Let’s not bury the lede; the Robot Royal 24 is the type of unique camera for which Casual Photophile was created. It’s an all-mechanical clockwork camera that shoots 24x24mm square format images on 35mm film. It’s got a mainspring that the user tensions by winding (like a wristwatch), after which pressing the shutter release will both fire the shutter and advance the film automatically in either single frame or burst modes. If all of that doesn’t send a tingle through at least one segment of your anatomy, then you’re on the wrong website.
I’ve spent two months shooting this weird and wonderful camera, and during my “hero’s journey” I’ve learned many things. Some of these have nothing to do with cameras or photography. But if the uncountably vast number of discouraging messages in my self-named email folder titled Rejection Letters is any indication, there’s little interest in my sprawling prose when it’s not elucidating the world of cameras and photography. Hey, let’s just talk about the camera!
The Robot Royal 24 has taught me, among other things, that uniqueness isn’t automatically accompanied by greatness. The fact that a camera achieves something in a unique way sometimes points to the brilliance of its inventor, or to the thoroughness of the creators’ patent lawyers (case study, Polaroid at their height). But uniqueness of method sometimes also occurs simply because a creator chose to do things in an overcomplicated or less effective way while everybody else chose intuitive or better ways.
It’s like being the guy at college who spends seven months learning how to ride a unicycle so that you can be the only guy on campus riding a unicycle. Yeah, you’re the only one riding a unicycle, but there might be a reason for that.
Despite its unique motor drive and unusually square image area (which allowed the user to shoot fifty images on the typical thirty-six exposure roll of film), the Robot Royal 24 didn’t blaze trails or burn away the weeds of all other inventors. Though its technical capability (coupled rangefinder, high performance lenses, and motorized film advance) should have made it a real competitor to the Leica and Zeiss cameras of the day, half-frame cameras have a long history of struggles and the Robot Royal 24 (and the more traditional Royal 36) never outmoded established models in its own time. Even today its finicky film cartridges and the challenges of scanning a non-standard film frame make it a slow, sometimes frustrating camera to use. I would never use the Robot Royal 24 as my daily shooter, and I’d never choose it over a Leica or a Nikon (even compared with contemporary models from its own era).
But it’s also true that the Robot Royal 24 is one of the most interesting and well-made film cameras I’ve used in the six years that I’ve been running Casual Photophile. It’s a capable camera with a uniqueness that’s become more charming through the passage of time, and I’m unabashedly happy that this camera exists and that I’ve had the chance to shoot one. It’s a magical machine.
A Very Brief History of Otto Berning Co. and the Robot Camera
Heinz Kilfitt was born in Germany in 1898. The son of a watchmaker, he worked repairing watches in his youth, and was acutely interested in photography. While working at an optical company in Berlin, he designed a compact, half-frame, spring-driven camera, and attempted to sell the design in 1931 to Kodak and Agfa, being rejected by each. Soon after, he successfully sold the design to Hans Heinrich Berning, who with financial backing from his father established Otto Berning & Co.
Otto Berning & Co. was granted its first patent for a Robot camera in 1934, with a United States patent following closely in 1936. The Robot I was an astoundingly compact half-frame, interchangeable-lens, viewfinder camera made of stainless steel, with a spring-loaded motor drive capable of firing four semi-automatic frames in one second using a rotary shutter capable of speeds from 1 second to 1/500th of a second. This camera used a proprietary Robot film cassette likely based on the existing Agfa cassette, and featured a built-in user-selectable yellow filter.
The Robot II was released in 1938, and was generally similar to the Robot I. Some improvements were made to ergonomics, such as a redesigned but still proprietary film cassette, and the camera was simplified in other ways, including elimination of the built-in yellow filter. At the outset of World War II, production of Robot cameras for civilian use was halted while the company focused its attention on producing cameras for the German military (mostly the Luftwaffe).
In the early 1950s, the Robot line expanded dramatically. In addition to a new version of the Robot II made to accept standard 35mm film cartridges (now called the Robot IIA), the firm created the Model III and the Robot Royal. Released in models exposing the 24x24mm and the standard 24x36mm image area, the Robot Royal 24 and 36 (as they are called) were among the final and most advanced iterations on the Robot formula. These cameras were full-featured machines with built-in rangefinders and automatic motors capable of firing up to eight frames per second (in the case of the Royal 24). These and other models would continue to be produced from 1951 to the 1990s.
Robot still exists today under a different name and as part of a larger group of industrial optical companies. For our purposes, this is irrelevant.
What is a Robot Royal 24?
Of all the cameras in the Robot lineup, the most interesting to me is the Robot Royal 24. With its built-in rangefinder, interchangeable bayonet lens mount accepting Schneider or Zeiss-made lenses, and its 24x24mm image area, it combines the highest capability with the most unique functionality.
On the top of the camera we find the film rewind knob, threaded shutter release button, a cold accessory shoe, and a film frame counter. Beyond these, the top plate is devoid of controls, which are instead mounted on the front of the camera.
Holding the camera to the eye as if to take a photo, the front left houses a protruding knob for selection of shutter speeds from 1/2 second to 1/500th of a second, plus Bulb mode for long exposure. Front right we find a similar knob with a lever attached. This switches the camera from single shot to burst mode. Additional front controls reside on the lens; manual focus and aperture selection rings. Underneath the lens is a large tab that looks deceptively like the manual focus tab found on many rangefinder lenses, but is in fact the lens release. Swinging this tab with the camera held to one’s eye as if it were a focusing tab will inevitably cause the lens to fall to the floor of an Italian camera shop in an element-shattering cascade (a lesson learned and subsequently passed on to me by a friend of mine who learned the hard way).
The rear of the camera is sparse. A viewfinder with integrated rangefinder focusing patch, a shutter lock and film rewind switch, and a film frame counter adjustment dial. On the left side is the latch for the hinged swing-away film door where standard rolls of 35mm film are loaded. The bottom plate has a threaded tripod mount, a stand-up foot, and the essential spring motor winding knob.
Loading the Robot Royal 24
Winding and firing the mainspring of the Robot Royal 24 is one of life’s simple pleasures. Getting there isn’t so pleasant. That’s because in order to use the Robot Royal 24 we must first load the Robot Royal 24.
Readers may be familiar with the expression “easier said, than done.” But have you heard the expression “easier said through a mouthful of nine volt batteries, than done?” I’ll bet not. And that’s because this expression did not exist until I invented it after loading a Robot Royal 24. But I challenge anyone reading this to engage in the two actions – try loading a Royal 24 and then try saying the words “I must load a Robot Royal 24,” while sucking on three nine volt batteries. The latter is easier and more enjoyable. But I’ll try to explain as quickly as I can. I’ll try to Hemingway my way through this.
To load a Robot Royal 24, the user simply performs the following – open the film door and lift the film take-up knob, which is stiff and resistant to lifting, and modeled after the finest deep tissue massaging implements of the Spanish Inquisition. Once you’ve bandaged your bloodied fingertips, remove the Robot’s take-up cassette (a metal canister into which the film is wound during use, and rewound out of after exposure).
This light-tight take-up cassette is a three-part assembly made of brass and metal, and it’s made to accept the film leader of the normal 35mm film cassette that we’re loading into the camera. It does so via a take-up spool that’s housed within an internal canister, which is in turn housed within an external canister. A felt strip keeps light out and (doesn’t) prevent the film negative from being scratched as it rockets into and out of the take-up spool during normal use. Grab the razor-thin edge of the internal canister and spin mightily in the opposite direction from which you’re spinning the outer canister. Then pull the two metal tubes apart, revealing the frail take-up spool, which will invariably clatter to the floor.
Pick it up and insert the film leader, securing it to the tab via the film’s second sprocket hole (as per the user’s manual). Attempt to reassemble the four flimsy components; film, take-up spool, inner canister, and outer canister. Hold your breath, and fumble around ineffectually for the next eight minutes with your neck painfully craned forward and your red face an inch from your quivering hands like a harbor seal attempting to play an ocarina, while ensuring that the film stays attached to the spool and that the spool stays centered within the inner canister and that the inner canister locks correctly into the outer canister. When you’ve failed at this three times, get it right the fourth and install the take-up cassette back into the camera. You’ll need to pull up on the film take-up knob once again, because the camera is older than dirt and tolerances are a few millimeters off (without exaggeration, things are astoundingly tight).
Next you’ll need to insert the new film cassette into the camera. This is simple, actually. Just drop it in place in the same way that we do with most other 35mm film cameras. The tricky part comes when we need to ensure that the film is aligning with the sprockets of the automatic advance spindle. If the film was loaded unevenly (by even the tiniest margin) the film will eventually misalign and seize in the camera. This is a result of the automation of the film advance. It’s a rapid advance motor, and it moves the film very quickly. When things are even slightly misaligned, the result is a slipped tooth and ripped film. If everything is aligned well, we’re good to go. Close the back door, wind the mechanism, and get shooting.
The thing about the Robot, however, is that when the mainspring has been totally wound it’s capable of firing twenty-four photos without stopping, and in burst mode it’s capable of firing eight frames per second. This is fantastic for shooting action, but it also has a drawback. In three or four seconds we’ve burned through a roll of film and we need to repeat this loading process. My advice – take things slow and enjoy the process of making images. Because changing film is a nightmare.
Oh, and listen up, Ghost of Hemingway. I see you there, floating ephemerally in my office, shaking your head with a frown. “Five hundred words to explain how to load film?” Deal with it, Papa. I’m a hack writer. We’ve already covered that.
[I practiced changing film for twenty-nine consecutive hours, and then made the video below!]
Ergonomics and Usability
Happily, with the film loaded we’re ready to enjoy the Robot. And truthfully there’s a lot to enjoy. It starts with quality. Put the Robot into any seasoned film photographer’s hands and we’ll likely hear comparisons to Leica cameras. And it’s true that the Robot is just as solid and as heavy as the Leica M3. Heavier, in fact, by about half a pound. Its dials and mechanisms click into place with the same weighted force of the machines made in Wetzlar, and the interchangeable lenses mount with precision. Ratcheting the mainspring wind knob issues a delightful gear-clicking noise, and actuating the shutter release launches the machine into a kinetic symphony of buzzing, and whirring, and snapping. It’s the most mechanical camera I’ve ever used, and it’s a masterpiece for those of us who think mechanical things can be masterpieces.
Ergonomics are mostly fine, though far from perfect. Other more traditionally designed cameras are more comfortable and more intuitive. The front-mounted and rather tiny shutter speed knob is too small to twist comfortably and impossible to adjust accurately with the camera raised to one’s eye. The automatic advance motor results in a spinning knob on the top of the camera, which will be slowed if impaired lightly by one’s finger as it rests on the top of the camera (which is a natural position for said finger). The ovoid shape of the camera (devoid of ergonomic grips), a lack of strap lugs, and the generally excessive weight of the machine creates a situation in which the potential for drops is very real. Only the well-textured surface and our own arthritic claws save the camera from gravity’s pull.
The viewfinder is basic. It provides exactly zero information beyond framing and focus. There’s no indication of the selected shutter speed or aperture, and no frame-lines at any focal length (though all of the interchangeable lenses are rangefinder coupled). The yellow focusing patch is acceptably bright, and combined with the camera’s above-average rangefinder base length, achieving perfect focus is easy enough (even if the focus throw of my 45mm Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar lens is uncomfortably long).
While the Robot Royal is a capable rangefinder focusing camera, it performs best when we use it as a scale focus camera, a truth obviously intended or at least planned for by its designers. Color-coded indices on the focus distance scale correspond with colored numbering of the aperture ring and colored dots on the lens barrel. When the aperture ring is set to a color-coded aperture, a green F/8 for example, it’s possible to set the focus distance scale to a green dot. When set this way, two separated green dots on the lens barrel indicate the zone of focus (in the case of the green index and F/8, focus will be achieved on any subject from infinity to twelve feet from the camera). It’s a genius system that we’ve seen in plenty of other cameras, but on the Robot Royal it’s done to perfection.
Shooting Squares and Image Quality
Is the square format Robot Royal 24 the perfect 35mm film camera for the Instagram generation? How long has it been since Instagram was square format only? Am I old? Is “instagram generation” something an old person would say? Am I having a mid-life crisis? An existential crisis? The answers to those questions will have to wait until the cork’s been pulled on tonight’s bottle of Suntory Hibiki Japanese whiskey.
Crises aside, there’s no denying that the square format changes the way we approach photography, and if we’re receptive to that sort of thing the Robot Royal 24 can provide an energizing and exciting break from the normal. Everybody else is shooting a normal aspect ratio. Owning the square format could be a way to say something unique and interesting with our images. At the very least it’s a fun diversion.
Knowing that a square is made up of equal length on all four sides didn’t stop me from frequently orienting the Robot in a vertical portrait configuration, only to sheepishly reorient the camera once I’d looked through the square viewfinder. The square format changes the way we frame and compose and shoot. Symmetry becomes more important than ever. The rule of thirds dissolves to a memory. It’s a challenge to balance the frame in some situations, though users of TLRs or 6×6 medium format cameras will feel more at home than those of us accustomed to more traditional aspect ratios.
The Robot cameras are capable of mounting lenses from ultrawide to long telephoto (most of which use auxiliary viewfinders), and image quality differs across the range. For the most part, the lenses are made by top companies in tried and true formulations. The 50mm F/2 Zeiss Sonnar was the popular performance standard on the Robot camera, with the more common lens being the Schneider-Kreuznach 45mm F/2.8 Xenar with which my example is equipped.
This standard lens works well. Soft at wide apertures, but sharp enough when stopped down to F/8, it renders with the typical Schneider character that the writers at Casual Photophile have chatted about endlessly. At F/8 and with scale focus methodology, the images made with this camera are sharp and punchy. Shot wide open we see plenty of softness on the corners, even in this “cropped” square format.
On the whole, I like the shots that this camera and lens can make. They’re far from clinically perfect, but get the settings right and things look great. For a camera and lenses from the 1950s, images are acceptably sharp and rendered with old-world style.
[The shots below were made by pal of the site, Stephen Byrne and are published here with permission]
Robots of all stripes are collector cameras. They’re the kind of cameras that old camera nerds love to put on a shelf, occasionally wind and fire. As such, prices are fairly high by “old rangefinder” standards. They don’t command the kind of cost as does a Leica M, but they’re significantly pricier than something like a Canonet. All that said, these cameras deserve to be used. They’re excellent machines and are capable of taking great images.
Potential buyers who are interested in more than just collecting should look for either the Robot I, which is incredibly compact and a very interesting camera, or the later Robot Royals in 24 or 36 configuration (personal preference on this). For me, the Robot Royal 24 profiled here is the one to own. I own plenty of other standard aspect ratio cameras. This machine adds to my arsenal a uniqueness that’s hard to argue against. If that sounds appealing to you, you’ll probably like the Robot Royal 24.