In the early days of mass-produced cameras, when a photographer talked about “the best” he invariably talked about Germany. This reflected a truth; Japanese cameras of the 1930s and ‘40s were in large part inferior to their German contemporaries. In this nascent period of Japanese industry the Japanese makers lacked the technical excellence, and just as crucially, the reputation for excellence that surrounded the likes of Leica, Zeiss and Rollei. For a long time, a Japanese camera is what a photographer bought if he couldn’t afford a German machine. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when Japanese camera makers began refining their optics and manufacturing processes, that their machines began to match and surpass those of their German rivals.
Everyone knows of the game-changer that Nikon produced in their Nikon F SLR, but a lesser-celebrated and equally worthy Japanese camera existed even before the F. Minolta produced a camera in 1955 that, while not in the same technological class as Nikon’s first SLR, refined and perfected a different class of machine known as the TLR. This Twin Lens Reflex camera was known as the Autocord, and it was a better camera than any TLR made by the Germans. Amazing optics, exceptional build quality, and a number of small ergonomic and functional refinements signaled the arrival of a new choice in the TLR scene. As an added bonus, the Autocord was significantly less expensive than any TLR from the land of bratwurst and dachshunds.
So what’s it like to shoot this medium format antique today? After spending a few weekends with the Minolta Autocord, here are my impressions.
Aesthetically the Autocord is a nice looking machine. Classy and timeless, it’s essentially a black, rectangular box with silver trim. In raised areas the black enamel has been carefully machined away, leaving wonderful contrasting lines to frame the camera’s edges and nameplate. This touch gives the camera a distinctive stateliness, and an impression of thoughtful design. Film spool knobs are nicely knurled and contrast well with the black body. The tripod mount is a beautifully milled piece of aluminum, and the metal strap lugs are held solidly in place with shiny screws.The film advance lever is a cast piece of metal with a gentle curve and raised accents, ending in a finely detailed handle.
Unadorned panels are covered in nicely textured leatherette, cut to fit every angle and curve. A liability coming from age, it’s common for the Autocord’s leatherette to crack and peel away. Luckily, replacement material can be easily sourced and applied by even the least mechanically inclined hobbyists. Even with the occasional damaged leatherette, it’s difficult to imagine anyone regarding this camera as anything but beautiful.
The Autocord’s twin lenses are about as close to jewelry as it gets in a TLR. The top lens, known as the “viewing lens”, displays the image through the viewfinder on the top of the camera. The lower lens, known as the “taking lens”, is the lens through which the film is exposed. Both lenses use Rokkor-grade optics and feature stainless steel surrounds to protect the front elements and to capture the bayonet-style lens cap. The caliber of machine work on this assembly is outstanding, and it’s easy to fall into quiet contemplation as one admires the striking application of curves and bevels, and the combination of gleaming glass and polished metal.
The taking lens uses a 75mm focal length Rokkor assembly consisting of 4 elements in 3 groups. The 10-bladed aperture is a step-less iris from ƒ/3.5 to ƒ/22, and is adjusted via a small lever on the left of the lens. Actuation is smooth and light, and a readout on the top of the lens assembly allows the shooter to know the set aperture without any change in natural shooting position. A similar window displays the selected shutter speed, which is controlled via a matching lever on the right side of the lens assembly. The shutter varies from model to model, with some using Citizen-MVL and Optiper shutters. Our review model covers speeds from 1/500th of a second down to 1 second, plus Bulb mode.
The camera features a shutter lock in the form of a rotating ring surrounding the shutter release button. When the red and black dots are aligned the shutter won’t actuate when the release button is pressed. This is great for barring accidental shutter release. Additionally the lock serves a second purpose; long exposure photography. By setting the camera to Bulb mode and pressing the shutter, it’s possible to then turn the shutter lock and keep the shutter open indefinitely. Once the long exposure is complete, simply turn the lock and the shutter closes. It’s a great system for night shooting, though it should be mentioned that winding the film should never be attempted if the shutter lock is on. This will break the winding mechanism.
Some Autocords have a self-timer lever. This lever is located directly behind the shutter speed selector and uses a ten second delay. Great for shots of the whole family, though our review model lacked this feature.
Many Autocords feature light meters. The model reviewed here does not. Arguments can be made in favor of those with and without. Metered models are naturally better in that they tell the photographer where to set shutter-speed and aperture to achieve a correct exposure. Unfortunately, they tend to have unwieldy growths spurting from the otherwise concise design. Meter-less models are harder to shoot accurate exposures, but they look substantially better. They also don’t require batteries, which is nice. There’s also a certain simplicity that’s refreshing in a meter-less Autocord. It brings the photographer back to a time when the focus was on observation of the environment, and a knowledge of the craft. Know your stuff and the meter-less Autocord is a machine lacking in nothing. The metered model will always be uglier.
Focus is achieved through a helicoid system connected to a lever on the bottom of the lens assembly. This lever can be actuated with one hand, a big improvement over the focus knobs of its German rivals, and covers infinity to a minimum focus distance of 3.3 feet. Easy focus is aided by the viewing lens’ fast aperture of ƒ/3.2. This allows a good amount of light to come streaming into the viewfinder, which uses a Fresnel screen with imprinted frame lines. Coupled with the focus magnifier, it’s very easy to dial the focus exactly where it’s intended.
The camera uses medium format, 120 film and is fairly easy to load. Pull the film back opening knob on the top left of the camera and open the hinged, metal door, insert the film spool in the top slot and lock it in place. Once this is done, spool out a bit of film and insert the leader into the lower take-up spool. Wind the advance lever until the arrows appear on the film. Line up these arrows with the small red dots in the back of the camera body and close the film back. Now simply wind the advance lever carefully until the frame count indicator window displays “1”. The camera’s ready to shoot.
For those unfamiliar with medium format film, it’s a real treat to use. To put it simply, medium format film is dimensionally larger than 35mm film (what digital users call full frame). As film formats get larger the capability of the film to produce higher quality images improves. Larger surface area means higher resolution images, less grain, and more detail. Photos taken on medium and large format cameras are naturally going to be nicer looking than photos taken on smaller formats, such as 35mm. There’s just more space for the chemistry to work its magic, resulting in cleaner, deeper images, with unrivaled detail. The takeaway? These cameras use film that’s larger than full frame at 1/10th the price.
So the film is good, but to get the most of the format you need a good lens. Luckily, the Autocord’s lens is fantastic, and it’s this fantastic lens that puts the Autocord in the same league as the German machines. The images produced by the Autocord are second to none in sharpness, color, and contrast. Minolta’s Rokkor optics are again proven to be nearly unbeatable in the world of vintage cameras. Naturally the images produced will vary depending on film type and, of course, the ability of the photographer. But using an Autocord certainly helps stack the deck in the photographer’s favor.
It’s also important to remember the way that film format affects the photographer’s final image. As film (or digital sensor) size increases, the depth-of-field decreases. So even though the aperture is a relatively slow ƒ/3.5, because it’s a medium format camera, the Autocord is able to create adequately shallow depth-of-field for the bokeh-lovers among us. The 75mm focal length is exceptional for portrait work, and shot wide open offers very nice subject isolation on close subjects. Bokeh is entirely a matter of taste, but I’m of the opinion that the Autocord produces just the right amount of blur in these types of photos. Stop the lens down further and things get downright crispy. Images shot at ƒ/8 are unbelievably sharp, and detail is fantastic.
Outstanding build quality, good looks, technical advances and optical perfection? Seems there’s not much to complain about with this camera. Searching for an issue, it could be said that it may be too unwieldy for some people. While the fact of it being a big metal box is an asset when talking of build quality, it’s certainly no asset when talking of portability. At 1,100g it’s no light-weight, and lugging the thing around in the hand for extended periods will lead to tennis elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome. While a good strap will help, this may not be the best camera for travel.
Street photographers may be mixed regarding the Autocord. It’s true that most street shooters value surreptitious machines over anything large and flashy. Smaller cameras help them fade into the background of the environment, allowing them to capture candid shots of unaware subjects. Because of its sheer size, logic might dictate that the Autocord fails as a street photography camera. Then again, the Autocord’s waist-level viewfinder allows it to be accurately shot from the hip, it’s mostly black, and it’s lack of mirror and use of a leaf shutter make it exceptionally quiet. It’s even got a focus scale.
It starts to seem like a tenuous case could actually be made for street-shooting a TLR, if only it didn’t attract so much attention. When out with the Autocord, people just seem to want to chat with you about it. While this may thwart some street photographers, most people will find it a happy byproduct. All but the most hardened and miserable photographers will enjoy these interactions. It’s especially nice to make small talk in the dense urban areas that are so often associated with bustling people eager to avoid eye-contact. And after a conversation about the antique box of gleaming glass and metal, it’s easy to segue to a portrait request. If these non-candids aren’t appealing, the Autocord user’s manual offers some charming tips on how to shoot candids; so sneaky.
The Autocord is an amazing machine compared to other TLRs, but to be fair, it’s not all roses. Compared to SLRs, TLRs are downright primitive. Low light shooting can be a bit difficult, and things can get a little squirrely when framing a shot, since the nature of TLRs dictate that the optics through the viewfinder are reversed. Panning left moves the framing right and vice versa. This is disorienting at first, but becomes less jarring with experience. Parallax error is a common issue with close-up subjects, and the inability to switch lenses is a hamper on certain types of creative photography. It’s also generally impossible to preview depth-of-field, though this is again mitigated as the photographer gains experience.
Though the list of caveats may be long, they’re completely irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that TLRs aren’t as capable as SLRs, or DSLRs, or any other camera made in the past 50 years. TLRs are amazing, and every film enthusiast should own and shoot one. A perfect combination of old-world charm, technical capability, and tactile involvement create an unmatched experience in film shooting. Affordable, yet offering image quality comparable to modern full-frame DSLRs, a TLR camera and 120 film should be on every photographer’s shopping list. And if you’re spending the money, shouldn’t you spend it on the best? If you said “yes”, then go buy an Autocord, because if it’s not the best TLR in the world it’s certainly close.