Through a Rollei 35

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Through a Rollei 35, ein Album auf Flickr.

I’ll talk about the arsenal soon. What camera do you use for what kind of picture? Digital, figital, analog? Small, big, or in between? But that’s for another day.

For now, though, suffice it to say that the one that’s proven itself indispensable in the short time I’ve had it is this one: a Rollei 35 T.

Much has been written about this little camera, its inauspicious beginnings as a side project by renowned camera designer Heinz Waaske, its production history – Germany and Singapore, and back to Germany – its choice of fixed lenses and their respective qualities, and most of all its small size and against-the-grain ergonomics.

It’s what happens when you think outside the box. In 1966, every camera since the original Leica had more or less hewed to the same arrangement of elements. You had a shutter button and rewind lever on the right side, as well as a frame counter. If you had a flash shoe, that went on top of the camera. If you had a lens it either folded back to make your camera smaller for travel, could be unscrewed, or remained fixed.

The little Rollei changed all that, not for the sake of changing it, but because its designers had one goal: make a 35mm camera capable of all that format had to offer, and make it as small as possible. That’s what Barnack’s original Leica was all about. Four decades later, the Rollei 35’s designers succeeded to a stunning degree.

The first Rollei was made in 1966. Before man had landed on the moon. And excepting a few dark years in the 1990s and 2000s, they kept on being made. They are still made today, even though DHW Fototechnik, successor to the unlucky Rollei company, have truly outdone themselves in offending the eye with their expensive special creations; the customized examples they show on their website look like something a teletubby posing as a pimp from a 1970s movie would sport.

The current model Rolleis go against everything the Rollei 35 was supposed to be: small, simple, affordable, unobtrusive. But still, I can’t complain too much. You have to give them credit: they’re still making them. So, luckily, I don’t have to resort to the “they don’t make ’em like this anymore” cliché. They still do. But if you want one, do yourself a favor, and get a used one for much less money. Invest less than EUR 100 in a 35T, less than EUR 200 in an S. One that looks like a camera, not a fashion accessory.

Don’t listen to anyone what you should feed it. I’ve fed mine slide film (expensive and cheap), negative film (mostly cheap), and black and white film. The Rollei eats it all, and puts its magic sprinkle on every picture you take with its 40mm scale-focusing lens. Of course, that lens isn’t perfect, it’s a couple of decades old, both in design and in coatings. Mine has the original f3.5 Tessar design, which, as everyone who knows will remind you, is “prone to flare.” It is, and that’s ruined a couple of shots for me before I broke down and purchased the unsightly but useful folding rubber lens hood that so many Rolleis wear at some point during their lives. But complaints about the shortcomings of the old lenses miss the point. They’re still plenty good enough, and combined with good film will outperform pretty much every little digital camera you can buy for the price of a used Rollei.

Rollei 35 T camera
My Rollei 35 T, made in Singapore.

The focal length is 40mm on 35mm film. That’s a highly useful just-a-tad-wider-than-normal focal length. It’s probably the longest lens you can get away with for scale focusing. Which, by the way, works really well. I seem to have fewer out of focus shots with the Rollei than I do with my SLRs (although, granted, the possibility to go to f2 and below tempts one to play with short depths of field that are much less forgiving than f3.5).

While being wide enough to take in the scene you want, 40mm is not too wide. I know this is a thing of personal preference, but I have come to accept that I have no use for a fixed 35mm focal length lens. It never seems wide enough if you really want to get everything in that a scene holds. You’d need a 28 or even a 24 for that. And it never seems to be close enough so you don’t have to crop. The 35mm lens, as put into millions of cheap little viewfinder cameras in the 1980s and 1990s – the cameras I started photography with – never worked for me. Not until I had a Fuji 50-70mm zoom did I actually start producing the kinds of pictures I wanted. The Rollei with its 40mm lens feels just right.

Right now I’m deciding what gear to bring along on a multi-month research trip to Washington D.C., among other places. Space is at a premium. Bringing analog cameras at all in such a case is eccentric. But whatever I decide, I know the Rollei will come with me. It’s just that good. But don’t take my word for it. Take a look at the pictures.

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