(Pocket-lint) - When Lomography sent us a tin of sardines in the post with a message attached inviting us along to a sneak preview of its new camera, we were expecting some sort of waterproof model or perhaps even a fisheye snapper. The clue was in fact much more literal - with the Lomography La Sardina turning out to be a camera shaped like a sardine tin. While this may sound ludicrous, but the odd shape is actually based on an old 1930s snapper - the Kandor Candid - made by the Irwin Corporation.
Along with the somewhat silly, yet endearing design, La Sardina also boasts a super-wide 22mm f/8 lens, while the flash has three different settings - a first for a Lomo camera. The design may be fun, but is the camera actually any good? We put it through its paces to see whether it would sink or swim.
There are four different designs available - all based on sardine tins. You can choose from the green Marathon or the blue Sea Pride, both of which come with a price tag of £49 and no flashgun. To get the flash capability you'll need to shell out £89 for the red El Capitan or the blue Fishers Fritze (we had the latter in for review). You can also pick up the Fritz the Blitz flash separately for £55. (For more images of the other designs, check out our hands-on from launch day.) While the build quality isn't quite up to the standards set my the brand's more expensive cameras, such as the LC-Wide, it's reassuringly robust compared to the likes of the Diana Mini.
The camera chassis itself is relatively compact, although obviously the detachable flash, which fits on the side of the body, adds a fair bit of bulk. The lens board can be twisted into the body of the camera to make it more compact (simply turn it 45 degrees until it clicks), although you need to make sure that it's fully extended for shooting. There's a message on the extension that reads "Only shoot if you can see me!" - and as the shutter release won't go when the lens is collapsed, this shouldn't be a problem. Although a useful feature if space is at a premium in your bag (and to stop the camera going off by accident), we found that it was easier just to leave the lens extended all of the time, as it only takes up a few extra mm.
All at sea
Despite its nautical styling, the camera isn't waterproof and doesn't have a fisheye lens. Controls are kept to a minimum, which is great news for beginners or those that don't want to spend half their lives tweaking settings. The top of the camera chassis is home to a winding dial with the shutter release button in the centre, alongside the picture counter. In the centre, there is a protruding viewfinder that sports a distinctive art deco look. As with most Lomo cameras, having the viewfinder in the centre is a nice touch as it means that the camera doesn't discriminate between those who are left- or right-eyed (using a camera that's designed for right-eyed photographers can be quite uncomfortable if you predominantly use your left peeper).
On the left of the viewfinder, you'll find the rewinding dial that can be used for winding the film backwards in between shots. Just the like the mechanism on the Lomography Sprocket Rocket, this means that you can either wind all the way back to the previous frame, or simply wind part of the way back to get some cool effects on your snaps. Just in front of the viewfinder you'll find a switch that doubles up as an MX control as well as the shutter speed switch. This should be set to N (Normal) for shooting in sunny conditions and swapped to B (Bulb) for when light isn't so great or if you're indoors or using the flash. The MX (Multiple Exposure) setting means that you can take two pictures on the same frame simply by not winding on the film in between and sliding the switch over to the right. You can do this as many times as you want on one frame, although you'll find that the film starts to get overexposed if you go past about three.
Loading film couldn't be simpler - all you do is press down the small tab on the left-hand side of the camera, which releases the back panel of the body. Then it's just a case of pulling the rewinding knob up, popping the film in and attaching the sprockets to the take-up spool and winding on the film until its firmly wrapped around the spool. After that you simply pop the back of the camera body back on and press the shutter release and advance the film to the next frame (twice, to be safe), then you're all set to go.
The camera takes conventional 35mm film that can be picked up in most camera shops and chemists. You can experiment with all kinds of different 35mm films (see Cool tops for Lomo users for ideas), but normal colour negative film will do the job nicely. The camera produces standard full frame shots, albeit with the wide-angle lens packing as much into each shot as possible. La Sardina sports a 1:8 aperture, along with a focusing range of 0.6m to infinity. The focusing ring includes tiny icons of a crowd of people for group photos or landscapes (1m-infinity) and an insect for close-up shots (0.6-1m) making the whole process of adjusting the focus utterly idiot proof.
One of the big draws for La Sardina is the variable flashgun, which can be easily screwed onto the side of the camera body. Unlike the AA-powred Lomo Diana flash, this one takes a CR123A (3V) battery. Although it's a standard battery format it's a little bit more unusual than an AA or AAA, so you're probably less likely to have a spare one hanging around the house. What makes the flash unique in the Lomo universe is that it has three different settings for distances, portraits and close-ups. This is great news as it means that you should be able to do away with the overly bright, washed-out close-ups that are all too common in Lomo portraits.
The flash is also provided with four plastic filters that can easily be popped on and off. The "Milky" white filter can be used on ISO 400 film or above to avoid an overpowering flash when on the highest setting and also for when you're using the lower settings. If you prefer, you can use the blue, yellow or pink filters to add a splash of colour.
The camera is comfortable to use and sits well in the hand and although adding the flash makes it a bit bulkier, it actually makes the whole set-up even easier to hold steady (there's a standard tripod mount on the underside if you want extra stability). Our only real gripe with the design is that we accidentally knocked the flash switch on in our bag, draining almost an entire battery of juice - not good news, considering that CR123A aren't the cheapest batteries around. Some sort of recess to protect the flash switch might be nice, but obviously any extra piece of engineering to the design would inevitably push the price up.
Once the film was finished, we found that winding it back took a fair bit of elbow grease. While most conventional film cameras include a flip-up lever on the rewind dial which can be whizzed round at speed, the dial on La Sardina has no lever, making it a much more arduous process. However, it's not exactly a deal breaker.
We tried out two types of film on the camera - ISO 400 Lomography colour negative film and some ISO 200 Lomography slide film. We took the camera out on a particularly sunny day on London's South Bank and got some great results, from both types of film. As you'd expect, the images are pleasingly soft and there's enough visible film grain to keep fans of the nostalgic non-digital look happy, while the wide angle lens stuffs as much into each frame as possible.
The only issue was a small area of glare that appears on some of the frames which we're presuming has something to do with the reflective metallic ring that surrounds the lens (and the fact that it was very sunny indeed). The variable flash also worked really well - we were able to take close-up shots, as well as portraits withouth the usual over-bleached look that you get from a Lomo Diana flash.
Overall, the Lomography La Sardina is a great little camera. You'll either love or hate the sardine tin design, but we're guessing that if vintage cameras are your thing then you won't be able to resist the kitsch element. The camera is neat and easy to use and the fact that the flash can be set at three different levels shouldn't be underestimated. The only real downsides to the camera are to do with the unprotected flash switch that's all too easy to flick on by accident, and the glare that appears on some of the shots (although many lomographers would argue that the latter is all part of the fun).
La Sardina is a solid choice for those that want to snap wide-angle full frame shots, but who can't afford to splash out on the Lomo LC-Wide (with its slightly steep £350 price tag). If you're after a simple, point and shoot wide-angle snapper, with a preposterous yet charming design, then you can't go far wrong with this one.