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Like a lot of other Soviet cameras, the Smena SL takes an unconventional approach towards conventional photograpical dilemmas. Which is exactly why I like them. In the SL, it's ease of use that received the special attention of the Soviet engineers. Looking closely at the SL, it's clear that the boys from Leningrad did the utmost to ensure that anybody could take pictures with it: not only did they use a subset of the easy to use Rapid film system, but they also incorporated an elaborate table-based exposure system that almost made photographical knowledge obsolete.
One of the cornerstones of usability in the SL is the Rapid film system, or actually the "SL" subset of the Rapid system. To understand the Rapid system is to understand the Smena SL, so let's start with a small primer. The information here is gleaned from this excellent website.
The Rapid system was introduced by Agfa in the early 1960's as one of the many failed attempts to introduce a film format superior to plain vanilla 35mm. Antedating the Rapid system was the Karat system, and postdating it were, among others, disc and APS. Interestingly, all of these failed miserably. Oscar Barnack is probably laughing his ass off somewhere.
Anyhow, there's no denying that in its time, Rapid was superior to normal 35mm. In days when normal 35mm film was just light-sensitive tape in a metal canister, Rapid had a sensitivity coding (the T-shaped aluminum flange on the cartridge) and two advantages probably borrowed from medium format: the fact that film streamed from one Rapid cassette to another, so that you could open a camera's back and not lose all your pictures, and the fact that you didn't need to rewind. Combine that with standard 35mm film in the usual 24×36mm format, and what you get is a seriously competitive improvement over normal 35mm. Or that's what Agfa thought. Although it's definitely true that Agfa got a lot of other manufacturers to franchise their system and a lot of consumers to buy their cameras, the system didn't last very long. By the end of the seventies it more or less bled to death, beaten by ordinary 35mm in a race lost beforehand .
Contrary to common belief, Rapid cassettes aren't supposed to come apart to help amateurs load their own film stock. If you think about it, why would Agfa want to undercut its own business? On the other hand, the cassettes did come apart easily regardless, so what should self-spooling amateurs care about Agfa's policies? I'm sure Soviet photographers, constantly under attack from unavailable film and depleted stocks, reloaded their SL cassettes on more than one occasion.
The biggest disadvantage is that Rapid film is limited to twelve exposures max. That's twelve exposures... Medium format lasted more than a century on twelve exposures, but it just doesn't sell an amateur camera. Apparently the cameras weren't built to withstand the higher forces that arose from transporting longer films.
The aforementioned page mentions the SL system as an East-German version of the Rapid system. SL stands for "Schnell-lade Kassette", which means quick load cassette: probably a way to ward off Agfa's copyright claims. Practically speaking, SL cassettes are the same as Rapid ones, but without Rapid's T-shaped sensitivity tab. Several cameras were made for SL, among others LOMO's Smena SL. Spot the irony: not only did the reds copy German cameras, but their film formats too.
LOMO, or GOMZ as it was called before 1966, had been using the Smena name (meaning "relief" or "young generation") since prewar times to designate their line of small, unsophisticated consumer cameras. Before the war there was among others a Smena folding camera, but it was after the war that the series took on a real flight. Many different types of Smena appeared, all using 35mm film. Then in 1968, the Smena Rapid appeared in something of a split with its ancestors: it used rapid film and had a different design philosophy than its bakelite ancestry. The Smena Rapid wasn't very successful, so LOMO quickly improved the camera, called it the Smena SL, and presented it to the public in 1970 (some say 1968). Improvements over the Smena Rapid are the inclusion of framelines and a hot shoe. This new camera stayed in production till 1977, which could be the result of either its great popularity or the Soviet plan economy; you be the judge.
That same Soviet plan economy was to blame for the fact that there was hardly any Rapid film on the Soviet market: talk about undermining! A whole swath of Rapid cameras – Smena Rapid, Smena SL, Zorki-12 – was doomed by the kafkaesk machinations of plan bureau apparatchiks with their horse blinder focus.
I bought my Smena SL at a second-hand shop for around €2,20. The serial number on mine is 09368, which, knowing Soviet cameras, could indicate anything from "this camera was made in 1969" to "this camera was made in the ninth month" to "this is the nine thousandth three hundredth sixty-eighth Smena SL". Without other serial numbers to compare with, it's hard to say. My Smena is in excellent mechanical condition: it operates nice and smooth. Coosmetically it has some wear, but nothing too serious. What kills me most is that with this camera once came a Russian box and a Dutch manual, and either they're lost, or they're still in someone's attic. They're not with me, anyhow.
As noted above, the Smena SL has a couple of neat features that make it more than just the next amateur camera. The most striking is the big "weather forecast" type exposure system on the top of the camera. Behind an enormous window, spanning almost the entire top of the camera, is a scale with different weather formations. As you turn the large lens ring closest to the body, you move a green dot past all the symbols. The large ring is in effect the shutter speed selector, and the weather formations are indications of the light strength in your immediate area.
Once you've set the shutter speed, you will want to set the aperture. You do this by aligning the aperture ring with the speed of the film you're currently using. The aperture ring is two-faced: there's a readout in DIN/ASA/GOST and one in aperture stops. Once you've set the aperture, which you only do once when you insert your film, you're ready to take pictures.
An interesting question is which weather symbol corresponds to which shutter speed. The Smena SL shares its shutter with the 35mm Smenas of its era, so we know that the shutter speeds run from 1/15s to 1/250s, and B.
Tripping the shutter is done by pressing the lever on the right hand side of the camera. On my camera, it operates exceptionally smooth. The camera's image counter counts upwards to 12, and resets itself automatically when the back is opened. The base plate of the SL is like that of the Agfa Isorapid: a ribbed chrome plate. But unlike the one on the Isorapid, this one is not removable, since there is no battery compartment underneath it.
The Smena SL has a T43 f/4 LOMO triplet lens, which is probably similar in design to the T-48 on the Voskhod or the T-22 on the Lubitel-2. The T43 is the standard lens for all Smena cameras and is still in production today. I've never shot any film with this camera, so I don't know about its image quality – judging from the not-cheap-but-not-expensive-either eight-bladed aperture, the quality is probably mediocre.
The Smena SL has a fairly large Galileo viewfinder with big white framelines tucked away right at the edge of the window. There is some barrel distortion, but the colour is at least neutral. Parallax compensation consists of the familiar set of extra lines to demarcate the field of view when focusing closer.
The lens' focusing range is from slightly less than 1m to infinity. Handy is that the lens has two distance readout scales. The one on top of the lens barrel features four stylized symbols: a buste (1m), two figures (1.4m), a group (4m), and a house with a tree (10m). The scale underneath the lens barrel displays the distances in thick black digits. The Smena SL is not a rangefinder camera, so there is no visual indication in the viewfinder to indicate wether a certain subject is in focus. Focusing is done by experience and guessing, and hoping that the depth-of-field (which is quite large in a 40mm f/4 lens) helps out.
The back of the camera is plain, except for a memo dial. On domestic cameras, film speeds might have been given in GOST (though that would imply that the Soviets were making their own SL film at the time, which is unlikely). On export cameras like mine – with a latin type name – the readings are in ASA and DIN. The memo dial is nothing more than a little metal mask that rotates over a dial with film speeds. The mask is divided into three pie cuts: one for b/w, one for colour daylight, and one for colour tungsten. There are no provisions for slide film – which either wasn't available in Rapid film, or was "forbiddden" by the manual, since the camera doesn't have a decent exposure meter.
Also interesting about this camera is its leather case. Resembling in some ways an oddly shaped black egg, the camera slides into it from the top like a gun in a holster. Screwed into the tripod socket is a small round pin, that guides the camera down a trajectory in the bag. The case can be closed by means of a press-lock.
This is what Hungarian importer Ofotért had to say about the Smena-SL in their 1979 catalogue:
A régebbi Szmena típusok továbbfejlesztett kiadása. A gyorstöltő kazettával ellátott olcsó fényképezőgéppel, egyszeri töltéssel 12 felvétel készíthető fekete-fehér vagy színes filmre. A tükrözéscsökkentő réteggel bevont objektív, a világító keretes optikai kereső, a záridők széles tartománya és a villanókhoz szinkronizált központi zár, jó felvételi lehetőségeket biztosít.
A Szmena SL fényképezőgép megkülönböztető jellegzetessége, hogy a megvilágítási idő és a távolság beállítására szimbol jeleket alkalmaztak, ami a kezdő amatőrök számára is biztosítja a sikeres fényképezést. Az olcsó, jó teljesítményű gép 24×36 mm-es méretű felvételeket készít. Gyorstöltő rendszer biztosítja a film továbbítását, kazettából kazettába. A gép zárszerkezete 1/15 mp-től 1/250 mp-ig pillanat és B időre is állítható. Ára készenléti tokkal: 430,– Ft.