As you'll notice, for this series I will try to compare cameras that I feel share some common traits that make them natural competitors. Today we have a couple of wacky trapezoidal cameras with weird ergonomics. One of them is in great shape, the other isn't. One of them is a TLR with a built-in rangefinder, and one of them is an SLR with interchangeable viewfinders. Both are really interesting.

First, the Exa:

And the Bolsey Model C:

Like I said, trapezoids:

Our judging criteria:

  • How comfortable a camera is to shoot.
  • How easy it is to use.
  • How good the results are.
  • How interesting the camera is.
  • How much value does it have in today's world?

Comfort: Well, truthfully, in my hands, neither of them are that comfortable. The Exa is heavy. There isn't a ton of room to actually grip the camera and the way it's designed, you have to move your hands around a lot. This means you definitely need a strap or else it's liable to slip out of your hands. The Bolsey is smaller and lighter with a very nice short throw focus tab in a very nice position for my hands. Winner: Bolsey.

Ease of Use: These cameras don't have a ton of features. You get aperture, shutter speed (from B-150 on the Exa and T, B-200 on the Bolsey), a waist level finder and a manually reset frame counter. The Bolsey has the very interesting built-in rangefinder/viewfinder. It's basically a Bolsey B2 with a TLR added in. It's really cool if you're into quirky cameras (and I am). And the Exa has the ability to have interchangeable viewfinders from the larger Exakta line (along with lenses, obviously), which is a great feature itself.

I find the Bolsey to generally be slightly easier to use. The dials are right in the front for shutter speed and aperture, you use the convenient tab to focus, and you look through a very disappointing, dim and quite small waist level finder to focus. There is a magnifier but it's not very good. Also on the negative side, you have to lift the film winder knob to actually get it moving, which is a pain.

The Exa, on the other hand, has a glorious, large and bright waist level finder. I went out shooting for this test and fell in love with it. It seems to give everything I see a warm tone that I just adore. The magnifier is fantastic as well, giving what feels like a medium format size view. It's wonderful.

See for yourself:

Bolsey Model C

While the Exa is a handful to actually use, it is "easy enough" and the viewfinder makes all the difference when shooting. Winner: Exa

Results: I have to caveat this with the fact that the Bolsey I have needs work. It needs a CLA, and although everything works, it's just not in perfect working order. The lens is in pretty decent shape, so I think the results you'll see below are valid, but I just wanted to put that out there. The Exa, as far as I can tell, is perfect.

These shots are entirely unedited and come straight from my scanner.

Bolsey Model C - Acros 100
Exa - Acros 100
Unintended multiple exposure - Bolsey Model C - Acros 100
Exa - Acros 100

Here's a similar composition from both cameras:

Bolsey Model C - Acros 100
Exa - Acros 100

Winner: Exa. Obviously.

Interestingness: The Bolsey is fascinating. It's a rangefinder/TLR combo. That is about as unique as you can get. The Exa is cool and quirky and beautiful, but the Bolsey is just flat out weird. Winner: Bolsey.

Value: The Exa cost me about $40 with lens. It can take any Exakta mount lens (of which there are many) and offers a compelling experience even today. They aren't particularly rare cameras, but it's nice to know I can buy the Exa's big brother Varex and swap viewfinders, lenses and accessories. The Bolsey cost me $38.50 and doesn't offer a great experience even if I love how cool it is. The viewfinder is small and dim and the rangefinder is Argus C3 level tiny (but not Kodak RF level tiny). It's more comfortable to hold but that's only because it's lighter and smaller. My particular copy is in rough shape, so I'm either going to have to spend a bunch of time CLA'ing it or I can send it off, which will add hundreds to the price. And viewing the results, I'm not sure why I'd bother. Winner: Exa.

Conclusions: The Bolsey Model C is a weird, quirky, cool camera to have on a shelf. I like it. I'm happy with the money I spent. I probably won't ever shoot with it again. The Exa, on the other hand, is a treat. It's heavy and harder to use, but the waist level finder is gorgeous and will make you fall in love with photos before you take them. It's a machine for making the world beautiful. In the battle of wacky trapezoidal cameras, the Exa is the clear winner.