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The LOMO 135VS (ЛОМО 135ВС) is an unlikely mutant: at first glance you might say it was a crossover between a Smena Symbol, a Rollei 35 and an MF-1 spy camera. It's one of those strange Soviet cameras that just doesn't fit any conventional classifications. According to the authorative book by Jean Loup Princelle, the LOMO 135VS was designed by A. Lakomkine and produced from 1975 to some unknown year in the 1980's. Its successor, the LOMO 135M – identical except for some aperture pictograms and perhaps some internal modifications, who knows – was produced from around 1980 to 1985.
The 135VS is a pretty standard viewfinder camera in the LOMO legacy, except for its most remarkable feature: the spring driven motor. The camera has a big ratcheted winding knob on its top that winds the spring. Princelle says the motor is capable of transporting eight shots per wind at a rate of two or three per second, but with my worn down camera, I'm glad if I get six at two per second. In any case, the system works fine, although it's a bit of a mystery why you would need that kind of awesome action power in such a small non-system camera.
The 135VS wasn't so much an entirely new road for LOMO as it was a synthesis of things done before. The spring driven motor was engineered into LOMO's classic 1950's Leningrad L39 rangefinder camera, and LOMO had perfected all of the camera's other technology in rangefinders like the Sokol-2. I'm still trying to get into the minds of the designers to see what they wanted to accomplish with the 135VS. My main problem is this: why didn't they throw in a simple fixed-lens rangefinder system like on the Sokol-2? It would have made the 135VS so much more perfect. Four reasons I can come up with are the following:
Most votes go to the "Soviet Rollei-35" option, by the way. Given the design of the camera, with removable baseplate instead of hinged back, and bottom-mounted flash shoe, there's something to be said.
Instead of the rangefinder, the 135VS has a conventional guess-focusing system, which is a bit schizophrenic: the barrel has distances in meters, but the viewfinder echoes the distance setting by means of a horizontally moving needle that slides along a pictogram scale. As you focus closer to infinity, the needle passes by pictograms of a little girl, a little girl and her father, a group of people, and a skyscraper. The pictograms are stylish in the traditional Voskhod sense. I think the needle might be guided by the amount of tilt of the lens barrel – don't be misguided by the barrel's apparent crooked swagger: it was engineered that way!
The LOMO 135VS doesn't have a light meter, but it has one of the best and most intuitive table-based exposure systems I've ever seen. The system works as follows. First you set the film speed on the big spring wind dial. The dial accommodates film speeds from 16 to 250 ASA. Also on the dial are four pictograms and four corresponding aperture values. As you change film speeds, you change the apertures that correspond to the pictograms. For 130 ASA film, there's f/8 for in the woods, f/11 for in the open field, f/16 for at the shore, and f/22 for in the snow. Set the correct aperture depending on your location. Then, step two, set the shutter speed to the cloud formation that best suits your situation. Then you're done – super intuitive and almost infalliable. The only time you'd really miss a light meter is indoors or using filters, but all the times your table has it right when center-balanced metering would have it wrong compensate richly for those situations.
Of course you can also set the shutter speeds and aperture numerically, in case you bought a Leningrad light meter to go with your camera.
In Rollei 35 fashion, the base plate is home to a lot of controls normally found on top, like the hot shoe and the rewind crank. It comes off, also in Rollei 35 fashion, by rotating the big key in the middle. Once removed, you see the hinged pressure plate attached to the body. It has a lot of work to do, because the take-up spool rotates towards the film gate instead of away from it, creating a big potential for bulges. The film runs from left to right; a consequence of the fact that the take-up spool has to be under the motor, which has to be under the wind knob, which has to be at the left of the camera because the right is occupied by the shutter release, which has to be there because most people are right-handed. The sprocket disengagement ring has to be unscrewed quite a bit before the sprocket is actually disengaged, and has the disadvantage that a small axis in the core rotates along with the motor, which means you could accidentally impede the motor.
I haven't taken any pictures with my 135VS yet, but considering LOMO used a brand lens (an Industar-73 40mm f/2.8) instead of the usual T-something, and a ten-blade aperture instead of the usual five or six, quality has to be good. It would be such a shame if it wasn't.
Could the Ricoh A-2, a rather enigmatic camera, be the inspiration for the LOMO 135 series? It's not implausible, because the Russian camera industry, to its credit, is known to appropriate and even improve foreign designs. It seems to have been a standard practice to look at the Japanese camera industry (which, like the Russian camera industry, was predominantly occupied by mass production) and copy its best achievements. That certainly seems more plausible to me than that LOMO tried to one-up the German camera industry, which centered around expensive and well-built cameras – areas where the Russians just couldn't compete.
The A-2 bears a number of similarities with the 135VS, but also some nontrivial differences. The A-2 has a swing-back, flash shoe on top, an S/C knob (for single and continuous shooting), and the wind knob on the bottom. However, the basic concept is the same.