Meopta Flexaret VI
Prelude, or How We Got Here, or A Long Introduction To My Dive Into Analog Photography And The Doomed Battle Against Gear Acquisition Syndrome
My family is filled with amateur photographers. Ironically, this is both why I eventually got into photography and why I avoided it for so long: to me, photography was a constant irritation as a kid, either as we staged family photos and stayed, forced smile on our faces, while my mom fiddled with dials, ran back to find out the self-timer hadn't started, or forgot to turn on the flash. Or it was what would stop us on every adventure: we'd be happily hiking along a trail but need to stop while she got a photo of a flower or a bird. I still don't tend to like flower macro and wildlife photography, years later.
Having a camera always around, and seeing the "picture of you taking a picture of him" shoot-outs that happened when the family got together, made its mark on me, however. A few years into college I realized there was no longer someone around taking photos for me, and after playing with my housemate's digital Canon Rebel (with image stabilization in a lens!) I began to want a camera. But I often had less than $100 to my name during those times and the idea got buried beneath practicalities.
One of my wife's talents is a great ability to pull out the things I've been waffling over for years and encourage me to pursue them, and do so in a way that I actually will (I have a strong sense of "I won't do it because you told me to!" retained from my toddler years). In early 2015 as we were beginning to plan our wedding, she suggested that I should purchase a camera - because we would want to have it for our honeymoon, and I should have some practice with it before then. This was a time of innovation by the smaller camera manufacturers, all trying to find a niche with mirrorless cameras and WiFi and IBIS and features that Canon and Nikon wouldn't see in entry-level cameras for several more years. In the end, I decided on Olympus: the E-M10 wasn't quite as good a camera as its main competitor, the Sony a6000, but I liked the system better, with its open standard and relatively mature lens lineup. In 2020 we've seen Sony be enormously successful with the a7 series and Olympus sell off its imaging division after years of losses, but I'm still happy with my decision - Sony appears to view its APS-C lineup as a way to upsell folks into full-frame cameras they don't need, and even if they go defunct Olympus has created plenty of great gear for me to use for years.
Which brings us to the point of this article, a description of my decent into film photography and my utter failure to fight against gear acquisition syndrome (GAS). I fought it pretty successfully with my Olympus - I'm quite happy with my 17mm and 45mm f1.8 prime coupling and only occasionally think about body upgrades. But I had been thinking for quite a while about trying out a larger format - not full-frame, as that was far too common and not enough of a jump from what I had. No, I wanted a medium format camera.
Medium format, for the uninitiated, is absurdly expensive on digital, particularly as an experiment. Fuji has recently made waves by introducing a very cheap camera in the GFX 50R, which is $3500 for the body (every lens is at least $1000). I am far too much of a cheapskate for that to be an option even in my fantasies. Medium format film cameras, however, can easily be had for just a few hundred.
I had looked into it a few times before. What I found were recommendations for system cameras like the Bronica SQ, and the idea of having to piece together various parts from KEH put me off the idea each time. One day in January of this year, though, I was doing my usual periodic research and came across a thread where someone recommended Yashica TLRs. This was the introduction to a new world for me, these strange cameras with multiple lenses and (generally) no interchangeable parts to have to figure out.
This is a good time to cover the fact that I am a hipster. Most hipsters shirk the label, often even decrying hipsters as the ruiners of society (much like most of the people complaining about millennials are, themselves, millennials and simply ignore the definitions that point this out). I make no qualms about it: I'm a hipster, complete with beard, Buddy Holly-inspired glasses, and a fall wardrobe of flannel shirts and shawl-neck sweaters (but don't worry - I don't buy from the popular brands recommended by MFA). This fact shapes my analog photography experience, not just in having one, but the choices I make within it.
A self-portrait showing a few of my hipster aesthetic choices.
Ilford Delta 3200, 1/125 @ f3.5
And that inner hipster heart gradually wormed its way into my brain during this research into TLRs. Yashica TLRs, particularly the MAT-124G, are widely respected - there are plenty of reviews praising their quality as an entry-level medium format camera. Too many, in fact, for me. I dug through more things until another comment in that same thread caught my eye. Seemingly ignored, with no upvotes, downvotes, or replies, was a brief recommendation for a Meopta Flexaret. This Czech TLR series hit all the right buttons: there was enough information about it on the web to assure me it was a decent camera, but little enough that I could feel individualistic. There were a few floating around for a few dozen dollars, but in questionable status, but several forum threads turned up a recommendation for the eBay seller cupog, who sources Flexarets and CLAs them before selling them; I'm fairly certain that 90% of the Flexarets in the UK and US came from him at one time or another. This helped ease my concern about buying a very old camera from the other side of the world as a beginner with no idea what to look for, and so I picked out a mid-range model, a Flexaret V, paid my 100 USD for camera, CLA, and shipping (fantastic deal!), and waited.
Meopta Flexaret VI
The first thing that struck me about the Flexaret when I got it was the viewfinder. As mentioned, I haven't had much experience behind a DSLR; this meant I had only really used the EVF of my E-M10 and the small brilliant viewfinders of Polaroids and disposables once upon a time. Seeing a big bright viewfinder screen was not unusual, but the fact that it required no batteries whatsoever was.
One of the consequences of entering photography with an MILC is that I naturally fell into a waistlevel viewfinder style. Almost all of my photos are taken with the back screen (I'm not sure the last time I looked through the viewfinder), but more specifically probably 80% are with the screen tilted out at 45 degrees and the camera at my waist or below. It's far better for candids, and since I spend a lot of time photographing children, it makes it far easier to get the slightly upwards view of them that I so prefer without needing to crawl around on my belly.
From this sense, then, the Flexaret was natural to me. The viewfinder of a TLR, however, is mirrored left-to-right, which makes framing shots quickly quite difficult. And that was only the start of the difficulty.
There is no light meter, so I needed to look up settings on my phone (light meter apps are great!). Adjusting speed and aperture were both around the lens, which is a rather awkward place. Speaking of exposure settings, this all required manual, whereas I had shot in aperture priority with auto-ISO for all but a few dozen of my photos. ISO, it turns out, was something I never thought about: the camera raised it when needed for my photos and that was the end of it. Here I was forced to choose an ISO up front, and one from the limited set of 120 film stocks, and that's when I learned that I frequently shot at ISO 8000 or so. With a camera whose maximum aperture was f3.5 I wasn't even in the realm of possibility of shooting in the situations I normally shot in - I'd need to push 4 or 5 stops past 3200 to be able to hand-hold. Ah, and hand-holding: with no image stabilization, no longer could I throw off shots at 1/15 without thinking about it.
And yet, despite all this, I loved it. I don't know why I did, and I don't know why I do. But something about the very much more manual process, the very different and unusual process, the going-back-in-time process, just spoke to me. It's certainly not any "shooting film makes you a better photographer" nonsense. My film photos are decidedly worse than my digital ones, and nothing about this has changed the way I shoot on digital. But I find it fun to shoot this camera, and so I continue to do it. I also shoot different things; although some people manage to shoot small active children with a TLR, I've mostly given up on this and use it for my secondary interests, like photos of doors (I have many photos of doors) and non-flower elements of the garden.
I loved the experience, but as mentioned it didn't work for everything I wanted to use it for. And that is really what set the GAS in motion. But that is a topic to be continued in another post.
The Shooting Experience
The particular Flexaret I have is a Flexaret VI - or at least I think it is. Visually it looks like a Flexaret V, and that's what it was sold as. However, it's an "automat", and the VI was supposedly the first of those. Who knows though.
The automat features was something I decided I wanted when buying this. This adds two things: a film counter and automated frame spacing. This was probably a good idea for my first camera, but in retrospect the non-automated parts are not that scary - I have a red window on my Brownie and it's simple enough to watch the window as I wind.
The viewfinder pops open easily, and closes easily as well by just pushing back down on the top (my C330, the only other TLR point of comparison I have, requires you to fold in the sides manually). There's a "sports finder" (e.g. a square cut-out) that I haven't used, and a fold-down loupe that I use every time.
The little silver window in the center of the right side of the camera is the film counter window. A red window in the back would actually be more convenient to read. The sportsfinder
I use the loupe every time because I didn't use it for my first roll, and that lead to many out of focus pictures.
Using the loupe means shooting is a slow process. Theoretically, I could zone focus to speed things up, but with the shallow depth of field of medium format, it's rare for me to be able to use a high enough aperture to make that feasible, at least for my current distance estimation skills. Also, I shot half a roll of objects measured out from the camera and discovered that the distance markings on my camera at least have a tendency to place the focus a few inches in front of where they're supposed to. I don't mind the slowness of the loupe, however, because the entire camera is fairly slow: I'll generally meter for the particular shot, and it seems unlikely I will ever get used to the reversed image of the viewfinder, so framing is always a challenge.
A non-louped shot from the first roll - not quite in focus. I hadn't yet thought about appropriate shutter speeds for hand-holding, so this was at 1/8th, and looks pretty good given that. Others on the roll were worse.
Ilford HP5+, 1/8 @ f3.5
Since I primarily take photos of my family, especially my ever-more-mobile daughter, a slow-shooting camera doesn't seem like it fits in very well. I've learned a few tricks, like paying more attention to what she's doing so I can predict a shot before she enters it.
Largely, however, it has meant that I've expanded into different types of photography - a little street (back when I still left the house), and shots around the yard.
A pre-framed and -focused shot that made use of my knowledge of her walking paths.
Fujifilm Pro 400H, 1/125 @ f8.0
One of many nearby churches in East Palo Alto.
Fujifilm Pro 400H, 1/300 @ f4.0
The shutter is on the front right side and is pressed into the body. I've heard people find this location unnatural, but I didn't have any trouble with it. The into-the-body design is much better than the design I've seen on several other cameras where you press the lever down - I find that always causes me to tilt the camera down while taking photos.
As with most cameras of this era, the shutter and aperture controls are located around the lens. The Flexaret has a system that initially seemed dumb, then seemed clever, and now I've swung back around to not liking again. The aperture and shutter speed are locked together with the idea that you'll set the Exposure Value for your situation and then adjust your exposure settings for artistic reasons. In reality, however, I don't tend to shoot this way; I know that I have a minimum shutter speed for hand-held photography, and then adjust the aperture according to changing light situations (or have a minimum aperture for depth of field, and adjust the shutter speed as light changes). The Flexaret's system makes this several steps instead of one. And of course, you have to do this all while looking at the front of the camera, which is just another nail in the "this ain't for quick photos" coffin.
Fujifilm Pro 400H, 1/125 @ f5.6
Shutter speeds and apertures aren't noteworthy, but are serviceable: you've got half stops from f3.5 to f22 and from 1s to 1/300th. This gives a broad EV range as long as you're ok changing both shutter and aperture for the light, but you won't be shooting wide apertures in bright sunlight, especially with an ISO 400 film. The shutter is a leaf shutter, though, so if you're inclined to do any flash photography, you can sync all the way up to 1/300th due to the magic of physics. And a flash, or a tripod, is necessary for most indoor photography; I usually shoot Delta 3200 exposed at EI 6400 indoors, and that still needs another two stops or so from the Flexaret's f3.5.
As with other rollfilm cameras, I find the film loading (and unloading) process significantly easier than dealing with 35mm film canisters. There are many possible formats for 120, but like all? TLRs the Flexaret shoots 6x6. From a technical perspective 6x6 is nice because it requires no rotation for landscape vs. portrait orientation, and the cut negatives fit nicely into the standard Print File sleeves. Artistically it has been an interesting change for me. I haven't found much discussion online at all about the artistic implications of aspect ratios other than this post from Ming Thein, but Michael Freeman has a good treatment in his overall excellent book. Square images have no intrinsic direction that they lead the eye, which I find can make images feel stagnant. I've enjoyed working with it, and with a panorama camera as well, to help draw me out of my 4:3 habits and force me to stretch different compositional muscles.
Fujifilm Pro 400H, 1/125 @ f5.6
I also find that 120 leads me to take pictures differently by nature of its limited size. My 35mm cameras I treat fairly similarly to digital, where a roll is merely a chronological listing of some number of unrelated photos. With 12 images to a roll on the Flexaret, however, I find that I usually will shoot an entire roll at once - on a walk around the neighborhood or an hour out in the yard. This naturally causes me to think in terms of a photo essay of sorts, although I don't necessarily publish them that way. It also lends itself well to being a few sets of diptychs or triptychs, I think, which is something I want to experiment with more intentionally.
Kodak T-max 100, 1/300 @ f8.0
The Flexaret is limited, and those limitations drove me to acquire more cameras. But it wasn't just the limitations, but the love that I unexpectedly found with film photography. And while I can't make any predictions of the future, I'm a half-dozen cameras in and the Flexaret is still one of my two favorites. It's a bit of luck, I think, that I stumbled upon it in the first place, when all I was looking for was a cheaper way to use a bigger light gatherer than my digital camera; if it weren't for stinginess, I would've never considered a camera like this one. But it has kindled a new joy in me, not just for the photos that I create, but the process of making them, and even if a new toy someday takes its spot as a favorite for the types of photos I love it for now, it will forever remain in a special place in my heart.