Flexeret VI Camera and a glass of mojito on the table

5 Portraits with Meopta Flexaret VI and Lomography Lady Grey

Have you ever bought a camera just because of its looks? I have a few and even use some of them for actual photography. This gorgeous camera caught my attention while browsing Flickr – it was a nicely composed picture in the popular genre of camera porn. “Wow, what is this Art Deco beauty?” – thought I. Quick search revealed that it was Flexaret VI made in the 1960s by the military optic factory Meopta. It was a Czechoslovakian answer to Rolleiflex declared a “national treasure” by the famous photographer Jan Saudek. Made in CSSR, it wasn’t too expensive in comparison with German and Japanese TLRs, and I decided to buy one to decorate my living room. I quickly found one in reasonably good shape for a reasonable price.

The seller mentioned that the camera was in working order, and I was naturally tempted to try it with film. I already had some TLR experience 15 years ago with a Mamiya C330. That was a real pro camera – sturdy, heavy with the prism attached and (sorry Mamiya) quite ugly. The compact, light and sleek Flexaret had one serious drawback though – the waist level finder and very dark one! It took a walk on a sunny day with the unloaded camera to get used to the flipped image and practice focusing. Finally, I was ready to shoot my first roll. The film choice criteria were simple: the cheapest B&W ISO 400. Lomography Lady Grey meet all three.

The high-resolution scans from the lab brought a few surprises – some good and some less so. The camera was working properly, the lens, four-element Belar 80mm F3.5, was extremely sharp in the centre with slight corner softness expected from the Tessar-like design, and the resolution was excellent. I guess it was due to the lens’ military pedigree. At war, good optical quality is literally a matter of life and death. However, the contrast was low, and the contrasty Lady Grey worked very well with the old lens. It instantly became my film of choice for the Flexaret (I have yet to try it with colour). There was a nasty surprise too: it turned out that I was no longer able to hold a TLR camera steady at 1/100 sec. Even some shots at 1/200 were slightly blurry. Alas, I now must use a tripod and a cable release for any shutter speed slower than the top 1/400 sec.

There was something else I cannot describe in technical terms – the distinctly vintage looks of the photos. Nothing like the clear and modern realism of the ‘blue dot’ Mamiya lenses. Flexaret photos look like they were taken many decades ago. Like a little time machine, this camera instantly throws the viewer back to 1940s or 50s. That’s what attracted me to Flexaret and made me want to shoot with it again and again. Shoot what? The most obvious answer was portraits. Choosing a model for the first portrait session was easy: I have a good friend and muse, the very talented artist Anna Cyan. We decided to take a few portraits in her studio environment.

There was a little technical snag: the Flexaret has a large diameter tripod mount, and I didn’t want to wait for the adapters to arrive by snail mail from China. A stool with a stack of thick books on top served as a makeshift tripod, and I managed not to drop the camera even once! The lighting wasn’t very good, which narrowed down the range of possible shooting settings. I chose F5.6 to have some depth of field and 1/25 sec, about the slowest possible shutter speed for portraiture. Focusing through the dark viewfinder wasn’t an easy task, but I managed to get close enough. The photos turned out beautifully: vintage looking, soft but detailed, with nice, unobtrusive grain. Another great collaboration of the Flexaret and Lady Grey! Three of those photos were printed and now decorate Anna’s studio.

Portrait of an artist in studio with her paintings behind

Portrait of an artist in studio with her paintings behind

The second idea was as cliché as it gets: “Gothic” photoshoot at a cemetery. This time with a tripod. The day was sunny, and that posed another problem: the light was too bright! The following photo was shot almost blindly, and I cut off the model’s feet. Next time I must bring a dark cloth that will only add to the whole retro experience.

Portrait of a woman beside a monument

Here is my favourite from that session, although there is nothing Gothic about it.

Portrait of a woman near birch trees

Finally, another favourite: mojito and lyrical reverie on a restaurant’s patio. This was the last and best frame in the roll, and I’m happy I didn’t use it for something else…

Portrait of a woman at a restaurant table

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6 thoughts on “5 Portraits with Meopta Flexaret VI and Lomography Lady Grey”

  1. Flexarets are great! The lenses on the later models were excellent (don’t know the earlier triplets, but the one I had was beautiful). A bit quirky to use if you’re used to the Yashica/Rolleiflex model, but so are Ikoflexes and others. Very nice portraits, Alex. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Nice pictures and nice writing. I too love TLR’s. I think they are very much suited for portraits. The waist level finder lets you establish a better contact with the model because you don’t cover your face with the camera. I think it shows in the results. I have found that the Belar lens needs a good lens hood. The best is the original square hood. Get one of those. I often prefer a plain matt focusing screen, but the one in the Flexaret is really dark, so in my Flexaret Va I changed the focusing screen to one of the bright screens from Rich Oleson. I got a much brighter finder. It’s easier to compose but I’m not sure if it is easier to focus. My new screen has a split image focusing help in the middle (the only variety available at the time). You have to use the loup to make use of the split image. If you like to be able to focus without using the loup (much faster), I think the matt screen is probably better. It’s not difficult to change the screen, but you have to remove the leatherette from the front of the camera to dismantle the viewfinder. I used a flexible palette knife for loosening the leatherette. Borrow one from your artist friend. Good luck.

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