Sunday, April 3, 2011

Twin-lens reflex - Meopta Flexaret VI

Last summer I had the chance to visit the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin. I loved the awesome selection of his pictures and those of his life partner Alice Springs. As I was wandering around the exhibition, I was drawn to a showcase displaying some of the cameras that Newton used throughout his life. The most beautiful one, without a doubt, was the Rolleiflex, a twin-lens reflex made in Germany by Franke&Heidecke.

A twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera has two lenses: the viewing lens for focusing, framing and composing the shot, and the taking lens for actually taking the picture. The standard TLR design has the viewing lens on top of the taking lens. The image projected by the viewing lens is reflected on a mirror and projected onto a ground glass that the photographer looks from above. This kind of device is called a waist-level finder because one does not need to bring the camera to eye level to take pictures.

Flexaret Automat VI (+1)
(EOS 40D, EX DG 50mm f/2.8 macro, 0.3s, f/3.5, ISO 100)

The Rolleiflex was kind of the Rolls Royce of photography from its introduction in 1929 well into the 70s. It was, on its heyday, the professional camera par excellence, kind of like today's top-of-the-line Canon or Nikon dSLRs. Rolleiflex cameras are still in production. A second hand Rolleiflex is still relatively expensive, especially the latest f/2.8 models or those sporting the finest lenses. Fortunately for vintage camera enthusiasts on a budget (like me!), lots of different clones of the Rolleiflex TLR design were made, using more or less of the original Rollei elements. Some of these clones aged very well and can be acquired today for much less money than a new plastic toy camera costs.

Ever since Berlin I've been fascinated by Newton's Rolleiflex and I wanted to give a TLR a try, to see if operating one is as sexy as it looks. Browsing through the online catalogue of one of the last second hand photo stores in Salzburg, I found a relatively low-priced camera under the entry "MEOPTA FLEXARET AUTOMAT with MEOPTA BRLST 1:3,5/80mm". A quick google image search confirmed that it was a TLR. The store owner, probably feeling sympathetic to the weird-looking foreigner asking about TLRs in broken German, sold me the Flexaret for still less than he actually asked for in the first place.

My first TLR is a Meopta Flexaret VI, produced between 1961 and 1967 by Meopta in Prerov, then Czechoslovakia. Both lenses are Meopta Belar (there was a funny typo on the online catalogue!) 80mm f/3.5, a four-element, Tessar-like design. The camera takes both medium format 120 film and 35mm, with the help of an adapter. In my case a 35mm take-up spool was missing, but I am more than happy using the camera with medium format film only. The shutter release is on the camera front and film advance is accomplished by turning a winding knob on the right side, which automatically cocks the shutter for the next shot. The Flexaret is reputed to be a very sturdy camera, which was used by many photojournalists in Czechoslovakia and the whole Eastern Block before the new SLRs took over the market.

Maybe the most unique feature about the Flexaret is its focusing lever: standard TLRs use a focusing knob on the side, but the Flexaret uses a double-headed lever below the taking lens that swivels from side to side. Once you've got used to it, it is very quick and very precise, because you can operate it with two fingers of the same hand you use for holding the camera. Another famous TLR, the Minolta Autocord, uses a similar system. In fact, the predecessor of the Autocord, the Minoltacord of 1953 was a nearly exact copy of Meopta's Flexaret III design of the late 1940s.

flexie on fire
(EOS 40D, EF 50mm f/1.8, 1/60, f/1.8, ISO 400)

The most striking feature about the Flexaret, and in general about TLRs, is the way in which you take the photographs. To look down into the waist-level finder, with the big bright screen, allows a very conscious framing and composing, and you can achieve dead on focusing precision with the aid of a small pop-up magnifying glass. The image projected onto the screen is reversed left-to-right. Although this is really a disadvantage when trying to track moving objects (you know your target moves to your right, you have to move your camera to the right, but on the screen the target appears to be moving to the left, a real challenge for the brain-muscle coordination!), I realized that a reversed image actually allows for a very contemplative, relaxed and thoughtful photo making and I think it actually makes you a better photographer.

(EOS 40D, EX DG 50mm f/2.8 macro, 10s, f/9, ISO 100)

The reversed image puts some distance between the reality you see and the reflected, reversed reality that you see through the camera, and this distance is enough to avoid the casual snapshot and forces you to really think about how are you going to make this photograph. I've read that a similar effect happens when using a large format view camera, where the image is inverted both upside-down and left-to-right.

toni & flexie
(Photo taken by light thru my lens)

I have already taken 9 rolls of film with my Flexie and I am really happy with the results so far. It is a very special feeling when you open the lid, look down onto the reversed image and imagine how it would look like as a photograph. The vintage camera feeling is double with the Flexie, because the non-standard operation and the strange looks of the camera (at least for people under 40!) makes you stand out from the crowd whenever you take it in your hands. I can say that, as of today, the Flexaret VI is, without a doubt, my favorite camera.

Meopta Flexaret VI
My Flexaret VI flickr set

Maker Meopta
Model Flexaret Automat VI
Type Twin-lens Reflex
Lens Meopta Belar 80mm f/3.5
Shutter Metax 1 - 1/400 + B
Film type medium format (120), 6x6
Year 1961-67
Country Czechoslovakia


  1. Ostres... em fas venir ganes de ficar-me a ebay a veure si me n'agencio una, eh!!! XD
    (i gràcies per fer servir la meva foto!! Ara se m'acut, si em deixes la poso publica al meu flickr i et linko, vale?)

  2. Light, jo crec que pots tenir més sort amb una TLR de 2a mà més o menys en condicions que no pas amb una Seagull...
    I tant que pots posar la foto pública! Quina emoció! :)

  3. Ho miraré, a veure què veig. I si veig, et demanaré consell, si no et fa res.
    Vaig a posar-la ara, doncs! :)

  4. Light, OK! Moltes gràcies pel link, i ja em diràs si necessites consell... :)