Box Camera Deluxe or TLR Lite - Part I - The Silverflex Model S

Variety is the spice of life in the world of medium format film photography. There are capably crafted SLR bodies as well as handy portable folding cameras.  There are timeless and treasured TLR cameras and basic budget-conscious box cameras. And then there are the interesting animals that tend to eschew the classifications above. They are neither truly TLR nor box camera, yet in some ways they are both of these.

Often referred to as "Pseudo-TLR Cameras," I tend to prefer a tad more delineation of the genre's nomenclature to the include the more depictive terms "Box Camera Deluxe" and "TLR Lite."

And what is interesting is that despite one these terms seeming to sound more derogatory than the other, you will find that this is hardly so.  I picked up an example of both of these sub-genres, each costing under $20, and am posting simultaneous reviews of each for your reading and viewing pleasure.

There is a saying dating back nearly 500 years that states, more or less, never to look a gift horse in the mouth. The saying still persists today as a means of emphasizing not to expect something for nothing, or alternatively, that you get what you pay for. There is a great degree of truth in this saying, but the hopeful thought is that there will, at times, be exceptions to this rule.

Even in this era when film photography has been largely relegated as a niche market, and in which  bargains persist wherein one can pick up some excellent models of SLR and Rangefinder cameras for under $20, some camera styles are still quite elusive below price points many times this nominal price. Medium format TLR cameras are a tough find under $50, leaving the person seeking an affordable 120 camera to consider folding cameras for their low cost option for medium format.

So when I happened upon a listing for a pretty looking but otherwise unknown TLR came up, I was quite surprised to see a sub $15 bid take it. I hadn't been looking for an additional TLR, but I was not going to balk at one, particularly one this pretty. Even if the camera turned out to be a lost cause,  the risk was certainly minimal. Besides, this camera was pretty enough to make for a lovely shelf queen if I so chose, though I certainly hoped that would not be the case. Either I would be expressing modest lament at this near gift horse, or I would be happy exclaiming "Hi Ho Silver."  Did I have a Gift Gelding or Gifted Galloper?  

I would soon discover that this camera, the Silverflex, was a variant of the Ricohflex, which seems to be a near twin.  The few write-ups I could find regarding the Silverflex referred to it as largely as a budget version of an already budget camera.  Interesting. 

The Silverflex certainly seems to borrow more from the TLR design to its right.

Ironically gleaming in a silver finish, this camera is missing its front leatherette, which initially led me to entertain the thought of "dressing" it up.

In an interesting twist, the Silverflex would arrive to my house with a silver clad front, seemingly fitting given the name, but entirely coincidental and unintended.  This Silver was designed to be dressed in black.  Since I had a blank slate at my disposal, I elected I might try a novel covering to spark this old camera up.

This was only a want for the old Silverflex. More important was a tiny but vital need in the form of a replacement red window for the frame viewing window on the rear of the camera. I secured some Rubylith and hastily taped in a double paned viewing window to test the camera out.

In a rather hasty repair move, I "double paned" rubylith on both sides of the frame counting window to get the Silverflex usable for testing.

Fortunately, these minor items were all the camera would need, and only one prohibited function. The shutter seemed to work as did the aperture.

So aside from the price, what drew me to the Silver Flex? Admittedly, looks played a big part. Though hardly the crown jewel of TLR type designs, the Silver Flex does carry with it an impressive neo-industrial look to it, with its interwoven gearing connecting viewing and taking lenses. And the lenses themselves gleam in silver bezels and reflect in the most alluring purplish shade of blue, which might lead one to wistfully hope the photos this camera snaps will be imparted with a magical aura of pixie dust.

The exterior draw of the Silverflex is the connected gearing for focusing.  The lenses also carry a lovely hue of indigo in their coating.

Great, so if this really is a gift horse as they say, I may have just looked it in the mouth and been pleasantly surprised by the result. One thing is for sure, the only way to find out if the camera is a worthy acquisition is to give the Silverflex a test to find out.

The Silverflex is about as rudimentary a TLR as there is. Despite the attractive finishings around the lenses, one need only do some quick comparisons between the Silverflex and the usual crop of TLR cameras to notice the differences that lay beneath. There is a noticeable lack of machined precisionate feel to the camera, instead being more of a folded metal box camera with a removable roll film insert. Thankfully, this one is fully intact. Cut corners are also evident in the flimsy feel of the door release, and the amount of 'give' the sides of camera impart when gently held. This is either "TLR Lite" or "Box Camera Deluxe."

Despite the exterior look of a TLR, the removable "innards" of the Silverflex are closer in approach to that of old box cameras. 

Perhaps the flimsiest feature of the camera is the lock, little more than snippet of sheet metal that you rotate and clip over a rivet.  

There are some nice features I notice from the start, such as a distance guide engraved around the circumference of the taking lens so as to be visible when focusing the camera at waist level. I thought this at first to be a nice embellishment, only to soon realize that it was vital to using the camera. As it was partway into the first roll where I discovered the biggest pain point of using the Silverflex : the matte focusing screen.

After a few distant landscape shots set at or near infinity, I wanted to try a few photos taken at closer focusing points. As I stood partway on the asphalt of a country road, aiming to take a shot of fenced in farmland, with my focal point as the near fence post, I turned the lens away from infinity focus and struggled to ascertain focus in the poor contrast of the screen. And just when it seemed that I was getting "Luke warm" to the focal point, the fence post began to blur again. Dialing it back, it improved slightly only to blur yet again. No longer wishing to risk life and limb, I hastily used the top dial to guess a 10 foot focusing distance, and grabbed the shot. The experience was actually quite a let down. Whereas a camera like the Seagull 4A-103 or the Yashica 12 leaves you feeling like you have framed and focused how you chose to, the Silverflex leaves you feeling like you threw open the shutter on a hopeful gamble.

Rather than focusing where the focal point is the most distinct, the Silverflex seems to want the user to choose their focus when the subject is "least fuzzy," quite a challenge. Having worked with a number of guess focus cameras before using this Model S, I would opine that gauging focus through guessing is actually EASIER than using the matte screen.

And if focusing the Silverflex is tough, framing is no walk in the park either.  In bright light or in dim light, there is always a battle to be had with either glare off the focusing screen, dark vignetting around the edges of the screen, or both.  This is not a camera that lends itself to much in the way of precision when it comes down to it. 

Framing a shot on the Silverflex is a royal pain.  Believe it or not, there is a flower pot in the viewfinder, if you can struggle to make it out.  Determining focus, even under the magnifier is a challenge as well.  The wooden posts are the focusing point in the image below, yet they appear fuzzy and indistinct. 

Even relying on one's sense of distance, the hope is that the matte screen is at least useful for composing the image. The reality is that it does indeed help, but only partially. Vignetting through the taking lens is quite poor, so hoping that were able to squeeze in a complementary element around the edge of the frame is another gamble in using the Silver. And with no provision for a "sport finder," the matte screen is about the only way to compose the image short of further guess work.

And a true TLR camera is supposed to eliminate all the guess work, and to make the photographer feel confident in their focus and framing. The lack of said feeling really does make this camera feel like something less than a TLR.

The camera offers basic shutter speed settings and a bulb setting, as well as a respectably fast f/3.5 taking lens. Partway through the roll, my example decided it wanted to open up no more than about f/6.3, leaving me unable to test that aspect of its operation.  Given the wonky focusing screen, I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to snap an exposure of such limited depth of field anyway.

I loaded the Silverflex with a roll of Ilford Pan F 50 Plus for its initial tests. Loading, advancing, and retrieving the film were entirely problem free, and aside from the aperture hiccup, the actual camera mechanics themselves seemed to perform just about as they should.  Admittedly, I hadn't done a collimation  test for focus prior to shooting and just left my results to chance or misfortune.

Obviously, I was curious if the Silverflex rewards the user for their extreme efforts in using it as designed.  I admittedly didn't give it the most stringent test in the world, shooting mostly in sunny conditions befitting the 50 speed film within.  Still, I didn't have any reason not to expect decent results from this camera.

Annnnnd it begins.  Despite a shutter speed of 1/100 of a second, I got very noticeable motion blur from this shot.  Note the poor framing at left.

Framing of this shot was a bit better, but the results were certainly still lacking.  

Marginally better results, though still some softness evident in the letters in the bank. 

My shot in which I realized that focusing the Silverflex is an exercise in frustration.  Oddly, this is the first result I actually liked from the camera. 

More broad daylight fuzziness from the Silverflex.  As an aside, I realize I should have cleaned the film chamber - decades old contaminants mar the already imperfect images. 

Finally, another half-decent shot with no real blur or fuzziness.  Decent contrast though nothing stellar.

It seems that for every decent shot you may actually muster with the Silverflex, you will take 2 or 3 which appear to have been taken with a slow single speed camera with poor fixed focus. 

Guess focused, and actually delivering a decent result.  Note the light leak symptomatic of the cheap build quality of the Silverflex. 

Badly overexposed thanks to what is almost certainly a slow shutter. 

Under late afternoon light, I got decent results here on this shot, though I tried in vain to frame the archway on the opposite side of the bridge. 

Key details in this backlit shot are lost leaving the result to look a lot less appealing than the scene itself actually portrayed. 

Given that the camera has a nominal focusing screen, the shooting experience of the Silverflex Model S is more of a "TLR Lite" than a "Box Camera Deluxe" to me, but that is not necessarily a complement.  I am the last person who would call myself an equipment snob, but after using the Silverflex, it is evident that a "TLR Lite" is not a TLR.  It gives a supple hint of the TLR experience, but is sadly lacking where it really counts, and could actually be a tremendous turnoff if it were a first camera for anyone transitioning into shooting 120 format.  

Unlike most cameras, for which I can often envision a specific use after shooting for the first time, I'm at a loss for what to do next with the Silverflex.  Perhaps this one really does get relegated to a display model.