The Art of Rolleiflex
Many others have written about the technical reasons as to why the Rolleiflex twin lens reflex cameras were, and remain, such an enduring success (large negative size, superb lenses, etc.), so I’m not going to reiterate any of that here. Apart from all those reasons, and in my opinion, the Rolleflex cameras are some of the most beautifully designed cameras of all time, and are works of art in their own right.
This article, therefore, is just an excuse to post some photos of the three cameras I own; pure ‘camera porn’, if you will. In an age when camera design has morphed into the current black plastic blob aesthetic, I think it’s an apt reminder of a level of craftmanship that has sadly become a lost art.
Admittedly, I have a soft spot for twin lens cameras; my Dad used to shoot with a Yashica E and I remember as a young boy being completely fascinated with this camera. Apart from that, the negatives he made of our travels around the world have survived the test of time very well, and the quality that the 6×6 negative brings to the table is still readily apparent when viewing them even today.
One of the things I love most about these cameras is the view through the waist-level finder. If you are used to squinting through the tiny eye-level finder of a modern DSLR, the huge image you’ll see on the ground glass screen of a Rolleiflex is a revelation! Yes, the view is laterally reversed, which causes some initial disorientation if trying to track a subject, but being able to see the entire frame that will be captured on film is a fantastic way to compose a photograph.
The finder hood also incorporates a magnifier for critical focusing. When open, pulling upwards on a small catch on the inside of the hood causes the magnifier to pop up.
With the magnifier raised, pushing in on the front panel of the hood engages the third viewing option, the direct view. In this configuration you have a direct eye-level view of the scene though a small frame in the rear of the hood. This is useful for tracking subjects because it is not reversed as in the other viewing modes. Just below the direct view window, a clever system of a secondary magnifier and a small mirror gives you a reversed view of the central portion of the ground glass for focusing.
The direct view and the focusing view are close enough together to enable quick switching between both. Pushing down on the silver catch below the magnifier returns the hood to it’s original position. This is another reminder of the ingenious mechanical and optical design of the Rolleiflex.
For a medium format camera that produces 6×6 cm negatives, the Rolleiflex is fairly compact. With the hood folded down, and the film wind crank stowed, it makes a comfortable ‘brick’ that is easily carried. Also, because it has a fixed lens, there is no temptation to load up a bag full of extra lenses when you go out to shoot. A Rolleiflex, a light meter, maybe a filter or two, and a few rolls of film is all you need.
Not everyone can get on with the ergonomics of a twin lens reflex camera, and some just hate the waist level viewing, but I find the Rolleiflex great to use in that respect. With the camera on a strap at waist level (beer gut level, in my case), all the controls fall easily to hand.
Focusing is achieved with the large knob on the left (looking down) and the film is advanced with a fold-out crank on the right. Aperture and shutter speed are set using the two wheels between viewing and taking lenses, and the chosen settings are viewable in a small window above the viewing lens.
As shown in the ‘family portrait’ at the beginning of this post, I now have three Rolleiflex cameras. None of these are collector grade and they all show signs of fifty plus years of use, but they all perform beautifully.
1954 Rolleiflex Automat MX (Model K4A)
When I bought my Leica M3 last year, the retired photographer I got it from also sold me his MX which had been his main camera for portraits for over forty years. His career included working in a studio in New York where he photographed various famous and celebrity clients (he has negatives taken with this camera of Eleanor Roosevelt, amongst many others).
Although it’s a little cosmetically rough around the edges, it was obvious when I handled it that he had taken very good care of the camera; it is probably the smoothest and quietest of all three cameras, which validates his claim that, although he worked it hard, he also had it serviced regularly.
This particular example is fitted with the Zeiss-Opton Tessar 75mm F/3.5 taking lens. Variations for this model included the Zeiss Jena Tessar and the Schneider Xenar.
The MX has a much smaller focusing knob than later models so I added the Rollei extension knob to mine to make focusing a little more comfortable.
There is no built-in meter on the MX model, so a simple exposure chart is included on the back of the camera which gives approximate settings for various lighting conditions.
The red star on the taking lens denotes that the lens is coated to reduce flare and increase contrast.
1956 Rolleiflex Automat MX-EVS (Model K4B)
This was my first Rolleiflex, purchased about three years ago. The slow shutter speeds were off so it needed stripping down and cleaning but it now works great. Rolleiflex focusing screens are notoriously dim but this camera has had a replacement fitted and the viewfinder is nice and bright.
The Carl Zeiss Tessar taking lens, although a relatively simple design, is very contrasty and incredibly sharp! Notice the new style accidental exposure prevention lock around the shutter release button (bottom left of the photo).
The MX-EVS also has the later, larger focusing knob; no need for an extension on this one! The scale on the camera body helps determine depth of field.
A meterless camera like the MX, the MX-EVS also has an exposure guide on the back, although the simple text explanations have given way to cryptic little diagrams.
All three of my Rolleis have the same viewing lens; the Heidosmat 75mm F/2.8.
1956 Rolleiflex 3.5 E (K4C)
My most recent find is this 1956 model E. You can read more about how I got it, and the work it needed, in this post.
This is the only of my Rolleis that has a built-in meter, although it’s currently non-functioning. It uses a selenium cell mounted above the viewing lens.
The meter display protrudes from the focusing knob, and it gives you an exposure value (EV) for the prevailing light conditions.
The EV reading from the meter can be converted to aperture and shutter speed settings using the conversion chart on the rear of the camera.
The coated 75mm F/3.5 Carl Zeiss Planar lens fitted to this camera is legendary for it’s contrast and sharpness, along with exceptional flatness of field across the entire negative area.
This camera came with the original strap with it’s hard to find ‘scissor’ connectors, but the fifty year old leather was rotted and weak. Dee took the old strap to a leather worker and had the strap replaced with new strong leather, while retaining the original mounting hardware. Good for another fifty years now!
I’ve been asked why I need three Rolleiflex cameras, and the answer is simply that I don’t! However, I’ve managed to buy all three at very good prices, and the images they produce are subtly different from each other due to the various lenses fitted, so I’m going to keep and use all of them.