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The Massive guide to TLR Cameras Part 1: The Rundown

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.

History

Rolleiflex Original by diser55 on Flickr

Rolleiflex Original by diser55 on Flickr

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.

Why?

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.

Popular Models

In the first part of this series, we will be listing some of the ‘heavyweight’ contenders in the TLR market.

Rolleiflex 2.8

Rolleiflex 2.8D by Xenotar28 Off for a while :-)

Rolleiflex 2.8D by Xenotar28

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 ….

Rolleicord V/VA/VB

rolleicord v type2 by Xenotar28

rolleicord v type2 by Xenotar28

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)

Yashicatmat 124G by Sjixxxy

Yashicatmat 124G by Sjixxxy

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!

Minolta Autocord

Minolta Autocord TLR Minolta Autocord TLR

Minolta Autocord TLR by jonathan ponce

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).

Mamiya C220/C330

Mamiya C330 Professional f by sunside

Mamiya C330 Professional f by sunside

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.

24 Comments

  1. Posted 14 Aug ’09 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    You are great. I really love your blog at the moment. I use dslr and analog cameras, lofi and classic cameras. There is no “either … or” today anymore, I guess. You bring interesting perspectives beyond holgagraphy. Thats good!

  2. Posted 14 Aug ’09 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

    TLR is a great conversation piece when doing a photowalk around town. Whether that’s an advantage or a downside depends on how you look at it.

  3. Posted 15 Aug ’09 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks for your very informative overview. Regarding the price it would be really interesting if you also could mention some cost comparison from the time when these models were launched (if you have any original marketing material).

  4. Posted 17 Aug ’09 at 2:18 am | Permalink

    You forgot to mention that it was most common to contact print the larger 120 film. 35mm negatives (still fairly new) were more costly to have enlarged and printed during the 1930′s – 50′s.

  5. jon
    Posted 18 Aug ’09 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    I have a Yashica D that I got for $80 in excellent condition on ebay. It has a f/3.5 lens and takes absolutely stunning photos.

  6. Posted 18 Aug ’09 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I have a Yashica LM. A great camera that takes really beautiful pictures. These tend to be cheaper than 124′s. Sadly, my shutter button broke & I have to find someone to fix it. Very frustrating. Age is a very real downside with these older cameras. My LM is in excellent condition otherwise & I love using it. My Lubitel 166U is fun & takes good pics, too, but it just doesn’t come close to the Yashica!

  7. Posted 20 Aug ’09 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    I’m a proud owner of a Rolleiflex Automat and it is amazing !
    For the ones interested there’s a Rollei forum at http://www.rolleiclub.com/cameras/tlr/info/all_TLR.shtml packed with loads of info

  8. Andrew(Admin)
    Posted 20 Aug ’09 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Thanks everyone for the comments!

    @Jussi, I’ll try and do a bit of research on the original prices.

    @Neil of course, I forgot! 35mm was indeed a bit rarer at the birth of the TLR!

    @gene and Jon, Most Yashicas are fantastic value TLRs, the eariler ones especially due to people only wanting the later MAT 124, when in actual fact they are all very similar with just small features added during their evolution.

    @Gene The Lubi will be featured in the 2nd part, although I feel uneasy about it being placed in the ‘toy’ section, so will probably put it in the ‘other TLRs’ bit (except the Lomography Lubi 166+).

  9. Posted 23 Aug ’09 at 1:58 am | Permalink

    I have the Mamiya C330 (not f or s, but still the same)

    People often look at the bellows and say, “that’s a problem”.
    But there are actually 3 bellows. One for each lens and then the outer one that covers both. So even with wear, it’s still very light tight.

    I use it exclusively for B&W and the tone on all film types is exactly what I expect. Sharpness is excellent.

    It is a camera that is itself and does the job excellently; without pretending to be pretentious. If it ever breaks (for eg, if it gets hit by an asteroid) it wont cost much to replace.

  10. ibnu.said
    Posted 24 Aug ’09 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Good info! How about Yashica 635? Any comments on that? The only Yashi who can take both 120 and 35 format

  11. Tom Debiec
    Posted 24 Aug ’09 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    For those of you with deep pockets The Rolleiflex TLR is still being manufactured in 50, 80 and 135mm versions by Franke & Heidicke in Germany.

    http://www.franke-heidecke.net/Dee

  12. Maggie DeTemple
    Posted 29 Aug ’09 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    What an interesting stumble unto this web blog.
    I was gifted a Rolleiflex 1:3.5 camera and accessories years ago along with the original sales receipt from 1959. I had it overhauled and a slight repair by a retired German Camera Repair person who use to repair Rollieflex cameras in Germany. That was a truly momentus meeting here in Canada Pacific Area. I have used this camera for portraits and weddings with awesome results. By the way it has Carl Zeiss lens.
    I would appreciate knowing how one can get a hold of the product instruction booklet for this model?
    I thank Andrew for posting this interesting article on the TLR’s.
    with sincere appreciation M.

  13. megan
    Posted 1 Sep ’09 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    really enjoying your posts. i love my twin lens, its a yashica-a. its sharp and it feels better than any 35mm or digital camera, plus i get to stay with my love of medium sized film. i use this when i want to rely on a sharp photo with a great depth of field range, but i can get more creative photos with my holga, which is always by my side

  14. Tom O'Brien
    Posted 1 Sep ’09 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    I entered the world of medium with a Yashica 635 TLR and about a year later I acquired a Yashica-Mat with a Lumaxar lens.Both have been enjoyed and treated me well. I have since added 5 other older cameras so now I shoot several formats: 2.4×3.6, 3×4, 4×6, 6×6 and 6×9 (all measurements in cm).

    Very interesting article – Thanks … Tom

  15. Posted 17 Sep ’09 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    I am pleased to see yet another resource for film cameras. My blog as taken a recent turn of reviewing old film cameras from my personal museum connection, which I am now selling after a lifetime of collecting. I am a vintage photographer who used most of the cameras featured. I have over a hundred reviews currently with more coming. My reviews are subjective as I remember them when I used them back when. My slant takes into account the historical perspective of the era. I think you may enjoy it, as I have enjoyed this blog. http://notesandnods.typepad.com/photography_for_profit_or/2009/week38/index.html

  16. Posted 14 Oct ’09 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    I just recently bought a Mamiya C33 on the cheap (comparably), and it’s a really nice camera. It definitely is a big beast, but it’s as good as it gets for TLR cameras for me (yeah, maybe the C330 would be the one to go for, but it would’ve cost at least twice as much).

    Apparently there’s not that many differences apart from weight and the fact that some C330 can apparently take 220 film. If a C330 is a tad too much for you, maybe look for a C3 or a C33. The lenses are awesome, and you can’t ask for a more robust camera. Read this somewhere: “If you drop it, you leave a dent in the concrete.”

    I’m a convert from a broken Yashica Mat 124G, and I don’t regret buying it, not at all.

  17. Posted 21 Oct ’09 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    I use and own A Mamiya C2 and C33, they are great camera’s (a lot of people think the C33 and the C330 (not the f or s versions) are the best TLR’s Mamiya made. I love them, reliable, great looking, sturdy, rugged, and I have got some very sharp lenses for them. I can highly recommend them to anyone.

    For all the info you can fin on Mamiya TLR’s: http://www.btinternet.com/~g.a.patterson/mfaq/m_faq-mamiya.html

  18. Posted 17 Nov ’09 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this piece. I’m only on part 1 and I’m already hooked!

    I just recently purchased a couple of these old TLR’s, The Ikoflex and the Flexaret. After reading your blog, I’m sure I will accumulate more to my collection!

    Great Job!

    Don

  19. Posted 12 Apr ’10 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    I noticed that your image of the 124G is no longer available on Flickr. If you need a replacement for this article, feel free to use this image from my stream of mine. http://www.flickr.com/photos/sjixxxy/3330089648/

  20. Posted 12 Apr ’10 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks very much! It was actually my photo, i forgot i had deleted it!!

  21. Posted 29 Apr ’10 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I grew up with my Dad using a Mamiya C3 and C330 for wedding photography back in the 80′s.

    Luckily he still had them sitting under in an old camera box in the attic. So the C330 along with an 80mm and 135mm lens are just about to get the first roll of film put through them in about 20 years.

  22. Posted 17 Sep ’10 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    Great post! I used to have a yashica TLR, loved it. Thinking a Mamiya might be next on the wish list…

  23. Paul
    Posted 1 Jan ’11 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Nice article, I’ve just picked up a Mamiya 220 with the 80/2.8 coated lens. Although you mention the Rolleiflex’s 2.8 lens as an advantage worth a lot of extra cash in the market, you dont mention that the Mamiya 80 is also f2.8.
    My 220 is an early model (non-F) but it still has a very solid, rugged feel to it and produces very high-quality images with a leica-like lens. It is almost certainly the best quality film camera I’ve ever owned. The price seems to me to suggest this line/model is really under-rated by the market.

  24. Flavio E.
    Posted 19 Apr ’13 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    Rolleiflex 2.8F versus Mamiya C330F comparison? That’s easy:

    The Rolleiflex is for camera collectors that want to admire it’s beauty and have them placed on the shelf.

    The Mamiya C330F is for pros that want to actually go out and make pictures. Seriously, for actual usage the Mamiya wins hands down. It is not really heavy (as this article misleadingly tells you) — a Nikon F with a 50/1.4 weights about the same and gives you less image quality!! –, it has interchangeable viewfinders for any shooting situation, it is very rugged, interchangeable lenses are of great quality, it has parallax compensation, quick operation…

    There is one special detail that shows that the C330 is a pro shooter camera, not a museum piece: The dual shutter button. This clever device is designed so you shoot using both the finger and the thumb. In this fashion, any forces that would jerk the camera are CANCELLED for superb stability under low light.

    Mamiya = Pro.

5 Trackbacks

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