Twin-lens reflex, or TLR, cameras have been around since the 1870s or ’80s. They were initially developed to make it easier, and faster, to focus a camera between shots. A reflex mirror at the top of the camera allowed the photographer to hold the camera comfortably at waist height, look down, and focus. The only thing that took some getting used to was the effect of the reflex mirror, which caused everything in the viewfinder to appear flopped.
One other curious aspect of the twin-lens reflex camera was that the lenses were positioned in different places on the camera—the viewfinder lens was at the top while the shooting lens was at the bottom. This difference caused no problems when the object to be photographed was far away, but close-ups required compensation strategies or else the images in the viewfinder might not be captured on film.
One of the first commercially available TLRs was the Carlton, produced in the late 1800s by London Stereoscope Co., which also marketed a line of Artist TLRs shortly after the turn of the century.
The Rolleiflex arrived in 1929. Considered the prize catch of all TLRs for collectors and photographers alike, the first Rolleiflexes lacked a crank to advance the film inside the camera until 1931. The Standard 620 from 1932 is easy to spot for the cross on its finder lid, while the Automat from 1937 continued to be produced, with various improvements, until 1956. Rolleiflex twin-lens-reflex cameras are still made to this day.
Other TLRs of interest to collectors from the 1930s are the Optikotechna from Czechoslovakia, the Zeiss Ikon Contaflex and Ikoflex brands, the Welta Perfecta and Superfecta, and the very large Cornu Ontoflex, a French camera whose back rotated so that a photographer could switch from portrait to landscape view.
In the 1940s and after World War II, American companies produced a number of twin-lens-reflex cameras, many of which are quite collectible. The Argus Argoflex E in 1940 came first, followed that same year by the Ciro-Flex A. Other U.S. makers included Graflex, Craftex, and Royce.
The most prominent American TLR maker was Kodak. Its Reflex entered the market in 1946 and was resubmitted in 1948 as the Reflex II. This was the first TLR to feature a Fresnel lens in the viewfinder. But Kodak struggled with foreign and domestic competitors alike and withdrew entirely from the market until the 1950s, when it introduced the DuoFlex, and less expensive, fixed-focus camera marketed to recreational photographers...
Two other TLR makers are of interest to collectors. Japanese camera maker Mamiya offered its Mamiyaflex line of cameras beginning in the late 1940s and eventually gained traction in the United States with its C series cameras. The C, introduced in 1956/57, was produced in very small numbers, so it’s considered quite rare. The C2 replaced the C in 1958, while the C3 followed in 1962.
Finally, Japan’s Yashica made its U.S. debut in the early 1950s. The first Yashicaflex arrived in 1954 but the series never made it out of the 1950s. The Yashica Mat, on the other hand, was manufactured in various incarnations from 1957 until 1986.