5 frames with...

Rolleiflex SL35 mini-review- A Gorgeous Under-The-Radar SLR – By Recky Reck.

November 8, 2019

In early 2019, my interest in analogue photography was suddenly rekindled after a hiatus of a mere 35 years – as a teenager I had discovered my grandfather’s 6×6 folder and learnt photography using this 1940s camera, shooting in B&W and having prints made at the local photo shop. Alas, few of those pictures have survived my adult years. Thinking about it, it might actually be a good thing. You don’t know what I got up to back then!

I think that in the past couple of years I had got sick of taking thousands and thousands of digital photographs and relegating them to the confines of various external hard drives, some of which I can’t even access any longer due to their obsolete Firewire format. I wanted to make my snapshots count again, so I set out acquiring a small, yet comprehensive collection of cameras, helped by the fact that many classic cameras can be had for a song these days. The loot included a Contax IIa, a Rolleicord, an early Pentax Spotmatic and a Canon F1 (original), amongst others, as well as, most recently, a Rolleiflex SL35. (I’ve also set up a complete B&W darkroom, as I want to go the whole way in terms of “artistic control” – the images for this articles are, without exception, scanned from either RC or fibre-based prints.)

Tractor – SL35 Planar, Foma 100 @200, fibre-based print

My version of the Rolleiflex SL35 is an early model, made in Singapore, without the complex electronics featured in later models such as the SL35 ME that gave the series a bad reputation due to reliability issues. The SL35 had been made in Germany for a couple of years after its release in 1970, but Rollei moved production to Singapore owing to the financial pressures incurred by having to compete in the crowded SLR market, led by Far Easterners Nikon and Canon. The German-made model is rather more collectible, although arguably identical to its immediate successor.

Trailer – SL35 Planar, Foma 100 @100, fibre-based print

When the SL35 was released it was already an anachronism. While it had been designed completely from scratch (Rollei had little to no experience in the SLR field), technologically it was a throwback to at least a decade before – unlike its Japanese contemporaries, it had no open-aperture metering, only an old-fashioned TTL meter, neither was it a true professional “system” camera. It didn’t even come with a hot shoe! On the upside, a large number of top-quality lenses were made available in Rollei’s proprietary QBM bayonet mount, from the likes of Carl Zeiss and Schneider Kreuznach, as well as the cheaper Rolleinar lenses manufactured for Rollei by Mamiya. The normal lens supplied with the SL35 was the Carl-Zeiss-made f1.8/50mm Planar, which is the one that came with my Rollei.

Farmer – SL35 Planar, Foma 100 @200, fibre-based print

Feature-wise the SL35 is nothing to write home about – one could say its feature set and layout were borrowed wholesale from Asahi Pentax’ early 1960s Spotmatic, with one odd exception: Where one would expect to find the shutter release on an SLR camera, there is a big black plastic button that triggers the TTL metering system. The shutter release is mounted on top of the combined shutter speed/film speed thumbwheel which lives in the usual place further towards the viewfinder. In practice, however, this has not posed a problem to me for very long. The lens can be switched from manual (M) to auto (A), with the latter setting allowing the user to meter with the chosen aperture value engaged. I tend to use the manual setting, since focussing through a dimmed-down lens is rather inconvenient. As I tend to use either Sunny 16 or an external light meter, the camera’s integrated metering system is a bonus for me at most.

In terms of handling, the SL35 compares favourable with my Pentax Spotmatic. It is surprisingly small and lightweight for a pro-level SLR, but feels very solidly built indeed. Shutter speeds range from B to 1000; ISO settings reach a whopping (for its time) 6400. The minimum focussing distance of the Planar lens is 0.45 m or just under 1.5 ft. The viewfinder is pretty bright, but not exceptionally so, with a grid imprinted into the glass for help with composition – a nice Rollei touch! The simplistic needle-match light meter does what it says on the tin, provided the correct 1.35v battery (hack) is inserted. The SL35 is fully mechanical, unlike its later versions; the battery is only required for powering the meter.

Park – SL35 Planar, Foma 100 @100, RC print

Its perfect handleability (if that’s a word) as well as the excellent Carl Zeiss Planar 50-millimeter lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.8 are what could easily make this camera my new favourite. The Planar renders images with very good sharpness, yet not clinically so. It has a lot of character at the same time, probably owing to its super-vintage heritage. The Planar was originally developed by Paul Rudolph for Carl Zeiss in 1896! Since I am mostly a nifty-fifty shooter, this lens doesn’t leave me wanting for much at all.

One major factor that has drawn me back into film photography is the somewhat stark look of the shots published by photojournalists and documentary photographers of the “Golden Era” from the 1940s to the 1970s. Ever since I started shooting film again, I have been on a mission to emulate that look, sometimes more, sometimes less successfully. I have interviewed old-timers about their photographic and darkroom work and have spent a lot of time experimenting in the darkroom myself.

Flea market Bonn – SL35 Planar, Foma 100 @200, RC print

However, that’s a topic for a whole other article. Suffice it to say that I gravitate towards the nicely old-fashioned Fomapan 100 and 400 emulsions which, despite what is propagated in many forums, look great even if pushed a couple of stops. These five frames were shot recently on Fomapan 100, some at box speed, dev’ed in Rodinal, others pushed to 200 and dev’ed in Atomal 49. They were printed on Foma RC or fibre-based papers at grade 2, i.e. neutral contrast. Therefore, all the contrast you see is from a combination of the Planar lens and the push development, where indicated.

If you have read this far, please accept my gratitude for sticking it out this long for my first ever piece on film photography!

Some of Recky’s images can be found on Instagram at @reckys_film_lab. As he prefers scanning prints rather than negatives, things evolve at a relatively slow pace.   

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  • Reply
    Peter Grey
    November 8, 2019 at 2:01 pm

    An interesting read this is! I’m curious about your darkroom story as well.

    • Reply
      November 9, 2019 at 9:22 am

      Thanks! Some of my darkroom musings will be posted soon.

  • Reply
    James Evidon
    November 8, 2019 at 9:52 pm

    Why did you use Foma 100? Wish to know because I am always looking for a new B&W film to try. The images appear a little soft. My shots with the Zeiss Planar are always pin point sharp and contrasty with a lot of snap to them.. Is softness a characteristic of Foma?

    • Reply
      November 9, 2019 at 9:21 am

      To be honest James, I think it’s mainly my crappy scanner. It loses a lot of the contrast and some sharpness that’s definitely there in the prints. I restored the contrast back to where it was, but left everything else alone. I like Foma 100 and 400 because they have a little bit of that “Eastern European vintage look” to them, if you know what I mean. They’re really old-fashioned emulsions and probably not as tack sharp as modern film like Ilford Delta or Kodak T-Max which, to me, look almost digital. However, I want to try some different films, too. What do you think of Tri-X or Ilford FP4?

  • Reply
    Dan Castelli
    November 9, 2019 at 12:44 am

    Back in the (very) early 1970’s I worked at a camera store that catered to the professional trade. Very few amateurs ever ventured through our door.
    The ‘old timers’ loved the Rolleiflex as a fine piece of photo equipment. It shared shelf space w/Nikons, Leicas, Hasselblads, Rollei TLR’s and large format gear. That was the heady group it hung out with. You’ve got a good piece of equipment.

    One of the best comments from your article: (I’ve also set up a complete B&W darkroom, as I want to go the whole way in terms of “artistic control” – ) YES! I never gave up the darkroom. I call artistic control “the process.”

    I wish you continued success with the Rolleiflex and your darkroom.

    • Reply
      November 9, 2019 at 9:26 am

      Thank you Dan! Whereabouts was that camera store you worked at? In the US? I believe, but that’s pure speculation, that Rollei did not sell many SL35s outside Germany. Here in Germany, there was some emotional connection to the Rollei brand amongst photographers, but out in the rest of the world, competition was really stiff. The SL35 has definitely become my go-to SLR and fights for attention with my latest acquisition, a Leica M3.

      • Reply
        Dan Castelli
        November 10, 2019 at 4:01 am

        The store was in Hartford Connecticut. Out of business by 1974.
        My M2 is my walk-about camera.
        If you go to Musings, then to technical knowhow, you’ll find an article I posted on this site about my darkroom. Check it out.

        • Reply
          November 10, 2019 at 8:37 am

          Nice article! I’m also in the fortunate position of having a permanently installed darkroom. To me, taking the photo is only half the story, in fact, I think that 75% of my art/craft takes place in the darkroom.
          After ages of saying ‘who needs a Leica?’ I recently acquired an M3 which has immediately become my walk-about camera. It’s that good! 🙂

  • Reply
    Chris Gordon
    April 2, 2020 at 4:38 am

    Hi Recky, I read your article with great interest as anything to do with Rolleiflex always catches my eye, I live in the UK and have been a “Snapper” just over 50 years (I’m in my early 70’s) I can well remember the SL35 when it was released but in those days its initial cost was well out of my wallet range, to be honest it never really caught on here partly because it was very expensive in comparison with it’s more upto date Japanese competitors and although the Rolleiflex name was and still is very well respected with Amateur/Enthusiast and Professional Photographers alike the SL35 itself was also let down by the lack of the other Carl Zeiss made lenses in the range actually being imported into the UK except by special order which meant you had to pay for the lens of your choice from the Dealers Cztalogue or Rollei brochure upfront which as you can imagine wasnt very popular with prospective customers so it slowly died a death here and in the end one of the big camera chains bought the entire stock at a knockdown price and retailed them for around the £75 mark complete with case, by that time the later Singapore made SL35M and SL35ME Cameras and the Carl Zeiss and Rollinar full aperture lenses were being advertised a lot better and Dealers were prepared to stock the full range, Rolleiflex Germany did manufacture a full aperture metering version of the SL35 the SL350 complete with hot shoe but it only had a short production run and was never produced in the Singapore factories and is now a highly valued collectors camera with a price to match!! If only Rollei had produced the SL350 first and advertised it complete with a full lens range I’m pretty sure it would have done very well in the UK, the Carl Zeiss lenses for the SL35 and SL350 and the later Singapore Cameras are second to none for their quality, just for the record I own a pair 3.5f TLR’s and a Rolleiflex 6006 medium format outfit with 2 bodies and 40, 50 ,80, and 150 Carl Zeiss lenses plus Prisms and various film backs as I used to run a Social Photography Business from 1980 until I retired around 5 years ago but I cant bear to part with any of my Rolleiflex Cameras they are so well made and still produce excellent photos both colour and black and white and who knows I might try and find a nice SL35 in working order to use, I like your Foma shots as well and actually bought some 120 rolls in Foma 200 asa but as yet I haven’t had the chance to use it yet

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