Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The Ultimate Photographic Machine (or only cool guys use a Rolleiflex)

The first rule of Rolleiflex club is you don't talk about Rolleiflex club
This post is inspired by the recent road to Damascus conversion of a certain Mr Micheal Reichmann of the Luminous Landscape fame who recently purchased a Rolleiflex in order to 'rediscover his craft'.
In an earlier essay on the LL a guest writer elucidated:

"While I was browsing Flickr and searching for some inspiration for my next portrait assignment, I came across some beautiful medium format portraits taken by excellent photographers using Hasselblad and Rolleiflex cameras. I was really impressed by the characteristics of those pictures: nicely balanced composition in square format, beautiful black and white (B&W) tones, shallow depth of focus and “mind blowing” micro-contrast details. As a digital shooter and owner of a Canon 5D mark2, it was something new to me that I have not seen before. Needless to say, I fell immediately love with medium format photography and I wanted to have a medium format camera to take pictures with similar characteristics".

Praise indeed! Especially from a writer on Mr Reichmann's LL blog which is not normally noted for espousing the advantages of film photography over full frame digital SLRs

My experience with Rolleiflex cameras goes back a few decades to the 1980's when I found myself training as a wedding operative.
The cameras have many great features and only a few drawbacks, the most obvious of which are the lack of truly close focus, the lack of interchangeable lenses and the laterally inverse (mirror) image on the focussing screen.
Rolleinar 1 on a Rolleiflex T
The close focus can be somewhat ameliorated by the use of the Rolleinar close-up lenses which come in three (1, 2 and 3) strengths number three being the strongest; they can also be stacked and give surprisingly good results. I would say the Rolleinar is the must have accessory for the flex along side a lens hood.

As a young man I found using the Rolleiflex both inspirational and slightly frustrating, the top wedding guys all had Hasselblads and that was the camera I aspired to. It was only when I started using the 'Blad I started to appreciate the quiet handling and unobtrusive manner of the Rolleiflex, and in practical use interchangeable backs and lenses really didn't prove such a great advantage.

Perceived advantages
So what  is the reason I preferred the Rollei to all other medium format cameras I've owned? 
Top of the list is the way it handles, and from the waist and almost goes unnoticed during portrait shoots; you maintain eye contact whilst still being able to frame the subject–in other words there isn't a camera plastered in front of your face so the subject has a more relaxed less intrusive sitting.

Easier for Selfies? Would this be better with an SLR stuck to his face?
Did I mention it was whisper quiet in operation? No mirror slap or shutter clop just a smooth sounding schtick that makes medium format SLR cameras seem clunky in comparison.

The build quality is exemplary; photographers from the modern era that hold one find the solid feel and positive operation even after fifty years of use are often extremely impressed–these are not consumer electronics with built in obsolescence; the Rolleiflex is a well engineered machine build to last a lifetime.

Optical quality is also impressive, Zeiss and Schneider are two of the best lens producers in the world Tessar, Planar an Xenotar types are as good as it gets optically, and have drawn many iconic images over the years.

The master at work
Those images were created by an astonishing list of photographers, far too many to list although a personal favourite being David Bailey (pictured above) who said recently "If I had to use just one camera it would be a Rolleiflex"

Not all of us have the skill of Bailey, Avedon and Arbus or even Mr Reichmann but few will deny that quality tools are great to have and use–even if we don't aspire to being as cool as this guy:

How many digicam users look this cool?
Quality never goes out of style, and life would be too short not to have owned a Rolleiflex. Or possibly you might be one of the many 'tonally starved' DSLR shooters like the one in the LL blog who would like to see 'mind blowing micro contrast and tones like you've never seen before' there is one thing for sure people will be creating wonderful images with them in the future just as they did in the past.


Bruce Robbins said...

Have you tried the Old Standard, Mark? It's lighter, smaller and not as robust as the later models but they're possibly the most reliable of the lot and you'd be in good company with Doisneau and Capa. :) They're still fairly cheap as well. Great cameras one and all.

Photo Utopia said...

I have used a pre-war one a few years back, always fancied a Art Deco 'cord.
I guess I've owned a few post war ones early 50's Automat E&Fs I need some more as currently I'm just using an F and a T which I plan to take to Rome in a couple of months for some 1960's B&W stye photos
All I need is a little time....

Bruce Robbins said...

The Art Deco is a lovely bit of kit, right enough. I once had a notion to try to collect one of every Rollei model but grew up before I could start down that road. :)

Photo Utopia said...

I have had about five (in 30 years) but I think we'll need scratch cards to get one of each, I do have a friend with a Tele Rollei possibly he'll swap it for a MacBook? :)