstretched index finger along the base of the front lens board to support it, and then using your thumb to activate the shutter extremely gently.
  • The viewfinder isn’t coupled to the lens; you focus blindly by setting the distance between you and the subject and relying on depth of field. This makes the focus problems much worse, because you can’t even tell whether the lens is failing to reach infinity.
  • The camera seems prone to “fat rolls”, where the spool doesn’t stay tight. This sometimes results in light leaks, and is what makes me think that the infinity problem might be about the spool not being flat against the film plane.
  • The autoexposure is inscrutable (you can’t see what shutter speed it’s chosen) and sometimes makes bad decisions.
  • There are two plastic lenses included, a 58mm (21mm at 35mm equivalent on 6×12) ultra wide angle and 90mm (32mm at 35mm equivalent on 6×12) wide angle. The lens quality is not good. Each lens can be used at f/8 or f/16, which results that I’d describe like this:
58mm f/8 Extremely soft everywhere, with strong vignetting
58mm f/16 Still pretty soft
90mm f/8 Soft, but somewhat usable
90mm f/16 Usable

You can see that the interchangeable lenses don’t add much if you’re interested in sharpness; you’ll want to stay at 90mm f/16 almost all of the time. (I should point out that Lomography is selling glass lenses for the camera as an upgrade — if you’re willing to spend more money on those, they’ll probably have better performance.)

With all that griping aside, how is it to shoot? It’s pretty fun. I like these shots, although I’ve had other rolls come back with unusably poor focus or exposure. In the shot below, I actually like that the two sides of the image (the seagulls and the cliff) are very soft; they make the photo look more painterly and surreal, which works here.

I can’t recommend buying the Belair, at least at its current price. I took advantage of a 40% preorder discount, and I think some of my problems with focusing might be caused by getting an early production camera that way. While I’m excited to see Lomography trying hard to innovate and keep film alive, the Belair seems to be more of a toy camera than a serious one.

Where to take photos in Shanghai

I’m back from OLPC’s two-week trip to Shanghai for the factory bringup of our XO-4 Touch laptop. It was a successful bringup; the prototype laptops are making their way out to developers now.

One of the reasons I look forward to these trips is the chance to get to hang out with my Taiwanese coworker Gary Chiang, who’s both an extremely talented engineer and an amazing photographer.

Before we got to Shanghai, I tried to look online for places to go to take photos during the downtime on our trip, but I mostly just found pointers to the standard guide book places. Gary took me to a bunch of excellent places that weren’t in the guide book; I’m writing about them here so that maybe you can go too. (All photos are available under CC-BY-SA 3.0.)

1933 Shanghai Slaughterhouse (虹口区沙泾路10号)

This is an Art Deco concrete slaughterhouse for cows, designed by the British architects Balfours and built in 1933. It’s been restored and converted into a space for creative companies as well as cafes. Lots of people come here to take photographs; pre-wedding shoots, cosplayers, everything. It’s got a strong M. C. Escher feel, with narrow “skyway” walkways going between the different floors.

Gary has an interesting theory that architects do their best/riskiest work in foreign countries, where they’re mostly immune from criticism by their own country’s media; no-one cares if your wacky art deco concrete idea doesn’t work as long as it’s not at home.



More photos in this set.

Shanghai Film Park (松江区车墩镇北松公路4915号)

This is one of China’s largest active outdoor movie studios, with impressively open access — you can walk around previously-used sets as well as people on shoots. There are all kinds of “fake” buildings: a church, prison, boat, train station, an “old Shanghai” area, big western houses, and lots of very old cars.

In the final shot below there are extras eating lunch on a break from their shoot.




More photos in this set.

Tianzifang (田子坊 泰康路艺术街)

Tianzifang’s a preserved shikumen residential area, with high terraced houses and narrow alleyways, now used as a mix of housing and art/crafts/tourist shops. It’s very touristy in recent years, but still worth seeing.



More photos in this set.

Zhujiajiao (朱家角)

Zhujiajiao is an ancient (about 1700 years old) water town: a town built around the intersection of different rivers. It took me a while to figure out that some of the best things to see in Shanghai are small trips (40 minutes by car) away. Zhujiajiao is one of the smaller water towns, which has the advantage that it’s not packed with tourists.


More photos in this set.

50 Moganshan Road (莫干山路50号)

The center of contemporary Chinese art in Shanghai, it’s a warehouse complex converted into studio and gallery space. Lots of street art nearby, too.




More photos in this set.

DISKDRV

My OLPC colleague Samuel Klein is the proud new owner of this amazing art car. Jealous! It’s a 1989 Honda Accord with floppy disks, processors, and keyboard caps all over it. More info here.




Red Bull Cliff Diving Boston 2012

Mad, Phineas and I had a fun Saturday watching cliff diving from Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, 80 feet above the ocean. It’s 2.5 times the height of the highest olympic dive (which is 33 feet) — the divers hit the water at around 60mph, and have to enter feet first to avoid injury (one competitor still had to pull out of the final due to injury). The crowd was huge, around 45,000 people. Photos are all CC-BY-SA 3.0; the bottom photo was post-processed by Mad from one of the continuous-burst sequences I shot:







Phineas

Our son (and first child) arrived on Thursday! Phineas Charles Ball was a bit early (although not early enough to be technically premature) at 37 weeks 3 days. He’s healthy and on the large side for his gestational age (the size of a 38.5 week baby). More photos in this Flickr set.


T+2 minutes


Birth weigh-in


Happy new parents


Swaddled


Getting ready for car ride home from hospital


Home at last!

Boston Dragon Boat Festival 2012

All photos are CC-BY-SA 3.0, and there are more in this Flickr set.



Wellness Warriors


Harvard Dudley: Athena boat crosses first!


Dragon Dance: The dragon enters


Dragon Dance: The dragon circles


Dragon Dance: The dragon rises


(the pink wig is to blend in with the female rowers)


Harvard Dudley: Athena from above

Photowalk in Boston, 2012-05-27


Dog tag memorial


Turn to clear vision


Portrait 1


Dave trains a new Leica shooter


Portrait 2


Memorial Day flag tribute on Boston Common

Whale watching, Boston 2012-05-26

All photos are CC-BY-SA 3.0, and there are more in this Flickr set.

Update: I did some color correction (on half of the images) and I think the difference is pretty stunning. Mental note: if you take photos on a hazy day, play with compressing the curves afterwards.


Spirit of Massachusetts


Just a nose


Breach!


Dive down


Another breach


Whale tail


Codzilla!

LuminanceHDR

LuminanceHDR is an excellent free software project for creating high dynamic range photographs from a collection of exposure-bracketed shots of the same scene — first it aligns your photographs using tools from the Hugin project, and then lets you choose between HDR tone-mapping algorithms to create the final image with. Here are some of my photos from the last year processed with LuminanceHDR’s implementation of the Mantiuk ’06 algorithm, with parameters of contrast=1.0 and saturation=1.2, all available under CC-BY-SA 3.0. (Since the thumbnails below are small, you might prefer to use this Flickr slideshow to see them up close.)


Volkswagen outside Republik; Cambridge, MA


Coolidge Corner Theater; Brookline, MA


Valentine’s Day Sunrise; Cambridge, MA


Schloss Charlottenburg; Berlin


Czech Senát; Prague


Skirts and Pants (after Duchamp); Lincoln, MA


Tower (DC); Lincoln, MA


National Museum; Prague


City of Light; Cambridge, MA

Time; Cambridge, MA