Review of a Classic: The Chinon Bellami

Here the barn door lens cover is closed, protecting the lens and making for a very pocketable photo experience. The camera will easily fit within the span of a typical adult's hand as seen here (and I don't have very large hands).

The Chinon Bellami is a very compact 35mm camera with a novel lens cover that opens a bit like the doors of a cuckoo clock. When closed, the body feels almost aerodynamic, and easily slides into a coat pocket. Despite its diminutive size, the Bellami has a solid, quality feel that suggests it was made to satisfy people who want to capture something perhaps superior to your average snapshot. A flash attachment is available, although mine came without one so I've not had occasion to try flash exposure. Experience with the similarly designed Olympus XA flash attachment suggests this type of flash will yield somewhat harsh results due to its proximity to the lens.

Operation is simple but elegant: The Bellami uses a zone focus system, so you need to guesstimate the approximate distance to your subject since you can't see through the lens to determine focus visually. Distances are clearly marked in feet and meters on the focus ring, but absolute precision isn't necessary. In fact, the manual recommends that under sunny outdoor conditions, you can use the "safety" setting of 10 ft / 3 meters (marked in green) and just leave it there for all your shots regardless of distance. The focus ring can be set from 3.5 feet to infinity. The Bellami has a fixed focal length of 35mm - great for all purpose photography, and a maximum aperture of f/2.8. Exposure settings are selected automatically by the camera.

The Chinon Bellami with its lens cover open. Using the film advance lever to open it also turns on the camera so it's immediately ready to use.

As this camera was released in 1980, you don't have to deal with the now obsolete mercury battery that was common in older cameras. Instead, the Bellami uses 2 alkaline or silver oxide button type batteries that are easily replaced. It predates the advent of DX film canister encoding, you'll need to set the film's ISO speed using a small dial located atop the viewfinder. The camera is programmed to accept film in the range of ISO (or ASA) 25-400.

I was given my copy by a friend about two years ago. To be honest, my first roll yielded disappointing results. The images were badly overexposed, although I was able to massage a few to near acceptability with curves in Photoshop. I figured the shutter had probably gotten sticky with age, and set it aside to live out its days as a shelf queen.

Recently, I've launched a personal quest to reduce my excess camera gear, and I've started taking a hard look at non-functioning cameras. Aside from a select few sentimental or collectible models, I've decided that I don't have room for unused or broken cameras on my shelves. As I've mentioned in past posts, I am not primarily a collector but a photographer; I enjoy actually using the gear I own. When I came across this forgotten camera, I decided it might deserve another chance. After spending some time cocking and firing the shutter multiple times in hopes of working out any stickiness, I popped in a roll of black & white film and took it for a spin yesterday afternoon.

I was more than pleasantly surprised with the results. Whatever was plaguing the camera's exposures before seems to have corrected itself. Needless to say, this camera has now established itself as a keeper! If you can find a known working copy of the camera at a reasonable price, I wouldn't hesitate to pick one up.

The sample images below were from the same roll of Ultra 100 film. Processed in Xtol 1:1 for 9:30 at 68F, with minor edits and sharpening in Photoshop.

These friendly goats at the Museum of Appalachia were curious about the visitors. Mostly I think they were hoping for a handout.

One of the many buildings at the museum. While it's worth paying the fee to go inside at least once, there are a number of interesting things that can be seen for free on the way to the main building. Be sure to stop by if you're in the area for a look at authentic Appalachian culture.

The Grist Mill at Norris Dam State Park. I've probably taken a million photos of this place, but not with this camera.

Closeup of the water wheel at the Grist Mill. The mill itself is authentic, although it was relocated here some years ago as a park feature. I really like how this shot came out.

The Threshing Barn - another authentic piece of Appalachian history - as viewed from the Grist Mill. This area of the park is popular for engagement and wedding photography, although I learned some time back that they've had to crack down on rogue photographers trashing the place, writing wedding graffiti on the barn, etc. I was told you now need a permit for professional photography here.

Pier at Norris Lake. Not much activity, and the water has been lowered markedly for winter. Tennessee has very few natural lakes; most are dammed up rivers.

Winch on the pier.