The Rollei 35S as seen through a Nikon d850.

Rollei 35S “Art Machine” – My Early Experiences

The Rollei 35 may be the best secret of all. Introduced in 1966, this miniature 35mm film viewfinder camera is more than the sum of its beautifully engineered parts. With a little practice this camera can create a magical image and that is the reason I call it “The Art Machine”. This article covers my early experience with 5 rolls of Ilford Delta 400, a Rollei 35S camera and a few days around my daughter’s wedding.


I began shooting and developing film in the 1970’s. Although I appreciate my Nikon d850, I believe the magic happens when I shoot film. I have shot and developed many cameras in many formats. I mention them here to share my previous experience as I approached the Rollei 35S for the first time. My prior film experiences included: large format with a Grayflex Crown, medium format with Mamiya RB67, Hasselblad 500, Mamiya c330 TLR, Yashica TLR, small format with Nikkormat, Canon AE-1, Nikon F3 and a 16 mm movie film with a brilliant Criterion Deluxe. I do love film photography.

This time, I was looking for a small camera that I could take to my daughter’s wedding. It had to be film and small enough so that I could put it in my pocket. Something that would allow me to fly under the radar yet enable me to take a rapid and spontaneous picture. I had considered rangefinders like the Leica M3 but ultimately chose a Rollei 35S viewfinder based on its smaller size and price tag. I found one locally for $300 US. I chose to combine this with Ilford Delta 400, pushed to 800 and a Sekonic Flashmate L-308X-U light meter.

The Camera

Introduced in 1966, it remains one of the smallest 35mm cameras on the market and fits in the palm of my hand. Like the Rollei twin lens reflex cameras, you adjust the shutter speed, aperture and distance to the subject when you look down at the top of the camera. Its construction is rugged and its design efficient. The small 40mm lens will even retract into the camera, reducing its profile even further, when not in use.

Three things about this camera are noteworthy. First, this is a viewfinder style camera, not a rangefinder, which means that there is no focus confirmation. Although this appears to be a disadvantage, I believe it is its strength. After reading the light meter and selecting your shutter speed and aperture, you then select the distance from you to the subject before you take your shot. The smaller your aperture (f16 for example) the greater the depth of field is around the chosen focal distance. This means with more light and a smaller aperture, your focal distance is less critical and you have a better chance of being in focus. Alternatively, at lower light with a larger aperture (f2.8 for example) your distance estimates are more critical for accurate focus, as the depth of field is much shallower. From that point on, when the action hits the mark, you merely press the shutter release and capture the scene instantly. Advance the film and you are ready for the next shot. This does require preparation to be successful. I am sure you already know the phrase “F8 and be there.” That’s what this is all about and the dividends are big.

The second noteworthy point concerns the lens. You will have the good fortune of looking through a Zeiss made, 5 element lens called the Sonnar 2.8/40mm. I have no idea why it is magic, but it is.

Thirdly, the process promotes creativity and spontaneity. My approach to film, prior to this camera, was to methodically plan every step and carefully craft each shot on my 12-image roll of medium format film. With the Rollei 35S in hand, you are liberated from this process and are encouraged to shoot a 36-image roll with abandon. Yes. There will be incorrectly exposed, out of focus and blurry images. Some of these will be spectacular. On the other hand, if the lighting is right as I will demonstrate, even at three feet you can capture a dreamy image full of emotion, depth and detail.


I shoot mostly Ilford products. I tend to like a little less contrast and a little more detail. I want to see the fabric detail in that white shirt. For me that is the tabular grain of Ilford Delta 400. All rolls were pushed to 800 and developed in Kodak HC110. Development times were 10 minutes based on the “Massive Dev App” that I highly recommend using. Because I was shooting 35mm, I was also able to develop two rolls at once. All negatives seen here were scanned on an Epson V 600 scanner and were edited in Lightroom and Photoshop. I do adjust the exposures and tend to soften the images with a small amount of luminosity while trying to retain just enough grain. I also print some of these in the darkroom, but that is another subject and skill set altogether. I use Photoshop primarily to remove most of the debris on the negative secondary to my poor technique. I generally leave a few imperfections as a footnote to the humanity of the process.

A: “Cousins” Shot outside on a sunny day in the shade at about 4 feet.
A: “Cousins” Shot outside on a sunny day in the shade at about 4 feet.
B: “Father of the Bride” Shot in a dim hotel room with one window at 3 feet.
B: “Father of the Bride” Shot in a dim hotel room with one window at 3 feet.
C: “Welcome Party” Shot at night under dim patio lights at about 6 feet.
C: “Welcome Party” Shot at night under dim patio lights at about 6 feet.
D: “Nola” Shot indoor with natural light at three feet.
D: “Nola” Shot indoors with natural light at three feet.
E: “Brothers and Sisters” Shot outside early evening at 6 feet. Lens Flare noted.
E: “Brothers and Sisters” Shot outside early evening at 6 feet. Lens Flare noted.
F: “The Rehearsal Dinner” Some indirect natural light plus artificial light at about ten-feet.
F: “The Rehearsal Dinner” Some indirect natural light plus artificial light at about ten-feet.

If you are looking for a small, inexpensive 35mm camera that is capable of creating “art” with all of its imperfections and want to do this in a free spirited and spontaneous way, then I highly encourage you to buy a version of the Rollei 35, or as I call it “The Art Machine”.

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About The Author

22 thoughts on “Rollei 35S “Art Machine” – My Early Experiences”

  1. Hi John,
    It’s a rainy, muggy day here in Connecticut. I’m drinking my coffee and enjoying your post and the photos you shared. CBS Morning news can wait.
    The Rollie is such a joy to carry & use. I can’t add anything to your article that would shed new light on the camera.
    The one I had was among the gear that was stolen out of my car in the mid-1980’s. I never did get around to replacing it. The reason eludes me now. But you’ve got me thinking about looking into another one after reading this.
    The lack of the rangefinder can be a disadvantage, but if you have enough experience working with this little powerhouse, you get pretty good at judging distance. Coupled with fast film, you get more saves than misses.
    I was lucky to get my Leica gear before eBay and the huge price inflation that surrounds the brand today. Even the ‘junkers’ command ridiculously high prices. Your observation about the high price of an M3 is dead on.
    Continued good luck with your mighty-mite of a camera.

    1. Hi Dan!
      What an artful response. It is so gratifying to know that others find these articles and images enjoyable! I am currently on an adventure in Maine and am experiencing the same weather! The fog on the bay has been dramatic. This time no Nikon d850. 3 film cameras (including the Rollei 35S a Nikon FM2 and a Mamiya 645 and 10 rolls of BNW) and a cell phone. I am sure to bore you with these in the future. I would encourage you to pick one up again. It would be very nostalgic for you. An heirloom. Lately I am in the habit of buying parts cameras to save money. No fixy no picies 🙂 thanks for your kind words! More to come.

      1. James Roberts

        John, fabulous images…but, prices of this lovely camera are through the roof here in the UK. It’s no longer an inexpensive camera, but a very pricey one.

        1. James, I agree. Prices are up on everything it seems. That said I still think there is some bang for the buck as a really nice compact 35mm that can deliver. I’m ok with a bargain and a few dings!

  2. Hi John,
    I couldn’t describe the magic of the Rollei 35 better than you did in this lovely article. The Rollei has a special place in my heart, specifically the one I own and got via the bay, arriving at my birthday with my birthday date as the first 4 serial numbers. I don’t leave house without this gem in my pocket or bag and shot already dozens of rolls through it. Especially with black and white film the lens performs just magical. The distance guessing is in some ways freeing the user from the focusing process while using the viewfinder and gives simplicity vibes, like using a point and shoot camera.
    If you like to give the Rollei a good service, I can recommend Mr. Werner Bruer in Braunschweig, Germany, a former Rollei mechanic, who CLAd and adjust the battery voltage to 1,5 V for 60 € (

    1. Felix, Magic is right. Appreciate your kind remarks! I love the birthday story too and the matching serial number. Fate! It was meant to be! I hope you have it for many many more to come.

  3. Arthur Gottschalk

    Loved my 35S. Made some of my best pictures ever. Wish I still had it. They’re getting rather expensive now.


    I bought my Rollei 35 (f3.5 Tessar, in black model) in 1976 in my local Army PX in Germany. I used that camera as my B&W camera until the late 1990’s. I took it on my travels through Europe and literally wore it out. In early 2000 I sent it to Harry Fleenor in California for a rebuild and it returned better than new. I recently bought a wonderful leather case for the camera from a seller in Japan. The case literally wraps around the camera so if you drop it (which has happened) the blow is cushioned. My later mother-in-law had one of the very original (1967) models which I now have and use. I also have a Rollei 35B with the Triotar lens; it too is a wonderful camera. The selenium meter works and is quite accurate, thus no battery availability problems. I have a photo of a fountain I took shortly after buying the camera with an orange filter. The picture is mounted and framed and when I look at it the memories come flooding back. As noted, if you use a high ISO film, zone focus at f8, you’re ready for about anything. I live in the Washington, DC area and always have the camera at the ready.

    1. I love history and cameras as family heirlooms! I hope one day my kids will use these and remember me fondly. You have some great history with yours. What great stories. So nice you have that early image – to hold!

  5. Superb frames, well done. I used a 35S for about 20 years. It was especially handy for travel and wish it was still in my camera cabinet. I gave my sister a 35SE. I wonder if she still has it?

    1. Thank you! You have much more experience than I do, for sure. Yes I think you need one. Maybe your sisters? 🙂

  6. The Rollei 35S has the best lens from the range and I remember a review from Modern Photography best 47 cameras in the 1970s showing better resolution than most other cameras listed. It is a great travel camera and you can estimate distance to focus and rarely get an out of focus photo. The old mercury light meter battery is no longer available. To preserve battery keep the camera closed in its case asthere is no off switch. It is a great camera. The film processing shop always remarked how sharp the photos were.

    1. Roger, the lens really is great. I really don’t know how they make great lenses but we all know them when we see them. This is one of those. It’s also amazing that we strain to get the best manual SLR focus and then just pick a distance in a viewfinder… and it works! Cheers

  7. Reyazul Haque

    Such a beautiful article with wonderful photos, John. I cannot agree with you more, this camera never disappoints, even the failures are lovely. Enjoyed your photos. Would like to see more from this camera. 🙂

    1. Reyazul,
      Thank you for the kind comments! I agree. There is some beautiful even in the images that don’t come out as expected. I think this one reason I love film. It is not perfect, predictable and sterile. Beauty in imperfection.

  8. Hello John
    thank you very much for your contribution. It just inspires me to feed my “Art-Machines” with film again.
    Actually, I love the little ones and don’t give them away either; but unfortunately I don’t use it that often.
    (but is probably more due to the number of other cameras, which all want to see a film from time to time)
    Have fun and greetings from Switzerland.

  9. The 40/2.8 Sonnar HFT was a beautiful optic with special rendering and was made for a short time in a LTM with M adapter for the Rollei 35RF. The main advantage was RF coupling down to 0.7 meters for sharp focus, use on a compact body with a decent meter range and the possibility of use on a Leica body. Unfortunately due to the short production run and rarity used prices are rediculously high so most go for a 40/2 Summicron or Rokkor.

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