The Online Darkroom Store

Monday, December 19

Rolleiflex Old Standard - A Review

Robert Doisneau in 1949 with his 1932 Old Standard - the same year as my own.

I wasn't sure whether or not it would be a good idea to write a review of this old Rollei classic. There's a lot of truth in the idea that the more a camera is talked about the higher its prices go on Ebay. TOD is hardly in the opinion-forming elite of blogs but the Rolleiflex Old Standard is something of a bargain in the Rollei field and I have my fingers crossed that some extra exposure won't cause Rolleiflation.

The thing is, though, that I think a lot of readers would get a big kick out of the Old Standard, so-called to distinguish it from the New Standard that came out in 1939. The old 'un was launched in 1932 and had a comparatively short lifespan of just six years but Doisneau and Robert Capa were amongst those photographers who found it a great tool.

My Old Standard is well worn but works very smoothly.

It's not sexy like the 2.8f that everyone seems to want or the 3.5f with a Planar lens that some claim is the pick of the bunch. And it's not an "Automat" with the automatic film loading. It does, though, produce negatives with a look all of their own, sort of like the 6x6 equivalent of a 1950s 50mm Summicron - sharp but not too contrasty and excellent for black and white.

My one is a 620, a model that came with a 7.5cm f4.5 Tessar lens. The 621 had an f3.8 lens and the 622 an f3.5. The 620 and 621 shutters maxed out at 1/300th but the 622's went up to 1/500th. My model is by far the rarest of the three. Only 4,926 620 were made between 1932 and '34 against 38,248 621s (1932-35) and 51,894 622s (1932-38).

It's not at all a heavy camera weighing a mere 773 grams, just a few heavier than the likes of the first Contax RTS or the Nikon F2. My Nikon D700 DSLR tips the scales at 995 grams. The 622 was five grams heavier and the 621 30 grams more. Size-wise its 143mm tall by 86mm wide and 90mm front to back.

In terms of build, it's not in the same class as the 2.8F I have. The metalwork and stampings seem thinner, less robust and less precise. But, unless you're going to be bashing nails in with it, the camera will stand up to some hard use and even abuse. Take a look at my example. Maybe not quite as worn as Garry Winnogrand's M4 but obviously not something that's had an easy life over the last 84 years.

The focusing knob nearest the lens panel is small but works well.

Exposure and depth of field guides on the back. The round knob
is a plug that covers the red window used when loading the film.

The famous Tessar. The lever at the bottom beneath "Compur" serves the dual
purpose of cocking and releasing the shutter. The levers left and right as we look
at the pic are for the shutter speeds and apertures respectively.

The simple clip at the bottom keeps the back from springing open.

Doisneau had the 622 and apparently used it for decades. These old Rolleis are quite simple and seem as reliable as any camera ever made. I've handled around four or five of them at auction - 80-year-old cameras remember - and every one has been working just fine. The lenses might have been scratched or cloudy but, from what I could tell, the shutter speeds worked and appeared accurate. The Leica M, by comparison, needs regular fettling to keep it working properly. I haven't played with a single one at auction that has had a properly functioning shutter.

It wasn't until the Automat of 1937 that the Rollei TLR was able to sense the film as it was wound on and automatically stop the winding at the first frame. In the Automats and later cameras, the film was fed beneath a roller which was able to detect the passage of the thicker film plus backing paper. The Old Standard has no such roller and requires the photographer to use a red window to wind on to the first frame - it's the old process of advancing the film until a "1" can be seen in the window.

An unintentional double exposure that worked out quite well.

After the first exposure, the winding on process is then automatic so it's not too much of an inconvenience. What is an inconvenience, however, is that there's no double exposure prevention lock on the camera. What this means is that you can shoot as many exposures as you want without having to wind on.

Unintentional double exposures or blank frames are the almost inevitable corollary of this. Until you get used to it you'll either double expose because you can't remember if you've wound on and you don't want to waste a frame or you'll not want to double expose and will wind on just to be on the safe side even though the frame in the film chamber is unexposed. My approach is to always leave winding on until the moment when I'm about to take the photograph.

The Rollei's viewfinder isn't too bad but it's not as bright as those of the later models. It's fine in the centre but gets progressively dimmer towards the corners. This isn't a problem if you're shooting outdoors during daylight but indoors or in heavy shade it's a different matter. There's the usual pop-up magnifier but there's no doubt that low light work is a bit on the tricky side. With good light focusing is easy enough but you'll strain your eyes racking the lens in and out searching for exact focus when it's dim. For precise work, it's probably best if you use a tripod.

The Old Standard should have a spirit level built into a corner of the ground glass focusing screen but mine doesn't. I'm beginning to wonder if the very early ones - mine is from the first year of production - perhaps missed out on this feature. There was a tentative suggestion on line that the bubble didn't appear until 1933 in response to Voigtlander featuring a level in their Superb TLR. Sounds feasible to me.

Accessories for the Old Standard are difficult to get hold of. It took me ages to find a lens hood of the original type. I spotted one for a great price on a website a year or two back - I think it was a fiver - put it in my shopping cart and was just about to pay for it when Cath asked me to take a look at something in a holiday brochure. It only distracted me for a few minutes but when I returned to the computer, my shopping cart was empty and there was no sign of the lens hood on the site. Someone must have nipped in and pinched it from under my nose. Bugger!

The hoods sell for around £30 to £40 on Ebay but I eventually managed to get one for about £15 including a yellow Rollei filter so it pays to be patient. If you take a look at the hood (above) you'll see it's a cute looking thing that looks great on the camera. There's no filter thread on the lens which is why it can be hard finding the clamp on hood or 28.5mm push on filters.

What you do find easily enough, though, and at reasonable prices are Zeiss Proxars and Rollei's own close-up lens attachments in different diopters that will get you down to a subject distance of as little as 13". A quick search of Ebay usually brings up some offerings. These seem to be high quality optics and are capable of producing good central sharpness and fair corners. You're probably thinking that parallax would be a problem and you'd be right except that the filter that fits on the viewing lens has a prism in it so that what the taking lens sees at the focused distance is, more or less, what the viewing lens sees as well.

It's no doubt possible to use the close-up lenses hand-held but a tripod makes life much easier as depth of field is small and just body movement - even breathing - can move you in and out of focus if you're not careful. Here's a hand-held shot to show what you get at the closest focus:

I picked up my Rolleiflex Standard at a local auction along with a 50mm f2 Zuiko macro that was in its box and looked new and other bits and pieces for just over £100. When you consider that the Zuiko sells for about £300-£400 on its own, then it was a great deal. If you're buying on Ebay then you'll get an Old Standard for around £100.

Is that good value? I reckon it is. You'll struggle to get a Yashicamat 124G or Minolta Autocord for that money and a nice Mamiya C330 or similar with their interchangeable lenses will probably set you back slightly more. These are all excellent cameras with the Autocord the pic of the bunch in terms of optical abilities. But if you like history and fancy something that was on the march in Germany at the same time as Adolf's finest then it's got to be the Old Standard. OK, maybe not the best justification for ownership but certainly a good talking point!

It's probably too late now to get one for Christmas but if you want to have a go at 6x6 then the Old Standard is an excellent way into the format. And if you have any questions left unanswered then perhaps the Rollei guide below will put you in the picture. Speaking of Christmas, if I don't post again before the big day then have a good one!


Herman Sheephouse said...


Always fancied one . . . but do I need another camera . . . hmmmmm!

Go Share Your Faith said...

Beautiful camera!

Thanks for taking the time to enlighten me.

John Carter said...

My Rolleiflex T looks so modern next to the 'Old Standard' but really close in many ways. I have a couple of Ricoh Diacord Gs which looks like a knock off of your Standard in some ways. Have fun with it, I enjoy my TLRs,

Anonymous said...

Reading your articles always makes me want to go out and take pictures. Thanks for including pictures not only of the camera, but also pictures taken with the camera. Bill

Bruce Robbins said...

Glad to hear it, Bill. Wish I could get some inspiration from somewhere!

Kodachromeguy said...

Very nice work, indeed! I think it is astonishing that an 80-year-old instrument can still collect image data that is, even on contemporary standards, excellent quality. Of course, it depends on the availability of that "primitive" light sensing medium, silver-gelatin emulsion on a flexible base (Ester, polyester, etc). Actually, film is an extremely sophisticated photon-collection medium despite what the pixel-peepers on popular photo forums think. Will we be able to interpret our digital files in 80 years? Ha-ha-ha.... (At the government office from where I retired a few years ago, we could not even read our digital files from 8 or 9 years ago.)

Laurent said...

I have a 622 model for a few days. It's a beautiful camera, I can not wait to take pictures with it.

Bruce Robbins said...

I'm sure you'll have great fun with it Laurent. Good luck!

David Murray said...

I used a Rolleiflex 622 from 1984-2002 when the shutter packed up. I traded it in at a local dealer for a zoom lens for my Canon F1n (1976). Should have taken it out of its leather case and displayed it on a shelf in the sitting room of my cottage. I only used E6 film in it, making lovely 6cm X 6cm transparencies. I've still got a huge wooden case that used to hold cutlery. I stripped the interior out of it and glued wood strips in to hold the slides neatly. I used a Weston Master IV meter with it. Took it all over, people always asking about it on trains, buses, caves etc. I dropped into an old fashioned photographic dealers on a trip to York for more film on a visit a few years after buying it. That's when it was properly identified by an old guy in there who had a thick book about the Rolleiflexes. When I had a legacy in 2007, I treated myself to a Hasselblad 500CM with 80mm f2.8 Planar and erc, strap and hood. I bought a spare A12 back, with a roll in my shirt pocket and the spare back I've got the ability to shoot 36 exposures, still E6. I like the Hasselblad, even thou it's heavier and bulkier than the 622.
In all honesty, I cannot see much difference in the slides taken between 1984 & 2002 and the ones taken with the 500CM. I missed the Rolleiflex so about four years ago bought a Rolleicord IV, about 1953 vintage. Polished up the leather case and it came with a lens hood, itself housed in a little leather case, all stamped with the F&H motto. I soon got into the Rollei way of working again, the Hasselblad has the image reversed as the TLR.