A camera to allow your photography to take flight? To release your creativity free as a bird? Probably enough bird puns for now. So, was the Pigeonflex a camera to set the cat amongst the Pigeons? Ok that was one more.
Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) cameras are an interesting type of camera. They have a history in street photography, especially the Rolleiflex, yet they are designed quite different from the rangefinders which are generally thought of as street cameras. They shoot in square format, like well-known Hasselblad studio cameras, but are designed to be used mobile. You look through the viewfinder, with the image reflected by a mirror, like a SLR, but you are not viewing through the taking lens and the image is backwards.
The Pigeonflex is a TLR from the 1950s, from an era when cameras were designed to look great as well as being, in most cases, functional. Several manufacturers where producing TLRs as an alternative option to the Rollei. Due to the design of this type of camera, there was not much that could be done that varied, except for the most important element, the quality of the lens. There seems to have been hundreds of “flex” cameras from that era.
Why would anyone use a camera like this, that is quite an intriguing question? With the reverse image in the viewfinder, the lower viewpoint as you need to look down into it, the intricacies of remembering to cock the shutter, the list goes on. Maybe because the quality of those beautiful 6×6 negatives? Maybe because of the almost cinematic view the viewfinder gives you?
It is worth looking at the alternatives of the time in medium format cameras to try and answer this question. Most are viewfinder cameras, which require the photographer to estimate the distance of the subject, so a bit hit and miss for most people. The better ones are also folders which have fragile bellows to contend with. The only other option was to adopt 35mm rangefinders, but then you gave up the size of the negative.
When talking about TLRs not many people tend to mention the Pigeonflex. What they may not realise is that the Pigeonflex is related to the Yashica and Yashicaflex, in fact it was manufactured by the same company, Yashima Seiki company, which became Yashica when renamed to its most famous brand. In that sense, the Pigeonflex could be called the parent model of the Yashicaflex cameras, a successful line of TLRs. Let’s find out a bit more about this camera named after a bird few would have thought of.
The Pigeonflex was first manufactured in 1953 in Japan. The company at the time was Yashima Seiki Co. Ltd. which soon changed name to Yashima Kogak Seiki Co. Ltd. Cameras with both names can be found on the nameplates. The original Pigeonflex was manufactured for a about a year. While it was manufactured by the Yashima company, it was for a distributor that used the Pigeon branding, Endō Shashin Yōhin. Endō also had another company making cameras, specifically the Pigeon 35.
Soon after the first model the Yashima company decided to manufacture its own branded cameras (Yashimaflex to Yashicaflex etc.), so Endō decided to switch manufacturing to the other company for the Pigeonflex range, the Shinano Kōki company. Pigeonflex cameras were manufactured through to 1956 when the company was then shut down.
This camera is the original Pigeonflex, and you can tell by the nameplate where the it specifies the Yashima Seiki Co. Ltd. name. A more complete history on the company and the camera lineage can be found here.
The Pigeonflex is a 6×6 TLR manufactured in 1953. It is made of metal with covering, but quite nicely designed to show some chrome and metal. The knobs are made of brass, which looks great now that they have worn down exposing some brassing.
It features a Tomioka Tri-Lausar 8.0cm lens with a NKS shutter with speeds of 1/200th of a second through to a full second and Bulb. It also has a self-timer and options for flash synchronization. The shutter speed is set with a lever above the lens.
Apertures available are f/3.5 though to f/22. These are controlled through a lever near the bottom of the lens. The viewing lens is a Tomioka Tri-Lausar 8.0cm 1:3.5. Viewing, as with all TLRs, is from above when you open the viewfinder cover. The viewfinder cover also has a magnifying focus assist, which springs out when accurate focusing is required. The focus screen has an etched cross to help determine the centre of the picture.
Focusing is achieved by using a brass knob on the right side of the camera. Apart from the distance, the depth of field is marked around the knob. Also on the right side is the film advance knob, which also incorporates an indicator to remember what type of film you have loaded. On the back is a frame number window which opens and closes with a slider mechanism. This is very important as the advance is not limited or linked to the shutter, so you need to advance using the numbers on the backing paper of the film. This also means you can accidentally double expose if not paying attention.
The shutter button is on the front at the bottom, which enables the hand to hold the camera steady. On the bottom is a lever which first needs to be rotated, before the latch can then be opened to get into the back of the camera for film loading. Loading is straight forward, by loading in the bottom and threading into the spool at the top.
I’d been looking for a Pigeonflex for a while, and nothing was coming up on the eBay searches. I then came across a site called Zenmarket which allows you to buy goods from Japan and have them shipped. This includes purchases from Yahoo! Auctions which is very popular in Japan. That is where I found one Pigeonflex available. I sent in a query on whether it was working and had a response from the translator that it was in working condition. As it was also not priced very high I pulled the trigger knowing I did not have the usual protection of Paypal.
When it arrived, I was quite looking forward to trying it out. Unfortunately, I then found the aperture lever locked up after a couple of tries. My risk through Zenmarket had not worked out, but considering I had not found one elsewhere I was not overly upset. During the next visit to my repair technician, I asked him to have a look, repair and CLA it. A couple of weeks later and I could not believe how well it was functioning. It had also been cleaned so well, I could not wait to take it out.
Excitedly I took it out to Watson’s Bay, east of Sydney, where there is a lighthouse which is quite well known. I was heading out there to see if any special light was going to eventuate during sunset. It did not, but it did give me a chance to use the Pigeonflex. First thing I noticed was that the viewfinder was not the brightest, but bright and clear enough to be quite useable. Focusing was easy enough using the knob on the side. Using the magnifier, it allowed me to get quite precise.
During the next few weeks I took the camera out a few times and really enjoyed the experience. The one caveat would be loading the camera on the go, as this can be a bit difficult.
Looking through the viewfinder I enjoyed the connection to the subject this camera gives you. Soon after first using it, the routine became quite streamlined and I was happily capturing pictures. I did have a concern that the shutter was a little strong and caused vibration, but that was unfounded. I didn’t quite get to the stage of changing the settings without looking at the front of the camera, I imagine that used enough that would become natural.
While using it out in the field is nice, what is important is the results. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the results are better than I expected. Nice and contrasty. The images are quite well defined and as usual, 6×6 negatives provide rich detailed scans. One roll of film did come out with some light leakage, which I initially attributed to the camera. Being a glutton for punishment I then put another roll though it and was very happy to see that rather than the camera it was the user, probably during film loading/unloading that caused the problem. That reinforces my experience in loading film being difficult.
The vignetting was quite strong though, which I did find a little distracting. It is a bit strange considering this is a fixed lens. Normally cameras with fixed lenses have been designed to ensure very little if any vignetting. In general, it does not bother me if there is a little of darkening in the corners, in fact in some cases in digital I have been known to add a tiny bit to add character to an image. The problem with the result from the Pigeonflex is that it was quite overbearing.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed using the Pigeonflex. TLRs have a romanticism to them and as I used it, I understood why. It may not be anywhere near the quality of a Rollei, it does though have a sharp lens, and used properly produced nice images. That is ignoring some over the top vignetting. The hook into the appreciation for this camera is the actual use in the field. Looking down through the viewfinder you feel you are connecting with your subject, while at the same time operating a complex machine. I don’t necessarily suggest everyone goes out and joins the flock of Pigeonflex users, but if you try out this TLR, it will undoubtedly add to your photography experience.
And yes, I did throw in another bird pun, they are hard to stop…..