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A short history of the ...

35mm Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) Camera

 


 

The first double-lens cameras were developed in around 1870, to provide an alternative to swapping between a ground glass focusing screen and a film plate, as necessitated by single lens cameras (of the time). The first commercially marketed Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) was possibly the 1929 Rolleiflex.

A true (*) TLR is one with two objective lenses of the same focal length, where one lens takes the picture, and the the other is used for viewing the scene. The lenses are connected, so that the focus shown on the focusing/viewing screen will be exactly the same as that on the film plane.

The TLR viewfinder consists of a mirror set at 45°, which reflects the view on to a matte focusing screen; hence the term reflex, which has the (almost obsolete) meaning 'reflected' (†). Viewing is performed at waist (or chest) level.

* In the 1950s, inexpensively made twin lens cameras with a reflex mirror and fixed-focus viewing lens were common. They are known as Pseudo TLRS ... but none used 35mm film.
Reflex does not have the meaning - an involuntary and nearly instantaneous movement in response to a stimulus - as some Internet resources suggest.

A further significant feature of conventional TLR cameras was that they used what we now call medium format film. In other words, some of the conventional TLR's attributes were realised due to their large physical size.

The unique advantages of a TLR are (‡):-

  • The traditional use of medium film formats (bigger than 24 x 36 mm, but smaller than 4 x 5 inches) is significant to the appeal of a conventional TLR.
  • Their finder screen is good for composing an image (it's easier to look at the scene, rather than into it), plus discrete waist level operation works well for candid shots.

Longer lists my be found elsewhere, but these cite features that are not unique to the TLR, such as a finder image that does not black-out at the moment of exposure.

The disadvantages of a TLR are:-

  • Few offered interchangeable lenses.
  • Parallax errors become problematic for nearby subjects.
  • Depth of field cannot be previewed.
  • Looking down toward the camera isn't always convenient (and can be physically challenging if you wish to re-orientate the shot format), plus view-screens suffer from confusing left to right image reversal.
  • Compared to more modern systems, TLRs are quite bulky.

A few manufacturers made TLR cameras for 35mm film, in an attempt to capture the growing popularity of the format, but these models were not a success. Part of the problem was that the benefits of a TLR didn't really translate to a smaller film format cameras (view-screens don't work so well when they are small), but more than that, competition posed by the increasing sophistication of other photographic systems was growing, while the demands of users were changing. Photographers wanted to shoot things closer, further away, switch between landscape and portrait formats, capture faster moving subjects, or be on the move themselves. 35mm film was good for these needs, but TLRs were not.

Ironically, the German maker Rollei - who made the first TLR - were also the first to provide the facility to use 35mm film in a (Rollei) TLR camera. In 1933 they sold the Rolleikin, which was an adapter that allowed 35mm cassettes to be used in Rolleiflex and Rolleicord cameras. Further details can be found here.

 

The first dedicated 35mm TLR was the German 1935 Zeiss Ikon Contaflex TLR (860/24). By all accounts (I've never personally handled one), this was a fantastically designed, beautifully engineered, and carefully constructed camera. The model boasted all the features imaginable in 1935, including; the first built-in (uncoupled) selenium light meter, interchangeable lenses from 35mm to 135mm, a focusing screen twice the size of a 35mm negative with magnifier plus parallax correction for the 50mm standard lens, and a fast (1/1000th sec.) vertically traveling, metal focal plane shutter. The Contaflex TLR was heavy (weighing 1.5kg), and eye-wateringly expensive. Further information can be found at camera-wiki.org/wiki/Contaflex_(TLR). The instruction manual for this camera can be found here. Production ceased in 1940, and estimates of the number of camera made vary widely, but 7,500 seems the most credible figure. You can expect to pay about £4,000 for a Contaflex TLR (§).

§ All price estimates are based on research undertaken in the Autumn of 2017.

 

The Luckyflex was made by the Italian GGS company in about 1947. It looked like a conventional TLR, but was smaller. A folding front panel within the viewfinder hood formed an auxiliary direct vision sports-finder. Further information can be found at this website (which is written in Italian). Only 2,000 were made. You can expect to pay around £1,500 for Luckyflex.

 

The 1949 Yallu Flex (or Yalluflex), deigned by the Japanese Yallu Optical Company (which went on the rename itself Aires) was strongly influenced by the Contaflex (but with a leaf rather than focal plane shutter), but never offered for sale: they failed to impress potential dealers. Further information can be found at camera-wiki.org/wiki/Yallu_Flex. Apparently about fifty prototypes were made, and you can expect to pay more than €34,000 for a Yallu Flex; based on a sale in May 2005.

 

The Bolsey C - perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing of the 35mm TLRs - was made by the American Bolsey Company from 1950 until 1956. It had the lenses stacked vertically like a conventional TLR, but the film ran horizontally, giving the camera a more conventional 35mm format appearance. It boasted a view-screen with coupled split image rangefinder, and a separate off-centre optical viewfinder for portrait format exposures. A variant - the Bolsey C22 - was launched in 1953, and featured the Set-o-matic system, which coupled the aperture to the distance setting for flash photography. Further information can be found at camera-wiki.org/wiki/Bolsey_C. Scans of the instruction manuals can be found here: Bolsey C, Bolsey C22. Production numbers for both models are unknown, but they are not quiet so rare as most other 35mm TLRs, and a Bolsey will set you back about £400.

 

The Samocaflex 35 was made by the Japanese Samoca Camera Company from 1954 to 1957. It was not dissimilar to the Bosley C in looks, but not as well specified. A Samocaflex 35 II was introduced in 1956, with minor changes including a focusing screen rangefinder. The second model is rarer than the first model. The Samocaflex had several accessories including a flash, hand-held exposure meter, and close-up lenses with parallax correction on the viewing lens. Further information can be found at camera-wiki.org/wiki/Samocaflex_35. About 3,000 cameras are thought to have been made, and you can expect to pay about £1,000 for a Samocaflex 35.

 

The Toyoca 35 (a.k.a the Toyocaflex 35, Haco 35 and Hulda 35) was made by the Japanese Tougodo Company (∥) between 1955 and 1957. This was more like a conventional 35mm camera in so much as the film ran horizontally, and the lenses were side-by-side rather than stacked vertically. It also had a direct vision viewfinder in the top housing, above the taking lens. The camera was considerably larger than contemporary 35mm models; about the same size as a large 1970s SLR. Further information can be found at camera-wiki.org/wiki/Toyoca_35. The total production has been estimated at about 2,500 units. You can expect to pay about £1,500 for a Toyoca 35.

Tougodo, formerly Meispui, produced a number of side-by-side lens cameras prior to the Toyoca 35, but they were not true 35mm TLRs because the objective lens was fixed focus, or they used 35mm paper-backed roll film.

 

In 1958, Yashica (Japan) made the one and only dual format TLR (¶); the Yashica 635. It could use both 120 roll film and 35mm cassettes. This required the installation of an adapter kit (like the Rolleikin) comprising a viewfinder mask, alternative spool and film pressure plate (etc.), but the 635 had two fixed wind knobs, and two frame counters, for 120 and 35mm films. The instruction manual for this camera can be found here. The initial price of the 635 was £31 - 14s - 8d. The end date of production is unknown, but it was probably made for several years, and examples are relatively abundant. You can expect to pay between £50 to £150 for one of these cameras.

The Halina A1 was a phoney 35mm film TLR; it had the option to take 21/4" x 2 1/4" or 24 x 36mm exposures, but only on a 120 roll film. The Halina Viceroy had the same phoney 35mm capability, but it was in addition a pseudo TLR with a non-focusing viewfinder ... so it was a phoney pseudo.

 

The last of the 35mm TLRs were German made Agfas. The Flexilette (a.k.a. the Agfa Reflex) was made between 1960 and 1961. The body was similar to a conventional 35mm viewfinder camera with horizontal film travel, but the lenses stacked vertically. The viewfinder hood could be opened to form a sports finder. Winding was via a more modern lever. This and the rewind knob were located on the bottom plate. The original price of the Flexiltte, according to a 1960 edition of Amateur Photographer magazine, was £33 - 18s - 0d. On price point alone, it was a direct competitor with most of the medium format Yashica TLR cameras of the time. Sales literature made a virtue of the fact focusing was always undertaken at full aperture (a swipe at early SLRs), and claimed the close proximity of the two lenses prevented parallax errors (a slam on conventional TLRs). Further information can be found at camera-wiki.org/wiki/Flexilette. The instruction manual for this camera can be found here. Despite a short production time, the Flexilette is the most affordable 35mm TLR, with prices in the range of £30 to £50.

 

The Flexilette was replaced by the Agfa Optima Reflex, which while similar, had an eye-level pentaprism rather than a waist-level finder, and a selenium meter for programmed automatic exposure. Further information can be found at camera-wiki.org/wiki/Agfa_Optima_Reflex. You can expect to pay up to £100 for an Agfa Optima Reflex.

The Optima Reflex was withdrawn in 1966, and the era of the 35mm TLR came to an end.

 


Other pages at Camera Portraits

The History of the 35mm Folding Camera

The History of the 35mm Rangefinder Camera

The History of the 35mm SLR Camera

The History of the 35mm Viewfinder Camera