I’ve been trying to come to grips with how I ended up owning a 60-plus year old machine as a daily-and-only camera, after a truncated career with the latest and greatest at the time. I’m not sure if this will be a camera review or another personal journey into the philosophy of my own craft, but we’ll see what happens. This is a review of my Rolleiflex MX.
I was swept up in the beginning with photography as a sort of notebook. A way to prove I was at a place, to justify my attendance. I started out without any intention to photograph anyone else, certainly not to make a living from it.
At 18, I traveled to England for seven weeks and bought my first camera from a pawn shop before leaving. It was a Canon T50 with a 50mm and an off-brand zoom. It might have been two-hundred dollars including the ubiquitous Sunpak and a shoulder bag. I shot a load of Kodak 200, came away with few decent shots but the hit-rate was embarrassingly low.
I’m a technical person by nature, I like working out systems and manipulating them to get a result. Soon I was able to tweak the controls to see better images, though I couldn’t tell you what they were called or why. The actions I could understand, but the science behind the controls were still a mystery. I enjoyed shooting for myself, and hung some pictures on my wall. After I got paid to shoot a wedding, I realized how far out of my depth I was and looked into some education.
I stepped up to Canon EF upon entering college, quickly outgrowing the plastic Rebel and going for a thrashed ex-press EOS-1N, then a Hasselblad. Just as medium format was sinking its teeth into me, I made the business decision to jump on the digital bandwagon, selling both systems for a Canon 10D. I know, but that 10D (and later the 5D Classic) and I made a bundle of money together.
Once the digital tide had come all the way in, everyone and their sister was shooting DSLR for peanuts and bookings started to drop off. I considered doing video, or learning web design to augment my digital photography business. I still do some graphic design and layout from time-to-time. But as digital matured the upgrade cycle got shorter and shorter. Photographers were needing to upgrade computer hardware more often to keep up. My mobile 3-light studio was sitting idle, old clients weren’t doing any new commercial work. The game had changed. I was miserable.
I’m a pragmatist, and I knew that it wasn’t sustainable to stay in the business with billables dropping and expenses increasing. I hate chasing trends, and I’m not a fan of how wedding and portrait photography has gone to magazine-style flare-and-saturation shooting. Get off my lawn.
So I sold everything.
Having time to reflect on things as the dust settled, I got a handle on what had gone wrong. I had taken a love and sold it for money. I felt like a pimp. My most profitable years with a camera are also the years that I have the fewest family photos. The spark wasn’t there to make images of things I thought were important since I had started putting a price tag on my time and skill. Now that I’ve purged all the paid work from my archives, I realize I had been neglecting what was truly important to me.
I won’t be in the twilight years of my life leafing through commercial headshots, strangers’ weddings or annual reports. I’ll be reliving memories from my daughter’s childhood, our family travel. Friends and relatives no longer with us. The many happy years of our marriage. Everything else is just noise. Filler.
So I came full-circle to the camera-as-notebook again.
Process of elimination
Like a divorcee, it was time to play the field. After dabbling with the Olympus RC, Yashica GTN, MJU-II among others, I ended up at the Fuji GA645. With its untimely demise, I stumbled onto the Contax G2. I’m not going to sink to the film/digital debate, but during this time a digital camera only occurred to me once, and that was the introduction of the Fuji XPRO1. I came close to replacing the G2 with an XPRO, but I consider that a dodged bullet. I’ve narrowly avoided a Hexar AF, RF and another Hasselblad V setup. But remember how I had already owned a Hasselblad? Remember how manic and bouncy I got about the GA645? Medium format is my thing, and it took going through a dozen great cameras to get there.
Taking stock, I settled on a shopping list.
- No electronic cameras.
- No 135 cameras.
- No system cameras.
This narrows down the field quite a bit, and as the Contax sat in its bag I started searching online for what would be my ultimate
compromise goal. I was all-in for a TLR, having a passing interest since college. I’d never handled one, never shot one. A TLR seemed like it would satisfy my list easily. So let’s shop.
I ruled out the Japanese and Soviet cameras right away. The Mamiya struck me as flexible but inelegant. Plus it’s a system camera, and I didn’t want to waste any more time pining after whichever lens I didn’t already have. The Ricoh and Minolta fragile and scarce. The Yashica was closer to what I was after, but not close enough. And if I wanted a camera like a Lubitel I’d build it myself from used lumber and soup cans. Ikoflex was just too kooky. Too Zeiss.
My TLR was going to be a Rolleiflex.
Wading through the lore and specifics of the Rolleiflex family of cameras is surprisingly complex. Add in the vehement opinions found at every turn online and it’s easy to get discouraged. The boutique-priced 2.8F seems to be the only choice the Internet will universally endorse. A Rolleicord is a stepping stone, any 3.5 is a compromise. Nothing less than a coated Planar will do if you even suspect you might shoot colour film. Bullshit.
OK, but what about my list? I don’t want an electric camera. And many of the $1500+ E and F series cameras had inoperative light meters! That’s just madness. Again, the pragmatist in me wanted practicality, simplicity. I wanted a manual camera with high-quality optics and good pedigree. I wanted to avoid the linked exposure cameras like the MX-EVS, but remain post-war for the advanced lens coatings (and I wasn’t messing around with any Ruby Windows). So, by process of elimination, an MX it was.
Come to Papa
The Rolleiflex MX, 3.5A or K4A is the goldilocks camera I was after. And I waited 6 months for a perfect example at a decent price.
When I received the camera, I was impressed instantly. I had always imagined a Rolleiflex to be a fragile piece of kit, especially one that was this old. Even some 65 years later, my MX is solid and operates with a buttery smoothness that really rewards even casual use. The sort of thing that you buy with your grandkids in mind.
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Starting at the top, there’s a fixed waist level finder with an old-school ground glass screen. It’s dimmer than a Hasselblad Acute-Matte screen, dimmer than a fresnel screen. The advantage is that you know when you’re in focus due to the magnificent level of contrast present. It’s easy to nail focus even with the camera at the end of the strap, hanging at navel level. The downside is that there are no super-bright through-the-viewfinder humblebrag shots of what I’m shooting to share on social media.
As the hood flips up, there’s a magnifier for critical focus that’s especially handy when using the Rolleinar close-up lenses. I thought the sports finder would be a bit of a joke, but it’s very usable and quick to learn. The lower window is a reflected, magnified view of the ground glass for critical focus while the upper is a representation of what you can expect to get framed on your film. It’s surprisingly accurate and useful for moving subjects since you don’t have to take into account the reversed viewfinder image.
Moving down, there’s a self-timer on the lens-board that runs for about 8 seconds. The exposure information faces the shooter, and is fairly legible. Time is in red, aperture in black, both on a burnished steel field. On the right-hand side of the camera body we find an exposure count and the advance/cock lever with a delicious knurled spinning handle. On the left-hand side of the body one can find the focus control and two knobs that keep the film spools in place, again with satisfying machine-age knurling.
Exposure controls on the front of the lens board are courtesy of two shallow thumb-operated dials. There is a little positive feedback, but no detents. Step-less timing and aperture are possible, if that’s your thing. With black and white or C-41 films, as long as you’re in the zip-code you’re close enough. The upper viewing lens is a Heidosmat f/2.8/75mm. Both taking and viewing lenses are ringed with a Bay1 collar to attach accessories like close-up Rolleinars or the impressive-looking RolleiFlash.
My camera features a Xenar 75mm f/3.5 taking lens, a Tessar formula produced under license from the good people at Schneider. There’s money to be saved if your camera doesn’t have the Carl Zeiss name on it. Lots of sources say the Schneider lenses were held to higher quality control standards as a lower-volume secondary provider, with fewer (better) lenses making it to assembly as a result. It works very well.
At the bottom of the lens board, there is a Sync speed lever on the shooter’s left, and the shutter release and lock on the right. The Sync lever points now to X, but M is for bulb-flashes that were in fashion when this Rolleiflex was new. The release is step-less and smooth, augmented by a TomA convex soft release. It is easy to attain sharp exposures at very low speeds if one tensions the neck strap by lightly pulling toward the floor with the camera and masters a smooth release.
The film-back hinges up and away, revealing the bottom and rear of the camera to ease loading. The MX uses quick-release levers to completely remove the back if the owner wishes to shoot small plates (with an optional kit) instead of roll film. This camera is referred to as the Automat, since it uses a film sensor to set the film counter at the first exposure eliminating the ruby window. When loading, the paper goes under the first roller and over the second, when the thicker film gets to the first roller, the film counter is engaged and the advance stops ready for the first frame to be taken. The film back closes with a double-latch.
In use the Rolleiflex rewards careful composition, but it’s a much quicker shooter than I expected. This was THE news camera of its day, and that legacy still shines through reliability, ease of use and image quality. Sure, this isn’t the golden-child f/2.8 Planar. I’m OK with that since it’s lighter, just as good past f/5.6 and sells for 1/10 the price. The Bay 1 accessories are affordable and plentiful. The release and wind are nearly silent.
So, how is this machine compared to the Contax G2 that it replaced? It’s really a chalk-and-cheese comparison. They’re two completely different animals with the exception of marvellous image quality. I admit to being a massive fan of the automated Japanese masterpiece, with all its whirring, buzzing precision. The Rollei feels more secure to me, a more solid investment as a tool. I’m not constantly worried that the set of CR2 in the camera will be its last.
And what of the GA645, sir? Again, there’s a certain calmness than comes from mastering a fully mechanical camera. With a minimum of maintenance this machine will be with me for as long as I choose to renew its contract.
My GA645, though a near-perfect travel and snapshot camera, is bricked because the electronics let both of us down. The Rolleiflex is a machine that exchanges automation for longevity. I value reliability, I value craftsmanship, I value quality. There’s no downside to the Rolleiflex MX for me.
It’s a friendly camera to walk with, I’ve never had a stranger refuse a portrait with the TLR. I feel more approachable when I’m out; I’ve heard many more stories from old codgers since buying it.
And that’s a bonus to me. I’m able to maintain eye-contact with a subject, not hide behind a whirring plastic monster with a 77mm eye. I feel as though my shooting style has changed as a result, I’m certainly more engaged with my subject than I ever was as a pro. More to the point, I’m making work that I feel is important again. That’s as much attitude as equipment, but I’m very content that the Rolleiflex will accompany me on this journey.
In fact, this is the first camera I’ve owned where I haven’t been looking around the bend for my next purchase. If anything, I’d consider buying a second mint MX as a backup. Should you have one?
Sure, why not? I can’t guarantee you’ll have the same story since my expectations from a camera are anything but modern. But if you’re after a reliable, affordable, mechanical companion that will help you connect with people in a way other cameras won’t then it might be worth a swing.
Note: This article originally appeared on Matthew Thompson’s blog and has been recreated here as part of a digital archive of that website.
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