Unsolicited editorials on cameras, lenses, film, developer, and black and white photography in general.

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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Getting Back Into TLR Photography

I have heard several film photographers say that they just can’t get used to digital, at least not without having to think a lot. I found the transition easy but unsatisfying. I simply put the digital in program mode and forgot about it. No fiddling with buttons or menus or histograms. My eyes don’t focus close enough to compose and adjust using an LCD screen. If you want to make an awkward transition, go from using a 35mm for 30 years to shooting with a twin lens reflex.

When I was 18, a TLR seemed much less difficult. I had just gotten into photography with a camera that wasn’t plastic, and I took to 35mm SLRs, 35mm rangefinders, and a medium format TLR with equal aplomb. But I eventually sold my Yashica D in 1972 and sold my Mamiya C330 in 1975. I did pick up a Yashica-Mat 124G when they were discontinued around 1980 but never used it much. In my youth, a new Honeywell Rolleiflex TLR cost about $400, roughly ten times as much as I spent on my Yashica D. I hungered for a Rolleiflex when I saw them in camera magazines but they were a wedding camera and I had no interest in weddings. Then came the Internet and E-Bay. You no longer had to rummage through pawn shops to find a good, cheap, used Rolleiflex. With my house paid off, I got hungry for a camera that I had lusted after 35 years ago but couldn’t afford. My first Rolleiflex was an E-Bay 3.5E Xenotar with fungus on the mirror and screen. I shipped it off to Bill Maxwell for a CLA and new Maxwell screen. After waiting a month, I bought an E-Bay Rolleicord. It had fungus on the screen, fungus on the mirror, and fungus in the lenses. I shipped that off to Essex Camera for a CLA. I picked up another 3.5E Xenotar on E-Bay. Like the others, it needed a cleaning. Keep in mind that these cameras are nearly as old as I am. Relatively speaking, they look better that I do. I finally got my first 3.5E Xenotar back from Bill Maxwell and took it out for a shoot.

It is ironic that these are called reflex cameras. My 56-year-old reflexes are what make them a challenge to shoot. Although it didn’t bother me in my younger years, getting used to a mirror image that moves the opposite direction of the camera is like one’s first attempt to back a boat trailer into a garage. Then using the grid on the screen to frame the image has you swaying back and forth, tilting forward and backward, and from side to side. Unless your subject is very patient or a vegetable of some kind, there are no real snapshots here. No doubt about it. You need to take slow aim at an immovable object with all of the time in the world if you want usable frames on your first roll.

Why bother? Well, despite their unwieldiness, they are capable of some astonishingly good results. With the right film, developer, and technique, I have seen good Rolleiflex photographers make a mundane subject like a dandelion look like something that anyone would want on his living room wall. They also have the mystique of Leica and Zeiss cameras: excellent craftsmanship, sturdy build, phenomenal optics, and a design that is good enough to transcend decades of production with only very minor improvements. When you buy a digital camera today, it may be out of production by the time you first press the shutter release. The many thousands of durable Rolleiflexes still operational ensure that there will always be parts available somewhere. The only thing we have too few of are master repair technicians such as Harry Fleenor who can get a neglected E-Bay Rolleiflex back into excellent shooting condition. He just received my second 3.5E Xenotar for a CLA and new Maxwell screen. He is backed up enough that I won’t see the camera again for about three months. Not to worry. I still have a couple of good specimens to use in the meantime. I hope to try some black and white films in my other 3.5E Xenotar, develop them in 777 or PMK Pyro, and display the results here.