In Volume 3 of What It Takes, I dive into the world of respooling film to bring back an old bakelite 620 box camera that wants you to think it's a TLR. Spoiler alert: it's not!
Before we get started, let’s cover the basics of What It Takes:
- I buy, find, or otherwise acquire through honest means a camera for the low, low cost of $50 or less, all included.
- I scrape off the gunk, polish everything necessary for reasonable optical quality and basic (possibly only primitive) functionality, and run a roll of color and a roll of black & white film through.
- I show you the resulting pictures, the camera, and tell you all about What It Takes.
Have you ever come across an old camera that just looks fantastic, has amazing features, is in great shape, and you think it’s ready to go, only to discover that it requires film that’s no longer made or isn’t readily available? You wouldn’t be the first to pass a camera like that up because it’s too inconvenient and costly to find film. I don’t know about you, but I really only want cameras I can use!
Well, I’m here to tell you that, at least for 620-format film, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from enjoying these cameras as much as you do your other medium-format favorites. Read on to learn how I got this month’s subject, a USC Reflex II box camera, back in action.
The USC Reflex II is a pseudo-TLR camera, meaning that, although an image is reflected up to a waist-level viewfinder through a viewing lens, allowing the photographer to conveniently see what will be framed in a shot, the viewing lens does not reflect the focus of the framed shot, which is determined by the taking lens. This was really a gimmick used to give cheap, mass-produced snapshot cameras a more sophisticated (less embarrassing) appearance through their resemblance to state-of-the-art TLRs imported from Europe. As with a lot of box cameras, the Reflex II takes 620 film, which is no longer produced by any film manufacturer.
When I bought this camera in an online auction for about $23, I had a plan for dealing with the film issue: figure it out when the camera showed up. I knew that my local film lab carries 120 film with the spools ground down to fit 620 cameras, so if all else failed, I would just buy some of that and be ready to shoot.
I started thinking, though, as the camera made its way through the mail to me from Nebraska, that buying film that somebody else had modified kind of offended my DIY sensibilities, and that I would prefer taking matters into my own hands and respooling my own 120 film. I was surprised by how easy it is to do. I couldn’t very well take pictures of how I did it, since I was in a totally darkened room, but here’s how it works:
In a completely darkened room (I know I just said this, but it bears repeating, since if you don’t do this you may as well not bother with the rest, as you’ll be ruining your film), you simply unwind the film and backing paper from a roll of unexposed 120 film so that the “Exposed” end is on the outside, and then wind it back onto a 620 spool, making sure to keep everything tight and straight. The only tricky bit is that only one end of the film is attached to the backing paper, so when you’re winding on to the 620 spool, it may be necessary to stop at the point where the film attaches to the paper, unstick the tape, and restick it down so everything is smooth and straight. If you don’t do that, you’ll end up with a hump in your film roll, which could lead to fogged film or light leaks. Once your film has been exposed, you may want to go ahead and put it back onto the 120 spools unless you’re really confident that your lab will remember to save your 620 spools for you.
In the case of the USC Reflex, respooling really was a requirement, since the film loads onto a spindle that runs through the core of a 620 spool. 120 spools aren’t hollow through the core, so I wouldn’t be able to use the 620 film on modified 120 spools sold at my lab.
With the film issue resolved and my camera newly arrived in the mail, I was ready to get started on camera cleanup. I got it out of the packaging and gave it a quick inspection. It came with a case that looked OK on the outside, but had been lined with felt that had been rubbing off in tiny bits onto the camera. I saw immediately that the main challenge would be chasing down and removing all the stray bits of fuzz that had collected in all the camera’s nooks and crannies.
I cleaned everything off the exterior of the camera using lens cleaner, my rocket bulb, and a lot of patience. Unfortunately, there was still a bunch of fuzz inside the camera, and no way to get into the lenses to clean them. I blew out as much of the inside as I could, but no matter what I did, there were always these small fibers floating around in there. After a few minutes puzzling over how to get them out, I decided to just go with it. I wasn’t expecting crystal-clear precision out of a box camera, so a few small fibers probably wouldn’t matter all that much. I loaded my respooled Fuji Reala 100 onto the film spindle in the bottom of the camera and made my color test shots.
I looked at some of the original advertising for this camera that’s available online, and its tagline was, “The picture you SEE is the picture you GET.” I figured I’d put that to the test.
I carried the Reflex II around with me for a day, and eventually noticed that the door to the camera was not as closed as I would have liked. As a Holga owner, I was well-equipped to deal with a potential light leak, and a couple strips of black tape got it fixed up…until the tape stretched and I ended up with some light leaks anyway.
The viewfinder on this camera is quite nice. You get a bright image that corresponds well with the size of the exposure. It’s a little bit distorted by the mirror, but everything was sharp-looking and in focus…and there was the downfall of their motto. Of course not everything I could see in the viewfinder was in focus in the final image. Close-up subjects were completely out of focus, but the more distant parts of the image were really very sharp and had good color.
The controls on this camera are, uh, …well, there aren’t any. No focus. No aperture. Not even so much as a I/T switch. This didn’t stop the United States Camera Company from installing a double exposure prevention gimmick as the camera’s only automatic “feature.” It’s easy to bypass, at least, by pressing in the metal tab under the shutter switch. The utter lack of controls made shooting rather interesting. With no idea what the aperture was, I couldn’t even reliably use a hand-held meter to estimate exposure. Your Sunny 16 won’t help you in Reflexville. This camera was strictly “click and pray.” It was like a camera designed to enforce Rule #6 (Don’t Think).
I had to wait a few days for a bright enough day to shoot my black & white test roll, this time using respooled Kodak TMAX 400.
Light leaks were more of a problem this time around, but I was really impressed with the sharpness of the shots when I got in the right range for the lens to be focused.
In spite (or perhaps because?) of this camera’s limitations and quirks, it was enjoyable to shoot with. Its bakelite body makes it lightweight yet sturdy, it looks pretty cool, and, as with true TLRs, the waist-level viewfinder forces you into a different perspective that makes composition both challenging and inspiring. It’s a great camera for exploring the limits of the “Don’t Think” concept, or just to take a break from having absolute control over your camera settings. It reminded me that sometimes, just hoping that things will turn out OK is all the preparation you need.
Photos and words by Dan Arnold. Dan lives, writes, and accumulates cameras in Vancouver, Washington and works in Portland, Oregon. Read more of his series What it Takes.