By Peter Adler
One problem I have is that I am terrible at planning what photo gear to bring on my holidays.
More than once, I have been making last minute changes to the contents of my camera bag, as the cab driver was honking outside, waiting to take my better half and myself to the airport. I am invariably torn between:
- The sensible choice of taking one 35mm SLR, 2-3 lenses, a Speedlight and a tripod – a medium-weight outfit, which I can carry around without problems and well within hand luggage restrictions on most airlines.
- The probably GAS-related option of just shoving half a dozen cameras in my carry-on trolley, which potentially entails extra stress at the airport because I have to be ready to perform a rapid transfer of 5-6kg worth of bodies, lenses and accessories to the spacious pockets in my photographer’s vest if I sense that the staff at the check-in counter might insist on weighing all my luggage items.
Most disappointingly, however, I never use more than a small fraction of all the stuff while I’m away.
The giant and the dwarf combo
This summer, I decided that I would draw up a list with the necessary gear a week before leaving, and stick to it! Since we were travelling to two small islands in Greece with beautiful landscapes and picturesque villages, I thought that a medium format SLR was justified. I therefore packed my Hasselblad camera, three lenses, three film backs, my trusty Gitzo tripod & ball head, and a Nikon SB-28 Speedlight.
This amount of gear, while heavy and bulky, proved to be perfect for visits to both natural sites and villages, most of which we did by car, and I discovered that it wasn’t too hard to carry in a backpack for short hikes. At the same time, I wanted to add a light and super-compact camera, which I could take with me on days where no special sightseeing was planned and we just went to the beach or took a stroll in the village where we stayed. At less than three-quarters of the weight and much less than half the volume of one Hasselblad film back, my Rollei 35S seemed the perfect pick for this purpose.
The legendary Sonnar
On top of being one of history’s smallest 35mm cameras, the Rollei 35 was immensely popular, produced in the millions despite a high price tag. While the first Rollei 35 saw the light of day at the International Photokina in Cologne in 1966, the model I have, the Rollei 35S, was introduced in 1974. In West Germany, the black version would set you back just shy of DM 500 if you bought it back in 1976. If you convert that sum to Euro and adjust for inflation, it would be roughly €675 (around £600 or $772) in today’s money.
You will find many detailed reviews of this camera online, and especially discussions about the optical performance of its lens, a 40mm f/2.8 HFT-coated Sonnar (the “S” in Rollei 35S). Countless comments state that this lens is “tack sharp”, “super contrasty”, “legendary”, “extraordinary” and other superlatives. The Sonnar is one of the most famous lens designs of the 20th Century, so you would expect it to be good.
I have come across a thread, in which it was discussed whether the lens is actually a Sonnar or not. So far, I have not been able to find any diagrams or MTF charts for the lens, but maybe I haven’t looked hard enough.
Now, I am an amateur who likes to shoot film. I don’t have the expertise, nor am I sufficiently methodical or scientific about my photography, to add any value to these discussions. Also, I won’t be trying to provide a manual for the use of the camera. The original instruction booklet is short, precise and easy to read. It is readily available from Mike Butkus, whose amazing work to provide the analogue community with manuals for cameras and accessories is simply invaluable. (You should consider making a donation if you use his site and like it.)
This review is based on my personal experience using the camera, what I consider to be its strengths and weaknesses and my subjective opinion about the lens.
When I was travelling with my Hasselblad this summer, I would typically carry two film backs: one for colour negative and one for black and white film. It struck me that I could do the same in 35mm super-compact if I had two Rollei 35’s. Since I returned, I have bought a second Rollei 35S, because I got a fantastic deal, so there will be a few comments on the state of repair and the general condition of the two copies I now own.
As the tiny size was – and is – this camera’s essence, its very raison d’être, let me start with this particular aspect and how it affects the operation. The focusing ring, at the front of the lens, has a diameter of about 35mm, while the dials for setting shutter speed and aperture are about 25mm in diameter.
My hands are not exactly small, so I am never going to be able to change settings fast on this camera, no matter how much I practice. I definitely prefer using it in stable lighting conditions where the same settings can be used for an extended period of time. I can’t really remember that I have failed to get a shot I wanted because of the way the camera is designed, but on the other hand: who knows what spectacular scenes I have missed while looking down on the camera and fiddling with those dials?
You have to press a small latch to move the aperture dial. On my first Rollei 35S, this latch is a bit sticky and hard to press, which makes changing the aperture even more of a hassle. I was actually amazed at how smooth the latch is on my most recently acquired copy.
The film speed dial sits on top of the aperture dial. You pull it out slightly (using your fingernails) to turn it and change the film speed setting. Also quite cumbersome to use, I find. All the dials sit on the front of the camera, and you don’t get any aperture / shutter speed readouts in the viewfinder. Remembering your current aperture setting is of limited help. You still won’t be able to change it without bringing the camera down to about chest level (and potentially lose your composition), because the aperture is continuously variable: there are no clicks at full or half stops.
For daylight photography in both sunlight and shade, I try to keep the aperture fixed at one value and change the shutter speed within the range 1/500s – 1/250s – 1/125s – 1/60s as necessary. I avoid slow speeds handheld. Now, you may be able to get sharp shots at speeds slower than 1/60s with a 40mm lens. I am not.
Many years ago, a friend of mine showed me his 35mm slides, some of which he had shot handheld with a 50mm lens at 1/8s, projected to approximately 80x50cm on a white screen. I couldn’t see any motion blur. I can only wish I had a hand this steady!
On top of the shutter speed dial, the Rollei 35S has a film type selector, which you can set to colour negative film/(black and white) negative film/colour (slide) film calibrated for daylight/colour (slide) film calibrated for tungsten light. It only serves as an aide-mémoire, though: no settings in the camera are affected. I do use it, especially since the camera doesn’t have a film label slot.
A meter with tension issues
While we are at exposure considerations: the camera’s coupled light meter, where a needle is matched with a lollipop-shaped pointer, sits on top of the camera. The meter is factory-calibrated for the old 1.35v mercuric oxide cells (sold as PX625 and many other commercial names), which have been banned because they are toxic.
My oldest Rollei 35S (black) has probably not been re-calibrated to use modern 1.5 V batteries (LR9 / PX625A). The newer one (aluminium) probably has. I have compared the cameras’ readings with a modern, accurate light meter. Both cameras are off, but in opposite directions. I can compensate for the error on each camera’s film speed dial. No big deal. I probably should do regular checks, though, because the voltage of the modern cells declines slowly, unlike the old mercury cells, where it dropped suddenly.
This is the reason why getting the meter re-calibrated for 1.5 V cells is not necessarily ideal. There are a few workarounds, which will give correct voltage without re-calibrating the meter. The cells involved are well suited for light meters, as they will give a sudden drop in voltage, like the discontinued mercury cells.
One solution is to buy the 1.35v zinc-air “Wein cells”; another is to buy a voltage reducing adapter, which will allow the use of smaller 1.55v silver oxide cells. I haven’t tried any of them. I use the meters as described above without problems. If I really need precise exposure, I use a separate meter, but even so, who knows how precise the shutters are on these cameras, both of which are more or less 40 years old?
Whilst I have made some badly over- or underexposed photos over the years, especially with slide film, I mostly get consistently well-exposed negatives and slides.
Don’t skimp on the film when loading
Film loading and unloading is relatively easy, but again: not exactly fast. In order to load a roll of film, you have to release and remove the back. The protruding part of the film cassette points upwards and the film travels right to left. There is a ton of online videos showing how to load the camera if you need guidance. Make sure the film winds correctly and firmly onto the take-up spool. With the camera closed, you can’t really see if the film is advancing.
Unlike many SLRs, the winding crank does not turn as you wind on the film. I have lost shots from trying to squeeze more than 36 shots out of a roll by pulling out only a few cm of film, until the sprockets on both sides caught the perforations, before closing the camera–just to discover later that the film had not advanced from there. If this happens, the camera just keeps going after frame 36, so you know something is wrong and should at least be able to avoid making the mistake of getting an unexposed roll processed.
Hold the camera to your ear while you rewind it and stop as soon as you hear the leader slip out of the take-up spool. You will now be able to re-load the film and start over. The release lever for rewinding the film will block the advance lever, which is clever: this way, you won’t forget to disengage the rewind release when starting on a new roll.
The fact that the hotshoe is mounted on the bottom plate is not a problem. With smaller flash units, you can turn the camera upside down when shooting, but even this method is impractical with my comparatively big Nikon SB-28. I always use an X-sync cable with an adapter to get the flash off the camera. I can hold the flash in my left hand and take the picture with the right. Compensating for, e.g. harsh sunlight and getting out more detail in the deep shade is no problem: the Rollei’s leaf-shutter makes it possible to synchronise with flash at all speeds up to 1/500s.
Zone focusing problems
So, what are my results? As I said at the beginning, I do not have much technical knowledge of the lens and I haven’t directly compared it to other 35mm lenses I own, but I really, really like the look of the pictures I take with it. My first holiday with this camera was in Croatia in 2007, and the latest was the one in Greece I mentioned above.
In both cases, the camera got me some of the most beautiful colour negatives I have ever made with a 35mm camera. As far as I can see, the lens is really very sharp – even wide open, provided you can get anything in focus. More on that below.
I have shared some quirks I have found with the camera, which are mainly due to it being so compact. While sometimes a bit frustrating, I consider none of these issues to be serious problems. Above all, the Rollei 35S enables me to go out with one or two (if I want two different film stocks) reliable, high-quality, manual cameras in my jeans pockets and feel as if I did not have any camera with me when I am not using it.
To me, this advantage largely outweighs the few problems, which are bound to arise in the meeting between a sophisticated German miniature mechanism and a ham-fisted Dane! All the same, I do have one major problem with this camera: focus. Since it has no rangefinder, I have to rely on my ability to guess distance to subject. I am apparently not very good at that.
Sure, at small apertures and/or long distances, there is no problem. I can shoot nice and sharp portraits at f/11 or even f/8, and I can get a mountain range in focus at f/2.8. But I have never, like not once, been able to nail a shot of, say two or three friends sitting in an outdoor restaurant as the sun starts to set, with the lens wide open, or even at f/4. Not even close!
I am aware that the depth of field at f/2.8 or f/4 with a 40mm lens, while certainly not big, is not razor thin either. Nevertheless, all the photos I have taken in the one-to-five-metre range at the widest apertures are blurry to a degree where they are useless for anything but a thumbnail-size image.
Now, I might be particularly hopeless at guesstimating distances, and I am sure that there are many users of zone focus cameras who get much better results than I do. Either they are naturals or they practice distance guessing – with or without camera – every day. Stopping down the lens helps, of course, at least until I reach the limits of my ability to shoot handheld at slow speeds.
I cannot tell you how much I would have loved to have a built-in rangefinder. It sort of bothers me to have this “legendary” piece of glass, presumably corrected for all sorts of problems through the entire range of apertures, and basically never go wider than f/8 when photographing people and street life.
While this pretty grave concern obviously hasn’t stopped me buying a second Rollei 35S, I think that it is something you should bear in mind, if you are considering to get one of these cameras. They are not exactly dirt-cheap.
If you can, shoot a roll or two and examine your results carefully before you buy the camera. Quite possibly, you are better than I am at dealing with its limitations. If so, I bet you are in for a life-long love affair with the Rollei 35S!