What was the golden age of film cameras?


Judgements about the merit of various eras in camera design are always destined to be subjective. One must recognize that camera design did not sit still for a reason-that constant improvements like lightmeters, through-the-lens metering, instant film, built in flash, and automatic focus came about and in fact prospered because consumer demand indicated that that was what the market wanted. Digital cameras today, however much some (myself included) may resent some aspects of them, represent what the vast majority of the public want-a simple, no-brainer design that can take photos anywhere , under almost any light conditions, and without any particular skills, with an instant review of the image available. Nonetheless, if one consciously restricts oneself to the medium of film instead as Lomographers do, was there a particular ‘golden age’ in terms of film camera design? I’m going to argue that there was, and that that era was the 1950s.

The 1950s was certainly the golden age of the TLR. Everybody was attempting to produce cheap ‘Rollei’ copies, and 120 film itself was still cheap and widely available. The TLRs of that era reached what I think was a peak in terms of mass-market consumer perfection. Their inherently simple, all-mechanical design meant that there was (and still is) practically nothing that can go wrong. But more than that, the proliferation of perfectly decent triplet lenses-on Yashica C and Ds, on the Lubitel series (the Lubitel 2 being I think the peak of Lubitel design), or on the Welta Weltaflex, Welta Reflekta, or a Japanese Wardflex or Ricohflex-all in fact put perfectly decent TLRs within the grasp of the ordinary public. These triplet lenses lacked the uber-sharpness of a Rollei (in particular they’re acknowledged as ‘soft’ at wider apertures, with swirly bokeh which is actually rather an attractive feature) but they compensated by offering more contrast between bright light and shadows. The all-manual TLRs of that era therefore offered a great middle of the range camera capable of producing excellent images. They were complemented at the lower end of the spectrum by attractive simple bakelite cameras like the Pouva Start or Druopta Pioneer, with great plastic lenses, and by the dawn of perfect ‘monster’ cameras like the Pentacon Six or the Mamiya C2, forefather of the entire awesome Mamiya ‘C’ series, at the top end.
So what went ‘wrong’ afterwards in my view? Well, whizzbang technology like electronic aperture priority started making cameras rather more delicate instruments. The Zeiss Contarex, introduced in 1958, and a design disaster whose lack of reliability actually bankrupted the company, foreshadowed much of what was to follow. The introduction of batteries and selenium lightmeters (many of the latter of which are now effectively non-functional) reduced the working shelf life of cameras. Increasingly, cameras without the right batteries or with a dead selenium cell became no more than pretty-but useless-metal bricks. An increasing array of technology designed to make photography easier meant that in practice a lot more could go wrong. The SLR boom of the 1970s began to sound the death knell of TLRs, and also reduced 120 film to increasingly ‘high art’ photography status rather than allowing it to remain an everyday and affordable consumer staple. SLRs themselves began to assume a certain identikit design functionality-Nikon and Olympus started this-which today has culminated in all digital cameras being increasingly indistinguishable black lumps of plastic. Film cameras became ‘perfect’ for those uninterested in aperture, shutter speed, film speed, or depth of field, but also more boring, more disposable and interchangeable, and surprisingly more fussy (compare the reliability issues of some 1980s cameras today, some of which already practically come with ‘buyer beware’ signs, compared with their far cheaper 1950s counterparts). And that’s about where digital came in…

written by alex34 on 2011-10-23


  1. marcel2cv
    marcel2cv ·

    Very well done, Alex! :-)

  2. ibkc
    ibkc ·

    Yup. All very well said. I do love my Yashica Electro, but in general I've come to find that the more electronics to fool with, the more annoying the camera. I love taking the time to set up my shots with my TLRs. "Stop and smell the roses" as they say.

  3. pomps
    pomps ·

    super article!

  4. laurasulilly
    laurasulilly ·

    what a great, thoughtful analysis!

  5. jean_louis_pujol
    jean_louis_pujol ·

    This is an excellent article. Your science about cameras is impressive. Taking as a whole your blog entries and articles are the beginning of an interesting and well documented book!

  6. mapix
    mapix ·

    yes youre right for the most part again! love my two TLRs a lot: www.lomography.com/homes/mapix/albums/1703671-colour-double… - but they are in fact not medium, but rather Big bodys... i must confess mostly i prefer taking a camera as small as possible, LCA of course, my beloved rollei 35 se, or even a SLR, which has several advantages in my eyes. but they are all pure film cameras, the 80s SLRs too! many of them are real mechanical masterpieces like complicated clockworks - its amazing! (a LITTLE electronic is ok, but preferably no autofocus or motor-driven film transport or zoom) - but its all in all a huge quality leap to digital imaging! i think the APS compact-camera is cutting edge for the digital method - but almost this is last but not least analog working and may be ideal for snapshots...

  7. herbert-4
    herbert-4 ·

    Excellent article! I like early '60's stuff. I've been lucky with Topcon Super D, Topcon RE Super, and Minolta SR505, all with CdS meters that still work using Weincell brand batteries. The Topcons are legends of toughness and reliability, used by the USN for decades. They're probably still looking for mine. For a purely mechanical solution, find a Miranda F for SLR, but should you date a girl named Miranda, it will be suddenly hers, and you will never get it back.