The Rolleiflex:: A What & Why
I have written a few other times mentioning the Rolleiflex 3.5F that I purchased last spring as my first medium format film camera. I receive DMs on Twitter and emails every now and again asking about it. So I thought I would write a quick post with some information and opinion on this dream camera.
Rollei was first founded in 1920 by Paul Franke and Reinhold Heidecke in Germany. Their name proudly displayed under the taking lens on my Rolleiflex.
They introduced their line of twin lens reflex cameras in 1929 and they are still made today although the company has changed hands.
My Rolleiflex was made in the 1960s.
What is it?
As mentioned above this is a twin lens reflex camera. What does twin lens reflex mean?
If you have owned a SLR or dSLR you are probably used to looking through the viewfinder and seeing what the lens sees. The light goes into the lens and is reflected up into a prism by a mirror and is visible to you. When you take a shot the mirror flips up to allow the light to hit the film/sensor. That is a single-lens reflex.
The twin-lens reflects differs as there are two lenses on the camera. One lens is the viewing lens, it is the top one and light that goes through it is reflected up to the focusing screen used to compose the photo. The lower lens is the taking lens and light goes through that and hits the film when the shutter button is pressed. The advantage is there is no mirror flipping up so the viewfinder is never blocked and that lack of motion makes it easier to take a photo at a slow shutter speed without causing blurriness from camera shake.
My particular Rolleiflex has a Schneider Xenotar 75mm f/3.5 taking lens (when referring to 'the Rolleiflex or 'my Rolleiflex' this is the kind I am speaking of). They have a few different kinds with different lenses. Probably the most sought after is the Rolleiflex 2.8F which has a Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2.8 lens.
Old World Charm
The Rolleiflex is currently my favourite camera that I own. The 6cm x 6cm negatives are so big with that medium format 'look' to them. The Xenotar lens renders in a very unique way. Some prefer it to the Planar 2.8.. or perhaps those people are justifying buying the less expensive Rolleiflex.
In a time where people take unlimited photos of everything with their iPhones or digital cameras I find it relaxing to slowly frame a shot using the waist level viewfinder, meter the light with a handheld meter, manually focus, set the aperture & shutter speed with my thumbs.. and finally press the shutter as I listen for the quiet 'click' of the leaf shutter. (My process doesn't end there.. check out my post on developing & scanning)
I made a quick video so you can hear how the shutter of the Rolleiflex sounds.. taken at 1/250th, 1/30th & 1/4th of a second if my memory serves correctly. (The shutter sounds louder here as the mic is closer to it than your ears would be using the waist level finder)
The leaf shutter and twin lens reflex design has some great advantages. a) I can easily handhold the camera (braced against my body) at 1/15th of a second and still have sharp photos. b) The shutter syncs with flash at all speeds (the max shutter speed of a Rolleiflex is 1/500th). I just bought a Sekonic L-308s light meter to use with my flashes and Rolleiflex.. so that should be fun. c) Looking down at the camera and the quiet shutter makes it s pretty stealthy street photography camera.. except its uniquely beautiful & retro look does draw some attention.
There are some pretty cool accessories out there for the Rolleiflex.. especially the later models such as mine. I have kitted mine out based on how I shoot. The first thing I bought was an original Rollei lens hood. It is made of our metal and wasn't very expensive. As I don't look through the lens I figured it was better to just always have a lens hood on to keep the contrast its best.
The next item I bought was a Rollei Prism Viewfinder. The later Rolleiflex's feature a removable waist level finder. This can be changed out for the prism for portraits or any other time shooting waist level doesn't work. Another handy feature is that the image in the prism viewfinder is not reversed like with the waist level finder. Typically a used Rollei Prism has a ridiculous price tag on it.. for a while the cheapest ones I could finder were in the $150-$250 range if the glass had fungus or separation! Outrageous! I found one locally at a shop for a reasonable price in mint condition. I do really like the wait level finder but the prism will help with portraits or when I am using odd angles.
Also, I bought a close-up focus filter. The minimum focusing distance of the Rolleiflex is 40". Not bad for most things. But there have been instances where I just wanted to get a tad bit closer. They make 3 different close focus filters.. the Rolleinar 1, 2 & 3. Each gets you closer. I bought the Rolleinar 1 which changes the focusing range to 39.5" to 18.5". It is a set of filters.. one slim one for the taking lens and a thicker one for the viewing lens. The thicker one has a prism in it to compensate for parallax error. This actually just showed up on my doorstep today so I have not shot any film with it yet.
Finally, I have a Rolleifix on the way which is basically a quick release plate for the Rolleiflex on a tripod. Then it will be fully kitted out for my needs and all for pretty cheap as accessories for cameras go. To maintain the obvious classiness they all seem to come with little leather cases.. isn't that special.
How I Shoot
A roll of medium format film produces 12 square photographs on a roll when shot on a Rolleiflex. Once the film is loaded it cannot be changed mid-way through. Usually if I am going somewhere and I am not too sure on the lighting I will bring a roll of Kodak Portra 160, 400 & 800.. do a light reading there and decide. Typically I use Kodak Portra 400 for everything as it is pretty versatile in most light.
When shooting I initially take a few meter readings.. in the brightest light, in the shadow.. over a few areas. Unless something changes drastically I really don't meter much after that. It kind of sets my boundaries for exposure. As colour negative film is quite forgiving when over exposed I always err on the side of overexposure. If using Portra 400 & my meter reading is f/3.5 at 1/1000 measured at ISO200 I will shoot at f/3.5 and 1/500 (the fastest shutter speed of the Rolleiflex). That will over expose it by at least 2-stops and even more if that is a reading from the darkest part. I have not had any problems with this way. There is always detail in the highlights and in the shadows. It may take some recovering of the highlights in the scan or in Lightroom but generally it has done me quite well.
In dark situations where I am handholding it at 1/15th or slower I will set the self timer on the camera, and brace it into my body for the shot if there is nothing solid nearby to put the camera on.
I find 12 frames to be a good amount per roll for the way I shoot. 36 exposures on a roll of 35mm film seems to take forever for me to go through.
Why This & not That?
The main requirement for me for a medium format film camera as one that was completely mechanical. So why the Rolleiflex as opposed to a Hasselblad?
Hmm.. I have always wanted an iconic Hasselblad. And I still do. What made me choose the Rolleiflex was mostly for weight reasons. The Rolleiflex is smaller and lighter. The advantages of a Hasselblad is the changeable film backs and lenses. I knew I would only want 1 lens for my medium format system. More than that would muddy the waters for me and then I would be hauling all kinds of stuff with me again.
Also the lack of a flipping mirror in the Rolleiflex was desirable from a camera shake perspective. So while I will always want a Hasselblad I am a Rollei kind of guy.
Here are a few more beauty shots of the Rolleiflex for your enjoyment..