Fun with an Old School TLR Camera

"A TL-whaa?" you ask.

My Yashica 635, introduced in 1958. It's a typical TLR in most respects, although the 635 is unusual in that it was made to shoot either 120 or 35 mm film.

TLR is short for Twin Lens Reflex. These cool-looking cameras were marketed for decades, in various designs, and reached the pinnacle of their popularity in the 1960s. You can often find vintage TLRs on the used market at affordable prices - eBay, Craigslist or the odd yard sale. They typically run around $50-200, depending on the model and condition. If you're lucky, you may find one for a few bucks since the general public assumes film is no longer "a thing." Popular makes include Rollei, Yashica and Mamiya.

So how does a TLR work? Unlike an SLR, where you view and shoot through a single lens, the TLR uses one lens for viewing and another for taking the actual shot. This separation of lens functions has a variety of practical implications, one of which is that very close objects may require adjusting the camera position due to a phenomenon known as parallax. For shooting at normal distances (6+ feet, or so), this is not a problem. Due to the simplicity of their design and robust construction, these cameras also tend to hold up well over the years. Most use a single, fixed focal-length lens although there were some standard accessory filters and close-up lenses made.

Looking through the waist-level viewfinder of a typical TLR.

TLRs typically use a waist-level viewfinder, meaning you look down from above to compose and focus. Some models include a magnifying glass that flips out for more precise focusing (I use mine regularly). Because the scene is projected directly up from a mirror in the body, the image is flipped left-to-right, which can be a little disorienting at first. The viewing screen is surprisingly bright. In fact, there's a whole group on Flickr dedicated to using digital cameras to shoot through these viewfinders. Of course there's no reason you can't still use these cameras as intended to take photos on film - which, as you might suspect, is exactly how I use mine.

Most TLRs use 120 film, which is readily available online in a variety of types. Some models took 620 film, which is the exact same film on a thinner spool. 620 film is no longer made, but you can order re-spooled film for a small premium cost, or buy used or newly-manufactured spools online and do it yourself. You can buy color, slide or black & white film for that authentic old look. Loading film in your TLR is even easier than popping the back off your smartphone to install a micro-SD card. You can usually find videos on YouTube demonstrating the use of a particular vintage camera so there's plenty of community support readily available out there if you find yourself unsure of what to do.

Self-portrait illustrating how to shoot with a TLR. An obvious benefit for people who enjoy doing street photography is that people aren't accustomed to seeing a camera held this way, so you can photograph strangers discreetly. Bystanders will assume that you're simply preoccupied with that antique in your hands.

So why would you want to shoot with one of these vintage cameras? For starters, they shoot square photos that yield the beautiful, authentic look of film. The lenses are generally quite sharp, so your photos look at least as good as anything you shoot for Instagram. The negatives are several times larger than 35mm film, which means you can enlarge your photos to a high degree - really, we're talking massive enlargement potential. Another feature I enjoy is the "swirly" bokeh (out of focus area) effect I sometimes get shooting at larger apertures on my Yashica.

They're also great conversation starters, as many people have never seen a camera like this in the wild, and older people appreciate the nostalgia. It's unusual for me to not have at least one person ask about my TLR when I use it in public!

Photo shot this weekend on my Yashica 635, using Ilford Delta Pro 100 film. Home developed and scanned.

If you're not already a film shooter, but are looking for a cheap way to dip your toes into the water, keep your eyes open for a good deal on used TLRs the next time you stop at a yard sale or flea market. You might score a great buy on a beautiful and "obsolete" camera. Just don't tell the vendor that you can buy film for it.

Do They Still Make Film For That?

I own a fair number of cameras - too many, in fact.  I've been in the process of paring down my collection, and am probably just a few over the right number for my "stable".  Aside from a couple of sentimental or display pieces, I'm not so much a collector as a photographer who uses a variety of gear.  My working cameras run the gamut from antique to "vintage" to newer models made in the 1990s through the present.  If you have some old cameras on hand - perhaps handed down from older family members - and have wondered if there's any life in them, then this article is for you!

One of the most frequent comments I hear when out shooting my film cameras is: "I didn't know you could even still buy film!" Or it's phrased in question form as in the title of this article: "Do they even still make film for that?"  (Interestingly, Millennials are more likely to express genuine interest and respect for film usage than people of my own generation and older.)  I'm occasionally tempted to say something along the lines of "No, I just like to pretend I'm taking photos with this old camera." But of course I don't do that because I'm not a snob.

A 35mm Konica FS-1, introduced in 1979.  I'm a big Konica fan, and this model is one of my current favorites.  It was one of the first SLR cameras to feature a motor drive for advancing film.  You do have to rewind  the film manually, however. Konica lenses are still widely recognized as high quality.

The simple answer to the question is "Yes" - a thousand times yes! Film has most certainly become a niche market but it's not gone away even if it is less visible to the general public.  While "Who Uses Film Today?" could be its own blog entry, suffice it to say that today's film market caters to significantly more people than senior citizens who don't want to mess with new-fangled, digital kerjiggers.  Certainly such customers constitute a shrinking but important demographic of film users. But today's film shooters include teenagers, college students, artists, everyday adult hobbyists and even some professionals who use film exclusively or as one component of their photographic arsenal.  There are also a number well-known TV and movie producers who prefer the aesthetics of film and choose to shoot mainstream features using old-school film reels.

Film is admittedly harder to find in traditional retail outlets.  It's out there, but you may have to look a bit harder to find it.  I can usually find a small stock of popular film at Walmart or the local Walgreens (our local Walgreens has it nearly hidden behind the photo service counter). Typically these stores will stock Fuji Superia 200 and 400 speed 35mm films - both of which are great consumer films.  CVS stores sometimes carry a bit more in the way of selection, although they seem to have scaled back their selection in the past year or so.  Of course if you're fortunate enough to have an old school camera shop still open in your community,  you may find a decent local selection there.  (If you're in the Knoxville area, check out Thompson Photo.) Other retail outlets are hit or miss, but film hasn't disappeared entirely from store shelves - at least not yet.

Two rolls of 120 film I shot yesterday at a photography meetup event in Knoxville: Kodak Ektar and Kodak Portra.  Also called medium format film, 120 has been around for over a century and is still popular among photography enthusiasts. 120 film frames can be several times larger than 35mm negatives, and due to the larger size it yields detailed and beautiful scans.

So where do you find the biggest selection of films?  It's the same place where many of us buy everything from books to electronics to toilet paper: the Internet, of course!  One convenient place to buy film is Amazon.  The prices are usually competitive, and many of their offerings are covered by their Prime membership; assuming you're a Prime member, you get free, 2-day shipping on a huge selection of films.  

If you're looking for the best prices on black & white films (and related chemistry and supplies for developing your own), I recommend Freestyle Photographic Supplies.  Another great source for a huge variety of films - including a growing number of hand-rolled specialty films you won't find anywhere else - is the Film Photography Project.  Their prices are competitive and their shipping is priced at actual cost.  The FPP features a fun and informative bi-weekly podcast, along with other great content on their website.  I'm a huge fan of the show.

The chances are good that if you own an old camera you can find film for it.  Common film formats, including 35mm and 120 (aka medium format), are widely available in a variety of types. Even the humble 110 film has returned to the market several years after production had been halted.  Depending on the format of the film you need, you may still be able to choose between regular color print film, slide film or black & white.  Unfortunately, some films are gone and unlikely to return; these types include disc film and APS film (you can still buy remaining APS film online even though production stopped in 2011).

Before I close, let me clear up a common misapprehension about Kodak.  Contrary to popular belief, Kodak film is still being produced and sold.  While Kodak proper is no longer in the consumer film business, Kodak sold off that division to another company, now known as Kodak Alaris.  The new owner has publicly affirmed their commitment to continuing the existing product line.  That means you can still buy a wide assortment of fresh Kodak film.  In fact, I regularly use Kodak Portra, Kodak Ektar, Kodak Tri-X, Kodak T-Max and even the occasional Kodak Gold and Ultramax consumer films.

In a nutshell, you can still buy film for a large number of old cameras.  And with continued usage and support, these companies hopefully will produce beautiful films for years to come.  In a future article, we'll take a closer look at the different types of film in production today.