120studio.com
February 2015


Background


The Smena 8M is an all-manual, scale-focus camera made in the Soviet Union.   It takes standard 35mm film.

In this Classic Review, we're going to look at the features, quirks, and some recommendations for basic use.


A Quick Note


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In This Article


Meet the Smena 8M

Some Specs

Basic Use

Build Quality & Light Leaks

Shutter Speeds

Lens

Focusing

More About Focusing

Wide Angle Distortion

Other Features

Similar Cameras

Price / Value

Conclusion







Meet The Smena 8M

One of the most popular cameras in the whole world was the Kodak Instamatic, of which at least fifty or sixty million were produced if you add up all the different models. 

I was always taught the USSR was an evil, backward nation that couldn't tie their shoes correctly.  Evil perhaps, but it looks like the shoe-tying thing wasn't true. The Soviets managed to produce some 21 million Smena 8M's.   

One
model of camera, and they made over 21 million of them!  That is a world record for one camera model.  As I understand, it's actually in the Guinness Book.   Kodak never even sold that many of any single camera model.  (The "Instamatic" was actually a group of several different ones that kept being 'updated' so they could sell more.)

Imagine my even greater surprise when I learned that the Smena 8M is fundamentally a much better camera than the Kodak Instamatics.   In fact, there's not even a comparison.  The Smena 8M is arguably the best cheap-plastic camera ever made.

(Kodak film is still awesome, though.)

Viewfinder cameras with scale-focus and manual settings were popular in the USA and Europe in the mid Twentieth Century.  Later, imperialist marketing departments decided that everyone was too dumb to use these properly.   Gradually, more "auto" features began to appear in these small cameras.  By the Eighties, virtually no one in the West was offering this type of camera.  

They had either gone over to auto-everything, or else the cameras were completely dumbed-down into single-aperture, single-shutter-speed trashcams.  (You know you want an Ultronic, though.)

In the USSR, there wasn't as much market pressure.   Well, actually there was not really any market pressure.  If something worked well, they just kept making it. 

Although some "auto" cameras (such as the Vilia Auto) were produced, the basic scale-focus models were still being made all the way through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

And that's how we're able to get this great camera today.

Most of the "auto" cameras from that era are now useless;  their selenium-cell light meters have failed.  Meanwhile, the all-manual cameras such as the Smena 8M are often still working.  Because there were so many of them made, you should be able to find a good one easily.


Some Specs

Aperture Blades:  8
Aperture Range:  f/4 - f/16 (manual only)
Batteries:  none
Cable Release Socket:  Yes
Exposure Control:  Manual only
Film Advance:  Manual, Thumbwheel type
Film Rewind:  Manual (see "Other Features")
Filter Size:  35.5 mm
Flash:  Cold shoe with PC sync connector (on lens barrel)
Flash Sync:   X-sync across the full range, through 1/250th
Focus:  Manual, Scale-Focus
ISO / ASA Range:  Not important, since you set everything manually anyway
Lens:  "T43", a coated 40mm Cooke triplet.  Fixed / non-interchangeable.
Manual Exposure Modes:  Yes
Made In:  USSR (Leningrad)
Metering / Exposure:  None / All-Manual
Minimum Focus Distance:  1 meter
Self-Timer:  None
Shutter Speeds:  Bulb;  1/15th to 1/250th sec.
Shutter Type:  Leaf
Viewfinder:  Simple tunnel viewfinder, 1:1 view
Weatherproofing:  No
Weight:   Somewhere just under 300 grams
Years of Manufacture:  1970-1993, or '95 according to some.
Zoom Range:  none




Basic Use

Film loading is straightforward.   If you've used just about any other 35mm camera made in the Seventies or Eighties, then you can probably figure out how to load the 8M.

The viewfinder seems to correspond (mostly) with what you'll actually get in the picture (1:1 view).  There will be some parallax error if you're very close.  Unlike the Vilia, there is no brightline, and no parallax-correction line.  The 8M has a very plain viewfinder.

Some people say the framing is very inaccurate, but I don't find that to be the case.  Maybe it's because I'm so accustomed to using cheap viewfinder cameras.

The photo below ("Cold Drinks") actually corresponds pretty closely to what I remember seeing through the viewfinder. I know this because what I wanted in the picture is in the picture, and nothing really else.

Aperture is set by way of a small metal ring around the lens.  Simply line up the red dot with the desired aperture, and you're good to go. 

The shutter is independent of the film advance.  That means the 8M can do multiple exposures.  The one minor annoyance is that sometimes you will advance the film, expecting to be able to take a picture, then you'll realize you didn't set the shutter yet.  You will probably do this about ten times per roll of film.




Build Quality & Light Leaks

The Smena 8M is actually quite well-made for a cheap plastic camera.  Strictly speaking, the Smena 8M is not a toy camera.  Then again I wouldn't drop it on the ground.  Most any camera will get ruined if the lens assembly hits the ground.

The camera is mostly plastic, but there are some metal parts;  mainly, the lens barrel and a few pieces in the mechanism.  The camera is not heavy, but it does have a heft that you won't find with many plastic cameras.  It does not have as many metal parts as in the Vilia, though.

I have thus far not seen any light leaks with this camera, though I'm sure it's possible.  There are no foam seals to go bad;  the light is kept out by the interlocking grooves.




Shutter Speeds

These are set by a thin metal ring that encircles the lens barrel.  It appears to be a continuous spring tensioner, which means that intermediate speeds should be possible.  I have not tried this, but there are no detents on the 8M sample that I've been using.

The Smena 8M is one stop faster than the Belomo Vilia, which goes only as slow as 1/30th if you don't count the Bulb mode.  (On the 8M, the "B" looks like an "8" at first glance, but nope... it's Bulb.)

Because there is no mirror and thus no mirror-slap, you can actually use 1/15th of a second on the Smena 8M without a tripod.  It just takes a steady hand. 

As with the Vilia, you may often wish you had 1/500th on this camera, especially if you're using 400 or 800 film.  There have been many times when f/16 @ 1/250th wasn't enough.  Then again, most negative film can easily handle one or two stops of overexposure. 



Lens

I'm thankful this camera does not have a detachable lens, because otherwise you'd have digital-only photographers trying to pillage these cameras to take the lenses.  That happened, quite unfortunately, with the Chaika cameras that have the Industar 28mm lenses.  So now, there are all these Chaika camera bodies without lenses.    And there are all these Industar lenses that should be with Chaika cameras.  I guess the good news is that if you got a Chaika with a bad lens (which happens), you could always get a better copy.

Anyway, "T-43" seems to be a LOMO factory designation.  I do know that the lens is coated.  That's pretty awesome for a cheap viewfinder camera.  It means you won't have as much ghosting, flare, or loss of contrast as you'd otherwise get.

Image quality is pretty good for such a cheap camera.   It's not a Leica, but what do you want for like ten bucks?

From what I've seen, there is less variability in lenses than you get with the Belomo Vilia.  I wonder if it's because the Vilia was not made in Russia, while the Smena was.  (Even in the USSR, there was a lot of preference given to Mother Russia.)  But that's just a theory.  All I know is that every 8M I've seen has had a decent lens.



Cold Drinks On A Winter Night

February 2015

Smena 8M
f/5.6 @ 1/125th sec.
Kodak Tri-X 400 pushed to 6400
Developed in HC-110
Scanned according to this




Focusing

Scale focus takes some practice, but after a while you develop a knack for it.  You would be surprised at how well you can estimate distance (in meters).  Even at f/4, where the depth of field is quite shallow, you can usually get in-focus pictures.  The Smena offers a long focus-throw between the distances, especially the shorter ones, so you should be able to dial it in precisely. 

For these short distances, you might want to measure them at first until you get the hang of it.  Or, just focus-bracket.




More About Focusing

Scale focus is much more practical than zone focus, if you're serious about photography.  The Smena 8M actually tops the otherwise-better-made Olympus Trip 35 in this regard. 

(Actually, the 8M's all-manual control is better, too... because the Trip 35 doesn't even offer manual settings.)

The 8M's scale focus is very smooth, and it appears to be very accurate.  I guess there could be some variability, depending on how much vodka the Soviet workers imbibed that morning, but so far I've had good results with the 8M. 




Wide Angle Distortion


A 40mm lens does not have much wide-angle distortion.  I never noticed it much with this camera.  This is not the kind of camera for the highly detail-conscious anyway, so I never bothered to measure just how much distortion there was. 





Other Features

The Smena 8M is easy enough to figure out.  The only thing that might give you difficulty is the film rewind.  You know how most cameras have a tiny button or lever on the underside, which releases the mechanism so you can rewind the film?  Well, the Smena 8M doesn't have that... until you realize the rewind button is also the shutter release button!  

To rewind the film, you actually have to depress the shutter release button (not the shutter cocking lever).  While holding in the shutter release button, you wind the silver-colored knob.  And it's tediously slow to rewind a roll of 36, let me tell ya.  But I can look past that, because this is a fun camera.

If you shoot film at ISO 6400 as I often do, the Smena 8M is pretty good for hand-held night photography.  f/4 at 1/15th and 6400 is not quite enough for the dimmest street scenes, but it's still widely useful at night.  There will be a number of scenes where you can use f/4 @ 1/30th, or even faster shutter speeds. 




This might have been f/4 @ 1/60th.  Can't remember;  should have written it down.

Smena 8M,
Kodak Tri-X 400 @ ISO 6400,
developed w/ HC-110



Durability


Because the 8M is mostly plastic, don't expect it to last forever.  I've heard tales of them becoming a bit difficult after repeated use. 

I've already broken two Vilias, one from ordinary use, and one by dropping it on a rug which shouldn't have broken any camera. 

Then again, I don't think the Kodak Instamatics were especially robust cameras, either.  Most of these cheap plastic cameras were made for the average snapshot-taker, who probably shot ten rolls a year.

This is another reason why, if you like this camera, you should get at least two of 'em. 


 

Similar Cameras

Belomo Vilia.... goes to only 1/30th of a second instead of 1/15th.   Aperture control is by a small lever on the underside of the lens housing, rather than a ring around the lens.  The Vilia has the shutter release on the side of the lens, instead of on the top of the camera.    Like the Smena 8M, it has a 40mm triplet lens. 

Smena Symbol / Cosmic Symbol... very similar in appearance and function to the Belomo Vilia, but the Symbol still has the aperture ring around the lens.

The Smena 8M allows for multi-exposure, and it has a cable release socket in the shutter button.   If you want the most practical camera of the three, the Smena 8M is probably it. 


Price / Value


The Smena 8M is a cheap camera.  Don't overpay for it.  I believe there were some 21 million of these cameras manufactured.

In working condition, they go for somewhere between $10 and $30 from Russia or Eastern Europe.  That's without the shipping cost.

A $30 one should be like-new. Sometimes you can even get one with the odd-sized filter that they take, or maybe a roll of film thrown in. And usually, at that price they include the original box, a case, and the manual.

Like I said, the 8M is a cheap camera.  It works well, but the film advance and shutter release can seem rather crude.  It's too plastic-y and basic for most collectors to care about... not to mention it is probably the most common USSR camera of all time.  The people who would actually collect the Smena 8M are the ones who want the rare variants.  

That leaves only the serious photographers, who have worn out the soles of their shoes pounding the pavement looking for good photographs.  Even if it's with a $10 camera.   Which it often is.

(Please use this link to buy yourself a Smena 8M, or any of the other links to buy your stuff, and it helps me keep bringing you informative articles and reviews.  Thanks! )



Conclusion

The Smena 8M is a great camera.  It might actually be my favorite cheap camera, taking the place of the Belomo Vilia.  I'm still undecided on this, because the Vilia will always be one of my favorite cameras ever.    In some ways, the Smena 8M is a better-made camera, especially in terms of focusing.  Then again, it has more plastic and less metal. 

One thing is for sure.  This camera is so good that it's worth having two, especially because if you use your cameras a lot, then chances are that you'll eventually drop it or leave it somewhere.

I hope you enjoyed this article.  Please help me keep this website on-line by purchasing any of your stuff (including this camera or film) through the links on here.   (Smena 8M usually available through this link.)

              

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