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The Amazing Rolleiflex TLR


Posted on January 1st, by graham in Classic Camera Corner. No Comments

By Graham Law, President, Seawood Photo

Every month we have hundreds of used cameras come through Seawood. And even a self-proclaimed camera junkie such as myself gets somewhat jaded looking through the myriad of gear. But every now and then someone opens a bag or a box and I have to catch my breath because inside there’s a ROLLEIFLEX!

There’s something about that marquis that makes it special. Maybe it’s the history of usage by some of the world’s greatest photographers such as Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Robert Doisneau, Imogen Cunningham, Helmut Newton and such.

Or perhaps it’s just that the cameras themselves are so damn cool! Post-war Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras are as good as cameras get.

While Rollei wasn’t the only manufacturer to build a quality TLR camera, (Mamiya, Zeiss, Voightlander, etc) they certainly perfected it.

Medium format cameras have an obvious advantage over 35mm cameras due to film size (at least 3x larger). There are problems, however, with having such a large shutter curtain thwacking open and closed when the camera is fired. This causes blurred photos due to unwanted vibrations at low shutter speeds. Most cameras don’t have an instant return mirror, so you have to advance the camera and cock the shutter before you can re-compose your subject, making sequential photos difficult. Flash synch speeds are only 1/60th or below in most cases.

TLR’s don’t share these maladies. Leaf shutter lenses have virtually no vibration. I routinely get razor sharp hand-held images at 1/30th and below with my Rollei.  Since you are viewing through the top lens while the bottom lens is doing all the work the viewfinder never goes dark, even while the camera is being fired.

Flash synch works at all speeds, making balanced fill-flash a breeze in sunny conditions.

The biggest problem with TLRs is parallax. Because you are viewing through a lens that is centered an inch or so above the actual taking lens, what you see is not what you get.  Not such a big deal when shooting to infinity, but a real problem under 10’.

To address this Mamiya used to sell a rather goofy device called a Paramender. This attached to your tripod and allowed you to quickly lift your camera at time of exposure so that the taking lens is moved to where the viewing lens used to be.

Rolleiflex devised a much more elegant way to deal with parallax.  As you focus on close objects the viewfinder window automatically crops the image to accurately frame the image. Brilliant!

Speaking of viewfinders, the Rollei waist-level finder is work of art. It snaps open and closed quickly. There is no need to fold down three sides of the finder before you close it; just pull the door shut. (I love viewing through a waist-level finder. With a single lens reflex camera, as soon as you place your eye against the viewfinder you become a part of what you are viewing. Looking down on a ground glass with a TLR, you can be much more objective about composition.  It’s like looking at transparencies on a lightbox.).

Critical focus is easily checked by flipping out the built in loupe.

Though the image you see is right side up, it is backwards from left to right, so panning on a moving object takes some getting used to.  For this reason some models have a built in sports finder. This is quite ingenious. First, you focus on the ground glass. Then, with the finder open, you push in a panel on it’s front. This folds inside, allowing you to peer straight through a target window in the back of the finder. Viewing through this lets you frame your subject.

As if this wasn’t cool enough, there is a small window below that one that allows you to see a reflected image of the ground glass so you can check focus without taking your eye off the back of the camera (upside down, and dim, but hey, it works!)  Later models such as the 2.8E and F have interchangeable finders, including a prism for eye-level viewing.

Rollei made lots of interesting accessories for the later models, including:

  • The Rolleimeter: Do you prefer rangefinder focus? Rollei made a gismo called a Rolleimeter that affixes to the front of the open sports finder. There is a focus-spot in the center of a clear piece of glass that lets you align a double-image, just like an M-Leica!
  • The Rolleikin: This is an adapter that allows you to use 35mm film in the Rollei. Why, you ask? Well, the 80mm lens is perfect for portraits in 35. And as you are only using the ‘sweet spot’ of the lens, the results are remarkable.
  • Stereo Adapter: A slide bar that lets you take stereo-pairs for 3d photography.
  • Panoramic Mount: Camera rotates to up to 10 click-detents with frames barely overlapping.
  • Binocular Focusing Hood: Focus on the ground glass with both eyes. Great for use in bright surroundings. Get you lots of strange looks, too.
  • Mutars: Since you can’t change lenses on a Rollei, you simply add them!  A wide angle and telephoto lens was available.
Rollei also had special camera models with a permanently affixed wide angle or telephoto lens.The wide angle has a Zeiss 55mm Distagon f4.0 lens and a special sports finder that shows the wider field of view.
This is one of my favorite cameras. Razor sharp, light and build like a tank.The Tele Rollei has a 135mm Zeiss Sonnar f4.0. lens. Great portrait lens, but only focused down to two meters (which is why the next photo shows the nifty swing-away close focus adapter!).
Rollei TLR’s became a bit more modernized with the advent of the GX models in 1987. Though basically the same camera, they added an LED light meter to the viewfinder and SCA system TTL flash capability.

New Rolleiflex F series cameras are still being produced today! They have even re-introduced the Tele and Wide Angle cameras.

Considering the build quality and fine optics, used Rolleiflex TLR’s are quite a bargain at current market prices. Excellent condition models with the slower 3.5 Zeiss Tessar or Schneider Xenar lenses generally sell for well under $500.

Brighter 2.8 models are available for under $800, and the very coveted 2.8F model (uses 120 or 220 rollfilm) goes for around $12-1500.

So, if you see anyone with a bag or a box full of cameras and one of them happens to be a Rolleiflex, don’t let it get away!





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