Lake Tenggano, East Rennell.

Rolleiflex 2.8F – Reflections on a Brief Period of Ownership – by Simon Foale

Thirty years ago my dad acquired a Rolleiflex 2.8F which had been part of a large government scientific project, but because it had been bought with external funds, his division didn’t want it after the project ended, so he got to keep it. After using it to make the above image at East Rennell, Solomon Islands (and another below) he gave it to me. I had it for two and a half joyous years before it was stolen in a house break in. The thieves kicked in the deadlocked, timber back door of the house while we were out, took the VCR, the Rolleiflex, and a couple of early model Nikonos cameras, and completely ignored a Nikon F801 and several perfectly decent Nikon lenses. This post showcases some of the images I made with the Rolleiflex during the brief period I had it, with a handful of observations on using it. It’s not a full-blown review of the camera, and anyway there are plenty of those about these days.

The camera had a light meter but it wasn’t working, so I took advantage of the excuse to get a Sekonic incident light meter – a wise decision in hindsight. The camera came with a close-up lens and a large brown metal clam-shell style carry case that looked like it could withstand a fair amount of abuse. The thieves didn’t take that so I still have it.

I quickly got used to the camera’s quirks (like the left-right inversion through the waist-level finder), and tried to use it on a tripod as much as possible. While I was impressed by the fabulous quality of the F2.8 Planar lens, I was unaware of just how well it ranked among the competition, even today. I certainly had no idea that the camera would hold (and indeed increase) its market value as much as it has.

Needless to say my time with that camera got me well and truly hooked on medium format, and for a long time after it was stolen I had my mind set on getting a Hasselblad, since that takes more than one lens and I wanted the option of a wide-angle for landscapes. However in the end, once I finally had the cash, I decided on a second-hand Mamiya 6MF, with all three lenses, which I still have, and still use. Another decision I have never regretted. Is there a discernible difference between the image quality of the Rollei’s widely fetishised 80mm F2.8 planar and say the Mamiya’s 75mm F3.5 lens? Well, I never had the chance to shoot them side by side with the same film (maybe someone else has?). I’ve seen a lot of people wax lyrical about the special qualities of the Rolleiflex planar lenses (and the tessars) but it’s pretty hard to distinguish the subjective from the objective (pardon the pun) in much of that talk. I suspect the planar might possibly make smoother background blur (bokeh) with close-focus shots (I have an image below that may support this assertion, but I also have images with similarly inoffensive background blur produced by the Mamiya 75mm), though neither lens can focus closer than 1m without a close-up lens. Some of my own images suggest that the planar probably has more fall-off wide open than the Mamiya 75mm.

I will say that, while the Mamiya 6 remains my favourite film camera system in so many ways, there is something indisputably romantic about Rolleiflex cameras. Maybe it’s just the iconic 1960s imagery I commonly associate with the brand, such as Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and João Gilberto’s Desafinado. The ‘60s was both the heyday for the Rolleiflex and the end of the line for the twin lens reflex camera as a professional imaging tool, but it was also a historical moment that will never be repeated. It was a time of immense creativity in the better-off parts of the world. I suspect this had a bit to do with the relatively low levels of inequality back then (not counting misogyny and racism), but perhaps just as important was a comparative abundance of leisure time. The late anthropologist David Graeber opined that the ‘political class’ never want to allow what happened in the ‘60s to happen again. Too many people with time to think both critically and creatively, and then follow through with policy-changing activism. On current trends I don’t see it happening again any time soon. Either way, the images I have to show below don’t have anything particularly sixties-ish about them!

One funky factoid I can share is that Francke and Heidecke did not so much go the extra mile for their customers, as the extra millimetre. My Rolleiflex images measure 57x57mm in size, while Mamiya 6 and Hasselblad images are 56×56. That translates to a whole extra 1.13 cm2 of image area! Bonus!

Below I provide some images made by the Rolleiflex (the first by my dad – he also shot the image at the top of the article) with comments about each. They were all shot between late 1992 and early 1995. For some images I kept hard copy notes of shooting data.

Lake Tenggano, East Rennell Island, Solomon Islands, 1992. Velvia 50. East Rennell, including the lake, acquired World Heritage status in 1998. Sadly, logging and (more importantly) bauxite mining in recent years has done a lot of damage to the island, including the coastal environment. Image by Mike Foale.

Looking southwest from above Mboroni Village, Mbokonimbeti (AKA Sandfly) Island, West Nggela, Central Solomon Islands. 1994. Provia 100.

Catherine enjoying the view from the same location as the previous image. Provia 100.

A busy market near Rove, Honiara. December 1993. Provia 100.

A ginger flower in the National Botanical Garden in Honiara. Provia 100. This is shot near minimum focus and at a relatively wide aperture. This pic doubles as a bokeh study. The out of focus highlights do look fairly smoothly rendered, though you can see the pentagonal shape made by the five-bladed aperture.

Detail of a beautiful carved wooden bowl with Nautilus shell inlay from the Western Solomon Islands, photographed with the Rolleiflex’s close-up lens and a single flash with no diffuser. Kodak STS 9046. Not the best lighting for this subject but I wasn’t very savvy about the use of flash in those days.

An area on Nauru that had been mined for phosphate. 1993/4. Velvia 50. The old mine sites on the island are characterised by these distinctive rock pinnacles.

The processing mill that presumably crushed the phosphate rock prior to loading onto ships. You can see the phosphate dust in the air. Velvia 50.

The easternmost stacks of the ‘Twelve Apostles’, Port Campbell, Victoria, Australia. Early 1993. Velvia 50. The more famous view can be seen by turning 180 degrees and looking west from the same spot. This area is actively eroding and I understand there are fewer of these pinnacles standing now than there were in the early ‘90s

Catherine in front of a flowering wattle tree at Melbourne University campus. F11, 1/60. Velvia 50.

Melbourne University campus. F8, 1/60. Velvia 50.

Last light on the bow of the Abel Tasman before it departs for Tasmania. F4, 1/30. Velvia 50. The office towers of Melbourne’s central business district can be seen in the background. The number plate of the truck just to the left of the ship is clearly legible at 100%. You can see a smidge of vignetting here.

Passengers on the Abel Tasman, Melbourne. F2.8, 1/60. Velvia 50. Late afternoon light in Victoria often has a magic all of its own. This and the previous image were shot at wide apertures given the low light. I removed most of the vignetting on the original scan of this image in post.

Indigenous rock carvings on the northwest coast of Tasmania. Early 1995. Provia 100.

The Arthur River, northwest Tasmania. Kodak STS 9046  (I cannot find any information about this film and have no recollection of its rated speed or why I bought it!).

The Tarkine forest near Nabageena, northwest Tasmania. Provia 100. There is a fascinating and compelling thesis that some of the Tarkine rainforest (which for a long time has been the subject of conservation activism) is a post-colonial artefact. Historical and paleo-botanical data show that the area was an actively managed grassland savannah before the indigenous owners were murdered, driven off, or died from introduced diseases in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

The Rolleiflex 2.8F is a lovely camera and I treasure many of the images I made with it, albeit for a fleeting period. Is this camera’s image quality uniquely sublime enough for me to shell out the AUD4-5k asking price for a good quality example these days. Nope.

I hope you have enjoyed the images. My Flickr page is here.

Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-free Experience

There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:

Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you'll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial).
Subscribe here.

Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.

About The Author

14 thoughts on “Rolleiflex 2.8F – Reflections on a Brief Period of Ownership – by Simon Foale”

    1. Thanks for the generous feedback Ibraar. It’s possible there is indeed a ‘je ne sais quoi’ character to the Rolleiflex images. Some say the lenses render images with high sharpness but a ‘smoother tonality’ than say the Mamiya 6 and 7 lenses, but I can’t say I’ve made enough images with the Rolleiflex to be able to confidently comment on a claim like that. All the best with your photography.

  1. Hi Simon – lovely reminiscences with a lovely camera. I have a 2.8F and a Mamiya 6 system too – and love using them both in different ways. I can confirm the 75mm lens on the Mamiya is considerably sharper (the design is 30 years newer!), but the Zeiss Planar does have a lovely “soft sharpness” that is very beautiful, especially in B&W imho.

    1. Thanks for this Julian. Yes there is nothing about the images I’ve made with both cameras that would contradict your observation. I have seen others use this ‘soft sharpness’ description too.

  2. Hi Simon,
    thanks for this lovely post! I like the image of the ginger flower and the one with Catherine under the umbrella best! I think you have real mastery of the square format!
    I have a 2.8 F and I love it above all my other cameras. But that is not because the Planar is “the best” or supposedly better than some other lens. Although I fully understand the joy of tech discussions, I can’t really see the point of these comparisons. The Rolleiflex is a fifty to sixty year old machine and I am happy to admit that newer gear from a reputable brand such as Mamiya is probably superior in one way or the other. It’d better be, what else would be the point of all that R&D? What I love about the Rolleiflex is not its “superiority” above anything else but the whole experience of this particular thing from a particular time in the past that I happen to relate to. It is completely subjective. And that’s the great thing about this strange obsession with old film cameras. You can pick whatever you can relate to.

    Thanks again and cheers!

    1. Thanks for this Stefan, I think your perspective is right on the money. I am of course always interested in the scientific parameters of optics, where they are available (and reliable), and they can tell us an awful lot, but the subjective experience is also central to photography – it influences the way we approach image-making, and for that reason needs to be taken seriously.

  3. Your “Twelve Apostles” image is very strong. So many elements are expertly placed for the perfect composition.

  4. David Dutchison

    Certain camera’s impose a way of looking at the world which can be seen in the pictures photographers make with them – TLR’s being a good example, as are your pictures above. Should you want to return to that someday, consider picking up a Zeiss Ikoflex TLR, It carries Zeiss’s Tessar lens (as did many of the 3.5 Rolleiflex’s) but at well under a quarter of the price of the Rollei.

  5. That’s quite the nostalgia trip seeing photos of the Abel Tasman. As a kid growing up in Northern Tasmania, most of my early trips to the ‘Mainland’ were on that boat…

    Regarding the Tarkine, I feel I must clarify your comment. *Some* of the Tarkine rainforest is thought to be a post-Colonial landscape in terms of age. From what I understand this is mostly in the Surrey Hills area. *Much* of it is much, much older. A grove of Huon Pine was recently found on the Wilson River that is estimated to be up to 2000 years old.

    1. Fair point Nick. Rhys Jones, in his seminal study, and more recently Michael-Shawn Fletcher and colleagues, all generated their data in the Surrey Hills area. I’ve changed my caption to replace ‘much’ with ‘some’. Thanks for this.

  6. An interesting and well-illustrated article on an iconic camera.

    I do not (currently) subscribe to and so found it somewhat intriguing that the numerous pop-up adverts scattered throughout this item were all from a company advertising home security – ironic or targeted advertising?

    1. Thanks for your comment about the article Ian. I have no idea whether or not those home security ads are ‘targeting’ certain words in my story related to the theft of the Rolleiflex but it would not surprise me if they are!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top