When I asked my father what he considered being the best compact analogue camera ever made, he suggested the Rollei 35 and Minox 35. In his spiel he put a lot of emphasis on compact and lens sharpness. After a quick search on the web I could see that he was probably on to something, as the reviews of both cameras were almost unanimously positive and I therefore figured I should give at least one of them a try at some point.
The years went by and suddenly I am in Berlin to hang out with a friend for a week. After a full day of visiting art galleries, I happened to walk by a second hand photography store. In the window was a Rollei 35 in immaculate condition and I was struck by how small it was. It was the first time I had seen one in real life and I immediately went in to have a closer look. After some improvised German and a failed attempt at bargaining I decided to cash up and buy it. The next mission was to find some film and it didn’t take long until I stumbled upon a place that had some Kodak 400 TX in stock. I decided to shoot it at 800, just to give it that well deserved push to squeeze out some nice contrast and crisp grain.
Let me get this out of the way. It is a quirky camera…
When the camera entered the market in the late 60’s, it was by far the smallest 35 mm camera. It was also fitted with one of the best lenses in the compact camera segment, which would allow for fantastic results if handled properly. With that said, the engineers at Rollei came up with some quite original and odd design features in order to achieve the desired results. One of them being the telescopic lens that is pulled out of the camera body after a push of a button and twist of the lens. A complimentary word of advice while talking about the lens; the shutter must be cranked (but not fired) in order to make the lens collapse back into the camera body. Why, I have no idea, but I would assume it has something to do with how the camera in its cranked mode allows for more space inside the house and the lens can then retract into place. Another odd design move is the film advance lever, which is placed on the left side of the camera. This is very inconvenient for those who like to keep their eye in the viewfinder as they advance frames. A maneuver that now makes you poke yourself in the eye with your thumb, which is not advised.
All the lens-popping and eye-poking aside, my main gripe with this camera is that it seems like it was made to be used upside down. I had a difficult time justifying the reasoning behind this, but I would once again assume that is has something to do with the physical limitations of the petite camera body. Let me further explain:
The hot shoe is mounted at the bottom of the camera, so if you shoot with a flash, you will have to mount it upside down underneath the camera. If you want to shoot with the flash over the camera, you might as well turn the camera upside down, because there is no PC sync port for external flash connections. Luckily for me, I rarely use flash, but it is highly inconvenient for those who do. The film counter window is also found underneath the camera, next to the film rewind lever, which by the way is totally covered if you mount a tripod plate.
Moving along there are some good things that needs to be mentioned as well. Loading the film is for example fiddly, but relatively easy. You simply remove the back plate by sliding it downwards and by doing so exposing the entire film compartment. Tanks to a folding pressure plate, the film is held tight and flat, which is ideal for optimal sharpness. Unfortunately the battery compartment is inside the film roll slot, so if the battery dies mid roll, your light meter is out until you can open the back again.
The most important settings such as shutter speeds, f-stops, and focus distance are easily seen from a top view perspective, and the ISO wheel that you find at the front goes all the way up to 1600. There is also another wheel on the parallel side of the ISO dial where you can set the type of film you have loaded, as a reminder.
Handling & Feel.
Normally, the first thing you do when you pick up a new camera is to lift it up to your eye and look through the finder. This is a very critical moment as we get to make ourselves acquainted with the camera and decide if we would get along or not. You immediately feel the scent of old leatherette, mold, dirt and brass, or whatever your camera is made of. Not to forget the scent from the previous owner or handler. In this case, the camera had been stored and handled gently, so there were no real traces of previous ownership. It was literally in mint condition. The weight and heft was immediately noticeable, but not overwhelming or surprising. The Albada finder of the Rollei 35 is big and bright for a camera of this size. It offers a 6x magnification and the frame lines are all the information you see. Unfortunately there is no parallax compensation, so here is a word of caution for those of you who try to compose close up shots: A camera without parallax compensation will not automatically adjust the view finder frame lines. This might result in a composition that is slightly off, which in turn might result in you getting disappointed with the end result of your pictures.
The lightmeter consists of two needles. When they align, you have correct exposure. Pretty simple, but I wish it was placed somewhere strategically in the viewfinder. Instead you will find it in a small window on top of the camera body. In a way it is nice to not have a cluttered finder, but I rarely shoot from the hip, so this was a turnoff for me.
Setting up the camera for each shot is not fast by any means, and the dials can be hard to grab for people with big hands. This camera seems like the thoughtful photographers tool. Not only because it slows you down, but you also have to figure out how to use it properly.
By the end of the day, all of these quirks are what some people seem to love about the camera. I guess you could get used to it after some regular use, but it is still fairly different from anything I have ever used before.
Focusing and depth of field
Being used to shoot with rangefinders, zone focusing (or scale focusing) was a whole new thing for me and I have to be honest, it was a little bit intimidating. Would the images come out sharp, or would I miss focus completely? I had no idea what to expect. For you who are not familiar with this focusing method, let me explain how it works:
Zone, or scale focusing if you may, is simply put a way to focus on your subject without having any kind of live focus confirmation. The only way to know if you are spot on is to manually measure your distance to your subject and match it with the corresponding number found on the focusing scale on the lens. (You can also use the hyperfocal distance method to nail focus, but that is a topic for another article.) Instead, you kind of guesstimate how far away your object or subject is and then set the corresponding meter or feet number to match that distance. On the Rollei 35, the meter focusing scale is shown on either the bottom or top side of the lens, whereas the feet scale is shown on the opposite side of the lens, depending on what market the camera was intended for. The focus goes from 0.9 m to infinity.
A tip to help you with focusing is to know the exact length of your arm when holding it straight out from your body. You can then use that as a reference for close focus shots. For items further away, I usually use my own length as a reference using the following philosophy: If I would to fall flat down, head first, where would my nose hit the ground? Knowing how high from the ground up my nose sit, I can easily and almost automatically calculate the same distance horizontally. I also use standardized furniture measurements as references to calculate distance steps up to infinity. As an example a normal door is 2 meters high, which is an easy stackable measurement.
If you are going for some nice out of focus areas and short depth of field, there is always a great risk involved when shooting with a zone focus camera. Chances are that you will miss focus and end up with a misplaced focus area, or even worse a completely blurred image. But this shouldn’t stop you from trying.
To your help, the 2-and 6-meter indications are painted bright red in order to illustrate where you will find your hyperfocal distance at a suitable aperture, such as f8 or f11.
When you are ready to press the trigger, you have already found a way to work around the maximum shutter speed of 500/1 second and an f-stop at 3.5 in its widest setting. You have done the impossible to find a filter with a diameter of 30.5 mm and you have either used the sunny 16 method, or carried an external light meter with you to get the right exposure. You have successfully coupled a flash or simply never mounted one on. You have pre-set your focus and are ready to fire as soon as your subject is in the right place. Click!
When your film comes back from development you won’t believe that it actually turned out quite good! The sharpness of the lens is definitely there, as long as you get your focus right. The contrast is there too, and the flare is controlled as long as you get one of those rubber lens hoods to screw on. I never put a color film through it, but I would assume it handles those just as well. In terms of its size and price, this camera definitely punches above its weight class.
The Rollei 35’s has gotten expensive in the last couple of years, but they come in many different versions for every budget. I would however recommend to only look at two specific versions, and they are actually the same, just made in two different countries. For the purists, I would advice you to look into the Rollei 35SE made in Germany. For the economically aware, the same camera was also produced in Singapore. This model is on pair quality wise with the German model, it just a whole lot cheaper on the market because of its manufacturing origin. The 35SE has exactly the same body and layout as the Rollei 35, but instead of the 40/3.5 Zeiss Tessar lens, this one comes with a 40/2.8 Zeiss Sonnar lens, which is an absolute stellar lens. It was probably this one my father spoke so warmly about. It’s not that the 3.5 Tessar is bad, – not by any means, it is just that the Sonnar is just a little bit better and in my opinion worth the extra money. Whatever you do, don’t settle with the 3.5 Triotar version. It is cheap, but still not worth the money. There are tons of other viewfinder cameras that are stellar performers, yet identical in size. Take the Zeiss Icon S 310/312 and Voigtländer VF 101 for example. Even the Petri Color 35 is a nice option in my opinion, even if the image quality is not exactly on pair.
As the headline says, this is a one roll review. Is that fair to a camera with such a legendary status? Probably not, but there is an obvious reason for why this is a one roll review. – I simply wasn’t satisfied with the camera and I sold it shortly after my film got back from the lab. It wasn’t because the results were disappointing. It was simply because I didn’t like how it operated. The quirks and unique design features may appeal to some, but for me it was a roadblock and a barrier to fully enjoy the photographic experience. Instead of letting the quirky charm and the forced slowed down pace work in my favor, my synapses struggled with finding a flow and I got frustrated. That moment when you knew you got a good shot never came to me, instead there was a constant and uneasy feeling of uncertainty hovering over me every time I pressed the button. This could very well be because of my inexperience with viewfinder cameras, but I have had better and assuring feelings shooting with dinky, point and shoot, autofocus 80’s plastic fantastic, no-brand cameras. A bit harsh? Perhaps, yes. It could also have to do with my initially high expectations of this camera. For the sake of it, I promise myself not to repeat this mistake when I get to try out the Minox 35. Until then, here is a short list of shortcomings and thrills with the Rollei 35:
What I didn’t like:
- It is not a rangefinder.
- Light meter is often covered by my right middle finger.
- Light meter is not good in low light.
- 500 of a second shutter time.
- Film advance lever is on the left side, right in my eye.
- Film counter window is covered whenever I mount a tripod on.
- The battery is inside the film compartment. So if it dies mid roll, you are out of in camera metering options.
- Mercury battery replacement required.
- Flash hot she is on the bottom.
- Aperture wheel only spins freely one way, then have to be button pressed to go back.
- Shutter needs to be winded in order for the lens to retract.
- There are edges on the front lens focusing ring that gets in the way for smooth focusing action.
- Thin top plate, prone to dents.
- Hard to find 30.5 mm filters
What I liked:
- Kind of cool, steampunk look to it.
- ISO 1600.
- Tack sharp lens, if you get the focus right.
- Big bright finder.
- Film rewind wheel.
- Copal shutter for fast flash sync.
- Shutter speeds, f/stops, and focus distance are easily seen from a top view perspective.
I will end this post with a few shots from Copenhagen that I went to after Berlin.