In our first of a series of articles on TLRs, we run through the history of these strange beasts, why people use them, and a brief rundown of the most popular TLRs on the market.
Stay tuned for further articles that will feature some of the less popular,pseudo, and toy TLRs, plus some super-special in depth reviews off the most famous TLRs ever made, courtesy of a guest reviewer.
Many people think the TLR started with the Rolleiflex, and that is partly correct, there were many older box cameras with two lenses from 1870 onwards. However, the modern TLR as we know it was indeed invented by Reinhold Heidecke (of Franke and Heidecke fame, who went onto form Rollei). Heidecke was inspired to make the TLR after witnessing The Great War. His idea was for an upside down TLR on a long stick to take photographs above the trench(like a periscope), without having to risk enemy sniper fire. Heidecke never got a chance to try out this idea until after the war, and it wasn’t until 1927 that the first Rolleiflex went into production. The original Rolleiflex was in production until 1932, at which point it got upgraded to ‘The Original Standard Model’, which was used by many journalists, including Robert Capa during WW2.
After the Second World War, the floodgates opened in TLR development, with many companies rushing their models to the market, and the rest we say, is history! (Did I honestly just say that, oh man, I need to go and have a shower, I feel unclean!).
Why a TLR?
For the past 60 years, Twin lens Reflex cameras have been incredibly popular, and even now, when digital has taken over, they still hold a place dear in the hearts of photographers.
A number of reasons.
- Practicality. TLR’s were pretty light for a medium format camera(most of the time, we’ll ignore the studio-biased Mamiya 330 for now!), allowing users to take their TLR everywhere they went. Of course there were lighter cameras such as rangefinders, but they weren’t medium format. Due to the viewfinder of the TLR being top-down, the user could hold a TLR much more steadily than other similar cameras.
- Quality. As already outlined above, TLR’s mostly used 120 rollfilm(there are exceptions that use smaller 127 film), which inherently allows much more detail in photographs than 35mm cameras.
- Features. Even when reliable SLR’s appeared on the market, users still enjoyed using TLRs: They had a large viewfinder, you could get close to the ground, and also you could see the subject through the ground glass screen during shutter movements(on SLRs, the mirror moves up, preventing you from seeing through the viewfinder while taking a photo). Another good feature is that most TLRs are almost silent in operation, as there is no need to shift mirrors to block the light.
- Looks. Unlike many other cameras, TLRs have aged well, with most looking beautiful even today.
Some of the above points however can be seen as downsides:
- Fixed lenses. Apart from the Mamiya series of TLRs, all other TLRs have fixed lenses that you cannot interchange. Another problem with most TLRs is that you cannot close focus either.
- Parallex problems. many TLRs are not corrected for the vertical shift between what you view through the top lens and what the camera takes a photograph of.
- Depth of Field. As the viewing lens has no diaphragm, it makes it impossible to view the depth of field changes that occur when the aperture is changed.
In the first part of this series, we will be listing some of the ‘heavyweight’ contenders in the TLR market.
The 2.8 is the ‘standard’ flagship TLR from Rollei. The 2.8 was pretty much the same as the cheaper 3.5, except for it’s superior lens. The build quality on one of these cameras is astounding, it just feels quality. There were many different models released ranging from the 2.8A to the 2.8GX, all of them are similar, with varying 2.8 lenses as the models progressed through the years.
People say the 2.8 is the greatest TLR ever made, with it’s superior optics, relatively fast lens, amazing build quality, and fantastic reliability, who are we to argue? Any downsides? Well, the price isn’t to be sniffed at, with a second hand 2.8A (the earliest model) changing hands for around $500. Alternatively, you can find the 3.5 cheaper, or you can look at ….
Rolleicords were introduced by Franke & Heidecke as a lower cost solution for those wanting a Rollei TLR, but unable to afford the ever-increasing price of a Rolleiflex. Costs were cut for the Rolleicord by using a knob instead of a handle to wind the film on, using cheaper internals, and most importantly, using cheaper optics. The good news is that Rolleicords are still fantastic cameras. The lenses in later models such as the V/VA and VB had the same Tessar or Xenar lens as the Rolleiflex, with the only difference being that no model ever had a aperture greater than 3.5. The Rolleicords are still great cameras, and will serve you well.
Yashica Mat 124(g)
Yashica made many TLR cameras throughout the 50′s-80′s. They can be split into two camps: knob winders and lever winders. The cameras tended to be evolutions of the previous model, rather than revolutions, but this worked in Yashica’s favour, and their final TLRs where some of their best.
Yashica TLRs are generally regarded as cheap, yet robust and reliable. The MAT series were the first Yashicas to have the aforementioned crank winders and auto shutter-cock. The 124 and 124g series introduced the ability to use both 120 and 220 film. The great thing about the MAT 124(g) is the incorporated battery-powered lightmeter, which, when working, is surprisingly accurate. The difference between the Mat 124 and Mat 124G are small, with the ‘g’ standing for ‘gold’, adding gold connectors to the electronics.
The Mat 124(g) are great cameras, but recently they have come into vogue, pushing their prices upwards to $350, which is skirting Rolleiflex territory. Pay no more than $200 for a decent example Mat 124(g), and try and look out for the non-’g’ version as it looks slightly more classy and less 80′s!
Like Yashica, Minolta are a Japanese company who made progressively more impressive TLRs. Starting out with the Minoltaflex 1 in 1937, through to the Minoltacord RG in the 1960′s, the Minolta series of cameras have long been highly-regarded. A general rule of thumb is that the more recent the model, the better the lens, with the final 75mm Minolota Rokkor 3.5 being their finest, with many people preferring it over similar Rollei lenses (people say the Minolta Rokkor is sharper when wide open than the Carl Zeiss Tessar that’s found on the Rolleicords).
The price of the Autocord is rising steadily due to a new number of fans discovering the Rokkor lens, but unlike the Yashica Mat range, it still hasn’t reached it’s peak. Expect to pay under $200 for a decent model, which, in my opinion, is better that the Yashica, and right up their with the Rolleicord. A great purchase if branding doesn’t influence you (i.e Minolta vs Rollei).
Ah! The Goliaths of the TLR world. The Mamiya range of TLRs started out rather innocently, with some Rollei-style copies in the early 50′s (notably the Mamiyaflex). In 1957 they released their TLR-beast on the world: The ‘C’ series of TLRs. Aimed at studio-bound professionals, the ‘C’ series were the first notable TLRs to feature interchangeable lenses ranging from 55mm to 250mm. The range started with the C and continued up to the C330, progressively getting heavier and heavier! The two that are most worthwhile taking a look at are the C220 and C330. These two models are the latest Mamiya TLRs, with the 220 starting production in 1968. There are actually not many differences between the C220 and C330, with the main difference being that with the C330, you wind the film and cock the shutter simultaneously, whereas with the C220, you do the two things separately. The other main difference is weight. As the C220 lens is simpler, it weighs a lot less than the C330. All of the ‘C’ series have bellows for close focussing, another great benefit to the these TLRs.
If you are in the market for a C range camera, try and find a C220f, C330f or C330s. These are the later models, and as these cameras are designed to be used in a studio day-in-day-out, it’s best to get the youngest model possible. The latest C330s is lighter than previous C330 due to Mamiya using more plastic parts, although don’t be fooled: it still weighs as much as a 2 year old child! If you want to take the TLR with you everywhere, go for the C220f, it’s lighter, but you still get the benefits of interchangeable lenses. The cost of the Mamiya TLRs varies wildly, with a a c220f or c220s costing just over $200, and a c330s or f costing closer to $350.
Those are the ‘big 5′ that everyone clamours for in the TLR world, however stay tuned for part 2, where we delve into the pseudo, toy and obscure TLR market.
Does anyone have any of these TLRs? What do you think to them? Any preference? Personally I’d love a Rolleiflex 2.8, but alas the cost is just too high, so I’ll live with my Yashica Mat 124 and Mamiya C220 for now.