TLRs, or twin-lens reflex cameras, are the symbol of film photography. Particularly in 2021, their unique design attracts those seeking something different, something that will only make sense with film. With the vast majority of TLR cameras being manufactured for medium format, a 35mm TLR is even more of a special camera.
Bolsey Model C is one of those unicorn gadgets that is both simple and fun to use. It’s built tough, on a bit of a heavier side (538g/1.2lb) with an impressive feature set: 44mm 𝒇3.2 Wollensak twin-lens that can focus as close as 2m (6’6¾”) via ground glass and a rangefinder. It has a variable speed shutter 1/10s-1/200s plus Bulb.
This TLR isn’t perfect. As you may have already noticed, most Bolseys sold on eBay, mine included, show dark aluminum oxidation patches and have a missing logo. Indeed, Model C is a mix of ingenious engineering and a few cut corners. Neither the less, mine still works, and thus this review is possible.
What is it like to shoot a 35mm TLR?
TLR photography is unique in that you get a completely new composition angle, an inconspicuous shooting stance, and a more realistic final image preview. TLRs are the OG flip-screen viewfinders that free the photographer from having to peer through a tiny hole at the back.
Shooting Bolsey for the first time felt quite special. I was able to get really low without having to twist myself into awkward body positions or shooting from the hip without a viewfinder. If I wanted to, I could raise this camera over the fence or over the crowd to take pictures that are otherwise inaccessible. Things looked a little different from the new angle and thus more likely to become photos as I amused myself with the new view from below.
Model C is not a large camera. It has, perhaps, the quietest shutter out of all cameras I own. And it’s designed to be shot while held just below the chest area, making it seem at rest — while in reality, it is ready to shoot.
This Bolsey isn’t very quick, however. Its film advance is a little finicky, the shutter button is tiny, and the waist-level viewfinder shows a mirrored image where left and right are flipped. It tripped me up during the first couple of shots as I struggled to build a composition that isn’t leaning the wrong way and has all the elements I want.
Focusing with Bolsey’s waist-level viewfinder isn’t hard. It comes with a magnifying glass that you can use to fine-tune the details and is a more relaxing experience than a typical viewfinder, especially if you wear glasses. I found it fairly precise. A fun new way to look at the world!
Strong sun or dark settings can make the ground glass unable to render enough light to be useful. In which case, I found the tiny separate rangefinder and composition windows at the back of the camera rather helpful. Some pictures need to be taken from eye level, which is another reason to use the rangefinder/composition combo. This is unique to Model C as I know of no other camera that is simultaneously a TLR and a rangefinder.
Bolsey Model C in use.
Though simple in practice, Bolsey takes a little getting used to.
Loading film onto Bolsey is a little tricky. You’ll need to pull the big latch towards “OPEN” at the bottom plate, pop the back cover off and maneuver your film leader under the righthand spool’s clamp while the film’s protruding spindle points away from the camera’s top plate (i.e. you’re holding your film upside-down). If the camera’s take-up pool keeps getting away as you try and stick the film leader into its clamp, hold the “WIND” knob down with your thumb.
Once the leader is locked in, you’ll need to slide the film canister into the left chamber and up so that the film’s perforations line up with the rails and fit nicely around the aluminum gear next to the take-up spool. If the film has trouble sliding up into its place, try rotating the “REWIND” knob slightly until it frees things up.
The good news is that it’s easy to verify that the film isn’t loose, and you aren’t wasting your shots firing blanks with this camera:
Bolsey Model C has to be loaded with film to cock the double-exposure preventative shutter for you. If your film leader somehow escapes the catch and isn’t being transported properly, winding the film will feel loose, the rewind knob will not rotate in sync with your wind knob, and the shutter will never be primed.
The “WIND” knob on Model C takes a little getting used to. First of all, you’ll be rotating it counter-clockwise, which is the opposite of most other 35mm film winders. It will not prevent you from going the wrong way, so it’s important to follow the arrow, otherwise, your film will get crumpled and you may lose some shots. As you may have noticed from the photos of Bolsey in this article, that same knob will also have you lift it slightly before winding, which is a bit odd but neither difficult nor time-consuming. Just do what the knob says.
The frame counter on Bolsey works the same way as the one on FED-2: after loading the film, you’ll need to gently but firmly rotate the ring below “WIND” knob counter-clockwise and independently of the knob until it lines up with 0 — presuming you are on your first frame. This part is perhaps the least fun prep task with this camera, especially if you have large fingers.
The rest of the camera operation, while slightly odd, is easy and fairly intuitive after a few shots.
Shutter speeds are set with the tiny tab right above the lens — note that you can have in-between values there with no issues. The Wollensak lens aperture is just below — also with no clicks. The shutter release is a small knob to the left of the lens that you will need to pull down while taking an exposure. Note that if it rests just below a small rod with a red dot, it will not fire — that’s because the camera thinks that you need to advance to the next frame to prevent accidental double-exposures. However, if you insist, double-exposures are easy with Bolsey: gently press the rod to allow the shutter lever to slide above the red dot and now it’s cocked and ready to take another shot.
Focusing Model C lens is fairly straightforward with the larger tab on the right of the lens. The trickiest part with this task is prying the TLR screen open — you’ll need to use your finger or fingernail to prop it up from the back. Doing so should pop the hood and reveal the ground glass that you can use to compose and focus. Squeezing and pulling on the top edge of the folded lens should prop it up for you to make finer focus adjustments. Once done, the whole thing can be folded back down like an origami — simple.
Note the line markings at the top of the ground glass finder: they indicate the parallax shift of your lens’ frame lines when shooting up-close.
Bolsey also comes with small rangefinder and composition windows on the top-right of the camera back. The leftmost peephole is an old-school rangefinder device that instead of a patch, splits the image horizontally that you’ll need to align with your focus tab to set the correct distance to your object. The rangefinder is not suitable for composition; thus you’ll need to shift your eye to the rightmost little hole to preview the active scene as seen by Bolsey’s lens. Unfortunately, the composition window has no parallax markings so you’ll need to be aware of that if shooting your subjects up-close.
A word on a few features you’ll probably never use. The film type/speed reminder ring below the “REWIND” knob; not the best tool in 2021, considering that it maxes out at ISO100 and is just as painful to maneuver as the frame counter. The flashgun ports, opposite of the rangefinder window. The depth of field calculator on the back plage — beautiful, confusing, and unnecessary. And the large strap lug screws on both sides of the camera: for when you can find matching strap lugs — I couldn’t. This camera does come with a tripod hole as well, though I typically avoid using one myself.
Wollensak lens and image quality.
This Rochester, NY-made lens can’t be easily placed into either “good” or “bad” categories. How you think of it will depend on your set photographic purpose.
Wollensak is not very fast. With its maximum aperture stopping at 𝒇3.2 it’s a hair short of 𝒇2.8, which is decent but combined with a limiting top shutter speed of 1/200s on Bolsey C, it’s not as versatile as many of the later-years vintage lenses.
Wollensak is not as sharp as many of the modern or younger vintage lenses could be. It’s noticeably soft in the edges, up to the point of appearing smudgy in the corners of a 35mm frame. That tendency to distort the corners does not go away even when the lens is stopped down. The middle of the frame is, however, quite decent. This is handsomely demonstrated on Mike’s Camera Database with his Sony NEX-7 that covers about half of the area of this lens and thus eliminates the corners from the final image.
Wollensak’s best quality is its potential to give an extra depth sensation once you apply a small amount of sharpening and a general contrast bump after scanning. This is additional work, but the results are worth it. Not every lens can produce an image that feels like it came from Minolta’s G-Rokkor 28mm 1:3.5 lens — a legend, sold at a price tag multiple times that of Bolsey.
Another plus for Wollensak is limited vignetting if that’s what bothers you in a photo.
I’ve been also pleasantly surprised by its virtual lack of barrel/perspective distortion. Though it’s easier to achieve this on longer lenses like this 44mm, many of the lenses from this period were unable to make those sorts of corrections. Even the fantastic 50mm Ultron 2.0 begins to curve things a little when shooting up close.
The lens can certainly flare, though I haven’t seen much of those artifacts yet.
And as it often goes with the glass of this age, it produces swirly but soft bokeh that isn’t too overpowering.
Bolsey Model C’s Wollensak comes with many positive qualities and plenty of unique character. If you don’t mind doing a few adjustments after scanning your film, aren’t aversed by soft, distorted frame corners, and are happy with a max aperture of 𝒇3.2 with 1/200s shutter — this lens is totally worth the price.
Of course, the glass is attached to the body and thus you’ll need to use it, provided you haven’t ripped it off your, I sincerely hope completely broken 🧐, camera.
My experience with Bolsey Model C cleanup and disassembly.
When I first saw pictures of Bolsey cameras on eBay, I got slightly aversed by the dark oxidation marks it revealed in places where its thin varnish peeled off. The only sure way to fix this problem is to strip the camera and either recoat with varnish or repaint. Missing logo emblems are also common, also requiring involved, costly solutions. But the price difference between a “mint” version and the piece I’ve got was in multiples of five.
I’ve decided that just because the camera may look a little weary, it shouldn’t mean that it can’t be made to take good pictures and deliver the rare joy of shooting 35mm film through a TLR finder.
Like most mechanical film cameras, working Model C does not need much care other than gentle, regular use. My piece had dust and gunk stuck in the glass elements between a few crevices around the lens and the knobs. I wanted to give its lens the best possible chance in this review and to look better than the shape I bought it in. So I proceeded, starting with the viewing lens.
Model C’s viewing lens can be taken apart without using any tools other than your fingers. The ring around the glass on mine could be unscrewed, and the three fused rings on the barrel could also be unscrewed easily. At which point I could take out the entire assembly and spend some quality time cleaning lens elements with hydrogen peroxide and warm water. Mounting it back wasn’t hard, provided that you are, like me, remembered where the bits went. Readjusting the infinity focus was another fairly straightforward task for me (and should also be for anyone who’s done some light repairs on film cameras previously). I simply rotated the rings until things got sharp while the lens is set to infinity.
The picture-taking lens was tougher to take apart. I was able to free up and clean the front element, leaving the rest deep within the camera’s body, opening which would require tools I did not have. Lucky for me, all but the front glass appeared in great shape.
One last thing that I wanted to do before taking my Bolsey out to shoot is to improve its look a bit. I did this by gently sanding some of the really bad oxidation marks in visible places. To do this safely, I disassembled the part, like the knob or the viewing screen shade and worked on it separately from the camera body to avoid damaging it. You can see the difference this technique made by comparing the “REWIND” knob in the picture above and the one at the top of this article.
Buying your first Bolsey Model C on eBay.
Though this camera may appear around Etsy and small shops like mine, it is most consistently sold on eBay by American sellers. As I mentioned above, it may cost up to five times more to buy a “mint” copy compared to the current average pieces hovering around USD $50-100. However, you should still ask the seller about its mechanical condition — especially if you’re paying more.
Some of these cameras come straight from an estate sale by merchants who have no idea about film cameras other than they can fetch a decent price on eBay. If you are an experienced buyer, you will know your risks and what to look for. However, if you aren’t buying a lot of them, make sure your seller can at least confidently tell you that the shutter and aperture are working and the focus screen has no issues on your future Bolsey C.
❤ By the way: If you choose to buy your camera from eBay, please consider using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!