Blackbird Fly review
The concept of analogue cameras may sound ridiculously old-fashioned, but there are plenty of them available and many shutter bugs like them for the creative freedom and cool effects that they offer. We've reviewed a few film-based cameras in the past, included the Sprocket Rocket and 360 Spinner from Lomography, and next up is the Blackbird, Fly.
The Blackbird, Fly (yes, the comma is part of the name but we'll leave it out from herein on as it just looks silly), is a Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera. This means that there are two objective lenses - one wide-angle 33m lens for capturing your image and one for the top-down viewfinder. A mirror behind the viewfinder lens is angled at 45 degrees to reflect upwards through a focusing screen that's surrounded by a four-sided plastic hood which is there to block and some of the light and reduce reflection on the screen. This produces an image on the screen to show what will be captured on film.
The camera itself looks pretty cool and is available in a range of colours including orange, blue, red and black. We had the bright yellow model in for review, which means that despite the old-fashioned style of the camera, it looks thoroughly modern.
Although the Blackbird looks a little like a camera from the 40s, it doesn't mean that you need to worry about tracking down an obsolete film format (such as hard-to-find 120 film). The camera takes the standard 35mm film that you can still buy in any camera shop or chemist. We used ISO 800 colour film, but it's really up to you which roll you choose, depending on the effect that you're after and the conditions that you're shooting in.
Measuring in at 160 x 65 x 79mm, the Blackbird isn't exactly small, but that's to be expected from this type of camera. As it's made from plastic, it's very light and can easily be carted round in a bag all day without inducing back ache. Despite the plastic chassis, the build quality feels generally sturdy, all though it probably wouldn't take too kindly to be dropped on a hard floor (but then what gadget would?).
If you're a staunch fan of the autofocus on your digital camera then chances are you don't want to be bothered with adjusting settings for yourself. Analogue cameras can appear slightly daunting as there's a certain amount of tinkering involved, but don't panic - there are only a few things that you need to know so that tweaking the settings will be a piece of cake once you've done it a couple of times.
Along with the dual lenses, the front of the camera is home to the shutter release lever, along with the mode switch. This is used to change between N mode for normal shooting conditions, or you can use the B (bulb) mode for shooting in low-light conditions, as this keeps the shutter open for as long as you press the release lever. On the top lens you'll find the focus dial which can be altered to cater for various distances including - 0.8, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3, 4, 5 and 10m and infinity. We find that it's best to keep the setting on infinity and change it back straight away after altering the focus for a close-up, otherwise you're bound to forget and end up with lots of ropey long shots that you've taken with a 2m setting.
On the bottom lens, you'll find the aperture lever which you can change according to the weather conditions. The aperture can be set to F11 for sunny conditions, or F7 for a more cloudy day. If the F numbers don't make any sense to you, then fear not. The lever is illustrated with tiny pictures of a sun and cloud, making the whole process completely idiot proof.
On the left-hand edge of the camera, you'll find the film advance wheel for winding on between shots, which is located next to the counter. The first time that you use the camera you need to ensure that the photo counter is reset so that it the tiny white line matches up with the corresponding mark on the camera body. We found that this went back to the correct place after we used and re-wound our first film, but it's worth checking each time that you load a film.
The right-hand side of the chassis reveals a hot-shoe adaptor for hooking up a compatible flash. On most cameas, this would be found on the top of the casing, but obviously that's not possible here because of the pop-up hood that surrounds the focusing screen. Attaching a flash to the side of the camera feels a little cumbersome, so while its ok for the odd shot, you probably wouldn't want to use it like that all the time. This side of the chassis is also home to the film rewinding crank. There's a small indent which is designed to keep the end of the fold-out lever in place when not in use, but we found that it was so flimsy that it was easily dislodged, not only while inside a bag, but during general handling. As long as it's put back in it's place, you shouldn't have a problem, unless it's actually gets caught on something and ends up unintenionally winding your film back.
To shoot, the camera is held at waist-level, which takes a little getting used to (as do the stares from passersby which this unorthodox shooting stance is likely to attract). As with any camera, the trick is to keep it steady to avoid blur, which proves to be slightly more difficult when holding it in such a way, but placing one hand underneath the camera body and keeping one lightly on the shutter release seems to work. There's also a standard tripod mount on the underside of the chassis if you need a little more steadiness.
Loading up the film is relatively easy, using the enclosed instructions. It feels slightly counter-intutive as the have to bend the film backwards to attach it to the take-up spool, but it's all pretty easy after you've done it for the first time. The viewfinder hood cover clicks open easily, with the other three sides springing up automatically once you open it. You also have the option of using the sports viewfinder which is intended for quick framing of moving objects. All you need to do is push the front panel of the top hood down until its tip clicks into the slot on the back side of the hood. Then you use the the viewfinder at eye-height, as you would with a conventional camera.
You can shoot in three different formats which you can change using the provided frame masks. These are tiny pieces of plastic that fit inside the camera with one giving you a "normal" 24 x 36mm frame, and the 24 x 24mm mask offering square pictures. The third option is to remove the frame masks altogether larger square prints including the sprocket holes and numbering along the edge of the film.
There are guidelines on the focusing screen to help you line up your shot - with the inner square used for 24 x 24 shots, and the outer square used for the full frame photos. For the rectangular format, you simply use the vertical, rectangular lines as a guide to what your shot will capture.
Somewhat confusingly, the image in the viewfinder will move in the opposite direction than that in which you move the camera. This is because the image is reflected through a 45-degree mirror. It seems quite strange at first, but you do get used to it. However, those that are used to the easy framing offered by a digital camera screen may struggle to get their snaps lined up at first, but again, it gets easier the more you do it.
Not all film processing shops offer sprocket film processing, so you might need to take it to a specialist shop such as the Lomography store (or use its new remote processing service), or just stick to sprocket-free images. If you do take your film to a regular photo processing shop then you need to warn them about the unconventional square format and it's also best to ask for "no colour correction" so that they don't try and tinker with your arty shots. Some shops will be fine with this, but in others, the staff will stare at you blankly, so it's best to try and find one where the people understand what you're on about. When you get your images (we had ours processed and put on a disc) you'll find that they all need rotating by 90 degrees as they're captured on the film at a right-angle.
The shutter release lever offers a satisfying click when taking pictures, although it's sensitive enough that you don't have to apply too much pressure and risk jogging the camera in mid-shot. The film winding dial also has a satisfyingly sturdy movement and the audible click makes it obvious when you're wound it on far enough to get to the next frame.
We found that the lens cover tended to fall off a lot while the camera was in a bag, which was slightly annoying. However, the saving grace is that, unlike the lens caps on many other analogue cameras, the one on the Blackbird can be attached to the camera body using the supplied cord, so it never strays too far.
You have to hold the film release button down as you rewind, (rather than just pressing it once) which we found to be a little awkward. In fact, we thought it had finished when it hadn't and accidentally opened the back cover exposing a couple of the frames of film.
In brightly lit conditions, the camera works well - resulting in pictures with bright colours. Edges are slightly soft, as you'd expect from an analogue snapper, but it all adds to the effect. We also found that got some unintentional light leak on some of our pictures, resulting in some cool-looking coloured patches across the photos (obviously we're pretending that we did that on purpose). The camera didn't fare quite so well on a more overcast day, but then if it's too gloomy you probably need to involve a flash to get the best out of your pictures.
At just under £70, the Blackbird Fly isn't exactly cheap for a plastic camera, and there are a couple of minor design niggles, but the relatively sturdy build quality and the distinctive retro design certainly help to soften the blow. The experience of using a TLR camera is also pretty fun, once you get used to odd, waist-level viewfinder situation.
If you've read this far then the chances are that you're into analogue cameras and you might have already been considering trying out the Blackbird Fly. If that's the case, then we reckon you'll get your money's worth out of this novel little snapper.
Thanks to Firebox for the loan of this camera.