Seagull DF-1 camera review
During the last couple of weeks, I have been shooting a project based upon forced evictions in rural Chinese villages. While exploring through one of the derelict houses, I came upon a camera brochure for a Chinese camera called Seagull DF-1.
I know the Seagull brand from their cheap TLR cameras that they sell but I had never heard about the SLR cameras that they sold. I took the brochure with me when I left the village and looked online to see if I could find the camera. Sure enough, they were readily available here in mainland China so I ordered one that seemed to be in good condition.
The camera arrived with the camera box, manual/brochure, leather case and a 58mm F2 lens. The camera seemed relatively heavy and well made. Not as heavy as my Nikon F2 but still it was a hefty beast. The Seagull DF-1 is constructed out of metal, I can’t find any plastics on this camera, and it feels solid. There is no give on the top plate of the camera and and the buttons and dials feel good enough when operating. The only part of the camera that feels flimsy is the self-timer switch. I pulled the self-timer switch down to test it, and it felt flimsy and it got stuck on the first attempt to test it. But the rest of the camera feels much better than the self-timer and works well.
The Seagull DF-1 is a very simple and basic camera. It has no light meter, no electronics, no batteries, so basically it is a light-tight box with a lens on it. This is what most film cameras are at the end of the day, which is why it is so hard to write reviews on film cameras. The quality of images that you get out of the camera has nothing to do with the camera but it is completely dependant on the lens and the film that you are using. The only thing that a film camera body does is to make it easy or difficult for you to shoot the photos that you are trying to capture.
Looking at the top plate of the Seagull DF-1, you can see that the design of the camera is fairly classical. It has the usual film advance lever and shutter speed dial. A small window to show you the number of shots that you have taken and on the opposite side, you have a film rewind lever. The film advance lever sits very snuggly next to the shutter dial and it can be a little hard to engage it with your thumb when you are not looking at the camera or you have the camera up at your face while shooting. You have to make an effort to move the film advance leaver away from the shutter dial before you can advance the film to the next shot. This is a little annoying especially when I compare it to my Nikon F2 which is so so easy to advance the film when shooting. The film advance leaver also has a very long throw to get to the next frame. It is twice as long as my Nikon F2 and I check with all my other film cameras, none of them have such a long advance throw. It is not the end of the world but it does make life a little less convenient. This is not the ideal camera to shoot continuously with having the camera at your eye. I find that I have to move the camera away from my face to advance the film to the next shot because of the film advance lever and the long throw of the film advance lever. This is great if you want to slow down when you shoot but this did frustrate the hell out of me when shooting with the camera.
The shutter dial is made of metal and is painted black. The dial serves two purposes with the camera. First it allows you to set the shutter speed with the camera but secondly, it allows you to tell the camera how many shots your film will have. You set this by lifting the shutter dial up and turning it left or right until you get the correct number you are looking for. This is very similar to how many cameras set the film ISO with the shutter button. The shutter dial feels good, it is nice and tight which means that you will never accidentally change the shutter speed. Each click of the shutter dial gives a nice audible click as you change the shutter speed and generally it feels good. Much better than the film advance lever. The shutter dial also indicates the flash sync speed for the camera which is 1/60. Not great for flash work but I rarely shoot with flash when I am using film so this doesn’t bother me.
The shutter release button is built onto the film advance lever and it feels ok. It is slightly soft and takes a good amount of pressure to fire off a frame but I have no complaints about the shutter button. It is easy to use and find when shooting the camera.
The viewfinder is probably one of the best aspects of this camera. It is big and bright. I was convinced that it was bigger than my Nikon F2 viewfinder but when I compared them side by side, they were the same size. The viewfinder on the Seagull DF-1 is slightly brighter than the Nikon F2’s viewfinder and it makes manually focusing the lens much easier. The viewfinder provides a split prism to aid you with the focusing and I generally found it very easy to focus the lens onto the subject that I was shooting. I enjoyed the viewfinder on the Seagull DF-1 camera and I had very few shots that I messed up the focusing on it.
Loading film onto the camera is as easy, just like most other film cameras. To open the camera up, you lift the film rewind dial and it will pop open the back of the camera so you can insert your film cartridge and load the film. The film loads like most other old films SLR’s. You simply drag the film across the camera film plane and shutter, inserting it into the film pick up spool. After that you, you simply close the back of the camera and advance the film and fire off a few shots until the shot counter on the top plate reads 1. Now I have to say that the locking mechanism for the backplate is not great. I had to keep checking that the rear latch was secure and the camera would not open up. I have a feeling that this is a weakness in the camera and it could be easy to accidentally open the back of the camera. On my Seagull DF-1 unit, there were no light seals and I was worried about it but I haven’t had any light leaks yet so I think the camera is fine and light-tight.
The one design flaw that I see with the Seagull DF-1 camera is the film rewind lever. It works almost the same way as most film cameras, ie. you push the button at the bottom of the plate and use the film rewind lever to wind the film back into the film canister, except the film rewind lever is very close to the viewfinder so it is an absolute pain to wind the film up. You will keep banging your fingers against the viewfinder, and it takes ages to wind the film up as you have to go slow with the winding action because your fingers keep hitting the pentaprism hump on the camera. On most cameras, winding up the film is no problem and I can do it relatively quickly but I would guess it takes me maybe 5 times longer to wind the film up.
When I bought the Seagull DF-1, it only came with the Haiou-64 58mm F2 lens and this lens seems to be very good. It reminds me a lot of my old Pentax film lens with how it feels to use. The lens comes with the Minolta bayonet fit mount and is suppose to be a Biotar 58mm f2 clone. The Haiou-64 58mm F2 lens is constructed with 6 elements in 4 groups, has 6 aperture blades and has a minimum focus distance of 0.6 meters. There is not a lot of information about this lens online, but from my shooting, the lens is sharp, even when shot wide open.
Shooting the lens proved to be very easy thanks to the bright viewfinder on the Seagull DF-1. The focus throw on the lens made it easy to get focus on any subject that I was shooting. The focus scale on the lens itself made it easy to guestimate the correct focus before I even put the camera up to my eye to shoot. The lens does have one thing about it that I strongly dislike and that is the aperture ring. The aperture ring is very loose on my copy. You can change the aperture with almost no pressure applied to it and I had the lens aperture changed on me a few times while simply walking around with the camera hanging on my side. I did get into the habit of checking the aperture before shooting each shot, but that is a pain to do. I would have preferred to trust that the lens would have maintained the aperture that I had chosen a while ago and not have to keep double-checking that my setting is right.
Looking at some pictures that I have shot with the camera, the lens renders black and white film shots nicely. The shots are sharp and there is good separation from the background when shooting the lens with a large aperture. The bokeh is good but it is very clinical. Kinda like the bokeh you get with Fujifilm XF lens. Not bad but it lacks character. I haven’t seen any flaring with the lens and there seems to be minimal vignetting going on in my shots. Overall I would say that this lens is a great performer and a steal at the price you can buy the Seagull DF-1 camera and lens for. I will be looking to buy a Minolta to Fuji XF adapter so I can use this lens on my Fujis. I am sure I will get some great shots with it.
I have always hated writing conclusions to any review, as it is extremely difficult to do, especially for this camera. I have enjoyed my time shooting with the Seagull DF-1 camera and I will shoot it again in the future. It is solid, well-constructed manual film camera. There are no electronics that can go wrong, and no meter to fool you. It is as simple as photography can get. Just your eye and the image. Nothing else in between. But this camera does have some weaknesses. The film advance lever can be a pain in the ass at times. Rewinding the film is horrible and I don’t trust the latch on the rear door on the camera. I am sure it will pop open sometime in the future, so I will probably start taping the door closed when I am using the camera. The positives for the camera are simple, great viewfinder, really nice lens, and the price. This camera is absolutely dirt cheap and you get so much more than you are paying for. It was purely happenstance that I came across the brochure for this camera but I am happy that I did as I have added a nice little beast to my collection of film cameras. I would recommend this camera to people who are looking for a fully manual camera and they don’t have a big budget. Can this camera compete with my Nikon F2, no and I don’t think it is supposed to? This was a camera that was produced for Chinese people to use in the ’60s and for once in your life, you will get far more than what you are paying for.
- Solid heavy camera
- Completely manual, no autofocus or even a light meter on the camera.
- Nice, bright viewfinder
- the default lens on the camera is sharp.
- Minolta lens is cheap to buy so building a complete kit for the camera would be cheap.
- Long film advance throw required to advance to the next frame.
- Horrible experience rewinding the film.
- The aperture ring on the lens is just too lose.
- I don’t trust the latch on the rear camera door and I am afraid the back door will open up during shooting.
On a final note, I am aware that the Seagull DF-1 is a copy of the Minolta SR-3 but I have never shot with a Minolta before so I cannot compare the Seagull DF-1 to the Minolta SR-3. There is not a lot of information online about the Seagull cameras and a lot of confliction information on some blogs. No one seems to be sure about anything with regards to the camera, and a lot of my Chinese photography friends seem to know about the camera but they are just as clueless as we are about any information about the camera. I guess that the camera was produced at a time when the information was not shared a lot in China, but if I do meet anyone in China who can give me more information about the camera, I will update this page with the information.