I suppose everyone knows, or thinks they know, that the ZI Contaflex TLR is the first, or maybe even the only, one of its kind. There’s a lot more to the story than that.
The use of 35mm film for stills was also beginning to happen seriously from the mid 1920s on, with the Leica (1925 on) and the Contax (1932 on) as the flagships, followed eventually by innumerable others. The Rolleiflex had come on the scene as a revival, in rollfilm format, of the twin-lens reflex concept. It’s no surprise, therefore, that these two threads would come together. Nothing is quite as simple as it first appears, though, and we need to be clear what we mean by a 35mm TLR!
First, what is a TLR? Reflex means that the viewed image is reflected in a mirror (or occasionally a prism) onto a screen. To exclude many simpler viewing systems such as the bright finder, which is a reflex viewing system of a sort, I think that a TLR needs a reflex viewing system that can be used to focus the camera, as well as to frame the scene. So there needs to be a viewing camera that parallels the action of the taking camera.
However, how about
- a 35mm camera, made with a detachable focusing reflex viewing system
- a 35mm camera to which a third party focusing reflex viewing system has been added
And there are other forms of adaptation too.
Second, what is 35mm? There are some 35mm TLRs, like the Contaflex, that take standard perforated 35mm film in standard cassettes, and nothing else. Let’s call these “pure” 35mm TLRs. But what about:
- TLRs that are made for more than one size of film including 35mm cassettes
- TLRs that can be adapted to take 35mm cassettes instead of their normal film
- TLRs that take standard 35mm film but not in standard cassettes
- TLRs that use unperforated 35mm roll film
- TLRs that use film that is only approximately 35mm wide, but which evolved into one of the more convincing categories during their development and production.
All of these categories are real cameras, not theoretical inventions.
So this is the field, and even with these restrictions there is plenty to look at.
Who was first?
If the question is about pure 35mm TLRs, then the Contaflex 860/24 is the first. With a wider definition it isn’t.
The Contaflex was launched in 1935. There were many versions of the Rolleikin, which was a kit made for Rolleiflexes and Rolleicords to permit them to use 35mm film. Initially the film was transported between two Agfa-Rollei cartridges, and in that form (PR114) was available in 1933-34, two years before the Contaflex. So a Rolleiflex with Rolleikin was the first 35mm TLR by two years.
Which was the last?
The main period of 35mm TLR activity is from 1933 (as we have seen) to the late 1960s. The last basic design I have found is 1961, with model variants continuing to about 1968. But the last produced is, I think, the Tessina. It was introduced in 1960, and I am not clear when it stopped being made – perhaps the ‘90s or perhaps it is even possible to buy a new one today. The Tessina is a beautifully elegant, tiny watch-like camera. The film is rewound into slim cassettes and a spring motor feeds the film along the bottom of the camera. It is a side-by-side TLR - the 14x21mm image is reflected via a prism onto the film, and another prism reflects the view onto a ground glass screen flush with the top plate. With a short focal length lens (25mm) little focusing is needed, and the camera can be mostly used with the open sports finder. However, with the accessory prism it becomes very useable for close-ups, with a screen that is easy to focus.
Apart from the early Rolleikins, the Tessina is the only example of a 35mm TLR that uses standard perforated film in non-standard cassettes.
I now move on to look at all the adaptations – more 120 TLRs used with 35mm, and then 35mm cameras adapted to be TLRs.
We looked at the Rolleikin/Rolleiflex combination, and to complete that thread of the story, there are very many other 120 TLRs including a few well adapted to 35mm use. The most notable of these are the 1943 Minoltaflex, various Ricohflexes from 1955 on, the Yashica 635 of 1958 and the Meopta Flexaret models from 1956 on, with improved models coming out until 1968. (Remarkably, of all the 35mm TLRs ever made, this is the only one to take square pictures.) These were all designed from the start to use 35mm film as well as 120. Each requires a few simple parts to be added, at which point the camera’s built in controls take over so that counting, interlocks and so on work as expected.
We have looked at larger cameras which can be adapted, more or less conveniently, to use 35mm film. Let’s look now at 35mm cameras that can be turned into TLRs by the addition of parts.
In 1952 Arco Photo Industry (Japan) introduced their first camera, the Arco 35 which formed a series made for about five years. The Arco is a 35mm strut folding rangefinder camera. Focussing is by a focusing knob at the base of the film rewind knob. Apart from this it is a fairly conventional rangefinder, but there was a unique attachment reflex finder for all the models called the "View Arco". Attaching this to the accessory shoe of the camera enables the camera to be used as a TLR. There are different versions of View Arco matching the various models of Arco camera. The viewfinder of the View Arco couples with the lensboard movements, and parallax is corrected automatically. It also stops down so that depth of field can be seen through it.- unique amongst 35mm TLRs
De Mornay Budd produced a reflex finder attachment for screw mount Leicas. The finder slots into the accessory shoe, and the horn then rotates down to touch the shoulder of your Elmar or Summar. The Megoflex is a very similar idea made for Contax I cameras by the well known lens maker Hugo Meyer. It is better made than the De Mornay Budd; it slots into the accessory shoe and is locked in position by a thumbscrew. It then feels the position of the camera lens in much the same way, and is viewed / focused either looking down on the ground glass, or through a 45 degree mirror (giving an inverted view). They are said to be rare, though the reported total number of 6 (Kuc, Ghisetti) is probably an understatement with serial numbers of 637 and 1425 known. Another was offered 2/1/04 on eBay (a version for Leica) and #976 for Leica on 11/6/04
The Kuhn Flexameter is the last and least attractive of this little group of attachments. It can be attached to any camera with an accessory shoe, and provides a focusable reflex view. You then need to transfer the distance reading to the lens scale. The view is rather dim and low in contrast. There is a magnifier to assist focusing, and in principle you would be able to assess depth of field, at least at its own full aperture. It would all be easier to use if it had a better lens.
The “Japanese side-by-side”
Tougodo’s first 35mm TLR used their No Need Darkroom film-packet system, and Tougodo went on to become the most prolific producer of 35mm TLRs in the world, with a succession of models from the 1930s to the ‘50s (they made 127 and Bolta-film TLRs too, and of course 120 ones). Their trademark is the horizontal or side-by-side layout which permits a 35mm TLR to be little bigger than an ordinary rangefinder camera. They started with the Meisupi and Meikai (1937 on) and this was the first appearance of the “Japanese side-by-side” TLR, which were all in fact Tougodo products. The Meisupi No2 and No3 were pre-war fixed focus side-by-side cameras.
By 1939 or 1940 Tougodo had switched to a version using 16-exposure rolls of paper-backed unperforated 35mm film with 3x4cm negatives, which is the Meikai. It is a cheaply made camera, but more than a toy. There is no proper frame counter, but a rather crafty scale which manages “one and a bit” turns and compensates for the fact that the take up spool gets thicker as you go through the film. There is a magnetic compass in the top-plate (how many cameras have that feature?). With no focusing magnifier it is not that easy to use, but it is possible. There is a separate viewfinder (awful) to frame vertical shots.
During the war, Tougodo closed their Tokyo factories and established two in safer areas. Each factory became independent after the war, but confusingly both retained the name Tougodo. The Tougodo Company in Enzan produced simple or toy cameras – Museflex (which are Bolta-size film vertical TLRs, of which only the IIa focuses both the taking and viewing lenses), non-TLR Meisupi and Meikai, etc. etc. In 1971, it became the Meikai Manufacturing Co. which still produces Meikai EL cameras.
The Tougodo Manufacturing Co. in Toyohashi produced miniature Hit-type, Hobix and Hobby toy cameras and also fairly high-grade real cameras — Toyocaflex, Toyoca, Hobiflex, etc. This company's name was eventually changed to Daishin Seiki and the last camera they produced was the Hobby Jr. They now make parts for the Pioneer Electric Co. There were quite a few cameras called Hobix from the Toyohashi Tougodo company. Of these the Hobix DI, DII and SIII (last two are shown) look like vertical layout TLRs. All look similar, use Bolta-size film and are fixed focus except the 1952 DII which has front element focusing (but not coupled to the viewing lens). The 1954 SIII has a 40/4.5 Complete lens in synchronised 25/50/150/200/B shutter.
The “pure” 35mm TLRs
In 1955 the Toyohashi Tougodo factory launched the Toyocaflex-35 (also known but rare with a Hulda badge). It is clearly a descendant of the wartime Meikai, but better made and now using standard 35mm cassettes. It is 60% heavier than its predecessor and works quite smoothly. Lens is an Owla Anastigmat 4.5cm f/3.5 in NKS shutter, 1-200 & B (which looks just like a Compur rimset) with F and X sync. There is now a focusing magnifier, but it’s not really much easier to focus than the Meikai. And the compass has gone.
And finally, we reach the vertical layout “pure” 35mm TLRs
The first of these, only a couple of years after the first Rolleikin adaptations, is the 1935 ZI Contaflex 860/24. It is a heavy, intricate TLR for horizontal-running 35mm film, with a double-size magnified viewing screen, and a big Albada finder. Eight interchangeable lenses; the standard taking lens is a Sonnar 5cm f/1.5 or f/2, or a Tessar 2.8/50. The viewing system is based on an 80mm lens, so the focusing screen is much larger than a 35mm frame. This is the only 35mm TLR ever made with interchangeable lenses, and it is important to realise that an 80mm viewing camera comes “free” once you have decided to interchange the taking lens and not the viewing lens. This is because you need to have the viewing and taking lenses moving by different amounts to focus at a particular distance. Once you are committed to that, you can have any focal length viewing lens you like, as every taking lens now needs its own pitch of helix to synchronise the two lenses, anyway. Other lenses available are 35/4.5 Orthometar, 35/2.8 Biogon, 85/2 Sonnar, 85/4 Triotar, and 135/4 Sonnar, but as the taking lens only is changed the frames are marked on the viewing screen – except of course for the 35mm lenses which needed an accessory viewfinder.
There is an uncoupled selenium meter (the world’s first built in electric meter), and complex arrangements for setting the Contax-style focal plane shutter, 1/2 - 1/1000 and B.
This is a classic Zeiss Ikon solution – the heaviest, most complex and sophisticated 35mm TLR ever made. It was also the most expensive at £64 - £87 depending on which standard lens you chose.
Although expensive, this camera is not rare today. Earlier suggestions that 25 – 30,000 were built are now discounted, and we believe that about 6000 were made. Probably most of these have survived – it’s not the sort of camera that even a non-expert would scrap in a house clearance.
Next in order of date is the 1948 Luckyflex, made in Milan by the GGS company. These are quite uncommon, only 2000 or so having been made, and as far as I know were never exported to England. It is a vertical 35mm TLR, with vertically running film and portrait format. It is shaped like a small Rolleiflex but internally of rather agricultural construction. Film loading is excellent - unscrew the big knob to release the LHS panel, and the back/bottom cover comes off as well. The film wind is just like a KW Pilot Reflex - two strokes of a spring-loaded trigger. Rewind is engaged by turning a knob in the centre of the trigger pivot, which moves the trigger on an eccentric, so that it engages the reverse mechanism instead of forwards, so you rewind by a normal winding action. Excellent!
Bolsey C (1950) & C22 (1953) - Designed by Jacqes Bol of Bolex fame, made by Obex Corp., and sold widely in the USA. These are both common cameras in the USA but less so in Europe. No production figures are available. It is a well made, and well-finished small 35mm TLR with a 44mm f/3.2 Wollensak Anastigmat and a leaf shutter, 1/10 - 1/200, B&T. As well as the reflex viewer, there are both an optical viewfinder and a split image rangefinder in the top plate. There is a depth of field calculator and film type reminder on the back cover, and a flap in the erc lets you look at it.
The C22 has “Set-o-Matic”, which links aperture to focused distance for flash purposes. There are flash exposure instructions instead of the d.o.f. plate on the back cover. The viewing screen is now a lens, presumably to try to brighten the corners of the field (the C2 has a flat screen). This seems to make no discernable difference.
I have successfully photographed with the C’s, but you need to be careful. It is possible, indeed rather tempting, to turn the film winding knob the wrong way. The effect of this is to tangle up the film inside, and then you have to take it into the darkroom and start again. It is a compact, comfortable camera to use, and it is easy to see why it sold in good numbers. The separate viewfinder is essential for portrait format shots, of course, and I find the rangefinder is a more accurate focusing aid than the ground glass screen – even with the focusing magnifier.
Samocaflex 35, by Sanei Sangyo. There were two versions both of 1955 with minor shutter differences (Seikosha-Rapid, Seikosha-MX). It is uncommon. A 35mm TLR rather similar in appearance to the Bolsey. The lens is a D Ezumar 2.8/50 in Seikosha-Rapid 1-500 & B. Waist-level reflex focusing with a magnifier. The shutter is cocked by winding the film, and released from the body.
The body "casting" is actually a black thermoset plastic moulding, which is quite fragile. The original plastic is rather crumbly when exposed for repair, and should be handled with care. Do not drop a Samocaflex!
The Yalluflex is really rare, less than 50 were made, and I have only ever seen photographs. The Aires Camera co. had been established in 1949 as Yallu Optical co. Their first camera was the Yallu (named for some reason after the river in northern Korea). It is said to have been a prototype given to camera stores as samples, but which excited little interest. The company by 1951 had become the Aires Camera Co, who then made a range of good quality cameras before closing their doors in 1960. The Yalluflex has distinctive curved body, and some unusual design features. The focusing wheel is built into the back, and film is wound by a trigger in the base. The lens is a 50/3.5 Hexar in a Seikosha-Rapid shutter, 1-500 & B. Viewing lens a Yallu Excella 50/2.8. Film advance cocks shutter.
Agfa produced the Flexilette 1960-63 & the Optima Reflex from 1963-65, though both may have been sold a little after these dates. The design is apparently based on the Silette body upside down, so the lever wind is on the bottom left. It is not hard to find today in either form. The Flexilette has waist level viewing like all the cameras we have been looking at, and manual controls. However, unlike almost any of the others the viewing screen is bright, sharp and easy to focus, and has a split-image circle. You need to use the sports finder for vertical shots.
The Optima Reflex is transformed by having a pentaprism viewing system like an SLR. The viewfinder is really excellent - big, bright, and clear. It also has built-in automation. On Auto it does its own thing; you can also have an aperture of your choice plus B, and on the yellow aperture scale you use flash and a fixed 1/30th. You have no direct control over the shutter speed, it depends entirely on the light meter. The viewfinder has clear indications of whether the film is wound, and if the light is sufficient for an exposure. Focusing information on the Optima is by zone symbols, though if you turn the camera upside down you can see scales of feet and metres. The Flexilette has the distance information on top where you can read it.
The 45mm f/2.8 Color Apotar takes nice sharp pictures, and rather to my surprise the exposure control on the Optima Reflex seems to work well, even after 40 years. Because of the pentaprism this camera is equally at home with horizontal and vertical shots
What are they like to use?
Most of these cameras you would not want to use for more than the occasional test roll of film. They have small dim viewing systems, which are usually hard to focus – you just don’t get a definite sharp point of focus. Almost all are even more difficult to use tilted on their side, though many have alternative viewing systems fitted to help cope with that problem. There are just a few exceptions:
The Tessina is tiny, takes good pictures, and is easy to use so long as you are developing your own films.
The Contaflex weighs “a ton”, has a good finder, good lenses, and is the only 35mm TLR with interchangeable lenses. It uses standard cassettes, but can only be used for landscape shots.
The Bolseys are idiosyncratic but attractive, robust and compact, and I could live with the poor finder if I had to.
Several of the adapted 120 cameras are quite easy to use if an 80mm lens and a portrait format suits your photography, which is to say they are good for portraits but not much else. Here I’d probably go for the Yashica 635. The exception is the Flexaret, the only 35mm TLR in the world to offer a square picture. But 24x24 in the middle of a 60x60 viewing screen is really quite small, and mechanically the Flexaret does not inspire confidence.
So the Agfas are the undoubted and worthy winners for the user, and I’d be happy to use either, especially the Optima Reflex, as my standard camera. Their viewing system in particular is head and shoulders above any of the rest.
The numbers originally produced don’t entirely match with what is rare and what is common today. Tougodo certainly made the most models, and probably made the largest numbers, but they certainly aren’t common now, at least in the West. There is also a question of price. There is some correlation between rarity and price, but it is limited. Contaflexes are easy to find, but expensive. A Samocaflex or a Toyocaflex was far cheaper when new, and is probably cheaper today, but you will have to wait a lot longer to find one.
As a type, the 35mm TLR never took the world by storm. Probably the greatest impact on the working photographer was 35mm adaptations of 120 cameras, which were an inexpensive way to take portraits on an existing camera. The only pure 35TLR that was made for a really extended period was the Tessina, which probably would have sold even without its TLR viewing system.
This research has been a fascinating journey into an area of camera collecting which has been much neglected. Although quite a few of the individual cameras are well known, and may even be the topics of collections on their own, there does not seem to have been any previous attempt to pull it all together. It is actually a good field for a specialist collection – reasonably compact, some cameras quite easy to find and some rather hard. All of them are interesting – you can admire the technical achievement, the quirky imagination, or the plain daftness of the solutions that designers came up with.
Looking at a rather dim 24x36 image made by a cheap lens, and magnified by a cheap magnifier, was probably more comfortable that the pretty terrible viewfinders of the day, but could hardly be called a dramatic step forward. In fact, surviving examples are often easier to use with the alternative viewing system usually provided. The Optima Reflex was a clear exception, but came at a time when the 35mm SLR was taking the world by storm. Interchangeable lenses, no parallax, and so on were too much to offset the benefit of quiet operation of the TLR.
Would the story have been different if, soon after the war, a good quality small vertical model had been produced with square frames 24x24mm, and a good bright viewfinder with a decent magnifier? It would be a shrunken Baby Rolleiflex, and might have done really well in the period when the Rolleiflex itself was so popular.
They all have points of interest, and in many ways the most interest comes from bringing them all together and seeing how they emerged, survived for a while, and then died in the face of their inherent weaknesses and better ideas from elsewhere.
A project like this one will never end, there will always be more information turning up. If we just consider a narrow definition of what a 35mm TLR is, there were just eight basic designs – Contaflex, Luckyflex, Bolsey, Yalluflex, Toyocaflex, Samocaflex, Flexilette/Optima and Tessina – plus their variants bringing the total number of models to a dozen or so, depending on what you call a different model. I believe that I have identified all the “pure” 35mm TLRs, and mentioned them all here. If anyone knows different, please tell me! On the other hand, the list of adaptations can probably go on being extended; there were huge numbers of 120 TLRs, how many more of them had 35mm adaptors of one sort or another?
This article was published in an expanded form in Photographica World in two parts, spring and summer 2005. Any further information will still be very welcome.
Copyright 2004 John Marriage