In 1976, Rollei released the SLX, a fully electronic medium format SLR to compete with Hasselblad’s famous machines. With a built-in light meter, automatic motor advance, and shutter-priority auto-exposure, it was in many ways a far more advanced camera than the ones being produced by Rollei’s Swedish rivals. The photographic world took notice. Rollei had made another incredible camera.
In 1984 a totally new series of Rollei MF SLRs was unveiled; the 6000 series. Advancements in electronics throughout the 1980s and ‘90s meant Rollei’s newest SLRs could be smarter, more durable, and more feature-dense than any medium format SLR that came before them. For the next thirty years the brand would continue to push the range forward, resulting in some of the best medium format SLRs in the world.
But even though the 6000 series cameras were worthy of special attention, they never seemed to achieve the popularity of those by Hasselblad. That’s a shame, so let’s rectify it. With incredible build quality and unmatched optics from some of the world’s best lens makers, the 6000 series should be on any true photo geek’s list of covetous cameras. And of the many 6000 series cameras, the one’s to own may be the ones marked 6008.
The 6008 Professional, 6008 Professional SRC 1000, and 6008 Integral all pack the greatest combination of features, highest modularity, and best build quality of any camera in the 6000 series. While other cameras in the lineup forego certain features (the 6003 loses its interchangeable backs and the 6001 lacks a light meter, for example) the 6008 models do everything (and often much more) than any shooter could ask of a camera. There’s even the intelligently named 6008 AF, for those who want to own the world’s first autofocus 6 x 6 camera.
But what’s so special about a 6008? A lot, actually. For that, let’s dive deeper.
To start with the very basics, all of these cameras are SLR cameras, which may come as a surprise to those not neck-deep in camera culture. Tell even experienced photo geeks that Rollei made medium format SLRs and you’ll more often than not be telling them something they don’t know. The brand has been so closely associated with its classic Rolleiflex TLRs, the iconic cameras with two lenses stacked vertically on the front of the machine, that plenty of shooters fail to realize that they ever made anything else. But they did. What this means, practically speaking, is that the 6008s feature all the benefits of a single lens reflex design – interchangeable film backs, interchangeable lenses, precise framing, intense macro capability, choice of viewfinder types, and more.
Beyond this inherently practical functionality, the 6008s are also stunning in their quality. These are among the most robust cameras I’ve ever laid hands on. They’re dense and solid, with metal everywhere and rubberized coatings to protect vulnerable edges. When considering the Hasselblad and the 6008 side by side, the Rolleis flounce the Hassy. The German camera’s build quality is from the “dense as a stone” school while the Hasselblad (a stunningly built camera in its own right) feels more like a hard cheese.
But what really places the Rollei 6008 into the upper class of medium format SLRs are two simple things – an unmatched spec sheet, and world-class lenses. Let’s start with the specs.
This camera’s feature list reads more like a professional, Japanese 35mm SLR, with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a machine in that segment. And if you’ve shot the usual medium format cameras (TLRs, those basic rangefinder oafs, Mamiyas) prepare for a quantum leap. The 6008’s got multiple metering modes including average, spot, and multi-spot; multiple auto-exposure modes including shutter-priority, aperture-priority, full program, and full manual; an advanced LED display; shutter speeds from 1/500th or 1/1000th of a second down to 30 seconds in 1/3 steps; exposure compensation, depth-of-field preview, mirror lock-up, flash sync at every shutter speed, auto film transport, multiple exposure shooting, AE lock, and so much more. That’s an incredible list. And it’s not even the entire list.
Its lenses come from Rollei, Zeiss, or Schneider, three optical powerhouses whose reputations precede them. Most in-the-know shooters will recognize these names as some of the best in the world of lens-making, and the simple eye test confirms this. Images made with these lenses and a 6008 are simply among the highest quality you’ll find in a medium format film camera. Resolving power, flare and ghost control, contrast and color, were all world-class at the time of their release, and even today they’re incredible performers with real individuality and character.
And there’s no shortage of lenses to choose from. Each contains an electronically controlled leaf shutter and diaphragm, which allows for flash sync at all shutter speeds. There are lenses from Zeiss to span from 40mm to 500mm, and a handful of excellent offerings from Schneider. Macro lenses, teleconverters, and shift lenses add to the versatility, and there are even zoom lenses, something a bit unusual in the medium format world. Fast glass is available, though expect to pay a premium.
All this said, we know we’re dealing with a pinnacle camera. That’s obvious. But what’s not obvious (without spending some time with the camera) is the sheer potency of the Rollei 6008. This is a truly masterful photographic tool, which comes from a combination of intelligent design choices and surprisingly excellent ergonomics.
The 6008 features a detachable hand grip. Which sounds pretty underwhelming on paper. I mean, how exceptional can a hand grip be? But it really does make a world of difference. Where Hasselblad and TLR machines are a bit clumsy in operation, and frankly impossible to securely manage with one hand, the 6008’s handgrip creates a handling methodology that’s secure and sublime. It plugs into the shutter speed selector via a spring-loaded quick-disconnect, and pivots into four secure detents to allow comfortable positioning of the camera at different angles. An anodized release button positioned under the thumb allows incredibly quick adjustment, and a securing strap wraps around the operators knuckles to allow the camera to hang comfortably when not firmly gripped.
When using the handgrip, all of the most important controls fall perfectly under finger and thumb. There’s the on/off switch, which also selects shooting modes (single, continuous, and bracketing mode), the AE lock, shutter speed selector, depth-of-field preview, display on/off switch, and the shutter release. Compared to other medium format SLRs, this functionally effortless design is incredible. Without moving our hand position one bit, we’re able to control nearly everything we need to control to create an image. Our second hand is free to focus and set aperture on the lens.
The metering system is extremely accurate, factoring stray light through the viewfinder, offering choice of spot and average metering systems, and calculating through-the-lens, off-the-film exposures for perfect shots in any light. Set the shutter speed and aperture ring both to “A” and we’re effectively holding an incredibly capable medium format point-and-shoot camera. Of course, those who prefer aperture-priority, shutter-priority, or full manual are all equally well-served.
The ability to mix and match lenses, viewfinder, film (and even digital) backs makes this modular system camera a camera for every shooter. It’s equally capable of portrait sessions in a studio and landscape shooting in the field. Unlike the Hasselblad, which despite its quality has never had a reputation for durability, the Rollei can be lugged up a mountain or tossed on the back seat of a beach cruiser (I’ve done it). It’s no Nikonos, you’ll want to avoid water and serious drops, but the Rollei handles rough work better than most medium format cameras.
What else is there to say? This is one of those rare cameras in which I’ve been unable to find serious fault. It’s just a fantastic camera.
But despite all this glowing praise, there will be people for whom this camera won’t work. For one, it’s electronic. It uses batteries, and if the batteries aren’t charged the camera won’t work. This, for some photo geeks, is a non-starter. The simple solution? Buy a second battery and keep your batteries charged. For those worried about battery life, put those fears to rest – I shot this camera intermittently for sixteen months and never had to recharge the battery once.
And for still more, this camera will simply be too large and heavy. Hasselblads are lighter, even if they’re clumsier in the hand, and for some shooters lightness is a big deal. And TLRs, despite all their drawbacks in usability and versatility, are smaller and lighter still. If ultimate portability is a chief concern, think twice about buying a Rollei 6000 series machine. For shooters who want to expose medium format negatives in a travel size camera, there may be better cameras.
And I suppose there are folk who just can’t get behind the square format image. Although Instagram has helped repopularize this somewhat uncommon aspect ratio, the 6 x 6 frame is not for everyone. It’s also pretty outrageously loud, so street shooters of the timid variety may not take to it, even if I used it on the streets of New York City and Boston without much suffering. Oh, and it’s expensive. No escaping that.
But even if we focus on these small detractions, they’re soon forgotten. Shooting the Rollei 6008 is one of the most enjoyable ways to experience photography. The methodology of its design, the unsurpassed quality of its build, and the beauty of the images it makes would be rare individual traits. To find them all married together in one masterful machine is something really special.
And let’s not overlook the incredible fact that this camera with a couple of lenses would have sold, when new, for more than $10,000. Buyers today can grab a kit for under a grand. And though that is far less money than it used to sell for, the camera is no less amazing today than it was back then. For shooters searching for the very best medium format SLR, this is one camera that should be on the list.