Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) Street Shooting

Me and a Yashicamat LM TLR

The more that I look at the Vivian Maier images, the more I feel the urge to do something that I haven’t done in quite a while – street photography with a Twin Lens Reflex camera.

If you’ve only ever done street photography with a range finder, or SLR type camera, doing street photography with a TLR is quite a different experience.

The most significant difference while using a TLR is the waist level viewfinder. When I shoot with a camera that needs to be at eye level to compose, I often feel that the motion of bringing the camera up to my eye to compose the photo is extremely unsubtle, and highly noticeable to anyone who may be a subject. There are even times where my weakness as a photographer shines through as someone will make eye contact with me before I raise the camera for the shot. In this situation, it is very likely that I never bring myself raise the camera and pull the trigger.

With a TLR, the motion of bringing a camera up to my face is replaced with the much more subtle motion of glancing downwards. The eye contact that would often make me hesitate to take the shot is eliminated. I find that it is very liberating when all of the camera operation can be done without having to do anything but appear to be staring at the ground.

The waist level finder also has the awesome advantage of allowing you to shoot, and still compose your photo from angles where composition would be left to luck with an SLR or range finder camera. Ground level, overhead to peer above a crowd, and at right angles from the direction which you are facing are all significantly easier with a TLR.

TLR Shooting at Ground Level
TLR Overhead Shooting
90 degree TLR shooting

Hell, even if you found yourself pinned down under gun fire and were willing to risk a few fingers for a photo, the handy TLR has you covered as well.

Shooting around a corner with a TLR

*High res image of the zombie drawing in the background can be found here.

While I think the disconnect of using a waist level finder is an advantage, I have noticed at least one big disadvantage to using a TLR in modern times. The disadvantage is that the camera looks like nothing most people have ever seen. Shooting with a TLR in the twenty first century results in good number of photos where people are staring directly at the camera, often with a confused look on their face as they don’t know what exactly it is that they are looking at. I’ve seen it on my negatives, and I’ve seen it on contact sheets that other street photographer’s have posted on various web forums after taking a TLR out for a spin. Being able to move into position while remaining inconspicuous is a big plus when shooting with a Twin Lens Reflex camera.

I also happen to think that the vintage appearance of TLR cameras results in a lot of images weakened by people starting directly at it, there is also a plus side to the appearance. Even though the snick of a TLR’s leaf shutter is one of the quietest I’ve ever heard, I still get busted while shooting with it from time to time. It seems to me though that the old fashioned look of the cameras does take the edge off of people who have just gotten their photo taken. From my experience, people either appear to not really take me seriously, or else it intrigues them into an honest discussion about the camera. I’m yet to get any sort of hostile reaction, but that could always change. ����

Finally, TLRs are also quite compact for their film format. The weight of the twin lens reflex cameras that I own is only marginally heavier than my Nikon FE with lens, while not being much larger in physical dimensions. And being fixed lens cameras, I never will feel the need to bring a bunch of different lenses with me to take up space and add more weight to my camera bag. The savings in space & weight I can then allocate towards the storage of more rolls of film. I see no reason why a TLR couldn’t be a camera that I could carry with me every day. Perhaps I’ll do something like choosing one day a week where instead of slinging my Leica M6 over my shoulder as I do my daily three mile round trip to work and back, I’ll grab one of my TLRs instead. I can then call it something cute like TLR Tuesday.

Category Gear & Technique  | Tags: Street Photography