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I acquired my Graflex XL pretty much the same way I acquired everything else in my collection -- by chance and by happening on a good deal. I had been wanting a larger format system camera for some time. My goal was to find something that would allow different roll film backs, making it easier to implement the Zone System in my black-and-white photography.
I tried (and dreamed about) several options. The Hasselblad, an obvious choice, was beyond any sane financial means. The same goes for the modern Rolleiflex system cameras. I tried using older TLR Rolleiflexes, but they do not have interchangeable backs, and it was cumbersome to carry two or three of them around.
One unfortunate experience involved trying a Hasselblad look-alike, the Kiev 88. The Kiev sells at an attractive price ($700 with lens, two backs, meter prism), but I found it was not sturdily constructed.
The Graflex XL was my next choice. It was made in the late 1960's and early 1970s and is technologically a bit out-dated. Dealers handle the camera and normal lens for about $400, and film backs are about $100 each. That's a lot less than a Hassy.
I finally bought one, an XLRF (rangefinder), when a collector at a nearby city called and offered me an entire outfit, originally made for the military, for $300. It included the body, lens, film backs, Polaroid and 70mm backs, handle and quick focusing lever. In short, a heck of a deal. I bought it and have been playing with it for several weeks now.
The XL has a pleasing layout. The rangefinder/viewfinder are mounted on top and, and the camera uses 6x7cm film holders mounted horizontally on a Graflok back. The Graflok back is actually an adapter which comes off easily, using two locking slides, and allows installation of the Polaroid and 70mm backs directly onto the body of the camera. This makes changing from one format to another fairly easy and was probably done to simplify design of the Polaroid back, which is rather large and would be hard to put into a Graflok.
There were three models of this camera: the XLRF, the XLS, a non-rangefinder model, the XLSW, which uses a thinner body to allow a 47mm Super Angulon lens. 47mm gives about the same angle of view as a 21mm lens on a 35mm camera, and is almost identical to the Brooks Veriwide.
My camera has a 100 mm f 3.5 Zeiss Tessar in a Synchro-Compur shutter. The lens is extremely good, very sharp. The shutter, after all these years, is still accurate. Changing lenses is quick and easy, and they are readily available from dealers, should I ever need to expand the system. Flash is synched for M and X and the shutter has a self-timer. Lenses are sold with shutter and lens barrel included. Other popular lenses are a 58mm f-5.6 Grandagon, an 80mm f-2.8 Planar, a 95 mm f-2.8 Heligon, a 100 f-2.8 Planar, and a 180 mm f-4.8 Sonnar.
The finder on mine has bright frames for the 80, 100 and 180 mm lenses, and the whole finder area is used for the 58mm. Other finder masks are available.
The XL uses standard Graflex roll film backs, and on mine the bright frames on my body are set up for the RH 10 format. I believe some others were made with a wider range of bright frames, such as 6 by 9 cm, but don't know this for sure. For me, the setup is ideal, since I have three RH 10 holders.
The accessory handle makes it much easier to fire the shutter than without one, as it includes a built-in cable release. Without the handle, in fact, it would be hard to use the XL hand-held. Since the camera does not have a body release, tou'd be constantly groping around the front of the camera to find the shutter release lever. The Graflex brand accessory handle is very solid, adjustable, and can be mounted on either side or on the bottom. I imagine any other after-market handle, such as those that include flash brackets, would work if it included a cable release.
In construction I'd rate the Graflex XL very high. It's solidly built, with no slop anywhere. The controls, even on a 30-year-old camera, all work precisely and easily. It is a very high quality camera, something that is all the more surprising since it was produced as Graflex was waning.
The main thing I miss is the lack of bellows and movements. It's not a studio camera, but was not designed to be one either. The focusing gets very stiff when cold (40F) and even warm it takes a bit of feel to reinstall the lens if you take it off.
For tripod work it isn't as versatile as a field camera such as a Speed Graphic or other camera with bellows and movements. Close-up work, for example, can only be done with spacers or close-up lenses. The rangefinder is easier to focus than ground glass, however, and the finder is parallax compensating and very accurate. There is no depth of field indicator, however, so for critical focusing you need to attach the ground glass back.
As for ease of use, the biggest problem I ran into was forgetting to cock the shutter before taking a picture. I did go through the usual mistakes: forgetting to take the dark slide out (an idiot note now handles that one) and remembering to reset the film counter on the film back before winding the film. The XL will take a little practice for the confirmed Leica user, but Speed Graphic users will feel at home with these operations.
The XL is heavy and with the handle attached, rather bulky. I did find the focusing to be rather stiff when the camera was cold, and am still experimenting with solutions to that, since it seems to be just the little cams and slides that the lens barrel rotates through as you focus.
I hauled my XL along on a camping trip and took it to a hot air balloon festival, giving me a chance to try it out on a tripod in more sedate settings, and on the move in a rapidly changing setting.
The camera works particularly well in a fast-moving situation requiring quick focusing and shooting. Chasing after hot air balloons, I was doing that a lot. The rangefinder is very accurate, and the eyepiece for it is extremely large, allowing even those with glasses to see the bright frames clearly.
The Graflex XL series cameras were made in the USA, like their Speed and Crown Graphic cousins, at the end of an era of quality camera workmanship. I suspect the XL was designed for press use, but can't prove it. The lack of swings, tilts, and the large rangefinder and interchangable backs seem to lean in that direction. My own experience with it is that it would work fairly well as a newspaper camera, going by the standards of the 1950s and maybe into the 1960s, when newspaper photography was still rather stodgy. By the late 1960s and 1970s, however, photojournalists wanted vastly more versatility. They'd seen what Eisenstadt had done at LIFE with the Leica, wanted to do the same and, one suspects, they were tired of hauling all that weight around. Oscar Barnack's asthma really did revolutionize photography in that respect.
Plus, for newspaper work, negative quality no longer mattered, at least as far as grain goes. As long as the grain was smaller than the screen used to print the picture, nobody cared.
The XL still has its uses, of course. Wedding photographers (so I am told) like it, and you can see why. Negative quality is still very important when shooting weddings and other similar formal events. A fast focusing camera is still important in those settings, and interchangable backs would also have obvious value. I find it's great for shooting family stuff, too.
I do believe all upcoming press photographers should be required to use an XL, or a Speed Graphic, when they start out. These cameras teach discipline, how to look for pictures, how to wait for the right moment, and how to make each shot count.