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Halin Prefect and box (Pic: Stuart Lloyd)
Halina’s Prefect: all the TLR style with none of the complication (Pic: Stuart Lloyd)

If you were bitten by the photography bug in the 1950s, there were all manner of quality German and Japanese cameras to be had. But many of them were beyond the means of beginners and amateurs. The 35mm film boom – and the resulting tidal wave of cheaper viewfinder cameras – hadn’t quite happened.

In British Hong Kong, a new camera maker emerged, one which set its sights firmly on those with less to spend. Haking was set up by Dr Haking Wong and Dr Pauline Chan. It produced cameras, binoculars and other optics, all aimed at enthusiasts who couldn’t afford German or Japanese quality. Their cameras were sold under the name “Halina” outside of the UK.

Haking aimed their products at Britain, which was emerging out of post-war austerity. Hong Kong was still a part of the British Empire and its cameras were proudly labelled “Empire Made”. This wasn’t just flag-waving jingoism – it meant the cameras wouldn’t incur the same import charges as German and Japanese cameras, meaning they would be cheaper.

Halina’s 1950s cameras were mostly built to a budget; they included the Halina 35X, a small viewfinder camera designed to look like a much more expensive rangefinder. Squint and you could almost convince yourself it was a Leica, though the camera’s budget lens, stiff focusing and tendency to jam during rewinding were definitely not part of the Leica experience.

The Halina Prefect, with its leather-effect covering, pop-up hood and twin lenses, certainly seemed to tick all the correct boxes for a bona-fide twin-lens reflex camera

Halina’s camera output was predominantly for the 35mm format, but it also set its sights on 120 shooters aswell. In 1956, it released a 120-format camera that gave a decent impression of TLR sophistication, even if under the hood it was a much lower-spec design.

The Halina Prefect, with its leather-effect covering, pop-up hood and twin lenses, certainly seemed to tick all the correct boxes for a bona-fide twin-lens reflex camera. But not everything was as it seemed. Haking couldn’t make a true TLR for the price (the camera sold for around £4 at the time) so the Prefect is essentially a viewfinder camera. The viewing lens and taking lens do not move and the camera is focus-free.

The focus-free Prefect sports two shutters speed – I and B. The I (for Interval setting) is a relatively sluggish 1/30, but the lens at least had the flexibility of different apertures; f/8, f/11 and f/16. But remember too that film wasn’t as fast as we’re used to today – emulsions with a speed of 100 ISO were considered pretty sensitive.

The camera’s back uses a very similar catch to the much more refined Ricohflex TLR made by Ricoh, adding another true TLR touch. As an “Empire-made” camera, the Prefect was competitively priced in the UK, and allowed photographers who couldn’t afford a TLR at least a semblance of the shooting experience.

Halina Prefect and Box (Pic: Stuart Lloyd)
The Prefect was an affordable alternative to pricy TLRs (Pic: Stuart Lloyd)

The Prefect was popular enough to be rebranded under other names – it also appeared as the Votar Flex and as the Wales Reflex, which added an accessory shoe on the side of the camera. The Wales’ box proudly proclaimed it as “a camera for good photography”. Why spend Rolleiflex prices for such a thing, the Wales seemed to be saying.

The Prefect wasn’t the first of these “TLR-style” cameras: the first version of the long-lived Voigtlander Brillant in the 1930s were also box cameras rather than true TLRs in that they did not sure any focusing in the viewfinder., though these did at least allow zone focusing, with three distance selectors around the lens.

Voigtlander took the Brillant up a gear and made it a true TLR when they could, but that “box camera” TLR concept was at least tired-and-tested before the war. Haking weren’t re-inventing the wheel, just taking it back int time a couple of decades.

Halina 35X (Pic: Darryll DeCoster/Flickr)
Haking was best known for inexpensive 35mm cameras like the Leica-alike Halina 35X (Pic: Darryll DeCoster/Flickr)

The Prefect may have, in its turn, helped influence another more recent camera. The Holga TLR was released in 2009, based off the Chinese plastic medium format camera which had been given a new lease of life by the LOMOgraphy crowd. The pseudo Holga TLR grafted another lens and brilliant viewfinder (with sports finder!) on the Holga’s rectangular body. The Holga too was a TLR only in name; the taking and viewing lenses weren’t connected, and the Holga’s viewfinder gave no indication of whether the camera was focused properly. One big difference is that the Holga TLR’s images are circular, rather than a square image.

The Prefect was in production until 1960, when it was supplanted by the very similar Viceroy, which added controls around the taking lens to give an even more accurate imitation of a proper TLR. It also served as the template for a much better – at least by Hakin’s yardstick – A1. The A1 took the Prefect body and actually turned it into a proper TLR, with synchronised lenses (actual focusing!), a ground glass viewing screen and a handful of shutter speeds. No cause for cracking out the champagne in the offices of Rollei or Zeiss Ikon, for sure, but cutting-edge stuff for the humble Haking.

Halina Prefect (Pic: Dellboyy Art/Flickr)
The Prefect offers TLR looks but little of the actual functionality (Pic: Dellboyy Art/Flickr)

The Prefect is a collectable camera these days, though more for the fact relatively few are to be found in working condition – they were the kind of camera tossed away when the user could afford something more impressive – like an actual TLR for instance.

The enjoyable retro camera website The Living Image sums up the ethos behind the Prefect perfectly when discussing its descendent, the A1. “The Twin Lens Reflex camera was adopted by a significant proportion of camera makers as there was a perception amongst the public that such cameras represented an elite, and there is always a market for something that looks the part without actually being able to back up it’s visual claims.”

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Stephen Dowling
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