Guest Blog by Marc Paquette
If you’ve never used a medium-format twin lens reflex (TLR), you should. Yes, they’re bulky and conspicuous. But medium-format film has about 4 times more detail than 35mm. And TLR viewfinders are fantastic and delightful.
The Mamiyaflex Automat BII, the Automat B’s successor, is from the golden age of “flex” TLRs; Rolleiflex, Yashicaflex, Argoflex, Ricohflex, Duaflex, and on and on.
Despite Mamiya’s long history in medium format, the internet doesn’t offer much about the BII. They seem to be relatively rare. Mamiya shipped it in 1956. It’s a direct ancestor of the imposing C220 and downright threatening C330.
At the camera cafeteria, the BII sat closer to the high-end Rolleiflex table than the lower-end Argus Argoflex. A crude mashing of online currency and inflation calculators hints that its 1956 price of 25,000 Japanese yen is about $2000 US in 2013. In 2012 I found mine in excellent condition through craigslist for $80. That included the original leather case, filters, and accessories. I know, right?
The BII shoots 120 film in 6×6 format, giving you 12 exposures/roll. It’s 100% metal, glass, and leatherette. The controls still operate smoothly and accurately. This durability comes at a cost: it weighs about 2.1lbs!
It has a few features you don’t always see among its contemporaries, TLR or not. Warning: some of these features won’t impress you if you’re unfamiliar with gear from the 1950s.
The Sekor 75mm lenses are quite respectable. Both are fixed, as in not removable and in focal length. Both have Rollei-like bayonet mounts for filters and accessories. The taking lens is f/3.5-22. The viewing lens is fixed at f/3.5, so there’s no depth of field preview. But you get the maximum amount of light through the exquisite viewfinder, which seduces sweet tears of joy from your eyes. Note that the viewfinder isn’t water resistant, so be careful.
The Seikosha Rapid leaf shutter snaps from 1/500 to 1 second and has a bulb mode. The shutter release button has a hair trigger action. It’s as quiet as a small digital point & shoot camera. The button also has a socket for a remote cable and a lock to prevent unintended exposures.
Both the shutter speed and aperture controls aren’t indexed, so you can choose stops in full, 1/2, 1/1000, or, if you want to intimidate your digital camera carrying friends, any increment in between.
The film advance knob automatically stops at the next frame and there’s a frame counter, removing the need for a little red window to squint at. Turning the film advance also primes the shutter. But before you do make sure to set aperture and shutter speed! Otherwise, the internal mechanisms in the lens take a lot of stress, potentially damaging the camera. The shutter button does nothing until you advance to the next frame. The down side is no multiple exposures.
It has a tripod socket on the bottom, a cold shoe on the side, and a flash socket on the front, all standard issue. There are three flash sync modes. Today you’d use the X mode with an electronic flash. The M and F modes are for sync’ing with flash bulbs. You can use any shutter speed with a flash, thanks to the leaf shutter.
The viewfinder. Man, the viewfinder. I might have mentioned it earlier. Compared to even the biggest, brightest viewfinder on any 35mm SLR or rangefinder, you can’t beat a TLR viewfinder for size, brightness, and versatility. The only awkwardness is that left and right are reversed. There’s a tic-tac-toe pattern in the focus screen for straightening your composition. There’s a flip-up magnifying glass for extra focus precision. If you can’t use the reflex viewfinder, there’s a simple eye-level viewfinder, which is just 2 holes through the horizontal axis of the viewfinder hood. Just flip the hood’s front panel down and look through the sight at the back. By doing so, you have to guess a little for framing and focusing.
Did you notice that I didn’t mention the light meter? That’s because there isn’t one. But did I mention the viewfinder?
Marc Paquette is a technical writer by day. In his spare time he rides a bicycle, sails a boat, and uses his film cameras to take photos of bicycles, sailboats, and life in Montreal. And, of course, he never misses an episode of The FPP. He is the self-appointed chief editor of the self-proclaimed 2nd most austere photography magazine on the internet: seriousphotostuff.blogspot.com