In Honest Praise Of The Smena 8M

Considering how much I wax lyrical about rangefinders (and Leicas) all over the internet these days, it feels somewhat strange to be writing a piece about this humble piece of Soviet plastic. Because let's get this straight, before we begin: this is a cheap camera. A VERY cheap camera. Made of what I suspect to be bakelite and feeling distinctly shoddy (I've had to take screwdrivers to mine more times than I care to mention over the years), the Smena really isn't worth the amount of money being asked for it in some corners of the internet, and nor is it going to supplant (or even sit well alongside) your Hassleblad. But if you're just starting to get your head around film shooting, this might be a worthwhile investment.

I stumbled upon the Smena while I was still a student and not long after I started shooting film again. It was a bargain find on eBay on a wet and rainy day when I should have been working on an essay; £4.20, direct from Bulgaria. I didn't fully know what to expect, and in all honesty, it was like being thrown in at the deep end - which I was always told was the best way to learn to swim, if the harshest.

Put simply, there is no better way to learn to shoot film as far as I'm concerned. Forget about focusing aids, light meters, or even automatic shutter cocking. This was a baptism of fire after the slap-happy approach of the Holga I'd been using previously. In fact, I consider this my first actual camera; the toys that preceded it taught me nothing, and were just ways of happily wasting precious celluloid* and propping up Fuji's film department. This was where I started getting serious.

So what do you have? Five shutter speeds (1/15 to 1/250) and B, five apertures (f4 to f16), and guess focusing from 1m to infinity. The shutter is manually cocked via a lever on the side of the lens barrel, and the film is wound on via thumbwheel, not a lever. No hotshoe, but a PC connector combined with leaf shutter means this is actually a pretty nice camera for flash use when you start playing with ideas like fill flash. Not even the mighty Leica can use a flash at all shutter speeds; chalk one up for the Smena here.

But one helpful touch to make this fully-manual camera a bit more accessible to the beginner (and a convenient cross-over to those more used to Holgas) is the use of symbols to work out the correct settings. The aperture ring - positioned on the front of the camera, around the lens - has two index marks (one for the aperture, one for the film speed) and the shutter speed ring (positioned around the lens barrel, à la the Olympus OM) is marked via weather symbols from above, with the actual shutter speeds marked below. Similarly, the focusing ring has symbols for typical subjects at certain distances alongside the distance scale (marked in meters). This combination is more than enough to allow a beginner to get serviceable shots in most conditions, while allowing enough room to really get to grips with photography later on.

But cameras are nothing without a decent lens, and this is where the Smena shines. Unlike most cheap plastic cameras, the Smena actually has a glass lens that can create some quite pleasing images. Of course, they've not got that Sonnar smoothness or a Leica glow, but for £5 it's hard to find much better; surprisingly flare-resistant, acceptably sharp, and without any irritating vignetting, which is more than can be said for a lot of similar cameras.

Of course, a camera like this isn't without flaws, and the Smena has two; the shutter cocking mechanism is inconveniently placed almost exactly where your finger is going to grip the camera, meaning it often snags on the finger of the unsuspecting shooter, causing the shutter to hang open for longer than it should do. More pressing than this is a fault with the film winding mechanism that can (after a fair amount of wear and tear) cause the film to continue to wind for further than one frame. Thankfully, it's a simple fix, and requires little to no mechanical skill or specialist equipment whatsoever (Case in point: I used a post-it note to solve the problem. Leave a comment below if you're interested, and I'll explain how it works).

So why is this such a brilliant entry to film shooting compared to, say, an SLR? It's hard to advocate any particular camera considering that there are so many great beginner bodies out there, but the way I look at it is thus: most people start out with cameras with some degree of automation. Which is great, if you just want to take pretty photographs. Or, worse, cameras with only one or two manual settings, which allows little room for growth. A camera like the Smena forces the photographer to appreciate and understand the relationships between aperture and depth of field, light and exposure, true zone focusing and other such things that automatic settings might make you take for granted.

Provided, of course, you're as pig-headed and studiously minded as I am.

At any rate, the Smena is largely responsible for the photography I'm doing now. The BLIK external rangefinder sold me on the idea of rangefinder focusing, and clearly-marked depth of field scale helped me get to grips with hyperfocal techniques. I had a lot of good times with this little plastic brick, and while it just sits on my windowsill these days, I don't think I could ever get rid of it. It's the best £4.20 I ever spent. Give it a try and see what you think.

*yes, I know film is actually made of polyester these days. But celluloid sounds better. It's called "poetic license". So hush.