While the wizardry of modern cameras has reduced a once mighty concept to little more than a phone option variance, there’s something to be said about stepping away from all that digital perfection created by an unmeasurable amount of advancements and going back to something closer to the heart of how simple capturing a moment can be.
Behold the Great Wall DF, likely version 4, and what tantamounts to be Groucho Marx wearing a Groucho Marx disguise, The Great Wall DF export version. The only difference this author can say for certainty between the two models is the export version has English writing on the exposure guide. There are too many variables involved in acquiring these cameras to confirm rumblings that the export version is built better because of improvements in the manufacturing process, but this author feels a snappiness in the export version that the other lacks.
The reasons why the Beijing Camera Factory went about adapting the German Pilot 6 into a cheap, student friendly medium format camera, aren’t exactly clear. What we know for certain is that in 1981 The Great Wall DF-2 went into production after a pilot test run. It sold for around the equivalent of $16 at release, which is close to $120 today with inflation. Subsequent releases added a self-timer, flash synchronization port, a hot shoe, and an exposure counter for using the 6×4.5 mask. There is speculation there were five versions of the Great Wall DF, but only four seem to have been confirmed. Perhaps the export version is the mythological 5th version.
To get straight to the point about what you’re dealing with in using this camera, The Great Wall DF pours out the unmistakable sense of being analog. The feeling of its heavy metal in your hands serves as a reminder of just how squishy your flesh is. There is no mistaking this black box for a sleek, modern electronic marvel of time and technology combined. It is a Frankenstein’s monster of a camera; big, slow, and simple minded. The imperfections of human craftsmanship from a time gone by wash over every element of The Great Wall DF. You can feel it on the inside and outside of the body. It spills out into every moment it imprints on a negative.
Time frozen on frames by The Great Wall DF are brimming with emulsion lines, scrapes, scratches, “wtf is that from” and failure. It’s the type of camera Ansel Adams would have conveniently dropped off a cliff instead of bothering about. As a professional tool, we would equivalently label this camera as absolute junk.
It’s such a lovely thing.
The Great Wall DF is a camera that wants photographers to be out there taking photos. It’s such a simple notion that is lost on so many cameras with more bells and whistles than a model train show convention. You can almost feel camera designer Bi Guoguang’s love of photography every time you take a picture with his medium format monstrosity. If you love lomo, lo-fi, Holga, etc, you too might get a kick from the camera with a guillotine shutter that sounds like two wood blocks hitting. Every frame is truly unique and the results are unquestionably analog. Even if you don’t like those things, just the pure simplicity of this camera might lure something inspired out of you. No guarantee your pictures will be in focus though. The dreaminess of The Great Wall DF, when the stars align and everything goes right, has that magic only film can create. The swirling bokeh at f/3.5 on the 90mm lens is wonderful.
However, you better like that bokeh and focal length, because you’ve got no other lens options. For whatever reason, they made no other focal lengths for the Great Wall DF’s unique M39 thread mount. Because of not replacing the mounting thread over its history of releases, The Great Wall DF does not allow you to overcomplicate taking photos with silly little things like different focal lengths for lenses. What use could that possibly be, lol. Your shutter options will also leave modern camera users undoubtedly frustrated. You get a whopping four shutter speed settings and bulb. Enjoy!
This simplification of options is part of what makes this camera so special. Lomography likes to say, “Don’t think, just shoot,” and The Great Wall DF encapsulates that spirit with great earnestness. You can’t overthink as much as you can simply capture with this camera. Intentionally done or not, the design won’t let you.
If the shortcomings laid out come off as a ball & chain strapped to your ankles weighing you down, this camera isn’t for you. The Great Wall DF was not a tool for professional photographers in 1981 and that’s true to this day forty-two years later. The shutter delay will drag until you get up to check it, and only then will it fire. Easy film loading, you must be joking. (The trick is you have to pull hard on the release knob past the point you think it should and hold it there until you slip your film in. You’re welcome future Great Wall DF owners.) Expect at least one misfire per roll at a minimum. Expect more if you like that 200th shutter speed. Crisp photos with a flash synch at 1/30th and a guillotine shutter. In the words of Nelson Muntz, “Ha ha.”
But if you’re an adventurer looking for a medium format camera with some soul, here it is. The Great Wall DF is more advanced and “professional” than a plastic Holga, but with enough sense to not overcomplicate how straightforward capturing an image should be. It’s so primal and direct. It generates a certain sense of joy in use all these years later I can’t help but hope would make Bi Guoguang proud of his constructed creation.
What I find so fascinating about this little guy is how it rarely leaves me wishing for more. Once you understand what the Great Wall DF is, it’s just fun to use. Yes, the camera has multiple shortcomings, but when it comes down to it, the feeling I have about every single flaw and lacking element The Great Wall DF has when using it is, “So what, who cares? I’m taking pictures here.” It’s because of its shortcomings that this camera injects some humanity into every moment it attempts to capture. Digital perfection will never create the types of beautiful mistakes the Great Wall DF can. If you’re open to imperfectly capturing the imperfections of life, it’s hard to find a better tool for that job.
Sklba edits videos for colored pieces of paper with pictures of funny looking people on them. You can find him on Instagram.
All included images have been post-processed in Adobe Photoshop.
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