Sunday, August 11, 2013

Chinese Excellence - The Seagull 4A-103

This is probably something you don't expect to hear often in the same sentence.  "A Brilliantly built, solid, and well designed, camera" when speaking about many Chinese product copies..
Yes, I'm actually talking about a product that has actually got some great build quality to it!
The Seagull 4A-103 TLR is a Rolleicord Copy.
Designed after the Rolleicord, with even a "triangular" shaped icon in the center of the viewfinder shade.  It's uncanny, but they made an incredible copy!
This camera is a little unique though.  The lenses are not Xenar or Tessar copies, but their own design.  And this is where the camera actually comes into its own.  The lenses are sharp, and I do mean sharp!  The viewing lens is a Haiou 75mm ƒ/2.8 Tessar type lens, and the taking lens is a Haiou 75mm ƒ/3.5 Tessar type.  Which basically means a 4-element in 3 group design.  The reason for the faster viewing lens is specifically for easier focus, something that the Rolleicord didn't do, except on their better Rolleiflex counterparts.  Plus the film advance is done via a crank over a winding knob, another copy from Rolleiflex.
It's very easy to see the appeal of this camera.  Its sleek, and distinct design, give it a very chic chic appeal, plus also get you to fall in love with the camera quickly.  It is relatively light weight, easy to handle, and fun to use!  Sure, it takes a bit to get used to looking at the world backward, where left is right and right is left, but you learn to adapt rather easily when you start using it more.  After using the Lubitel, Duaflex, Rolleicord, and Kodak Reflex.. I'm pretty used to the reversed directions!  Even my Exakta is the same, when I have the WLF finder attached.
Of course the Rolleiflex DID have the optional prism finder attachment which would allow you to use the camera similar to a SLR instead, which would correct the optical distortion.
The focusing screen is not the standard MATTE screen you would find in the earlier model Rollecord cameras, and Yashicamats, and pretty much any number of advanced amateur TLRs, but a Fresnel screen that you WILL find on a Rolleiflex.  Of course, Kodak had already beaten everyone to this game with the Kodak Reflex II which had a Fresnel screen when many clients complained of the dim viewfinder screen, even in bright sunlight!The big, bright, and bold screen is quite the image to behold.  Live-View on your dSLR is nothing compared to seeing the viewfinder on a TLR.
It's like seeing the world in a whole new light.
The flip-out magnifier Loupe really helps when going for critical focusing, especially when using close-up attachments.  Or the split-prism rangefinder in the center of the screen helps as well when using it even at your waist for focusing.  Yes, this camera really is a remarkable piece of engineering, even if the Chinese nearly copied everything from the Germans.
The most remarkable part is that this camera is STILL in production today.  Well, not the 4A-103 model, but the 4A-109!
Like most mechanical cameras, there is a Depth of Field scale on the focusing knob.  which helps you to determine what you will, or will not, have in sharp focus when you take the image.  This is good for portraits, sports, and even for landscapes, but I find it most useful for street photography..  Then again, it's ƒ/8 and be there!
When you turn the focusing knob the numbers change and you match the corresponding ƒ/stop on the "zebra" patterned scale to see what will and will not be in sharp focus.  As you focus closer you get a much thinner and thinner field of focus.  Stopping down the lens will also, subsequently, lead to a sharper image as well.  At least to the point of diffraction.
I, as of yet, have not used this lens stopped down beyond ƒ/11 simply because I rarely, if ever, use any lenses stopped down that far.  Well, minus large format photography, where ƒ/16 is pretty normal, and ƒ/32 is not unheard of at all.
On the other side of the camera we have the film winding crank arm, as well as the film frame indicator.  Whenever you finish taking a photo you wind this crank to advance to the next frame, which also subsequently will set and cock the shutter.  If you accidentally trip the shutter with the lens cap on, or you want to do multiple exposures, you can bypass the automatic shutter lock by pressing a small button under the winding arm and turning the crank in the opposite direction.  This will not advance the film, but will cock the shutter.
The indicator window lets you know what frame you are currently on, and will automatically reset to ZERO once you open the film door.  The door latch is located at the bottom of the camera.  I had a minor issue with mine, as the door wasn't quite in the correct shape.  It would strangely just pop open at times.. Which isn't good, considering one time it happened I had film loaded in the camera!
Talk about crappy timing.  Kodak Ektar no less!
Probably have some light leaks on a frame or two.
A minor bit of brute force and I was able to adjust the shape of the door to latch and close securely, solving that problem.  As you can see, I am currently on frame # 10.
Looking at the bottom of the camera you see the dial and latch as well as the tripod mount.  You can also see the shutter release button, self-timer, and even the PC-Sync Port for a strobe.
Small levers on either side of the taking lens control both the shutter, as well as the aperture.
Like the Rolleicord, the lenses are mounted on a solid plate that is geared.  When you focus closer in, the plate will extend outward from the body, and inward when focusing out toward infinity.
I am not sure what the dial on the bottom of the camera does, but I have a feeling it was once used to lock the latch lock lever on this camera.  Sadly, it is faulty on mine, so that could also be why the bottom would inadvertently pop open on me.
The shutter is a simple leaf-type shutter with speeds of 1 second up through 1/300 of a second, including BULB for long exposures.
Another minor problem with my model, the shutter sticks below 1/30s.  This is actually common with leaf shutters which have not received any service, and is easily fixed with a standard CLA.
It never fails to amaze me at how simple the leaf shutter is, and yet how much more advanced it is than the focal plane shutter.  Sandwiched in between the lens elements, the shutter is actually more complicated in design than the focal plane shutter, and will also allow sync speeds through the entire range of of speeds for strobes.
The most interesting part of this camera, in my opinion, is the added hot-shoe!  Unlike the Rolleicords and some Rolleiflexes, this camera has a hot-shoe mounted on the side with the focusing knob which will allow the attachment of camera mounted flashes to it.  Such as a Vivitar Thryster flash, or any other number of strobes.
Or even a non-wired remote trigger!
I have seen these shoes on Yashicamats and Mamiyaflex cameras, but I don't remember seeing one on a Rolleicord or Rolleiflex, but there is a good possibility that you will find a hot shoe on a Rolleiflex.
I haven't yet tried using a flash with the Seagull yet, as I haven't required one due to low-light, but I might have to try it in studio to see how it works out.  Probably be no different than using the Rolleicord for portraits.
The Seagull 4A-103 TLR, my particular model, was manufactured in May of 1991.  Built in Shanghai, China, is a remarkable piece of engineering.  Really impressed with this camera, and thanks to +Andrew Koran, it is now a camera I can call my own.
Incredible little camera, and one that is going to get plenty of use!

Thanks Andrew, it didn't take long for me to get well acquainted with this camera.  Very impressed with it so far!

Shanghai Seagull 4A-103 TLR (Twin-Lens Reflex) Camera
Haiou 75mm ƒ/2.8 Coated Viewing Lens
Haiou 75mm ƒ/3.5 Multi-Coated Taking Lens
Seiko Leaf-Shutter 1s to 1/300s +Bulb
Aperture settings from ƒ/3.5 to ƒ/22
60cm x 60cm Frame size on 120 roll film (12 Exposures)
X-sync at all speeds with PC-Sync Port or On-Camera Hot-Shoe
Double Exposure Protection, w/over-ride for trick shots.
10s Self-Timer
Pop-Up Focusing Magnifier Loupe

Old-Time Relaxation - Seagull 4A-103 TLR
Kodak TMAX400 @ 100ASA
Developed in Rodinal 1+50
Cool-Comforts - Seagull 4A-103 TLR
Kodak TMAX400 @ 100ASA
Developed in Rodinal 1+50
Until next time, stay tuned.  Expect more in-depth reviews on many more cameras in the weeks to come!
Next review;

The Kodak Reflex I TLR