When is a TLR not a real TLR? When it is a Bolseyflex! Not really a fair comment, quite a few manufacturers were producing what are considered pseudo-TLRs (short for Twin Lens Reflex) cameras mid last century. They were not much more than a box camera but often with a bright viewfinder. The market they aimed at was the casual user who did not want to invest time into learning the intricacies of photography.
The Bolseyflex is a camera that could quite easily be taken to a party, picnic or for travel to capture the moments and sights. With the one shutter speed selection and easy controls for lighting conditions, focusing is the most complex part of the process.
An advantage a camera like the Bolseyflex has is that it uses 120 medium format film producing 6x6cm frames. This gives the user quite a bit of latitude in the final result. That is especially important due to the period the camera was first utilised. It was very common to have small square prints. In fact, I found a bunch of these in my father’s shoebox probably taken with a similar type of camera.
- Ferrania Rondine – Little Italian Bird
- Ensign Ful-Vue – Is it really the full view?
- Kodak Brownie Six-20 Model D – Beauty is box
Recently I have been pressed for time to shoot. So this was the perfect camera to take on a few outings and run a couple of rolls of film through it.
The Bolseyflex was a product from a well known camera designer, Jacques Bogopolsky, a Ukrainian later known as Bolsey. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, he designed the Alpa camera. The Alpa is a very coveted camera, amongst collectors and photographers, and considered one of the elite quality machines.
Also designed by Bolsey was the Bolex movie camera, another product which is keenly sought out now, but was also a yardstick in movie cameras back then. It actually became the name of the company in the 1920s. He designed both of these before he sold his business in 1930.
In 1939 Bolsey moved to the United States. He did start a business to import Alpa cameras and also design and sell new movie cameras. This included significant work with the US military for rangefinder and movie cameras.
Soon after World War 2, in 1947, he started the Bolsey Corporation of America. It was this company which released the Bolsey-Flex in 1954. Unlike a lot of the other cameras, Bolsey did not design this one, it was based on the German Ising Pucky Ia and rebadged.
The Bolsey-Flex is a pseudo-TLR with very simple controls. It is styled quite ornate as a point of distinction.
The follow up model is the Bolseyflex (notice that is does not have the hyphen) which was released four years later in 1958. This time likely rebadging the Ising Pucky IIa. Both the Bolsey cameras came in a pistachio green leatherette which was a popular decorative colour in homes in the 1950s.
Jacques Bolsey passed away in 1961, but beforehand, the Bolsey Corporation of America was sold in 1956. Over time the company would not continue to manufacture cameras and relegate itself to the history of photography.
The Bolseyflex is a medium format box camera, often referred to as a pseudo-TLR. The reason for this is that it has a separate viewing lens. Unlike a regular TLR though, the viewing lens does not aid in focusing. The camera was manufactured from 1958 and was based on the Ising Pucky IIa.
Using 120 medium format film, it shoots 12 6x6cm square frames. Film is advanced without any double exposure lock. Forward winding is managed by aligning the next frame number through the little red window at the back. The window has a sliding cover to help reduce any light leaks.
Construction is cast aluminium with a pistachio imitation leather covering (note that most have faded now and do not look pistachio). Viewing is from above through a bright finder. It has the shutter release button next to the finder, which gets covered when the top is closed.
The lens has an 80mm focal length and is uncoated. Aperture is a maximum of f/7.7. It has three aperture settings depending on the weather conditions. f/7.7 for cloudy, f/11 for intermediate and f/16 for sunny. Keep in mind this was aimed at much slower film stock available mid last century.
Shutter speed is a fixed 1/50th second when set to “I”. I have not been able to conclusively confirm that, but it sounds about right. It does have a Time option (“T”), which works like Bulb on this camera.
Focusing is by rotating the taking lens, which has a range of 5ft to infinity. The lens has a built-in lens hood. There is also a flash sync connection below the lens.
I came across this copy of the Bolseyflex in the Sydney Camera Market. As it is quite ornate, it caught my attention, though I did notice it looked a little worst for wear. The man behind the counter said that it was fully functional and produced surprisingly good results. I offered him $15 AUD for it and took it home.
First thing I noticed when I took it out of the bag was that the top cover does not stay down (I have used strategically placed duct tape for the shots above). As that does not impact using it, it is not something that worried me too much.
When I first had an opportunity to use it, my son Matt had an appointment out in the western suburbs of Sydney. As he is learning to drive it meant I had to go with him. Also meant that I would be stuck out there for an hour or so. Being in a suburb, not too much excitement, but it was a good chance to try it out.
My film choice was Ilford FP4 Plus, as it is a slower film and I was concerned about the slow shutter speed the camera is limited to. Luckily it was an overcast day. This is the point where I started to lose the love for this camera.
The viewfinder, though designed to be a bright finder, is almost impossible to see if there is bright light around. I really struggled to see properly to frame my shots due to the reflections. The only time the viewfinder was good was when I was in really dim light. Part of this is that there is no shielding on three sides.
In terms of ergonomics I also have to question the placement of the shutter release button. It made it almost impossible to hold the camera correctly. The camera is designed to release using the right thumb. Even so, it was difficult to hold the camera straight.
I moved onto using some colour film, specifically some Kodak Portra VC 160 of which I have quite a bit of expired stock of. Most of these times I used this camera it was the usual Sydney sunshine, so it was even harder to frame.
So ok, the experience using wasn’t that great on the first couple of films. How were the results?
Well, not great. First of all, almost all photos needed the horizon straightened out. Quite significantly too. Initially I thought it might have been me, but on every shot? See below as an example. I put it down to a combination of not being able to see through the viewfinder clearly and the placement of the shutter release button.
Then there was the parallax errors. Even on photos of a reasonable distance, it still was quite off from what I thought I was shooting. Even though I could not see it properly. I did consider that maybe the camera had been hit out of alignment, but there is no evidence of this.
In terms of image quality, it missed the mark too. All the photos came out really soft and required quite a bit of sharpening. None of this “sharp in the middle and softens in the corners” malarky. The manufacturers made sure it was equally soft from middle to edge.
The sharpness was not helped in that the lens is very low contrast. All the photos came out very flat and needed quite a bit of contrast control.
Moving onto the corners, the vignetting is really amazing for a camera with a fixed lens. All of the shots had heavy dark corners. Even with the cropping due to the horizon corrections in this article you can see the vignetting.
The Bolseyflex was a camera I picked up for a very low price. It is very ornate and looks nice, but that is where it ends for me. Normally I would use a camera for a few months to get to know it. With this one, two rolls of film was enough. If you are after a nice camera for a shelf, this fits the bill. If you are looking for a camera to shoot for some fun, probably one to miss.
Mike Eckman has got his hands on a Bolsey-Flex, the earlier model which is quite similar and tried it out while diving into a comprehensive history on the man who gave it its name: Bolsey-Flex (1954).