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Going LoFi in a Digital World with the Recesky TLR 35mm camera

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Going LoFi in a Digital World with the Recesky TLR 35mm camera

ABSTRACT: In the world of ever more sophisticated digital cameras, with huge pixel counts and, more importantly, larger sensors available to all devices, including cell phones, there is still something magical about using traditional film cameras. Demanding a more sedate level of anticipation with the accompanying uncertainty of how the final image will turn out in print puts back a certain charm into photography that is sometimes lacking in this point-and-shoot world. Richard Reeve discusses how he discovered and built his $20 Recesky 35mm Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera and why itís part of his standard photography kit.
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Donít get me wrong, Iím not some type of Luddite or traditionalist harping on about the good old days of film photography and how everyone now thinks theyíre a fine art photographer just because they own an iPhone; I am as much a geek as many other photographers, with my main choice of hardware being my trusty Panasonic GX-1 with the ďnew-fangledĒ m43 format rather than the more usual DSLR. That being said, I was fascinated to stumble across the Recesky TLR camera that could be built in a couple of hours and use widely available 35mm film - for about $20.
I had dabbled with a Holga using black and white 110-film over the last couple of years, learning with my daughter as she went through her photography classes at school, and maybe that helped pique my interest to temporarily put away the Panny, turn off the laptop and go back to real basics. Additionally, with the use of widely available 35mm color film which could be processed cheaply locally, this opened up a lot of creative possibilities using the quirky plastic lens system with its quirky vignetting effect.

There is quite a lot of information available on the internet regarding the Recesky camera, and its more up-market, but similar version, the Gakkenflex, some of which can be off putting to the reader since it over dramatizes the complexity of the task at hand. In reality the whole exercise of building the camera took me only a couple of quiet hours and is very straightforward providing you do your preparation work, read all instructions carefully and, most importantly, take your time.

Sourcing the camera kit is easy - just type Recesky into Amazon or eBay and you will find several sellers. You should be able to get this for $20 or less including shipping. The kit comes in a styrofoam box and you should be very careful about unpacking this and making sure all parts are present, as some are very small, easily lost and not replaceable. My kit only had instructions in Chinese so I printed out English instructions on the internet and read a few ďdiyĒ blogs (see below) before I started. One thing I recommend is that you dedicate a couple of quiet hours to this as you donít want to be disturbed when fiddling with small plastic components and springs and you certainly donít want your part-completed kit sent flying by children or pets.

Construction is fairly straightforward, once you relax into it and realise that you may have to do, undo and redo pieces a few times to get it right. The main thing to remember is to not force anything and, if you are unsure, to refer not only to the instructions but to the growing number of youtube videos available. The most difficult part is putting together the shutter release mechanism. It is quite surprising how a couple of cheap springs, a pinhole and and a plastic flap can make a fairly reliable shutter.

Once all the parts are together the Recesky is fairly robust, for a cheap plastic camera, with the exception of the flip up viewfinder mechanism which seems to fall apart quite easily until you work out how to open it carefully. This does not affect the cameraís operation though, since if the 4 parts detach they can just be snapped into place, but it did frustrate me to start with.

Loading a 35mm film (ISO 400 recommended, but itís not critical) is easy, although, as with Holga cameras, you have to experiment a little with your particular build in order to get the the film tension correct to ensure it flat on the focal plane, but itís not totally critical. I added a small piece of card from the film box between the end of the film spool and the camera body to make the film fit more tightly and increase the film tension. Close up the back and you are ready for action with your half-sized, fake Rolleiflex.

The first thing to notice on the outside of the camera is that there is no film counter. Instead the take up spool has an arrow embossed on it. When winding the film on the arrow needs to move half of a revolution to have advanced the film a full frame. Therefore you need to be in the habit of either remembering to advance after every shot so that you are ready to take your next picture and not get a double exposure (unless you want to do that!)

The Recesky is a TLR (twin lens reflex) so you donít see exactly the image you are going to get as there will be parallax effect between the viewing lens and the camera lens. This is not a significant problem for distance work but gets problematic with close ups. Focusing, such as it is, can be achieved by winding the lenses, which are meshed together, in and out and viewing the scene through the ďground glassĒ (plastic) viewfinder. Note the image is upside down so it takes a bit of getting used to moving and tilting the camera in the opposite direction to what you think. Also the viewfinder is very dim so the camera is best used in bright sunlight if you want to rely on the viewfinder to compose your shot.

Once you have run through your film it can be developed quite cheaply at many drugstores, camera shops or big box stores, since it uses standard 35mm film. This is a huge advantage over the Holga cameras with their 110 film format, which we had to wet process ourselves.
Maybe itís just me but the other thing that I like about this whole activity is the introduction of an anticipatory element to the creative flow. Instead of simply pressing the arrow and looking at the image on the camera LCD you have to wait until the entire film is shot and then wait hours or days for the photos to be produced. I also suggest you also get JPG versions on a DVD too if you can unless you want to scan the negatives or prints yourself to a higher quality format.

The images that the Recesky produces are quaint, often unexpected and have that natural retro feel, with vignetting and soft focus. Even mundane objects take in a different appearance and it is for this reason that I will often use my digital and my Recesky when I am on a shoot, to compare the imagery afterwards. I guess no two cameras are truly the same although the Recesky camera body is significantly more light proof than the Holga, so you donít get that light bleed effect for which the latter is so well known - or at least I donít.

The other thing with the Recesky is that it is relatively compact so you can pop it in your jacket pocket and take it wherever you go. Itís also fascinating to see the peopleís expressions when composing a shot with the camera - usually a look of bewilderment as they assume you are, in fact, using some hi-tech equipment, radar detector, measuring device or 3-D camera. Some peopleís curiosity will even get the better of them sufficiently to ask what it is!

So, in conclusion if you want to try something a little different from your normal routine, donít want to spend too much money that you could spend on glass for your digital equipment, but are prepared to put in some time and patience, then why not give this a go and join the fun of not being entirely in control of how your final art will reveal itself!

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Richard has several of his Recesky images available for sale as prints and cards on ReevePhotos.com at Recesky Shots where he also runs the Recesky Group. He also regularly adds Recesky information to his Recesky Pin board at http://www.pinterest.com/rreevephotos/recesky-shots/

Useful Recesky references:
http://www.lofico.com.au/blogs/news/7629867-recesky-diy-tlr-tutorial
http://receskytlr.blogspot.com/2012/03/recesky-manual-pdf.html
http://all-my-cameras.com/2013/10/15/the-recesky-diy-tlr-camera_en/

This article first appeared in Eye on Fine Art Photography Volume I, issue 2 ( http://www.magcloud.com/browse/issue/696468)