Rolleiflex

Self Portrait with Rolleiflex FX
Self Portrait with Rolleiflex FX. 2007

Although I own many cameras both film and digital, small, medium and large format. I shoot most of my personal work with a fine imaging instrument called the Rolleiflex. Presently I own two models, the 3.5e made in 1959 and the newest Rolleiflex the FX. The new FX is not built like its older sibling, the 3.5e. It’s construction has been compromised in favor of higher profits and like many things they’re not built like they used to be  But I will say that it is still very well made. The Carl Zeiss 80mm Planar f/2.8 HFT lens that is the heart and soul of my FX is a gorgeous maker of images. It is a masterpiece of lens design.

You must understand that I am not a collector, aficionado or enthusiast. I am a serious photographer who uses these instruments almost daily. I don’t know the answers to questions regarding the minutia of the models or their various colors. I don’t know how many of these cameras were made but they were the camera of choice for many, many years in the photo journalism and fashion worlds. I would suspect that there are close to a million of them out and about in the world today I frequently see them in cases at camera stores used a decor and it makes sad that they arent being used. Yashica also made a cheaper version as did Minolta. I have used and owned through the years all three and nothing is like the real thing, the Rolleiflex. These cameras have been around since the 30’s and the functional design has not changed one bit since that time.

The 3 fundamental design elements of the Rolleiflex are the main reasons I use them.

  1. The twin lens reflex design. In addition to looking very cool. It is a very unique experience when photographing because it requires you to look down into the camera and not at eye level. This design element is powerful because it changes your normal context with the world around you, you are looking down at a square groundglass. It forces you to see the world in a different way. This automatically creates a situation where your work changes to something beyond what you can create with your Canon Digital Rebel 2000XL Turbo. It is also very handy when you want to shoot low. You can put this camera on the ground and shoot literally an inch off the ground and you don’t have to be lying flat out on your belly.
  2. Square format. The square format is the most elegant, simple and rewarding formats to compose images in. It doesn’t fit everything but it always looks terrific in almost any image that you can fit nicely in its confines.Michael Kenna uses this format almost exclusively. Though he uses a Hasselblad. His images are very simple and its easy to see why he prefers the square format. My Mother photographed our family through the 70’s and 80’s with a kodak instatmatic camera, the format it used was the nasty 126 film cartridge and a square format. I love the pictures she took.
    Christmas 1980
    Christmas 1980

    Dad and kids 1976
    My dad and his kids 1977. I am the one in the plaid suit coat. Ya Baby
  3. Medium format film. For those old enough to remember the first time you were serious about shooting and you saw an image that was done on medium format film vs. your 35mm and the impact the richness of color, the grainless quality and the ridiculous depth of field you can understand my love of this stuff. It is a simple, timeless and beautiful medium to carry your images upon. If you can get a custom print from a high quality color printer like ABC Photocolour in Vancouver Canada you can see for yourself the depth of color, the soft constast that dances with your eyes (not like the shocking and harsh contrast that proliferate the digital photography world today), the delicacy of detail, the intoxicating color pallete that Kodak and Fuji created through some 50 years of refinement to their color film stock then you can understand where I am coming from.
Richard Avedon with his Rolleiflex

While going to school at Brooks Institute from 1995-1998 I did most of my work through the first year with aCanon A-1 35mm camera. I loved what I was getting out of it but became tired of seeing the same images come out of my camera. I shot a lot of film and I felt like I was in a rut. I was an assiduous reader of photographic books, particularly monographs from the excellent Brooks library and one day I came across a Richard Avedon book that showed a photograph with him holding a Rolleiflex.

I saw in an instant the answer to my dilemma. I reasoned that if I change my point of view and slow down and get involved in more daily use of meduim format film my photography was bound to change. I rushed to Tony Rose camera in Montecito California and I purchased for $75 my first TLR, a moderately compromised Yashica-Mat. I have used these cameras ever since that day in 1996.

Selfportrait with YashicaMat
Self portrait with YashicaMat 1996

Looking down and not straight ahead like working with a SLR is a little disorienting at first and I rather enjoy watching a person try to use the camera the first time because the image is reversed. So if you want to point the camera to the right and you move the camera to the right the image moves to the left on the ground glass. It confuses you at first but within a few days of use it is very intuitive to use.

Also a new users response to the image on the ground glass is always something unexpected and a bit like a revelation. Most photographers have no idea how beautiful an image projected onto a ground glass is and how it can change the way they photograph because they relate so differently to the subject. Using only DSLRS and computer monitors is a limiting way to experience the vast experiences that photography can offer.

I also love the Rolleiflex because it has a gorgeous look and feel. Its like a rolls Royce in its construction. It is a solid unit about 6 inches tall 3 inches square and a nice heft, but not too heavy. The older units like the 2.8f are some of the most beautiful cameras ever made. The materials are leather, real chrome and brass parts. They are magnificent. You can see good examples of them herehere and here.

Using the Rolleiflex is a pleasure. It has a positive winding mechanism that allows you to feel the grinding of the gears while they work to advance the film and cock the shutter. I find that piece of labor very satisfying because after you make an exposure you “earn” it by moving the film to the next frame. The focus dial on the side of the camera allows you to go from infinity to close focus with a quick turn. This cannot be underrated when photographing people. Other medium format cameras are a lot of work to move the focus ring the Hasselblad being the most guilty culprit.

Here is a sample of what I produced from the years 1996 to 1999 with my Rolleiflex 3.5e

2 comments

  1. I was wondering if you ever thought of changing the page layout of your blog?
    Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe
    you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or 2 pictures.
    Maybe you could space it out better?

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