Some things I like about my Rolleiflex

A few years ago I was bored with digital photography and started shooting 35mm film again. Digital lets me do anything but there is no challenge! The film results were beautiful but I was still not having the fun I was looking for! I decided to try medium-format photography but didn't want to just stumble into it, I wanted a Rolleiflex.

Rolleiflex is actually a series of cameras first produced in 1929, by German camera company Franke and Heidecke. The simple, square 6x6 centimeter images revolutionized photography. The Rollei made it easy to take large, high quality negatives (and positives) with its simple, elegant and incredibly reliable compact design. The TLR or Twin Lens Reflex camera became a staple of pros and news photographers the world over.

I never thought I'd own one. Thank you eBay!

Unlike the monster digital SLRs I was carrying around, the Rolleiflex takes you back to a simpler, messier time. Film advance is by crank. You may adjust your shutter speed, your aperture and the ISO rating of the film -- with dials. You can focus, you can move the camera (and your body) around but the lens is 80mm and zoom is something you do by walking closer or father from your subject.

It is this simplicity that brought fun back to composition for me. Instead of taking 100 massive shots and reviewing immediately on a digital camera back, with a Rollei you look DOWN into the viewfinder! You compose a reversed image in a mirror projected on a screen by the viewing (top) lens and when you hit the shutter, it opens the taking (bottom) lens to expose the film.

120 roll film is easy to get. I buy most of mine on Amazon. I've bought a few cameras, a large set of filters, wide-angle and close focus adaptors, and flashes. Anything that needs fixing I send to Harry Fleenor at Oceanside Camera. It takes time but he does amazing work. I send film to SF Photoworks for processing.

After spending a few years with the Rolleiflex I may be getting ready to try large format!


  1. I started using medium format cameras again after trying a Hasselblad in college and really liking it. It definitely makes you think about a shot a lot more when you know each one costs a dollar.

    1. As digital cameras became cheap enough to give to my children, I used to buy disposable film cameras for them instead, and we would MAIL completed cameras out for processing. I think it helped them enjoy film more, as they’d consider whether or not to take the shot in the first place (is this actually a moment I want to remember?), and they learned the joy of anticipation in waiting for the results. Plus we would sit together and thumb through the prints as a family, which is pretty much unbeatable.

  2. Medium format has really taken me places I never thought I’d go.  The limits are weirdly freeing and 120 has taught me a lot of patience, to the point where I don’t necessarily use all 12 exposures in a day.

    1. The Ektar 100 OP linked to is known for being the best-resolving color film available. The spec sheet says it can resolve 154 line pairs per millimeter, or the equivalent of 308 pixels in each direction (actually somewhat better because each “film pixel” detects all three colors, but close enough). 

      Since the image from a Rollei is 600mm by 600 mm, this works out to the equivalent of a 341 megapixel sensor. In practice, whether film or digital, very few lenses are going to produce an image sharp enough for this to matter.

      If you’re willing to use black and white file, the “megapixels” go through the roof. The very best, exotic b/w film I know of does 900lp/mm, for 11.6 GIGApixels in this format. Even more available films like Infachrome Micrographic (fka Cibachrome) are well into the Gigapixel range. 

      There are many reasons film is an exotic choice these days, but insufficient megapixels isn’t one of them.

      1. Problem is that your developer, enlarger  paper, and paper developer are all limits on that, hence why traditional processes don’t look considerably different except in museum quality prints and processes.

        *Considerably different in reference to resolution. Film still kicks butt in the field of dynamic range and tonal progression

        1. If you use a developer like rodinal that does not dissolve the edges of grain in the name of less visible grain in your negs, you’re going to get the highest possible amount of detail from the lens/camera combo that’s possible.

          It’s really sad to see how often a wonderful shot is ruined by use of one of these types of dev chems.

  3. I always needed barriers in order to be forced to work at getting it right; as the guy said, writing poetry without rhymes is like playing tennis with the net down.  When I started doing 10×8″ landscapes I found that the sheer amount of time I had to spend setting up, calculating exposure, considering depth of field, the waiting around for the light to settle right, the effort involved, the very limited number of darkslides I could carry – all this not only forced me to take the time to get it right, but every single time I pressed the shutter I absolutely /had/ to get it as right as I could.  That was always my favourite work.

    1. I’d take a larger camera for a negative that is almost 4x the area of your 35mm neg.

      The only camera I ever had break at a trade show in my hands was a Leica. That always amused me to no end.

  4. Back in the day, we kinda had 100 shots for immediate review — Polaroids. You’d set your subject, lights and camera, make some prelim exposure calculations, and then test it all by popping off a few polaroids. Make a few adjustments, pop a confirming polaroid, and finally start exposing your “real” film.

    Of course, this all depended on having all your various shutters, lenses, chemistries, films and meters calibrated…that’s where the geeky fun was. I hope you’re getting the full benefit of 2 1/4″ by careful, calibrated metering. If not, do yourself a huge favor and snag a copy of The New Zone Manual and use it to calibrate your stuff. Even though the tests are “mere” B&W, the calibration process will give you great insight into the reach (and shortcomings) of analog photography — how to expand or contract the dynamic range of a scene; how to place your subject’s tonality higher or lower in relation to the scene; and more.

  5. I’ve been enjoying the Hassy 500C/M.  The full manual nature of the camera, and knowing that each time I hit that shutter button I’ve spent a dollar or more, really slows me down (makes me focus on exposure, composition) in a good way.  This has directly affected my digital photography, in a good way. 

  6. If you like shooting film, for god’s sake stop buying it from amazon and find a local source, or a vendor that promotes it. Medium format is actually an easier to use medium for digital hybrid shooters – shoot b/w, process the film yourself(it’s easy, and cheap!) and a half-decent flatbed scanner can get decent results. And teh cameras are cheeeeeeeeeeeeeep! Of course, if you’re seriously into pain, try color slide in medium format – so, so, so very pretty.

  7. Someone please remind me what the numbers are for above each camera in this ad. Is it the lens size?  This makes me want to buy a medium format camera NOW. I remember how satisfying they are. 

  8. There’s a huge medium format following in Asia, particularly in Japan (of course), and with a quick stroll through Flickr you’ll find endless beautiful shots taken with Rolleis and Hasselblads of… well, it’s usually not anything particularly interesting, but it’s always beautiful. 

    It almost seems like cheating, sometimes – assuming you get the exposure and everything right (which admittedly is no small task) you’re essentially guaranteed a beautiful photograph. But, somehow it feels less of a cheat than the people who use gratuitous wide-aperture-small-DOF with their modern lenses and DSLRs (and I am guilty of this myself… I have an 85mm f/1.8 lens, among others).

    I think because medium format allows a small depth of field but a wider field of view (as opposed to a 50mm or 85mm lens on a 1.6x crop DSLR) it feels more natural. More so even than a classic 50mm on a 35mm film camera.

    Adding to the natural feeling is the inherent flaws that happen, whether they be lens flares, intentionally or unintentionally out-of-focus spots (ahem… the whalers cabin sign), and the unique color and tone that film gives you. 

    Of course this just boils down to a film vs. digital debate :) I love my digital cameras, but film is endlessly more aesthetically pleasing and simply enjoyable to work with. I hope to be able to afford it again soon and a TLR (a Rollei knock-off would be fine for me) is what I desire most.

    1. I find I work faster with digital.  Quicker setups, shooting, aiming, focusing, tweaking, finalizing, done.

      Film makes me take time to focus, adjust, review composition, adjust, meter, adjust, check focus, give it some thought, look at it again and trip the shutter with a *very* satisfying kerthunk of controlled chaos.There are also a good number of very affordable options for you, TLRs and Lomo just came out with a great product called the Belair with interchangeable lenses and allows for 6×6, 6×9, or 6×12 formats.

  9. The Chinese makes some really good wood-and-carbon fiber LF camera. I had fun with the 4×5 Chamonix when they first came out. They are quite a work of art to have – great construction.

  10. Great post. I fell in love with medium format a few years ago but ended up with the beautiful tank known as the Mamiya RB67. I drop off or send in the 120 film, and am then scanning the 6x7cm negatives with a transparency capable scanner and can pull the equivalent of 50+ megapixels of detail, and always have the option of ‘real’ prints if I want them. A new Mamiya kit can cost over $10k (and with digital back far north of that) so I love that a similar quality of glass and (dated) body can be had for a few hundred on eBay as studios sell off their storage closets and go digital. 

    One way I ‘cheat’ sometimes (considering the $1 a shot) is instead of relying on my light meter, especially when playing with flash or tricky lighting, is to test shoot the scene with a digital cam on manual mode as a ‘polaroid’ with similar ISO, shutter, and aperture settings to the film. While not a true TTL test it makes me feel a bit better about snapping the shutter.

    1. I do this as well, especially when I shoot Polaroids at $3 a shot.  I find it very ironic that I’m using the device that was the demise of film to shoot film.

  11. Replying to Larktavia:
    They are model numbers for the individual camera versions being sold.  However the 2.8 and 3.5 also refer to the maximum aperture available for the lens that comes with the camera.  The smaller the number, the larger the lens, the more light that could get through, and the faster the shutter speed (and thus less blur) for the given amount of light.  The number is the ratio of the diameter of the lens opening to the number of times that diameter distance between the center of the lens to the film plane.  E.g.  Assume that the 2.8 lens is 1 cm across (it isn’t), the distance between the center of the lens and the film plane is 2.8 cm.  And, the smaller the number, the less the depth of field (fore and aft sharpness) at that aperture number.

    I’ve got one of the early 3.5 Rolliecords, with an insert so that it can use 35 mm rollfilm.  The problem with 120 film is that the take-up spool reverses the wind of the film (probably to prevent curling) but this puts the paper backing of the roll film on the wrong side of the curl, and bunches it up.  I guess that the early 120 film in Germany had no paper backing.

    1. Small clarification — “The smaller the number, the largerthe maximum aperture of the lens.” (Just in case anyone might conclude there’s a strict relationship between focal length and max aperture. For instance, the Rolleiflex 2.8 had an 80mm lens, but the 3.5 had a 75mm lens. The “IV” [f/4] model sported 135mm glass, long for its day.)

  12. The Rollei is a great camera, but for a more practical camera that’s a great shooter at a more reasonable price get a Yashicamat or Mamiya TLR for much less. The optics are great, the shooting experience is similar, and you are much more likely to have a working camera for along time. Believe me, I have an appetite for vintage gear from the 50’s and I am often heartbroken when it breaks.

  13. On a side note:  Those three different model cameras made me wonder.  When, during the industrial revolution did someone come up with the idea of making slight production model variations.  The concept of giving the consumer a feature choice.  Hmm.

  14. Wow, that film is pricey.  I think I paid 79 cents a roll for 120 Verichrome Pan back in the mid-1960s.  Of course VP was garden-variety stuff compared to this, but still.

    I was about 10 then.  The film money came from mowing the neighbors’ lawns.  I was shooting it in the junky plastic Diana camera my mum got for free with a gasoline fillup. 

    No, wait.  According to the inflation calculator, 79 cents in 1964 would be $5.77 today.  I guess $23 for 5 rolls isn’t so bad after all.

  15. I got a Yashica-Mat twin lens reflex for high school graduation. My parents couldn’t afford a Rollei, but the Japanese knock-off version was damn good. I’ve still got it, but I haven’t used in years. Since you say hat 120 film can be ordered from Amazon — it’s hard to find in photo shops these days and not in drug stores at all — I may give it a shot. I used to do some nice b&w work with it. Of course, back then I had access to a photo lab and could do my own processing, which was always my favorite part.

      1. Related:

        Actually works quite well!

      2. I recently switched over to Acros and I think it’s about the best there is these days.  No reciprocity factor either, it’s pretty impressive.

  16. I was gifted a YashicaMat a couple years ago along with an enlarger and equipment for developing film. Less than 6 months ago I finally got around to buying medium format film and since then I’ve been going crazy! I love the photos as well as the darkroom/developing time (in college, I looked forward to spending a Friday night holed up in the darkroom.) I avoided it for a while since it was a bit intimidating after only shooting with 35mm through high school and college, but in some ways it’s easier and the pictures are worth it. I also received a Diana+ last year as a gift and love it for what it is, including it’s extreme simplicity and lightweight nature. I carry it around with me ALL the time now. There’s something so freeing to me about having a simple camera with me that will never suffer from dead batteries and in some ways allows for more control as the photographer.

    I’ve shot almost 3 full years of daily pictures with my fairly limited cell phone, which I think has helped me learn a great deal (such as composition in a non-zoom world) that comes into play when approaching some of the limits of simple and older film cameras as well.

  17. My Dad had one of these. It was a mechanical marvel.In high school (circa 1972) I bought a 35 mm Minolta. Another mechanical masterpiece.  It is awe inspiring what people could do with essentially clockwork mechanisms. What I really miss is the world of film, though. Yeah, you had to wait for gratification. Yeah, everything was nonlinear so proportional reasoning didn’t help that much.  But you know what? Grain is fundamentally different from pixels and, to me, more satisfying. Exposing the grain is an artistic choice that pixels are not. Automation is lovely and I wouldn’t give it up, but I do miss Kodachrome. Give me the nice bright colors.

  18. TLRs are especially great for taking candid shots out on the street. You can simply hang the camera off your neck and wander around, subtly glancing down into the viewfinder. If you use a cable release, you never even have to touch the camera, potentially alerting your subjects that they are about to be snapped. 

  19. Love my bought-cheap-on-ebay Yashica TLRs. Beautiful, well designed and constructed old ‘knockoffs’, and the deliberate slowness of the picture taking process and high image quality do make for a very satisfying learning experience. Also, developing the film with homemade Caffenol for extra DIY points.

    Bless the souls of the Czech and Chinese folks still making cheap new 120 film.

    Say, did the article imply you can *adjust* the film’s ISO rating with a dial? That’s a bit like my childhood disappointment over those ‘date dials’ on tupperware lids not actually *doing* anything. I mean, it’s not like tub-based actual time travel seemed likely, but well, you know.

Comments are closed.