Rollei 35 SE – Camera Review

A couple years back, I wrote about my experience ehooting a camera from Rollei’s series of universally lauded compact viewfinder cameras. The Rollei B35 was the lowest-spec model of the 35 range, and I found it to be just about the worst camera I’d ever tested. It was as sturdy as a graham cracker, as ergonomically pleasant as an irritated pufferfish, and produced miserable images from a nightmarish combination of sponge-soft lens and unforgiving focus system.

By some accounts the B35 was and is a decent camera, but it simply didn’t work for me in even the most rudimentary ways. As a result of this horrid experience, and without totally realizing it, I’d developed a deeply rooted aversion to the entire Rollei 35 range that would keep any camera in the series out of my hands for the next two years. It wasn’t until a customer traded one in toward the purchase of a Leica M3 that I again had my mitts on one of these most diminutive machines.

The model traded was the 35SE, and from the moment I pulled it from its packaging I knew this 35 would be a far cry from the B35 of my past. And after shooting it for more than two months I can affirm that the differences between the Sonnar Electronic 35 and the B35 are less Mercedes versus Volkswagen, more Mercedes versus one-wheeled skateboard.

The SE has it in all the right places – stellar build, a performance lens, tiny form factor, and one of the most surprisingly intuitive control systems I’ve ever used. What’s more, after immersing myself in the world of Rollei 35 for six weeks, I’m sure now that of the Rollei 35 range, this camera (or the TE) is the one to own. Let me tell you why.

Actually, let’s first quickly clear up all this naming nonsense. There are quite a few models of Rollei 35, and while the range seems crowded and convoluted at first, it’s pretty easy to keep track of where each camera sits relative to the others in chronology and features.

To simplify things as best we can, we start with the Rollei 35. This was the original model, and featured an incredibly sharp Tessar lens (40mm/3.5). For a while, this was the only version available. Later, a model with a faster Sonnar lens (40mm/2.8) would be released. This version was named 35S, and to differentiate the Tessar model from the Sonnar model, the original Tessar equipped cameras henceforth were named 35T. These cameras all featured CdS light meters (of the old-fashioned match needle variety, top-mounted for those sneaky street shooters) for meter-assisted manual shooting. Up to this point, all Rollei 35 cameras were essentially the same machine with minor academic differences and one of a possible two lenses. Easy peasy.

Further refining the concept, the Rollei 35SE and TE were, as you might once again suspect, Sonnar and Tessar equipped cameras. These models are different from the original S and T, however, in that the match needle CdS light meter has changed to a more responsive and streamlined electronic light meter paired to an impressive LED readout array placed in the viewfinder. Simple enough.

Economy models were soon built, with fewer features, inferior materials, and a low-spec lens. These are the 35B (with a Selenium light meter), 35C (without a light meter), and 35LED (electronic meter). Achtung! These models should be vigorously avoided.

And that’s just about all you need to know about the nomenclature of the Rollei 35. Not so confusing at all, and with just a glance at the camera we can glean real facts on the machine’s makeup – which lens will be equipped, which metering system it will sport. From there, further research can be done to determine where the camera was manufactured (if this matters to you – nationalism is uncool), details of optical coatings, and other trivia.

Boring stuff concluded, let’s get to the camera.

The original Rollei 35 debuted in 1966 to critical fanfare. At the time, it was the smallest 35mm film camera ever made, and even more than fifty years later remains among the smallest cameras in the world. It was capable and robust, and the buying public took note, gobbling up more than two million copies over the span of its production. Today, the allure is as strong as ever. This is an impressive camera, and it all begins with that form factor.

Nothing can really prepare you for just how compact this camera is. There’s a lot of talk in the photo geek-o-sphere about this or that camera being “pocketable,” and most of the time these pocketable cameras aren’t. With its minuscule outer dimensions and retractable lens, the Rollei 35 is actually pocketable. Granted, if you’re sporting tight jeans you may present some unflattering bulges, but in a coat, in a jacket, in average-fitting pants, you’ll be comfortably stowing the 35 when not in use. It’s fantastic, and the perfect choice for when you want your camera to take a backseat to the day, yet still be capable enough to produce stunning images – a rare and lustful combination of traits.

Build quality is excellent. And even though my model was made in Singapore (who cares?) it oozes quality. In the hands, the camera is dense, weighty, and purposeful. Squeezing and twisting produces no unwanted squeaks or flex. Mechanical actuations, such as those found in the film rewind lever and film back opening lever, are firm and precise. Shutter speed adjustments are equally precise, and aperture adjustments are smooth and refined. Focus throw is weighted and deliberate. Even the battery release switch clicks with satisfying resistance.

But nothing is perfect. If there’s one aspect of the camera that satisfies less than the rest, it’s the action of the film advance lever. While the lever is surprisingly strong given its impossibly thin profile, it lacks the kind of refinement found elsewhere in the camera. It levers away from the body with an almost sickening series of crunches. All’s well inside – the film isn’t being torn and the mechanism is working as it should – but it’s just not the kind of smooth film advance we find in cameras like the Nikon FM or Leica M. That said, in light of the quality found in the rest of the package, the offense is forgivable.

In the field, the Rollei 35SE is transcendent. It uses a system of controls that are so refined and elegant as to be nearly unmatched in vintage cameras. I can’t stress it enough, and this exemplary system is brought to us by virtue of two distinctly ingenious design decisions that turn shooting this camera into one of the best experiences you’ll ever have with a fully manual machine.

The first visionary design is the camera’s exposure meter and, specifically, the way that Rollei chose to implement its readout. The onboard light meter allows the photographer to determine proper exposure by adjusting lens aperture and shutter speed coincidental to the loaded film speed, just as with any meter-assisted manual camera. As settings are adjusted, the camera effectively displays when the chosen settings will result in a proper exposure based on available light.

In previous versions, the Rollei 35 had a light meter readout on the body of the camera. This meant that to check exposure, photographers would be forced to lower the camera and view a needle on the top deck. With the SE (and TE), the meter is provided within the big, bright viewfinder by way of three vertically stacked LED lights. The top and bottom lights are red to indicate over-and under-exposure, and the center light is green to indicate a proper exposure. This fact alone wouldn’t make the Rollei exemplary. Many cameras have light meters and many have their readouts displayed in the viewfinder. The Rollei isn’t breaking new ground. But the reason the Rollei’s operation rises above its competition is because of the way its controls are organized in relation to its light-meter display.

Control dials are are placed on the front of the camera to the right and left of the lens, each an adjustment that will impact exposure. To the left of the camera (from the rear) we find the shutter speed selector, which provides speeds from 1/500th to half of a second (and Bulb mode), and to the right we find the aperture adjustment (and incorporated ISO dial). These dials operate as you’d expect – rotate them and the values of shutter speed and aperture change. But what you might not expect (without spending some time with the 35SE) is that these little dials are pure magic.

Here’s how it works. You’re framing a scene and ready to take a shot. You need to know your exposure, so you half-press the shutter button. The lower, red LED alights telling you that your current settings are under-exposing the scene. You need to adjust your shutter speed or aperture to get that LED to rise to the center and turn green. How do you do it? On many cameras, you’d rotate a dial on the top plate counter-clockwise or clockwise, depending on the camera, or you’d spin a ring around the lens in another unknown and often incongruous direction. With the Rollei, things are much simpler.

You need the LED to go up. So what do you do? You push the outer edge of either wheel up. You don’t need to think about it. You don’t need to wonder if you’re adjusting in the wrong direction. There’s no guessing. It’s almost as if you’re simply prodding the LED to rise by poking it upward with your fingertip. It’s the same if the scene is over-exposed. Just pull downward on the far edge of either control dial until the LED moves downward to the center.

Of course, you should have an understanding of aperture, shutter speed, and depth-of-field, and know which of the two dials you are most comfortable adjusting to make your shot properly exposed. This aside, the simplicity and intuitiveness of this system is hard to match in a classic, manual-only camera. It creates a shooting methodology that is incredibly quick and nearly effortless. There’s no guesswork, no looking at dials, no raising and lowering the camera to check readings or settings. You lift the camera to your eye, move one hand or the other in one direction or the other, and take your perfectly exposed shot.

What this means is that anyone used to manual cameras will feel right at home, immediately understand the ethos of the machine, and shoot nothing but excellent shots. And anyone new to the world of manual shooting will find the 35SE a worthy tutor, and indeed, one of the best cameras on which to learn the art of exposure.

And not to be overlooked in light of all this functional prowess, is the simple fact that the Rollei makes incredible images. Its lens, a Sonnar design by Carl Zeiss and (in this review copy) coated with Rollei’s HFT coatings, produces stunningly sharp, contrasty images with no distortion and brilliant color. Wide open it performs beautifully (so long as focus is correct), and stopped down it renders in an ultra crisp yet wonderfully artistic way. It’s a lens that produces images that dance the border between modern and vintage.

But I’m gushing just a bit. Let’s reign it in.

The lens does suffer some pretty substantial flares when shot directly into the sun, and though we should almost expect this of a forty-year-old camera, it’s worth mentioning. That said, while this effect is clinically an imperfection, film shooters today will almost certainly love it for the very same reason. We shoot film cameras to enjoy the artifacts that we’ve lost to the digital age – artifacts both tangible and optical.

Compared to the outstanding implementations of exposure control and its wonderful viewfinder, other practical facets of the 35SE do fall a bit short. Specifically disappointing is the camera’s method of focus. As mentioned, all Rollei 35 cameras are viewfinder cameras. That means we don’t enjoy any in-viewfinder focusing aids. There’s no rangefinder mechanism, no focusing screen, no split-image spot, and certainly no autofocus. What we’re left with is a camera that demands zone-focusing.

For those unfamiliar, zone-focusing is a system of focusing in which the photographer is expected to understand aperture and the way it influences depth-of-field, and combine that knowledge with an ability to accurately estimate his or her distance to target. Essentially, we look at the front of the lens barrel where a readout shows distance markers and a depth-of-field scale, then rotate the lens to our desired focus distance. It’s a system that’s easier to understand and use than it reads, and when shooting at F/8 or so (the camera’s sweet spot) we’re likely to make images in which everything is sharply focused without needing much adjustment of the focus ring. Set the ring to just the near side of infinity and everything from the horizon to fifteen feet away will be in focus. Next, point, move the LEDs up or down, and shoot.

There are certainly moments in which, without the assistance of an in-viewfinder focusing aid reminding us to double check, we can expect to absent-mindedly shoot a few frames without adjusting focus. It happens. To me, it happens a lot, like when I missed my Bresson-like decisive moment and failed to capture what would have been my masterpiece, Squirrel Jumping Over Puddle – tough break.

All told, with a few missed shots and an occasional out-of-focus failure, the Rollei 35SE presents a package that’s one of the very best classic, manual cameras available today. Form and function are equally represented, with stoic and purposeful design that complements intelligent control systems, it’s a camera that talks the talk and walks the walk. It’s gorgeous, reliable, uses commonly available batteries, has an astoundingly capable lens, and will comfortably travel anywhere. For all this and more, it just might be the perfect camera for the modern day film shooter.

Coming off the bitter disappointment that was the B35, I had low expectations for a camera about which I’d heard nothing but praise. I was skeptical. I’m skeptical no more. The 35SE is a true classic.

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22 Comments

  • Reply
    Wilson Laidlaw
    March 24, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    In the end I sold my 35SE for a Minox GT. With its rounded corners, the Minox is even more “pocketable” than the Rollei and considerably lighter. The Minotar lens is pretty much an equal for the Sonnar on the 35 or at least it was on the two cameras I had. The final advantage of the Minox is that with its flip front, it is faster into action than the Rollei. The other side is that the Rollei feels a far more solid and long lasting object than the somewhat flimsy and plasticky Minox. Both cameras really need mercury cell replacers with voltage regulators to get accurate exposures. Don’t be fooled by cheap mercury cell converters with no regulator, that are often sold on Fleabay.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      March 24, 2017 at 10:46 pm

      I’d love to try the Minox. The only ones I’ve used up ’till now have been the sub miniatures.

  • Reply
    Jim Grey
    March 24, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    You got some great stuff out of this camera. And I’m relieved to hear you had the same experience with the 35B/B35 that I did.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      March 24, 2017 at 10:46 pm

      Thanks Jim. I’m not a very good photog, but I do what I can. Would you mind posting a link to your article on the B? Thanks again.

  • Reply
    DaveCondit
    March 24, 2017 at 9:05 pm

    I love my 3 SE’s and the battery is easy to find. The camera must have some voltage regulation as unlike most comments the light meter is dead on from 5.4 volts to 6 volts. Zone focusing is not a problem for me and the IG is excellent. 16 by 20 prints are possible. My travel camera and everyday walk around.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      March 24, 2017 at 10:48 pm

      Yeah, it’s a great camera. I’d love to take it traveling some time. We’ll see. Do you think three is enough? Ha!

      • Reply
        Wilson Laidlaw
        March 25, 2017 at 5:48 pm

        I would agree, however if you measure the voltage of a brand new silver oxide PX27 replacement cell, you are likely to find its voltage will be as high as 6.4.or even 6.5V, which I feel will give wrong exposures, unless (and I don’t know about this) Rollei decided to put a voltage regulator in their later 35SE models. Minolta and Konica certainly did this, presumably in anticipation of the banning of the mercury cells or to enable alkaline cells to be used. I bought a box of mercury PX27 and a card of 625’s in Vietnam as late as 2009 but I saved up the dead ones and then gave them to a friend at Sussex University chemistry department to dispose of in their toxic waste disposal bin. Supposedly, one mercury cell in a landfill, can poison up to one cubic metre of soil.

        In a similar scenario, I bought a pair of RCR123A rechargeable lithium batteries to use in my Leica SF24D flash, which normally uses 2 x CR123A disposable lithium batteries. I put the freshly charged RCR123As in and the flash was completely dead. Luckily (unlike a friend), I had another pair of the non-rechargeable lithium batteries in a torch, so tried them in the flash and it worked again. My friend threw his away, assuming he had killed it. I found the rechargeable cells, nominally 3.2 volts, were actually 4.5 volts when freshly charged and this obviously tripped a safety over-voltage circuit in the flash.

        • Reply
          James Tocchio
          March 25, 2017 at 5:53 pm

          I can’t speak to the voltage regulation question myself, and you’re probably right about the fluctuation of actual voltage in batteries. All that said, though, I don’t think people should be worried about shooting the Rollei (or any other camera) with whatever equivalent batteries we can get these days. I say this because of the exposure latitude of modern day film. I’ve been shooting a different vintage camera every week for four years and have yet to come across any exposure issues caused by using modern batteries. It just doesn’t happen to me. I can’t imagine why there are so many posts on other websites and forums that talk about the mercury battery issue.

          I wonder if we could find the answer to whether or not Rollei incorporated voltage regulators in its machines. Good question. Thanks for your insight either way. Your comments are always knowledgable and thought-provoking.

          • Brandon
            August 2, 2017 at 2:47 pm

            I adjust my iso by about a stop (lower) and my exposures seem to be pretty good after that.

  • Reply
    Huss
    March 24, 2017 at 9:05 pm

    Excellent and thanks for the explanation of the different models.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      March 24, 2017 at 10:43 pm

      You bet! Thanks for the kind words, Huss.

  • Reply
    danjazzblog
    March 24, 2017 at 10:44 pm

    The squirrel shot! Great composition. Now i’m GASing for a Rollei.

    Please check this site out: http://wp.me/p79SVd-4V

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      March 25, 2017 at 11:47 am

      Following your blog. What a fantastic window into a far away world. Thanks for sharing that. I should also suggest that anyone reading this far down on the page to also click through. Great stuff.

      • Reply
        danjazzblog
        March 25, 2017 at 6:40 pm

        Thank you! I’m lost for words…

  • Reply
    Francis.R.
    March 31, 2017 at 3:08 am

    The rendering of the camera is special, when I see photos shot with a Canon FD system, for example, I can notice a different rendering, vintage somehow, but with the EF system in film it looks quite modern. In your photographs (I loved specially the glare with the sunstars in the cars in the street at sunset) there is a warm and peculiar character, sharp but not in a clinical way, and I don’t say more because I am starting to sound like a lens-snob xD

  • Reply
    John
    April 4, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    Hello! I have my eye on an 35SE but can I use it without the battery?

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      April 4, 2017 at 1:55 pm

      Hi there. Yes, everything excluding the light meter works without the battery.

  • Reply
    Randall Stewart
    April 23, 2017 at 8:03 pm

    As a long-time owner and user of several Rollei 35 models, including the 35SE which I prefer, let me clarify and correct a couple of points. First, the 35SE (and the 35TE) have a regulated power supply, required by the meter display system. Any battery or collection of batteries which fit the battery compartment and yield more than 1.35 volts will work fine in these models. Secondly the repeated description of the original 35 and later models up to the SE/TE has using a selenium meter are in error. The original Rollei 35 , the later 35S and 35T, use a Cds meter designed to be driven by a 1.35 volt mercury battery. I think only the B35 used a selenium meter. You can use these models by adopting any of the several mercury battery work-arounds or by having a repair shop adjust the meter circuit to use 1.5 volt batteries.The 1,5 volt battery options are not a perfect solution, in that alkalines have an unstable voltage, being inaccurate over time, and silver-oxides have fairly short use life for their cost. Or, save the money on an adjustment and run through a Wein air cell (1.35 volts) every couple of months. Remember to keep the meter reading cell covered (camera cased) since the models prior to the SE/TE have no meter switch. The meter is always “on” and will run through modern batteries more quickly if the meter is reading “light”. There was a Chinese guy selling after-market meter cells covers for Rollei 35 models to avoid running through the battery; very slick and works as claimed. It’s not a perfect world guys.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      August 4, 2017 at 5:22 pm

      Many apologies for the subbing Selenium for CdS. This has been updated in the post, with thanks.

  • Reply
    carlo
    May 13, 2017 at 8:25 am

    Hello everybody, James I’m reading and reading again your report. Recently i bought an SE, but i can seen only red leds, one or both, but no green led. And only after shot. No led just pushing the button before shooting. What should be the problem? Thanks

  • Reply
    Steve L
    August 5, 2017 at 10:37 am

    Many thanks for a very readable post. I greatly enjoy my 35S, as well as a ’54 Werra I’ve renovated. Both of these are scale focus and I found Harold Merklinger’s publications on focus very useful (http://www.trenholm.org/hmmerk/download.html); it is remarkable how effective using infinity focus with a small aperture is under a wide range of brighter light conditions. My Werra has no light meter, but using a good scale (http://www.squit.co.uk/photo/exposurecalc.html) is an excellent substitute, especially when remembering the various ‘sunny’ rules can be difficult. I’ve never had any exposure issues using modern batteries in my 35S, but as you point out, this may well be because of the exposure latitude of print film. I’ve not used more demanding slide film since the demise of Kodachrome.

    I’m wondering about your views on film? I’ve ‘settled’ on Portra 160 or 400, combined with ND filters for bright conditions.

  • Reply
    Matt Blomqvist
    August 25, 2017 at 11:58 am

    I’m using an early Rollei 35 with Tessar lens. I don’t know about the later Sonnar but my Tessar lens has two focus or distance symbols in red (others are white). The 2m and 5m symbols. It turns out that that – when using f/5.6 or more – the red 2m sign gives you perfectly sharp images from the distance of ~1,5 to 3 meters. The red 5m sign is perfect for subjects from ~3 meters to eternity. Your focusing is simply like choosing whether your subject is subjectively “near” or “far”. It’s surprisingly easy to do and you will never get an out-of-focus image in daylight situations. I can’t see a reason why this scheme wouldn’t work out with the Sonnar lens as well. I’m using the same focusing method with my Minox GT with great success.

    Btw. There’s someone in China selling perfectly good black metal lens hoods for Rollei 35, both lens types. You know where to find them and the cost is a couple of dollars a pop including postage.

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