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Ricoh Super 44
A Twin Lens Reflex camera taking 4x4cm images on 127 film
I've been looking for a typical TLR for a while now, but the better makes are very costly … as are the mid-quality models … and even the trashiest pseudo TLRs come with a £20 plus price tag. Gulp!
And then, one day in March 2019, a Ricoh Super 44 - a model that is generally listed on eBay with a price tag in excess of £100 - was offered for a mere fiver. There wasn't a lot of competition for this camera, and it joined my collection for a reasonable £9.50.
Aside from the Ricoh's affordability, it has a few unusual features that sparked my interest.
The Super 44 was introduced in 1958, and here in the UK it sold for £16 (with a case), according to Amateur Photographer magazine's 1960 guide to
new cameras. That was seriously cheap - compared to £45 for a Baby Rolleiflex, the model that clearly inspired Ricoh.
The least expensive TLR in 1960 was the Russian Lubitel II at £7 - 15s - 5d, followed by the Hong Kong Halina A1 for £10 - 10s - 0d, then the Ricoh Super 44 at number three.
The Ricoh's specification is basic, but for a few twists. Film transport is via a knob-winder used in conjunction with a red-window, where frame numbers are observed on the back of the film: it has no double exposure prevention device. A focusing dial moves the lens standard back and forth. The viewscreen has fixed parallax correction marks. The viewing and taking lenses are f/3.5 6cm (equivalent to about 45mm on a 35mm camera), with the latter being a triplet configuration with a ten-blade diaphragm. The Citizen MV five-blade shutter has old-style steps of 1, 1/2, 1/5, 1/10, 1/25, 1/50, 1/100, 1/200 and 1/400 sec., with a separate shutter cocking lever. There is also a
B setting, and a spring driven self-timer of about 10 sec.
The Ricoh Super 44 uses 127 film, which was a 4.6cm wide paper-backed roll, and originally created by Kodak in 1912 for their Vest Pocket model. It was designed to take eight pictures in 4x6.5cm format, which would have been contact printed. In the 1950s, there was a revival of the 127 film with new cameras designed to take 12 exposures in 4x4cm format. The film became available in colour transparency emulsions, and the resulting 40x40mm
super slides could be projected in a normal projector designed for 24x36mm transparencies. According to Ricoh's website, the late 1950s popularity of colour slides was the driver for the development of new 127 film cameras. In the 1960s, 127 film declined in popularity as camera manufacturers focused on 35mm. 127 film is still available from suppliers such as Analoguewonderland.co.uk, but it costs up to £15 a roll.
For me, the defining feature of the Super 44 is its direct vision finder. It has a fairly large flip-up magnifying lens for critical focusing using the viewscreen. This is hinged on to the rear screen hood, rather than the front, so that in the closed position, it forms the eyepiece lens for the direct vision finder. The front hood has a square of slots cut in it, and these illuminate a frame rather than provide the expected viewing window. The two elements work together to make a Voigtlander Kontur type finder. You look through the eyepiece with one eye while keeping the other open, and the viewfinder creates an optical illusion, where what you see is a set of white frame lines projected onto the view of the subject seen by the unobstructed eye. Ricoh called their arrangement a
Contour Finder. It's simple, it works brilliantly, and it's ingenious.
A slightly unexpected feature is a hot shoe on the side of the body (which didn't become commonplace until the 1970s) but there is also a synchro socket and M/X flash synchronisation switch. The taking lens has a screw-in filter holding ring; like a conventional filter but without the glass. It has a yellow line around the front edge, and is easy to spot in photos of the camera.
The camera's instruction manual (here) warns against leaving the camera for a long period with the shutter cocked, or changing the speed after cocking, and suggests keeping the synchro setting at X to preserve the life of the shutter. It all points towards the Citizen MX not being especially robust.
There isn't much more that can be said (without getting into obsessive details). Few people have bothered to document this camera. The best resource is at Camera-Wiki, which states the highest known body serial number is 16764.
My camera body has the body serial number
16868, making it (for the moment) the last known.
My Super 44 was advertised as
spares & repairs, with no explanation why, and one photo of the camera in its case. The seller more usually sells energy-bars, so I gambled he (or she) was not camera savvy and just playing safe. I was quite happy with the possibility I was merely buying an ornament … because I actually wanted the TLR as a decoration piece.
The camera is in nice condition, and full working order but for one problem ... it's got a missing wind knob … but I've got a plan to fix that!
The viewscreen was peppered with debris, seemingly trapped between the condenser and ground glass plate, so I ventured inside. The Ricoh is a joy to work on; the hood is attached with four screws, and the whole assembly is easy to remove. The screen is held in place with spring clips, and also simple to pull-out (and wash with warm water & washing-up liquid). The mirror is held in place with two screws, so I also removed that for cleaning, which then gave free access to the whole chamber (and rear side of the viewing lens).
I decided to treat the camera to new covers - yellow leather (from Milly's Cameras), to match the yellow band on the filter holder. The old adhesive was quickly dissolved with Methylated Spirits, allowing the covers to be withdrawn intact for use as cutting templates. The front cover was a little tricky; it's in four parts with lots of curved edges. I'm very pleased with the finished job.
I've yet to fix the missing winder … but I'm working on a possible solution.
Hands-on, the Ricoh Super 44 is a very likeable camera. It's surprisingly compact (with a body size around 6.4cm across, 8cm deep, and 12cm tall with the hood closed), but with some heft (about 700g). It definitely does not feel like an inexpensive toy. The viewscreen is far more pleasant than the 35mm equivalents I'm accustomed to. I can completely understand why TLRs have their followers.
For someone not familiar with TLR, the parallax correction marks are unexpected. Most viewfinders have a top and maybe one side correction lines, but the Ricoh has top and bottom lines for close and infinity focus respectively.
I don't usually bother with cases, but the Ricoh's is very nice. It's made of thick leather, and is the two-part cradle type, with cut-outs for in-the-case operation, plus some neat pivoting catches that lock into lugs on the camera body.
All-in-all, I'm pretty impressed with this camera, and now rather interested in some of better quality TLRs.
Other Ricoh cameras in my collection
1960 - Ricoh Auto 35
1966 - Ricoh Super Shot 2.4
1970 - Ricoh Hi-Color 35
1970 - Ricoh TLS 401
1972 - Ricoh 500G