Just over a year ago, whilst hunting for the mythical £10 Leica in an antique shop, I came across this old Rolleiflex disguised amongst about twenty box brownies. The focus dial was borderline seized, the focus screen — apart from being dark enough to be totally useless in the dim light — seemed to be supporting all sorts of fungal life.
None of this would normally put me off but the killer was that the shutter speed dial was stuck on T, and would not budge with the gentle persuasion I was prepared to apply to a camera I did not own. The price: £65… …plus a shutter service, on a Carl Zeiss Jena 75mm f/3.8 Tessar lens that’s probably knackered and given it dates from 1932, surely can’t have been that sharp at the best of times. On top of that, I had recently bought a Hasselblad 500CM and did not need another 6×6 camera (as I was helpfully reminded). Best leave it.
You know where this is going.
The following April I paid the shop another visit with a certain potentially knackered Rolleiflex in mind, the rationalisation for the purchase: if it does turn out to be a write-off, at least it’ll look nice on a shelf. It does look nice on a shelf. Now it was mine, new light seals and a more assertive application of force to the shutter speed dial solved the main issue. Now there’s just the worst focus screen I’ve ever encountered to contend with…
Having now googled what exactly the camera was, I discovered that what I’d bought was a Rolleiflex Standard 621, part of the second series of models that they produced between 1932 and 1935. What I didn’t buy was a lens cap, the best I’ve been able to find so far has been a yellow filter.
My test roll left me pleasantly surprised that I hadn’t destroyed the shutter by forcibly unsticking the dial and my shots were exposed correctly (admittedly you barely have to be in the right ballpark with ILFORD HP5 PLUS), and upon scanning them I was absolutely floored by the quality of the lens. I’d have been happy results like this out of my Hasselblad!
Given the positive result, it was time for a subject other than the dog…
The first proper photo trip I took it on was to see Rex and Neil, brothers from the Peak District, at the time aged 91 and 78. 3rd generation farmers, who’ve lived and worked the family farm together for their entire lives. I’ve known them for years through my friend Dave (who lives across the valley) and have fond childhood memories of stacking hay bales for them while drinking warm, flat shandy. Their farm is a time capsule, and Rex and Neil are themselves part of the local landscape, and I thought it was time someone took some pictures of them.
I thought it only appropriate to take photos of them using the old Rollei, which fit right in amongst an entire farm with precious few objects made even since my parents were born. I did also take the Hasselblad and my Mamiya RB67 – and Dave as pack mule, and my girlfriend Becky.
At this point, I didn’t really trust the Rollei with such important shots, so I only shot the one roll of HP5 PLUS at box speed, partly because of its beautiful combination of grain/detail/price, partly because I had both indoor and outdoor shots in mind, and partly because my shutter couldn’t be wholly trusted. I’d have pushed it to 800, but the max shutter speed is meant to be 1/300 but my phone shutter time app reckons mine’s a bit slower than that, and I wanted to shoot wide open. Black and white was the obvious choice. For those interested, these were developed in ID-11 stock and scanned with my Canon 5Dmk4, in two segments and stitched.
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Frame 1: Looking into the courtyard of their farm. The accompanying sound as you walk through the gateway is about fifteen angry guinea fowl screaming their displeasure at any visitors. At this point, we were walking back from collecting a handful of vegetables
Frame 2: This shot was taken as Becky was admiring the impressive colony of rock plants that had grown up on the stone lintel – Neil is bashing some that were at the edge off for her to take home. Apparently, they come down on their own in the wind too.
Frame 3: This barn is the oldest part of the current farm, apparently dating from the 1430s. Nobody knew how old the doors are. About 30 seconds of carefully creeping closer to avoid startling the chicken preceded this one.
Frame 4: Rex showing us his greenhouse and all of the various plants inside.
Frame 5: Rex coming back with a plant that Becky was admiring in particular to give her a small one to take home, which is still growing strong in our garden. The door had swung closed on its own, and the second I saw Rex reach for the handle to open it through gap left by a broken pane I just had to ask him to stand there for a second while I took a shot. At the time I bitterly regretted not taking that shot on the known reliable Hasselblad, though now, in hindsight I don’t think I own a camera that would have done a better job of it – though it is a minor miracle that it’s in focus! The uncoated lens really adds the final bit of magic for me. I reckon this is a solid contender for the best shot I took all year.
Portraiture is not a genre that I really devote much time to, but these shots certainly do make me want to pursue it more in future, though I think it’ll be a long time before I’m able to photograph subjects as interesting as Rex and Neil.
As far as the camera is concerned – while it’s done a great job of these shots, I think it deserves a proper service, and a better focus screen this year. And maybe a strap that holds it somewhere higher than my chest too!
See my Instagram (in the bio below) if you’d like to see the shots I took that day with the other cameras (you’ll have to scroll back to about April 2021).
Rex died in November 2021, and I’m glad to say I’ve since been able to share these photos with their family and friends.
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Lovely selection of images, location and subjects so suit this camera with such a fine lens, HP5 was also my choice for mine and I thought it was a perfect combination. It is difficult to find an original lens cap, I do however use a cheap push on lens hood which helps with the uncoated lens.
Thanks Eddie. I’ll look into a hood – these arent too bad with a backlight, but when they do flare, its not easy to predict how it’ll look! I can’t think of a better choice for my preferances than HP5, it’s fantastic stuff…
Ben – fabulous shots, knowing the background story makes them even more special. You’ve inspired me to dust off my 66 year old Leica M3 and visit my 90 year old father-in-law in his garden…
Much appreciated Mark. It’s a bit of a trope, but using these older camras/lenses for portraits really does give them a beautiful timeless quality that’d be hard to get any other way I think.
Great shots, that is what photography is about!
Thanks very much Steve.
The images are fantastic, particularly that last portrait. I use a previous version from 1929, serviced,and it works a charm.
Much appreciated Juan. They’re beautiful little cameras aren’t they, real ‘sleepers’ and exceptionally usable compared to other cameras of the same age.