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Monday, August 24

The World's Greatest Ever Camera

My favourite shot off the roll. 

There's nothing like going out on a limb, is there? When something is clearly as subjective as a photographer's favourite camera there are bound to be disagreements but I'm more than happy to accommodate these in the comments so if you don't agree with me then please feel encouraged to tell me where I've gone wrong. I've got a thick skin. :)

So bearing that in mind and without further ado, here's my pick as the greatest ever:

Rolleiflex 2.8F

This post didn't just come out of the blue: I've been using the Rollei this week and quickly realised why I'd always liked it so much. Plus, Phil Rogers/Herman Sheephouse was talking last week about a post he was writing about his pick for the greatest ever so you now have two choices to disagree with!

The 2.8F was, I reckon, the pinnacle of Rolleiflex development. The earlier models were all very capable cameras - I love the "Old" Standard from the early '30s - but everything came together in this model. Years of manufacturing experience, the best materials, tried and tested design, the natural development of the camera from a technological point of view - everything coalesced perfectly in the most capable and versatile camera.

The old advertising slogan urging people to "Just Hold a Pentax" applies in spades to the Rolleiflex. To my mind, it's the best general picture-making tool ever. For certain specialised purposes there are other cameras that will run rings round it but as a one-size-fits-all machine, it's unbeatable.

In weaker moments, I sometimes think that the 2.8F, the Rollei Wide with the 55mm Distagon and the Tele-Rollei with the 135mm Sonnar might well be the most desirable trio on the planet. Sadly, whilst the Tele-Rollei is just about affordable at around £900, the Rollei Wide would set me back anywhere from £1500-£4500 depending on condition. Failing a lottery win, I'm not likely to put together the dream team.

I'm perfectly happy with the 2.8F, though, and I'm reminded of what a superb machine it is every time I run a film through it, which isn't often enough. So what makes it such a star?

Grasses at the beach. Getting close to the Rollei's minimum focusing distance.

1. The 80mm f2.8 Planar lens. One of the nicest optics ever with a wonderful balance of qualities. It's as sharp as you could want with very nice, creamy out-of-focus areas. Microcontrast is high, there's no vignetting towards the edges of the frame and there's lots of usable sharpness wide open. Possibly not the absolute "best" in any one area but so strong in all of them and completely vice-free.

2. Engineering. The Scots had an enviable reputation for engineering - some say they built the industrial revolution - but when it comes to the very best, you just can't beat the Germans. In fact, I'd go as far to say that they are the most impressive people on the planet. Beaten in two wars, left practically destitute after both and yet capable of bouncing back to lead the world in many areas of engineering within a generation or two. A truly remarkable people.

They put all their skills to good use in designing and building the Rolleiflex - despite the distraction of another, smaller format camera you might have heard of. I've handled more than a few TLRs of all makes and nothing compares to the Rolleiflex 2.8F although the MPP Microcord, at least as far as the external finish goes, gives earlier Rolleis of the 1950s era such as the Automat MX-EVS a run for their money. The later 1980s-on Rolleis are nice but not built to the same high standard. Significantly, the only other cameras to compare with the 2.8F for quality are also German marques (although Phil might disagree).

3. The film format. You can have the best lenses in the world but if you're limited to the 35mm negative then you'll run out of resolution or possibly find grain too objectionable as you move up the print sizes. The tonality of 35mm prints is never as smooth as larger formats either. Yes, large format does to 6x6 what 6x6 does to 35mm but the difference is that the TLR is just as usable, convenient and versatile (within the limitations of the fixed lens) as any Leica. And you can't say that about large format.

So while 35mm can be too small for some uses, 120 is big enough for just about everything a photographer might tackle. You can shoot hand-held with 400 ISO film and get better results than a skilled 35mm user with slow film in his camera. Up to quite large print sizes, 120 can hold its own against 5x4. Maybe not quite as good but certainly good enough.

Is the square format an advantage? For me it is but not for everyone. I love square prints. On a 12x16 sheet of paper, you can slice a 12"x4" piece off for test strips and still print the square image full size on the remainder. I find composing within the square easy as well but if a portrait or landscape rectangular crop is needed it's easily managed with a bit of imagination without having to turn the camera on its side.

Yes, the fixed lens can be a problem for some people but for others it can be a positive boon. There's a freedom to be gained from not having to think about different focal lengths, regularly switching from one to the other. You can also pull up sections of the 6x6 neg to zoom in on an image if the original crop is found wanting or you can't get close enough to the subject or, by cropping down to just the 35mm format in the middle of the neg, benefit from a nice 80mm portrait lens. I'm constantly amazed at just how versatile the 2.8F is and hardly ever find myself wishing I had another outfit with me.

4. The 2.8F's size. Let's nail one thing straight away: yes, the TLR might not be as small as a Leica or Olympus OM1 but there isn't a lot of difference between a Rolleiflex and a Nikon F, Canon F1, Contax RTS III, Minolta XM/XE or any of the pro model DSLRs. So whilst it might not be Leica-M2 sized, it's definitely not unwieldy in any sense. In fact, since all you need is a few rolls of film, a lens hood and a yellow filter, your gadget bag is almost certainly going to be lighter than that for the average 35mm outfit.

Nice bright viewfinder courtesy of a cut-down Mamiya RB67 screen - a
cheap but effective upgrade for the Rollei.

5. The twin lens design. SLRs are great but the moving mirror adds a layer of complexity and, potentially, vibration. In theory, and everything else being equal, the TLR design will produce sharper images than an SLR. In reality, you might not notice any difference in sharpness but you will where noise is concerned. The TLR is certainly much quieter than a 6x6 SLR with its big, flappy mirror.

6. The viewing system. Related to the TLR design but worthy of it's own "point". I've tried all the main viewing systems, 35mm SLR, 6x6 SLR, rangefinder, large format, DLSR and electronic viewfinder. Hand on heart, the best of the lot is the TLR's ground glass. The 6x6 SLR with waist level finder is similar but blanks out momentarily when you take the picture. Yes, you can get a waist level finder for some pro 35mm SLRs but they're tiny and also blank out. Also, with 6x6 SLRs, the camera tends to sit further out from your body when it's hanging from your neck whereas the TLR, with no protruding film back, give you a much slimmer profile (relatively speaking, of course. I last had a slim profile about ten years ago).

Rangefinders don't allow you to see the out of focus effects and I find it easier composing on a ground glass than when looking through a window. Large format cameras require you to be able to compose with an upside down image. The least said about DSLRs and EVFs the better although they're improving all the time. Suffice to say that they're not yet as good as 35mm viewing systems from what I've read.

The TLR's ground glass image is laterally reversed which requires all sorts of mental gymnastics when you first use it but after a couple of days it becomes perfectly normal and ceases to be an issue. In terms of arriving at the best arrangement of elements within the frame, viewing them on the ground glass of a TLR is, where I'm concerned, superior to all others.

Herr Heidecke showing Herr Hasselblad how relaxing it is using a Rollei as
opposed to the Swede's SLR, progenitor of spondylitis. Pic from Phil Rogers
 - don't know where he got it, though!

7. Fully mechanical. No batteries to go dead here and leave you

Ya wee beauty!
8. Just 12 shots per roll (discounting 220 film - is any still made? - 16-on adapter kits or the 35mm Rolleikin kit). Like the fixed lens, some will see this as a drawback and others as a benefit. For me, a dozen high quality negatives is just about perfect. It's no problem using a whole roll in an afternoon without wasting any frames.

With 36-exposures you have to be disciplined not to shoot more than you need just because you have a lot to work with or to blast off the last few to finish the film so it can be developed. 12-on demands that you make each frame count which means giving it your best effort, getting the exposure spot on and really, really thinking about the composition and why you want to click the shutter. That makes you a better photographer and makes for better photographs as well.

9. The Rollei's handling. Hanging from your neck on a strap, the Rolleiflex can be braced against the body making it possible to handhold at shutter speeds as slow as 1/15th and sometimes slower. The shutter speeds and aperture are controlled by two knurled wheels which fall naturally to the thumbs leaving the right forefinger to operate the shutter. The left hand focuses using a large round knob and the right hand winds the film, cocks the shutter and operates the exposure counter in one sweeping movement. Everything falls readily to hand in the most natural way possible.

The belly-high viewing position is a good one for many subjects but the waist level finder also makes it very easy to drop down on a knee for a worm's eye view or to hold the camera at arms length above the head for an elevated shot.

I've seen tons of shots like this in the old photo books from the 1940s
I used to collect.

This hole intrigues me. It's in a local harbour wall and must have had
some sort of winch-like mechanism in it, possibly for reeling boats in.

Discarded tissue on a football pitch.

10. All of the above. No one camera/lens can ever be perfect for everybody and for every job but there aren't any others, in my opinion, that combine so many attributes in such a well-made, reliable and classy package as the 2.8F. Other Rolleiflex models combine many if not most of these strengths as well but I just happen to find the 2.8F to be the most highly developed iteration of the classic TLR.

Here's looking at you kid.

The interesting scissors design of the neck strap fastening.

With a couple of my favourite cameras out of commission for the time being and my 35mm film stash all but depleted, I've been giving the 2.8F the use it deserves as well as using up some 120 rolls of outdated Tmax 400 in the fridge. The first roll I developed from my reacquaintance with the Rollei last week left me a little gobsmacked such was the clarity of the negatives. The photographs in this post are from that roll.

When I scanned them the results were as they always are - fine grained, sharp and with beautiful tonality. Honestly, when I compared them with 35mm scans the difference was like night and day. Of course, up to around an eight times enlargement (some photographers can do much better) 35mm prints can be very satisfying and they make me happy but you'll see the difference when comparing them with results from a Rolleiflex neg which require just a 4x enlargement for around the same print size.

Some of the Tmax 400 negs rated at 400 ISO
and developed in Firstcall Superfine.

If you click on the black and white pics above (you might have to click them a second time to open them full size) - not the negs - you'll get an idea of how sharp the images are. These are scans made with my old Epson Perfection 3200 Photo scanner, state-of-the-art around the same time an ark was winning the America's Cup. They would only get sharper with a decent scanner.

I decided to scan them with a bit of border showing for no particular reason but I preferred a couple of them laterally reversed (the way I saw them in the viewfinder, in fact) so I left them like that. I was going to put in an order for some more 35mm Tmax 400 but I think I'll just keep shooting with the Rolleiflex until the out-of-date 120 has been used up. It seems to be OK so far.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Allow me to have just one camera and it's the Rolleiflex 2.8F. No contest.

* Mark Smith (Photo Utopia) left an interesting comment below which included the fact that, "On his 70th Birthday the famous British photographer David Bailey was asked of all the cameras he had owned which was the best-his answer was if he could use only one camera it would be a Rolleiflex."

A quick search turned up the pic below. Nice! Thanks, Mark.


Herman Sheephouse said...

I think you're probably right to be honest - you know I'm a long-term budget Rollei user anyway . . . but I still think a Nikon F will be plugging away when the film advance on the Rollei goes a bit wonky and a scorpion runs off with it . . .

All about light said...

I am inclined to agree, the Rollei is a beautiful thing - although I personally prefer the Mamiya C330's simple, bombproof design and it's ability to change lenses while maintaining user friendly IQ on a 6x6

Anonymous said...

I prefer Rolleiflexes with no metering, they're a bit smaller and lighter, a good option if you prefer using a handheld meter or no meter at all. Any model from 2.8C to E is just as good as the F from what I can tell. The build quality didn't vary a whole lot, just some added features with each model.

Great article!

Photo Utopia said...

I have owned five Rolleiflex cameras, my favourite being a Xenotar 3,5F the main difference with the Planar being it is sharper wide open in the centre, by ƒ8-11 you can't tell them apart.
Another thing I love is the connection to the subject, you don't have a camera in front of your face, the whole experience is more relaxed for user and subject-if you chat the shutter is so quiet the subject just forgets the camera.
Life is too short not to own a Rollei, in the last 30 years I've owned most makes of medium format cameras from range-finder, SLR and other TLR brands but none have the ease of use and elegance in operation of the Rollei-it will be the last camera I own.
On his 70th Birthday the famous British photographer David Bailey was asked of all the cameras he had owned which was the best-his answer was if he could use only one camera it would be a Rolleiflex

Markus B. said...

You're so right - the Rolleiflex 2.8F is my favorite camera too. And equipe all my Rolleiflex's with a Maxwell focusing screen - a real difference to the original one. Have a look at this comparison at Rangefinder Forum

Thanks for the great article - and your wonderful website.

Richard Owen said...

All I can say is "to each their own." I tried a Yashica TLR once but, for me, medium format with all its resolution advantages just did not fit my style of shooting. And that is what it is all about. I am glad that the Rollei is a great fit for you but for me I will stick with 35mm and be perfectly happy.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to the Rollei club!

Duncan said...

Interesting; I've never used one but I'm liking the square format and the tonal qualities of the image. Also the top viewfinder would be useful as getting shots from a low angle is increasingly difficult (last time I tried a ground level shot I popped a rib!!). I'll be keeping an eye out for one to try out perhaps. Re David Bailey; I saw his exhibition at the National Gallery in Edinburgh on Friday and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the one camera of his on display was his old Pentax. I didn't at first recognize the model but then realized that he must have scratched off all the black lacquer down to the brass on the top & bottom plates - customization.

steve said...

I dont think there's such thing as the worlds greatest camwa. but as a diehard Rolleiflex fanboy I'd have to agree.

Anti electrons said...

I sold my mint 2.8F whiteface about 5 years ago, was always terrified of damaging it and undermining its collector value... pretty fragile camera after all. Film flatness can be an issue also with that flimsy aluminium film back....

Lovely camera to look at though ;-)

Gert-Jan said...

I'm also shooting 6x6 for the many of the same reasons you mentioned; square format and fixed lens meaning less things to think about when taking a picture, 12 images being easier than 36, nice negatives, and so on.
I didn't really bond with my YashicaMAT though; not only the mirrored image in the view finder, but also difficult to focus with the ground glass, and still a relatively big camera.
I am more drawn to folders which fit in your pocket, are even easier to operate and really robust with their simple film advance mechanisms and lack of coupled rangefinders and such. What is not there cannot get in the way or break down. So Agfa Isolette III it is for now....

Tony Cearns said...

From your checklist, it ticks most of my boxes too. I considered it with the Rollei 66SL (too heavy?) and the Hasselblad 503. I eventually plumped for the Hasselblad because I wanted a range of lenses ( a disadvantage too, sometimes). But it was a close run thing!

David Jenkins said...

I grew up in a studio of Rollies, F2.8 and the venerable f/3.5 Xenotar, seemed it was always the tool first reached for for most portrait/studio jobs.
I still think that looking down into that lovely screen and being able to keep in contact with the subject, instead of peering through a dim and blocking box was one of the great photographic experiences. It taught me so much about involement with the subject.
And that shutter release. How good was that!

Great article, full of warm memories and always nice to see where the elders have given us such great foundation.

Barry Buchanan said...

I own two Mamiya 645 1000s cameras. I own a Calumet 4 x 5 camera. I own a Mamiya NC1000s..... 3 Pentax K-1000 cameras...... a Canon A-1...... and a Canon AE-1 too. And, I also own a Mamiya C-330f TLR camera. With all of those cameras laid out in front of me to choose from, I will always pick up the Mamiya C-330f first!

The really cool things about the C-330 cameras are, they have interchangeable lenses and a bellows too. That means, VERY CLOSE focusing distances which no other TLR camera is capable of doing!

Bruce Robbins said...

I had a C330 years ago, Barry. Great camera and super value. It's very tempting if you want medium format with interchangeable lenses. Quite a bit heavier than a 2.8F with standard lens but I'd be very happy using one as my only camera.

Unknown said...

Didn't explain why 2.8 preferred over 3.5. Virtually no diff unless shooting black cats in a coal bin at midnight. Stopped doing that after publishing an album. Extra low light capability of lens doesn't justify cost of added weight.

Bruce Robbins said...

They're the same weight - 1220g.

David Murray said...

The problem with old Rolleiflexes is that they were bought and used by professionals who put more rolls of film in them in a week than most amateurs used in a year. The weak spot is the mechanism that connects the film wind with cocking the shutter. It wears and when it wears it jams, putting the camera out of action. Repairs vary but generally £500-700. Quite often exceeding the cost of the camera. Further, the cameras were often subjected to rough handling. They did not enjoy the protection of a thick leather case as this would slow down reloading in the field. Now the Rolleicord, not mentioned here, was built to the same high standard as the ‘flex but differed in the lens and wind on as well as the shutter arming/ release. On the ‘cord, the wind on is a knob not a handle, the shutter is then armed by moving a small lever underneath the taking lens, to the right and allowing it to return to the centre. Pushing this lever slightly to the left releases the shutter, although I prefer to use a cable release. There is no mechanical connection as in a ‘flex so this cannot wear and jam the camera.
Until the advent of the Rolleicord IV in 1953, the Triotar three element lens was used. Slightly soft and unsharp. However, after being shunned in favour of a better 4 element Tessar type of later models, the three element Triotar is now in demand by those looking for a distinctive image that this lens gives in portraiture. The second-string Rolleicord was bought by amateurs who saved long and hard for it. They bought the leather case to protect it and they used it carefully, often passing it down to son or grandson. This is why a Rolleicord is a far better buy today as it will be in much better condition as far as cosmetics and mechanical is concerned. The better 4 element Xenar lens by Schneider of Kreuznach has a performance on a par with the Rolleiflex Tessar although I would not rate it against the Planar.

Raid Amin said...

I started out using Rolleiflex TLR cameras with a 2.8D many years ago. It is a wonderful camera overall and without a meter or any other feature beyond having a viewing lens and a taking lens and a film advance lever. Basic and functioning. This camera is still going strong after 25 years of use. I added at one stage a 2.8F and what was referred to as a 2.8E II but I sold both cameras and kept my workhorse 2.8D. The Planar lens is very sharp, and using the Rolleiflex made me extra careful with composition, I think. I always got back keeper images from this camera. I often used it on a Gitzo tripod and I used a cable release. The square format allowed me to request prints as crops that were horizontal or vertical. The film advance mechanism is a very sturdy one if you use the camera with respect, so to speak. I eventually also got a Tele Rolleiflex for the Sonnar taking lens, and an Automat (with a Tessar).

The Rollei Wide is/was too expensive for me to get.