Michael Ricken from Bochum Germany, I have your camera. I’m ignorant of the circumstances surrounding your decision to dispose of it, and of the amount of time that’s passed since you last cradled it in your palm, but I owe you a note of thanks — two of them actually. First, I thank you for having the good sense to take such wonderful care of this camera. And second, I thank you for having the horrible sense to carve your initials into it. That conflation of seemingly disparate decisions resulted in an immaculate and functionally flawless camera endowed with absolutely no collectible value. And so it was for this reason — in the autumn of 2010 and for about the same price I’d pay for a decent restaurant meal — that I came to possess your old Rollei 35 T.
Unless one’s soul is carved from stone, the Rollei 35 is the sort of camera that will infect both photographers and non-photographers with a powerful case of gear lust. I first saw this marvellous mini in the late 1970’s — before I had even the slightest hint of an interest in photography — and I remember thinking “now that’s the camera I’d have if I had a camera!” In the last 20 years, since some invisible demon cursed me with a terminal case of photographyitis, my Rollei 35 lust has resurfaced on several occasions. But there always seemed to be some sort of impediment standing between me and ownership… until now.
Why Purchase a 35mm Compact Film Camera in the Digital Era?
For the majority of my photographic life, I was the typical two-system camera user. In the film days, I owned a big 35mm SLR, which I would usually employ in the studio or on important assignments. For casual or travel needs, I’d carry the latest trendy 35mm compact. Obviously, the compact camera was far less flexible than the SLR, but I never felt as though image quality was being compromised — just shooting options. After all, a compact 35mm camera uses 35mm film — just like a 35mm SLR — so as long as it was fitted with a high-caliber lens, fidelity was never an issue.
When I moved to digital, I employed the same 20th century ritual — a big dSLR for the “important” stuff, and a compact digital camera for the casual shots. Unfortunately, unlike the film days, shooting with a compact digital resulted in a significant reduction in both image quality and handling. The tiny sensor meant limited dynamic range. It meant high shadow noise. It meant slow focusing. It meant hostile ergonomics. It meant unmanageable shutter lag. It meant I needed to carry the big dSLR a lot more than I ever carried the film SLR.
A couple years ago, I converted to Leica M-series rangefinders. The Leica’s image quality and handling relegated the dSLR to part-time duty as a “long lens” specialist camera, while its portability eliminated my need for a compact “enthusiast” camera. I began to carry the Leica everywhere and, essentially, I became a one-system camera user. Although a near-perfect arrangement, I do occasionally feel a little self-conscious slinging a Leica M9 over my shoulder just to make a milk-run to the neighborhood grocery store. But there’s no way I’m going to miss a photo op just because I don’t have a camera on me. I did try — ever so briefly — to adapt the iPhone as my “just in case” camera. It failed. Miserably. The iPhone ended up filling more needs than I could ever have imagined (it’s even my darkroom timer!), but “portable camera for candid people photography” is not one of them.
Recently, I began to think about getting a camera that I would just leave in the glove compartment of my car. Briefly, I entertained the idea of getting a new digital compact for this purpose. I even tried out a couple of the latest offerings — and was immediately reminded of the image problems, ergonomic deficiencies, and handling woes that these cameras carry with them. None of the offerings were compelling enough to make me comfortable with the idea of leaving the Leica at home. And then, suddenly, it hit me: “Why not a compact film camera? They worked for me in the 1990’s. Why not now?” Seeking solutions in the past was exactly what I’d proposed in my Click Clique article. Perhaps I should follow my own advice?
Earlier this year, I purchased a Leica M6 TTL film camera to supplement my digital images. The experiment was a resounding success, and I’ve been happily shooting a tandem of film and digital for the past 6 months. Developing film and scanning negatives is now a regular part of my photographic routine. If I purchased a 35mm compact film camera, I’d be shooting with a high fidelity “sensor” (35mm film) that’s over 30 times larger than the tiny sensors built in to modern digital compacts. If I purchased a 35mm compact film camera, I’d have real controls and responsive handling — and for far less money than even the most humdrum of digital compacts. In short, if I purchased a 35mm compact film camera, I’d be able to leave the Leica behind on those quick trips to the gas pump, bakery, or lunch spot.
But another thought soon crossed my mind — batteries. You know that flashlight you keep in your car’s glove box? The one whose batteries are always dead when you actually need to use it? I realized the same fate would befall whatever camera I kept in the car — unless it was a fully mechanical camera. A vision of the Rollei 35 popped into my head! Not only is the Rollei a compact 35mm film camera with a stellar lens, but it features a fully mechanical shutter and film advance. I could put this camera in my car, drive it to the Arctic, park it there all winter, and I could return in the spring and the Rollei would be ready to take photos. As I began to research the Rollei, I realized something else about it — my shooting style and its minimalist functions were in perfect alignment. Since switching to rangefinders, I’d become a fully “manual” photographer, and the Rollei 35 is as manual as a man could want.
Which Rollei 35?
Once I realized that the act of satisfying a 35 year old case of gear lust was both a fiscally and fundamentally sound decision, I needed to decide which of the various Rollei 35 models to purchase. On paper, the Rollei 35 S with its 40mm f/2.8 lens is slightly more desirable than the Rollei 35 T, which is 6/10th of a stop slower at f/3.5. But, in reality, it pays to remember that the Rollei 35 is a scale focused camera — there is no way to focus the camera other than guessing (or measuring) the distance between camera and subject, and setting that distance on the lens ring. I’ve become rather adept at scale focusing, so I knew that an f/2.8 lens had the potential to tax my distance guestimating abilities. At f/2.8 and a distance of 1.5m, I’d have a depth of field only about 24cm (9″) deep. Given a few seconds to analyze the situation, I’d likely guess a distance that falls within this margin of error. However, since I tend to take photographs that must be focused, exposed, framed, and shot in the blink of an eye, I knew there would be few instances when I’d choose to use the camera at f/2.8. The slower lens on the 35 T would give me a focusing “slop factor” of about 30cm (12″) for close subjects — a range I’m more likely to hit when focusing by “instinct” rather than careful consideration. Further cementing my decision to choose the “T” over the “S,” was the collectibility of S-model Rolleis — they simply command higher prices than the T’s.
Having firmly decided on a T-model Rollei, I next needed to choose between the older 35 T and the newer 35 TE. One factor that weighed in favor of the TE was the location and type of battery used to power its built-in light meter. The older T-model uses a now-outlawed mercury cell, and encases it within the film chamber — meaning that, should the battery die, I’d have to finish shooting a roll of film before I could open the case and replace the battery. The TE-model uses a non-mercury battery and gives me access from outside the camera — meaning I can replace the battery without removing the film from the camera. At first blush, this might point to a slam-dunk decision to choose the TE over the T — but for every yin, there’s always a yang. And the yang factor working against the TE is the actual location of its light meter. On the 35 T, the light meter is on top of the camera. On the 35 TE, it’s in the viewfinder. Again, those prone to early blushing might surmise this is simply another reason to choose the TE over the T… but it’s not. The Rollei 35 was designed to be configured while the photographer looks down at the camera, rather than through it. The shutter speed, aperture, and focus distance dials are all positioned to be set with the camera held at waist level. Because of this, the top plate location of the light meter on the 35 T is an ergonomic delight. You need only hold the camera at your waist, and you can clearly see the light meter, along with the shutter and aperture settings. This allows the photographer to set exposure faster than with any camera I’ve ever used. In contrast, by placing the meter in the viewfinder, the 35 TE makes the camera much slower to operate — the camera needs to be brought to the eye to check the light, then dropped to the waist to see and set the shutter and aperture selections. My “gut feel” was that the 35 T’s top-plate location would work far better with my “run and gun” style of photography than the viewfinder meter of the TE. There was still the mercury battery issue, but I knew I could substitute a modern 675 zinc-air hearing aid battery to power the meter. The downside of zinc air batteries is their short lifespan. But I also knew I could purchase a C.R.I.S. MR-9 mercury battery adapter, which would let me use modern, long-lasting silver oxide batteries to power the meter.
So the decision was reached. My camera of choice was the Rollei 35 T. All I needed to do now was decide between black and chrome — an easy decision since it mirrors the one I make with the Leicas. Chrome bodies look nice in a display case, but black bodies draw fewer glances and less attention on the streets. I shoot with my cameras, rather than display them. So black it was.
Anyone who’s ever purchased old, discontinued equipment knows that the act of deciding what to purchase only takes you half way toward ownership. You then face the struggle of actually finding the right model on sale at the right price. After a couple months of monitoring Ebay, I found my Rollei 35 T at Trudhild in Germany — priced ridiculously cheap due to the aforementioned carving of the initials “MR” directly below the thumb on the camera’s back. After an uncharacteristically quick handoff between Germany’s postal system and Canada’s, the Rollei 35 T was in my hands.
Using the Rollei 35 T
When I purchased the Rollei, I expected to receive a “serviceable” camera that looked great, delivered quality images, but was somewhat clunky to operate. One need only look at the Rollei photos that begin this article to see a plethora of curious design quirks uncommon to any other camera. But, instead of slowing me down, these quirks all coalesce to form a new photographic paradigm that, in reality, make shooting this camera one of the most joyful photographic experiences ever. The Rollei 35 T is a surreptitious shooter’s delight. It’s easily cupped in the hand, which allows it to snake around heads, shoulders, or other barriers to find the most intimate of shots. The shutter releases with a barely audible click.
Proponents of the tinier digital compacts might argue that their cameras are just as capable, but I would argue not. The photographer pre-focuses the Rollei and doesn’t rely on autofocus to find the subject. Likewise, one manually sets the Rollei’s exposure for a particular scene, meaning it won’t be tricked by the changing reflectivity of objects within that scene. The Rollei will fire off a shot the instant I ask it to, not a half-second later. And the Rollei, when loaded with black & white film, possesses enough dynamic range that I can extract useful data from both the highlights and the shadows.
As cumbersome as the Rollei might appear, it’s the fastest functioning camera I’ve ever worked with. The vertically mounted, low profile shutter and aperture dials are even quicker to set than those on the Leicas, and are infinitely faster than the menu-driven systems of most digital cameras. The collapsible lens is human-powered, rather than battery-powered — meaning you can tug the lens into its extended shooting position far faster than any motor-driven lens system I’ve used. The distance scale on this particular lens is demarcated in both meters and feet, which is an important consideration since some photographers estimate distances in metric units, and others in imperial. The optical viewfinder is brighter and larger than any compact camera I’ve ever used — particularly any digital compact camera. And film loading is absolutely idiot proof.
All these benefits would, of course, be meaningless if the Rollei 35 T took lousy photos, but that’s happily not the case. The Tessar lens is sharp, flare resistant, and has just enough contrast to make a nice, clean, scannable negative. The meter is accurate and matches the recommendations that my bigger, more expensive Sekonic meter suggests.
At the time of this writing, I’ve run only a few rolls of Tri-X through the camera — experimenting with a wealth of different subjects in a number of different lighting and usage scenarios. I have found only one issue: Photos taken with a shutter speed of 1/60s suffered from camera shake. Normally, I would have no trouble handholding 1/60s with a 40mm lens but, on the Rollei, two things work against me: First, the shutter release button is surrounded by a protective wall, necessitating a rather direct finger plunge to engage it. Second, the camera is so small that it’s essentially held in a single hand — making it a bit more difficult to hold as steady as a larger camera. Fortunately, I noticed this problem after the first roll, so I borrowed one of my Leica’s soft release buttons, and threaded it onto the Rollei’s shutter release. Problem solved! I no longer notice any such camera shake at 1/60s.
Astute readers may have already noticed a couple of additional quirks that I have yet to address. One is that the film travels from right-to-left in the Rollei 35, meaning the film advance is under the left thumb rather than the right. Prior to purchasing this camera, I thought this might prove irksome, but I grew accustom to it by the third shot of the first roll and have never given it another thought. The backward film path does, however, dictate that I modify the way I file Rollei negatives and insert them into the scanner, since the shots are upside down compared to those from the Leica M6 TTL.
Another curiosity is the hotshoe on the bottom of the camera. Obviously, if you were to mount a flash here and let it dangle upside-down from the bottom of the camera, your shots would all resemble Boris Karloff publicity photos. So a simple solution to using flash on the Rollei 35 T is to turn the camera upside down when taking a flash photo. Personally, I haven’t mounted a strobe on a camera since the internet was something only university students used. Instead, on those rare occasions when I use flash, I mount a Pocket Wizard on the camera and trigger remote flashes via radio signal. I’m happy to report that the Pocket Wizards work perfectly with the Rollei and that the Plus II Transceiver unit, when dangling from the bottom of the camera, makes a dynamite handle that actually helps steady the little Rollei!
The Rollei 35 T is, perhaps, more “fun” to shoot than any camera I’ve ever used. Nestled in your palm it practically begs you to take more photos, and to stick it in places you might not normally think to stick that upscale Leica or dSLR kit. I’m normally a bit conservative with my exposures when shooting film, but I find myself shooting “digital” quantities with this camera. Rarely have I left the house with the Rollei, and not returned with a fully exposed roll.
The camera’s fit and finish are superb. The rigid metal body instills confidence, and the 40mm f/3.5 Tessar lens delivers everything I ask of it. The Rollei 35 is a camera that gets out of my way, and lets me take the photos that I want to take the way I want to take them. This is all I ever ask for from a camera. Alas, as simple a requirement as this is, it’s one rarely realized by modern camera designers. If I were developing a modern digital compact camera, I would definitely choose to model it on the Rollei 35. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a Rollei 35 with an APS-C sensor and a flip up rear-panel LCD (so you could frame your shot with the camera still at your waist) would be the most ideal digital compact camera I could ask for. Sadly, such a camera doesn’t exist. But for anyone willing to shoot film, the Rollei 35 is the next best thing.
My only problem now is that I’m so enamoured with the Rollei, that I ‘m reluctant to relegate it to my automobile’s glove compartment. I suspect I may soon be surfing eBay for another Rollei 35 deal. If any of you readers have one with your initials carved into it, you know who to contact.
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “Sunset, English Bay”, “Grass Not Greener”, “Marquee Attractions”, “21st Century Pedestrian Crosswalk”, “21st Century Social Gathering”, “An Inaudible Calm”, and “Billboard, Nelson Street” were all shot within a one week period using a Rollei 35 T camera loaded with Tri-X film, rated at ISO 400 and developed in Ilfotec DD-X. The two photographs of the Rollei, itself, were shot with a Leica M9 and a 28mm f/2 Summicron lens.
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