I get the word from a friend at the very last minute; a seat’s opened up to see the Boston Bruins on home ice, but I’d need to leave immediately and meet him on Causeway with only minutes to spare. There will definitely be rush-hour traffic. It’ll be a loud, crazy night in the middle of the work-week, and I won’t be getting home ‘till 1:00 am. I sit there and ponder whether or not it’s worth the hassle, but then I catch myself and instead start pondering when it happened that I became so old. The ticket’s free, I haven’t been to a game in over a year, and the seats are ice-level! There’s no way I’m missing this.
Grabbing my phone, wallet, keys, etc., I realize it’s been too long since I reviewed a camera, and some ice-level shots at the Garden promise an interesting backdrop. I take a look at the pile of cameras waiting to be tested, and pick out a tiny 35mm film camera by Rollei, the B35. It’s a nice fit. Pocketable and discreet, it’s the perfect camera for casual snapshots, and the kind of camera that won’t distract me from the game. I grab it, load it up with film, stash it in my pocket, and head out the door.
By the end of the game, I’m wishing I had spent a little more time deciding which camera to bring. While the Rollei B35 isn’t a terrible camera, it’s a finicky tool made for a certain type of shooting. Capturing 200 lbs. athletes firing a black, rubber disc at 110 MPH is definitely not what the designers had in mind. Out of the 24 exposures, only two are worth keeping. Days later I’ve adjusted my shooting to suit the camera, and a second roll of film produces a better ratio of keepers. But even so, these shots are far from amazing.
Is the B35 a bad camera? I’m not ready to say that. But I wouldn’t argue too vehemently with someone who does. Still, it has its charm, I suppose.
Initially made in Germany, manufacture of the B35 (and many other Rollei cameras) was eventually moved to Singapore. Released in 1969 and continuously produced until 1978, the B35’s design remained largely unchanged for the entirety of its production run.
All B35s use a fixed 40mm ƒ/3.5 lens with a minimum aperture of ƒ/22, adjustable in half-stop increments. The shutter is a fairly limited five-speed affair (1/500, 1/250, 1/125, 1/60, and 1/30 of a sec.) plus Bulb mode. The camera has a light meter, signified by the “B” in its model name (German : Belichtungsmesser), which gives readings at ASA 25 to 1600. The camera also features a hotshoe, frame counter, and focus scale.
Spec sheet complete. Back to the story.
After battling through some traffic I’ve met up with my pal, and we’re making our way to the rink. I take a few moments here and there to fiddle with the Rollei. By all outward appearances and on account of the proud Rollei badging, I’m ready to fall in love.
The B35 is a good-looking machine. Essentially a metal, rectangular box with nothing in the way of superfluous flourishes, it’s got that utilitarian appeal so common in German designs. The lens is a retractable cylinder, with a nicely polished metal tube connecting it to the body. The shutter release button, bottom-mounted hotshoe, and remaining buttons and levers are finished in contrasting polished metal. There’s nothing excessive or showy, nothing to make the camera look sleek or stylish. The result is a charming, minimalist design.
Walking through the security checkpoint at the Garden displays what was once a major selling point of the B35; its size. I see people in line emptying shoulder bags and purses to check their DSLRs, iPads, etc. The security guard taps my pockets and ushers me through without so much as a pause.
This camera is tiny. In fact, it was the smallest 35mm camera in the world at the time of its release. It’s only as large as it needs to be; it holds a 35mm film canister, a lens, and a take-up spool in close relation to one another another. And while it’s truly tiny, it’s not without weight. With satisfying density, there’s enough weight here to give me confidence that the B35 is a well-made, high-quality camera. This isn’t exactly true, but ignorance is bliss, and at this early stage I’m still falling for the little Rollei.
Sitting at the game with hockey sticks slashing and pucks flying, I look the camera over more closely. The “Made in Singapore” badge on the back warns of, if not downright inferiority, than certainly of the possibility of cheapness.
Some research after-the-fact reveals that the camera was intentionally cheapened to reduce cost and create an entry-level model. Based on the much more capable Rollei 35, the B35 shares much of the original 35s DNA, but lacks a certain robustness, and criminally substitutes the famous Zeiss Tessar lens in favor of the less capable Triotar. While these lenses share the same focal length and maximum aperture, they differ greatly in performance. It’s a shame that the original lens wasn’t retained, since the Triotar presents as the major flaw in the B35. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Back at ice-level I’m unaware of all this, and there’s a hockey game going on. There are some famous, hardworking guys that I see on television 82 times a year smashing into the boards and scoring goals a mere six feet away from me. It’s time to pay attention and take some photos.
As mentioned, the Rollei feels solid enough in the hands, but operationally there are some clumsy moments that begin to gnaw at the edges of my fledgling adoration. The viewfinder is pretty small, and it’s not the easiest camera with which to frame a shot. Cocking the shutter produces a vaguely sickening sound, alarming me that something’s breaking internally. But with every stroke the stuttering noise is at least consistently unpleasant, indicating that it’s just the Rollei’s natural auditory signature. Not that it really matters tonight, since the crowd is so loud.
As the game goes on I keep taking shots. I’m finding that the shutter speed selector ring positioned at the base of the lens feels extremely fragile. It’s plastic, sharp, and has a tendency to warp and bend with every adjustment. The aperture ring, on the other hand, feels good. It clicks nicely into its detents and gives the perfect amount of resistance. The focus ring spins with a weighted fluidity, though there’s no way to confirm that your subject is in focus.
And this is my first real problem with the B35. I understand that faulting a viewfinder camera for not having a focus aid is like hating a cat for not being a dog, but I can’t help it. Sharp images are important to me, and watching the game through this tiny viewfinder, it’s really starting to bother me that I can’t tell if I’m focusing on the Bruins’ goaltender or the dude behind him eating a hotdog. I resign myself to the “way of the viewfinder”, and decide I have no choice but to trust the camera’s focus scale, and hope that my shots come out sharp. Not ideal, but to use a hockey metaphor, this fault is only a two-minute minor penalty.
I decide I want to get some shots using a slower shutter speed. Hockey is a seriously fast game, and I think I can compose some nice images by tracking a player as he skates past, effectively keeping the player’s image resolved while blurring the background, as well as other players who are moving in different directions. It’s a great idea, and I can’t think of a reason why it won’t work. I’ll need to have my aperture and shutter speed set just right.
The Rollei uses a Selenium light meter. This type of light meter has its strengths and weaknesses. To start, it’s nice that it doesn’t rely on battery power, since these meters use the intrinsic photoelectric properties of the element Selenium to move a needle. By producing more or less electricity when exposed to more or less light, the meter is able to move a needle to a corresponding gauge that indicates shutter speed and aperture. Set one variable value and the needle will indicate the value to which the other variable should be set.
To get the shot I have in mind, I set the Rollei to a relatively slow shutter speed of 1/60th of a second. Adjusting the light meter to the same shutter speed, it should now tell me what aperture I’ll need to make a properly exposed shot. I point the camera at the ice, look down at the top-mounted meter, and it tells me I need to use ƒ/4. Sounds a little off to me, but I trust the Rollei.
I take a few shots at this setting, and then suddenly realize that I’ve not touched the focus ring. Damn. At ƒ/4 there won’t have been sufficient depth-of-field to make any of those shots in focus. That viewfinder got me again. Time to start over.
I go through the process again, double-checking what the light-meter is telling me. It still says ƒ/4, but I notice it’s fluctuating wildly with only minimal changes in camera position. My trust begins to waiver. It’s also getting to be pretty annoying having to continually raise and lower the camera to look at the light meter, which is inconveniently uncoupled and positioned on the top of the camera. I’m supposed to be watching a hockey game, instead I’m staring at a bouncing needle and wondering what my settings should be. With the needle slowly dipping lower and lower, it becomes clear that it’s not giving the proper reading. I’ve taken about fifteen shots using the light-meter for reference, likely all wasted shots. I decide to just go by instinct from here on out.
Which brings me to the downside of a Selenium light meter. Their effectiveness can degrade over time. This is due to the Selenium becoming less reactive the more it’s exposed to light, or to moisture in the camera, both instances causing corrosion of contacts which lead to a higher resistance within the photo cell. Whatever the root cause, this means that the needle on the Rollei isn’t reaching the correct aperture, leading to my setting a too-fast aperture with too-slow shutter speed. The result will be blown out, over-exposed images. While I can’t knock it for being old, the inconvenient placement of its light meter leads me to penalize it a second time; five-minute major.
Going by instinct and experience, I shoot the remainder of the roll (about four frames), and stow the Rollei back into my pocket. The game plays on. The Bruins score five times on their way to a victory over Nashville. I leave the game happy, with 24 exposures in my pocket, and wonder to myself why Tennessee has an ice hockey team. It’s been a great night and I’ve had a lot of fun shooting with the B35. I’m excited to get the film processed and see what kind of images I’ve made out of such a memorable evening and this exceptional, little camera. I don’t know the irritation that’s yet to come.
A week later, and I’ve gotten my prints back from the lab. My expectations are shattered and I’m decidedly fallen out of love. There are only two usable shots. The remainder are either out-of-focus, criminally soft, over-exposed, or suffer a combination of any of these three maladies. And this is where the B35 earns itself a serious penalty. This most egregious offense gets the little B35 kicked out of the building; it’s a game misconduct for wasting film.
All hockey metaphors aside, I don’t want to blame the camera completely. I understand it’s a tool, and I’m sure it can produce decent shots when used by someone who knows what they’re doing. So to give the camera another chance I take it out for a walk around town. Using an external light-meter and trying diligently to achieve the proper focus (there’s really no way to be sure) I take some more test shots.
Even with this diligence, the Triotar lens proves that it’s just not up to the task. In low-light the camera is virtually useless, since shooting wide open will decrease the depth-of-field to such an extreme that focus will need to be perfect (an impossibility). In addition to this, the lens itself is extremely soft, regardless of proper focus. Taking a test shot at ƒ/3.5 in the halls of MIT yields a shot that’s so soft it’s nearly impossible to discern the elements written on the wall-mounted Periodic Table. Sharpness isn’t everything, but this lens reaches a new low in this regard.
Color and contrast seem to suffer pretty remarkably as well, with images looking generally washed out and bleak. Shots taken on the street in brighter light are able to use smaller apertures. This helps get things in focus and resolve the images into a semblance of sharpness, but it’s still nothing to get excited about. At ƒ/8 the lens becomes about as sharp as it can, but even this performance pales in comparison to virtually any point-and-shoot camera I’ve tested and reviewed. It’s just a bad lens.
Does that mean The B35 is a bad camera? I don’t think so. It looks nice, feels good, and is extremely compact. It can take interesting shots, and some users might enjoy the somewhat unpredictable nature of the images it makes. This camera is the kind of camera that can make painterly images with artistic merit. In bright light it’s a decent performer, and its compact size may make it a good choice for travelers looking to get some organic shots of their travels without carrying a lot of weight. While I’ve stressed the lack of optical fidelity, it should be stated that this is only in comparison to the quality cameras I’m used to; cameras with lenses that are much more capable.
The Rollei B35 was made to make images at a low price, and without taking up a lot space. It does this. It makes images without costing much. They’re decent images, too. They’re the kind of images that people who are new to photography will find appealing. People not concerned with sharpness, contrast, and all the rest, will find it a charming, eccentric little camera from a bygone era.
More “photophile” types will regard the images it makes as sub-standard, certainly in relation to those made by better machines. When the conditions are right, the B35 might surprise with some shots that are impactful for their intangible qualities. It’s just not the best choice for those who want crisp, clear photos, or an easy time making them. It’s a camera that requires the shooter to get lucky, to know the craft, and to concentrate on every frame. Do that, and the B35 might just make more than two keepers per roll.
Then again, why not buy the original Rollei 35?