After my first encounters with the Rolleicord 1a – 2 – Model K3 a friend had given me as a present, I decided to take a closer look at this piece of fine engineering. What prompted me was that a Rolleicord was probably the first camera that my mother, Sieglinde Hefftner had used as a keen amateur and later as a professional photographer in the 1940s.
Digging through the family archives I came across some photographic evidence of her activities. Some of the images I dug out show Sieglinde at work at the retouching desk of the lab, or at company parties of the photographic studio that she worked for. Others show her private work: rural landscapes and theatre photography. They were all marked clearly as having been taken with a Rolleicord.
I was struck as much by the quality of those theatre images, given the materials that were or rather were probably not available at the time – high ISO film and push development come to mind – as I was by the sense of normality that the images evoke. They context being the final months of WWII and the first post-war winter that Germany was experiencing at the time they were taken.
By 1950 Sieglinde was married to my dad – also a keen photographer – which meant that she was able to migrate to the more refined Rolleiflex, as later photographs from outings show.
Origins of the Rolleicord
I decided to leave my own Rolleiflex 3.5F on the shelf until further notice and to continue exploring the ‘Cord for a while. After the runaway success that its makers, Franke & Heidecke had achieved with their twin-eyed reflex camera Rolleiflex in the late 1920s and early 1930s, they felt that they could diversify their product range – particularly as the stereo cameras they had manufactured in the 1920s were slowly but surely going out of fashion.
The Rolleiflex TLR was aimed at professionals and advanced amateurs who were willing to fork out what amounted to an average month’s salary for the sheer pleasure of owning one and the reliability that it offered. But Franke & Heidecke guessed that there was a market, too, for a simpler mid-range model.
In late 1933 they first shipped their new camera, the Rolleicord I Model 1, the “Art Deco Rollei”, at just under half the price of the Rolleiflex.
Technically the Rolleicord I Model 1 was a much-simplified camera that still retained the main characteristics of the more advanced Rolleiflex: its compact size and lightweight, the use of comparatively cheap film, as well as the sheer speed and versatility of the TLR form factor. The engineers had sacrificed the highly prized (and priced) f/3.8 Zeiss Tessar, fully automatic film transport and film winding arm, and the tiny aperture/speed window of the Rolleiflex.
Despite these omissions, however, the ‘Cord turned out to be technically more advanced than the ‘Flex in other respects. The Cord was the first model to offer automatic parallax correction in the viewfinder window. The focusing hood was completely re-engineered, making it more stable and much easier to lift and close. In addition, the focusing mechanics could be operated more smoothly at low temperatures.
From 1936 onwards the ‘Cord also offered semi-automatic film transport. And while the very first ‘Cord models came with art-deco-style metal plating, their looks were soon reduced to the same regular black leathering style that the Flex featured. These early models became known as the “Wallpaper” Rolleis and were meant to appeal to “attractive women with good taste” – to put it in Rollei advertising speak
Operating the Rolleicord
I took the Rolleicord out on a few strolls in the countryside, photographing seemingly omnipresent mountain ranges of harvested sugar beet, covered in ghostly grey and white tarps flapping in the winter breeze. My aim was to get a feeling for operating a 1930s TLR and in the process to discover what practical photography might have felt like for my mother Sieglinde.
The focusing hood of the ‘Cord is opened by releasing a catch and simply lifting the lid. Opening it reveals the focusing screen. Given that this is simply a piece of ground glass and that the focusing lens is a very simple triplet with a meagre f/4 maximum aperture, I wasn’t surprised that I was offered only a pretty dim view of my subjects.
Flipping over a lid with a magnifier made things a lot easier and precise focusing was now effortlessly possible. Because of the rather dim view that the focusing screen offers, especially in bright sunshine, I found myself using the eye-level finder quite a lot, in effect turning the Cord into a viewfinder camera.
The only real challenge I found in operating the Rolleicord was loading the film. Spoilt by years of using my Rolleiflex 3,5F the procedure to be followed on the ‘Cord required some getting used to. After loading the film, this needs to be wound forward until frame number 1 (printed on the back paper of the 120 film) appears in the small film-window on the bottom of the back panel.
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The reset lever now needs to be pressed and the number 1 will appear on the mechanical frame counter. You are now good to go for your first exposure. The remaining 11 frames can be exposed by simply pressing the unlock-button in the centre of the winding knob and turning it until it automatically locks into the next frame. You then have to find your own routine regarding when to wind the film on – after or before each new exposure. Sticking to your routine will usually help you avoid double exposures.
The taking lens that the Rolleicord 1a – 2 – Model K3 features is an f/4.5 75mm Zeiss Triotar – a very basic triplet construction. I have found this to produce crisply sharp negatives when stopped down to about f/11. This would probably have been sufficient for many uses in its day. Good bokeh and corner-to-corner sharpness were probably not strengths called for in the 1930s.
One critic described the simple triplet lenses as “the second most beautiful daughters of ambitious parents, who, however, are not allowed to party with the finer echelons of society”.
The lens is mounted in a Compur leaf shutter. The outer speed ring allows you to set shutter speeds of up to 1/300th sec., following the old order of 1, 2, 5, 10, 25, 50, 100 and 300/second, plus B and T. There is no flash synchronization, nor does this Compur have a self-timer.
The f-stops are set using the stop lever, and the release lever cocks the shutter when moved to the left and releases the shutter when moved to the right.
Bearing in mind that exposure meters were not available in the 1930s, it was up to the user to guess the appropriate exposure settings. Help, however, was always at hand in the form of an exposure table mounted on the back door, which catered to the most common situations and suggested settings based on the use of ISO 50 or 25 film, referred to here in the German DIN standard of 18/10° or 15/10°.
On the whole, the Rolleicord was fun to use – despite its obvious limitations. I decided to start off from what my mother set out to do: portraying simple agricultural scenes.
Seventy years later there were no idyllic rows of haystacks to be found. Their place has now been taken by mounds of sugar beet covered by giant tarps, resembling ice-capped mountain ranges. I continue to be fascinated by their forms and the rich tonality that they show in black and white.
Like with most film cameras I have recently taken on my photographic jaunt,s I like the way the use of the Rolleicord slows me down and makes me more aware of what I am doing, both regarding technical and artistic aspects.
Having at my disposal 12 or 24 exposures as a fixed given forces me to be much more selective when committing a scene to film which, hopefully, will in the long term improve my work, regardless of whether I work on film or use a digital camera.
The square format that Rollei cameras were first to promote when they hit the shelves in early 1930 has lost none of its appeal to me. It brings to mind the iconic Hasselblad square portrait series from the 1980s and Polaroid’s square prints, both having been given a new lease of life in the digital age in Hipstamatic and on Instagram.
I find that the square gives my compositions more stringency and conciseness that I miss in other formats.
Thanks for reading,
Rolleicord 1a – 2 – Model K3 technical specifications
|Manufacturer||Werkstatt für Feinmechanik und Optik, Franke & Heidecke|
|Camera name||Rolleicord 1a - 2 - Model K3|
|Camera type||Twin Lens Reflex|
|Film Format||120 rollfilm|
|Manufacture dates||May 1937 - January 1938|
|Lens||Zeiss Triotar 75mm f/4.5 (screw mount filter)|
1 sec - 1/500 sec + bulb and timed modes
|Accessories||Rolleikin I 35mm adapter
Sheet film adapter.
|Color / trim options|
(metal / leather)
|Charcoal Gray / black / chrome|
|85mm x 90mm x 135cm (W x D x H)|
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Thanks for sharing, Jens. Interesting story accompanied by equally interesting images.
The earlier ‘cords equipped with the Triotar lens are now being sought as portrait cameras. This is because the lens can be adjusted by aperture to give varying degrees of softness. Although the Leitz 9cm f2.2 Thambar was possibly the first variable softness lens, it’s price now is prohibitive due to collectors.
Thank you for mentioning that the lens is sharpest at f11. I didn’t know this.
An interesting read about your mother and her camera. Thanks for posting. A little amendment, this model Rolleicord came out in 1937 and photo-electric exposure meters had been available since 1933 when Gossen introduced the first models, the Ombrux and Blendux.
What an interesting story and a nice connection to your past. You have your mother’s ‘eye.’
A few years ago, I helped a family whose grandfather passed away. He had a collection of cameras, and I gave them guidance in regards to value. To thank me, they gave me his Rolleicord (c. mid fifties?) I passed it onto my artist daughter who passed it on to a photo friend. As far as I know, it’s still working. Just a fine camera.
Great piece, I too own this camera and have come to rather love it,
Well written and engaging! I’ve just begun exploring a Rolleicord V and find it as capable as my Rolleiflex!
Thank you for sharing your experiences with the Cord.
An interesting and beautiful story. Thanks very much.
Lovely article as well as some great pictures. Thank you for sharing this!