I had used film from the late 1950s right up to the digital revolution when I was seduced by what the new cameras could do. As DSLR cameras improved (I now have a Nikon D850) there were few practical reasons for working with the older technology. But what does practicality have to do with anything? Despite writing much about iPhone apps in the Bangkok Post when I had a column there, I began looking at film again around 5 years ago. Paradoxically, it was the 645 Pro app, which emulates film, that threw the switch.
A colleague had already pointed me in the direction of medium format film when he lent me a book on the subject (Wildi, Ernest. The Medium Format Advantage). The idea began to grow, and in the end, I bought a Hasselblad 500C/M and had to learn how to use a proper camera again. I had also looked at Twin Lens Reflex cameras (TLRs), but they did not appeal to me. This was compounded when I borrowed a Rolleiflex and had problems loading film. I am not the first.
In fact, when I bought my own Rolleiflex this year, I had the same problem.
After running with the Hasselblad and changing my D7000 for the D850, my camera collection expanded with a number of 35mm cameras, three medium format folding (bellows) cameras, a Bronica ETRS, and a second Hasselblad. I prefer the 6×6 square format, although I am fond of 6×9. I frequently look around the pages of eBay some nights and examine many types of cameras, including TLR.
as you might guess from the title of this article, the idea, “Why not?” formed at the back of my mind.
I accidentally made a bid on a Rolleiflex and of course, won. With the rules of eBay, I paid up and the camera was in my hands a couple of weeks later. I had liked the look of this camera because it was clean inside and out. Older cameras will doubtless have scuffs, which are acceptable. You should see my Nikon D850 after 2 years. I always look at the film loading area and this was blemish-free.
The model I have – a Rolleiflex Automat 6×6 Model RF 111A – has controls for changing aperture (f/3.5 to f/22) and shutter speed (B, and 1 second to 1/500 seconds) to the left and right of the lenses respectively. The rotation of the control dials was a little stiff to begin with, probably through lack of use. Focus adjustment is on the left of the camera.
Unlike the Hasselblad, which is built for right-handed photographers. I am left-handed so I am learning to support the Rolleiflex with my right hand. As the focus adjuster is turned so the lens housing is moved in or out. The top lens is the sighting lens. The bottom lens is for taking photographs.
Like the Hasselblad, a handle for winding on film is located on the right side of the camera body, although it is larger and works differently. Rather than continuous rotation, the winder is moved half a turn forwards (clockwise) when a photograph is taken, then back, which also cocks the shutter: ready for the next shot. Once this action is familiar, it is easy to take several shots in quick succession. Unlike other medium format cameras (Hasselblad, Bronica) there is no dark slide to worry about, which also speeds up the process.
Using information from the Antique & Classic Cameras site, the serial number identified this camera as a Rolleiflex Automat 6×6 Model RF 111A made between 1937 and 1939. It has the 75mm Tessar f/3.5 lens and the f/2.8 Heidoscop 75mm viewing lens. I was initially confused by the display of shutter speeds on the camera, which did not seem to match the online description. I learned that adjusting the time setting to (or from) 1/500 can only be done if the shutter is not cocked. Initially, I had thought that 250 was the maximum, but once I had checked the model specifications and found the online manual, I saw this.
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I also saw other information that suggest this camera may not be in its original form: most notably with the focus adjuster, which is almost certainly a replacement; but also with the waist-level viewing hood which has no direct view finder. The loupe also does not appear to be standard.
I am familiar with waist-level viewfinders, but the one on this Rolleiflex is not clear. There is probably a build-up of dust (or worse) on the ground glass and the mirror below the viewfinder assembly. With the Hasselblad it is a relatively easy matter to remove or change the glass, but the assembly on this Rolleiflex is secured by 4 small screws. The glass itself is held by spring clips that may need some deft handling. While I have cleaned the outside (top) of the glass, its underside and the mirror are still in need of attention.
The view, then, is slightly limited, but with care (and use of the loupe) I have been able to focus when taking photographs, although not with 100% confidence. Considering the age of the camera and this ongoing viewing difficulty, I am impressed with what I have been able to produce. I have used a selection of films, starting with what was in my bag when the camera arrived: Bergger Pancro 400, which I find produces respectable output.
The film-loading problem happened after the first couple of rolls, which immediately points to user error. As I turned the winder to roll the film to its first position, the counter did not change. Like my earlier experience with the borrowed Rolleiflex, I did this twice. This time I looked for a solution. I found a video on YouTube that showed exactly where I had gone wrong: the film is fed under one thin roller and over the next, before being led to the take-up spool. I cannot find the original video I looked at, but there are several available. From online comments it would seem that this is a frequent problem for new users.
In the 6 months, this Rolleiflex has been in my hands, I have used four different types of film to gauge the potential: Bergger Pancro 400, Ilford SFX 200, Kodak Portra 160, KosmoFoto Mono 100.
The Bergger, SFX 200 and KosmoFoto are regulars for me and are usually in my bag or the fridge. I bought some Kodak Portra at the insistence of a student and thought it was a valuable test for me as much as the Rolleiflex. In all I have kept 120 images from my output with this camera.
What comes across most, even from the first test roll, is how sharp the images are, and how the camera (lens, film) picks up details even when the output is a little grainy. There are of course some reject images, but the number of these has been surprisingly low: even the earliest images out of the box.
The camera feels good in the hand, although I have to adjust when focusing (right hand, left hand). The Rolleiflex is much lighter than the Hasselblad which is worth considering these days for me. It only weighs (1275 gms), which is slightly more than the 50mm Distagon lens (916 gms excluding the weight of the camera!) I sometimes use. I do have more confidence working with the Hasselblad, but that could change when the glass is cleaned. However, I have just ordered a replacement glass from Rick Oleson BrightScreen so that should make a difference when I fit the new screen. Although the twin lens reflex setup still feels alien (as opposed to SLR), it is probably best to stop thinking about it and just take photographs.
Thanks for reading!
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