Since I got back into film photography two-and-a-half years ago, “get into medium format” is one of the things on my list. Medium format film is film bigger than 35mm film (once considered “miniature” film) and large format, film in single sheets of 4″x5″ or 8″x10″ that go into cameras that may break your back. Why did I want to get into medium format? Well, I’ve been told two things: bigger negatives have more detail and medium format is more “serious”.
And by “serious”, it doesn’t just refer to subject matter or quality: you have to be serious to get a serious medium format camera, as they are expensive. Look at the “important” medium format cameras, whether Rolleiflexes, Hasselblads, or rangefinders: they cost multiple hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, prices that can put those of hyped 90’s “premium compact” 35mm cameras to shame.
Sure, you can find cheaper medium format cameras, as they were a popular consumer format up through the 1960s. But these cheaper cameras are cheap for a reason: simple lenses, a choice of one to three apertures, one to three speeds. If you are going for a lo-fi Lomo vibe, these cheap cameras, like the ubiquitous Holga 120, can be fun. But I couldn’t see the appeal of those vaunted “bigger negatives” when the image quality was not going to be there. I’ve found cheap-ass 35mm cameras that gave me better pictures.
I’ve toyed with those cheap cameras and had a bit of fun, but now I wanted something more. I knew that I was going to have to pay more for a camera than I had before, but I still wanted to keep it within reason. What film format, what kind of camera, and what brand would I get?
120 film was the obvious choice for medium format, as it’s the most common and still readily available in camera shops and online. And while I liked the idea of a single-lens reflex a la Hasselblad or Pentax or a rangefinder from the likes of Fuji or Mamiya, I knew I wouldn’t afford any of them. I had used a Ricohflex twin-lens reflex, and while it wasn’t the best camera, I really took to the concept of the camera. And nothing says “medium format” and “vintage camera” like a TLR. In fact, it was ordained in a ten-year old comic that I would get one someday:
But what TLR to get? There are many. Most of the good ones are based off the designs popularized by Rollei, whether their Rollieflex or Rolleicord models. Japan made many different versions, the TLRs made by Yashica seem to be the most popular: partially due to quality and partially due to longevity, as they made TLRs into the 1980s, long after other makers did. (And long after they were popular, the mid-80s was in the thick of the all-electronic autofocus 35mm cameras era.) Still, pretty expensive unless I went for “parts only, untested” specimens. I thought about Minolta’s Autocord, as I love Minolta, but still too expensive. It was clear that I would need to dig deeper and find another dark horse candidate.
And that’s how I found the Ricohflex Dia, or Diacord. I had already had a Ricohflex Model VII, a simple “geared” lens system similar to the Soviet Lubitel cameras with only three shutter speeds. Ricoh started out making these downmarket TLRs, then around 1955 decided to go the Rolleiflex/Cord imitation route instead. The Dia series (short for “diamond”) was the result. There’s not a heck of a lot of info out there about the Rolleiflex Dia, and what you can find is old enough to be an Angelfire site! But the info I found all pointed to one thing: these cameras were good, and are undervalued, as the Rolleis and Yashicas get all the hype.
eBay was just giving me “parts only, untested” specimens in the price range I wanted to pay, so I decided to look at Etsy instead. There is where I found JapanVintageCamera. Jeffery, the proprietor of the shop, had a nice selection of Ricohflexes for sale, most of them serviced and film tested. He had a Ricohflex Dia for $130, shipping included. It is definitely more than I normally spend, but I felt that getting a working camera from a trusted seller was worth it.
The wait for the camera was longer than hoped, as it was indeed coming from Japan. I got it the morning I departed for the Lake Pepin-Minneapolis trip, and I had the slight inkling of bringing it along, but I had no room and no desire to bring an untested camera. I would have to wait to use it after my return home.
As far as I can tell, my Diacord is the first version. It seems to be the in-between the simpler Ricohflexes that proceeded it, with shutter speed and aperture determined by levers on the side of the taking lens (later versions would have knobs and an aperture/speed display atop the viewing lens), and a shutter release lever below the taking lens. But unlike those simple Ricohflexes, the focus was achieved by moving a “see-saw” lever on either side of the moving lens board. The speeds ranged from 1 second to 1/400 second, plus bulb and self-timer. This was heaps better than the “three speeds only up to 1/100 plus bulb” of the previous Ricohflex Model VII. Getting something with a top speed of 1/400 (basically equivalent to 1/500) means I could use ISO 400 films effectively. And instead of the ruby window on back to determine film frame, the Diacord uses a knob advance which automatically stops when it gets to the next frame.
This “auto advance” feature flummoxed me. I couldn’t get the advance knob to move. The manual was not helping, as the schematic diagram was jumbled and confusing. I decided to swing by Blue Moon Camera, and they showed me how to work the advance and sold me a roll of the much talked about Kodak Gold 200. I tried to load the film, but I couldn’t figure how to tell that auto advance knob that it was at the start of a roll and should start counting again. So I blew through a roll of film without exposing a shot! I went back to Blue Moon again 1 and they gave me another roll of Gold (for free!) and showed me how to properly load the camera. I was in business.
I shot my first roll mostly around St. Johns. The St. Johns Bridge is right there, a great photographic subject, so I took most of my shots there. I also tested out its depth of field by taking a few wide-open shots at f/3.5–since I had a top speed of 1/400 of a second, I could actually do that in daylight! I quickly finished the roll, sent it to the lab, and got my scans.
And the photos were amazing. The Riken lens performed beautifully. What I could find online says that the taking lens is a three element design, pretty common for TLRs of the era. The later Diacords had four element lenses, so these sites recommended going for those. But guess what? It doesn’t matter in this case. The photos were pleasingly sharp, throughout the whole frame–as far as I can tell, there’s no falloff or blurriness on the edges, which had happened with all the other 120 cameras that passed through my hands. I can detect a slight, very slight bit of vignetting in a couple shots, but I don’t really mind vignetting if it isn’t drastic.
Over the last couple weeks I’ve shot a few more rolls with the Ricohflex Dia. A twin-lens camera takes a bit to get used to, as the image on the viewing screen (ground glass) is a mirror image, plus there’s no automation or metering. It’s definitely a slower, more methodical process, at least until I get the hang of it. But it’s been fun, even if I’ve made a few rookie mistakes, like not closing the back properly on one roll, ruining a few shots. But the amount of keepers is good.
This camera is a keeper. While I may find another “lo-fi” medium format at some point, I doubt I’m going to look for another good 120 camera anytime soon. I’m going to hopefully enjoy my Diacord for years to come.
Ricohflex Dia(cord) links:
- Riken’s Ricoh TLRs from TLR cameras
- IN PRAISE OF THE HUMBLE RICOH DIACORD from Film Shooters Collective
- RICOH DIACORD L review from Alex Luycxk
1 Thankfully I was just next door at Stormbreaker Brewing.