Lomography - the return of analogue

What do Hollywood actor Elijah Wood, recently disbanded US rock group The White Stripes and English sci-fi author Neil Gaiman have in common? Give up? The answer is that they're all fans of cult analogue photography brand Lomography (or Lomo to its friends).

Famous for cameras such as the Diana and the LC-A, Lomo is popular with both young hipsters and older fans who prefer the good old days before digital photography came along and completely changed the way we take pictures. But, in this age of technical know-how, why is analogue photography so popular again? We settled down for a chat with Lomography UK's online manager, Heidi Mace, at the company's central London gallery store in order to shed some more light on the subject. 

"It has a lot to do with people growing a bit tired with their digtial cameras. Even though digital is obviously a great innovation that has revolutionized photography, people get bored of them because they know what they've got before they've even upoaded them. People love the fact you never quite know what you've taken until you get your Lomo pictures back. You get more interesting results and so you feel like you're achieving something.

"The cameras are pretty simplistic in a way, but that gives you a lot of artistic licence. You can do lots of different things, without spending lots of money or having to understand aperture settings etc. When I first started using lomo cameras, I didn't have a clue what any of that was, but I still managed to find a way of taking photos without having to worry about getting all of the technical settings right."

Although it's true that you there's a lot of flexibility with Lomo photos and that some of the cameras are cheap as chips, you do need to take into account the extra that you'll be spending on films and processing. This is in direct contrast to digital photography where all you really need is the camera itself and a memory card. Unless you're getting into DLSRs and interchangeable lenses, but that's a subject for another day.

Image by panelomo

Going back to the story, Lomography originates from the early 1990s, when two students from Vienna in Austria first got their mitts on the Lomo Kompakt Automat - a pint-sized Russian camera. They fell in love with the vibrant colours and deeply saturated finish produced by the camera and after showing off their LC-As to their pals at home, they wanted in on the act as well. As a result, the duo ended up bartering a deal with the St Petersburg-based manufacturer for worldwide distribution and the rest is history. The brand now has stores all over the world along with a huge online business.

With relatively few actual bricks and mortar stores in comparison to the number of online fans, is the secret of Lomo's success down to the community feel that surrounds the brand? "Definitely", says Mace.

"People are really into Lomo all over the world, we have a massive website - there's Lomography.com as well as 13 different language sites, all with their own content. My role is working with the active community in the UK, to make sure that we're reaching out to people all over the country. To an extent it's London-centric [currently the only two UK stores are both in London], but we have lots of fans all over the UK and we try to spread our events to other places so that they can get involved."

One way in which Lomo is spreading its net is with the introduction of a remote processing service - a first for the UK Lomo market. The new service, which was exclusively revealed to Pocket-lint prior to its launch, began beta testing on 1 March with a full service launch tentatively planned for April 2011. Previously Lomo camera users could only get their film developed by Lomography by taking their films into the stores and picking up their prints or discs in person.

It's also possible to get films processed at high street chains or the local chemists although sometimes a fair bit of explanation is involved. You have to ask the staff not to colour correct your film and if you're taking panoramic shots, not to cut the negatives up. It can work out cheaper than using Lomo's own service, but many people feel that getting their film processed through the Lomo shop offers a better result. The new Lab will also be available for non-Lomo analogue shutterbugs to get their processing done. Mace explained to us how the service will work, commenting:

"All you'll need to do is tick a few boxes on the website and we'll send you a special envelope to send your first film in and you'll get your prints and/or discs sent to you, hopefully within a week, and you'll also get a link to access your prints online, which should be available much sooner. You'll be sent a new envelope with every order. The packaging that we send your prints to you in is beautiful - you get a little envelope for your pictures and a box for your negatives. We're trying to keep the prices in line with our shop prices, with a little extra for postage and packing.

"We already run a successful mail order service in Asia and we're currently carrying out pre-launch testing in the USA".

The brand's new UK-based processing service has been made possible thanks to its new LomoLab, located at its East London store. Lomo fans will also be pleased to hear that the lab will be offering workshops in the same way that gallery stores do. These usually involve a group of people going out and about for a few hours with one of the Lomo shop staff, a loaned camera and a film to take shots of a specific event or area, such as Chinese New Year celebrations in Chinatown or a tour of Jack the Ripper's haunts in East London. All for a small fee, of course, although you do get a discounted rate on any extra films you want to buy and on processing your snaps.

"We'll have one with everyday household chemicals, as these can have really cool effects on the film. There are all sorts of crazy things you can do to add little extra to your shots - I want to try putting my film in a dishwasher, but unfortunately, I don't have one! Apparently the heat makes the film come out in bright, neon colours. Our East London store manager accidentally put her film in the washing machine, but it gave a really cool effect to the film. Some people even drill holes through their cameras because they like to get light leak on every shot."

As we mentioned earlier, the Lomo brand has a fair few famous fans, with the The White Stripes even teaming up with the company a couple of years ago to produce two custom cameras - the "Jack" Holga and "Meg" Diana+ - named after the members of the band. Bearing the band's trademark black, white and red colour scheme, the cameras were made in a limited edition run of just 3000 of each.

Lomography's most recent celeb collaboration is with British model Daisy Lowe who is taking on a project to help with the British Heart Foundation's new 5-year project called Mending Broken Hearts. Lowe will be snapping away with an Lomo LC-A for an exhibition to be held at London's Westfield shopping centre in the near future.

It seems a reasonable assumption to make that the resurgence in popularity of analogue photography is, somewhat ironically, fuelled by the success of retro camera apps like Hipstamatic. These kind of apps are loathed by some photography purists, but what does Mace think?

"There's definitely a place for them and they're a great way to make your boring camera photos look more exciting. It's a completely different breed of photography, although it is slightly limiting as you only get to choose from a small range of virtual films and lenses. Personally, I don't ever use the camera on my iPhone because I always have my Lomo with me."

And, what of plain old digital photography?

"I was very into my digital photography for many years and I've still got my beaten-up old digital camera at home that I still sometimes take out with me to a party. Sometimes I take both cameras out at once. When I first got my Diana I used to only take it out on special occasions but now, more and more, I only take that one and I always choose it over digital. Ultimately I prefer the photos that I get from film. I do sometimes take the digital as backup to be sure, but I always prefer the analogue shots in the end.

"I'm a big fan of the Diana+ as it was my first Lomo camera, and I've now got two. I've also got an LC-A which takes really lovely, reliable photos. Obviously working for the company, I'm lucky in that I can use any of the cameras that I want, but those are the ones that I always go for."

Taking lovely, arty shots with an analogue snapper is all very well, but it can't offer the reliability that you get from a digital camera which even Mace admits.

"There are certainly limitations to analogue cameras. You don't have your photos instantly and people tend to find that quite hard to get used to. You also have to be much more aware of light levels. It's not complicated, but whereas your digital camera would probably automatically correct the light levels, you have to do it yourself on a Lomo. However, I think that the freedom to experiment that analogue offers, means that the good points outweigh the bad."

Finally, we couldn't resist asking - will Lomo ever make a digital camera?

"I can never say for sure what the developers are planning, but I don't think it will ever happen - in the same way that Apple wouldn't suddenly start making toasters."

Are you a Lomo fan? Or will you be sticking to digital snaps?