Diane Arbus, Vivian Maier, Imogen Cunningham, Fritz Henle and Richard Avedon all shot with a Rollei. A Rollei was present when Sir John Hunt’s expedition became the first team to reach the summit of Mount Everest and a year later Hans Hass began using a Rollei for undersea flash photography.
Robert Capa and Ken Bell each trusted the Rollei for their wartime photography efforts. Countless celebrities including Cary Grant, Doris Day, Ed Norton, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Nicole Kidman, George Harrison, Grace Kelly, James Dean, Jackie Kennedy, Laurence Olivier, Marilyn Monroe, Morrissey, Paul McCartney and Prince Charles have all been photographed affectionately holding a Rollei.
In some respects, Rollei was the Apple Inc. of its time. The company became known not only for creating the best Twin Lens Reflex cameras but also for releasing product enhancements basically on a yearly basis for decades. Many of its users developed a cult-like devotion to the camera and they would anxiously devour newsletters that were published by the company as soon as they were released.
Why all of this success? Several hardback books have been written on the topic however a photographer only needs to look toward several basic design principles to uncover Rollei’s recipe for success:
- Size: Highly portable and reasonably lightweight
- Quality: Precisely engineered with sturdy metal construction
- Convenience: Fixed lens design as an all-in-one system
- Attractiveness: Rugged good looks appealing to many audiences
With all of Rollei’s history and success I am honored to have the opportunity to write a review of the Rolleicord Vb for EMULSIVE; and I recognize that along with the opportunity comes a great responsibility to appropriately represent such an esteemed camera.
Please trust that I did my best to invest great care at this task, just look at this impressive table of contents:
If it’s that long, it has to be good, right? I welcome you to judge for yourself below…
Introducing The Rolleicord Vb
The Rolleicord Vb Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera was introduced to the world in 1962 and represents the height of achievement in the Rolleicord line of cameras that initially launched in 1933.
The last Rolleicord Vb was produced in 1977 thus giving the camera a very respectful production run of 44 years across all models.
The Rolleicord is the sister camera to Franke and Heidecke’s iconic Rolleiflex with the Cord marketed to Enthusiasts and the Flex to Professionals.
While the Rolleicord was created for the consumer market, make no mistake about it; this is by no means a lomography style camera. The ‘Cord is every bit as precise as the Flex.
It simply excludes a few money saving features that were considered to be “nice to haves” for photographers that don’t make their living from the craft.
The camera is easy to load and shoot even for individuals that have never had the pleasure of working with a medium format film camera.
The original Rolleicord Vb users guide can be found online as well as several mediocre “how to use” YouTube tutorials (maybe I will make a proper one someday) thus even a first time shooter can be up and running quite quickly.
For many the ‘Cord represents the perfect sweet spot between the potentially break the bank Flex and inferior knock off TLR alternatives. At the time of this writing, a mint condition Rolleicord Vb with original “ever-ready” carry case can fetch as much as $900 U.S.
With background and history out of the way, I would now like to shift my focus toward the 5 initial learnings I had after my first few shoots with the Rolleicord.
Focusing is easy. The viewfinder is large and bright. I also found it incredibly easy and effective to compose my shot first and then dial in the focus. This is the opposite of how I would shoot with say a Nikon F5 where I would first lock in focus on a particular area and then recompose the shot.
Overall, composing the shot first and then focusing with the Rollei feels more like a streamlined focusing process and it eliminates the modern day obsession of zeroing in on a very specific area within the viewfinder. Rather, you are free to compose a beautiful shot knowing that you need not obsess about the focusing procedure.
Handheld vs Tripod
You will have plenty of light to shoot handheld outdoors during the day without the need to utilize the camera’s maximum aperture of f3.5. The Rolleicord is equally successful indoors without a flash and can easily be shot at box film speed 400 at f5.6 and 1/60 sec. or a box speed of 160 shot at f3.5 and 1/30 sec.
Similar to many other cameras, 1/30 territory requires a tripod or some sort of proper stabilization to eliminate blur from camera shake. Outdoor night shooting around partially illuminated buildings can happen at a box film speed of 400 combined with an aperture of f3.5 and a shutter speed of 1 second.
Super fast film, pushing slow film or popping a flash generally isn’t necessary for having success with this camera. These kind of tactics are however easy to implement should you find yourself in an unordinary situation.
The square format
It’s hip to be square. As much as it pains me to use a phrase coined by Huey Lewis, it really is hip to shoot square with a Rolleicord. If you haven’t shot square in the past your mind might need an adjustment period of 1 or 2 frames. After the adjustment you will find that shooting square makes it much easier to fill the frame for maximum impact.
All too often people take photos and then crop them to fill the frame. When shooting square it becomes very easy to “crop in camera” while maximizing the use of the square. Also, when shooting square you will have 12 shots per roll of film. I have found 12 frames to be an excellent middle ground between having a single piece of sheet film or a 36 exposure roll of 35mm film.
With twelve frames you will make sure that each shot counts but you will also have the flexibility to bracket exposures. You’ll find that your “keeper” to “non-keeper” ratio will be higher than when shooting 35mm and ultimately you might even determine that square is beautiful, fun and possibly even preferred.
Using the Rolleicord Vb
Mastery is simple. Your first roll of film in this camera will be successful. There are basically only 3 steps to creating high-quality images with a Rolleicord:
- determine aperture and shutter speed from a handheld light meter or the exposure value table on the back of the camera,
- compose / focus and
- cock and fire the shutter.
I wish I could tell you that this uniquely beautiful camera requires some kind of esoteric mystical process to operate and that only highly elite and experienced photographers are able to master the process but that simply isn’t true.
You will feel like a Rolleicord expert after shooting 1 roll of film in this camera.
While the camera does have a couple of minor limitations, they actually make sense given the goals of its design. First, perspective distortion will without a doubt be an issue in scenarios where the camera is pointed upward to shoot for example a flight of stairs or the façade of a building.
This would, however, happen with any camera that lacks tilt/shift capabilities or lenses. Also, this isn’t the camera for big bokeh enthusiasts. The camera’s 75mm medium format lens is basically the equivalent of a 43.5mm lens on a 35mm body. Background blur is absolutely achievable however you will need to think more deeply about the right combination of aperture and distance to subject to achieve it.
Finally, with only 12 shots per roll of film, I personally would not recommend this camera for wedding or sports photographers. I would rather shoot 36 exposures of 35mm film and reload less often when trying to capture the fast-moving action of multi-hour events. Also, the need for a zoom lens is real when shooting weddings or sports.
Specifications With Commentary
Assuming that you now have some degree of interest or lust in obtaining a Rolleicord – Vb or otherwise – let’s examine its specifications to better understand the “what” and “how” associated with this camera.
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Fully manual/mechanical medium format Twin Lens Reflex camera containing a 75mm fixed lens. The camera takes standard 120 roll film to produce twelve 6 x 6 cm (2 ¼ in) square images.
Folding hood that when opened exposes a hard plastic viewing screen. The plastic screen was a new invention for Rollei at the time and was meant to be brighter than the ground glass screens used in earlier models. A magnifier is also built into the folding hood and is meant to be a useful aid for composing or focusing shots. I personally find the magnifier to be incredibly helpful and I generally use it for every shot taken with the camera.
Viewing/Finding Lens: Schneider Heidosmat f3.2 / 75mm
Taking Lens: Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar f3.5 / 75mm
Inner female bayonet mount. If acquiring an original Rollei filter, which by the way are extremely well constructed, you will need a “Type II” filter as it is made to fit the Rolleicord’s Xenar f3.5 lens. Third party “B-30” and “Bay 1” filters will also work on the Rolleicord Vb.
Whisper quiet Synchro Compur MXV leaf shutter with a speed range of 1 to 1/500 sec., Bulb and X-sync. Having “only” a max speed of 1/500 might be an adjustment for anyone coming from the world of digital however it is an adjustment that can be quickly and easily made especially even more so after learning how to control light through employing lens filters and push/pull processes.
10-second self-timer located near the viewing lens. Simply push the lever down to the position labelled “V” to cock the timer. The 10-second countdown will only begin after firing the shutter. For the purposes of the self-timer disregard the “X” and “M” positions near the lever as they pertain to flash synchronization.
Multiple exposure creation/protection
This nifty feature is also located near the viewing lens but on the opposite side of the self-timer. When the lever is in the up position the Rolleicord protects the photographer from accidental double/multiple exposures by not allowing the shutter to fire more than once per frame. You can however easily let your artistic freak flag fly and shoot double/multiple exposures by placing the lever in the down position. While in this position a red dot on the camera’s body will become visible to serve as a reminder that the film does not need to be advanced to fire the shutter. I recommend leaving this lever in the up position and engaging it only on an as-needed basis.
Flash sync speed
X and M synch modes. Electronic flash can synch at literally all available shutter speeds up to the maximum of 1/500 thanks to the Rolleicord having a leaf shutter. You could possibly, however, start to lose a small amount of usable light when shooting above 1/250. Flashbulbs are a different story. While some bulbs claim to be able to synch all the way up to 1/500, I would generally recommend shooting no faster than 1/30 with them given their general “slowness”.
The camera has no light meter and for the analogue lover in me that only adds to its overall appeal. Why worry about batteries when I can either use the sunny 16 rule or carry along a handheld light meter. A light value table is included on the back of the camera for those that might need a little extra help with calculating exposures. Ironically, the table can be a little confusing and thus perhaps not very helpful for those that might need it the most.
Winding knob next to the frame counter that automatically stops on the first and each subsequent frame
A frame counter is smartly located next to the film advance knob and counts for each exposure from 1 through 12
The Rolleicord is a compact 3.94 x 3.90 x 5.60 in (10.0 x 9.9 x 14.2 cm) in size and can fit perfectly into a Lowepro Adventura 140 bag with room to spare for a handheld light meter and lens filter. Woot!
This is a solid and professionally constructed metal camera that weighs every ounce of 2.07 pounds (940 grams).
Equipped with the ability to attach a cable release. Also contains a standard ¼ inch bushing for tripod mounting. A film speed reminder can be set on the focus knob.
TLRs, in general, tend to be highly attractive, non-complicated cameras. The Rolleicord I design from 1933 was so strong that all subsequent Cord models don’t look or operate radically different from the original design. One noticeable change came in 1957 with the introduction of the Rolleicord Va when the focusing knob was moved to the left side of the camera thus streamlining the right side exclusively for the film advancing knob.
Compared to a Rolleiflex
As I stated earlier, the ‘Cord is the sister camera to the ‘Flex. Image quality and construction materials are equally solid across both cameras. Many ‘Flexes, however, carry extra features that are not present on the Cord such as: built-in light meter, faster f2.8 taking lens and automatic shutter cocking connected with the film advance crank. You certainly can’t go wrong with either camera. A Flex of equal quality to a Cord can easily cost twice as much not just because of the additional features but also because Flexes are viewed as being more collectable.
As you can see from the specs above this is a serious camera. It’s not only serious, it’s fun. The following usage information will prove to be insightful should you add this serious and fun camera to your collection.
As with any TLR camera composing a handheld shot can be a little tricky. That is why Rollei created the Ever Ready carrying case. The case is worn around the neck and the camera actually stays in it during the image making process. The front of the case flips down for shot creation and after the image is made the user flips it back up to cover the camera. The benefit of this design is that the photographer can more easily balance the camera. While I own an Ever Ready case I never use it because I view it as a valuable antique piece of leather, especially the strap, that I don’t want to destroy therefore I usually shoot the Rolleicord on a tripod.
Focusing is done from above through a waist level viewfinder where the image seen is upright but reversed left-to-right. If this is new to you please don’t be afraid of the whole reversal thing. It’s actually not that confusing especially since you can rest assured that whatever is seen on the viewfinder screen will be in your final image.
An ingenious feature on the Cord is the method used for locking exposure settings. The aperture is managed through a tiny lever on the right side of the taking lens while the shutter speed is handled through a similarly styled lever on the left side of the lens. Once the two are set they become locked together so that the user can make aperture or shutter changes without the need for recalculating settings.
The shutter needs to be cocked or “tensioned” before it can be fired. The process is quite simple however it can be an easy step to forget for users that are not accustomed to this kind of shutter. The shutter button is located under the taking lens. To cock it, simply slide it as far as it will go to the right and then release it back to its original position on the far left. To fire the shutter, slide the button to the left. If your shutter is not firing you may just need to cock it.
Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar f3.5 / 75mm. Better than what was on the original Rolleiflex back in the 1920s. It is sharp enough and fast enough to make high quality images however I would not recommend this camera if you are desirous of creating super tack sharp images or shooting in very low light. Finally, no zoom here. Zoom is strictly with one’s feet.
With a fixed f3.5 / 75mm lens, this is not necessarily the camera for big bokeh enthusiasts. Don’t get me wrong, you can create background blur with the Cord but don’t expect the performance of a f/1.8 85mm prime on a 35mm body.
If you are in the land of medium format film photography in this day and age you are probably shooting for aesthetic quality and not quantity. You have 12 exposures on a roll of film. Make them count!
In its day, Rollei was akin to Nikon or Canon today. As such, there are many Rollei manufactured accessories that can be acquired for this camera. Filters, lens hood, lens cap, close up lens attachment, flash gun, ever ready case and pistol grip are just a few examples.
Clearly my recommendation is thumbs up with this camera.
If you are looking to pick up a TLR or even just a medium format film camera that won’t break the bank but at the same time doesn’t sacrifice on quality then the Rolleicord Vb fills a sweet spot for you. In acquiring a Rollei you will join a community of countless photographers that have gone before you. Those shooters are not mindless lemmings but rather enthusiasts that prefer the size, quality, convenience and attractiveness of a Rollei.
Happy shooting everyone!
More Rolleicord Information
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