I recently acquired a Rollei 35 after dreaming about shooting with this ultra-compact camera and its legendarily sharp Carl Zeiss lens for many years. I was able to score a great deal on a lightly used “Made in Germany” variant at my local camera shop by trading in an old Canon A1 and 50mm lens that I wasn’t using any more, along with a spare Mamiya 645 1000s medium format body.
I always try to run a test roll of film through my “new” cameras to make sure they actually work before using them for anything critical, so I spooled some Kodak Portra 400 through the innards of the efficiently designed little Rollei and tossed it into my daily camera bag.
Since I already had two other 35mm cameras loaded with different film stocks at the time: a Contax TVS III with Fujicolor C200 and a Voigtlander Bessa R3A with Fujichrome Velvia 100, I figured a little comparison shoot might be in order. The Contax has a well-respected Carl Zeiss zoom lens that covers the same focal length as the Rollei 35’s fixed Tessar 40mm f/3.5. Thus, I figured I could use the shootout to not only gauge how the different film emulsions rendered scenes, but also compare how the Tessar stacked up against the TVS III’s Vario Sonnar T* 30-60mm f/3.7-6.7 lens.
I shot everything at box speed, and metered scenes with each camera’s internal meter. Apertures and shutter speeds varied widely between cameras from shoot to shoot, which means that an apples-to-apples comparison of sharpness between the lenses is not at all scientific.
This is particularly true for the lens I used on the Bessa R3A, the Nokton Classic 40mm f/1.4, which I often shot at larger apertures due to how much light Velvia 100 requires. Shooting at f/2 led to softer shots than the Nokton is capable of creating when stopped down a bit. I did, however, manage to keep framing and distance-to-subject pretty consistent across the cameras. I scanned all the film at home with an Epson Perfection Pro V850 using SilverFast 8 software. I cropped images, removed dust and made minor edits in Adobe Lightroom.
Overall, I’m pleased with the results, especially those from my new Rollei. The test shots confirmed the Rollei 35’s functionality as well as its well-earned reputation as one of the best compact street shooters of all time. From f/5.6-f/16 the camera’s Tessar lens absolutely demolished everything else.
It’s so sharp it’s almost unfair. Any time I found a less-than-sharp image from the Rollei, it was usually because I was shooting a subject closer than 3 meters and had incorrectly estimated the distance while zone focusing. The Vario Sonnar lens on the Contax TVS III was no slouch either, with very pleasing results when stopped down to around f/8. However, I found the autofocus to be hit or miss on the TVS III, with several shots ending up out of focus. I’m not sure if this is due to user error, a problem with my specific camera, or a known issue with the TVS III’s in general, but it was a bummer nonetheless.
The images follow below – click/tap to view them in full screen.
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The Velvia 100 shots taken with the Bessa R3A turned out ever so slightly softer than the Portra 400 shots from the Rollei, and about on par with the Fujicolor C200 shots from the Contax point and shoot. As I previously mentioned, part of this is due to shooting at larger apertures with the Nokton lens, but it may also have had to do with my scanning technique.
Velvia’s transparency film curled up more than the two negative films, and thus did not lay perfectly flat while scanning. I tried to compensate for this by fine-tuning the height of the scanning trays, but ultimately I would need to go back and rescan the entire roll under ANR glass to get it perfectly sharp.
Scanning and focus issues aside, I think the example shots still do a decent job of showing the strengths and weaknesses of each of these film stocks, and how they handle exposure, contrast, and colors in very different ways. Unsurprisingly, Portra 400 had the best dynamic range and a pastel-like color profile; Velvia 100 had the worst exposure latitude, but rendered the most saturated colors; and C200 was a goldilocks of sorts, with a nice balance of contrast and saturation, albeit with a noticeable green cast and larger grain.
I’ve written about my fondness for Fujicolor C200 in the past, and I continue to enjoy the results I’m getting from this inexpensive consumer film. It’s not a standout in any particular area, and even seems grainier than the faster Portra 400, but I love its color palette and gritty aesthetic.
Portra 400’s extremely forgiving latitude was perfect for getting consistently well-exposed shots from the Rollei 35’s matchstick CdS cell meter, which I (surprisingly) found to be accurate to within ±1EV compared to my iPhone light meter app.
All the shots taken with the Bessa R3A ended up with Velvia 100’s hallmark magenta cast, which is still evident in the example shots above despite my efforts to neutralize it somewhat in Lightroom. In case it’s not 100% obvious by this point, the first shot (left to right or top to bottom) in each series is Kodak Portra 400, the second is Fujicolor C200, and the third is Fujichrome Velvia 100.
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