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The Massive Guide to TLR cameras Part 5: In Depth Reviews

Our final part to this series is a bit different to normal Holgablog articles. We have been lucky enough to have been granted permission by Pierre Luminet to translate his brilliant in-depth reviews and comparisons of some of the most popular TLR’s ever made. Pierre spent an incredible amount of time and effort performing a side-by-side comparison of 1o different TLRs and we present to you the full translation, along with photographs.

Here is my translation(I hope it is ok, there may be small bits that make no sense…sorry, it’s my bad translation!):

An Overview

Below is a quick reference guide table.

Manufacturer Model Type Year Lens Aperture Focal Length Shutter Speeds Weight (gr)
Gomz Lubitel 2 1955 Lomo 1:4,5 75 mm Gomz B, 15-300 534
Light Industrial Products Seagull 4B-1 1970 Haiou 1:3,5 75 mm ? ? B, 1-300 880
Mamiya Mamiyaflex Automatic-a 1949 Olympus Zuiko 1:3,5 75 mm Seikosha Rapid B, 1-500 1165
Mamiya C33 1965 Sekor 1:2,8 80 mm Seiko B, 1-500 2050
Minolta Autocord 1955 Rokor 1:3,5 75 mm Citizen B, 1-500 980
Rollei Rolleiflex automat MX 1951 Zeiss Opton Tessar 1:3,5 75 mm Synchro Compur B, 1-500e 958
Tougodo Toyocaflex Type I 1954 Tri Lausar 1:3,5 75 mm ? ? B, 1-300 960
Voigtländer Brillant V6 1937 Skopar 1:4,5 75 mm Compur T, B, 1-300 572
Yashica Yashica-Mat 1957 Yashinon 1:3,5 80 mm Copal MXV B, 1-500 1105
Zeiss Ikon Ikoflex I IIa 1952 Zeiss Opton Tessar 1:3,5 75 mm Synchro Compur B, 1-500 1095

General Ergonomics

Can we really talk about the ergonomics of TLRs, when they look more like a coffee can than a camera? Let’s take a look at some of the features.

Automatic Advancement

Automatic advancement isn’t essential, but it’s a nice feature to have. The film rolls up an equal length each time it is advancement lever/knob is used. Even the worthy Voigtlander Brillant has automatic advancement(ed note:earlier models only had the red windows). The users of the Seagull and the Lubitel have to scan the small red window to see film numbers from 1 to 12 on the paper back of the film.

The automatic system of advancing film on the Voigtländer Brillant

The automatic system of advancing film on the Voigtländer Brillant

The window on the rear of the Lubitel revealing the film numbers

The window on the rear of the Lubitel revealing the film numbers

Coupled Advance

A coupled advance is very important to avoid any double exposures and to speed up your photography. The Zeiss, Mamiya, Rollei, Minolta and Yashica all have this feature.

Roller or Crank?

With the majority of the cameras, advancing is done by turning a serrated roller; however, the Mamiya C33, Minolta, Rollei and Yashica use a crank. Only the Minolta has an advantage compared to a serrated roller in my opinion. The cranks of the Mamiya C33, Rollei and Yashica must be unfolded before use, which can be problematic when used with a grip or flash bar.

Minolta Autocord

Minolta Autocord

Mamiya C33

Mamiya C33

Rolleiflex

Rolleiflex

Yashica Mat

Yashica Mat

Loading

The Seagull and Lubitel are both basic: the film in the lower compartment is fixed onto an empty reel in the top chamber, once closed, you turn the knob until N°1 appears in the red window on the rear of the camera: rustic but very reliable.

With the Voigtländer, you proceed in the same way, but when N°1 appears in the window you switch a small lever which initializes the counter and the advance of film then becomes automatic.

The most sophisticated is the Rolleiflex, equipped with a sensor that detects the extra thickness of the film roll when it has film and paper combined (i.e the film is thicker when it has both film and paper together rather than just the paper at the beginning of the spool) and then engages the automatic advancement and counter.

the famous "sensor" of the Rolleiflex, which detects the thickness of film and engages the counter and automatic advancement

the famous "sensor" of the Rolleiflex, which detects the thickness of film and engages the counter and automatic advancement

Rolleikin which makes it possible to use 35mm film in the Rolleiflex (beautiful exercise of style, without photographic interest)

Rolleikin which makes it possible to use 35mm film in the Rolleiflex (beautiful use of style, without very much photographic interest)

The other cameras with automatic advancement use roughly the same principle, but it is necessary to advance the film with the serrated roller or the crank until the large printed arrow on the paper backing matches up with a marker on the camera interior, before closing the back to activate the counter. This is the case with the Minolta, Yashica and Mamiya C33.

The Minolta has an interesting feature: it is the only camera which winds the film in a logical manner, with the roller on top. Consequently the film goes through the camera lens area BEFORE being twisted  90° round the shape of the camera box onto the take up spool. It is a much better way of keeping the film flat than other TLRs (which bend 90° before reaching the lens area).

The direction of film travel in the Minolta: film passes through the lens area before the 90 degree bend

The Mamiya is slightly different, you close the lid as soon as you insert the film leader tab.

Zeiss has a different loading mechanism: after inserting the tab from the film into the receiving reel, you must close the lid and advance the film manually until you see a ’1′ in the red window. Once the film has been manually wound to this starting frame, press in the advancing knob to start the film counter and proceed with automatic advancement.

 Zeiss Ikoflex: when N° 1 appears in this red window, it is necessary to start the auto film counter by pressing the winding knob.

Zeiss Ikoflex: when N° 1 appears in this red window, it is necessary to start the auto film counter by pressing the winding knob.

If you use the Mamiyaflex, Lubitel, Rolleiflex, Yashica Mat and Zeiss Ikoflex with a flash, then it might be slightly annoying, as you need to remove the grip/flash bar ever time you open the back to change the film.

The Viewfinders

All the cameras focus through frosted glass, protected under a pop-up hood with magnifying glass.

Focussing is the most difficult process to master for novice TLR users: the picture is far from clear, especially in bright sunlight or low light.  It also appears in the viewfinder mirrored (i.e up is down and left is right), which requires a little practice.

The Voigtlander does not have a coupled lens, so the viewfinder is only used for framing,rather than framing and focussing (you manually set the distance using a switch next to the lens). The Lubitel does have a coupled set of lenses, however focussing can be troublesome due the poor quality of the frosted glass.

Onto the other cameras. The Mamiya C33 is characterized by a particularly large bright viewfinder, whereas the Mamiyaflex and Toyocaflex have pretty dull frosted glass, leading to more difficulties  focussing.  The other cameras test pretty well and fall somewhere between the C33 and the Mamiyaflex. The Rollei Automat 3.5 and 2.8 and all series before series E have the option for a Rolleigrid, a removable Fresnel viewfinder, intended specifically for low light situations. This does not come as standard with the Rolleiflex.

Some viewfinder hoods have a quickly-retractable hood for quick closing and opening, others require that you fold the four pieces of the hood inwards before closing it.  The Voigtlander, Lubitel, Zeiss and Mamiya C33 all require that you manually fold the sides of the hood inwards after finishing shooting.  This may not seem like a big deal, but can get a bit annoying over a course of a day when you are constantly opening and closing the viewfinder hood.

Focussing

On all cameras tested, except the Voigtländer(guess focussing) and the Lubitel (focussing by lens rotation), focussing is achieved by moving the lens plate forward and back until the subject is clear.

This plate is generally actuated by a serrated roller, located on the left or right of the camera case. The Mamiya C33 has genuine bellows between this lens plate and the body of the camera (a rarity in TLRs), and the focussing can be achieved with 2 serrated rollers laid out on both sides of the camera. This enables the C33 to be used for much closer focussing. It also includes a bellow compensation chart on the side of the bellows rail in order for you to change your exposure depending on how much bellow is being used.

The Minolta has an original concept for focussing; it is achieved by using a lever located under the lens plate and is accessible from both the left and right sides (see photo below).

The bellows of the C33

The bellows of the C33

The focussing lever on the Minolta

The focussing lever on the Minolta

The majority of TLRs are equipped with a shutter release located at the bottom right of the lens plate. On the Voigtländer and Lubitel the release is located on the lens itself, which requires small fingers! The Mamiya stand rather favourably in this regard, with the shutter release to the left of the lens (while you face it). The Zeiss shutter button is located vertically at the top of the camera case and is in a slightly awkward position.

Unusual: the location of the Zeiss shutter, locked when the hood is closed(good idea!).

Unusual: the location of the Zeiss shutter, locked when the hood is closed (good idea!).

The trigger for Mamiyaflex: Uses a latch system, and a cable release can easily be added

The trigger for Mamiyaflex: uses a latch system, and a cable release can be easily added

Shutter Release

All the apparatuses allow a standard cable release, except for Yashica and Toyocaflex which require a specific adapter.

Lastly, locking is absent on more than half of the cameras tested.

Using a Flash

Between practically impossible (Voigtländer: no sync) and very easy (devices that have an accessory shoe: Toyocaflex, Seagull, Minolta, Mamiya C33), using flashes can be hit or miss with TLRs!

To use a flash on the cameras which have no accessory shoe, a flash bar was used with an accessory shoe fixed with a sync cord, in this case, a Metz 45 CT.

And even after going to the trouble of fixing my flash bar, it still doesn’t solve all my problems with TLRs without accessory shoes. Only cameras with the winding crank/knob and focussing knob on the same side could be used easily(Mamiyaflex, C33, Lubitel). In contrast, the Rolleiflex and the Yashica Mat were difficult to use with the flash bar as the focussing and film advancement cranks were on seperate sides, thus, once the bar was fitted, it was difficult to access one of the knobs/levers.

A note concerning the cameras that provide a switch of synchronisation for flashes: X – M. I strongly advise to block (in a reversible way!) this switch in the position X, particularly on the Yashica and the Minolta as it is incredibly easy to accidentally flick the switch on those two cameras.

The flash synch switch on the Yashica Mat

The flash synch switch on the Yashica Mat

The flash synch switch on the Autocord

The flash synch switch on the Autocord

Optical Quality

We now discuss one aspect which is incredibly subjective, so I will not go beyond these general points:

  • The reputation of the Mamiya Sekor is excellent, all lenses designed for the C33 are of good quality and contrast.
  • The performance of the Zeiss and Rollei are obviously very close (and excellent).
  • The Rokor equipped Minolta and Yashica Mat’s Yashinon are in no way inferior to their prestigious competitors.
  • The Olympus Zuiko of the Mamiyaflex does not seem quite as good as the lenses outlined above, it seems less sharp but very good nonetheless.
  • The negatives from the Voigtländer Skopar lens show its age: the photos are  like your grandparents’ photo albums.
  • Toyocaflex, Seagull and Lubitel: not tested at present, to be followed.

Accessories

Lens Accessories

Here we must distinguish between devices equipped with a bayonet type 1 Rollei (Rolleiflex, Yashica Mat, Minolta) and others.

A Lens hood is strongly recommended. The original Rollei Bayonet Lens Hood is rare and expensive: there are however many copies made with solid plastic, not as elegant but just as functional. For other cameras with no bayonet fitting, you can use interlocking systems, but avoid too bulky hoods that can block the lens or hide your subject in the photo!

The lens hood, whether or not an official hood for the camera, is strongly recommended

The lens hood, whether or not an official hood for the camera, is strongly recommended

The filter system is subjected to the same constraints with bayonet fittings for devices with filters, or screwed to the others.

Additional Lenses

Yashica, like some independent manufacturers of optics, have produced wide angle or tele lenses that fit to both the viewing and taking lenses.

The change of focal length is reduced with these clip-on lenses: about X .75 (wide) and 1.4 (tele), and the image quality deteriorates slightly, but these additional lenses, which do not alter the brightness of the subject can be very helpful in difficult circumstances. You should, however, always use an aperture greater or equal to 8 when using these attachments.

As already outlined elsewhere, the Mamiya C33 can take different lenses by simply unclipping the entire lens from the body and clipping a new one in. This process takes less than a minute, and really makes the Mamiya a fantastic flexible camera.

An additional set of wide angle lenses,attached to the bayonet type 1 fittings, are available

An additional set of wide angle lenses,attached to the bayonet type 1 fittings, are available

Viewfinder Accessories

The Mamiya C33 is the basis of a modular system, with a wide range of lenses and accessories available. For the viewfinder there are three options: the Porroflex (manufactured by Nikon) which is light but dim, the prism which is heavier but brighter, or the standard waist level finder.

The Zeiss offers an original but impractical prism which attaches onto the WLF (see the photo below)

The Zeiss prism that attaches onto the top of the WLF

The Zeiss prism that attaches onto the top of the WLF

he Mamiya C33 and 3 types of viewfinders (from l to r): Porroflex, prism and standard WLF

The Mamiya C33 and 3 types of viewfinders (from l to r): Porroflex, prism and standard WLF

Conclusion

The Rollei is not the only TLR in the world worth owning!

The Rolleiflex Automat is definitely a great, well built and complete package.

The Zeiss Ikoflex might overshadow the Rollei if the ergonomics of the camera weren’t so annoying!

The Yashica Mat compares favourably with the Rollei.  The Yashinon lens is excellent, but as an entire package, taking into account build quality, it falls a little behind the Rollei.

The Mamiyaflex is a pleasant surprise (at least for those who do not know the qualities of Mamiya equipment): well designed, well built, fun to use and equipped with a great Olympus Zuiko lens.

The Toyocaflex is  a surprisingly good machine to shoot with, but no one has heard of them!

The Seagull is quite well finished for its price, but requires patience because of the manual feeding of the film.

The Voigtländer Brilliant proves pleasant to use after a short period of practice with its system of guess focussing.  It is also incredibly light due to its Bakelite construction. Perhaps it is a little unfair to compare such an old camera to the rest of these TLRs!

The Lubitel 2 does not much else compared to Voigtländer except flash sync, and often trades at prices much higher than the Voigtlander. OK, it does have ‘proper’ focussing but it’s not that great!

The Minolta Autocord ,I think, deserves the title of “Best of Test” for  its ease-of-use, genuine innovation, build quality, plus it has no major defects! The icing on the cake is that it can be bought for very reasonably prices! Snap one up now, you won’t be disappointed!

The Mamiya C33 outperforms most of  the other cameras on the test and offers exclusive accessories (optical viewfinders and interchangeable lenses). Due to this, it is fairer to exclude it from the final verdict.  It is a great camera though, but beware: it weighs more than 2 pounds!

—–

So there you have it, Pierre thinks the Minolta Automat is king among TLRs: Rollei quality at Yashica prices!

We hope you have enjoyed our series on TLRs. This was the final part, so we’ll have to find something else to write guides about now (Rangefinders anyone…?!).

If you fancy taking a look at Pierre’s website, and you speak French, you can access it here:

http://dirapon.be/

It contains a wealth of information on all sorts of photography related items.

5 Comments

  1. Posted 23 Nov ’09 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Thank you! Always a good and reliable resource. Not to mention entertaining as well!

  2. Posted 24 Nov ’09 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Totally agree about the Rollei Automat, I’ve got one and it’s a wonderful machine!

  3. Posted 7 Dec ’09 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    I have a Minolta Autocord but I don’t agree that it doesnt have any flaws. One such flaw is the tendency for the focus slider to lock up or require much force to use. Sometimes such force can break the fragile focusing slider. Otherwise it is a wonderful camera.

  4. Posted 7 Dec ’09 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this awesome posts! I have been looking to invest in a TLR and your post is very informative.

  5. JohnV
    Posted 12 Mar ’10 at 12:42 am | Permalink

    Very helpful guide for Yashica Mat and others.

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