Medium Format On A Budget – A Quick Comparison of Three, Low Priced, 120 format, 6cm x 6cm TLR Cameras – By James Hanes

I am a Medium Format guy who can’t afford a Hasselblad or a Rolleiflex, so I have several working TLRs which I use regularly. My favorites are a Yashica LM, similar to the Mat124, and a Ricoh Diacord. I also have two Argus TLRs and a Ciro-Flex F. The Argus cameras and Ciroflex are American made and considered second rate. So how bad, or good are they, really? None have light meters or double exposure prevention and all use the “ruby window” for frame counting.

The Argus Argoflex E was a geared-lens TLR made from 1940 to 1948, with a pause in production for WWII. It’s a bakelite and metal camera with 3-element Argus Varex 75mm f4.5 lenses and a Wollensak shutter. In the postwar version, which this is, the lenses were coated. Shutter speeds top out at 1/200th second and some models use 620 film. This one has a property sticker on it, so it may have been a school camera. Price: $30 at an antique shop in Florida. More reading on camera-wiki here

The Ciro-flex Model F was the highest-spec Ciro-flex, made in the late ’50s with a coated, f/3.2, four-element Wollensak Raptar 83mm lens and maximum shutter speed of 1/400th second. Mine has a Graflex lens cap because I couldn’t find a proper Ciro lenscap. Graflex bought out Ciro and continued production as the Graflex 22 into the 1950s. Focusing is with a side mounted knob. The focusing screen is bright for the time. Uses 120 film only. This one cost me $37 at a charity thrift shop outside of Phoenix, Arizona. More reading on camera-wiki here.

The Super Ricohflex, from around 1957 is like my first medium format camera, a Ricohflex Holiday, which I bought at a local camera shop in St. Petersburg, Florida around 1984. That one tragically crossed the Kodachrome Bridge when I dropped it on New Years Eve, 1985. The one being tested is a Super Ricohflex utilizing a pair of fully coated, anastigmat triplet 80mm/f3.5 lenses with 1/200th Sec. max shutter speeds. Uses 120 film only. Like the Argoflex, it uses geared lenses and it cost me $40 + shipping from an on-line charity site. More reading on camerapedia here

All three have had recent professional servicing and work without issue. I planned to use fresh, economical 200 iso 120 film and shoot the same scenes, with one camera after the other at the same aperture and shutter speeds. I made adapters from some step-up rings so that the same orange filter could be used on each and made plans to process the film rolls together in the same batch of developer.

I have a multiple roll Patterson Universal Developing Tank and chose to use Rodinal, 1:100, semi-stand because Rodinal is economical and I had 250ml of 1:25 to use up. So I diluted it with tap water for sufficient volume to fill the large tank. This was to cause a problem, because particulate matter which had accumulated in the container, manifested by black spots on the lowest roll of film in the tank.

And that wasn’t the only problem. Carrying three weighty TLR cameras around my neck, and shooting them in (alphabetical) order led to mistakes. Since none of these economical cameras have double exposure prevention, I did have some double exposures and missed photos due to curious passers-by interrupting my thoughts. A few shots had what looks like an adjacent camera strap in a corner of the frame. And someone called the cops. Soon a patrol officer came to check things out. He accepted my story and before going on his way opined that I ought to get a digital camera. “I have one,” I said.

I scanned the negatives on my Epson V-600 and grouped the photos into three frames for comparison. As you can see, the Argoflex has lower contrast than the others, and is generally not as sharp, though it still makes pretty darn good photos.

Comparing three TLR cameras

The Ciro-Flex and the Super Ricohflex have similar contrast and sharpness and are a good value for the impoverished medium format photographer. The Richoflex has a tinny feel and a less durable looking film door latch, but is easier to load with film relating to a removable film carrier similar to some MF SLRs. Because the Ciro-Flex has a 1/400th sec. top shutter speed, I’m declaring it the Best Value. It’s no Rolleiflex,but can be had for $37-$150. The almost-as-good Ricoh will run $50-$125.

If you find a clean, working Argoflex for under $35, go ahead and buy it. They take acceptable photos and will make a good backup for your Ricoh or Ciro TLR in case of accidental destruction.

Jim Hanes


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9 thoughts on “Medium Format On A Budget – A Quick Comparison of Three, Low Priced, 120 format, 6cm x 6cm TLR Cameras – By James Hanes”

  1. The Ciro F is good, but the triplet lens in the other models is just as sharp, in my experience. I’ve shot several rolls with both lenses and I have not seen a difference. Definitely get one with the better 1/400 shutter.

  2. John-Paul Menez

    These are really cool James! The Circo-flex images are lovely. Your article is not good for my gear acquisition syndrome.

  3. Another good low-priced TLR option is the Lubitel 166, a basic Russian-made camera that is capable of making very nice pictures. A plus for me when I go bicycling, is that its plastic construction makes for a fairly light and durable camera. Lubitels are available for about $70US on eBay. Look for one that has the 6X4 mask that allows you to take 16 6×4 photos on a roll of 120 film.

  4. Jay Dann Walker

    A most enjoyable article with a lot of useful information. Thanks, James!

    A few personal recollections now. To me the Yashica TLRs are the hidden gems of MF. I bought my first, a D, in 1962, for (CDN)$40 from a mail order company in Montreal – my dad was a door to door sales rep for this firm so I may have saved a little on buying it at the dealer’s price, after 61 years my memory fails me a little on this. I shot hundred of rolls of 120 Kodak Verichrome Pan with it and sold news images to regional newspapers for a whopping $5 a photo. As a high school student more used to a $2 weekly allowance from my parents…

    In 1966 after I had landed my first job as a cadet news reporter, I blew $195 for a new (well, 1960) Rolleiflex 3.5E2 I found gathering dust on a shelf at our pharmacy. The local dentist had ordered it but sadly passed away before it arrived. His widow very kindly gave me the $100 deposit he had put down on it, so its true price was $295, a fortune in those days. I used it for many decades and I still have it, but sadly with the cost of 120 roll film nowadays it sees very little use. But it is a personal token for me and I will keep it to the very end.

    Other Rolleiflexes came my way in the ensuing decades. Most came and went, resold as a profit as I tended to luck into many good bargains from those long-vanished second hand camera shops we once upon a time had in Australia. Now down to two in Melbourne but with prices I can’t afford as a pensioner. My current collection consists of the 3.5E2, two Ts with full kits including the amazing 16 exposure kits which click into the camera and give you horizontal images, so perfect for landscapes, also a late model Rolleicord Vb, again with a full kit including a 16 exposure and the (so I’m told) now quite rare 24 exposure kit. As I’m now on a pensioner’s budget, my film cameras (I have many others but I will spare you the ordeal of a full list) see little use, only when I can pick up recently expired film at heavily discounted prices do I buy up and put all this nice film gear thru its paces. Given that my TLRs are all 1960-1970 models, I’m both happy and relieved to ay they still work almost as new, even when used only one time every year. The important thing with leaf shutter TLRs is to keep the oil flowing in them by using them now and then.

    Of the cameras James writes about, many many years ago I used the Ciroflex TLR in its Graflex avatar for news photography at a newspaper I was working in. I found it a basically good camera, built like a tank but not exactly ergonomically well designed, as were most cameras in those bygone times. It was the paper’s “second” camera – the first being a 3-1/4 by 4-1/4″ (called I believe, quarts rplate, someone please correct me if I’m wrong) Crown Graphic used by the senior photographer in the place, which got stolen in 1965 or 1966 to his great sorrow and had to be replaced with a 2-1/4 by 3-1/4 Speed Graphic, which he swore for many years was not the same at all. Old traditions died hard in those days… By 1970 when I quit the game and moved first to New Mexico and then to Australia, most newspapers had reporter-photographers who were using either 35mm Minoltas or Pentaxes. I had a Nikkormat FTN which made me the envy of everyone on the staff, but I’m getting away from the TLR topic here, so enough.

    The Ricoflex (Richoflex?) I’ve heard of but I cannot recall ever seeing one. The Argus was never popular in Canada or here in Australia where I moved in the mid-70s and have happily stayed since. Rolleis, yes. Yashica also. Now and then an “odd” brand like Sawyer turns up, also the Chinese Seagull, which I’ve seen but never used. My four Rolleis, whether ‘flexes or ‘cord, will see me through to the end of my time, that is if I can afford the film.

    Suffices to say that many many TLRs were designed and made by camera manufacturers in the 1950s and 1960s until about 1970 when 35mm stepped in and more or less killed off the 120 “genre” overnight. The 620 film cameras as we know are now long gone and no longer usable, but 120 film is still being made (albeit at a hideous cost, at least down here in Oz) and as long as it continues to be sold, the TLRs can go on being used.

    And of course Mf is still with us even in digital. The new Fujifilm line with its completely redesigned range of Fujinon lenses, seems quite superb, even if completely unaffordable to old peasants like me.

    They are surprisingly good value for money and they deserve more attention than they seem to get these days. writers like James seem to understand this and are keeping on getting the message across. Well done to you, James.

    From Dann in Melbourne

  5. Thanks James for your useful article. I too have a Super Richoflex and find a lot to admire about its performance. It is the lightest TLR in my collection and whilst it feels tinny it has never let me down. The triplet gives sharp centre and softer edges with a swirly look wide open. I’ve found it to be a good creative tool when I’m wanting a different look compared to that that I get from my Rollei etc.

  6. This is great! I am so glad that you have taken the time to compare these cameras. It is often that you see old TLRs like these online or in antique stores being sold pretty cheaply and it is easy to question “Well how good are these really?”.

    I own a Graflex 22. Mine is not as advanced as your Ciro with only a 1/200th top speed Century shutter and a 85 mm f/3.5 Graftar lens, but this camera is a solid buy. I mean that in terms of performance for the cost and how the camera is made physically. Mine fell from a shelf at over five feet crashing onto my desk and bounding onto the floor. The camera survived without any issue. It is also a super simple camera to use, and for the mechanically inclined, easy to clean and repair.

    Cameras like these today provide a fun and inexpensive entry to the world of medium-format film photography. Thank you again for putting this comparison together and sharing it.

  7. Fun article and timely James, made me chuckle to imagine you being stopped by cops after scaring some innocent passer-by with your strange looking boxes dangling ????.

    I’m a big fan of the 120 TLR, and manged to buy a cheap Mamiya C3 before as everything, price creep has happened. I’m gonna share this with a Dischord group to check out as a number of them like the idea of 120 but cost of gear stops them.

    From the comparisons I really feel the Ricoh has the edge but appreciate factors are varied, but something in the water reflection does it for me.

    Hope you write a follow up about using an old TLR as a discrete soy cam around the mariner ????

  8. Very interesting, seeing all these models compared. My first non-Holga medium format camera was an Argoflex. I’m still impressed by how sharp that lens is. I can’t imagine lugging around 3 of these things; your sacrifice is appreciated!

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