Since becoming re-interested in film shooting a couple of years ago, I’ve acquired a modest but high-quality collection of classic cameras: a Nikon FM and FE, a Mamiya M645, Olympus XA, Canonet QL-17 GIII, a couple of Yashica-Mat TLRs, a Rolleiflex 2.8C, and most recently, a Rolleiflex 3.5 MX-EVS (I also have a FujiFilm X100f, which is a damned fun little camera). I’d love to get a primo Leica at some point, or a Plaubel Makina or Mamiya 7, but for now, such indulgences are the stuff of fantasy. I paid less than $150 for most of my current cameras, and no more than $300 for any of them (X100f excepted). None are immaculate, but they’re all solid shooters. I find them beautiful beyond words.
With several cameras in my regular shooting rotation, I then faced a choice: what film in what camera? I like to keep Portra loaded into at least one of the medium-format cameras, and one of my favorite Ilford black-and-white stocks in another. As I’ve written on this site, I love the results I get with FujiColor Pro 400h in the Olympus XA. It would be nice, I figured, to have a similarly pocketable 35mm companion to the XA to keep loaded with black-and-white film.
And so I began searching for a Rollei 35. I read a lot of stuff online, and decided I’d prefer the 35S, with the Sonnar lens. I didn’t care whether it was made in Germany or Singapore. I kept my eye on the local Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace listings (I’ve found wonderful deals on both, and I prefer to buy in person rather than through eBay), and asked the used-gear folks at National Camera here in town to alert me if one came in. Weeks passed, and my fever began to build. With ample downtime courtesy of the pandemic, I cruised the websites of the national retailers as well, and soon found a Singaporean Rollei 35S at KEH with the condition rating of “Bargain,” meaning, not pretty, but usable. At $225, it was more than I preferred to spend, but I liked the idea of a six-month return window, and figured that was worth paying a bit of a premium. Also, by now, acquisition frenzy had truly overcome me. The camera arrived later that week.
Once in my eager hands, I found my new/old Rollei to be an exquisite, albeit slightly dinged, little piece of equipment. There was a dent on the top right corner, which affects nothing (and probably knocked $75 off the price). There’s a dot of some sort on the front lens, but I hoped this wouldn’t affect picture quality (it hasn’t).
Like the Olympus XA (I previously wrote about), this Rollei is quite literally a pocket camera. With the lens retracted (and a film canister lid as an eerily-well-fitting lens cap), it measures 47mm front-to-back (the Olympus comes in at 41 mm). I may not slide it into a jeans pocket, as I have with the XA, but it certainly fits easily in any jacket pocket, or the side pocket of my backpack.
Man, this is a dense little chunk of a thing, very unlike the XA, which, as much as I love it, looks and feels like what it is: a plastic camera. I enjoy (most of) the Rollei’s quirks, such as the lefty film-advance lever, and having the film counter on the bottom. The film return crank is a buttery, powerful wonder compared to the XA’s teensy little plastic flip-lever. I like how you slide the whole camera back down and off to load film. I had a concern that the battery compartment was stashed inside here as well, meaning that you have to open the entire camera to change the battery. What if that happened mid-roll? No problem: only the meter requires electricity, leaving you with a fully functional mechanical camera with which you can shoot the rest of the roll using a phone app for metering, or Sunny-16-based guesswork.
Speaking of guesswork, I should now broach the subject of this little camera’s big ol’ (and for some, no doubt disqualifying) quirk: there’s no focusing aid other than your own eyes. There’s simply no room for it. This is a viewfinder camera, not a rangefinder. The viewing window shows you a frame, but to focus, you squint thoughtfully at your subject, you look at the distance markings on the lens…and you make your best guess. This is not an issue if you’re shooting far-off exteriors at f8 or higher in good light, but if you want to shoot, say, a cappuccino cup on a nearby café table at f5.6 or wider, you’ve got to be really confident in your squinting-and-guessing ability. Being a half-foot off can ruin the shot.
(Since acquiring this camera, I’ve entertained myself by honing my distance-estimating skills. At this moment, my dog is sleeping, I’d say, eight feet from me. The nearest knob on my oven looks to be about five—maybe five-and-a-half—feet away, and the farthest knob, more like six feet. The blue chair in my backyard: 25 feet, give or take. And so on.)
I ran some Portra 400 through the camera as a test roll, since I get my color stuff processed at a very good local lab (Hello, Fast Foto friends!), and I wanted to judge performance based on the best possible image files (I develop and scan my own black-and-white, which I find very satisfying and enjoyable, and which saves me a ton of money, but the results can be…let’s be charitable and call them “charmingly amateurish.”). The roll of Portra was wonderful, with luminous color, and amazing sharpness when stopped down. This little camera is capable of making amazing pictures. And the lens dot was not an issue.
But I’d bought the Rollei 35S as my black-and-white pocket camera. What film to choose? As a classic, beautiful, solid camera, I figured it merited a classic, beautiful, solid film (which, hopefully, would yield classic, beautiful, solid results). I loaded it with Kodak Tri-X 400. Could a decision be more obvious?
This article shows some of the results of this first roll of Tri-X, developed at home with Kodak T-MAX, and scanned on my CanoScan 9000F Mark II using SilverFast. I purposely tested the limits of what I could do with this film in this camera, both in terms of exposure, and focusing. It’s a test roll; I was more interested in technical aspects than aesthetic results, and so some of the shots are kind of…stupid. But they did what they were supposed to do, which is show me what I can hope and expect from this film/camera combo.
As expected, nearby subjects shot at wide apertures were pretty hit-and-miss; on those shots where I nailed both exposure and focus, the results are pretty impressive. On those where I missed, well, a lost frame on home-developed black-and-white 35mm film is a lot cheaper than a lost frame of 120 Portra in one of the Rolleiflexes. And some of the imperfect frames were still damned beautiful.
Most importantly (to me), this legendary emulsion, in this iconic camera, gave me some absolutely timeless-looking frames, with hopes of many more to come. Can my phone take better technical photos than this? Of course. Will they look like this? Well, you’re reading a classic camera website; I suspect I know your preference.
As I write this, the XA and the Rollei are in a drawer by my back door, with 400h in the former, Tri-X in the latter. Next time I leave the house, no matter where I’m going, I’ll glance outside, ask myself “Is it a color day or a black-and-white day?” grab the appropriate camera, and slide it into a pocket. Then later, I’ll see a solitary skater crossing the now-frozen lake near my house, or sunlight hitting a fence just so, and I’ll have a wonderful camera and film there to capture the shot. The adage “The best camera is the one that’s with you” meant more before there was an incredible camera in everyone’s phone, but for those of us who choose the more laborious (and satisfying, and beautiful) resource of a classic film camera, I feel like I now have a really exceptional pair of tools.
Phil Calvit is an ad copywriter and classic camera hobbyist in Minneapolis. You can see his work on Instagram here.
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26 thoughts on “Rollei 35S & Choosing a Film Partner for Another Pocket Camera – by Phil Calvit”
I enjoy shooting with my Rollei 35S, but it hasn’t made it into my regular rotation yet, mostly due to the focusing issue. I recently purchased an Agfa Optima Sensor 1535, which combines the Germanic good looks and metal build of the Rollei 35 (although not quite as heavy) which a big, bright viewfinder, a real rangefinder(!) and automatic exposure. Great results so far!
Eric, so many wonderful old cameras, right? Many of which, yes, are currently absurdly over-priced, but a lot of which can still be had pretty affordably (a lot of reeeeally nice cameras were made and sold in the ’50s through ’80s). I’d like to try the Olympus OM2n, for instance, and I can get a body for under $100 if I keep my eyes out. Or the Olympus RC. Or a Kodak Retina iiia. This list goes on and on.
Excellent hose reel photo. Excellent.
Also really interesting take on that camera.
Hi Phil, have you thought of trying Ilford XP2 Super in Rollei? It can be developed scanned and printed by Fast Foto for you and you can rate between ISO 50 and 800 on the same roll. Its a chromogenic black and white film that I like the results of. If you haven’t, give it a try you may be suprised
Ian, that had no been on my “to try” list, but it is now. Thanks for the reco.
Honestly, I understand that one can be seduced by the optical and mechanical properties of this beautiful camera, but I find it totally overpriced (around 350€ on Ebay). For me, a camera without rangefinder is just only good to take pictures of vacation memories, like people lined up in front of a monument. Maybe the Rollei is an «Iconic» camera, but if the XA gives the power to precisely focus on your subject, I prefer this plastic thing. And the XA is half the price of the Rollei.
Gauthier, yeah, I’d never pay that price for this camera (especially unseen and unexamined). As I said, I paid $225 to a reputable seller for a slightly dinged version with a 180-day return policy, and that was more than I wanted to. Having shot several rolls in it now, I consider that a fair price. The scale-focus thing is really only an issue in lower light with subjects within ten feet or so. I experimented to test the camera’s limitations. In standard outdoor exposure situations with 400 speed film, I find it’s a very dependable shooter.
I use Ilford HP5 in mine, because I prefer the results to Tri-X @ 1600. I love Tri-X at box speed but find it can be too grainy and high contrast when pushed. The extra speed allows me to stop down to compensate for my appallingly inaccurate attempts at distance estimation.
Pete, what a brilliant solution; I’m embarrassed it hadn’t occurred to me. Just give up on playing with artsy depth-of-field on this camera (I’ve got other cameras for that) and shoot everything nice ‘n’ sharp at f8-f22! Also it’d enable me to use it for additional nighttime and interior stuff. I’m gonna try it next roll. Thanks for the tip.
A pleasure – hope it helps, and if it does, look forward to seeing follow up articles to see how you get on!
If we learned one thing in 2020, it’s that everyone’s an expert estimator of distance. If your subject is so close that you can smell what brand of coffee he had for breakfast, he’s exactly two metres away – or will tell you he is, anyway.
That’s very funny. And of course profoundly sad, but let’s focus, so to speak, on the positive!
Hey Phil, appreciate your love of the older film technologies as I am ‘saddled’ with some 30+ machines and like yourself, always eyes peeled looking for others. Friends realizing this have graciously dropped their recent yardsale purchase or dust collector into my welcoming hands..one said she bought one for $5 and would be sending it along..turned out to be a 1947 Rolleiflex Automat K4 and case. Anyway, the Rollei 35 was something I gave away to a guitar player who liked the way it slipped into his Les Paul case.. now because of your article I’m in the hunt for another. Cheers
Dana, it’s funny, I believe that guitar players and film camera dorks share an affinity for beautiful old things with some patina on them, that do their jobs with more style, soul and beauty than newer, “improved” technology. My 1954 Rolleiflex and someone’s 1963 Stratocaster occupy the same aesthetic universe.
Phil, a man after my own heart! My analog setup consists of a Nikon FE, (dinged) Rollei 35S, Mamiya M645, and a Lomo LCA as my 2nd small camera (I guess serving a similar purpose to your XA/35S combo).
I’ve had the Rollei around 6 months and now feel comfortable zone focusing, it has also been a great learning tool for sunny 16 exposures. I too mainly use it with BW (most often HP5, over exposed a stop or so), though I have read the sonnar lens has great colour rendering – have been meaning to find out for myself.
Anyhow, my latest addition has been the M645 though a month in and I’m still struggling to obtain the resolution and sharpness I had wanted (expected) from my step up to 120. I was wondering how you get on with that particular camera, and if you’ve had hood results from it?
Jamie, I shot one roll of Portra 400 in the Rollei 35s, and it was absolutely gorgeous (the photo of a weird old Nash car on my IG feed some months back came from that roll). As for the Mamiya, pretty much every frame has been perfect. I’m not exaggerating. I have both a 55mm and 45mm lens for it (equivalent to about 35mm and 28mm on a 35mm camera, I believe), so I use it as my wide-angle 120 camera. With those focal lengths, and the fact that I use it almost exclusively for landscape and architecture shots, 90% of my shots are at infinity, and they’re insanely sharp. I actually find that some of these shots look too perfect and “digital” for my taste, and I desaturate them, which is crazy, but there you go.
Thanks Phil that’s good to hear – I’ll keep cracking on with the Mamiya (perhaps my home scanning is not up to scratch, I have a Lomography Digitaliza that doesn’t hold the film so flat).
Yeah I splurge and have all my color stuff processed and scanned at an excellent lab here in Minneapolis. The files are just insanely crisp.
I really like the results from my 35S but it tends to lose out to the other small cameras I have. My Contax T and XA4 get more B&W use with a Espio Mini always loaded with Lomo 800 for snapshots . It remains however my smallest 35mm camera that can accept filters. Granted 30.5mm filters aren’t too common but I’ve a small collection. The lens on the 35S is equalled by the Sonnar on the T and is better than all the rest.
One solution for distance accuracy is to pick up a pocket distance scope. I have a DeJur/Ansco and it is only 8 cm in length by 2 cm width.
I’m very fortunate in that I was given a Voigtlander Vito B (and I’m not the only one around here for whom this little camera started big things: https://www.35mmc.com/18/05/2013/voigtlander-vito-b-review/) when I was 11 years old and learned to guess distances at a formative age. The Vito B is an amazing camera by the way, and still takes pictures as good as pretty much anything on 35mm. I think they’re still cheap, too…
So keep using a zone-focus camera for long enough and it will become second nature. Cold shoe rangefinders are OK but they mess up the top of the camera functionally and aesthetically.
I’m also impressed at your collection- ‘proper’ Rolleis are lovely. Can I suggest the next stage of descent into camera insanity, that you acquire a cheap beaten up 4″x5″? I’ve recently done so and it’s giving me so much fun. 🙂
I’ve seen and had my interest piqued by the Vito B. Some day. The shoe on the Rollei 35 is (infamously) on the bottom, and that’d just be too weird-looking a rig, so I’m gonna keep guessing. Another reader’s suggestion to push 400 film a couple of stops, thus shooting pretty much everything at f11 and up, was a pretty grand idea, too. And, sigh, yes, I’ve had my eye on a couple of old 4×5 units. As I keep telling my wife, my hobby’s a lot cheaper than classic cars.
This little 35S is a great travel camera. I used one for 20 years and, of course, should have never sold it. The zone focus was never an issue with a 40mm focal length, If you look patiently, you can find color filters and rubber hood that will fit. Have fun!!
Hi Eric i to have a vintage camera bug and bought myself a Rollei 35 over 30 years ago. Its been living in a shoe box since. I got it out before lock down and ran a roll of Ilford XP2 before the covid lockdown, with great results. I have half a dozen vintage camera,s which all use zone focusing which as you mentioned are a bit hit and miss. I use a little gadget used by builders for measuring distances. Its a infared laser i got from Amazon for £19.00. It measures in feet and metres, and takes all the guess work out of focusing. Line up the red dot on your subject, press the button, get a accurate reading. Its small and pocket ready. Keep up the good work.
PS. The laser is not suitable for portraits, as it can damage eyes. If you do use it portraits point the laser at the subjects feet and take a reading.
hi phil i personally love the coffee table photo and it is photos like that is why im going back to film after many years using digital i have been using a fuji xpro 1 which i adore and will never part with but i have sent fot a rollei 35te because of the photos i have seen taken with such a camera and it has made me yearn to go back to film also as it has a look i cannot get on digital the imperfections of it gives the photo a soul of some kind i live in the welsh valley towns where nothing has changes since i was born except the clothing and cars this camera will be flat out im sure …great artical