A Tale of Two Rolleis

Rolleiflex Automat K4 with Zeiss-Opton Tessar 75mm f/3.5 Lens

An old Armenian man recently prevented me from throwing away three hundred dollars on a bum camera.

I had bought a circa-1951 Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) from a local camera shop. I’d wanted to get a TLR for a while, and found one at what I thought was a pretty good price. I wasn’t able to get a test roll shot immediately after buying the camera. But I wanted to get it looked at by an expert, so I took it to the Krimar Photo Shop in Elmwood Park, NJ.

The shop is a complete anachronism. Signage and inventory from the previous century, across the street from a strip mall. I walked in and there were three older men present, passing the time. Krikor, the proprietor, was one of them — a mustachioed fellow standing behind the counter as his friends sat off to the side, conversing in their native tongue.

Krikor is the east coast expert on Rolleis. He looked at the camera — “Very old” he said with a thick accent. “What do you want done?”

I responded that I’d like to have him check the focus for accuracy, do a CLA (Clean, Lube, Adjust) if necessary, and get a bright focusing screen installed. He removed the back and spun the film transport mechanism with his fingers. “A little gummy, but is ok. I take into back and check focus.”

He returned a few minutes later with a sour look on his face. “Is no good. The lens decemented. When they make in factory, they glue together. Glue doesn’t last forever. Can put it back together, but best you use the camera at f/16. Maybe f/8.” I thanked Krikor, and asked him how much I owed him. “No charge. I call you if I get a camera in for sale.”

I had bought the camera from a shop with a 30-day return policy. I had about a week left. The receipt was in the car. I drove directly over there and let them know what I had discovered, and got my money back.

A Brief Medium Format Primer

Another view of the Rollei, with the finder collapsed

Now, before we get into the second Rollei — which, thankfully, does not have a bum lens — let’s talk about what the hell a Rolleiflex is and why I would want one. Rollei is a German camera company, most famous for their Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera. It’s a medium format camera, which means that it captures images using 120 roll film. Medium format comes in varying sizes — 6 x 4.5, 6 x 6, 6 x 7, and 6 x 9 are the most common. Those figures are all in centimeters, and the Rolleiflex is a 6 x 6 camera — the negatives are about 2.5″ square.

Keeping units the same, 35mm film is 0.94 x 1.4″ in size. The much larger negative produced by a 6 x 6 camera captures much more detail, producer smoother tonal gradations, and delivers a shallower depth of field than 35mm at the same aperture and focal length. Because of the larger negative, the focal length of a “normal” lens is also different — if 50mm is your standard focal length on a 35mm camera, 80mm is the standard for 6 x 6.

I’ve shot medium format in the past — I learned to shoot film on a 6 x 6 Hasselblad SLR. The equipment is generally big, heavy, and clunky. The lenses are much bigger than 35mm SLR lenses as they have to cover a larger negative. And therefore the hoods are bigger. And many cameras have interchangeable backs to speed the changing of film rolls — you only get 12 shots on a roll of 120 when shooting 6 x 6 — so those are big and heavy too. All this requires you to have a big and heavy tripod, and eventually a big and heavy chiropractor bill.

There are alternatives to SLRs, of course. Medium format rangefinders are bigger than a Leica, but much smaller than a Hasselblad — and they’re generally pretty expensive, even on the used market. Toy cameras — like the Diana and the Holga – are entirely plastic — right down to cheap f/8 lens — and weigh next to nothing — but don’t try to shoot them indoors in available light.

Then there is the Twin Lens Reflex — a unique beast unto themselves. The cameras feature two lenses of identical focal lengths. The top lens is the one which you actually use to compose images. Because there is no need for a mirror box, the lens can be closer to the film plane. Much like a rangefinder, the lack of a mirror box makes it possible for the optics to be smaller.

TLRs come in all shapes and sizes — my Dad actually had a few Mamiya TLRs in storage that I was able to shoot with. The Mamiya is unique to the style in that it actually has interchangeable lenses — and a bellows focusing system that is great for close-up work — the camera even has a built in indicator to help you correct for parallax errors. But they’re not any smaller than a Hasselblad.

On the other hand, the Rolleiflex is the king of the TLR. Relatively light and compact, engineered to German standards, with optics by Carl Zeiss. Yup, the Rollei is what I wanted.

My Rollei(s)

So, that takes us back to that day when I decided to buy one. Of course, the Rollei I could afford was a 1951 model — the “K4A” according to the serial number. And, as such, it had a few drawbacks. The main one was the focusing screen. Yes, it was big, but it was by no means bright. Even though the lens has a fairly decent f/3.5 maximum aperture, focusing indoors was nigh impossible — it was just too dark and murky. When these cameras were made, 800 speed color negative and 3200 speed black and white film did not exist.

Thankfully, a fellow by the name of Bill Maxwell in Georgia makes newer, brighter focusing screens for medium format cameras, the Rollei included. The desire to get one of these installed was my main impetus for taking the K4A into Krikor for service. And back to the store the K4A went. I started searching for my second Rollei.

The search didn’t take too long. After some searching on my general used equipment haunts, I found a promising camera on eBay. It was a similar vintage to the one I had just returned — a K4 this time around, manufactured in 1950 based on the serial number. But it had been recently been worked on by Harry Fleenor — the west coast Rollei expert. And it had the Maxwell screen — a $200 item — installed already. Yup, this sounded like a winner — if I could get it for a decent price.

And, luckily I did. The auction ended at around $400 — two days after I had returned the previous camera. Considering the cost of the screen itself, installation and CLA prices, I thought I had scored a pretty good deal. And the seller was very happy to extend his return period so that I could shoot a quick test roll to confirm that everything was in working order.

Looking down at the waist-level finder

Shooting on a Rolleiflex with the bright focusing screen is a dream. The camera features a waist-level finder — flip open the top and barn doors surround the focusing screen. You can hold the camera at your side, look down and focus and compose images. A magnifier flips up to get you a better look at the center of the screen for critical focusing. Because there is no prism, your image is reversed left-right. Move the camera right and the image shifts left, and vice versa. This takes a bit of getting used to.

Waist-level finder with magnifier deployed

You can also use the camera at eye-level. Push the front panel of the finder in, and you’ll see a small square and a magnifying lens. Look through the lens to focus — everything will be backwards and upside down — and then move your eye to the square opening to compose the image.

The finder configured for eye-level shooting

The camera’s shutter release is on the bottom right of the body. A built-in lock is present to ensure that you don’t trip it accidentally. The film advance is on the right side — in another one of the Rollei’s peculiarities, you have to wind forward and then back a little to advance each frame. Locks are presents in both directions to ensure that you don’t go too far.

The focus knob is on the left side of the camera. Close focusing isn’t a strong point — it can get as close as two feet — and because you are physically looking through a different lens than the one capturing the photo, parallax will come into play. Parallax is caused by the physical seperation of the lens you view through and the one that takes the picture — it changes the framing of the images, and can cause you to get a significantly different photo if you get extremely close to your subject.

The two foot minimum focus distance for the Rollei helps to avoid this phenomenon, as you simply can’t focus that close on a subject. However, there are special close-focus Rolleinar filters available that will let you get closer to your subjects — and they have built-in correction for parallax to boot.

The camera’s taking lens is a Carl Zeiss tessar design — which basically means that it’s small and sharp. The 75mm focal length is only very slightly wider than normal for the 6 x 6 format, and features a maximum aperture of f/3.5. (There are f/2.8 Rolleis available, but they can be pricey and a bit bigger — as far as light gathering capability goes, I didn’t think it was worth it for half a stop — certainly not with the fast film available today).

The taking lens features a leaf shutter. This design puts the shutter in the lens, rather than in the body as in most 35mm cameras with focal plane shutters. The aperture is controlled by a silver dial on the face of the camera; another dial controls the shutter speed. The shutter tops out at 1/500 — although this setting can only be reached when the shutter isn’t cocked. Because of this, I generally try to load slow film on bright days and consider my top speed to be 1/250 — I’d rather not burn a frame or lose a shot because I was locked in at 1/500 in a situation where it wasn’t possible to get the exposure I wanted.

The Proof in the Pudding

I shot a test roll on each camera and actually ended up getting them back at the same time. I used the same film for each test — Ilford HP5, a 400 speed black and white stock that I like very, very much. The differences in the images from the two cameras were staggering — Krikor was not kidding when he said the lens on my first Rollei was decemented!

The images from that camera reminded me of a cross between a Lensbaby and a Holga. The center was only slightly sharp when it was the focal point of an image. It gave way quickly to crazy, swirly bokeh. It definitely looks cool — but it’s a look I can get from a ten dollar toy camera with a plastic lens.

In contrast, the images from the second Rollei were tack sharp. Just what I expected from German optics. It looks like I’ve got a winner. Now I just need to find some more time to shoot with it.


… and not decemented

Elisa checks on dinner. (Decemented)

Elisa showing off a photo on her iPhone. (Decemented)

Hoboken PATH Station (Not Decemented)

Taken at f/22 with the Decemented Rollei — imperfections are still evident, but minimized.

The same shot, taken with the decemented Rollei at f/5.6 — the issues with the lens are much more visible