I have to begin with a confession; I have never been much of a TLR guy. I bought a Yashica 12 TLR while I was still in college and only had half a dozen cameras to my name. I enjoy the camera well enough but the reverse viewing nature of a twin lens just didn’t feel conducive to what I have been doing with photography. What I enjoyed though was that big viewfinder, the advance crank and ergonomic layout of the controls.
The TL70, of course, does not have an advance crank but everything else about it is just as pure and neat and fun a TLR experience as one could get with a roll film TLR, maybe moreso.
So let’s get it out of the way, the TL70 is not going to hush that vocal faction of instant film shooters who are constantly bitching about the lack of modern professional grade instant film cameras. This is no SX-70. This is no Rolleiflex. And, sorry to say, it’s not even a Seagull. However, it’s damn finer than a Blackbird Fly!
Despite rumors, the optics are all plastic, no glass to be seen on the TL70. Build quality is, on a scale of Lomo to Leica, leaning generously in favor of Lomo but clearly aspiring to be more. So you’ll just have to get over that. It’s 2017, the days of NEW hand assembled brass and glass cameras are over unless you’re dropping in excess of $4k. It’s a fact. It’s a sad fact but let’s not bemoan this great camera with impossible expectations.
MiNT are a creative bunch. They must be because the TL70 sports several clever details that seamlessly meld form and function while upgrading traditional TLR design.
The pop-up hood is multipurpose. On a normal TLR, the pop-up hood’s only purposes are to reveal, shade and protect the viewfinder. With the TL70, the hood powers the camera up and down as well as serves as a bay from which to eject film. With the hood closed, there is no viewfinder, there is no power to the camera and film cannot be ejected. With the hood open, the viewfinder is visible, the camera is powered up and film can be removed. Pretty elegant! Simple use covering complicated function equals good design.
Similarly, if you want to use the flash, just one button reveals the concealed built-in electronic flash unit as well as activates it. While this is a direct steal from late 90’s 35mm SLR’s and is ubiquitous on DSLR’s, it’s a clever rework of a modern feature into a classic design. Added function without sacrifice to form.
MiNT also worked the modern, half shutter depress to activate the light meter into the TL70. This may seem like a minor thing but in all previous mechanical TLR’s, metering was activated separately. It’s great that they didn’t combine meter activation into the pop-up hood as maybe would have also been considered, because this would just waste battery power during composition or just enjoying that beautiful TLR view!
My next clever detail is probably arguable. It’s the film eject button. I am unaware of ANY previous integral instant film camera that allowed the photographer to choose when the film was ejected. I am pretty sure that this was always exclusive to pack film cameras like the Automatic Land series. As someone who’s spent some time with an Automatic Land 100 and numerous integral instant film cameras like the Instax line and the Polaroid SX-70, I very warmly welcome MiNT’s film eject button. It adds one more button to the surface of the TLR and one could certainly cause an accidental double exposure thanks to this. But, I think the merit of choice overrides this concern. I always enjoyed with the Land, that I wasn’t forced by the camera to take action. With manual eject, I can take a shot, take a break, meditate on the viewfinder, whatever. I don’t have this critical little print jumping out at me screaming for my attention to care for it immediately. If it’s raining, I can keep the shot in the camera until I’m under shelter. If I’m taking candid’s, I can wait till a time when the eject won’t be distracting to do it. This is very minor but it FEELS right to me to have this control.
Okay, the peek-a-boo flash should really be in the Endearing Features section, right? But the TL70 has more!
The widest aperture is f5.6 and it’s circular shaped as one would expect. However, my TL70 also opens up to a star-shaped maximum aperture. Apparently, there are a few other shapes out there and it’s a surprise as to which one you’re going to get. Probably not something I’ll use a lot but cute, right?
As a recovering soft shutter release aholic, I also really love the RED shutter release button. Sure it’s not threaded for use with a remote but, it’s RED. That’s just cool in my book. The shutter release is the most special button on a camera. It deserves its own contrasting color!
The sportsfinder and magnifying glass are excellent. Remember, only higher grade TLR’s copying the Rollei design used to have these features. Cheap Argus Duoflex’s and Kodak Brownies lacked them. Complain about the price all you want but this makes it clear to me that MiNT wanted to build a world class, very functional TLR when they designed the TL70. They could have saved a good chunk of change by making a less complicated pop-up hood, but instead, it has all the bells and whistles, and more, that seasoned film shooters expect.
So no camera is perfect. I usually own around 40 working classic film cameras at any given point in time and have used/owned probably hundreds. So I, as much as anyone else, knows that no camera is perfect. So here are a few strikes against the TL70.
Maybe it’s just my copy but the frame counter is a bit wonky. It often stops between numbers, or at least the viewing angle of the window is easy to make it appear that two numbers are in display. Not a deal breaker, but this seems like a simple enough thing to have done properly. I’ve actually never seen another camera of any type, with this issue.
I appreciate the attempt to make a good bayonet lens cap but let’s face it, this thing is wonky. I don’t even use it because it’s too fiddly for my taste and at the end of the day, we’re just putting a plastic cover over a plastic lens. Sometimes, the simple things that already work, don’t need to be improved upon. A slip on cap would have been fine, easier to use and would have probably been cheaper to make.
No information engraving. It may not bother some but I really feel like having the focal length and aperture details, as well as giving their anonymous lenses names, would have kicked this camera up a notch. Not really a functional problem I suppose but it just makes the camera feel that much more like a toy instead of the fairly serious instrument it clearly wants to be.
Others have complained about the cheap feel/function of the battery cover and film door but I really don’t see much of a problem here. Yeah, they’re not wonderful but I think they’re adequate.
Others have also complained about the plasticky, non-smooth focus and aperture controls. I have to agree on this and was not prepared for the issue this causes. F22, and maybe others, do not seat into position very accurately. What happens is that if I don’t set the aperture perfectly, which is difficult to feel, so that the hole (no aperture blades, just one of those primitive plates that rotates with apertures drilled in it) is sitting dead center of the film, I get horrible vignetting on just one side of the image. This, as well as my next comment are my biggest problems with the TL70.
Right out of the gate, the first thing I noticed was that my film was processing with these green lines and splotches on the left side when I took dark photos. In fact, anything that’s underexposed on the left side of the frame is subject to wonky processing. I contacted MiNT about this and was told that the pinch rollers are set to a higher than normal tension in order to be sure that the developer spreads evenly across the film. The result is these marks which usually fade away over the next day or so. I initially thought the camera was defective but sure enough, by the time customer service had replied, the marks were gone. I’ve read about roller tension problems on other peoples’ reviews but didn’t know about this. Sure, the lines mostly disappear after some time and the issue is really pretty much non-existent when shooting outdoors in sunlight, but I can’t help but worry that this is going to have some long-term impact on the longevity of the image. Also, it’s just not very impressive to share these images moments after they’ve come out of the camera, which is a big part of the fun of instant film.
Here’s an example of a totally underexposed image just a few minutes after it’s been ejected from the camera. Notice that the blacks on the right are more or less where they are going to stay but you can clearly see a pattern of horizontal lines and dots in green which are a result of the rollers making rotations over the film. Overnight, it will turn to full black and there will be no trace of the green artifacts.
So how is the TL70 in use beyond the aforementioned? It’s super fun!
I find myself remembering the old methods of moving in reverse in order to compose with the TLR viewfinder. When doing this for a serious photo, one may get aggravated, I know I did, but when the end product is a tiny instant film image, the silliness of turning left in order to move the image right is fun and makes you think and observe differently.
Since all other Instax cameras are viewfinder type, I’ve been reminded and frankly, startled by how much reflexive viewing improves composition. I’m of the belief that because Instax Mini produces such a small image, that one should shoot closer up and really fill the frame with their subject. This is trying and frustrating with a viewfinder camera because of parallax. I’d say that some 70% of my throw away Instax photos were a result of sloppy composition due to parallax. The TL70 makes a marked improvement in this regard. I don’t think I’ve thrown out a single photo due to composition. And I just have more successful photos per pack now. Partly due to composition but also, I think, just because the camera is forcing me to care and think more about what I’m shooting and how.
Having manual control over focus and DoF is also really exciting. With other Instax cameras, everything is in focus from about 3 feet on and the DoF is very deep, all thanks to meniscus lenses. This is all well and fine for a thoughtless snapshot but it’s not much fun for a photographer. I am amazed at the crispness of fine detail visible through the viewfinder with the magnifier deployed. It’s stunning actually. Maybe I’ve just been away from TLR’s for too long but coming from, even very good Nikon and Leica 35mm finders, looking down into the MiNT is fantastic despite everything being plastic. With the magnifier up, of course one cannot quite make out nuances in focus but it’s just very fun to look at that big image.
Prior to purchasing, I was concerned that DoF would be so shallow at 5.6 that the plastic, inferior viewfinder would make focusing annoying wide open. But use has proven me wrong. DoF is indeed pretty shallow at 5.6 but as noted, the finder is capable of making it easy to hit your target. And delightfully, even at f22, which one can spend a lot of time on, plenty of your image can still be out of focus. Being able to select points of focus and throw backgrounds into a blur brings Instax into the realm of real photography for me.
I mention that one can spend a lot of time on f22 because the shutter of the TL70 only reaches 1/500th. This should be fast enough but remember that Instax is rated at 800 ISO. Many shooters report that even when fully closed down, the TL70 still overexposes. And this makes sense because it’s right on the bare limit of correct exposure in bright sun. It would be nice if the aperture could close to 32 or the shutter could come up to 1000. The correct ND filter might be nice to have but is costly as it can only be purchased in a kit. It also apparently will not fit with the hood installed so it’s not a perfect setup.
The light meter consists of a sensor just below the exterior of the taking lens (be sure not to block it!). It of course drives the shutter timing as well as a basic two LED indicator in the viewfinder. The green LED signals that exposure will be correct and an amber LED signals that exposure is questionable. There is no red LED that basically tells you “forget about it” which is testament to how ambitious the TLR 70 is. As others report, and in accordance with the rest of the camera, the meter read-out is not exactly the epitome of precision. I tend to ignore it really, only second guess my approach when I see that amber LED. In order to use this camera without wasting a ton of film, you are going to have to have a decently accurate concept of what your exposure settings should be. Usually, I am at 5.6 indoors and 22 in daylight. If its bright sun, I am getting in the habit of using the – EV compensation slider. With flash, you have to just have a feel for how near and how far one should be with 800 ISO film and what aperture makes sense for that distance. There is no scale or reference for this marked on the camera as would be conventional for an old electronic flash unit. This, so far, is typically the only time I use apertures other than star/5.6 and 22, to dial in flash exposure. Btw, the meter has no idea how far you are from a subject so the LED seems to just always go green if the flash is switched on.
Let’s talk about the focal length too. It’s an oddball 61mm which is pretty wide for this size film. Conventional TLR’s have normal 80mm lenses. It’s a smart choice though because it keeps DoF managable and also encourages one to move in close, which I think is important for Instax Mini. The slight barrel distortion reminds me of 35mm lenses on 35mm film cameras, it’s just enough distortion to make things look “real” and not so flat.
Yes, the TL70’s plastic lens is soft. Wishful shooters refer to this as dreamy. The taking lens flares pretty easily and even when conditions are perfect, sharpness is not very sharp! Even at f22, my lens vignettes strongly due to improper distance of the aperture from the lens moreso than the quality of the lens itself.
Color rendition can be more flat and muted. For this reason, I’ve actually been preferring to use the new Instax Monochrome rather than color film. Color is fine but if you are into saturation, the TL70’s lens just isn’t going to deliver it without use of flash, sunny light and/p naturally saturated colors in the image. With b&w though, images are pleasingly tonal and the pinch roller inconsistencies add to a vintage/distressed look that can be fun. So if you are a fan of Impossible Project film, you will probably enjoy the TL70 because it practically turns Instax into Impossible!
–Ensure that the exposure mode remains on A if that is how you’re shooting. The slider switch that one can choose between B (Bulb) and A (Automatic) can easily be jostled
–Practice setting the small apertures in such a way as to avoid that ugly off center vignetting. With no film loaded, open the film door, set the camera to Bulb mode, release the shutter and work the aperture to and fro whilst peering inside the camera to watch the aperture move. This should give you an idea how to correctly set the aperture when film is loaded.
–Make a habit of ejecting the film soon after each photo so as not accidentally double expose.
–A good neckstrap or tabletop tripod will be handy for composing and holding steady. This may go without saying but with no indication of shutter speed, it’s important to at least take a breath when tripping the shutter in anything but daylight.
–If you haven’t already, go to https://mint-camera.com/warranty/ and tag your camera to activate your 2 year warranty!
Okay, so the MiNT Instantflex TL70 was not the Second Coming of Edwin Land that we hoped for, but for me at least, it’s an inspiring camera that is helping me sure up my instant film photography. For years, I was just taking fun, silly portaits with instant. When I got the Mini 90 and SX-70, I grew interested in trying to make actual art with this underappreciated medium. And the TL70 takes this a step further. I feel that in the short time that I’ve owned the camera, I’ve taken some photos with it that are closer to what I’d like to be doing with instant but just wasn’t feeling with other cameras. Fuji’s cameras don’t have reflexive viewfinders. Polaroid 600’s are just big and ugly but no better than Instax. And the SX-70, while absolutely lovely, the SLR viewfinder with its heavy edge distortion annoys the heck out of this glasses wearer. And I just haven’t gotten along so great with IP film. But this. THIS. The MiNT TL70, I think I can get down with. Can you?
Please let me know your thoughts, if you own a TL70 or are interested in picking one up. I’d love to chat about it. Thanks for reading!