For many film shooters, their first introduction to medium-format (120 film) was often via a Twin-Lens Reflex camera (TLR). While there are a lot of cameras that use 120 film, a TLR is certainly one of the cheapest ways to get square format negatives, if you disregard the Holga. There is something about square format that I find attractive, and it can be a creative boost if you have never tried it.
First of all, why use a TLR anyways? TLRs have several advantages over Single-Lens Reflex cameras, especially in medium format. When you focus on your subject with a TLR, there is no momentary blackout when the shutter fires, as there is in an SLR. With no mirror to flip out of the way, you can see if the model blinked or moved as the shutter fired. The leaf shutter in a TLR is very quiet, as there is no mirror slap and other noises that you get with most SLRs.
TLRs have a viewing lens and a taking lens. They are optically matched so that what you see in the viewfinder matches what the taking lens covers. Because they are square format, the typical "normal" focal length is 80mm (approximately equal to 50 mm in 35 mm), though there are TLRs with 75 mm or 85 mm lenses. Most TLRs have a fixed focal length lens, so no matter what manufacturer you choose, they will typically be in that range of 75 mm-85 mm. However, Mamiya has a removable lens system that enables the C220 and C330 models to use lenses ranging from 55 mm - 180 mm. For each focal length, the viewing and taking lenses are mounted on a lens board that snaps onto the front of the camera. The focusing is accomplished with a bellows that racks in and out with the lenses at the front. Since all medium-format TLRs have shutters in the taking lens, each lens unit is self-contained. While my Mamiya C330 Pro is a wonderful TLR, it's also much heavier and bulkier than say, a Rolleicord or YashicaMat. However, the flexibility of being able to use a wide-angle or short telephoto with a square format is a lot of fun, and much cheaper than going the route of a Hasselblad SLR.
|My Mamiya C330 f Professional with some lenses|
Film Format - 6x6 cm on 120 film (there is no such thing as 120mm film), and in some models, also 220 film (same as 120 but with twice as much film and only paper backing on the leading and trailing ends). There are 12 exposures per roll with square format. Since the format is square, you don't need to worry about portrait or landscape orientation. Some US-made TLRs such as the Kodak Reflex and the Argus Argoflex use 620 film, which means that you'll have to respool 120 onto 620 spools to use those cameras. Peter Gowland, the famous glamour photographer, designed the Gowlandflex- a beast of a TLR that took 4x5 and an even larger 8x10 model. There are also some fine TLRs that take 127 film - The baby Rolleiflex, the Yashica 44, and the Sawyers Mark IV. It's unfortunate that 127 film is defunct because those cameras were, in my opinion, the best for shooting that film. There are a few 35mm cameras that are twin-lens reflex, but the images are not square, and not germane to this discussion.
TLRs became popular in the late 1940s and 1950s, and while Rolleiflex is the most well-known of the TLRs, many manufacturers made them, and I'll touch on some of them later on in this post. The Rolleiflex was one of the cameras used by a lot of news photographers, well into the 1960s, due to the larger negative. However, the advantages of 35mm SLRs with a wide lens assortment, motor drives, and ease-of -use soon had those Rolleiflexes sitting on a shelf. For street photography, a TLR is a great camera, and of course, we have many images by Vivian Maier and Diane Arbus that prove that point. TLRs are also excellent for portrait photography, and models such as the Mamiya C-series are perfect for studio photography.
Things to watch for
Simple reflex mirror
A TLR operates with a permanently fixed mirror behind the viewing lens, so while the subject will be right-side up, it will be reversed in viewing. Left is right, right is left. That can be a bit confusing at first, but you quickly adjust to it. Older cameras, especially cheaper models, will often exhibit some loss of clarity in viewing due to several factors - mirror de-silvering, dust on the mirror, grime on the ground-glass, as well as dirt and haze in the viewing lens. It's been my experience that the least expensive TLRs have the worst focus screens. Outdoors, those dim screens may not be so bad, but nothing beats a quality fresnel screen and a clean mirror.
All TLRs have been designed to use "waist-level" viewing of the ground glass. Typically, there is a pop-up hood to shield the ground-glass from ambient light. The finders usually have a pop-up magnifier attached to the bottom of the top cover that flips up for critical focusing. Many, but not all, have the ability to be used with a "sports finder" where there is a small square on the back piece of the viewing hood, and the front (or top of the hood) has a push down square cutout that allows you to use the camera at eye level for subjects at infinity, and to also be able to pan a shot with a moving object.
Several TLR cameras such as Rolleiflex and the Mamiya C-series have removable waist-level finders and replacement eye-level prism finders. While they are great for many situations, they make the cameras bulkier and much heavier. Another advantage of the prisms is that they provide a clear view without ambient light reflecting off the ground-glass.
|Waist-level finder, Yashica Mat 124|
|Mamiya C330 with eye-level prism finder|
At close distances, parallax compensation becomes an issue. TLRs with a normal lens on the 80mm range usually do not focus closer than 3.5 feet. There may be a slight difference due to the small difference in height of the viewing lens at the closest distance. With a TLR such as the Mamiya C-series there is the ability to focus closer than that, with an obvious difference due to parallax. The C330 has two ways to compensate - one is an indicator in the viewfinder of where the top of the frame will be, and the other is a device called the Paramender. The TLR is mounted on the paramender, and when ready to fire the shutter, the paramender is adjusted so that the taking lens will be at the height of the viewing lens. Obviously, this is not a problem with an SLR.
While any pro-level TLR will have a full range of shutter speeds from B to 1/500 sec, many low-end TLRs have a more limited range. If your TLR has a max shutter speed of 1/200 sec, it may limit your choice of film, though to be honest, I have used 400 ISO film with no problems. My Yashica A TLR has B, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100 and 1/300 sec.
|Shutter speeds on a rim-set shutter, Ciroflex TLR|
It's rare to have a TLR with a wider aperture than f/3.5. The obvious exception is the Rolleiflex 2.8. At f/2.8, there is a noticeable difference in depth of field, but also a stop faster, which makes the Rolleiflex 2.8 quite desirable, and of course, very expensive. Cheaper TLRs may have a f/4.5 maximum aperture.
Film Winding and frame indication
|Loading film in a Ciroflex TLR|
The film in a TLR travels vertically, of course, moving from the lower film chamber, past the film gate and then to the take-up spool in the top of the camera. Many less-expensive TLRs use the red-window on the back to indicate the frame, but cameras with cranks such as the Rolleiflex, YashicaMat and Mamiya C-series, use a window on the side of the camera that gives you the frame number. It makes for a much faster and accurate film advance.
|The knob on the upper L is the film advance. Ciroflex TLR|
|Crank-type film advance, Yashica Mat 124|
It's not a big deal to use the red window, and don't let that deter you from using cameras such as the Yashica A or the Ciroflex and Graflex 22. In addition, if your TLR uses a red window to show the frame number, then you can usually also do multiple exposures, as the shutter is not controlled by the film advance.
|The red window. There is a button below it to move a cover to |
prevent fogging in bright sunlight.
The things you need to control are focusing, shutter speed and aperture.
Most TLRs focus by turning a knob on the side that moves the front lens board in and out. The Minolta Autocord and Meopta TLRs use a front mounted lever that does this. Cheaper TLRs such as the Argoflex, Ricohflex, and others use geared taking and viewing lenses that move the lens helical in and out with a fixed lens board. I don't really care for that type of focusing, but if you want to go cheap, that's what you'll get.
|geared helical on an Argoflex|
|lensboard moves in and out on better TLRs|
Aperture and shutter speed are set either by levers on either side of the taking lens (rim-set shutters), or by small geared wheels with a window above the viewing lens that is visible when you look down form the top of the camera. The majority of TLRs do not have built-in light meters, but some have selenium light meters or CdS battery-powered light meters. However, a hand-held meter or even sunny-16 works well with TLRs.
|Yashica Mat 124, just like a Rolleiflex. Also note the|
light meter on the right front.
|Controls around the taking lens on a Ciroflex|
Some older TLRs may require you to cock the shutter after having set the shutter speed, and others may have just a simple shutter lever that does not require cocking. Cranking TLRs cock the shutter as you advance the film.
You can't put a flash on top of a TLR like you do an SLR for obvious reasons. If there is a flash shoe, it's mounted on the L side of the body. There may also be a PC flash socket on the front of the lensboard or around the side of the rim-set shutter. In any case, the best way to use a flash with a TLR is to have a flash bracket that attaches to the tripod socket so that the flash sits up higher and the camera is easier to handle. Because these cameras have leaf shutters, you can use flash at any shutter speed.
You'll often find lens hoods and filters and even accessory lenses available for many models, especially those that have been used professionally such as the Rolleiflex and Mamiya C-series. Typically, they are bayonet-mount and are called Bay series. For many other TLRs, you may find that the taking lens has no filter thread, so you'll need to find slip-on filter holders that are made for series 6 filters. See my early posts about series filters and the adapters.
Lens hoods are especially useful to prevent flare, and I highly recommend using them with TLRs. Some are square, but round ones can also be used. Here's examples of both types. Typically, you'll need to find a slip-on adapter ring that's 31.5mm in diameter with series 6 or series 5 on the outer end to accept the screw on lens hoods and filter rings.
All TLRs have a tripod socket on the bottom. While it's pretty easy to hold a TLR with a neck strap for 1/15th sec exposures, it's a good idea to have a tripod for longer exposures. Since these TLRs have waist-level finders, you don't have to have a tall tripod. Additionally, a short cable-release is a good idea if your camera accepts one. Some TLRs have T and B for long exposures, and since the shutters are leaf shutters, there is little vibration. They are great for slower films and capturing the beauty of moving water.
Some TLR Recommendations
Rolleiflex - Of course. The most common and affordable is the Automat, which was produced in several versions from 1937-1952. Franke and Heidecke produced the first Rolleiflex in 1927, and continued manufacturing various models of the Rolleiflex until about 2014. There are many sites devoted to Rollei, so I suggest that you start here to know more. I owned a late-version Automat with an f/3.5 lens and still regret selling it. The Rolleicord models were less expensive "amateur" models sold from the late 1930s to 1977, and very popular. The Rolleiflex cameras are complex mechanical marvels, and repair experts can be hard to find these days. The cameras became immediately more expensive on the used market after Rollei GMBH stopped manufacturing.
Yashica made a LOT of TLR models, and the simpler winding knob advance models such as the Yashica A are fairly inexpensive, even today. They use a red window for frame number, and some models have more features than others. I paid $30 for my Yashica A, and it's been a reliable and decent TLR for me. There are many models, so I'll refer you to the TLR site for more information.
The Yashica Mat 124 and 124G are highly desirable cameras with metering, crank advance, and were made into the 1980s, so they are relatively young. My Yashica Mat 124 is relatively new to me, and I'll be shooting with it a lot this year.
Minolta made several models of TLRs and all have a good reputation. I have never used one, but I expect that the later models are pretty similar to a good Rolleiflex and the yashica Mat 124.
These Czech-made cameras are very good. I once had a Flexaret VII and found it easy to use and very well-made.
Argus Argoflex E
It's at the bottom of my list, but it does take 120 film. Its Bakelite body is not too different from the Voigtlander Focusing Brilliant as well as the infamous Lubitel 66, which is a copy of the Voigtlander TLR. Not exactly bad, but not great, either way.
|Argoflex E, Bakelite bodied TLR (1940-48)|
Of course, there are many dozens of other TLRs from various manufacturers. As a subgroup of cameras, they present an opportunity for endless eBay searches and flea market finds. Of those, the Ricohflexes are probably among the cheap end and will still give relatively good results, even though they are not the best of the lot.
another geared focus TLR
The American-made Ciroflex TLR
The Ciroflex TLR is quite possibly the best example of an American-made TLR. The Ciro Co. started in Detroit, and began manufacturing the cameras in Detroit, MI in late 1940. Of course, the first model was the Ciroflex A. With WW II, manufacturing slowed to a halt until after the war, and Ciroflex relocated to Delaware, OH in late 1946, early 1947. The first ads for the new Ciroflex D and E appeared in November 1948. The Ciroflex F, the ultimate model, appeared in late 1949. In 1952, Graflex acquired Ciro, and moved the manufacturing to Rochester, NY. The new cameras were called the Graflex 22, and the designation 200 meant that was the maximum shutter speed, essentially the same as the Ciroflex D. The Graflex 22-400 was the same as the Ciroflex F, with a 1/400 sec max. shutter speed, and flash shoe on the side. The end of the Graflex TLR came in 1957. That means any Ciroflex or Graflex TLR is going to be over from 62-75 years old. So, finding one in pristine condition is going to be difficult.
Ciro also made the DeJur Reflex, which was essentially a Ciroflex D.
The Ciroflexes are generally well-constructed and originally sold for less than $70 - which was certainly not a cheap camera, but was definitely cheaper than a Rolleiflex. They have metal bodies, take 120 film (a definite plus over the majority of the Argoflexes) and are generally quite reliable, despite being over 60 years old.
The models are fairly similar (A,B,C,D,E, F), the main difference being the shutter. All have a focus knob that moves the lensboard in and out. There is a red window on the back to determine what frame your exposure is on. Cameras with Wollensak Alphax shutters have speeds up to 1/200 sec and the shutter does not need to be cocked to fire. Cameras with Rapax shutter have a maximum of 1/400 sec. And there is a separate cocking lever and firing lever. A separate remote release connection is on the side of the shutter. The taking lens is almost always an 85mm f/3.5 Velostigmat lens, except for the Model F, which has an 85mm f/3.2.
|Use 120 film|
The most common problems with these older TLR are with the mirror becoming either oxidized or tarnished, which can be remedied by replacing it with a new first-surface mirror of the same thickness. In general, the Alpax and Rapax shutters are reliable, though the shutters may have problems at slower speeds, but generally, 1/25 and faster are going to be okay. The groundglass may also need cleaning after so many years. With a bit of a tune-up, these TLRS may perform just great for years to come. My Graflex 22 has a fresnel groundglass, which might have been installed later.
While the Ansco Automatic Reflex was the most technically brilliant American-made TLR, it was also very expensive and not entirely reliable. The Argus Argoflexes were fairly crude but usable TLRs that mainly accepted only 620 film. The exception is that the Argoflex E does accept 120 film.
The Ciroflex remains the winner here. It is a reliable, durable, and accessible TLR. Prices online vary a great deal, but a common model such as the Ciroflex D can often be had for less than $60. The Ciroflex F, with its flash-synced shutter and subtle changes, go for much more. The Graflex 22 models generally sell for between $35 and $75. With the gray leatherette, they are quite attractive cameras, and of course, the “newest.” For more on the American-made TLRs, check out Rick Oleson’s site.
|Kodak Duaflex series|
You have obviously seen them - The Argus 75, the Kodak Duaflex, Anscoflex, etc., and they look like a TLR camera. However, consider them to be box cameras with a reflex viewer. There is no focus linkage between the taking and viewing lenses. Even a cheap Ricohflex with geared coupling between the lenses will be better than these box cameras. However, that doesn't mean that you can't get some interesting photos with them - they will give you whatever one would get with a box camera, and some of these models have additional settings that will give you the ability to control your exposures. I think that the ability to take square images is what sets them apart from the other crappy cameras of their time. The Argoflex 40 or Argus 40 is one such model, though it does demand 620 spools. Some of the pseudo-TLRs take 127 film, but most of them are 620 film cameras. Collecting them can be a quest all by itself, as there are quite a few different models, and they usually are fairly inexpensive. Here are a few examples. The Argus 75 has been reviewed by me years ago, and remains my most viewed blog post!
|127 film - crappy Clix-o-flex|
|Anscoflex I and II|
|Argus 40 with adjustable aperture, shutter speeds and|
|Argus 40 brilliant viewfinder|
|The crappy Insta Flash|
|The lovely Bolsey-Flex. Photo by John Krtaz, 2007 CC|
I hope that this has been an interesting foray into TLRs. Now I need to get out of the house and go shoot some film!