The Bolsey Model C – a Unique 35mm Twin Lens Reflex Rangefinder Camera 

The Bolsey Model C – a Unique 35mm Twin Lens Reflex Rangefinder Camera 

1920 1080 Cheyenne Morrison

The Bolsey Model C, or as it’s formally designated, the Bolsey 35 Model C Twin Lens Reflex camera, is one of the quirkiest and downright weird cameras ever made. And that’s why I love it. Produced from 1948 until 1956, it has Atomic Age styling complete with a shiny metal finish and curves reminiscent of a 1956 Chevrolet. It’s also the only 35mm twin lens reflex camera to feature a waist-level finder, Galilean viewfinder, and a coupled rangefinder all in one. This makes the Bolsey Model C definitively unique.

And it’s because of this uniqueness that the camera has become a collector’s item in Japan, where it’s often called a “Kawaii” (Cutesy) camera. Kawaii cameras are either small in size, toy cameras, quirky in shape or design, or designed specifically for women. And these traits are what the Bolsey company initially highlighted in their marketing for the camera in the United States – its diminutive size and its suitability for women. 

[Editor’s note – many thanks to Micheal Bradfield of Roll Film for providing the lead image in this article.]

Jacques Bolsey holding the Bolsey Model C © Collection Cinémathèque Suisse

Jacques Bolsey & his Cameras 

The Bolsey Model C was designed by Jacques Bolsey, who invented the first ALPA camera and the famed Bolex movie camera. Jacques Bolsey was born December 31, 1895 in Kiev, Ukraine as Yakob Bogopolsky and died January 20, 1962 in White Plains, New York, United States of America, aged 66 years old. A Ukrainian of Jewish heritage, Bolsey changed his name several times throughout his life from Bogopolsky to Bolsky and Boolsky before finally settling on the spelling Bolsey.

Bolsey emigrated from Ukraine to Switzerland after finishing school to study medicine in Geneva. In 1924 he opened his first company Bol/Bolex SA, to market his 35mm movie camera the Cinématographe Bol and later his 16mm Bolex. In 1930 Paillard SA of Ste-Croix purchased Bol/Bolex SA and appointed Bolsky the engineering consultant to their newly-created department Ciné-Bolex. The Bolex camera that Bolsey invented went on to become an industry standard, and the history of Bolsey and the Bolex camera can be seen in Beyond the Bolex documentary created by his descendant and producer, Alyssa Bolsey. 

Three years after his invention of the Bolex in 1933 Bolsey produced several prototypes of what was even then a revolutionary camera; a 35mm single lens reflex or SLR camera. Bolsey first contacted the Swiss firm Pignons SA, a manufacturer of watch parts, to build the camera, and by 1938 Bolsey had refined his design creating the Bolca/Bolsey Reflex 35mm SLR. This was later called the Alpa Reflex after Bolsey sold the rights to Pignons SA. This was the first in a long line of cameras bearing the prestigious ALPA name, and elements of this camera were incorporated into the Bolsey Model C.

Prior to WWII, Bolsey moved to the United States where he worked as a consulting engineer for the United States government to create a line of cameras for aerial photography and ground cameras for the US Army and Navy. In 1948 following the end of WWII Bolsey founded the “Bolsey Corporation of America” to market a range of cameras. He believed that many interchangeable lens cameras such as Leica, Contax, and Voigtlander, which were priced around $350 to $400, were too expensive. He instead saw a market for high quality consumer fixed lens cameras priced under $100. Bolsey’s grasp of the market was correct, and this novel selling feature, affordability, was adopted by the Japanese to great success.

The first Bolsey cameras were produced by Pignons SA in Switzerland and later by Obex Corporation in Long Island, New York, who appear to have been a subsidiary of the Bolsey Corporation.

Incidentally, Bolsey was the first camera manufacturer to feature a “Red Dot” as their company logo in 1948, nearly thirty years before Leica. Although synonymous with Leica nowadays, their famed red dot was not actually used on a camera until the R3 in 1976, and M4-P in 1980. Other red dots would adorn the Kodak Signet 35 released in 1951, and the Signet 80. Petri, a small Japanese brand also used a red dot logo.

In May of 1956, the equipment and tools of Obex Corporation and all rights to Bolsey products were sold to Wittnauer Watch Co. who continued production and made special models including the Bolsey Jubilee. The last Bolsey cameras were advertised in 1961 and by this stage the low-cost/high-quality model envisioned by Bolsey had been adopted by the Japanese allowing them to dominate the camera industry. 

The quality of Bolsey’s camera is attested to by the fact that the US military purchased several models, and they were even used by combat photographers during the Korean War. These military models produced by Bolsey for the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are highly collectible. Jacques Bolsey was a talented and visionary camera designer who was responsible for the one of the earliest SLR cameras and the famous Bolex camera as well as a host of other achievements. The quirky little Bolsey Model C may be the poorer cousin of the Bolsey Reflex but Bolsey was nevertheless proud of it as shown by the photo of him above. 

Several versions of the Bolsey camera – Credit Tim Vidra

Design & Features of the Bolsey Model C 

Specifications  

  • Name: Bolsey Model C Twin Lens Reflex 
  • Model Model C
  • Manufacturer: Obex Corporation, Long Island New York (Subsidiary of Bolsey)  
  • Year: 1948-1956
  • Format: 35mm film (landscape aspect)
  • Material: Cast aluminium and steel 
  • Shutter: Wollensak Alphax Leaf shutter
  • Speed: B, T, 1/200, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25, 1/10
  • Lens: Wocoated Bolsey-Wollensak Anastigmat 44mm f/3.2 in helical mount
  • Focus 0.66m (2 feet) – ∞
  • Aperture : f/3.2-f/16
  • Light Meter: No
  • Rangefinder: Upper and lower image matching type
  • Viewfinder: Reflective waist level finder & reverse Galilean 
  • Focusing: Straight helicoid
  • Frame counter: Manually, set sequential formula 
  • Size: 10.7 x 9.4 x 6.4 cm – Waist level finder opened 10.7 x 12.2 x 6.4 cm 
  • Weight: 530g
  • Price: $99.50 in 1950 ($1,056 in 2019 dollars)

The Model C was first released in 1948, less than two years after the end of WWII and at the start of the greatest era of prosperity in the United States. The camera is basically the Bolsey B2 with a waist level finder added, making it the only 35mm TLR camera that also has a rangefinder mechanism. As I said, this is a weird and quirky camera and the design epitomizes this. All the Bolsey cameras use the same trapezoidal shape that was typified by Exakta cameras, wide front to back and narrowing at each end.

Like most Bolsey cameras, the build quality is good, the most obvious feature being the use of a cast aluminum body very similar to the Finetta 99 camera that I reviewed last year. In fact, Bolsey worked closely with Peter Sarabèr the owner of Finetta Cameras, so that is probably where this design feature came from. Aluminum is relatively light metal material, the specific gravity of brass is about 8.5g/cm3, whereas aluminum alloy is about 2.8g/cm3 leading to a significant decrease in the camera’s weight. However, the aluminum was covered by a very thin layer of varnish which is easily scratched or peeled away, after which the metal corrodes quite badly. This is the reason that Bolsey cameras often appear in poor condition, which gives them a poor reputation. 

The entire rear and base of the camera coming off to load film similar to the Voigtlander cameras of the era. With the rear opened, film loading is quite standard apart from the take up mechanism which grips the film leader tightly. Bolsey claimed this feature allow an extra four shots on a 36 roll of film, a significant feature at the time, and still quite useful. 

The wind and rewind knobs on the top of the camera resemble the Bolsey/Bolca/Alpa Reflex camera, made of solid aluminum with grooves and engraved instructions. To wind the film the wind knob must be lifted slightly then turned approximately three and a half turns. Be careful not to use too much force when winding as you can miss the correct placement, and too much force will strip the film off of the cogs. As each shot is wound on the film winder shows how many shots have been taken, and once the film has been totally exposed the rewind knob is simply reversed to rewind the film. The rewind knob also has a film speed indicator from 8 to 100 ASA/ISO, but this is only a reminder indicator.

On the back of the camera is the rangefinder window (left) and viewfinder window (right), as well as the twin flash synchronization ports which work with the proprietary Bolsey flash unit. On the back panel of the camera is a stylish gauge which acts as a combined mechanical depth of field calculator as well as film indicator. 

The twin-lens reflex waist-level finder is what makes the Bolsey Model C so distinctive. Only a handful of 35mm TLR cameras were ever made. With waist level finder folded down the camera can be used as a regular rangefinder camera identical to the Bolsey B2 that it is based upon, however, open the waist level finder by popping it up and you can see the image visible through the viewing lens in the small focusing screen. The screen is small, about the same as that on the early EXA camera, but not as bright and it can be difficult to focus even with the use of the fold up loupe (magnifier) inside the finder. 

The design of the camera means that the focusing lens can fall out of coplanar with the taking lens making the rangefinder the better choice for accurate focus. In practice, what I do is focus using the rangefinder, then use the waist level finder for framing. The coupled split image rangefinder is a remnant of the Bolsey Model B, the image is seen as two separate planes that must be joined to create focus. The off-centered optical viewfinder is separate from the rangefinder, a feature first used by the designer Jacques Bolsey in the Bolsey/Beloca/Alpa Reflex camera.

The Wollensak Alphax shutter was a very popular choice for low to medium-priced cameras of the early 1950s such as the Perfex One-O-One, Perfex One-O-Two, Cee Ay, Ciro 35, and the Graflex Graphic 35. While not as reliable as the Compur or Compur Rapid shutters of the period, the Alphax has much less complicated mechanics and is very easy to service and repair. The Alphax is self-energizing and has both Time and Bulb modes with a slowest speed of 1/10 and fastest of 1/200, which means the camera is best used for shooting in bright light rather than indoors.

Wollensak Anastigmat 44mm f/3.2 Lens

The viewing and taking lenses on the Bolsey Model C are identical optically. The 44mm Wollensack Anastigmat f/3.2 in helical mount was used on the majority of Bolsey cameras. It was manufactured by Wollensak Optical Company, Rochester USA in 1949. Wollensak lenses were considered to be excellent lenses, and still are today. During and after WWII Wollensak even made Leica mount lenses, providing the optical parts and E. Leitz NY supplied the metal parts for lenses assembled by E. Leitz NY.

The Anastigmat was Wollensak’s version of the three element Cooke triplet, a simple triplet design of three elements in three groups. But don’t be put off by the fact that this is a triplet lens, just like the four-element Tessar lens, a triplet lens has the capacity to produce colorful, sharp images if it is well manufactured and corrected. Controlled by Wollensak Alphax shutter which has an aperture of f/3.2 – 22, the lens is capable of sharp images when stopped down. 

The W in the circle designates that the lens has Wollensak’s trademarked “Wocote” coating technology. Bolsey advertised the lens as Treated with Wollensak’s antireflecting WOCOTE to reduce flare and internal reflections, give sharper, more brilliant images. The anti-reflection Magnesium Fluoride hard coating is a beautiful deep purple color, which is probably why the C in a W lens mark is purple. The “Wocote” single coating was introduced in 1946, and it was available at an extra charge through the end of that year. Beginning in 1947, it became standard on all Wollensak lenses.

The common lens size during this period was 50mm, and Bolsey made the interesting decision to use the slightly wider 44mm size. This was advertised by Bolsey as a major feature of their camera. Bolsey was the first with the short 44mm focal length lens, a great advancement in photographic technique, this lens covers a wider area, increases depth of field, and adds new beauty to your shots. 

Later Japanese makers affirmed Bolsey’s idea by using slightly wider lenses between 40mm and 45mm in their mass produced fixed lens rangefinder cameras of the 1970s, mainly for the reason that this is closer to what the human eye sees. In Japan the 44mm Wollensak lens has a cult following for adaption to digital cameras because of the lovely bokeh and color it produces. Lens reviewer Mike Lee was quite shocked at how good the lens was, and you can read his review with sample images here.

Shooting the Bolsey Model C

I shot two rolls of negative film through the Bolsey Model C and here is my guide to shooting the camera, along with some tips I picked up trawling the web to find information about the Bolsey Model C. 

LOADING FILM – The camera is easy to load with film; a small lever on the base is turned to release the back, and the entire back and base comes off exposing the film loading mechanism similar to other cameras of the period. There are deeply recessed channels where the back attaches to the body, so no yarn or foam is necessary for light protection. 

Loading the film can be a bit of a three-handed operation due to the special spring on the film take up spool in the Bolsey Model C. Best way is to use the old pro photographer trick and load the film leader into the take up spool spring first, then pull the film across the film plate and load the cartridge on the other side. Care must be taken to get the film canister into the film chamber. Also ensure that when winding on that the film is tight and sprockets are engaged evenly with the film. 

The film pressure plate is polished metal which is reputed to cause problems if you shoot with positive (slide) film because it reflects light back through the emulsion, but I’ve only used negative film so cannot confirm this claim. 

EXPOSURE – The beginning of taking a shot – like most vintage cameras – is determining your exposure. The Bolsey Model C only has 1/100 or 1/200 so I should have used 200 ASA film, but I prefer 100 film, so that is what I shot using the Sunny 16 method. For those unfamiliar with this method, I set the speed to match the film i.e. 1/100 for 100 ASA film, and then set the aperture speed based on f/16 for bright sun. Once you become familiar with this method you can get reliable shots, in effect the auto exposure is your eyes linked to your brain. As stated before, with a top speed of 1/200 the Bolsey Model C is not a camera for shooting portraits indoors, but for scenery or people in good sunlight it’s fine. 

FOCUSING – So here we come to the really interesting features of the Bolsey Model C. Focus can be done via two methods; the normal rangefinder or the pop-up waist level finder. This means that unlike all other 35mm TLR cameras, the Bolsey Model C is a rangefinder and a TLR. In fact, what I have found is that the best method of shooting is to combine the features of both. 

The focusing lever on the left-hand side of the camera – as you are holding it – is coupled to the rangefinder as well as the TLR, but the rangefinder is generally more accurate. Beware that the focus lever/tab has a short throw but for me this makes for quick shooting, and the action is nice and smooth. The camera also has a minimum focus distance of 66cm (2 feet) which was unusual in this era (3 feet was the norm). This allows the user to shoot portraits much closer. 

The method I developed was to focus with the rangefinder, then use the waist level finder for framing. Using this method and holding the camera at waist level allows you to reduce the shutter shake better than holding the camera to your eye. In addition, the shutter release button is in front of the rangefinder and your finger is in front of the view if you shoot in rangefinder mode.  

RANGEFINDER – There are two viewing windows on the back upper right of the camera. To the left is the rangefinder and to the right is a simple Galilean viewfinder. The rangefinder is a very inexpensive system with parts made of black cardboard, but it is remarkably accurate despite the small rangefinder base of the camera. The rangefinder is unusual in that it produces an image with top and bottom separation somewhat like an SLR split image finder, but across the whole image. Actually, I like this and found it easy to use and adjust for focus as I wear glasses. 

WAIST LEVEL FINDER – The waist level finder is what makes this camera really special, operating as a Twin Lens Reflex or TLR system, and you see through the upper viewing lens which is linked to the taking lens. The finder is opened by pulling up at the rear and it flips open with a satisfying click, showing the bright finder, with an additional flip up magnifier.

If you haven’t used a TLR before, it can be very unusual to get accustomed to since the image in the viewing screen moves opposite to what we’d expect. But with a bit of practice you get used to the process. If you are using the waist level finder to focus and frame then bring the camera up to your eye, frame your image then focus with the focus lever. A simple trick is to deliberately bring the subject out of focus, and then back into focus. Until you become practised with this it may take a little while, but focusing using a waist level finder makes you feel like Vivian Maier and some people swear by it for its ability to shoot candid street photography. If you attempt to shoot portraits (I didn’t, sorry) then flip up the little magnifier and use that to accurately focus, but be aware of parallax.

SHUTTER RELEASE – The Alphax is self-energizing and has both Time and Bulb modes with a slowest speed of 1/10 and fastest of 1/200 which means the camera is best used for shooting in bright light rather than indoors.

The shutter release is on the right-hand side of the camera if you are holding it to your eye. The shutter is the one of the more idiosyncratic features of the camera, and probably the reason people struggle to get good shots with Bolsey camera. Instead of being pressed like a modern shutter button, it must be pressed down and has a degree of travel that can easily result in camera shake. The solution to this problem is to use a short shutter release cable. 

Another problem with the shutter is the double exposure prevention mechanism which Bolsey touted as one of the highlight features of the camera. In fact this feature can be a bit of a bugbear. After taking a shot and advancing the film by using the lift up wind knob, the double exposure prevention pin retracts and the release lever then covers the double exposure prevention pin with the tension of the spring and shuts down the iris diaphragm just before the shutter is released. When the shutter release lever is pushed down, the shutter is released, the double exposure prevention pin pops out, and double exposure pin prevents the release lever from returning. However, sometimes when winding the film I have discovered that the film winds on, but the pin is not retracted, which prevents you taking a shot. This is easily fixed by pushing in the double exposure prevention rod, and the shutter is then cocked. This same method can be used if you deliberately intend to create double exposures. 

FILM WINDING –  As above, once you have taken a shot the double exposure prevention pin pops out and prevents the release lever from returning, thereby preventing double exposure. In practice I’ve found that this doesn’t always happen correctly, and the process must be assisted by depressing the rod to cock the shutter. To wind on a new shot you slightly lift the wind knob, and after about three and a half turns the double exposure prevention pin is retracted and the release is enabled. While that is happening the film counter also moves below the film wind knob and shots are sequentially calculated. Once you have used a full roll of film you will feel pressure, so do not force the film winder or you will shear the film off. There is no sprocket lock, so once the film is all exposed all you have to do is rewind the film. 

SIMPLE SHOOTING TIPS 

200 ASA/ISO film and shooting Sunny 16 will make good results with the camera. The lens stopped down to f/11 to f/16 is remarkably sharp. As described, the biggest problem with the camera is shake caused by operating the shutter. The small size of the camera, double exposure prevention and half-inch of travel by the shutter release button is why I struggled to get good shots. However, there are two simple solutions which will greatly improve shots made with the Bolsey, or in fact with any vintage camera. 

Use a short shutter release cable. Three inch vintage ones are available if you hunt for them. This dramatically reduced the movement caused by using the shutter release button. Wherever possible, use a tripod, but if you don’t want to carry one then try an old-fashioned trick from the 1930s – a DIY string tripod which fits in your pocket. 

Want your own Bolsey Model C

I was lucky enough to find a copy of the Bolsey C with the extremely rare red “Treasure Chest” box covered in red velvet, along with a new in the original box leather case, and instruction manual all for less than $150 USD. However, I was very fortunate to find one in almost new condition; sadly the majority of them are prone to corrosion due to the thin varnish on the polished aluminum wearing off.

A variant of the model C is the Bolsey C22 which was launched in 1953, and featured Bolsey’s Set-O-Matic system which coupled the aperture to the distance for flash photography. It is marked BOLSEY MODEL C22 SET-O-MATIC TWIN LENS REFLEX on the front. However, it can still be used exactly the same as the Bolsey Model C if you cannot find one.

The thing to be most careful of if you want a workable copy is to check with the seller that the shutter is operational. They are a precise clockwork mechanism, and the lubrication over the years can harden. The Alphax shutters are simple, reliable and easy to repair, so if you want one to shoot I strongly advise getting your camera serviced beforehand.

The other problem is that for some reason (perhaps poor glue) almost every Bolsey Model C is missing its lovely little red dot. The regular Bolsey model B and B2 are quite common and easy to find, sometimes even in working condition, but fewer copies of the Model C were produced, and they are a bit of cult camera in Japan. So if you want one just to put on a shelf, or even to shoot with as I did, then you will have to be prepared to do a bit of hunting.

Final Thoughts 

As I said in my introduction the Bolsey Model C appeals to me because it’s unusual and quirky, with gorgeous 1950s styling that reminds me of the cars my father had when I was a child. On top of that, it has a fascinating history and Jacques Bolsey was a really amazing and influential camera designer; he was very proud of this little camera. Is it as good as the Bolsey/Bolca/Alpa Reflex? Of course not, but it has just as much history at a fraction of the price. Best of all, people are fascinated by TLR cameras and if you wear one around your neck people everywhere will stop and ask questions about the camera, and that makes street photography a breeze. 

Yes, it does have some liabilities, like the shutter release that makes getting shots without shake a bit tricky, but there are ways to get around that. Is it a camera I would shoot every day? Of course not, but it looks great, gets admiring looks, and when I pick it up it brings a smile to my face. Well done, Jacques Bolsey, your lovely little invention is still producing happy snaps seventy years after you invented it!

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Cheyenne Morrison

In today’s digitally obsessed world I've chosen to return to old-school analogue photography, vintage cameras, classic manual focus lenses, and expired film. This combination of elements results in images that cannot be created digitally.

All stories by:Cheyenne Morrison
5 comments
  • Great Story and Write-up! Cool Cameras, Bolsey even manufactured the “Bolsey 8” the world’s smallest Movie camera, which could also take single frame still photos. Also some rumors or stories deemed as “Urban Myths” have speculated that Bolsey may have been eliminated by the KGB

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      Cheyenne Morrison April 2, 2020 at 8:33 pm

      Thanks Stefan, the Bolsey 8 was amazing, sadly the film came in special cassettes, so very hard to actually use nowadays. I never heard the KGB myth.

  • Very nice, thanks! American camera history is always interesting, especially with a Ukrainian twist and a detour into filmmaking. The company’s headquarters used to be at 118 E 25th St, New York.

  • Great article! Nice pics, Oahu? Wish I was there right now…
    Leica made some M4-2 cameras with red dots before the M4-P.
    And now you gave me GAS.

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Avatar

Cheyenne Morrison

In today’s digitally obsessed world I've chosen to return to old-school analogue photography, vintage cameras, classic manual focus lenses, and expired film. This combination of elements results in images that cannot be created digitally.

All stories by:Cheyenne Morrison