The Lomography Belair X 6-12 Jetsetter ($299.99 direct) is a bold design from a company known for its toy cameras. It’s an interchangable lens camera that captures 6-by-12-centimeter images on standard 120 medium format film. Previously you’d have search out a specialized camera from the likes of Linhof or Horesman to get such a big, wide negative. And those cameras sell for several thousand dollars, even on the used market.
For only a few hundred dollars, don’t expect the Belair to operate with the same precision as its expensive competition, and you won’t get the same image quality out of its compact plastic lenses as you will from a German-made Rodenstock optic that can cover a large format negative. The plastic lenses that are included with the Belair will satisify the needs of film lovers looking to make smaller prints or share on the Web, but they don’t resolve as much fine detail as a glass lens would. There are a pair of Russian-made glass lenses available for the Belair for shooters who desire a bit more detail in their images.
The Belair is currently available in two editions. We reviewed the metal-bodied Jetsetter, which has a tan leatherette covering. There’s also the plastic City Slicker model ($249.99), which has a black body and black leatherette. The two models are functionally identical, but if you plan on shooting with the camera on a regular basis it’s not a bad idea to spend the extra money on the metal version. The Jetsetter’s two-tone look is a bit more retro than the all-black City Slicker. The tan leatherette is on the lower end of the quality spectrum; it’s easily dented and feels a bit slick in the hand. If you want a covering that will hold up better and give you a better grip, the folks at CameraLeather should be able to hook you up with an uncut sheet that you can easily cut to size with an exacto knife. Lomography even has an online tutorial about how to recover the Belair yourself.
When collapsed, the camera measures 3.5 by 7 by 2 inches (HWD) without a lens or finder attached. The finder and lens add about an inch to each the height and depth, and the depth is 5 inches when the bellows are extended for shooting. The lens board extends outward with a single press of a button on the bottom of the Belair, but closing it back up is a bit trickier. You need to hold down buttons on the top and bottom of the hinge mechanism and push the lens board back towards the body. Some care is required to push the board back evenly, but it’s a skill that is mastered pretty quickly.
Loading film is straightforward, there are two catches on the bottom plate that allow you to remove the back and load the roll. Film masks for 6-by-9 and 6-by-6 shooting are included if you’d rather not shoot in 6 by 12. You’ll only get six shots per roll when shooting at the widest format, so narrowing the camera’s field of view will help you get more frames out of each roll. Shooting in 6 by 9 extends your roll to eight shots, and your photos will be captured at a more print-friendly aspect ratio. Shooting square gives you twelve shots per roll.
The included optical viewfinders have markings to show each of the narrower formats, but they’re a bit hard to see. If you find yourself shooting in something other than 6 by 12 with regularity you may want to use a thin strip of tape to better mark the frame line, just be careful to use a type that won’t leave a sticky residue on the front of the viewfinder. Viewfinder framing is approximate, and just what the camera captures will vary based on your distance from the subject. It’s best to frame a little bit loose, just to be safe.
Physical controls are minimal. There’s a dial to set the desired ISO; it ranges from 100 to 1600 in one-stop increments, and there’s a bulb setting that will keep the shutter open as long as you hold the release down. There’s no manual shutter speed dial, aside from the bulb, you’ll have to rely on the meter to deliver a correct exposure; the meter requires two LR44 batteries to operate. There’s no way to preview the shutter speed before you fire a shot, so you’ll have to trust your photographic skills (or a handheld light meter) to decide whether you’ll want to use a tripod for a particular shot or if hand holding will do. The Belair takes photos in a single exposure without any sort of lens movement—so you won’t have to worry about holding the camera steady as its lens swings from one end to other like you do with the Horizon Kompakt.
A simple dial advances the film; you’ll need to peer through the frame window on the rear of the camera to determine how many times to turn it to advance to the next frame. This red window is familiar to medium format shooters; it shows you the frame numbers that are printed on the film’s backing paper. There’s a standard hot shoe for a flash, but you’ll have to experiment with your particular strobe and film to get your exposures down as the camera’s meter will always assume that you’re not using a flash. You may prefer to set the ISO much higher than the actual film speed for a shorter exposure that relies heavily on the illumination provided by your flashgun. Or you could set the meter to the actual ISO, which will generally result in a longer exposure in dim environments where you use the flash. This can be a fun effect, as you’ll the flash exposure will freeze the motion of your subject, but the long exposure will surround it by a bit of motion blur.
The Belair ships with a 58mm f/8 and a 90mm f/8 lens. Both feature plastic optics and can be stopped down to f/16. Each is impressively small, especially when you consider the size of the 6-by-12 negative. The 58mm provides a field of view that’s not too far off from a 21mm lens on a full-frame digital or 35mm film camera. I did notice a good deal of barrel distortion when shooting with the 58mm, but I was able to fix it pretty easily in Lightroom by setting the distortion slider to +40 and lines that curved outwards straightened. If you’re wet printing in a darkroom you’ll just have to live with this; to get a lens that wide in this format that is perfectly corrected for distortion requires you to start looking at those pricey Linhof and Horseman cameras.
The 90mm is a bit narrower, its equivalent focal length is about 32mm. You’ll have to focus by scale, that is by approximating the distance between the film plane and your subject. There are marks on each lens for 1 meter, 1.5 meters, 3 meters, and infinity. There is also a pair of glass lenses available, although we haven’t had a chance to review them as of yet. The Belairgon 90mm f/8 and 114mm f/8 have just been released and are each priced at $199.
We didn’t run formal resolution tests on the included lenses—this isn’t a camera that you buy if you’re concerned about test charts. To my eye the images had decent sharpness, especially when shooting at f/16. I could see larger text with ease, but the ability to capture extremely fine detail and texture isn’t there. The images don’t have the low-fi look that you get from the Diana F+, but they also won’t keep up with medium-format shots from the good glass you get from classic medium format cameras big lenses. It will be interesting to see how much detail that Lomo’s glass lenses bring to the table.
The Lomography Belair X 6-12 Jetsetter is a refreshing change of pace for Lomography. Even though it ships with plastic lenses, it is not at all a toy camera—the images are a bit too refined for that. They aren’t tack sharp, but the dreamy, hazy “Lomo look” is nowhere to be found. Distortion is a bit of an issue with the ultra-wide 58mm lens, but it’s easily corrected if you’re working with the photos digitally. A manual shutter setting would go a long way to improve the functionality for shooters who like to use a flash, and a shutter speed indicator would be a welcome addition. If shooting in a panoramic format is appealing to you and you’re a fan of medium format film, the Belair is right up your alley. If you can’t live without technical perfection in a camera, spend the money and get a Horseman SW-612 system—just realize that even used, they can sell for thousands of dollars.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc