When choosing to use a certain camera one must come to terms with the limits inherent. Speaking in respect of my Rolleiflex MX, there are things one can do very well with a TLR. There are also things that you’d be mad to shoot with a TLR (but do anyhow).
What is a Rolleiflex excellent at doing?
- It’s a superb holiday camera.
- it’s a superb portrait camera.
- It’s a superb camera for getting you into conversations.
The Rolleiflex is king of the environmental portrait. This camera is your golden ticket into many places that wouldn’t admit you with a motorized megapickle monster, and gets people talking who wouldn’t give you the time of day otherwise.
Walking about with a TLR is an invite to talk more than shoot. Everyone has a question or a story. It can be an enjoyable way to make your way through a place.
What is a Rolleiflex terrible at doing?
- Anything longer than normal focal length
- Anything wider than normal focal length
- Anything requiring more than 12 images in quick succession.
With careful planning you can cover whatever you’d like with a TLR (or any other fixed-lens camera) but it’s not the ‘best’ tool for the job most times. That said, I’ve found that there are ways to work around these obstacles. The Rolleiflex was the preeminent 120 press camera in the 1950s, used for everything under the sun.
The heritage behind a classic camera is an intoxicating one, and it’s far too tempting to use a camera just because it’s fun to fondle and talk about. Looking through at images of what this camera has been used for through the last 60-odd years is at once humbling and encouraging. The Rolleiflex has been both a pro and high-end amateur camera at home photographing everything from war to toddlers.
So why would I get hung up on what I can’t do with it? Those are my limitations, not those of this (or any) camera.
Let’s get some perspective
Using a relic like this has its mental pitfalls. There’s an unfair tendency to compare the output with newer cameras and techniques. It’s also far too easy to dismiss bad technique and pass it off as a “vintage look”. Film doesn’t make you a better photographer, it makes more unforgiving work.
What’s needed is a dismissal that the current, modern approach is the only goal. Razor-thin depth of field and hyper saturated colours aren’t the last word in photography. Freezing motion in available-darkness isn’t the only way to interpret a dim scene. One doesn’t need 1/8000 shutter speeds and ISO 12,800 to interpret the world. It’s the very same world we had in 1950.
This is an mage of the 1877 former Post Office on Prince William Street in Saint John. It was 10pm in mid-summer. A new camera would be able to record detail in every part of the image, quite literally making light out of darkness and a different image in the process. My image shows how the scene unfolded in front of me at the time I chose to take it. Why would I want to remember it any different than the way I saw it?
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It’s a personal philosophy.
Since the camera is only an appendage and your brain is the real tool, it’s easy to use whatever gear you’d like and let the images speak for themselves. Just don’t put them up beside burst-mode, Super-Night-Mode HDR and try to compare the results. It’s a sliding scale, and there’s no wrong answer.
These images were taken at a Dragon Boating event last summer. Certainly a Rolleiflex isn’t the best tool available to me in shooting sports. Instead of covering this event with a DLSR and f/2.8 300mm like anyone else, catching water droplets and strained faces in blistering colour, I made fewer images with a focus on the atmosphere. This excludes me from getting play-by-play images at every point, but feels more in step with my own memories of the day. It helps me share the feeling of attending, not necessarily participating.
I can see this shift in perspective looking back at events shot on Rolleiflex in the 40s and 50s. There’s a strong feel of authenticity here, not the super close-up, long- zoom detail shots, but a snapshot of the day. More an environmental portrait with sports happening in-frame.
The photographer needed to get his hair blown back to capture this particular image at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1953. Making this image must be a thrilling part of the photographer’s wider memory of the day.
How can it not be special?
I can still smell the smoke from the campfire, the music and the laughter from the night this image was taken. The fire-light was all my eyes needed and it was all I gave my camera to do its work. My reward was the closest thing I could ask to a physical memory. A experience frozen. An evening in an image.
I think that’s what draws me to living and working with a Rollei. The results seem authentic to me. There’s no reverse-engineering “Whoa how did he get that image” to it, I had to be there. I had to witness the event through a normal focal-length perspective. In an age of drone photography and selfie-sticks, my perspective is becoming more and more important. Even my most mundane photographs will carry with them the moment I pushed the release. That decision, the day, the smell of the air.
So I’ll keep using my simple relic from a bygone era. I’ll continue to be there in the moment. I’ll witness firsthand the creation of my images, because the my old camera sees only what I show it.
Note: This article originally appeared on Matthew Thompson’s Twin Lens Reflux blog and has been recreated here as part of a digital archive of that website.
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Well said! … Now, where is my Flexaret?
Great article. I usually shoot with a 35mm Contax SLR from the 80s, but some of my most satisfying images were made with another TLR, a Zeiss Ikoflex that uses the same Zeiss Tessar lens that most Rollieflexes sport. A very similar camera in many ways, certainly a conversation starter. And still capable of some amazing images nearly seventy years after it was made.
Great article, Matthew. I think you have captured well the unhurried pace and experience of film photography on a TLR.
“Working inside the limits of your equipment….” A lesson vividly taught me by my employer at my first pro photography job with an industrial studio. This was 1964, and as a proud owner of a Bolsey B2 I lusted after a Nikon S, or a Leica IIIg, or maybe even a Rollei. I believed that without really topnotch gear, I’d never be able to capture really topnotch images. One Saturday afternoon, my boss Bob drove us out to the local airport. We stationed ourselves at the approach end of the runway (one had free access to wander about commercial airports in those innocent days), and Bob said we’re going to take some shots of DC7s and Constellations landing. And we are going to shoot with a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye, a pseudo-TLR with a meniscus lens, a single-speed shutter, and a load of 620 Verichrome Pan. Bob showed me that, by getting the sun behind my shoulder and smoothly panning the camera to match the 120 mph speed of the incoming airliners, I could get crisp, clear, and dramatic photos … with no $400 investment in “pro” gear. That lesson has stuck with me to this day, and is the drive behind many sessions in the field today, with basic vintage 35mm and 120 cameras.
Ha..! I’m the Matt Thompson mentioned, but I am NOT the writer or photographer..!
Entertaining and truthful post! Enjoyed the great historical photos, too! Had not seen that of Jackie and JFK before.