Seagull 4A camera review
The Yashicamat 124G was my first introduction into medium format photography and I loved using the TLR camera when walking around but it started to developing spaces issues with the frames, making me lose around two or three shots per roll of film so I retired her and bought a Pentax67. I have been using that beast of a camera for a while now but the Pentax is an all of nothing system. It is big and heavy, you either take the Pentax system with you and nothing else or you don’t take the Pentax with you. You can’t mix digital or drone stuff with the system as it simply takes up too much space. Luckily for me, one of my frienda in China bought me a camera for my birthday gift and it was the fantastic Seagull 4A TLR.
My birthday gift camera came complete with a box, camera, and manual, but I am pretty sure that the box is a reprint to increase the price of the camera in China, but I don’t mind that at all. I am more interested in the camera than the box it came in.
The Seagull 4A TLR itself is very simple and only contains a few key components. On the right of the camera body, you can find the film advance crank and the shot counter. The film advance crank feels well made and it advances the film to the next frame quickly and smoothly. The film advance crank also reverses direction smoothly when you want to store the crank away in the small divot provided by the camera. The film shoot counter is above the film advance crack and it displays the number of shots taken. It works well, hard to complain about a window that displays a number to you.
I strongly suggest that you store the film advance crank into the divot when you are carrying around the camera otherwise it does tend to catch onto your clothes or hooks onto things.
The left-hand side of the camera has the focus dial, which is a little stiff, but it is easy to focus precisely on your target as long as you have a good eye. More on focusing later. The camera also has strap lugs on the top of each side to attach a camera strap, if you desire one. I have the original leather strap that came with the camera and I still use it, but the leather does feel a little old and brittle so I will replace it soon.
The heart and soul of any TLR camera is the lens unit. This is where all the camera control is located as well as the shutter button. The first thing that you will notice is the two lenses. The lens at the top is your taking lens. This is the lens that you focus with. The bottom lens is the main shooting lens and this camera has a Haiou-31 75mm mm f3.5 lens, which is composed of 4 elements in 3 groups. Under the lens and to the right-hand side is the shutter button. The shutter button is threaded so you can use a cable reason on the camera. The one thing that I dislike about the camera is that the shutter button can’t be locked, so I strongly suggest that you do not advance the film after shooting a shot, as it is easy to fire off a shot by accident with this camera. I have gotten used to shooting with this camera now, and I only wind the film onto the next frame when I spot a subject that I want to capture. In the beginning, I was wasting around one frame per roll until I started doing this.
The aperture is set on the left-hand lever next to the lens, and you can set the aperture from f3.5 to f22 and since this camera has a slow maximum shutter speed, you will need to stop down a lot usually. I often have to shoot at F22 with ISO 400 film during the day time.
The shutter speed is set by the lever on the right and you can select a shutter speed between Bulb to 1/300 sec. Not a very fast max shutter speed, even for a TLR, so if you are shooting with ISO 400 or pushing beyond that, then you will need some ND filters or you will have to stop down the lens a lot.
There is no light meter with this camera, so you either have to shoot by your eye, use the sunny 16 rules or carry a separate light meter with you when you go shooting. I do miss the light meter on my old Yashica Mat-124G as it meant that I could carry less gear with me. Lately, I have just been shooting by eye, as I mostly shoot during the day time in strong lighting conditions with iso 400 film, so it is fairly easy to get the right aperture and shutter speed settings. But if you are a new film shooter or even a novice photographer, use the sunny 16 or a separate light meter for the best results.
The viewfinder is the heart of any camera, and this camera’s viewfinder is completely different from any SLR or rangefinder camera that you have used before. Firstly the viewing screen is really big, but there is no mirror to flip the image that you are viewing so it can be confusing in the beginning as when you move the camera to the left, the image shifts to the right, or vice-a-versa. The viewfinder on the Seagull 4A is clearly brighter than the viewfinder on the Yashica Mat 124G that I use in the past. It is brighter, easier to focus with and the image in the viewfinder just seems to be crisper. The viewfinder in the Seagull makes focusing on the TLR camera much easier than the Yashica Mat 124G camera. Focusing has never really been an issue on the TLR cameras as the viewfinders are usually huge, but medium format film does mean that you generally have a shallower depth of field compared to a 35mm SLR camera, so if you need to make sure that you got the focus correct, keeping in mind the depth of field.
There is a magnifying loop that is attached to the view screen and it helps a lot. I use the magnifying loop all the time to confirm that I have the correct focus. But working like this does slow you down. If you want to shoot faster then you can try some zone focusing and shooting with the action finder that is built into the camera.
To be honest, I have never used the action finder on this camera. I tried it a few times on my Yashica Mat 124G and I never want to do it again. When focusing on any TLR camera, parallax error is always going to be a pain in the ass with subjects that are close to the lens. The Seagull has a minimum focus distance of around 1m so luckily it is not too close to the camera lens but even at the 1m minimum distance, you might want to shoot the shot a bit wider by stepping back a little in the beginning to give yourself some cropping room until you are used to the way the camera frames a shot and you can adjust for parallax errors. There are no guides for parallax errors, so you just have to train your own eye with try and error. Luckily, I seldom shoot subjects close to the camera so this almost never bothers me. I mostly just shoot cityscapes or landscapes, so this is never a big issue with my shots.
Loading film in the camera is really easy and doesn’t take too long. At the bottom of the camera is the circular dial. Turn the dial to the O symbol and the rear body plate of the camera will pop open. The one nice thing about this camera is that the bottom release dial on the camera body has a lock, so you cannot accidentally open the body.
The inside of the camera is really simple. You have the pressure plate at the back, and two film spoil holders to load the film into. The film is always loaded at the bottom film spoil and feeds to the top one.
The pressure plate can be switched from 120 to 220 film but I recommend just leaving the film plate set to 12 exposures for 120 film. Loading film is really easy, just insert the film at the bottom of the camera, drag it up to the top of the camera and feed it into the film take-up spool. The Seagull 4A is much easier to load than the Yashica Mat 124G camera that I used to use many years ago.
The true test of any camera is how it renders an image, and like all film cameras, they are basically light-tight boxes with a lens attached to it. The lens and film have the biggest impact on the images. The camera bodies just make shooting easier or more difficult, depending on how they implement the camera body functions. Luckily for most shooters of the Seagull 4A, there are very few functions to get in your way.
So let’s get to the camera and how it renders images. Shooting film is mostly my way of relaxing from work, so I tend to carry a film camera with me when I am not shooting for money now. I like to shoot film during the day when I am walking around and exploring new cities that I work in and I generally only take out a digital camera for sunrises, sunsets, and work shots.
I like the way that most of the shots rendered with the Haiou-31 SA 75mm f/3.5 lens. I mostly shoot Fomapan 400 with stand development in Rodinal and the images have a nice contrast to them. The images are sharp but the slow shutter speed of 1/300 means that I am often stopped down to between f11 to f22, so you would expect that the images would be sharp. Shooting at such small apertures means that focusing is really easy as the depth of field is huge.
When the light does get a little low, you can shoot with larger apertures, and the lens is still decently sharp but focusing does become more difficult and you need to use the magnifying loop to make sure you got it right.
The shutter on this camera is very soft, and almost no one will hear it, so this could be a good camera for street photography but this camera does have a serious problem when it comes to street shooting. Everyone is going to notice this camera. I get less attention walking around with my Pentax 67 system so if you are looking for a stealth camera, then this is not the type of camera for you. TLR cameras just draws too much attention now.
The one thing that I really like about this camera is its size and weight. For a medium format camera, this thing is tiny. It fits into my everyday camera bag with easy, and it is quick to pull out and use. This camera has now become a permanent part of my everyday carry bag, replacing the Holga that I used to carry around with me.
I tend to shoot a lot into the sun with all my cameras, I enjoy doing it and most photographers here in China tend to avoid doing it, so I do it all the time. It is always good to be different. With the Yashica Mat 124G, flaring was a big issue and I had to use a lens hood when I was shooting into the sun, but the Haiou-31 SA 75mm f/3.5 lens seems to handle direct light very well. Sometimes when shooting film into direct sunlight, you can get some ghosting as well, but I haven’t seen this with the Seagull 4A lens. I am not sure where the lens comes from or even who Seagull copied with the lens design but the lens is really good. I have asked many of my Chinese photography friends about the camera but not many of them are answering me right because of the Coronavirus and the anti-foreigner feelings in the mainland right now. If I do find out more information about this camera, then I will update this section of the review.
Not everything is perfect on this camera though, so let’s get the bad out of the way. It is made in China and it doesn’t feel as strong or as well constructed as the Yashica Mat124G cameras. It is not as cheap feeling as the Holga cameras but you can tell that this camera would not survive a beating either. Some old medium format cameras could destroy a tank with their bulletproof construction but this camera is not that tough. I am more gentle with this camera as it was a gift so I want it to last. The weakest section on the Seagull 4A camera is probably the magnifying loop that you can use to nail your focus with. Poping it up feels flimsy and putting it away feels just as awkward. But that is about the only negative things I can say about this camera.
The Seagull 4A is such a pleasant little camera to use. It is small, compact, has a great lens that delivers some really outstanding shots. The only limitation to the shots you can get with this camera is the slow shutter speeds and your own eye. This is a basic camera that doesn’t hold your hand but delivers images based on your own skill. I strongly believe that if you are interested in medium format film shooting, then the two cheapest options are usually the Holga or a Seagull TLR. For years I have been pushing the Holga camera onto anyone who asked me to recommend a camera for them to play around with, but this camera will now replace that recommendation. In many ways, it is very similar to a Holga, which is to say it is a cheap, basic camera, but unlike the Holga, it has a much better build quality, a far superior lens, and will last you for years. The camera has not replaced my Pentax system but it is a great medium format camera to throw into a bag when I am going out, and because of its size, I find myself taking the camera with me a lot now. I highly recommend that you try this cheap Chinese TLR camera. It is not perfect but at the price that you can buy them for, it is worth buying one and trying it out.
- small and light
- the lens is nice and sharp
- Nice bright viewfinder
- lens only stops down to f22
- Slow maximum shutter speed of 1/300
- construction quality could be better
- No lock on the shutter button.