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Small! Or more correctly, “Klein!”. That must have been the word Heinz Waaske would have had rolling around in his mind when he designed the Rollei 35 in the 1960s. After all, not many cameras come to mind where you know the primary, and above else, key design element.
Not much larger than the film cassette that is inserted into it, the Rollei 35 is a remarkable feat of engineering. Especially when you consider it provides you with a full 35mm frame. The convenience of the petite and easy to carry camera does come with some trade-offs though, mainly with some finger gymnastics required.
Even at a luxury price point, the Rollei 35 became very popular. That is obviously not just because of its size, the results play a big part in this. The results would win over many people, to the point where it became synonymous with the term “pocket camera”. Popularity was further reinforced with models introduced giving options on lenses for the more discerning.
A friend recently introduced me to a rating system for these cameras. It is a rating from zero to ten. If you notice, generally all Rollei 35 cameras have some dents. Theory from another friend is that being so small, they tend to be hung from people’s wrist. As such, they get banged around a lot and have dents. If the camera has one or two dents, it can be considered in good condition, assuming it also works.
Funnily, if it has many dents, it just means it has been used quite a bit and may be a great user camera. And a user camera this is. While it looks very pretty, with dials at the front, both black and chrome versions and a lens which retracts when not in use, it is crying out to be carried and used.
Furthermore, by its nature of being such a unique looking camera, it has its own cult following. Unfortunately, that has led to prices being driven upwards, to the point where many potential buyers must really be sure they want one.
In fact, the Rollei 35 been so popular, a modern company called MiNT Camera is currently in the process of bringing a camera to market which looks to be based on the Rollei 35. They have previously made an Instax version of a Rolleiflex, so this looks like a very promising endeavour.
This is a camera I have used now for over a year. During that time, I have taken it on few trips as well as used it around Sydney. I have also had a couple of things go wrong, mainly user error. With all of that, a bit more about the camera, and we can then see how I got on with it.
In 1960, Wirgin engineer Heinz Waaske proposed that customers wanted a smaller camera. He theorised that the half-frame and 16mm camera market was driven by that requirement rather than film economy. His premise was that if it was possible to get a full 35mm frame from an equally small camera, it would excite the customers and sell very well.
A couple of years later in 1962, Waaske had completed the technical designs in his spare time at home. He then had some prototypes made at Wirgin. Once the prototypes were ready, he took them to Heinrich Wirgin who promptly scolded him for using his prototype facilities for a personal project. Wirgin then announced that the company was exiting camera production.
Waaske did take his camera to Kodak and Leitz in the following couple of years but did not have any success with either of them. Eventually in 1965 he was hired by Rollei and the camera was put to the side.
By chance, the Managing Director at Rollei, Heinrich Peesel, noticed the little camera one day by accident. He decided that Rollei should produce it. As the prototype was made by the Wirgin workshop, the camera had to be redesigned using parts from Rollei’s supply chain partners.
In 1966 the Rollei 35 was presented in Photokina and with a redesign incorporating a Zeiss Tessar 40mm f/3.5 lens, a Compur shutter and a Gossen CdS exposure meter. The exposure meter did mean it needed a battery, so a spot was incorporated within the film chamber for the PX13 or PX625 mercury battery.
Production was ramped up that year in Germany until 1971 when it was then transferred over to Singapore. This continued until 1981 when the plant was shut down and production of the Rollei 35 models were discontinued. With the production in Singapore, this enabled alternative components like a Copal leaf shutter and a Nissei exposure meter.
The original Rollei 35 was produced in Germany and Singapore, with the one in this article being the latter. It is also referred to as the standard model. Several variants were also produced, from the basic model, the B & C 35, through to models with Sonnar lenses. Apart from Zeiss, lenses were also provided by Schneider.
During its time, the Rollei 35 was considered the smallest full frame 35mm camera ever until the Minox 35 was introduced.
The Rollei 35, specifically the standard one as this model is called, is a 35mm compact sized camera without a rangefinder. It is an all-metal construction which can be found in black or chrome with black finishes. This copy is black and has a 40mm f/3.5 Tessar lens made by Rollei.
Manufacturing for this camera was in Singapore, so it would have been constructed between 1971 and 1974. Controls for film sensitivity, between ISO 25 and 1600, or DIN 15 and 33 are on the right-hand side on the front. Also on the front is a dial for a film type reminder, giving the option for colour negatives, colour daylight transparencies, colour tungsten, and black and white film.
The same dials also control the aperture and shutter speed. They have labelling on the top edge of the dial, so that you can look down on them. The aperture also has a lock at the bottom to avoid accident movement.
Focusing is by estimation or using an external rangefinder. The distance is marked on the end of the lens barrel. On top of this one it is in imperial, but it has the equivalent markings in metric on the bottom. That is great for those of us that think that feet are something on the end of our legs.
The lens itself collapses when not in use, by holding a button on the top, next to the shutter release button, and pushing in. The camara will not fire if the lens is collapsed. It does make it very pocketable. One reason it will not fire when collapsed is that the shutter is designed and built in two parts to fit into the diminutive body. When extended, the two parts come together to allow the shutter to function.
The shutter release is on top right, which incorporates a traditional screw thread for a remote cable. To accommodate the small size, the film advance lever is on the left-hand side of the camera and the film travels from right to left.
A match needle meter window is also on the camera top plate. The reading is taken by the meter cell located at the front of the camera, on the right-hand side. Adjust the aperture and shutter speed until the needle aligns with the circle and you are good to go. The meter never turns off, but if kept in a dark bag or case, it should last for a few years, or at least the old mercury batteries did. Don’t leave batteries in a camera that long though, if not being used, to avoid leakage.
The viewfinder itself is a plain affair, with the frame lines and markings for parallax correction. No shooting information is displayed.
Behind the camera is the lever to release the film wind for rewinding the film, next to the viewfinder. A small circular disc, is also there, but not referred to in the manual. From some expert input, I found out that this is a holding screw to keep the top plate on.
Underneath the camera there is a plethora of items. The rewind crank, the accessory/flash shoe, and tripod socket. Embedded next to the tripod socket is the exposure counter. Finally, there is a release to allow the back to come off to load the camera with film and a battery if required.
Loading the camera is done by inserting the film from the right side and threading through to the take up spool. The pressure plate must be lowered, and the film must go between it and the lens back element.
If you need to insert a new PX13 or PX625 equivalent battery or adapter, it is at the top section of the film cartridge area. Using a coin, remove the cover and insert the battery. Keep in mind, you cannot do this mid roll. If the batteries expired before you have finished your roll, you will have to use sunny-16 or an external meter to finish it off. It is probably the most complained about design feature of this camera.
The Rollei 35 is usually held onto through a wrist strap attached to the side of the camera. This design was on purpose to allow easy access to it and convenience.
I came across the Rollei 35 as part of a very successful auction held in New Zealand of vintage cameras. In that auction I won about a dozen sought after cameras at very good prices. I was excited when they all arrived and the Rollei 35 was one of the smallest bundles of bubble wrap.
It is a camera I have always wanted, one that most collectors have in their collection. Being an auction house, from which I had to buy remotely, I was really hoping it was in working condition. While it has signs of having been used a considerable amount, the camera is in great working condition. On the rating system mentioned above, it is almost a one. While there is significant brassing, I can see only a single small dent on it.
At the first opportunity, I loaded it with some Fujicolor C200. This was for a trip up the Central Coast of New South Wales, about an hour north of Sydney. I found that it is quite a fiddly camera to load. Mainly, due to the battery being in such a strange spot. I got a five-cent coin and undid the cover and put one in. It just felt like my fingers would end up in something they should not touch, with the back off and everything exposed.
Secondly, I dropped the film a couple of times, but that is probably a combination of the camera design and my clumsiness that day. When you insert the film cartridge, there is nothing holding it in until you put the back on, so you must hold it while you thread the film.
Having loaded it, I started to appreciate the camera in use. The viewfinder is nice, big, and clear. Metering is quite easy to read on top. Being able to see the aperture and speed settings when looking down helps simplify it too. Focusing is easy, I just wish I had noticed the metric distances underneath the lens earlier than I did. My brain just does not work in feet and inches.
One minor gripe, and to be honest not a major issue, is the position of the meter cell on the front. It has caused me some confusion. I keep covering it with my finger due to the way I hold the camera, so I get some weird readings. Luckily, I recognise it when it happens and move my finger. The reason it is such a small gripe is because they had to put it somewhere. On a camera that small, it will always get covered by someone with the way they hold the camera.
When I finished that first roll, I got it back from the lab and excitedly took it home and scanned the film. This is where my admiration of this camera really started in earnest. The results from the Tessar lens surprised me on how good they are. The Tessar is the lower grade option lens too, compared to the Sonner, so I was surprised and happy.
The film was well exposed, the metering works very well. I found sharpness was good across the frame with no sign of loss from f/5.6 or smaller, as you move away from the centre. Contrast is also good, with not much in terms of muddy darks. Exposure is very consistent across the frame with a bit of vignetting up to f/5.6. You would expect that with a Tessar. Also consider the gymnastics the Rollei engineers have done to cover the frame with such a small camera.
Unfortunately, the following two rolls were a bit of a disaster. Again, I must take some responsibility here, but the film did not catch. After shooting these rolls, I knew they had not caught when it came time to rewind. The camera does not really indicate if it is advancing apart from the little wheel within the rewind lever.
One set of photos lost was where my sister was visiting with my nephew from Singapore, and we had gone out to the Blue Mountains for the day. To say I was annoyed is an understatement.
Having learnt my lesson, I made sure I concentrated every time I loaded it since then. My following rolls were taken from my local neighbourhood, across Sydney and a couple of trips into South Australia. The camera has performed faultlessly whether colour or black and white film. Each time it has been a great travelling companion and given me results I have enjoyed.
The proof is in the fact I have used this camera consistently for many months, and will still pick it up and use it. Every time I have, the results have been good. It has shown me that my concerns that Rollei had skimped on quality for size are unfounded.
Roughly the same time I started using the Rollei 35, I had started working with a local university. Loading it up with HP5 Plus, I enjoyed having it in my bag when I knew the sunlight would come through all the interesting architecture. That is when I also realised it was not just for when I wanted to shoot or travel, it is the perfect carry everywhere camera. At work, walking the dog or even when heading out to the shops.
My wife and I enjoy weekend markets and go as often as we can. Whether antique, collectors or organic food markets, each one of them has an atmosphere I like to capture. The Rollei 35 invariably would be the chosen camera to take with me. Talk about unobtrusive. I would set it to a mid-aperture, like f/8, take a reading, and then it would be nice and quick. Very few exposures would come out unusable.
The Rollei 35 and I had a bit of a rough start. Between fiddly loading, blank rolls and covering the meter constantly, it could have been a short-lived relationship. But I knew it was an iconic camera for a reason, and has a cult following, so I gave it some more time. I am glad I did. Once I overcame those issues and got to terms with using it, the results I have gotten out of it have made it worthwhile. Not only that, but I also enjoy using it.
Would I recommend the Rollei 35? Yes, I would. Once you get up and going with it, it is a very convenient and fun camera to use. Then the results, even with the Tessar on this copy, are of a very good quality. I would not hesitate to use this camera now for a holiday, to capture the moments. There is a reason they are climbing in price.
The GAShaus: Rollei 35
Mike Eckman: Rollei 35T (1984)
Alex Luyckx: Camera Review Blog No. 113 – Rollei 35T
Kosmofoto: Rollei 35 S Review
Casual Photophile: Rollei 35 SE – Camera Review