Having produced professional cameras long before Nikon’s and Canon’s 35mm systems were even a glint in their makers’ eyes, Rollei is often heralded as the grandfather of camera manufacturers. With their extremely high quality Twin Lens Reflex cameras, Rollei succeeded in cornering the professional photography market by the mid-20th century. Their eye for innovation would never leave them, with a number of novel products rolling out of Braunschweig over the decades.
Despite being one of the oldest camera manufacturers in the world, Rollei never shied away from taking left-field approaches with their camera systems. If you’re bored of two-a-penny SLRs and crave something a bit different, Rollei might just be your best bet.
A failure to quickly master the dark arts of electronics from the 1970s onwards, an ill-fated arrangement with Hasselblad and a lack of price competitiveness compared to their new Japanese competitors stymied the company badly. Rollei barely limped into the 21st century. It did not have the resources left to sustain the promotion of its advanced Hy6 film-digital medium format camera, and the famous company finally closed its doors in 2015.
Today, professionals, enthusiasts and beginners alike can use equipment designed by a manufacturer that was not afraid to stand out from the crowd. Don’t be put off by the crappy GoPro clones and accessories put out under the Rollei name these days. If anything, these only serve as an acknowledgment of enduring affection many still feel for the storied brand.
So let’s jump right into the classics, oddities, and rarities that you should look out for at the beginning, middle and end of your dive into the Rollei wormhole.
Best Professionals’ Camera – Rolleiflex 6008 Models
Rollei released the SLX camera in the mid-1970s, 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.
Then in 1984 they released a totally new series of Rollei medium format SLRs; the 6000 series. These cameras are simply stunning. Advancements in electronics throughout the 1980s meant that 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.
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.
The 6008 Professional or 6008 Integral are the models to keep an eye out for. Square negatives emerge from its interchangeable film backs, which could be swapped mid-roll. A waist-level viewfinder provides a glorious view down onto the scene, though this could be swapped for a prism finder of choice if necessary.
A full range of accessories including extension tubes and film inserts for different formats meant the system could tackle any photographic challenge it was pitted against. Modernized electronics provided the full gamut of shooting options to a user. Various metering modes and autoexposure settings are possible, and the cameras could even shoot up to 2FPS, should you have the desire or money available to burn through 120 film so quickly. Flash sync up to 1/1000th of a second completes the specs of a system that almost feels like the final evolution of Hasselblad’s 500 C/M and EL/M medium format cameras.
The lenses for the system are top of the line, perhaps unmatched in by any other medium format camera system. As well as matching the Carl Zeiss glass of its Hasselblad counterpart punch-for-punch, 6000-series users also had access to lenses manufactured by Schneider-Kreuznach which were a full stop faster than the Zeiss glass. Lenses like the Schneider Apo Tele-Xenar 180mm f2.8 and the hyper rare Xenotar 80mm f2 provided the system with shock and awe comparable to Pentax’s SMC Takumar 105mm f2.4, or the Contax Zeiss 80mm f2 Planar.
If you can find one, a Rolleiflex 6000 series camera will still hold its own against the very best professional systems, film or digital, without a shadow of a doubt. For complete information on this sensational camera, including potential troubles to look out for, be sure to check James’ review of the 6008 Professional.
Best Enthusiasts’ Camera – Rolleiflex Twins Lens Reflex Camera
If you hold more than a passing interest in the history of the photographic medium (and as visitors to this website, you most likely do), you owe it to yourself to use a classic Rolleiflex TLR at least once in your life. Featured proudly on banknotes of certain sovereign states and crooned over in airy bossa nova tunes (yes, really), the twin-lens reflex camera invented by Franke & Heidecke in the 1920s succeeded in breaking into the public eye as no other camera had done before it.
From jobbing photogs recording the iconic sports events of the day to jet-setters capturing the first commercial transatlantic flights, the Rolleiflex was a sensation as soon as the first cameras left the factory.
So what makes the Rolleiflex stand out in the modern era? Well, you don’t have to stare at it for a long time to realize the camera does not feature the traditional configuration we’re used to today. On a Twin Lens Reflex camera, the duties of composing a photograph and capturing the image are split between two different lenses. You look into the viewing lens via a waist-level finder and magnifier. Aperture and shutter settings then fall neatly under your thumbs via wheels, making the camera a model of good ergonomics. The Rolleiflex is fitted with Carl Zeiss or Schneider taking lens, providing impressively sharp results for a camera of this vintage.
For a shooter picking up a Rolleiflex in 2019, you will be surprised how refreshing the experience of using this quirky machine is. The square negative and the top-down viewfinder will recalibrate your brain if you are stepping up from a 35mm system. The perfect ergonomics mean that you will be able to do so in minutes, not weeks.
As competition emerged from ever-improving SLR cameras, the company erred. Then, as Victor Hasselblad introduced his medium format SLR, a gentleman’s agreement in which Rollei would not compete with Hasselblad’s SLR system meant that Rollei sat back and watched as the Swedes pulled in oceans of cash and former former TLR users.
But that’s history now. Shooters today can find out for themselves why Rollei’s TLR cameras were so beloved. Different models produced over the span of fifty years are are available at all price points, depending on age, condition and the ability to swap out the viewfinder.
Best Entry Level Camera – Rollei 35
After the famed TLR cameras, Rollei is probably best known for its Rollei 35 compact, a camera that once again made virtue out of the unusual. The camera was designed by Heinz Waaske, whose genius went unrecognized at his former employer Wirgin and whose prototypes went unclaimed when offered to Leica and Kodak.
The tiny camera’s winding lever is operated with the left hand. It possesses a viewfinder, but this can only be zone focused. Many of the controls were mere millimeters apart from each other. And yet, with over 2 million cameras produced and the Queen of England amongst its users, it is fair to say that the Rollei 35 was a meteoric success.
This success stems from two considerable advantages that the camera holds over its competitors then and even now. Firstly, the camera is truly pocketable. I’m not talking about ‘pocketable’ in the way that Contax T2 shooters use the word (see my review here). The Rollei 35 is back of jeans certifiable. It allows enthusiasts to capture the in-between moments when a full-sized camera is impractical.
And then there’s the lens. Over the years many would swear fielty to the Carl Zeiss-designed 40mm Sonnar lens that comes with many of the Rollei 35 models. It allows users to capture moments with beautiful sharpness and colors reminiscent of all of the best vintage glass.
If you can cope with the camera’s scale focusing and quirky ergonomics, it still represents an exceptional choice as a carry-everywhere camera in 2019. Not all Rollei 35 models were born equally, however. There are the basic models, the normal models, and the later advanced models with high end electronic metering systems. These newer SE and TE versions command quite a premium over the lower-end models. As James noted in his 2017 review of the SE, “the differences between the SE (Sonnar Electric) 35 and the B35 are less Mercedes versus Volkwagen, more Mercedes versus one-wheeled skateboard.”
The Rollei 35 T is probably the best middle of the road model. It’s priced perfectly for the average hobbyist, packs a well regarded four-element Tessar lens, and retains build quality that is more Mercedes than “one-wheeled skateboard…”
Some Essential Lenses and Collectible Oddities
Sadly for Rollei, some of their more out-there systems proved to be too far ahead of their time to achieve commercial success (or simply too expensive). That means that there are a couple of martyr systems which may offer interest to (risk-taking) connoisseurs today.
In the 1970s, Rollei attempted to keep up with the staggering pace being set by Japanese SLR manufacturers. This led to the creation of the Rolleiflex SL35, a traditional 35mm SLR. The system boasted a fine range of Carl Zeiss manufactured lenses, which shared a design lineage with the Contarex SLR and Super Speed cine lenses from Zeiss. These same designs would later be refined and re-released for the Contax/Yashica cameras. Lenses such as the Zeiss 35mm f1.4 Distagon and 85mm f1.4 Planar even share the same unique triangular bokeh that the Super Speeds famously displayed in The Shining.
Although the system was not lacking in the optics departments, the bodies were a letdown. They represented some of Rollei’s first efforts at electronics, and you can really tell on some models like the Rolleiflex SL35 ME. The cameras are simply unreliable.
If you’re feeling truly adventurous, the Rolleiflex 3003 is worth the risk for its uniqueness and interest. Using these same Zeiss lenses, the 3003 is the 35mm shooter’s answer to the medium format 6008 system (or a Hasselblad). With a waist-level viewfinder and changeable film magazines, the 3003 is a truly unique 35mm camera system. Despite not being a commercial success, many in the camera industry took notice. Many of the camcorders of the late-90s and early 2000s were based on the handgrip concept pioneered by Rollei in the 3003.
If you are after an exotic TLR, Rollei created a telephoto and wide-angle version of their classic ‘Flex cameras, which featured a 135 F/4 Sonnar and 55mm F4 Distagon respectively. These special models go for quite a premium compared to the normal versions. They were meant for professionals as well, meaning the examples that come on sale have probably been used hard.
Feel that we’ve left a must-have Rollei off the list? Let us know in the comments.