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I blame Vivian Maier!

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

This photography lark is so addictive: I learn stuff and then I want to learn more stuff and to learn all this stuff one needs the tools of the trade - photographic stuff! So beware folks it is true, photography can be an all-consuming and expensive passion. And it is indeed a passion and in part I blame Vivian Maier!

So my main 'focus' at the moment is mastering a "medium format" film camera; to be precise a 1957 Yashica LM TLR - see the picture at the at the foot of this blog for its beautifulness!

I was drawn to trying a TLR by reading about the life and works of my heroine Vivian Maier. In 1949 one Vivian Maier started taking photographs with a Kodak 'Box' Brownie and in '52 she started shooting with a Rolleiflex TLR and although she later used various other cameras, nearly all photographs of her tend to show her with a TLR around her neck.

Now all the above begs lots of questions; who is Vivian Maier? What is medium format and what does TLR mean?

Who is Vivian Maier?

“Well, I suppose nothing is meant to last forever. We have to make room for other people. It’s a wheel. You get on, you have to go to the end. And then somebody has the same opportunity to go to the end and so on.” – Vivian Maier

"Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009) was an American street photographer born in New York City. Although born in the U.S., it was in France that Maier spent most of her youth. Maier returned to the U.S. in 1951 where she took up work as a nanny and care-giver for the rest of her life. In her leisure however, Maier had begun to venture into the art of photography. Consistently taking photos over the course of five decades, she would ultimately leave over 100,000 negatives, most of them shot in Chicago and New York City. Vivian would further indulge in her passionate devotion to documenting the world around her through homemade films, recordings and collections, assembling one of the most fascinating windows into American life in the second half of the twentieth century."

Please take the time to check out the official website from which the above quote and extract are taken.

Do have a look at Vivian's photographs and if you get the chance watch the wonderful 2013 documentary "Finding Vivian", it's fascinating and surprisingly emotional! One of the directors of the documentary is John Maloof who is the chief curator of Vivian Maier’s work and editor of the book Vivian Maier: Street Photographer.

What is medium format?

Unless you're a young whippersnapper you'll remember taking snaps using 35mm film, which is the basis of modern digital photography. Medium format photography however traditionally uses the 120 or 220mm film size, which is significantly larger.

Images courtesy from authors on

More importantly, camera format is also a reference to the size of a camera’s sensor. Basically a medium format camera is a camera with a sensor larger than a 35mm (or a full frame DSLR (digital single lens reflex camera - let's not dwell on those brutes!)).

Sensor size is the physical size, in area, of a camera's image sensor and the size of a sensor determines how much light it uses to create an image; the bigger the sensor area the better the image quality.

There are various camera formats in existence. The smallest being in mobile phone cameras, all the way up to large format cameras, which are used for making enormous advertising billboard posters.

Of course a large sensor needs a larger camera body to house it and this makes most medium format cameras rather heavy and bulky.

Images courtesy from authors on

My Yashica, now known as Vivian (obviously), takes 120 film which produces 12 6 x 6cm images. Medium format film cameras capture negatives in a range of sizes and square format is popular although some people find composition difficult. It is believed the 'perfect' format is 6 x 7cm.

What is TLR?

The arrangement of a mirror placed behind a lens in order to project the light from the lens for ease of viewing has been used since the 1600s in a camera obscura - see below.

Manufacturers of cameras eventually reduced the size of reflex mirror designs and the Twin-lens Reflex, or TLR, was born!

A TLR mirror at the top of the camera allows the photographer to hold the camera at waist height, look down, and focus. To assist with focusing there is even a little magnifying glass that pops out if you need it. The only thing that takes some getting used is the effect of the reflex mirror, which causes everything in the viewfinder to appear in horizontal reverse. The other curious aspect of the TLR camera is that there are two lenses positioned in different places on the camera; the viewfinder ("viewing") lens is at the top and the shooting ("taking") lens, which exposes the film, is at the bottom. The lens is equivalent to 30mm.

There are various makes of TLR; the highly coveted and aforementioned German Rolleiflex TLRs appeared in 1929 and are considered the ultimate TLR for collectors and photographers alike. Yashica was a Japanese company who introduced their version of the TLR in the early 1950s and continued making different models of TLRs until 1970.

Although there are plenty of Yashica TLR cameras still out there; you can pick them up second-hand anywhere between £80-£400 (yes ebay is the answer), strangely my LM version is the only one I have seen on the market.

The "LM" stands for "light meter", which measures the exposure value. This was the first model donning a light meter, which is made of selenium and consequently requires no batteries. Unusually the light meter still works which is not always the case.

An unusual aspect of my camera it seems is with regard to film speed. Film speed is the measure of a film's sensitivity to light and over the years has been measured on various numerical scales. Those of you who have used camera film, may recall you had to choose the speed of the film, e.g. 100 for sunny days, 200 for cloudy, 400 for action etc. and back then this was known as ASA. On digital cameras it is now known as ISO. My camera however uses DIN so when I use a 400 ASA film I have to look at a little conversion chart to find its DIN equivalent.

Finally, taking a photograph

Now when you only have 12 images and film costs money to develop you want to choose what you are going to shoot wisely but at the same time you do initially want to put the camera through its paces.

A roll of black and white 120mm film can cost from £4 to £13.50. Have a peek at the treasures on Analogue Wonderland

To take a photograph you open up the lid on the top of the camera to reveal the focusing screen. Next open a little hood at the front to reveal the light meter; a dial on the side of the camera, gives the light meter reading. You then move a metal sliding scale to match the reading with the DIN film speed and then this gives you your aperture and shutter speed.

There are knobs either side of the 'taking' lens for adjusting the shutter speed and aperture. You then focus, engage the shutter and press the shutter release. The sound of shutter release is lovely and quiet but you've probably given the game away that you're taking a photo by the sight of you having to lift the camera up and turn it over to see if the exposure is correct! This is merely a teething issue which will be solved by use and familiarity.

When you have taken a picture you then press a button to wind the film on; on my TLR this is done with a dial but on some other TLRs this is done by turning a handle.

That's it. Of course you have no idea if what you've taken is as you intended until the film is developed but the joy of finding out is immense!

By the way loading the film can be challenging; it's not the easiest thing to do on the hoof, fiddling with spools away from the light, guiding the film and winding it on - there's definitely a knack to it but the process is very satisfying when mastered, although I've yet to nail it every time!

I have had my images processed but not yet printed, which I will be doing by hand when this Coronavirus pandemic is over, or at least restrictions on social distancing removed. I will then post some images in a blog for you to see.

I do however have contact sheets of my images to date. Before digital photography, a contact sheet was a way to preview all the images from a roll of film. You can print a contact sheet and decide which images you want to print in a larger format. Below are a couple of my contact sheets that I will be printing some images from in due course.

When you look at photographs of Vivian Maier shooting with her TLR she makes it look so easy; second nature. I hope to reach that point eventually but at the moment I am getting to grips with exposure and the handling of the camera. It is beautiful but awkward in its design. Nevertheless I love shooting with it; it makes you think, it makes you follow a course of action and in doing so it slows you down and you become a lot more mindful and selective in what to shoot.

So in learning about 'new' old techniques a new camera was needed and yes there is film to buy and developing and printing to pay for and my beautiful wife has endure my excessive enthusiasm, but I love it and with this new knowledge comes the need to learn more and so yes in this case I blame Vivian Maier!

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