I watched my friend light the wick on a small alcohol burner and place it under a glass container filled with fresh water. As heat from the single flame increased the water’s temperature, it began to steam. The pressure of the steam forced the water to rise from the lower glass container, through a tube, and into another glass container above it. The freshly ground coffee within the upper vessel began to dance violently within the turbulent, churning water. When the last drops of water had been forced into the upper chamber, my friend extinguished the flame and the resulting vacuum drew the rich brown liquid through a filter and back into the bottom container. He decanted it into a large cup, and I took my first sip — heavenly.
This method for brewing coffee, invented in the 1830′s, has long since been replaced by the faster, easier, and cleaner drip machine. In this hurry-up world that values convenience over quality, the vacuum technique has been nearly forgotten. What a shame. Because there’s absolutely nothing that will rival the quality of a cup of coffee prepared in this manner.
As I sat nursing that luxurious beverage, I pulled my ‘new’ late-1950′s Yashica Mat Twin Lens Reflex from my camera bag. I fondled its beautiful dials, popped open its viewfinder, and gazed down onto the ground glass focusing screen. There, on the screen, I saw the image of my friend disassembling and cleaning his vacuum coffee apparatus. “Such a lot of trouble,” I said to myself, “but so worth it.”
The statement applied to the coffee maker, but it might just as well have applied to the camera. Like the vacuum coffee method, the Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) is a mechanical marvel — born of another time, forgotten in the haste of our convenience-centric world, but without peer for those whose passions force them to look beyond the ordinary.
In Part One, I outlined the rationale behind my decision to purchase a TLR. In actuality, I had always wanted a Rolleiflex. Their utilitarian beauty and the genteel manner in which one must bow when taking a photograph appealed to my aesthetic nature. The photographer in me liked the big 6×6 negative, the fabulous lens, and the fact that it could deliver impeccable images — as demonstrated so aptly by such greats as Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton. The rush to digital has seen many a photographer abandon his old medium format equipment in exchange for the latest plastic Wunderkamera. This means we’re now living in a buyer’s market. And a buyer’s market means bargains. And bargains mean that even a photographer of meager means can own a Rolleiflex.
Unfortunately, my means aren’t quite highfalutin’ enough to be classified as “meager.” Rolleiflex cameras have ‘collector appeal,’ which means many people buy them for the prestige of owning them, rather than the fun of using them. My desire to own a Rolleiflex had everything to do with “use” and nothing to do with “prestige.” Since I wasn’t 100% certain I’d enjoy photographing with a TLR, I wasn’t quite ready to experiment with the process at Rolleiflex prices. So, instead, I purchased a Yashica Mat — a 1950′s Japanese camera that faithfully and painstakingly stole nearly every design element from the German Rolleiflex. Yashica Mats have no collector value and no commensurate mark-up. At last, I had my TLR.
Ancient History 101
For the edification of those who are unfamiliar with Twin Lens Reflex cameras, I’ll provide a brief overview. These cameras have — as you can tell by both nomenclature and appearance — two lenses, not one. Both lenses are of equal focal length. The top lens, called “the viewing lens” has no shutter or adjustable aperture. It is forever and for always watching the world pass before it, and projecting a view of that passing world onto a large ground-glass screen, which the photographer uses to frame and focus the image. The viewing lens is never used to take the photo — only to provide the photographer with a ‘preview’ image. The bottom lens, cleverly called the “taking lens,” is the one with the adjustable aperture and shutter, and is used to actually expose the film and take the picture.
The twin lens system provides numerous advantages over the more well-known single lens (SLR) method. All SLRs have a mirror that sits between the film plane and the lens, which is what allows you to look through the lens to frame and focus your shot. TLRs have no such mirror, since you view the world through one lens and capture it with another. The problem with the SLR is that, when you press the shutter release, the mirror needs to swing up and out of the way. This is a source of several frustrations. First, when the mirror swings up, you can no longer look through the lens. This means your viewfinder ‘blacks out’ precisely at the most important moment — the moment of exposure. Prior to the days of digital cameras with rear-panel LCDs, this moment of blindness meant photographers never really knew whether or not they had captured the ‘decisive moment.’ Second, the physical force required to rapidly flip a mirror out of the lens path creates a lot of vibration. Vibration results in camera movement, which reduces image sharpness and, in particular, forces photographers to use faster shutter speeds than they would ordinarily wish to use. Third, the noises emitted by an SLR’s slapping mirror and focal plane shutter are quite loud in comparison to the nearly silent leaf shutters used by TLR’s. This makes the TLR far stealthier than the SLR.
Of course, for every argument one can proffer for the TLR, SLR aficionados can offer a counter-argument. For example, because you look through a different lens than you photograph with, TLRs are prone to parallax error. So, too, is it impossible to preview a photograph’s depth-of-field with a TLR. I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to determine which system’s advantages speak to your needs.
View From the Streets
In the 1950′s, the TLR was highly touted for its discretion. The main reason for this reputation is that, because you peer down into the camera rather than raising it to your eye, it’s much less obvious when you’re taking a photograph. And, when you do take a photograph, its leaf shutter emits almost no noise at all. Here in 2010, a TLR is no longer a discreet photographic tool. When was the last time you saw someone walking around with a TLR dangling from their neck? In the 1950′s this would have been a fairly common sight, so a photographer could easily fire off waste-level shots without the subject’s knowledge. Today, the very act of carrying a TLR in public is somewhat akin to walking down the street with a live lobster on your head. People will notice you. Everyone will notice you. This single fact, alone, is worth the $95 I spent on the Yashica Mat, because the looks I get from total strangers are priceless. It’s amazing how many different ways people can contort their faces, yet still convey that the phrase, “what a moron!” is echoing through their head.
Sadly, its ability to attract both attention and derision limit the Yashica Mat’s use for documentary-style street photography, though I haven’t totally given up the idea. I imagine that large crowds will dilute the ‘lobster hat’ effect of the Yashica Mat, and it might yet prove its worth as a capable camera for reportage. One of the more interesting scenarios, which I have yet to try, is to hold the camera upside-down, high above my head. I will then be able to gaze straight up onto the focus screen and photograph a viewpoint available only to professional basketball players and people with articulating LCDs. I plan to give the Yashica Mat a thorough ‘street’ workout come February, when the 2010 Winter Olympics descend upon my Vancouver home.
Getting to Know the Yashica Mat
As you might gather, photographing with the Yashica Mat requires deliberate and thoughtful action. Modern, digital photographic conveniences that I’d long ago taken for granted were instantly flushed away, and I was forced to reconnect a neural network that hadn’t been powered on in over a decade. Not only would there be additional complexities related to scanning the film, processing the film, and exposing the film — but even the very act of choosing the film has a certain gravitas. With digital cameras, you can choose your ISO speed on a shot-by-shot basis, but when you load a roll of 120 film, you commit to shooting at a single ISO speed for the next 12 images. How long will it take me to expose the next 12 shots? Will I shoot mostly indoors or outdoors? Under bright sun or cloudy conditions? If I guess wrong, my images will suffer. All that pressure and I haven’t even loaded the camera yet!
Fortunately, it was quite sunny on the day my Yashica Mat arrived, and I knew I’d be shooting a full roll in order to get a feel for the camera. So I felt comfortable with my decision to unwrap a package of 100 speed film. As I threaded the film onto the upper spool and began to rotate the camera’s crank, I heard a little voice mutter, “you must be crazy.” I looked around the room, but saw I was alone. I closed the camera back, and continued to crank the film advance handle. “You’re totally crazy,” said the little, disembodied voice.
“Look,” I shouted to no one in particular, “not only is the camera beautiful, but it only cost $95!” The voice said nothing. What could it say? It knew I was right. I slung the Yashica Mat over my shoulder and headed outside.
After surviving the stress of deciding which film to load, I knew the next problem I’d encounter would be setting exposure. This particular model Yashica Mat doesn’t have a built-in meter. Although I’m fairly adept at assessing and applying the numerous variants of the “Sunny 16″ rule, I wasn’t sure exactly how accurate this camera’s aperture or shutter speed might be. So, to be on the safe side, I also brought along my Sekonic L-358 light meter.
I quickly realized my choice of film speed was even savvier than expected. I wanted to test the performance of the f/3.5 lens at its wider settings, but the Yashica Mat has a maximum shutter speed of only 1/500s. I’d grown so accustom to the 1/8000s speed offered by my digital cameras, that I’d failed to take this factor into consideration when selecting which film to load. Had I chosen to load the camera with 400 speed film, the combination of that 2-stop penalty, coupled with the 4-stop shutter speed penalty, would have required me to shoot at f/8 or higher. It’s amazing how mentally soft I’ve gotten in the digital age.
Having now selected the proper film, and circumnavigated any exposure issues, it was time to face the third barrier standing between myself and my first photograph — framing. I popped open the top of the TLR and gazed down upon its focusing screen. Greeting me was a big 2 1/4″ square view of the world in front in front of me. I turned my body to the right, so as to compose a better shot — the camera responded by moving the image in the opposite direction. “Crap,” I thought, “I completely forgot that the viewfinders on these cameras show a mirror image of the scene.” If you’re looking at the focus screen and think you need to move the camera a little to the right, you really need to move it a little to the left. It’s as annoying now as it was way back in the day. Fortunately, photography and bicycle riding have a lot in common and, by the end of my first roll of 120, I was once again accustom to, if not thoroughly comfortable with the inverted image.
With the image now properly framed, I was ready to focus. I again gazed down at the focus screen. The image looked a bit soft, so I turned the focus knob. The image looked even softer. I turned the knob in the opposite direction. Still soft. I suddenly realized that my presbyopic eyesight was causing a problem similar to that which plagues my ability to use the rear LCD on a modern digital camera — I simply can’t focus on near objects without donning my reading glasses. Although the viewfinder on the TLR is far enough from my eye to provide a reasonably clear view for framing, it’s still too close for me to make critical focus decisions. Fortunately, those clever TLR designers thought of this, and provide a solution — a pop out magnifying glass! A spring-loaded magnifying loupe is attached permanently to one of the viewfinder shades. A quick push to the shade flips out the glass, which sits directly over the centre of the viewfinder. With this, I was able to achieve critical focus without having to fumble and bumble about with reading glasses.
Finally! The camera was loaded with the correct film, the exposure was set, and the image was framed and focused. I pushed the shutter release — nothing. Oh, that’s right. I’ve got to flip out the handle, crank the film into position, and cock the shutter. Duh! I cranked the crank, re-framed the image, checked the focus and… pszt! The soft-spoken whisper of the leaf shutter was like music to my ears.
Immediately, I was flooded with a desire to look at the image! Did the camera’s aperture and shutter deliver the correct exposure? Did I jerk the camera? Is there a signature look to the taking lens? Does it flare? Never could I imagine how much I — a man so derisive of the modern photographer’s obsessive need to chimp images on his LCD — would wish for a chimp screen of my own. In that instant, a whole host of additional memories returned. I remembered how I would sometimes take an exciting photo near the beginning of a roll, then have to wait days (or even weeks) before I would finish the roll and process the film. In that time, my excitement about that photo would only grow, and my expectations for it would magnify with each passing day. Waiting to see one’s pictures conjures up many of the same emotions as a child feels waiting for Christmas day. It’s a rather pleasant feeling and, more importantly, it teaches us the art of patience — a trait that much of mankind began to relinquish right around the time we let drip coffee makers into our homes.
After paying the $5 processing fee to my local lab, I held the exposed strip of film up to the light — Hurray! There were images contained within every frame. My 50 year old camera works! I rushed home, cut the film into 4 strips of 3 exposures each, and loaded the first strip into my Epson V600 scanner. I had learned long ago to avoid a scanner’s bundled software and have, instead, been using Hamrick’s VueScan for the past decade. I launched VueScan and spent the next hour experimenting with different scan settings, resolutions, and bit depths. Ultimately, I’ve chosen to scan my 120 negatives with some fairly simplistic parameters — 3200 dpi; 24-bits; single pass.
Although my scanner has an optical resolution of 6400 dpi, I could see little (if any) difference between a negative scanned at 6400 dpi and one scanned at 3200 dpi and up-sampled. A 6400 dpi scan creates a 200 megapixel image — a file so large that even the most rudimentary post-processing operations make darkroom printing seem like a snappy, fast-paced activity. Neither did I see any demonstrable evidence that increasing the number of scanning passes resulted in a higher fidelity file. While I could see subtle differences between an image scanned in one pass versus the same image scanned in three, I was hard-pressed to pronounce that one was actually “better” than the other — just different. So, single-pass scans work fine for me. I did make one concession to a slower workflow — I’m performing an infrared pass to assist with the process of cleaning any dust or scratches from the negative. Careful analysis revealed no detrimental effects from the process, and the time saved manually removing some of these dust specs more than offsets the time required by the extra scanning pass.
The end result is a 50 megapixel square image that contains copious amounts of detail coupled with scads of forgiving analog dynamic range. I may be a Leica lover and a fan of the 3:2 negative, but my favorite aspect ratio has always been the humble square. Unlike the rectangular formats, the 1:1 ratio uses the majority of the image circle projected by the object lens. Rectangular images pre-crop your photos by discarding a large percentage of usable image. The square format, in contrast, captures everything and lets you decide, later, how best to crop the photo.
The 50 megapixel files fit nicely into my digital workflow. They’re stored on a hard drive, and catalogued in Adobe Lightroom, right along side the digital captures — ready, willing, and able to handle any extreme post-processing demands I wish to make on them.
Shooting with the Yashica Mat is more than just a blast from the past — it’s a blast. Period. Its photos have a certain ‘classic’ look that’s decidedly analog yet, by scanning the negatives, you can work with its images exactly as you do with those captured by your digital gear.
There are, obviously, more steps to take and more considerations to make when you shoot film. You can’t change ISO in mid-roll; you can’t check your images in the field; you can’t get the images into Photoshop without first processing and scanning the film. But, unless you’re too young to have had any experience with film, these are all things you knew before diving into the deep end.
I’m certainly not new to film, but I am new to the experience of shooting with a Twin Lens Reflex. My love for rangefinders had convinced me that, likely, I would also enjoy the TLR process. Like a rangefinder, one frames and focuses a TLR by looking through a viewfinder that’s in proximity to the taking lens — rather than looking through the lens itself. My prediction proved accurate, and I took to the Yashica Mat quite quickly. Any time you get a new camera — even one that’s over 50 years old — it forces you to break some old habits and see the world in a slightly different way. Even knowing this, I wasn’t quite prepared for the liberating new way I see the world with the TLR. As much as taking a photo with a modern point-and-shoot feels ‘wrong,’ taking a photo with a TLR feels “right.”
There are quirks and curiosities to be sure. Once, the film advance mechanism locked up, and I was forced to reset the film counter — a process that apparently caused me to waste 3 shots in the middle of a 120 roll. On another occasion, I removed the camera from my bag, only to notice that the back plate’s locking mechanism had somehow failed — causing the back to crack open and fog one of the frames. Finally, after a decade of being able to shoot as many photos as I wanted “for free,” it’s a little hard to return to the frugal shooting tactics that film demands. Originally, I’d planned to offset the film processing costs by shooting black & white, which I can develop at home for about 1/4 the price. In reality, I probably won’t shoot enough with the TLR to justify the extra trouble. Besides, digital black & white conversion gives me much more control over the final image. Also weighing heavily in favor of color film is the fact that silver-based films (meaning “black and white”) do not work with a scanner’s dust-busting infrared scanning technique.
The Yashica Mat will never be my ‘go to’ camera. The inherent restrictions of 120 roll film, the deliberate nature with which one must expose, focus and frame, plus the tedium of scanning — all combine to make photographing with a Yashica Mat a labor of love. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. Even though I photograph professionally, that doesn’t mean I have to use every camera in a professional situation. Any photographer, worthy of his trade, got started because of a love for photography; and shooting with a Yashica Mat has a way of rekindling that love.
©2010 grEGORy simpson
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