Meet the Camera: Ciro-flex Model D

Photographers are said to suffer from a common affliction known as Gear Acquisition Syndrome, or GAS. Symptoms basically involve the periodic need to get new stuff in spite of already having more than they know what to do with. Resisting these GAS attacks becomes increasingly difficult the longer it has been since one has last succumbed.

Oddly, though, there is apparently no correlation between the amount spent on a given acquisition and the length of relief from the symptoms of GAS. Whether you buy a $5000 Leica body or a $50 Soviet copy, you’ve got a new toy, and the GAS will stay away (mostly) until you get tired of playing with it.

Your Humble Filmosaur has a relatively rare variant of GAS. As an inveterate tinkerer, it works out even better if the new toy comes pre-broken. One way or another it’s going to be taken apart, so if it’s broken already I don’t have to worry about doing it myself. This has its advantages, however: old, broken cameras tend to be cheaper than shiny new cameras that work. This facilitates experimenting with different types of cameras; after all, shooting with the latest and greatest digital is still pretty much the same as shooting with the previous one, but going from a typical rangefinder or SLR to a folder or a plate camera or something else is a whole different ballgame.

My GAS symptoms had been building for some time, but by last weekend they were becoming critical. I went to one of the little antique shops I check periodically for old cameras with an eye to trying something different, specifically medium format. My film shooting has been limited to 35mm to this point, and the idea of moving up to a larger negative seemed to offer some new possibilities.

Much as I would have liked to spring for the German Rolleiflex (considered the gold standard in twin-lens reflex cameras) he had, and knowing my inability to leave well enough alone, I opted for the cheaper and simpler American version that was sitting next to it: a Ciro-flex Model D.

Behold, the mighty Ciro-flex...
Behold, the mighty Ciro-flex…

Made in Ohio, U.S. of A., in the late 1940s-early 1950s, the Ciro-flex is a basic twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera, which is to say a big empty metal box with a couple of lenses stuck on it. The upper, or viewing, lens is reflected via a mirror to a Fresnel screen visible through a collapsible viewer at the top of the camera. The lower, or taking, lens contains the shutter and aperture, and is used to expose the film. Both lenses are mounted in a frame that moves them simultaneously such that focusing the viewing lens also focuses the taking lens.

The extendable loupe aids in focusing
The extendable loupe aids in focusing

Surprisingly for a camera that didn’t appear to have been used since a time when Saturday morning cartoons were sponsored by Lucky Strike, everything seemed to be working (yes, that was a minor twinge of disappointment you detected…). Nonetheless, it was coming apart; just because all the moving parts were moving didn’t mean that the old lubricants were still good or that there weren’t spiders nesting somewhere deep inside the lens.

As it turns out, there were no spiders. But the old grease was pretty dodgy, and there was a good deal of hazy, oily fogging on every glass surface. A little lighter fluid in the innards of the Alphax shutter, a little rubbing alcohol on the lenses and the mirror, a few dabs of grease on the moving bits, a bit of metal polish on the supposed-to-be-shiny bits and things were looking up. Finally, I adjusted the focus on the viewing lens to make sure it was properly synchronized with the taking lens. I did have to sacrifice a bit of the original “leatherette” to get at some of the screws, but this was no great loss (it’s thin, hard, and relatively nebulous) and easily replaced. Filmosaur is not a stickler for originality.

The exposure settings are pretty limited on this camera, especially the shutter speeds, which range from 1/10 to 1/200, plus B and T. Apertures run more widely from f/3.5 to f/22; with 100 ISO film that gives a theoretical range of EV 8 to 17, or EV 6 to 15 with 400 ISO, but if you’re hand-holding you have to figure that 1/10 and 1/25 are a bit questionable, so low-light shooting is not going to be the Ciro-flex’s strong suit. The taking lens is a coated Wollensak Anastigmat 85mm triplet, which was not exactly cutting edge even in the 1940s, but the glass looks extremely clean (now, anyway). Hopefully it will render reasonable images in spite of its rather pedestrian design.

I'm not sure a top speed of 1/200 warrants lightning bolts...
I’m not sure a top speed of 1/200 warrants lightning bolts…

Using 120 film, the Ciro-flex produces 12 6cm x 6cm negatives per roll. Just for reference, that’s 36 sq. cm, whereas a 35mm negative is 2.4cm x 3.6cm, or 8.64 sq cm; the medium format negative has over four times the area of a 35mm negative. The square format is going to take some getting used to, but one of the main advantages to the larger negative is the ability to crop. I’ve liked a lot of the 6×6 medium format images I’ve seen, so perhaps I can learn to see the world in a square frame without having to resort to the virtual scissors.

Heh said "knob"...
Heh heh…you said “knob”…

Medium-format TLRs are noted for producing great separation through shallow depth-of-field. To aid in this, there’s a handy depth-of-field scale on the side panel; this is necessary because the viewing lens is always at maximum aperture and thus not a useful guide unless you’re shooting wide open. The DOF scale is especially useful in conditions where you may not have time to focus carefully like candid street photography. The smaller knob above and left is the winder.

So there you have it, the newest addition to the Filmosaur stable, the first medium format camera I’ve owned, all clean and shiny and ready to go. As soon as my film order arrives I’ll be giving it a workout (I’ve got Tri-X and Ektar coming); images will inevitably follow. It may not be the pinnacle of engineering, but it’s a nice solid camera, and I’m hoping it acquits itself well. Only film will tell….

Got some old relic you like shooting with? Filmosaur demands details – NOW!

Workshop: Rollei 35 Film Ripping on Rewind

No matter how careful you might be with your cameras, sooner or later something is bound to break, bind up, or otherwise fail. With modern cameras, this generally means that the smoke comes out of some expensive circuit board and you go spend some money on a replacement. With old mechanical film cameras, however, there’s just a bunch of gears, levers, springs and other goodness crammed into a tiny space that probably hasn’t seen the light of day since the Johnson administration. The passage of decades is not often kind to lubricants and springs, not to mention plastics. Something’s bound to give, and probably at an inconvenient time.


My Rollei 35, which has previously given no trouble whatsoever, decided to start ripping film in half while it was being rewound. Lots of tension would build by about halfway through the roll, and then SNAP. Very annoying.

There’s no way I am going to carry around a camera that’s going to threaten to break every roll of film I put through it, so something had to be done. After extricating the broken roll and securing it in a light-tight container, I set about taking the camera apart.

Let me take a moment here to explain something about Your Humble Filmosaur. I have always had a tendency to disassemble first and ask questions later. This has often gotten me in trouble – how was this supposed to fit together again? – but it is also a very effective way to learn how mechanical things work. Sometimes it ends up biting you, sometimes you discover it’s just broken, but occasionally you actually learn something and manage to effect the repair.

The Rollei 35 is notoriously complex. This is necessitated by the tiny package into which all the moving parts have to be fitted. It is also necessitated by German engineers having to adhere to a design ethic that demands that things fit together only one way. When so fitted, they form a mechanism that is as close to perfect as human ingenuity will permit; when they are not, it is because you (a non-German, non-engineer) have failed to appreciate the beauty of the mechanical creation. In other words, the mechanism is not complex; you are simple.

With the imagined glares of a room full of stern Teutonic men whose names all begin with Dr. Ing., I set about cracking open their creation to see what makes it tick. The 35 has a removable back, which includes the lower cover. The top cover comes off conventionally, meaning a few screws and the various controls located there have to be removed. The 35 is convenient in this regard, as all the exposure controls are on the front panel, so it’s just the wind lever, rewind unlock lever, and lens release button.

Once the cover’s off one is confronted with a bunch of gears on the left side and the guts of the meter on the right. The gears drive the transport mechanism; a large metal one driven directly by the wind lever turns a secondary shaft that contains the advance lock. This then drives two other shafts: the sprocket drive and the take-up shaft. The latter, it turns out, also cocks the shutter by means of a cam located at the bottom of the shaft. This is a very space-efficient but rather complex arrangement (big surprise…).

Nothing looked overtly bad. All the gears turned when they should, no missing screws or broken bits of plastic rattling around. The rewind unlock worked as it should, releasing the sprockets to turn freely in either direction. The advance and cocking mechanisms did their respective jobs. I decided to dig further; in retrospect this was probably ill-advised.

Removing the large primary advance gear releases the tension on the rest of the advance and cocking drivetrain, which throws the whole thing out of sync. It took me quite a while to figure out how to remedy this (it involves lifting up the secondary gear that contains the advance lock so that the shaft driving the cocking cam can be turned independently to the proper position). In the meantime, I pulled out the viewfinder, which has always been hazy, and cleaned it; this is no small feat, given that it is essentially contained in a single closed piece of plastic (I can hear the designers now: “Our viewfinders do not need to be serviced, as they do not get dirty if the camera is properly maintained.”). I also used a bit of lighter fluid to wash down the gears and lever pivots that I could get to, and to clean up the electrical contacts for the meter. A little bit of lubrication was added where appropriate.

With it all back together and working properly, I put in a test roll and advanced it through with no problem, but then the advance wasn’t the issue. When I went to rewind it, the same problem occurred – I could feel the film binding. I manually removed it and checked each component again, now having a better understanding of what did what. The problem was quickly isolated as being the take-up spool. This spool runs on a shaft to which it is friction-fitted. I don’t know what sort of lubrication, if any, was originally used between the two pieces, but the level of friction between them now was far too high. This was not an issue when advancing the film, as the film advance drivetrain actuates the inner shaft positively by turning the upper gear, but when rewinding the outer spool spins while the inner shaft remains stationary, held in place by the other gears in the drivetrain. Too much friction means the spool was binding against the inner shaft.


The fix? A few drops of light oil into the bushings at the top and bottom of the shaft. Turning the spool by hand immediately showed a considerable reduction in friction, and this was borne out by advancing and rewinding the test roll without incident. Lubricant was applied with the tip of a tiny screwdriver, and excess carefully wiped away. I did this several times, rotating the spool between applications by hand to ensure the lubricant was well-distributed (spin the notched wheel at the base of the spool in the opposite direction to the arrows).


You might think, then, that all that disassembly was ultimately unnecessary, but it really wasn’t. Without taking the camera apart, I wouldn’t have been able to understand how the pieces fit together, and thus been able to diagnose the actual problem. Plus the viewfinder is now clear and the meter works better, and I have a much better understanding of just how this particular camera works. Just another step on my path toward becoming Herr Dr. Ing. Filmosaur.

On living with a Samurai

A quick glance at the statistics for this blog shows that, by a wide margin, the most searched-for term that leads people here is “Yashica Samurai Z.” This seems a bit odd at first glance, given that the Samurai Z was a camera that didn’t have a lot of mass market appeal, meaning it was short-lived and there probably aren’t many in circulation. This is in no small part due to the fact that the half-frame format was long past its peak by 1989, when the Z arrived.

The Yashica Samurai Z in all its 1980's glory...
The Yashica Samurai Z in all its 1980’s glory…

So why are people searching for this so frequently? Well, for one thing, there isn’t much information out there about these cameras – not surprising in light of its obscurity. And it is a fascinatingly unconventional design with a lot of technical highlights. They do seem to have developed a bit of a cult following (oh, Lomography, is there any unloved thing you can’t convince hipsters is cool?), though one cannot help but think that more people want to join the cult than can be supplied with Samurai Zs.

As I’ve mentioned, I happen to be an inadvertent member of the cult; my father gave me his old Samurai Z a while back when I started to return to film photography on a more regular basis. He bought it new in Asia several decades ago, and it still works perfectly. Aside from the test roll I ran through it after he first handed it to me, however, it has been sitting on my camera shelf. I have nothing against it; I simply find myself gravitating toward cameras that allow more manual control (the Samurai offers essentially none) or that are more easily pocketable (the Samurai isn’t).

In light of the number of searches that have led people here, I felt it would be a good idea to load up some film and report back on what the Samurai was like to use beyond mere function testing. So, with a roll of Kodak Gold 400 in place, the Samurai and Your Humble Filmosaur headed out to see what was what.

Using the Samurai is an odd mixture of simplicity and inconvenience. It is ergonomically designed to fit easily in one hand, and does so perfectly; the plastic grip area can be slippery, but with the hand strap in place it is all quite secure. All the primary controls are right where you’d expect them to be – the zoom toggle and the shutter release fall directly under the index finger. The viewfinder is a good size, reasonably bright, and even works well with glasses.

But for all those good points, you never get past the fact that it is still a big camera. There will be no stealthy street shooting with a Samurai. When you’re carrying it, your right hand is not good for anything else, and it’s not like you can just slip the camera in your pocket when you’re not using it. The secondary controls are those microscopic recessed soft-touch buttons so popular in 1980’s electronics, and require multiple presses to cycle through their associated options, an experience that reminds me of scrolling through menus on a digital camera. The autofocus is twitchy, and the zoom is loud and rather leisurely. It’s hard to decide if the design is inspired but imperfectly executed, or ill-conceived but nonetheless clever.

Press a button!

Aside from the unconventional design, it’s those secondary features that set the Samurai Z apart. How many other cameras allow you to shoot multiple exposures on a single frame (including up to five within a quart of a second!), shoot up to 4.5 frames per second continuously, and program timed exposures over a 24 hour period, all right out of the box and with no additional equipment? The problem, of course, is that none of these functions are quick to access. One needs to become quite familiar with the controls and plan ahead to make the most of them. Again, it feels somewhat like operating a menu-driven digital camera.

So it’s not the easiest camera to use, in spite of what appears to be a design intended to make it exactly that. It’s a bit too complex for operation to be truly simple, and more advanced feature set combined with the limitations of 1980’s technology don’t help. But what about the photos? The ability of a camera to produce quality images buys an awful lot of tolerance for other quirks and imperfections. We will have a look at those when we get to Part II of our investigation. Stay tuned….