The Rolleiflex is an icon. With its stacked twin lens reflex design and striking style, the Rolleiflex is one of the most recognizable of all 20th Century camera designs. The Sawyer’s Mark IV, on the other hand, is a camera that most people wouldn’t recognize. Yet it possesses most of the Rolleiflex’s features at a fraction of the size and price. Made in 1958 and 1959, the Sawyer’s Mark IV is a TLR based on the Rolleiflex Sports, and it’s a real gem.
The Sawyer’s Mark IV has everything I want in a film camera – gorgeous looks, high functionality, a fascinating back story, and most importantly, a great lens. I know, I know I can hear the purists screaming at me and leaving comments that photography is supposed to be about images, not about gear, but a camera that brings me joy inspires me to shoot more often, so that’s a good thing right?
My version of the camera, the Sawyer’s Mark IV, is a rebadged version the Topcon Primo Jr., manufactured in Japan by Tokyo Kogaku (the company later called Topcon). The Primo Jr. was made in a variety configurations – metered, unmetered, grey-finished, and like mine, rebadged as the Sawyer’s Mark IV for the Sawyer’s company in Portland, Oregon, famous for production of the Viewmaster stereo viewing system. The cameras were distributed in Japan by Osawa Shokai, owner of the Primo brand, and in the United States by Beseler. Tokyo Kogaku designated the camera the Primo Jr., which positioned it as the “Junior” version of their successful 120 TLR the Topcon Primoflex. Unusually the Junior version was of better quality and had more features than its progenitor.
Made entirely from metal and glass and covered in leather, there’s an instant feeling that this is a precision instrument, made long before the idea of designed obsolescence, just as much a joy to behold as it is to shoot. Even though it’s tiny compared to a Rolleiflex it exudes the same degree of quality, the machining and design of the dials, knobs and lenses and satisfying metallic snick when opening the waist level finder gives the reassurance of working with something really special. The waist level finder is such a joy to use, focusing a breeze, and when shooting portraits the pop-up magnifier allows me to always nail focus even at fully open aperture.
The Rise and Fall of Super-Slides and 127 Film Cameras
The Grandfather of the Sawyer’s Mark IV was the Rolleiflex Sports 4×4 which was released in 1931. This smaller Rollei was one of the first high quality cameras to use the 127 film format, and the first TLR with a crank advance lever. You can see it in the image above in comparison with the Topcon Jr. version of my camera, and the Walz Automat.
The Father of the Sawyer’s Mark IV would be the Rolleiflex 4×4, commonly referred to as the Baby Rollei. When Franke & Heidecke introduced the updated version of their pre-war Rolleiflex Sports 4×4 in September 1957 it created a sensation. This was the height of the slide film era and Frank Rizzatti at Burleigh-Brooks in New York had come up with the innovation of Super-Slides, which used the same slide film 2”x2” mounts but gave an image 85% larger. The projected image of Super-Slides was considerably larger in image area, 38 x 38mm compared to the 34 x 23mm of a regular 35mm slide. Burleigh-Brooks was the exclusive US distributor for Franke & Heidecke and Rizzatti had initially coaxed the company into creating adapters to shoot Super-Slides in the Rolleiflex. The introduction of the Baby Rollei allowed photographers to shoot Super-Slides in a dramatically smaller and cheaper camera which overnight created a massive market demand. This comparison is best illustrated from someone who experienced this era…
“Beautiful 127 film 4×4 camera. Excellent optics from Topcon. This was my father’s poor-man’s Rolleiflex. The advantage over the larger German brand was the ability to project 127 Ektachrome slides on a standard Kodak Carousel projector. The larger medium format Rollei needed an expensive, Buick-sized special projector. My dad’s slides became HUGE images with vibrant color that filled our walls as we recounted tales of our recent vacations.” – Jim Eckberg
Japanese camera manufacturers immediately saw a competitive niche in the market and the following year nine companies rushed to get their own 4×4 TLR cameras into production. In 1958-59 seven different cameras were released, the first being the Topcon Primo Jr. announced in Japanese camera magazines in May 1958, followed in July 1958 by the Yashica 44. These were followed by models from Minolta (Miniflex), Ricoh (Super 44, Ricohmatic 44), Tougodo (Toyoca 44 De Luxe, Kino, Halma, Laqon, Tower, Prinz 44s) and Walz (Automat 44). Olympus and Kondo toyed with producing models but never brought one to market. The most successful manufacturer was Yashica who brought out several models built with price and the mass market in mind, such as the Yashica 44, Yashica 44A, Yashica 44LM, and the Yashica Auto 44.
At the same period this explosion of slide film photography and Super-Slides was occurring another invention was gaining massive sales, the Viewmaster 3D viewer invented by the Sawyer’s Inc. of Portland, Oregon. The massive commercial success of the Viewmaster allowed Sawyer’s to expand the company, and by the late 1950s they were the second largest manufacturer of slide projectors after Kodak. A fascinating glimpse of Sawyer’s production at the time has survived in an episode of a TV program called “Success Story” which was aired on KING TV out of Seattle, Washington and on its sister station in Portland, Oregon, KGW-TV in approximately 1959.
Sawyer’s obviously saw the same commercial benefits of Super-Slides that the Japanese camera manufacturers had, and to take advantage of the trend and possibly compete with Kodak, they had the Primo Jr. badge-engineered into the Sawyer’s Mark IV. There was no Mark I, II, or III and it’s most probable the IV stands for the 4×4 size of Super-Slides. Sawyer’s obviously did their research and the Topcon Jr. was the best equipped of all the 4×4 127 TLR camera released in Japan. They spent a lot of money promoting the camera, with full page advertisements in the leading camera magazines and prominent placement in the Christmas issues of 1958 and 1959. The advertisements promoted the fact that the camera had a fast f/2.8 lens with a top shutter speed of 1/500th, a combination that very few full sized TLRs of the period had.
Frank Rizzatti at Burleigh-Brooks and Sawyer’s Inc. were both right about the benefits of Super-Slides, but they failed to see one of the biggest changes in the photography market in the 20th Century – the 35mm format becoming the dominant mass market camera. Although 35mm cameras such as those from Leica and Contax had come out in the 1930s, they were awfully expensive and were dubbed “miniature” cameras. It wasn’t until the Japanese started producing good quality, cheap 35mm cameras in the mid-1950s that the format became popular and accessible. These trends combined with the other major trend at the time, which was Kodak’s popularization of Kodachrome, which they brilliantly marketed as the perfect film for slide film projection. Kodachrome was only available in 35mm. If a photographer wanted the best image, they’d need to shoot Kodachrome, and thus, 35mm film.
These factors suddenly made the larger roll film formats appear outdated. Every major photography magazine from 1957 through to 1959 carried special issues explaining what 35mm film was, the available cameras, and how to shoot and project slides. This four year period prior to 1960 closely parallels the period from 2000-2004 when the camera market transitioned from film cameras to digital. The Primo Jr. had initially been marketed in the United States by Beseler for $69.95 in 1958, but less than two years later Beseler was reduced to offering the Primo Jr. as a giveaway to any purchaser of a Beseler B Topcon SLR 35mm camera worth $295 as part of a promotion that ended on January 15, 1960.
By 1960 Topcon abandoned production of the Topcon Primo Jr. and the Sawyer’s Mark IV and went on to have great success with their Topcon branded SLR cameras. Sawyer’s Inc never gave up on the Super-Slide format, but adopted their own brand, calling them Pana-Vue slides which they produced in bulk for sale at tourism sites all over the United States. Tourists while on holidays to such places as museums, parks and most famously Disneyland could purchase sets of Pana-Vue slides to view at home without the trouble of shooting and developing slides themselves. Pana-Vue slides were so ubiquitous at tourist sites that they continued to be promoted even after Sawyer’s was purchased by GAF. Pana-Vue slides could still be found for sale at tourist hotspots as late at the 1980s.
Shooting the Sawyer’s Mark IV *1958-60
- Name: Sawyer’s Mark IV (Tokyo Kogaku Primo Jr)
- Manufacturer: Tokyo Kogaku, aka Topcon
- Type: Twin Lens Reflex
- Year: 1958-1960
- Format: 4x4cm, 12 shots on 127 film
- Material: Cast aluminium, steel, glass, leather
- Shutter: Seikosha MXL Leaf shutter 5 aperture blades
- Speed: B, T, 1/500, 1/200, 1/100, 1/50, 1/25, 1/10
- Taking Lens: Topcor 1:2,8 f=6cm 4 elements in 3 groups, Tessar type
- Viewing Lens: Toko 1:2,8 f=6cm4 elements in 3 groups, Tessar type
- Lens Coating: Blue
- Focus 65cm (26 inches) – ∞
- Aperture: 2.8, 4, 8, 11, 16, 22
- Filter mount: Rollei Bayonet mount 1 (Bay I) on both lenses
- Light Meter: No
- Viewfinder: Reflective waist level finder and brilliant screen with parallax correction
- Focusing: Helicoid
- Self-Timer: Auxiliary timer must be used
- Size: 10.7 x 9.4 x 6.4 cm – Waist level finder opened 10.7 x 12.2 x 6.4 cm
- Weight: 710g
- Price: ¥19500 $79.50 in 1958 ($1,056 in 2020 dollars)
At this point I can hear many readers asking “Why would you want to shoot an archaic camera which uses film that’s almost impossible to find?” Yes, the biggest shortcoming of the camera is that it uses 127 film, an obscure film that we described in our retrospective on the stock as “almost forgotten,” but it is still commercially available from a variety of sources, and you can hand roll cut down 120 film onto 127 reels. For those who want to know more about 127 film I suggest you read our 127 film retrospective and join the dedicated Facebook group that I set up, 127 Film Shooters Group.
I believe the shortcoming in the film’s ubiquity is outweighed by the pleasurable shooting experience of the cameras which use it. The technical capabilities of the Sawyer’s Mark IV easily match its ease of operation and good looks, which are readily apparent in the images I shot. These were all shot on the very last batch of Kodak Gold 200 127 film frozen since new, which expired in April 1996.
The Sawyer’s Mark IV (Topcon Primo Jr.) is easily as good as the Rolleiflex Baby and in some instances even better. This is especially true of the gorgeous Topcon lens. It has the best minimum focus distance of any of the miniature TLRs. It even focuses closer than the full size Rolleiflexes (65cm or 26 inches) making it much better for shooting portraits.
Ergonomically the camera is very easy to use. By gripping the camera with both hands, the aperture and shutter speed knobs are placed easily to be adjusted with the thumbs, and when we make changes to any of the settings these appear in a window above the viewing lens. A handy feature of the Sawyer’s Mark IV is the ability to use half LV settings for more accurate exposure.
Loading the film can be a little tricky, which is true of most TLRs. My best advice for newcomers is to load film with the camera held over a table or sofa. A fumble while standing will lead to a fast descent and even faster stop when it hits the ground. Once you’ve loaded the film on the uptake spool, wind the crank until the film mark arrows match the marked points inside the film compartment. Close the back and use the red window to slowly advance the film until number 1 appears, then close the red window, depress the small button above the film crank knob towards the back of the camera, which will set the frame counter to 1. The camera will then automatically advance the film one frame and cock the shutter every time the film crank is advanced 180 degrees and reversed back to its position with the knob fitting into the body.
Holding the camera by the same method, focusing is extremely accurate because the fresnel focusing screen is the brightest of any of this type of camera, and even better than the regular sized Rolleiflex. It was patented by Tokyo Kogaku and is nearly as good as a modern Maxwell Bright Screen. The manual states “the Fresnel lens installed beneath the ground glass screen increases the brightness of the reflected image by 2.5 times at the center and almost 10 times at the four corners. In addition there is a 2.5 power magnifying glass to aid in critical “hair-line” focusing.” This is probably the biggest reason I love this camera, and why I bought it. I wear glasses and focusing when using fast apertures has become difficult on many cameras. I use the pop up magnifier, rest my forehead on the waist level finder’s frame and portraits are a breeze.
Focusing is done by the knob on the left hand side of the camera which has an ASA reminder dial in its end, and above the dial is a Depth of Field scale guide. Holding the focusing dial and keeping your finger over the shutter release when your image pops into focus, it’s a snap to get your shot. The shutter release is step-less and very responsive, especially easy to use if you add a soft release like I have. You can get very sharp images even taking shots as slow as 1/15 second by pulling down gently on the neck strap and bracing the camera against your body. A useful design trick is that the proper Sawyer’s/Topcon lens cap also acts as a shutter release lock.
Once you snapped your picture, film advance is lightning quick. The camera has a rapid-wind crank, automatic film counter, double exposure prevention and automatic shutter cocking, features not present on most of the other cameras of this type.
The Lens and Shutter
Unlike the majority of 4×4 TLR’s, which had three element f/3.5 lenses, the Sawyer’s Mark IV has a fast four elements in three groups lens design of the Tessar type. Its taking lens is fast at f/2.8, and it’s got a three element Toko 60mm f/2.8 viewing lens. This fast lens was widely advertised in the marketing of the camera and puts it on par optically with the Rolleiflex f/2.8, yet for a fraction of the price.
Yes, I have to point out that the full-sized Rolleiflex 2.8 has a Planar or Xenotar lens which are both five element lenses. So in that respect the Sawyer’s is not a match for a full-sized Rolleiflex. But Topcon lens optics were absolutely top-notch, some of the best ever made, and easily the match of the best German lenses of the era To put it in perspective, the US Navy exclusively used the Topcon Super-D and Topcon Topcor RE lenses for twelve years, until Topcon stopped making the camera.
The taking lens is matched to the Seikosha MXL shutter, which was the Japanese top of the range shutter of the time, first available in 1957 and functionally equivalent to the famous Synchro-Compur with speeds from 1 second to 1/500 of a second, plus bulb mode for long exposures. Apart from being quiet, the shutter is almost vibration free, allowing hand-held shots as slow as 1/15th of a second. Be warned! Once the shutter is cocked you should not jump the setting to, or down from the 1/500 speed, as this can damage the shutter mechanisms dedicated spring for the top speed. The shutter has a selector for M, F, and X flash synchronization located on the lower shutter area operated by a red lever. Unless you plan on using a flash, leave it in the X position.
Light Value (LV) System
Like many cameras from the late 1950s, the Sawyer’s Mark IV uses the coupled LV (Light Value) system, sometimes called the EV or Exposure Value system. During the 1950s several camera manufacturers adopted this system, which coupled aperture and shutter speeds into a single number. The beauty of the system is that a number of combinations can be selected to give the same effective LV exposure.
The aperture dial on the left-hand side of the taking lens shows Light Value of LV numbers from 3-18, and speed is controlled by the lever on the right-hand side with speeds from Bulb to 1/500th. Because they are interlinked, movement of either corresponds to a movement of both. In practice, let’s say we set the speed to 1/50 and the aperture to LV3-f/2.8 the camera automatically links the two when we change them. This is a really useful function, and I like it as it operates like a primitive aperture priority mechanism, which is the way I prefer to shoot.
The Sawyer’s Mark IV and nearly all of the 4×4 127 film TLR cameras take Rollei Bay I or B30 lens accessories (apart from the lens hood, which like the Baby Rolleiflex has a small cutout). I strongly advise getting UV filters to prevent damage to the lenses, and if you are shooting black-and-white film, the yellow and red filters are handy. In general, any Bay I lens accessory will fit, and apart from UV filters you really need a lens hood; if you cannot find an original then cheap modern copies are available.
Auxiliary Telephoto and Wide Angle lens attachments were made by a variety of manufactures, the best quality is the Yashinon version. If you like shooting portraits then the Rolleinar is a fantastic addition to the camera, but do some research to make sure you get the full set in Bay I. Last of all, a very useful but sadly quite expensive accessory is the Rolleilux, a combined lens hood and light meter which comes with its own leather case.
Although I really love this camera, I don’t profess to be an expert on this type of camera, so here are some quotes from people far more knowledgeable than I am.
Pierre Dirapon from Belgium runs a highly-detailed site about TLR cameras. He wrote an exhaustive review of 4×4 TLR cameras and also gave the Sawyer’s high accolades, writing “The Sawyer’s Mark IV (and its Japanese counterpart Primo Jr) hovers far above the pack, both in terms of manufacturing finish and optical performance. The perceived quality of use is truly impressive.” Read more of his review (in French) here.
John Marriage was the Editor of Photographica World, the journal of the Photographic Collectors Club of Great Britain for sixteen years and sixty issues. He wrote a highly detailed comparison of these cameras “The Doomed 4×4 127 TLR” in Issue No. 162. He also rated the Sawyer’s Mark IV and Primo Jr the best of all the copies he reviewed for its quality, practicality and great lens.
“In October 1958, using money earned mowing lawns that summer, I went to my local Sears, Roebuck in York, Pennsylvania and bought my first good camera, a Sawyer’s Mk IV for $89.95 with case. I used it very heavily through college, until about 1966, and I still have it plus the Sawyer’s-brand lens shade and flash. Very sharp lens and only a small, light handful so easy to use. Its Topcor f/2.8 60mm lens was amazingly sharp, and great 8x10s were available from ASA 125 Verichrome Pan. The camera’s main advantage is that it is light and compact plus rugged and reliable. The shutter is almost silent, too. Too bad 127 film is now so hard to find.” – Frank Barrett (paraphrased)
Should You Buy a Sawyer’s Mark IV (Topcon Primo Jr.)
There are plenty of reasons to buy a Sawyer’s Mark IV. It’s a beautifully designed TLR camera with all the features of the Rolleiflex. The whisper quiet Seikosha MXL shutter and waist level finder are ideal for street photography. It has a truly superb 60mm f/2.8 Tessar design lens capable of fine 8×10” prints. It has the brightest Fresnel screen of all the comparable cameras. The handy LV shutter system makes setting exposure a breeze. Accessories are regular Bay I, which are cheap and easy to find. It makes Super-Slides which are 85% larger than normal slides. It’s completely mechanical, no batteries are required, and if serviced it will still work in fifty years. It’s smaller and lighter than a Rolleiflex, and far less expensive.
I know I’ve waxed lyrically about the camera, so I have to be objective and point out that this isn’t a camera for everyone. There are plenty of reasons not to buy a Sawyer’s Mark IV.
As I’ve pointed out previously, it shoots 127 film, which isn’t as easy to find as 35mm or 120 film, costs more than these film formats, and is more difficult to develop and scan than 35mm. B&H stocks 127 film, but there are times when it’s back ordered for months. There’s no internal light meter. It’s completely manual, so not a good fit for total beginners. The square format can be love or hate. Any camera this old should receive a clean and overhaul and there aren’t many qualified repair-persons working these days.
As far as rarity, roughly 27,000 non-metered versions of the Sawyer’s Mark IV like mine were produced, 5,000 later non-metered models with the Seikosha-SLV shutter, and 4,000 of the metered versions were produced. So, it is not a terribly rare camera, but it is hard to find one in mint condition like mine.
When buying one the same rules apply as for most vintage cameras and you need to pay special attention to the quality of the lenses. The critical lens is the lower taking lens, you can get away with a poorer quality viewing lens, but any defects in the taking lens can potentially show up in your shots. Topcon lenses from this era can be prone to haze or fungus to unless you are inspecting the camera in person when buying ask very specific questions to ensure that the lens has no haze, fungus, coating chips, scratches, balsam separation, internal dust or cleaning marks. The majority of cameras of this type that were used will have cosmetic issues, but that doesn’t equate with how they function. If in doubt ask the seller for an image shot through the lens, and some additional photos of the lenses and the interior of the camera.
Again, like all vintage cameras I strongly advise getting it serviced as the internal grease used to lubricate the shutter and mechanisms will have dried out and you can damage a camera by using it if it’s not properly serviced. If you find a good one and have it serviced it will last you many years and provide beautiful images like mine.
Want your own Sawyer’s Mark IV?
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Special thanks to Mike Novak for his image of the three versions of the 4×4 127 cameras, and Brian Cassey for the close-up shots of my Sawyer’s Mark IV. Further thanks to John Marriage for proofreading the article for accuracy.