The Challenges and Rewards of Shooting Street Photography With a Medium-Format TLR Camera

Eric’s Note: This guest blog post is by Christian Nilson, a street photographer based in Zurich. Christian attended my Introduction to Street Photography Workshop in Berlin this year, and upon meeting Juliane Eirich (one of my guest lecturers) and seeing her work, he decided to experimenting using a square-format TLR. In his article below he shares his experiences and challenges. 

Christian: After having met Juliane Eirich at Eric’s workshop in Berlin, in May this year, I was intrigued with her photography and the square format. She uses a medium format TLR, which is both a format and a type of camera that I have never used. The first thing I did after my return from Berlin was to check the auction sites for a used Ricohflex and I was soon successful. A couple of days later I had it in my hand. Full working condition. I popped a roll of film in it and went out shooting. It took a bit of getting used to the different way of shooting and composing.

Ricohflex TLR Camera

The main differences being that you look down through the viewfinder, holding the camera at waist level and the 6×6 format. The 6×6 format is challenging if you haven’t used it before, at the beginning it gives you the feeling that you have either to much space above and below the subject, or you have too little space to the left and right of the subject. But you quickly get a hang of it.

kids in the finder of Ricoh Flex

Looking through the viewfinder of a Ricohflex. Photo Credit: Akiko Aoki

Using a medium format TLR for street photography is a great experience and I would recommend any one to try it. A used TLR can be had for around $100 so that should not stop you. To give you an idea of what it is like I will list the challenges and rewards that I faced using it for this purpose.


1)  DOF

Most lenses of TLR’s are either 80mm or 75mm which gives you a very shallow DOF, which means zone focusing becomes very difficult if you want to keep any kind of useful speed. This means that the way to go is to focus each shot, this slows you down and it can sometimes be difficult to see on the screen if the shot is really in focus or not.

2)  Accurate focusing

As mentioned above it can sometimes be difficult to see if your subject is in focus or not, depending on the light falling on to the focus screen. To help in these circumstances you have a pop-up magnifier that allows you to see the screen better.

3)  Shooting moving subjects is really difficult

For the above two reasons, trying to get a shot of someone walking is probably the biggest challenge. My tip is to focus on a patch of the street where you think your subject will pass and hope for the best, doesn’t work all the time, but often enough.


1)  The negatives

Do I need to say more? 6×6 cm of pure wonder. I mostly shot slide film which makes the experience of picking up the negatives from the photo store pure pleasure. They are just so beautiful to look at, and are full of detail that blows 35mm film out of the water.

2)  You be more patient before clicking the shutter

Each of the above challenges forces you to slow down, thinking more about light and composition. This in combination with only having twelve shots per roll really makes you think twice before you take the shot.

3)  Your keeper rate will increase

Since you will spend more time with each of your shots, you will probably experience an increase in your keeper rate, I know I did. I went from something like 5% with digital to more like 40% with medium format.

If you want to move forward with your photography, try it out. If you want to see some of my shots, please have a look at my series “The Station”.

Follow Chris

I am currently taking a one year break from medium format to challenge myself with “1 year, 1 camera, 1 lens and 1 film.” For this I’m back to 35mm rangefinder and Tri-X. If you want to see more:

Have you ever shot with a TLR or medium-format camera for street photography? If so, what have you found to be the challenges and rewards of shooting medium-format film? Share your experiences in the comments below! 

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  • Julián Péter

    I have a Flexaret II from 1948, works perfectly. Yes, capturing moving objects is harder as the camera operation is slower, but the joys of looking through the big luminescent viewfinder is priceless. Plus, it has one of the quietest shutters I heard. I hardly ever notice it if I shoot waist level. Overall, TLR are great if you like to slow down and compose more. Remember, a photograph has to be created in the mind first.

  • Alan

    I started using an Arax Hasselbladski 3-rolls ago and I’m hooked. So much more detail and character to the shots and the people I’m shooting are often quite interested in the old camera, loosening them up for street portraiture as well

  • gumanow

    I shoot with a Rolleiflex on the street and find it a challenge and a joy. It is so much fun, and a total babe magnet. (Also a geezer magnet too!) Just don’t come up to me and say, my grandfather had one of those.

    People are less intimidated with a TLR since you aren’t pointing at them, but looking down.

  • Brandon Feinberg

    I shoot with a Rolleiflex as well and mine has an old school light meter. It is the perfect companion to rangefinder since you get completely different shots. Also for some mystical reason very few people recognize that I am even making pictures even if I am wearing really bright colorful clothing I go unnoticed. So in my experience it is even more discreet than a rangefinder and I don’t understand why :)

  • conrad

    i have been wanting to do this with my hasselbald 500, but i get noticed very easily. i can see where a tlr could help that. too bad the rollei i ordered from keh was busted :(

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  • Joanna Pardhy Casey

    I’m writing a dissertation on Vivian Maier, so I thought I’d see what shooting on the street was like with a 1954 Rolleiflex TLR which I managed to pick up cheaply. Only done a few rolls so far, but the first results aren’t too bad considering I have to guess the light settings most of the time. Gumanow is right, definitely a geezer magnet (which has never happened with digital!), but no one seems to notice me most of the time. The pictures do seem to have a different quality to digital and I look forward to doing lots more. Everything Christian says about the experience is spot on, especially having to slow down and be more considered and selective. I haven’t tried colour yet, Christian’s photos have a wonderful quality to them. Long live film! A few of my first attempts here:

    • Eric Kim

      Thanks for sharing your shots Joanna- keep up the good work and letting us know your experiences! :)

  • Charlie Kirk

    I used to use a tlr. I found it very hard too. Try using a 50mm if you can find one, and shoot closed down with fast film. Delta 3200 looks great in medium format (far less grain than 35mm). Using a flash with slower film will also allow shots of people walking as the flash freezes them. Good luck.

    • Eric Kim

      Great advice- thanks for sharing Charlie!

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  • Kelvin Ah Kian

    And I wonder how Vivian Maier manage to capture those stunning picture with her Rolleiflex. :D

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  • Bruno Candeias

    Oh man.. this reminds me that I have to fix my Yashica Mat soon!

    Btw, very nice series Christian, your really took advantage of your Rollei for this shots! I only think that the first three pictures are slightly crooked, I would correct that..

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  • Man-Wei

    I’ve been shooting with a TLR (Rolleiflex) on the street for a year now. Everything Christian mentioned is spot on. I do enjoy it tremendously. Yes I do get frustrated at times when I miss a shot however, the slower pace actually calms me down. I do find people tend to me more amiable when I use an old school camera.

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