The world of Twin-Lens Reflex cameras seems to be endless and has plenty of surprises, 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 be released, as a rather unusual French camera predated it on the market by a few years: the Semflex Studio.
SEM (Société des Etablissements Modernes) is one of the very few French manufacturers of cameras that have some level of popularity beyond a tiny circle of collectors. Although SEM’s 35mm cameras are mostly forgotten, their long-lasting line of Semflex TLRs still provide aspiring medium-format shooters with an alternative that is generally cheap, easily found locally, and somewhat decent in quality. Without going into too much detail, Semflex models run from the basic manual wind “Semflex Standard”, often fitted with a triplet F/4.5 taking lens, to the more ambitious “Semflex Oto” with 75mm F/3.5 Berthiot or Angénieux lenses and automatic advance coupled with the shutter.
These cameras, while generally decent shooters, are rather unremarkable given that comparable TLRs were built at the same time in many parts of the planet, including West Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan, the UK, Czechoslovakia, and others. However, the Semflex Studio is a rather unusual model in the line, in that instead of the standard 75mm or 80mm lens pair found on almost all TLRs, accommodates a pair of 150mm lenses (equivalent to approximately an 85mm focal length on 35mm film).
The intended market was, as I’ve heard, mostly professional photographers who needed to provide their clients with studio portraits (hence the name, obviously) or more modestly, the pictures needed for photo-id purposes.
The Semflex Studio was built from 1953 to 1955, according to Sylvain Halgand’s collection-appareils.fr website, quoting Patrice-Hervé Pont’s “SEM et les Semflex” book. Then it was replaced by the even rarer Semflex Atelier that had a similar lens configuration but featured a re-designed base plate that allowed the photographer to reload the camera without detaching it from the tripod.
My Semflex Studio: a close look
I found my Studio on eBay with a little bit of luck: the auction didn’t take off because of typos in the title and description. It arrived in working condition although the focusing loupe gave me headaches as it would not stay in place. This is a weak point in Semflexes, apparently. Eventually, I bought a “broken, for parts” Semflex Standard to replace the loupe system.
For the remainder of this review, I will 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 with the Rolleicord, and a bit heavier, although the general feeling is of inferior quality. Other than the unusual lens configuration, the Studio is a rather standard TLR. A big focusing knob sits 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’s winding system automatically goes from one frame to the next and stops there – there is no need to read frame numbers from the backing paper, although a small window exists at the back should you not trust the winding mechanism.
Probably because this Studio shares components with SEM’s “Semi-Oto” intermediate line, the shutter is not coupled with the winding, but is armed and released with a lever under the taking lens, exactly like the Rolleicord Vb (pull right to arm, push left to release). My example does not have any indication about the model of shutter that is fitted, but it most probably is one of SEM’s own Orec shutters, named after the town of Aurec-sur-Loire where SEM cameras were manufactured. It has speeds from 1s to 1/400th of a second plus B (blulb).
What is rather unusual, however, is the aperture and shutter speed controls being located around the taking and viewing lens rings, respectively. The viewfinder has the usual ground glass, loupe and sports finder configuration. As already mentioned this part feels especially flimsy. Speaking of the lenses, the viewing lens is F/3.9 and the taking lens F/5.4, both manufactured by SOM-Berthiot.
As with all Semflexes, there is no attached lightmeter, not even a quick reference chart as one can find on some TLRs.
Using the Semflex Studio in the wild
The loading procedure is complicated with extra knobs and buttons to be pushed, compared with the Rolleicord, but I have not experienced a failure to load yet. The wind lever does not make a full turn; instead, you go from one frame to the next by two 1/4 turn strokes.
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Once deployed, the viewfinder is very dim, but still usable under sufficient light conditions. With a maximum aperture of F/5.4 on a 150mm lens, you will not shoot natural light portraits at dusk anyway. The arming and releasing are smooth. The camera generally feels natural in the hand with more than acceptable ergonomics, and although it is not as pleasant as the Rolleicord, it does provide a good shooting experience. After a couple of shots I was paying attention to my subject, the composition, the focus, and the light rather than the camera itself, which is a good sign that this specific camera worked for me.
After developing the first roll, I was very, very pleased with the first picture I had taken with this camera: although this roadsign was very boring, the focusing and exposure were acceptable, confirming the mechanical and optical functions were correct. Three years later, while the Semflex Studio has not become my main camera, I have used it for a family picture project (not shared here), a few portraits with friends and co-workers as well as some occasional landscape shots.
Although not remarkably sharp, the portraits have a pleasant look to them, with the out-of-focus areas very smooth. There is rather strong vignetting, which can work for portraits, but be a problem for landscape shots. I am not sure whether this vignetting is by design, or due to the camera malfunctioning in some way, for example, the shutter blades being too slow. Let us keep in mind that this is an almost 70-year old camera that has not seen professional service lately.
Semflex Studio accessories
At least one type of close-up lenses specific to the Studio was produced with 0.7D correction. They show up rarely on eBay: it took me two years to find one set with a damaged box. They seem to work fine although I have not taken any decent pic with them yet – the pandemic being a universal excuse for this kind of failure.
Semflexes use a proprietary type of flash adapters, so Semflex-to-PC flash converters are a useful accessory. I bought one, only to discover that the flash sync is actually broken on my Studio. As I am not much of a flash user, I have not researched who could help me with this issue.
Semflexes are amongst the cameras supported by Rick Oleson’s aftermarket focus screens, and Rick says his screens could probably be fitted to the Studio model. For the moment I have not decided to replace the screen on my example as the installation procedure seems to be quite difficult.
Compared with the Tele-Rolleiflex
Disclaimer: I do not own a Tele-Rolleiflex, nor have I used one yet. From what I know however, the key differences are:
The Rollei has 135mm F/4 taking lens vs the Sem’s 150mm F/5.4 — the Rollei has almost one full stop extra aperture for an insignificantly shorter lens
The Rollei has Synchro Compur shutter with speeds up to 1/500, with re-arming coupled to the advance lever — Rollei ought to be faster in operation
The Tele-Rollei’s minimum focus distance is 2.6m, vs the Sem’s 1.5m, which means Rolleinar closeup lens attachments are effectively mandatory for the portrait shooter.
Should I buy a Semflex Studio?
Despite the good things I said above, probably not. That unusual focal length totally takes away the flexibility TLRs are loved for, and if the Semflex Studio is the only camera you have with you, you will be extremely limited in your shooting options. Then you’d be tempted to carry a second camera around, losing the TLR compactness and lightweightedness. For most shooters, a standard focal length TLR is a more sensible proposition.
On the other hand, if you really, really need to shoot medium format and go longer than 80mm, an SLR system or a TLR with interchangeable lenses are probably more practical options. Still, I’ve had a lot of fun shooting this oddball camera, and I’m really happy with some of the photographs I’ve taken with it.
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As a lifelong TLR lover and user, I briefly had a Semflex in the late 1980s – and got rid of it quickly, as it just did not suit my particular style of photography.
It wasn’t so much the long lens (I’ve also owned a Tele-Rollei which I kept and used far longer than the Semflex, and eventually sold only because it needed so much repair that I decided it was uneconomical to hang on to, that and also someone offered me a ridiculously high price for it and I leapt at it) as the odd and, for my style of photographing, not particularly user-friendly way of using.
On a positive note, all the images I made with it were perfectly fine. So for those who like how it functions, it works well, I reckon.
I also second the mention of the Oleson screen. They improve any TLR they are installed on. Take it from one who knows, I have three of them…
And I still use TLRs, two Rolleiflex Ts, a Rollei 3.5E2 and a ‘cord Vb. I use them all, very happily, and I hope to go on photographing with them until either 120 film vanishes from the scene, or I do.
My ‘deux sous’ on the Semflex…
From Dann in Melbourne, Australia
Thank you all for the comments!
@Harry, I did install one of Rick’s screens on my Rolleicord and it makes a big difference indeed, especially when shooting indoors. What refrains me from buying one for my Studio is 1) installation on the Semflex is much more difficult than it is on the Rolleicord Vb, you need to disassemble the whole viewfinder assembly and 2) I don’t use the Studio indoors as it needs plenty of light due to the long focal lenght and small max aperture. The dim screen isn’t as much of an issue outdoors.
Gail, thank you for the review of this seemingly very rare camera. I like the images you have taken with this long focal length lens. They are quite sharp but have at least to me an appealing character.
Give the camera a new life further on but install the bright screen from Rick Oleson.
You have an entirely different camera to use. …
Having a longer lens on a TLR is a massive boon. I like the slight swirl on the bokeh too.
Not sure about the vignette, would say it was part of the design and maybe a slight decentring of the lens. Doesn’t hurt the pictures though, nothing that can’t be easily fixed either.
Very interesting. I have a lot of experience with Rollie TLR, but only with standard lenses. The compression looks nice.
I really like the bridge over the canal photo.