Instamadness: The Ricoh 126C Flex

The morning of May 26, 2017 dawned in Frederick with a surprising amount of sunshine compared to the days which had proceeded it. Today was my mother's birthday, and I'd been busy preparing late the evening prior.  There would be no festive celebration, but instead remembrance.

Today would have been my mother's 81st birthday.  She passed away in the beginning of May 2014 just a few weeks shy of her 78th birthday.  The last three advents of May the 26th had been challenging to say the least, but this year, I had elected to spend it a bit differently.  At nearly the last minute, I'd elected to begin a new tradition of sorts,

My mother enjoyed photography in much the same way as I do,  But while I've always enjoyed approaching photography from new angles, armed with a varied plethora of different photographic devices, she remained fiercely loyal to a single photographic companion - her Kodak Instamatic X-35.

Nearly all of the photographic memories of my childhood were taken through the lens of this basic camera, and while I never recall seeing any photos from this camera that stun me with magnificent sharpness or phenomenal bokeh, the small plastic camera did its job of recording family memories for decades.  My mother's loyalty to this camera was so great that she simply stopped taking photos when the availability of 126 film in local stores dried up in the mid-1990's, despite me getting her what I thought was a perfectly suitable easy-loading Pentax replacement in 35mm format.

A few days prior to the advent of this day, I had been browsing about a few camera articles online when I happened upon a site that detailed some of the more "up-market" offerings in the 126 format, and within a few days, had elected to give one of the cameras featured on this page a try.  My "Why not?" moment for 126 was soon answered by the Ricoh 126C-Flex.

The 126-C Flex seems to be a marriage of parts from the TLS lineup of 35mm SLR cameras and the earlier Ricohflex 35 leaf shutter SLR cameras.  The 55mm f/2.8 lens seems to be the same as that on the Ricohflex, and provides a mild portrait/telephoto perspective for the smaller 126 format. 

This rather unusual SLR cost me a mere $4 to acquire, provided you ignore shipping costs. Equipped with a leaf shutter, a top speed of 1/300 of a second, and full manual controls that are particularly rare in the 126 format, this novel model was Ricoh's sole foray into the world of 126 SLR cameras, and one of the very few examples of such a beast in the industry, seemingly built from the platform of the Ricohflex 35.  Advertised "as-is" with a missing screw in the bottom (that I'd wondered was simply the tripod mount hole), the Ricoh seemed interesting enough to try out, but by no means an expensive chance to take.

But it did require film if I was going to operate it, and I managed to find an auction listing for a couple of "rolls" of 126 film, one Verichrome Pan and one a "High Speed" Ektachrome that used the E-4 process.  I figured I would attempt to dissect the Ektachrome cartridge to restock with 135 film as my first roll in the Ricoh, and use the short roll of VP-126 at some later date.

Just as I completed these purchases, the dawning of the date occurred to me, and I thought that just maybe I might be able to take along this 126 camera on the 26th and get a few shots while keeping my mother's memory as well as the many photos she shot on her Instamatic in mind.  It turns out that the camera arrived on the 24th, with the film following behind on the 25th, making this an actual possibility.

The rather odd winding mechanism requires film be inserted upside down in this camera.  Yes that is Frog Tape holding the bottom plate on; thanks for asking! 

And so with this, here I was shooting a format that took me a while to be willing to try, and within a few shots, I was nearly regretting this decision.  I snapped a couple of test shots and the camera took the actual photos with no trouble, but advancing the film proved to be a significant challenge.  The camera would alternate between seeming refusal to wind the film and advancing in a very rough fashion.  Some advances took a wind and a half to reach the next frame and others took 4 or 5 tries.  Yet, after my third shot, the camera seemed to quit advancing completely.

I chalked this up to some problem stemming from my use of 35mm stock on the 126 backing paper, and finally resigned to remove this roll, and use the one roll of true 126 Verichrome that I had on hand.  This helped a bit, as the film again advanced, but the wind was still quite rough and often took multiple tries.  

Controls on the 126C are simple but generally effective, the one oddity being the aperture dial arrangement similar to the TLS cameras.  The camera does sport a meter, whose readout can be seen near the film advance but I didn't use this in practice. When fully working, an "A" setting on the aperture dial enables shutter priority shooting, while an orange icon for a flashbulb on the shutter dial provided use of flash cubes that mounted on the top left of the camera.  Lenses are removed by simply screwing off from the mount. 

Winding issues aside, the use of the Ricoh 126C was a neat departure from the typical 35mm SLR experience.  For starters, it's pretty jarring to look through the viewfinder of a camera looking very much like a common 135 SLR and seeing a square field upon which to compose.  Even more interesting is that the focusing screen is different than most SLR's in that only the center spot is matte field.  This likely threw more than a few people off in the prime of this camera, as one can quickly look through the viewfinder for a grab shot and make the false assumption that it is focused at or near infinity based upon the initial view.  Focusing through the center spot isn't the best as there is no split prism spot, but it is quite serviceable nonetheless. 

Though aperture is not shown in the viewfinder, shutter speeds are clearly yet discreetly superimposed along the lower right edge of the frame with a transparent green pointer to designate them.  Setting the shutter speed is done via the main collar ring along with the focusing, while the setting of aperture is performed by means of a small dial on the right front of the camera body, similar to other models of the TLS line of 35mm cameras. This arrangement, while novel, serves to a be a bit of a hindrance, and I found that the aperture dial had a tendency to change "on its own" too easily in general handling.  The result was a photo taking experience that certainly made me slow down, provided that flaky film advance would work. 

The viewfinder of the 126C seen above is cheery and bright, but not always what you might expect.  The area inside the dark circle is used for focusing while the area outside is not really a matte screen, so it will tend to always appear in focus.  The aperture pattern of the Ricoh is among the most unique I have ever encountered, such as f/4, seen below, which takes on the shape of a badge or duck foot. 

Aperture settings on the 126C-Flex controlled a simple two leaf aperture that proved to be the most endearing and unique feature about this camera.  Rather than the typical diamond shape used by most cameras with such simple aperture mechanisms, the Ricoh has a pair of symmetrical plates that form different shapes depending upon the aperture selected.  At f/2.8, the plates are out of the way to leave a full circular opening.  At f/4, they result in a shape that resembles the shape of a duck's foot, and as you stop the aperture down more, they gradually become heart shaped by f/11.

What this means photographically is that photos on the Ricoh can present a very unique "signature" in the right conditions, particularly in out of focus highlights.  This "feature" proved to be the most fun to play with, and my initial results bore out that it did indeed create some very striking results that I doubt I'd ever be able to replicate digitally, even using bokeh shaping techniques.  

Below then is my day of trials and tribulations with this interesting and unique product of the late 1960's.  Enjoy! 

My day started with a test shot of an only somewhat curious cat.  So far, so good.

One more test shot before hitting the road.  Of course it was after taking my first road shot where the camera refused to advance the film any further. 

Fortunately, I had my plan B ready, with a roll of true 126 Verichrome Pan at the ready.  Shot at f/8 under full sun, the Ricoh gives off a decent result on distant subjects. 

But close-up subjects would grow to be the place where this camera and lens excelled.  I knew I was pushing it shooting this brightly lit scene at f/4, but wanted to see if I could produce some interesting bokeh.  The camera gave me some very interesting background highlights! 

A more full scan shows how the 126 negatives have "pre-printed" frames.  The single hole seen at top right works with a registration pin inside the camera to align the frames. This feature makes using 135 stock in 126 cameras a rather challenging endeavor, depending upon the model. 

Stopped down a bit, the 126-C provides some really sharp details that are pretty impressive in a format historically known for snapshots and film flatness issues.  

The 1970's Verichrome Pan managed to do an admirable job of pulling out decent tonality from the brightly lit scenes, making me very glad that I brought it along.  

Details in the shot reveal that the 4 element 55mm Rikenon lens does a good job of resolving details in a scene on the 126 film. 

With the town preparing for the Memorial Day Weekend, a scene along Rockwell Avenue provided a great nostalgic setting to capture on the classic Ricoh. 

I did a pair of shots of the same scene to see the differences in rendition.  The above shot was taken at f/2.8 and gives off a smooth and creamy bokeh in the background.  The below shot was taken at f/4 and gives you all the "Duck Foot Bokeh" you will ever need in an image!   Though both are nice in their own way, the bottom image is certainly very unique and compelling to me. 

The Ricoh began skipping frames even on the 126 film so this image, taken at f/4 with a more intermediate focusing point closed out the roll.  Still, it provides a perfect glimpse of just how nice a square format image can be, as well as how well the Ricoh camera renders. 

After stopping off at home, I took the "home made" cartridge and wound it through some more in the dark to see if I could coerce a few more images from the Ricoh.  And it actually worked.  This image shows a similar bokeh to the unique image above, though not as large in portrayal. 

I'm in love with this shot here, one of the most poignant images of my youngest that I've ever snapped on any camera.  The camera picked up excellent focus on his face and "bed head" while doing a lovely job of diffusing the backdrop.

The look of my oldest is a bit less engaged as I took this image immediately after the one above, but it is still technically excellent.  The leaves behind him morph into something whimsically magical.  

When I was in school, a common insult hurled among classmates was of having looks so awkward, they'd "break the camera" on picture day.  Well, I'm glad my older son is cute, as the shot above was the last the Ricoh cared to give before giving up entirely.  On my next attempt to take an image, the mirror simply hung down and the shutter listlessly opened part way before stopping.  This Ricoh seemed to have given its all and was ready to quit while it was ahead. 

Given the advance issues, the writing was one the wall, so I was at least glad to have had the chance to try it out.  It made for a nice experiment, though I could almost hear my mother's voice insisting that I wouldn't have had such problems with an Instamatic. 

With all of its hassles, I expected that I'd be content to never shoot a Ricoh 126-C Flex again.  But hours later, having developed the film and seeing the results of the first scans, with the unique nature of the images, I realized I had stumbled across an unlikely favorite on a perfectly fitting day.  I knew that I wanted to repeat this experience in the not too distant future, and so, just days later, I found another Ricoh 126-C available at a cheap price, and pulled the trigger.  Here's hoping that the trigger on this one is a bit more trusty than the first!