|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:
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.|
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!|
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.
|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.