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Twin-Lens Reflex Cameras
Twin-lens reflex cameras

You’ve probably seen them in old photos – twin-lens reflex cameras belong to an old era back in the 1930s to 1970s. These iconic cameras are easily recognizable with their two lenses stacked above each other, and the user had to peer down onto a ground glass waist level viewfinder to compose and focus. Like the Leica rangefinder camera and a light saber, a twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera is "an elegant weapon for a more civilized age".
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The TLR camera gets its name from the two lenses – viewing is done with the top lens, while the photo is captured by the bottom lens. The top lens is of lower quality, as it is only used for viewing. The viewing lens transmits the image via a reflex mirror up to the ground glass, so the user can compose and focus. Because both lenses are mounted on the same focal plane, turning the focusing knob will ensure both lenses are focused equally.

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Once the image is composed, the user can cock the shutter and fire the leaf shutter. That’s where the prime advantage of TLR cameras compared to SLR – because there’s a separate viewing lens, the mirror does not have to move out of the way for exposure to take place, so there is no vibration caused by any mirror slap. In addition, the TLR uses a leaf shutter which literally whispers, making a TLR truly vibration free and extremely quiet.
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The twin-lens reflex camera was extremely popular in the 1950s, especially with photojournalists who had to struggle with large format cameras such as the Speed Graphic cameras. The TLR represented freedom and faster working speed, making them the choice of photojournalists and many other photographers. The most famous of all TLR brands is undoubtedly Rollei (or Rolleiflex), which is synonymous with TLR cameras.

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Compared to the predecessor generation of large format press cameras such as the Speed Graphic, TLR cameras were small, compact and faster to operate. They benefited from the advancement in film technology which made it possible to get good quality from a smaller negative, so large format film is no longer required for great photos. The medium format roll film also gave the photographers many more exposures compared to large format sheet film, so photographers could continue shooting instead of struggling to reload their large format cameras.
Twin lens reflex cameras’ popularity waned in the 1970s, as film technology advanced quickly to make it possible to get great photos with 35mm film format. Rangefinder cameras such as Leica and Contax were quiet to operate, and they were even faster to shoot with, and significantly smaller than TLR cameras. With 35mm film, photographers could shoot 36 exposures per roll compared to 12 or 24 exposures with a TLR camera. So ironically, the TLR’s popularity died off for the very same reasons it was made popular in the first place.
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While the twin lens reflex camera offers a silent shooting style and virtually no vibration, it has two important drawbacks. Because it has independent viewing and shooting lenses, there is parallax error when shooting close due to the slight distance between the shooting and viewing lens. In addition, you cannot use filters such as a polarizer or gradated filter easily without resorting to acrobatic juggling of filters between the two lenses. The second drawback is more serious, which is that of non-interchangeable lenses. Almost all TLRs come with standard lenses (80mm which translates to 50mm in 35mm film format), and they are non-interchangeable. So you cannot shoot wide-angle or telephoto shots easily, although there are filters that screwed on to the front of the shooting lens to help you simulate a longer or wider focal length.

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Loading a twin-lens reflex camera
1. Loading a twin-lens reflex camera is easy though. Release the catch at the bottom of the camera.
2. The hinged back swings open.
3. Place an empty film spool (you can get it from your photo lab) at the top compartment.
4. Place the new film spool into the bottom compartment.
5. Pull the film leader out upwards gently and feed it into the empty spool.
6. Use the winding crank at the side to wind the film onto the empty spool slowly.
7. There is a marker of some sort (usually a red dot or triangle) along the film reel, so continue winding until you see the “start” marking on the paper backing of the film match the marker on the film reel.
8. Close the back of the camera, lock it
9. Continue to wind the crank until you can wind no more, and the film counter should read “1”. You are now ready to shoot!
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Shooting with a twin-lens reflex camera

Shooting with a twin-lens reflex camera cannot be simpler. Flip open the top to reveal a waist level finder. You look down into the finder and see a magical world of square composition, with the images forming on a huge focusing screen. The image on the screen is horizontally inverted, so moving the camera left and right will move the image inversely on the screen. It takes a bit getting used to, but it is nothing really difficult. Once you get the hang of it, the magic of looking down at a huge square viewfinder is difficult to describe!

Turn the focusing knob at the side to focus, and if you have difficulty spotting the focus, the waist-level finder has a magnifier built-in to help you along. Wind the advance crank to wind the film and cock the shutter (the shutter is already cocked if you have just loaded the film and wound on to the first frame).
Most TLR cameras have no built-in lightmeter, so you need to have a handheld light meter to take the light readings. Once you have the light readings, set the aperture and shutter speed on the lens (that’s right… it’s a leaf shutter so you need to set the aperture on the lens). Depending on which TLR you are using, the controls vary slightly but you should be able to find the around the bottom lens. Once you’re ready, slowly depress the shutter release button and you should hear a barely audiable “click”. Congratulations – you have just made an exposure with a TLR camera!