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Camera review: the Rolleiflex SL66 – by Dave VaroCamera review: the Rolleiflex SL66 – by Dave Varo

Camera review: the Rolleiflex SL66 – by Dave Varo

Mention 6x6cm medium format film cameras to a photographer and most will immediately think Hasselblad. Mention Rolleiflex to the same group and they will almost certainly think of the well-respected range of twin lens reflex (TLR) cameras. I’ll let you into a secret: until 6 months ago I’d have given you the same response.

I first became aware of the Rolleiflex SL66 by reading ‘Elements’ by the late Barry Thornton. The impact of Barry’s black and white photographs and his description of the various benefits had me hooked. The SL66 was a relatively late arrival on the medium format SLR scene, being launched in 1966, compared with rival Hasselblad, which was launched to the public back in 1948.

It’s a little-known fact that Rollei commenced development of their own SLR in 1955. However, in 1957 Rollei’s Reinhold Heidecke and Hasselblad’s Victor Hasselblad, entered into an agreement ensuring that Rollei would not produce SLR cameras in return for Hasselblad not producing TLR cameras. After Heidecke’s death in 1960, development was slowly re-started and the SL66 was officially launched at 1966’s Photokina fair in Cologne.

Production of the SL66 in its original form continued up until March 1986, with a total of 28,900 cameras having been made. The camera’s successor (the SL66SE) continued being mass produced until 1992; and special editions continued to be produced into the early 2000’s.

I purchased my SL66 complete with 80mm f/2.8 lens, for £850 in 2018. In this article, I will give you a run through of the camera’s functions and features, along with my impression of what it’s like to use and a few images I’ve made with the camera. Here’s what I cover:

 

 

Camera layout

SL66 Front

Rolleiflex SL66 - Front

Rolleiflex SL66 – Front

On the front of the camera is the shutter release just below the lens on the left-hand side. The shutter release has a collar which is turned to lock the shutter release and prevent accidental exposures. It also incorporates a standard cable release thread.

Below the lens (not visible) is a catch which allows the lens to be removed from the body

 

SL66 Left

Rolleiflex SL66 - Left

Rolleiflex SL66 – Left

On the left-hand side is the camera’s large focusing knob, which is surrounded by a depth of field scale. The focusing scale is adjusted for different focal length lenses. You can see it set for 80mm in the image above. Tucked away under the focusing knob are the camera’s flash sockets.

The smaller knob below is the release for the front tilt feature, with the flash shoe above it. At the very front of the camera is the depth of field preview button.

 

SL66 Right

Rolleiflex SL66 - Right

Rolleiflex SL66 – Right

The right-hand side of the camera has the film advance crank with the shutter speed selector around it. The double exposure switch is concealed behind the crank and can be accessed when it is unfolded (shown above).

Advance crank on the film back is the knob to advance the film to the first frame when loading, and to wind the film through after the last exposure. Above that is the exposure counter and below it the latch for the film back.

 

SL66 Top

Rolleiflex SL66 - Top

Rolleiflex SL66 – Top

On top of the camera is the Waist Level Viewfinder. The viewfinder screen has an engraved grid and a split screen. A built-in magnifier is provided for fine focusing.

 

 

Lens system

My camera came with an 80mm f/2.8 Carl Zeiss Planar lens. This was the standard lens supplied with the SL66 and is equivalent to a 50mm in 35mm terms. The Carl Zeiss range of lenses was very well-respected, and this lens is, without doubt, the sharpest of all the lenses I possess, either for a digital or analogue camera.

All of the original lenses for the SL66, which ranged from 30mm up to 100mm were made by Zeiss, although later lenses were made by other manufacturers. The 80mm is a good general all round lens, but I have since added a 150mm f/4 Zeiss Sonar to use for abstract work.

 

 

Special features

The SL66 comes with some features, which as far as I know, are unique amongst medium format cameras.

 

Bellows Focusing

Rolleiflex SL66 - Bellows Focusing

Rolleiflex SL66 – Bellows Focusing

Apart from large format cameras and TLRs, most cameras achieve focus using a focusing helicoid system, where elements of the lens are moved forward or backwards. With the SL66, the entire lens is moved using bellows between the lens and the main body.

In essence, this is the same method as used by large format cameras and allows extremely close focusing to be achieved. For example, the 80mm lens can be focused at any point from infinity down to 16cm without any adaptors.

 

Lens Tilt

Rolleiflex SL66 - Bellows Tilt

Rolleiflex SL66 – Bellows Tilt

The bellows focusing also allows the lens to be tilted to achieve maximum front to rear focussing without having to resort to special lenses. As I also use large format film cameras where this future is standard, this was a major advantage over a Hasselblad when I was looking for a 6×6 camera.

Rolleiflex supplied a separate focusing scale with the camera which allowed the required degree of tilt to be calculated using the Scheimpflug Rule, but so far, the use of these has escaped me and I just focus in the viewfinder as I would with my field cameras. A maximum of 8 degrees of tilt, either up or down, is available

 

“Retro” lens fitting

Rolleiflex SL66 - Macro (retro-mount)

Rolleiflex SL66 – Macro (retro-mount)

The simplicity of the camera and the use of a focal plane shutter enables the lens to be fitted to the camera back-to-front or in “retro” mode. This enables the lens to be used as a macro lens. The degree of magnification is given on a scale alongside the bellows. Using this feature, the 80mm lens can focus down to 12cm, at which point it will yield a magnification of 1.6x.

 

Film Loading

In common with medium format SLRs including Mamiyas, Bronicas and Hasselblads, the film is loaded into an insert which fits into a removable film back/magazine. However, the Rollei’s mechanism seems to be the Achilles heel of this camera. Internet forums are full of tales of jammed backs, or even jammed cameras, due to problems with the film back, so I am always very careful loading and unloading the camera.

The images above show the four basic steps of loading a Rolleiflex SL66 film back:

  • The film back opens to the rear after releasing the catch on the top.
  • The film magazine is then removed from the film back.
  • The film is then loaded into the magazine. Unlike many other medium format SLR cameras, there is no need to line up the start arrow.
  • The magazine re-inserted into the film back. After closing the back, the film is wound forward and automatically stops at the first frame.

 

 

The SL66 in use

The first thing to note about the SL66 is the weight. At just over 2kg, it weighs almost half a kilo more than the rival Hasselblad. Although it could be used at waist height with a strap around the neck – and indeed Rolleiflex supplied an optional hand grip – I think the camera really lends itself to tripod mounting.

As originally manufactured, there is no built-in metering. Rolleiflex later supplied a metered prism, but as the shutter is mechanical this didn’t permit any degree of automation. This means that the use of a separate meter is almost essential unless you want to trust to the ‘sunny sixteen’ rule.

As I’m predominantly a landscape photographer, none of the above limit my use of the camera, although the weight precludes carrying it long distances. Focusing the camera is simple, thanks to the bright viewfinder. Even when stopped down to working aperture the image remains bright. Using the tilt to its maximum extent allows superb front to back focus to be achieved, even at medium apertures, and coupled with the high resolution of the lens gives images which can rival those made on large format view cameras.

With the camera having bellows focusing, you must remember to add exposure compensation once the lens to film distance exceeds a certain distance, but there are handy apps available these days which de-mystify that aspect.

 

 

Sample photos

The images of my work were made on ILFORD FP4 PLUS. And developed in Ilfotec DD-X. I expose the film at EI 64 rather than the box speed of 125 to capture shadow detail and develop for 20% less than the recommended time for the box speed.

 

 

Summary and Conclusions

If you want a lightweight medium format camera, then this definitely isn’t the camera for you. However, if you want a 6×6 camera capable of producing images of exceptional quality, and you are prepared to put up with some quirks, then this is the camera for you.

The SL66’s additional features like tilt front and close-up focusing give you something which other similar cameras don’t have. The only down sides I have found are the weight and the fact that any accessories are both hard to find and command a premium compared to Hasselblad.

 

 

Rolleiflex SL66 specifications

Camera nameRolleiflex SL66
Camera typeSingle Lens Reflex
Format6x6cm, 6x4.5
120/220 rollfilm (12/24 pictures)
ManufacturerWerkstatt für Feinmechanik und Optik, Franke & Heidecke (1920-1972)
Rollei-Werke Franke & Heidecke GmbH (1972-1979)
Rollei-Werke Franke & Heidecke GmbH & Co. KG (1979-1981)
Rollei Fototechnic GmbH & Co. KG (1981-2004)
Rollei GmbH (2004-2015)
Rollei GmbH & Co. KG (2015-Present)
Manufacture dates1966-1986 - SL66
1982-1986 - SL66E
1982-1992 - SL66X
1986-1992 - SL66SE
Viewfinder coverage100%
ShutterMechanical focal plane: B, 1 sec - 1/1000 sec
In-lens Synchro Compur (some lenses)
LensesCarl Zeiss,
Carl Zeiss (Jena),
Rollei HFT,
Novoflex,
Rodenstock

30mm - 1000mm
FocusingFresnel matte screen. Centred microprism with a fine focusing collar.
AccessoriesMacro bellows
Underwater housing
Remote control power winder
Filters
Grip
Sheet film and instant film backs
MeteringMetered prism (uncoupled)
Flash2x PC sockets: X and FP; Flash sync below 1/30 sec.
Flash sync across all speeds when using lenses with built-in Compur shutters.
Power1.3V PX625 mercury cells (discontinued)
1.35V Weincell
1.55V Silver Oxide with PX625 converter
Weight2kg (appx with 80mm lens and film back)
Dimensions
(appx)
W156 x H110 x L172mm (body, 80mm lens and finder)

 

 

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About The Author

Dave Varo

I suppose I’m a born again photographer, having come back to the art about 10 years ago after a gap of around 25 years. I use both digital and analogue media, as I think both have their uses. I also develop all my own black and white film, and also print black and white in the darkroom, as I don’t think that digital black and white prints have the same quality as silver gelatin ones. I think I’ve got a bad case of GAS, as in the last two years since I started using film I’ve amassed 11 cameras, from 35mm through to 5x4.

7 Comments

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  1. Excellent review but hahhaha there’s always a but, Mamiya’s rb/rz 6×7 also uses bellows movement to focus, any way is very interesting camera, and I should hope to someday have one to shoot with. thank you for your rewview.

    Reply
  2. I had a Rollei SL 66 system back in the 70’s . It is a great system for landscape and macro . Reversing the lens increased magnification and improved
    edge sharpness in macro photography . Tilting increased depth of field in landscape photography . You need a good tripod to stabilize the camera
    shake caused by the large mechanical shutter . Like the Hasselblad 500cm , it was a mechanical wonder and had no battery in the body . I used it
    on a copy stand to make negatives to copy old pictures . The Zeiss lenses are very high quality . I eventually sold the system to buy a Hasselblad
    which saved weight and was better with flash photography . I still have the Hasselblad system today .

    Reply
  3. Looks like a very sweet camera. I’ll definitely keep it in mind when I eventually hit the market for a 6×6 SLR. Thanks for the review.

    Reply
  4. David Varo

    Qiuot a few on the well known internet auction site at the moment, but tend to command hefty price tags compared to Hassleblad 500s

    Reply
  5. Excellent review. The SL66 and its Zeiss lenses can produce some of the most remarkable photographs, B&W or color, distance or macro. It is a remarkable system and a pleasure to use but for the weight, which limits how many lenses or film magazines I carry beyond the house or the car but not how I can use the camera, for me more often handheld than on a tripod. One is able to achieve some of the most useful advantages of a view camera in a medium format rig. A true pleasure and my favorite roll film camera, or any camera less than large format, which I cannot use nearly as readily or as versatilely as the SL66.

    Reply
  6. analogphotobug

    This is a very interesting camera. Especially the bellows. Are they rare/very hard to find?

    Reply
  7. Excellent review. I prefer the SL66 to any Hasselblad I’ve ever used.

    Reply

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