By Rob Turner
3 Feb 2010
The Gakkenflex is a 35mm twin lens reflex camera (TLR) which is available as a kit with the Japanese science magazine 'Otona no kagaku' (大人の科学), published by Gakken. The name literally translates to 'Science for adults' and provides a series of educational kits, including a stereo pinhole camera, which I have also reviewed. The magazine which comes with the kit (or is it the kit that comes with the magazine?) is also beautiful to look at, and especially interesting to me as I am currently learning (or trying to) speak and read Japanese, and this provides good reading material. The magazine also features some very interesting articles on subjects such as the history of photography, as well as lots of lovely pictures taken with the camera, both of which I found very inspiring and interesting. My kit came from a lovely Japanese eBay seller called minorinminorin, my parcel reached the UK from Japan in less than a week, and he was very helpful and polite, I highly recommend him.
The kit is all plastic and rather easy to assemble (for me at least anyway, I think I am quite handy with a screwdriver), everything you need (except for film) is included, even a screwdriver! Building the kit is fairly simple, meaning that most people could probably do it based solely on the images, but there are a few parts that can catch you out (namely the shutter), and this (http://www.ndroo.com/blog/?p=2396) excellent English guide by blogger 'ndroo' came in very handy when it came to some of the finer points. I found that it was rather difficult to get the shutter to fire correctly, even after adjusting the various screws. This (http://www.flickr.com/groups/gakkenflex/discuss/72157623240870878/) excellent guide by Flickr user 'Билл' details how to correctly adjust the shutter, I suggest you follow it. Unfortunately, it was too late for me when I discovered this article, as I had already accidentally 'fixed' the shutter by mistakenly stretching the return spring for the shutter blade, releasing some of the tension and letting the shutter fire properly. I feel the problems I encountered with the shutter are a product of my limited ability to read Japanese rather than any quality issues with the kit, and also that the instructions mislabel springs C and D (they are the wrong way around). When you are finished, you can cover the camera as you see fit, the magazine comes with two sets of stickers (one is a woodgrain effect with birds, the other is a brightly coloured geometric pattern), but if you are feeling creative, a PDF template to make your own stickers can be downloaded from Gakken's website (http://otonanokagaku.net/magazine/vol25/pdf/vol25seal.pdf).
Many people have drawn comparisons between this camera and the Superheadz Blackbird Fly. The BBF has a few extra functions, but is a fair bit more expensive. For instance, the BBF has two switchable apertures, a proper bulb mode (more on this later) and multiple formats, allowing normal 24x36mm, a 24x24mm square format and a full frame covering the sprockets, whereas the Gakkenflex only features the standard 24x36mm format, but can be easily masked to a square. But the Gakken beats the BBF in one key way, it has a proper focusing viewfinder, where as you have to guess focus with the BBF. This and the fact that making the camera myself makes it a little bit special make it the clear winner in my opinion.
The Gakkenflex is very simple, easy and fun to shoot. It has a fixed shutter speed and aperture, much like a Holga, and it produces images with a similar blurred quality. The lens is a bit soft in the centre and gets much softer towards the edges. It also has a nice vignette, which (rather oddly) seems to increase and decrease in intensity with focusing, as you focus closer, the vignetting becomes more and more pronounced. You can focus the camera in the viewfinder like any other TLR, the screen is quite small and dim, so accurate focusing can be a little difficult, but its good enough, and the small aperture gives ample depth of field to make up for small errors. The camera also has an eye-level 'sports finder', on most TLRs this is a simple peephole in the viewing hood, but the Gakkenflex is a little different. You hold the hole in the back of the hood to your eye and focus on the cutout frame in the front of the hood, your other eye is kept open and the images blend in your head, giving the normal vision of one eye, with the framelines superimposed over the top. This works pretty well, but can be slightly difficult to use if you wear glasses. The camera takes any normal 35mm film, but as the aperture is fixed at a fairly slow f11, and the shutter at 1/100 or so, ISO 400 film is the best film for most situations, in bright light, ISO 200 or slower is probably ok. To advance the film, you wind until the little dial on the camera's side rotates half a turn. The shutter is always cocked, and will fire every time you press the release, this makes double exposures very easy. There is also a way to get a crude bulb mode, be sure to use the tripod socket for this. It is done by pressing the shutter release very slowly until you hear a small click, then release the button slowly until the shutter opens all the way, hold it at this point for the required time, then release the button fully. This is a very useful technique, as it means you can use the camera at night and in low light.
In general, I think the Gakkenflex is a excellent addition to any toy camera fan's collection. It has a brilliant look rather reminiscent of a Diana, but with the flexibility of a true focusing lens. The fact that it uses 35mm rather than the usual (for a TLR) 120 rollfilm is also a great advantage, as you can walk into any pharmacy and be able to buy and develop your film as well as the cost per frame being greatly reduced. My favourite thing about the camera is the fact that it comes as a kit, this alone was worth the price of admission for me, with the fact that it made a very usable toy camera being the icing on the cake.