An Enduring Format

Many customers, over the last decade or so, have traded or sold off some old favourite equipment for newer digital stuff, knowing there’s little point in hanging onto something that won’t get much use. However, more than one has wistfully acknowledged that if there was one camera they should have kept … it was their Rolleiflex.
There’s something special about these brick-shaped little gems that sets them apart from most other cameras. The build quality, of course, cannot be ignored. While there were many similar looking twin-lens reflex cameras (TLRs) made in various countries, the Rollei was the clear leader in fit and finish – and those nice Zeiss and Schneider lenses didn’t hurt either.
The Franke and Heidecke company didn’t invent the TLR, but somehow hit upon using a metal body casting to very neatly fit the film chamber and reflex finder very closely together – making for a very portable package, yet still offering a big 6x6cm negative. The cameras were also rigid and strong, and didn’t require unfolding or extending – as did so many other rollfilm cameras of the 1930s.
As mentioned before, the Rolleiflex inspired many, many clones over the years. Good ones were made by Minolta and Topcon, and the later Yashicamats were quite superb.
My first TLR was a Ricohflex – the nicer one with the built-in meter and seesaw focusing controls. I still have it, although it’s been sitting for so long the shutter has finally gummed up – a project for another rainy day.
My first Rolleiflex came about when my newspaper editor boss let me have a box of clapped out cameras that hadn’t been used since the days they switched to 35mm (which turned out to be not as long before as I thought). I had some fun mixing and matching parts to get three or four Yashicamats in working order. There was also a Mamiya C3 with 180mm lenses that I tried to love – but it was a heavy beast, and I never did as well with it as I had hoped. Then there was this well-worn, but working Rolleiflex 3.5 T. I underestimated it, I think. I probably only put one or two rolls through it before I traded it off for a Nikon motor drive. The other guy got the better part of the deal, I realized later. So that was my Rolleiflex that “got away”.
I borrowed a 2.8C once, with half a mind to buy it. I had recently sold off a 6×6 outfit, deciding I didn’t get along with the square format. But the transparencies I took with it were gorgeous, and completely blew away the digital body I had with me the same morning. Still, someone else bought it before me. Shortly after that I got the Hasselblad outfit and decided I could love a 6×6 reflex after all.
But still, there’s something about a Rollei.
I think the greatest thing about the Franke and Heidecke invention is how it is perfect just the way it is – self contained (especially if you have one with a built-in meter). You just don’t need anything else to take good photos.
Yes, Rollei was the king of accessories. They made every conceivable gadget for those cameras – parallax-corrected close up lenses, telephoto and wide angle add-ons – and when it was obvious 35mm slides weren’t going away, they made 35mm adapter kits to go inside the medium format body – so long as you didn’t mind taking all your photos in vertical format with a 75mm lens.
True Rollei believers might collect the accessories, but they leave them at home. The camera is perfect the way it is. A hood and a case is all you need. Maybe a couple of filters if you’re doing black and white.
The Rollei has its faults, of course. Obviously the viewfinder’s reversed image makes taking photos of moving subjects almost impossible. And unless you use the sport finder, you take most photos at chest-level or lower.
Then again, that’s the point. The TLR is its own discipline. The kind of photos you seek out and take with an almost-silent camera held at waist level, and that rations film out 12 shots to a roll are arguably very different from what you get with an SLR held up to your face autofocusing at five frames per second.
Rolleis are different, I suppose. Which probably explains why so many young women ask me if I have any for sale. They’re looking for something different.
One of my customers the other day said he wished he hadn’t traded off all his Rolleiflex collection. Although he likes the process of shooting digital, he still swears his most creative photography was done with a Rollei around his neck.
Enough said.
The three cameras pictured here are three quite different takes on the Rollei experience. The oldest one is a Rolleiflex “Old standard” model from the mid 1930s – note the nickel plating instead of the chrome that came just a little later. It has a Zeiss Tessar lens (an f3.8) but being pre-war it isn’t coated. Despite many years of wear and tear, the darn thing still works well, and I have used it. The images weren’t bad, and it’s worth another try some day soon.
The Rolleicord is a model IV from 1954. This one was given to me by my father-in-law who said it was mine to clean up and sell, if I wished. I assured him I would do no such thing. It’s in quite nice shape. I had to stitch up the case as bit, but it’s got a lovely Schneider Xenar f3.5 lens, and I it works beautifully. I decided this one would not get away. Besides, I think my wife appreciates I have her dad’s old camera.
For the uninitiated, the Rolleicord was a less-expensive version of the ‘flex. As the Rolleiflex gained new features over the years – brighter finders, self-timers, etc. the Rolleicord benefitted a model or two later. But basically, all Rolleicords have knobs to wind the film instead of rapid cranks, and none had a lens faster than f3.5, or automat loading.
The last camera is from the Rolleiflex’s heyday – an Automat MX from about 1952. I just finished restoring it. It’s original owner went haywire with one of those electric engravers and gouged his name and address down both sides. I removed the offending parts and buffed out the mess and repainted. Of course it’s far from original, and the rest of the wear and tear qualifies it as a solid “user”. Still, it’s a Rollei, and it deserves a better fate. It will find a new home soon, I’m sure.
As for the “Automat” name, that refers to Rollei’s infamous automatic film positioning system. When spooling the film into the camera you must put the leader underneath a metal roller on the bottom. After closing the back and cranking on, the rollers detect the extra thickness as the film joins the leader and starts the frame counter going. Neat and fast – when it works. If it gets out of alignment it’s a pain.
Some Rolleis came with Schneider lenses, others with Zeiss. Collectors like to have both. Users debate endlessly whether it was better to have a 3.5 Xenar or a 3.5 Tessar – some say one is sharper while the other is more contrasty. The cameras with the slightly faster f2.8 lenses are highly desirable, probably because they look so cool. But ‘ol Doc Mendels convincingly argued that the best of the bunch was the 3.5E Rolleiflex with the Zeiss Planar. Why? Because the 2.8 Planar stuffed into the Rolleiflex wasn’t the same 2.8 Planar found on a Hasselblad. The Rolleiflex required a smaller shutter unit, and a lens designed around a smaller “waist” – despite the same name, it wasn’t the same design. The 3.5 Planar made better use of the Rollei shutter size. Given the used values of the Rolleiflex E models, I know he wasn’t alone in those conclusions.
The Rolleiflex, and Rolleicord were a favourite camera for the photo buff and the vacationer (in fact James Bond has a tape recorder hidden inside his when posing as a tourist in From Russia with Love). Countless weddings were shot with them in the flashbulb era, and they were still a staple of the news hound well into the 1960s, despite the rise of 35mm.
Today, the Rolleiflex is finding a new life with the art photographer who finds that the TLR is a different tool that makes different photographs.
One wonders if we will see a “digital TLR” with a live-view screen on top (would it be backwards, or might that be settable via a custom function?). Given the flexibility allowed digital camera designers, it’s certainly possible, but is it practical? I suppose you can add an auxiliary screen to a current DSLR and create your own waist level camera today.
But we all know it wouldn’t be the same.

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~ by windsorphotooutfitters on October 24, 2012.

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