The world of Twin-Lens Reflex cameras seems to be endless and has many surprises in store, but few manufacturers have offered TLRs with long focal length lenses permanently attached to the camera. Interestingly, the Tele-Rolleiflex was not the first to come out, as a rather unusual French camera preceded it by a few years on the market: the Semflex workshop.

SEM (Société des Etablissements Modernes) is one of the very some French camera manufacturers who have a certain popularity beyond a restricted circle of collectors. Although SEM’s 35mm cameras are mostly forgotten, their long-lasting lineup of TLR Semflex still offers aspiring medium format shooters a generally inexpensive alternative that is easy to find locally and of fairly decent quality. Without going into too much detail, the Semflex models range from the basic manual winding “Semflex Standard”, often equipped with an F / 4.5 shooting triplet, to the more ambitious “Semflex Oto” with 75mm F / lenses. 3.5 Berthiot or Angénieux and automatic advance coupled to the shutter.

These cameras, while generally decent shooters, are rather unremarkable given that comparable LRTs were built at the same time in many parts of the planet including West Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan, the United Kingdom. United, Czechoslovakia and others. However, the Semflex Studio is a rather unusual model in the lineup, in that instead of the standard pair of 75mm or 80mm lenses found on almost all TLRs, it can accommodate a pair. 150mm lenses (equivalent to approximately 85mm focal length on 35mm film).

The target market was, as I heard, mainly professional photographers who needed to provide their clients with studio portraits (hence the name, obviously) or more modestly, the images needed for photo- identification.

Studio Semflex was built from 1953 to 1955, according to by Sylvain Halgand website, citing the book “SEM et les Semflex” by Patrice-Hervé Pont. Then it was replaced by the even rarer Semflex Atelier which had a similar lens setup but featured a redesigned baseplate that allowed the photographer to recharge the camera without detaching it from the tripod.

My Semflex studio: an overview

I found my Studio on eBay with a bit of luck: the auction did not take off due to typos in the title and description. It arrived in working order although the focusing magnifier gave me a headache because it was not holding in place. This is a weak point of Semflexes, apparently. Eventually I bought a “broken, for parts” Semflex Standard to replace the magnifier system.

For the remainder of this review, I’ll occasionally compare the Semflex Studio with the best TLR I own at the time of writing, which is a Rolleicord Vb.

The first impression is that the Semflex Studio is comparable in size to the Rolleicord, and a bit heavier, although the overall feeling is substandard. Besides the unusual lens setup, the Studio is a pretty standard TLR. A large focus knob is on the left side and the film winding crank on the right, next to a small frame counter window.

Like the ‘Cord, the Semflex Studio winding system automatically switches between images and stops there – there is no need to read the image numbers on the paper backing, although a small window exists on the back if you don’t trust the winding mechanism.

Probably because this Studio shares components with SEM’s “Semi-Oto” midline, the shutter is not coupled with the coil, but is cocked and released with a lever below the shooting lens, just like the Rolleicord Vb (pull right to arm, push left to release). My example has no indication of the shutter model that is installed, but it is most likely one of the Orec shutters from SEM, named after the town of Aurec-sur-Loire where the SEM cameras have been manufactured. It has speeds of 1s to 1 / 400th of a second plus B (blulb).

What is rather unusual, however, are the aperture and shutter speed controls located around the shooting and viewing lens rings, respectively. The viewfinder has the usual frosted glass, magnifying glass, and sports viewfinder setup. As already mentioned, this part is particularly fragile. Speaking of lenses, the viewing lens is F / 3.9 and the shooting lens F / 5.4, both made by SOM-Berthiot.

As with all Semflexes, there is no light meter attached, not even a quick reference chart like you can find on some LRTs.

Using the Semflex Studio in nature

The charging procedure is complicated with extra buttons and knobs to push, compared to the Rolleicord, but I haven’t encountered a charging failure yet. The crank does not make a full revolution; instead, you switch from one frame to the next in two 1/4 turn strokes.

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When deployed, the viewfinder is very dark, but still usable in sufficient light conditions. With a maximum aperture of F / 5.4 on a 150mm lens, you won’t be shooting portraits in natural light at dusk anyway. The cocking and the release are done smoothly. The camera is generally natural in the hand with more than acceptable ergonomics, and while not as pleasant as the Rolleicord, it does provide a good shooting experience. After a few shots I was paying attention to my subject, composition, focus and light rather than the camera itself which is a good sign that this camera worked for me.

After developing the first roll, I was very, very happy with the first photo I took with this camera: although this road sign is very boring, the focus and exposure were acceptable, confirming that mechanical and optical functions were correct. Three years later, when the Semflex studio did not become my main camera, I used it for a family photo project (not shared here), a few portraits with friends and colleagues as well as a few shots of occasional landscape.

Although not remarkably sharp, portraits do look nice, with some very smooth blurry areas. There is quite a strong vignetting, which may work for portraits, but be problematic for landscape photos. Not sure if this vignetting is due to design or some camera malfunction, for example, with the shutter blades being too slow. Keep in mind that this is an almost 70 year old camera that hasn’t seen professional service in recent times.

Semflex Studio Accessories

At least one type of close-up lenses Studio specific was made with a 0.7D correction. They rarely appear on eBay: it took me two years to find one with a damaged box. They seem to work well even though I haven’t taken a decent photo with them yet – the pandemic being a universal excuse for this kind of failure.

Semflexes uses a proprietary type of flash adapters, therefore Semflex-to-PC flash converters are a useful accessory. I bought one, only to find out that the flash sync is actually broken on my Studio. Since I am not much of a flash user, I did not research who could help me with this problem.

Semflexes are one of the cameras supported by Rick Oleson’s aftermarket focus screens, and Rick says his displays could probably be fitted to the Studio model. For the moment I have not decided to replace the screen on my example because the installation procedure seems quite difficult to me.

Compared to Télé-Rolleiflex

Disclaimer: I do not own a Tele-Rolleiflex and have not yet used one. From what I know however, the main differences are:

The Rollei has a 135mm F / 4 lens compared to the Sem’s 150mm F / 5.4 – the Rollei has almost an extra aperture for a much shorter lens

The Rollei has a Synchro Compur shutter with speeds up to 1/500, with reset coupled to the advance lever – Rollei should be faster in operation

The minimum focusing distance of the Tele-Rollei is 2.6m, compared to 1.5m for the Sem, which means that Rolleinar close-up lens accessories are indeed mandatory for the portrait photographer.

Should I buy a Semflex Studio?

Despite the good things I said above, probably not. This unusual focal length totally takes away the flexibility for which TLRs are popular, and if the Semflex Studio is the only camera you have with you, you will be severely limited in your shooting options. You would then be tempted to carry a second camera, losing the compactness and lightness of the TLR. For most shooters, a standard focal length TLR is a more sensible proposition.

On the other hand, if you really, really need to shoot in medium format and go beyond 80mm, an SLR system or a TLR with interchangeable lenses are probably more practical options. Still, I had a lot of fun photographing this weird camera, and I’m really happy with some of the photos I took with it.

~ Gael

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About the Author

I am an amateur photographer from the west of France, currently living in Paris. I take pictures of the people around me and the places I feel connected to, preferably with old mechanical cameras. I print my images … See the full profile and links of Gaël LD


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