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July 14, 2019

My First Twin Lens Reflex Camera

I blame Vivian Maier for my first Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera, a RicohDIACORD. Seeing her work and her selfies holding her Rolleiflex, I just HAD to try one out. They really are a beautiful piece of machinery.

In looking at Rolleiflex prices, I thought I would bust my chops on something less expensive. Rollei 3.5s were starting at around $400 in good condition on ebay and upwards of $1000 for a 2.8. I picked up the Ricoh for $100 (plus another C note for repairs).

My first Twin Lens Reflex camera gave me a chance to test the TLR waters before investing in the more expensive Rolleiflex TLRs. I even bought the telephoto and wide angle lenses with attach on to existing lenses, one for focus and one for shooting.

It was all new to me and Mort, from the camera shop in Weston, MO, gave me a quick overview.

One thing I’ve learned, now owning several different brands and models of TLRs, they are all different, and usually in small ways that will trip you up.

This model, loading the film is pretty straightforward. Open the door like on most TLRs, just spin the release, flip the latch to release the back, and swing the big door up. Put the empty spool in the top, unexposed roll in the bottom, pull the film up and into the empty spool. Wind the crank until the big black arrow is pointing at the red dot on the side, then shut it all up. Wind the crank until it stops and you’re ready to shoot your 12 shots.

What makes the RicohDIACORD tricky is that you have to cock the shutter. I both like and dislike this. I like it when I want to pack it up and don’t want to accidentally release the shutter. I DON’T like it when I forget about it and keep pushing the shutter, wondering why it won’t fire.

Last year, I had taken a break from the Ricoh, as I had acquired a Rollei 3.5 and was shooting it a lot. One day, I had taken the Ricoh out to take some portrait shots of a friend for a project, loaded the film, set up the tripod, set the exposure, pushed the shutter…nothing. I scratched my head and tried what I thought was everything. Opened the back, messed with the film, closed the back, nothing.

In the end, and two rolls of ruined film later, I remembered that I had to cock the shutter. I’m such a dope. From that moment on, the photo shoot went perfectly. The camera works great…just its operator is an idiot.

But the cocking, then shooting, is only part of the sequence for each shot.

After shooting, one must push in a release button on the film advance dial, then spin the film advance dial until it stops, THEN cock and shoot. Four steps per shot, not counting any focusing and exposure settings you might need to adjust.

I won’t say it’s “exhausting,” but it’s a lot of steps compared to holding the button down and spraying the room with a digital SLR. It does give a whole new appreciation to how much work it was for Maier.

One benefit I’ve found about the number of steps it takes to grab a shot is that, when taking portraits, I can give an overview of what I’m about to do for the subject, and in seeing how it works, they relax and enjoy the shot more. They like the novelty of it, or feel sorry for me…either way it’s a win for me. It even works on kids.

Focusing shouldn’t be tricky, but…I’m a dope, remember? There is a teeter totter lever on each side of the focusing plate. You can use either side, which is great whether right, or left, handed. Focusing moves the plate away from, and closer to, the body of the camera. With a TLR, you view the composition through the viewfinder, which uses the top lens. The bottom lens is actually doing the heavy lifting of capturing the image on the film.

It’s important to remember a proper way to hold the camera when shooting, and I say this with a bit of experience. When I first started shooting it, I tried to hold from the bottom, but sometimes, because of the position of everything, I would find myself holding the front plate, basically SQUEEZING it closer to the body to get a good grip, thus, continually, every so slightly, taking it out of focus.

I think I literally slapped my forehead when I realized this was why I kept having to refocus.

The only other tricky thing for someone new to the TLR world is that they use different numbers for a lot of the exposure settings. Not the end of the world, I can do SOME basic math, but, for example, THIS TLR has shutter speeds of 400, 200, 100, 50, 25, 10, 5, 2, 1, and Bulb (B). The aperture settings are basically what I was used to, starting at 22 and going down to 4, then a 3.5 just below it. So when using a light meter with Single Lens Reflex (SLR) settings for shutter, just throw a dart at it and hope.

Of course one very obvious difference from SLR shooting is that you have to look down into the viewfinder to see what’s in front of you. Seems easy, but I found two things that made it tricky for me.

One is that everything is backwards, so if you want to move the subject more to the right of the frame, I had to rotate the camera to the left. I STILL get messed up with that. And if you use a TLR that has a feature (like my Rolleis do) that you can flip up the mirror and look straight through to the subject, more like an SLR, everything is upside down and backwards. Yeah…I know.

The other thing that I have to remember to do is watch the grid lines in most TLR viewfinders. I find it easy to have the camera at an angle, or I’m standing at an angel, or one of my legs is shorter than the other, or something that makes every shot going down hill. It’s awareness and getting used to holding and viewing through a camera that way. Over time, it becomes more automatic.

When I bought the camera, as I was getting ready to pay for it, Mort said “wait a second…let me find something,” then started digging through the drawers behind the counter. He found the telephoto and wide angle lenses for it.

Unlike SLR lenses that are removed, and replaced with the various focal lengths of lens, these lenses attach to the front. And being a TLR, there are two lenses per set, one for the focusing lens and one for the shooting lens.

Who wouldn’t buy those, too?

I haven’t had the chance to test them out, yet. I’ve focused on the basic camera and how it works for me.

I like it. I’ve loaned it to a friend who liked it. I like the pictures it has given me, even though, by TLR standards, it’s a cheap camera.

I won’t sell this one…it will be used again.

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Russell Viers

I'm just a guy who finds the world an interesting place and likes to capture certain moments with a camera. They aren't for sale, or anything. I just like them. Well, usually. I've taken a lot of photos I don't like, as well.

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