After reviewing vintage cameras for a while, you tend to become distrustful of any camera or lens with a legendary reputation. All of us here at CP have stories of disappointment with well-regarded cameras. It’s not anybody’s fault; some cameras just fit certain people, and others not so much. So when I got ahold of a Rolleiflex 2.8D, one of the most famous cameras in the history of photography, I held my excitement in check.
The reputation of the Rolleiflex precedes it in a big way. Show one to any older photographer and they’re likely to either wax poetic about their perfect old Rolleiflex or lament their unfulfilled dreams of owning one. These cameras were considered the king of medium format photography in their day (and by some accounts, still are), and were seen as the perfect camera for professional reportage and studio work.
The Rolleiflex is also one of those rare cameras whose fame stretched beyond the realm of photography. Sure, loads of cameras can claim their share of famous users, but not many cameras can claim to have their own lyric in a Brazilian Bossa Nova classic or have a spot on the back of the Filipino one hundred peso bill. The Rolleiflex became more than a camera, it became a cultural icon, a symbol of early and mid-twentieth century style and function.
But no matter how famous a camera is, or how amazing a camera is said to be, there’s no overcoming the paranoid skepticism of a jaded camera reviewer. Could I really trust almost half a century of unadulterated worship? Or would the Rolleiflex prove to be another over-hyped relic unfit for modern hands?
From the first moment one holds a Rolleiflex, it’s clear from outset that it’s a camera that belongs to a completely different time and place. There’s no camera on the market today that looks and functions like a Rolleiflex (even if some cameras desperately try to ape it). The twin lenses, the boxy form factor, and the litany of knobs and dials -it’s all so old-fashioned. And this extends to its aesthetics as well. The Rolleiflex is photography’s Art Deco poster child, featuring concentric bevels, boldly outlined features, and wonderful mid-century typeset that defined that particular school of design.
But wait, Art Deco flourished in the 20s and 30s, and a little research indicates that my review camera, the Rolleiflex 2.8D, rolled off the production line in 1955. Turns out the Rolleiflex’s design was old-fashioned even in 1955. What gives?
What we’re seeing is a classic case of if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it. With its original Rolleiflex in 1929, Rollei had a winner and decided not to screw around with a perfect formula. And even though time marched on, even with only a few updates from decade to decade the Rolleiflex remained at the top of the TLR heap for as long as it was in production.
It’s not hard to see why this thing was so universally loved by those who could afford it and coveted by those who couldn’t. It’s small, solid, and has an air of quality few cameras possess. Dials, knobs, and levers actuate like fine, Swiss clockwork and are simply beautiful to watch in action. Popping open the viewfinder makes a definitive, almost gun-cock like “ssshck” and announces your entry into the world of Rollei. And when you peer down into that big, waist-level viewfinder to see your subjects resolve into and out of focus, it really feels like you’re holding and operating a magical device.
So it looks and feels good, but how does this ancient camera shoot? To our modern hands, eyes, and ears the Rolleiflex is an alien machine. It cuts a daunting figure, but spend a few minutes with it and the Rolleiflex turns out to be one of the most intuitive and simple cameras out there.
Loading’s a little finicky because one must remember to feed the film under the first silver roller for the frame counter to work, but after that it’s all quite easy. Grip the camera with both hands and you’ll find that the shutter speed and aperture dials on the front face place themselves perfectly under the thumbs. Adjust them both and you can watch the shutter speed and aperture windows display your chosen values on top of the taking lens. Using the same grip, you can adjust focus with the conveniently giant focusing dial and snap your picture with your index finger placed on the shutter release located at the lower left hand side of the face. After you’re done snapping a picture, rotate the lever down and back, maybe flick the multiple exposure dial to the right and have some fun. Trust me, it sounds way more complicated than it is.
What’s truly remarkable about this control layout isn’t just how easy it is to use; it’s how well it’s integrated into the camera’s design. When we see a camera design as visually ornate and complex as the Rollei’s we usually find operation to be clunky and cumbersome.That Rollei managed to marry style and substance to create a fashionable, yet easy to use camera is refreshing, especially in our current age of anonymous, form-follows-function camera design.
And the Rolleiflex isn’t just a pretty face and an easy to use camera. Its technical capabilities more than match its good looks and easy operation. The camera’s Synchro-Compur leaf shutter tops out at a healthy 1/500th of a second and enables one second long exposures plus bulb and allows flash sync at every speed, making it useful for pretty much every situation. The shutter’s also incredibly stable and quiet, making low-light shooting possible even at speeds as low as 1/15th of a second.
But there’s another crucial aspect of this Rolleiflex’s tech specs, and one avid fans of the camera will probably berate me for leaving for so late in the review – the lens. See, this Rolleiflex isn’t just a regular Rolleiflex; it’s the Rolleiflex 2.8D. This is one of a small group of top-of-the-line Rolleiflexes equipped with the fastest glass available for medium format at the time of its release, and as with many legendary cameras, it’s these lenses that ensured the camera’s position as one of the great cameras in history.
The Rolleiflex 2.8D’s Carl Zeiss Planar 80mm f/2.8 is, without hyperbole, one of the finest lenses ever made for medium format. Closed down, it’s perfect for landscapes owing to its incredible sharpness and resolving power, and wide-open it delivers creamy bokeh and a depth-of-field that’s perfect for portraits at f/2.8. Marry these characteristics to a modern medium format film like Portra 400 and that means some seriously gorgeous scans and enlargements that show little to no grain at all.
It doesn’t just stop there; this Planar is a lens that renders in that classic, smooth way only the best lenses from the past can. It doesn’t over-sharpen or over-saturate; it’s perfectly balanced. Rendition isn’t just sharp and accurate – it’s timeless and beautiful.
From the above description this camera seems flawless, but the skeptic in me says that there must be some sort of flaw, some chink in the armor of the Rolleiflex. As it turns out, there is one, and it’s a real Achilles’ heel – the fact that it’s a TLR.
As attractive, well-made, and capable as the Rolleiflex is, its very nature as a TLR contributed to its downfall and makes it suitable today for only a few specific kinds of photo geek. Twin-lens reflex cameras are constantly afflicted by parallax error, which means that what you sees through the viewfinder will not be exactly what is recorded on the negative. Parallax error is negligible at longer distances but for close-up photography (portraits, still lifes, etc.), this can be a problem. Forget to compensate for parallax at close distances and you may end up with a lot of portraits with too much space at the top of the frame, or miss important details at the bottom of the frame.
Rollei tried to work around these problems with a couple of attachments and extra features. For the close-up parallax issue, Rollei offered lens-mounted Rolleinar diopters whose viewing lens attachment compensated for parallax. And while these did enable the Rolleiflex to enter the realm of super close-up photography, they still didn’t offer a perfect, streamlined fix for parallax error.
There’s also another problem inherent in waist-level viewing – the fact that the image is reversed horizontally. While one can train themselves to get used to tracking subjects backwards, it takes an incredible amount of experience and skill to capture fast-moving objects and spontaneous candids. Rollei tried to address this on the 2.8D with the built-in Sports Finder, a pop-out flap on the viewfinder hood which enables eye-level viewing through a small window. The underside of the flap also contained a mirror which showed the shooter the top portion of the blocked focusing screen to aid with focusing. But with an even worse degree of parallax error due to the higher position of viewfinder flap, this method is clunky at best and useless at worst.
What’s depressing is that at the same time that the Rolleiflex was perfecting all operational and design aspects of the TLR (perhaps with the exception of interchangeable lenses, which Mamiya and others handled later), the camera was being pushed toward obsolescence at an impressive pace. Though Rollei did all they could to keep the Rolleiflex relevant, it just couldn’t keep up with the technological advancements of the days that came in the shapes of the rangefinders and SLRs of the 1950s and subsequent decades. TLRs quietly faded from the public eye, with professional medium format photographers abandoning the Rolleiflex and moving toward more flexible Hasselblad and Mamiya SLR systems.
Today, the archaic and expensive Rolleiflex could easily be considered a hip toy for retro-obsessed millennials or a shelf queen for camera collectors. Few opt for the Rolleiflex as a workhorse camera (though some still swear by it). Good examples run about $800-900 on average, and they’re pieces of history that deserve preservation. I don’t fault collectors or casual enthusiasts for leaving the Rolleiflex home on a shelf at all; in fact, it may be a wise investment.
But for those courageous enough to use one in the field, what awaits might just be the most beautiful shooting experiences in photography. Every action comes with tactile pleasure owing to its precise and balanced design. Every shutter release is nearly silent, making stealthy street shots and thoughtful candids possible. Its waist-level finder offers an unusual (albeit slower) peephole to the world. Its fixed focal length of 80mm provides a versatile field of view well-suited to the portrait and landscape alike, and the insane sharpness and resolving power of its Zeiss lens ensures results as awe-inspiring as the camera itself.
After shooting the Rollei for a couple of months, I felt my initial skepticism and doubt begin to dissipate. The Rolleiflex really is a great camera. I enjoy it immensely. But what is it that places this camera over all others in such a hallowed place in history? Why does it elicit the rosy smiles of old photographers, the Portuguese lyrics, and immortalization on a country’s currency?
It’s a tough question to answer, and the answer may be just a little esoteric. The Rolleiflex is a wonderful camera to use, but it’s also a camera that can be used and loved by anyone. Photographers of the past loved it for its functionality and incredible image quality, and subjects surely loved posing for such a beautiful machine. Today it’s no different – most subjects I shoot with the Rolleiflex marvel at the camera and immediately open themselves up to being photographed. It’s one of those rare cameras that promotes a genuine connection with your subject. And when both subject and photographer are left stunned by the beautiful images made possible by the machine, it’s clear that the Rolleiflex deserves its legendary status, and a place in the arsenals of all photo geeks who prize quality and design above convenience and speed.