Lubitel 166 Universal Review : The Canny Man’s TLR

Soviet manufacturer Lomo is best known these days for the LC-A that arguably launched the whole Lomography movement. But they produced a range of other cameras which have some cachet including the Lubitel series of Twin Lens Reflex Cameras. Infact the Lubitel lives on in manufacture these days with the LSI produced 166+. Now this will set you back almost 300 GBP for which isn’t really an option for the Canny photographer. Luckily you can buy its 1980’s predecessor for much less in working order.

Lubitel 166 Universal
Lubitel 166 Universal (166U)

These 120 roll film camera can be a cheap way into the joys of TLR photography and are often described as the poor man’s TLR. The Lubitel series stretches back to 1949 with the Lubitel (at that point made under GOMZ  the precursor to Lomo  (lomo appears on the Lubitel 2). The original was felt to be a near copy of the Voigtländer Brilliant TLR. All the cameras were made with a plastic body (Bakelite initially) and a T-22 lens that survived 4 decades of use.

Lubitel 166 Series  Specs

  • Lens:  T-22 75mm 1:4.5
  • Focus:  TLR
  • Aperture: f/4.5-f/22
  • Shutter: 1/15-1/250 +B
  • Metering:  None
  • EV 100asa: 8-17
  • Filter thread: 40.5mm

The 166 series arrived in 1976 with the Lubitel 166. All models are broadly similar spec but with refinements. The original 166 had a frame counter and self-cocking mechanism compared to the later models which have a simpler & more reliable red film window and manual cocking mechanism. The 166B added a timer.

The 166 Universal (aka 166U)  is basically a 166B with a removable film gate mask allowing you to shoot 14 shots at 6×4.5 cm shots as well as well as the more traditional 12 shots at 6×6. My 166U was missing this so I can only comment on the standard square frame. Plastic bodied but feels reasonably well made and the lens components look more classy. What’s worth noting is Lomo was still making these in the last quarter of the 20th Century when almost no one was making a TLR. The new 166+ from LSI has the same spec at the 166B but can take 35mm film as well as 120.

Lady in Waiting
Lubitel 166 Universal 120 TLR with Kodak Porta 160. 2014

This is a EV17 shooter with a minimum f/22 aperture and a good choice of shutter speeds up to 1/250. You’ll need to cock the leaf shutter á la smena 8m with a cocking lever but on the plus you get  cable point to avoid catching this with you fingers. Like the smena there is no shutter lock making double exposures easy whether accidental or on purpose.

Merging of Faiths
Accidental double exposure, Dumfries 2014. Lubitel 166U with expired Kodak T400CN

This a fully manually shooter so you’re on your own for exposure setting but things seem to work pretty well. This camera is a Twin lens reflex (TLR) which means you have 2 lenses of equal focal length. One lens is used for taking the shot but the other lens is used to Focus (it’s geared to the shot lens). These became common in the 1930’s and were one of the predominant systems used for accurate focus until the rise of rangefinders and then Single lens Reflex cameras that became the dominant force in the latter 3rd of the 20th century. They are still well regarded and high end versions go for 3 figure sums or more on Ebay.

Jug on the sill
Lubitel 166U with Kodak Porta 160. 2014

The Lubitel isn’t quite in that category however. Like most TLRs you look down from above at the image displayed on the focus screen in the viewfinder. This is reversed and upside down like most TLR but the focus screen along side the plastic body are obvious clues that this ain’t high end. More expensive cameras’ focus screen usually are high end ground glass with or without other focusing aid allowing for accurate focus. Here like the Voigtländer to reduce costs only a small central spot is ground glass, the rest is clear. To aid focus there is a small pop out plastic magnifying glass on the hood but this isn’t going to be the easiest camera to focus in the world (especially in low or very bright light) but if you have time it does work. Some ignore the focusing and guesstamate the focus in scale focus fashion.

Lubitel 166U focus screen
Lubitel 166U focus screen. Focus magnifier not in position

Whilst the shutter works well enough the triple element lens does have some issue. In the centre it it pretty good but you get a wee bit of distortions towards the edge of your shot but you can still get a nice image. Some have complained of getting light reflections from the plastic inside the film compartment but that hasn’t been an issue for me.

Crichton Church
Crichton Church, Dumfries 2014. Lubitel 166U with Fomapan 100

You do get a timer but as ever avoid using as may be at risk of jamming the shutter and the camera features PC sync & coldshoe for flash.  As with most 120 film camera, there is no film counter – you simply read the frame number on the film backing paper via a small red window on the rear.

On the rails
Dumfries 2014. Lubitel 166U with Kodak T400CN (exp 2006) shot as 200asa

Okay this is not a classic TLR like a Yashica Mat. There is no option to change lens and focus is not the easiest nor quickest. But for a camera you can pick up for around 30 quid (GBP) or less, it’s not bad and a good starting point if you want to try out TLR photography (yup you can build a Recekesky DIY TLR for a Tenner and whilst it’s fun it comes no where as close to a Lubitel). Make sure you get with the double lens cap. The 166U & 166B are so similar there is little to pick between but I’d avoid the original 166 due to it’s winding system.

Alternatives

  • Halina A1 – Haking’s true TLR. Better focusing
  • Recesky TLR – DIY fun, the cheapest new TLR
  • Holga TLR –  Modern, cheap but plastic TLR
  • Yashica Mat – Classic Japanese TLR series

Helpful links

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