Christopher J Osborne

SEM Semflex Oto 3.5 (Type 31)

Before the introduction of in the 1960s of cameras like the Pentax Spotmatic and the Nikon F, SLR cameras were slow, noisy and cumbersome cameras that only the most dedicated and determined people would willingly use! The rangefinder and twin lens reflex (TLR) cameras pioneered by Leitz with their Leica and Franke & Heidecke with their Rolleiflex back in the 1920s were much more popular. Both the Leica 35mm (introduced in 1925) and Rolleiflex medium format TLR (introduced in 1929) were truly revolutionary products in that they both established entirely new paradigms that were widely copied and influence an entire industry. The subject of this page is of course a TLR camera, so here I will concentrate on the TLR camera type.

TLRs might not (usually) have the interchangeable lenses (the one exception is the Mamiya line of TLRs) or parallax error free viewfinders of SLRs, but compared to the first generation of SLRs they were quicker, quieter and had viewfinders that didn’t blackout after the photo had been taken.

In 1933 Franke & Heidecke established a second line of simpler and cheaper TLRs with their Rolleicord cameras, and by the 1950s there were 100s of companies in both Europe and Japan producing similar cameras. Many of these companies copied the Rollei model of having basically two camera lines: a more expensive model with a high quality 4 element Tessar type lens and a crank type film advance, and a cheaper model with a simpler 3 element lens and a knob type film advance. Many of these companies even copied the Franke & Heidecke model names; for example M.P.P. in England had their Microflex and simpler Microcord models.

Like most countries with even a basic camera manufacturing industry, France also produced TLR cameras. SEM (Societe des Establissements Modernes) were mainly known for their basic and inexpensive snap-shot cameras, but they also produced a very nice line of more advanced TLR cameras. Like Franke & Heidecke they had two main lines of cameras. The equivalent of the simpler Rolleicord was the ‘Standard’ model, and the equivalent of the more complex Rolleiflex was the ‘Oto’ or automatic model pictured here. (Strangle, at least according to Google Translate, oto is not the French for automatic… it is the Turkish!)

Of course this camera is not automatic in any way that a modern camera user would recognise! The ‘Oto’ model name refers to the fact that the wind-on mechanism was linked to an automatic frame counter and shutter cocking mechanism. The lens on this camera is a very nice 4 element Tessar type Som Berthiot Flor 75mm f/3.5 lens and the shutter runs from 1 second to 1/400th.

Technically there is nothing really very interesting about this camera. But SEM took the tried and tested Rolleiflex/cord formula and added a real dash for French chic. This is the later ‘Type 31’ model… just look at the beautiful modern SEM logo and light grey vinyl body covering. SEM TLRs are not well known outside of France, and I was pleased to find a TLR camera that was just a little out of the ordinary! So what is this camera like to use?

This is my first medium format camera, and learning how to load the damn thing with film was the first trail. I managed to find an instruction manual for the very similar SEM Semflex Oto Studio (which basically the same camera but with a 150mm portrait lens) but even so getting everything to work was something of a challenge. But having got the film loaded, things were fairly simple. (Though on the first photo below the strange black marks along the top are due to problems winding on due to mistakes made while loading the film!) The waist level finder and focusing screen are quite dim (possibly due to age, though this example seems to have had almost no use), but it is still possible to get a sharp image, especially if you use the built in magnifier.

I found that my Olympus E-P1 camera made a really great light meter, with the added advantage that you get a digital proof of your images (though it’s rather ironic to use something that was responsible for demise of Polaroid as the original proofing device for medium format photographers for this purpose!). So here are some shots from my SEM Semflex Oto (all shot on Kodak Portra 160 film):

Photographs taken with the SEM Semflex Oto 3.5 (Type 31)