There are a lot of reasons for modern film photographers to use twin lens reflex cameras. They are compact, they’re generally easy to use once you get used to the reversed image in the viewfinder, their lenses are often sharp and render beautifully, and they produce a perfectly square image to which we’ve become so accustomed with Instagram. I love Rolleis and have written about mine before, but not everyone can afford a Rolleiflex or wants to spend that much on a camera. The great news is that there are a lot of reasonably priced alternatives to the iconic German TLR. The camera I’m reviewing today can be found for less money than a Rolleiflex, and less even than a Yashica or Minolta TLR. My Kodak Reflex II cost less than $50, and while I can’t promise similar results at a time when prices of desirable film cameras are rising, a careful and patient search should yield a similar bargain.
At the time the Reflex was released in 1946, it was not an inexpensive camera. It had features to rival the Rolleiflex and was priced competitively, but it wasn’t cheap. The original Reflex was $120, and its successor, the Reflex II reviewed here, incorporated a number of upgrades and cost $155. For comparison, a Rolleicord with Triotar lens cost $165 in 1948, and a Rolleiflex between $245 to $275, and of course with inflation all those prices would be the approximate equivalent of another zero at the end today.
While the original Reflex couldn’t compete with the Rolleiflex in terms of design or cachet, it was a solidly constructed cast-aluminum camera with a four-element 80mm f/3.5 lens (usually Anastigmat) that produced images rivaling the quality of those from the Automat’s Xenar and Tessar lenses. The Reflex II offered upgrades including a standard coated Anastar lens with an identical viewing lens that produced a bright, beautiful image in the viewfinder. It also had an automatic frame counter and a higher 1/300 maximum shutter speed, as well as Fresnel lens in the viewfinder, which was superior to the screen in Rolleiflex cameras. It also offered flash synchronization before it was available on the Rolleiflex Automat. In the post-war landscape of TLR cameras, then, Kodak was in some ways an innovator, a fact that’s easy to forget when the field was glutted by manufacturers who quickly caught up and found greater success just a few years later.
There are areas, of course, in which the Reflex falls short, particularly for the modern user. The most obvious is that the Reflex uses 620 film and is finicky about spools. I’ve found it’s not actually that difficult, as someone who already develops film and has a dark bag, to wind 120 film onto 620 spools myself; you just need a space to do it and 620 spools, ideally the old metal ones, and if you have a lab develop your film you’ll want to get them back. The geared focusing is different from the Rollei’s moving front plate focusing and takes a little getting used to, although one advantage is that a depth of field scale is available right on top of the viewing lens. The camera’s shape and design are appealing in their own boxy mid-century American way, but it’s not as beautiful a machine as a Rolleiflex of the same era.
My camera came to me in very nice condition for its age, with clean lenses, acceptably smooth focusing, and a shutter that fires at all speeds. The only immediately recognizable issues were some peeling of the leatherette, which of course is purely cosmetic, and a crack along the right side of the viewing screen, which is a little annoying but doesn’t really make focusing any more difficult.
The layout of the camera is fairly simple. Shutter speed and aperture are set with levers on either side of the taking lens. A lever on the right side of the taking lens as you hold the camera is pulled up to cock the shutter and pressed down to trigger it. On the left side there is a flash bracket mount (my camera actually came with a flash, though I haven’t used it); on the right the winding knob with settings to remind the user of various films that might be loaded, all of course since discontinued, plus the film counter and two smaller knobs, one to set the counter, and the other to release the film for winding. There is a red window on the back, with a lever to open the cover, for setting the first frame of the film.
The viewfinder has a magnifier, and the front can be flipped up for a sports finder. A button on the rear of the viewfinder opens it, and two buttons on either side, pressed toward the center button, open the hinged back to the camera itself. The spool supports bend to accommodate film.
The taking lens does not have filter threads but takes Kodak Series VI accessories with a press-on filter adapter. I am not sure how many people this would apply to, but this is the same size as the Kodak Ektar 127mm found on many a Crown/Speed Graphic, so I already had the filter adapter and just needed to get a lens hood, which is always advisable for shooting into strong light (not that I always do what is advisable).
One functional issue I found after putting a roll of film through the camera is that the automatic film counter on mine is not reliable, and tends to overwind, resulting in fewer than the standard twelve images per frame. This problem is easily solved by using the red window to wind each frame, and just pushing up the film release knob at whatever point in the wind cycle is necessary to continue. Of course this defeats the purpose of what was one of the camera’s prime features in 1948, but considering a Reflex can be purchased now for much less than its price in 1948 dollars, it’s an issue I can certainly overlook.
Most importantly, the images coming from this camera are really good.
There’s a certain character to Kodak’s higher-end mid-century lenses that I find really appealing. The photos I shot wide open are not especially sharp (which may have as much to do with my eyesight as the lens), but by 5.6 they are certainly crisp and produce pleasing out of focus areas. Despite the lens coating and my sporadic use of a hood, I think it’s advisable to avoid strongly lit situations that would decrease contrast and provoke flare, but I have had to be very cautious about these situations with my Rolleis as well, so that’s hardly a failing of the Reflex alone.
I’m not getting rid of my Rolleis, but I really like the Kodak Reflex II. It was introduced as a competitor to the Rolleiflex seventy years ago, and while it may not have been their equal then or now, it certainly provides comparable image quality, and decent user experience, for a fraction of the price. I like cameras that require just the amount of resourcefulness I can muster to compensate for their quirks – I don’t have the skills for camera repair or the patience for a lot of fiddling, but I can re-roll 620 film and use a red window if I need to.
If you’re looking for a TLR on a limited budget, either because your wallet can’t stretch as far as a Rollei demands or just because you get a kick out of using cheap cameras, the Kodak Reflex is an excellent candidate.
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