The BeLomo Vilia is an all manual, 35mm ‘compact’ camera produced in the USSR (Belarus) from the mid 70s to 80s. This chunky Soviet era wonder is about as basic as they come, and there were apparently about 2-3 million units produced. Despite its simple looks, the 40mm f4 Triplet lens is coated to reduce glare, and is not to be dismissed lightly, as it is often thought to be much better than folks initially expect. For a fun bit of trivia, the Vilia is also a river that flows between Belarus and Lithuania. Is the camera named after that river? I have no idea. Somebody tell me.
The Vilia has no real bells or whistles to speak of. At all. It is zone focus (meaning you focus by ‘guessing’ the distance and setting the lens accordingly), and has a very basic feature set:
- Lens – Coated triplet lens. Fixed focal length of 40mm, max aperture f4.
- Filter thread – 46mm.
- Shutter speeds – Four shutter speeds, ranging from 1/30 to 1/250, as well as a Bulb mode.
- Aperture range – From f4 to f16.
- Focus – Zone, from 0.8m – infinity.
- Metering – None.
The viewfinder itself is pretty large (which is nice for glasses wearers like myself), and there are parallax lines to show the frame – as well as some wee diagrams to display what aperture you are set on. That said, don’t expect crystal clear vision. It’s a bit like looking into a window back in time, as opposed to seeing a perfect reproduction of the world.
As well as the standard hot shoe, there is a PC sync port which means you can use the Vilia to trigger external flashes – something I took advantage of to shoot some studio portraits in what feels like a lifetime ago. Despite this, there isn’t a cable release input, so no way to take DIY selfies. Sorry.
There are also no strap lugs to speak of, and so if you want a wrist strap, you’ll need to find a lug that screws into the tripod mount on the bottom of the camera. This does mean that it won’t stand upright… however it never really did that neatly anyway, due to the protrusion of the film rewind button. I got a fairly unsubtle (but cheap) one that did the trick…
The other oddity worth pointing out is that the aperture is changed by a small lever on the under-side of the lens. This can be a bit of a pain, as you need to turn the camera upside down to see what setting you are on. I was also never quite sure whether I was on f8 or f5.6, given the way the markings were laid out.
There are a few different vintages of the original Vilia kicking about. The older ones appear to have a metal film advance lever, whereas the later models have a plastic tip. There is also a blank circular ‘dot’ on the right hand side next to the viewfinder on the later models. You can see more details on these variations over on the SovietCameras site. Substantively though (at least as far as I am aware) they are the same camera.
More interestingly, there were also a number of cameras derivative of the Vilia, which had various different automatic exposure systems. These include the (imaginatively titled) ‘Vilia Auto’ which had a selenium cell meter, the slightly swankier Siluet Elektro – along with an upgraded CdS meter, and the manual/auto hybrid – the Orion-EE. When I initially picked up the Vilia all those years ago, I wanted to collect all of the range, but I was a poor student, and the prices of the cameras began to get driven up a bit thanks to the Lomography folks. In the end I decided that I preferred the simplicity of the all-manual operation anyway.
When I started pulling together bits and pieces for this blog, I came across one of the relatively rare Orion cameras on eBay, and decided to add it to the collection. I’ll write about it separately, but here’s are some pictures of the two cousins together.
The Vilia holds a fairly important place in my own personal photographic history. It was one of the first ‘vintage’ film cameras I ever got, and I used it extensively for a good chunk of time – documenting my late teens. I loved how the design was straightforward and no nonsense; seeming like something a kid would draw if you asked them what a camera looked like… It was the polar opposite to the increasing dominance of new digital technology, which felt pretty soulless at the time, and I liked it so much that I even got a small tattoo in its honour… which (despite me now being fairly covered) remains the only photography related tattoo I have to this day.
There’s really nothing particularly remarkable about the Vilia, but in many ways that’s actually part of what makes it special. It’s a camera I can chuck in my bag for a day out, knowing that it will do what I need it to… and never really have to worry about it getting bashed up. Case in point: I loaned mine to a friend a long time ago, and the plastic shutter lever came off. I never did find a way to re-attach it, and since it worked fine without it, I never bothered fixing it.
Perhaps the most important thing though, was that the Vilia was always fun to use, and its brutalist design often leads to conversation. Something I used to do before getting into nightclub photography as a job was to take the Vilia out with a mini flash, complete with coloured gels, and leave the shutter open for an unreasonable time. That always produced some wild results. Bonus points if you can guess where this was taken:
Surprisingly, that little Triplet lens also produced half-decent pictures – especially on sunny days… and even better when combined with a light leak.
I found this description of the Vilia on the infamous Alfred’s Camera Page, which made me laugh:
The Vilia is one of the few cameras I only bought for my collection. I never liked this camera. It never appealed to me, it didn’t have any nice features, it wasn’t important to the understanding of Soviet-Russian cameras, and at €13 I thought it was expensive. When I bought it I tried not to think of all the worthwhile things I could have done with the 30 guilders.
Looking back I’m still convinced that the Vilia is totally insignificant.
In many ways he is right: the Vilia is one of the ‘worst’ cameras I have, in the sense that it has incredibly limited features, and is too bulky to be considered a great portable toy. However, I do still love it and its inexplicable charm. After a good few years of it gathering dust on my shelf, I’ve made a conscious effort to shoot with it again, and it’s been fun. It’s definitely not insignificant to me.
As part of the process of writing this blog, I realised that I wanted to pick up a second Vilia, to make sure that I would have a backup, incase the worst should happen, and I’d be left without one. While they are never all that expensive, they all tend to be located in the former USSR, and so the shipping fees and delivery time put me off. Finally, I found one in great condition in the UK for a reasonable price. Here they are together:
Below is a selection of shots from the Vilia from over the years. Some are shot on regular C41, some black and white, some on slide film which has been cross processed, some with flash, and some without. Since I used the camera primarily when I was a lot younger, many of these are very old – and the quality of shots reflects that.
Disclaimer: As usual, this article isn’t intended to be a comprehensive, pixel-peeping review. Rather, it’s a highly subjective, real world review, reflecting my own research and experience as someone who has shot with a lot of different cameras and lenses over the years. No aperture comparison charts here. Any flaws in the images are almost certainly down to me rather than the lens.