There’s a lot of cameras in the world, but in my opinion, there are only a few that look as good as the higher-end Rollei 35 series cameras. There are probably equally as few that succeed as well at what I perceive as being their design goals too.
I now have two Rollei 35 cameras – an early German Rollei 35 with the Tessar lens and a later Rollei 35 SE (previously reviewed here). Though I don’t shoot them very often, for the way they look and their success as cameras, I can’t help but absolutely love them.
I have owned my Rollei 35SE for a while now, but have long coveted the original Rollei 35. I finally took the plunge when Jeremy Rata launched his film camera restoration/refurbishment company, FilmFurbish. I’ve looked at a lot of these cameras on eBay, but there’s often been something that has put me off, even if that has just been a high price and lack of guarantee.
I will come back to Jeremy and the services he provides later in this article, but for now I shall just say that if you find yourself tempted by one of these cameras, and want to ensure getting yourself a good copy, you should definitely check out his website!
The Rollei 35 Series
There are a fair few versions of the Rollei 35. The series can be split into two: the higher-end models, and the entry-level models. The entry level models had a more basic Triotar lens and had the shutter and aperture controls integrated into the lens barrel and in most cases have selenium light meters.
The higher-end models had either a Tessar or Sonnar lens, can be easily identified by the shutter and aperture dials on the front face of the camera. All of the higher-end models have meters, but they are CdS meters and so are a lot less imposing on the design of the camera.
I should say, I’m not snobby about the entry-level cameras, I have shot and enjoyed a Rollei 35B before, and when reading up about the models again for the sake of this article, I have given myself some 35B GAS again. But, for my money the higher-end models have a design charm that really appeals to me. As such, though I might come back to the entry level cameras one day, the focus of this article is my experiences with the higher-end Rollei 35 cameras.
Rollei 35 – Higher-End models – Overview
The higher-end series of Rollei 35 camera is made up of the original Rollei 35, the 35T, 35S, 35TE and 35SE. There are a few subtle differences between them which I will come to in a second, but the basis of these 5 cameras is the same. They are all tiny zone focus cameras with surprisingly big, bright viewfinders, are all fully manual with a built in CdS light meter and all have collapsible lenses.
To extend the lens, you simply pull it out from the body of the camera and twist to lock it in place. There’s then a button on the top or front of the camera to release the lens to collapse it. The lens will only collapse when the film is advanced.
The film is advanced with the lever on the top of the camera and rewound with the winder on the bottom. The frame counter and hot shoe are also on the bottom plate along with the release catch to open the cameras. The Rollei 35 is rewound by flicking a lever by the viewfinder to release the mechanism, the the rewind lever is folded out from a neatly tucked away position to rewind the film.
To change/load the roll, the bottom/back of the camera comes away and film is loaded underneath the folding film pressure plate.
The higher-end Rollei 35 cameras are controlled via two dials on the front. Both dials have settings displayed in the upper edge of the dial so you can see the settings as you look down at the camera when holding it to shoot it.
The right hand dial (as you look at them over the top of the camera) sets the aperture. The exposure index dial for setting the ISO is also set into the front of this dial.
The left dial sets the shutter speed with a film reminder set into the front of it. The film reminder has no impact on the photos, it’s just there to help remember what type of film was loaded.
The camera is focused using a control at the front of the lens. There’s no viewfinder based focusing aid, it is purely a zone focus camera that is focused using the distance and depth of field indicators on the top of the lens. Again, the settings are visible as you look down at the top of the camera.
For flash photography it is intended that the flash is mounted onto the bottom of the camera and then the whole camera used upside down so that flash illuminates from above rather than below the camera.
Rollei 35, T & S
The original Rollei 35 has a 40mm f/3.5 Tessar lens. This was followed by a 35S which has a f/2.8 Sonnar lens and a 35T which also had the Tessar but had the T suffix to differentiate it from the S. The original Rollei 35 and later 35T are, but for the T designation, essentially the same camera.
All of these versions have a built in light meter with a matched needle readout on the top plate of the camera. With the meter on the top of the camera it is also visible when looking at the shutter, aperture and focus settings. It is designed as such that all the camera settings are adjusted and set with the camera away from the eye.
The earlier cameras also took a PX625 battery that was installed in the camera inside the film chamber meaning the battery could only be changed when a roll of film wasn’t loaded.
Rollei TE & SE
These early versions were followed by 35SE and 35TE models which had an LED light meter readout in the viewfinder. With the light meter readout being inside the viewfinder, the way the later models are operated differs quite dramatically from the earlier models. It is intended that the settings, to a degree at least, are changed with the camera to the eye. I talk about how I made this work for me in some detail in my previous Rollei 35SE review.
The later models also had a battery compartment that was accessed via a plastic hatch on the top plate of the camera.
My Rollei 35 Experiences
I first handled a Rollei 35 when I worked in camera retail something like 15 years ago now. If memory serves, it was a 35S. A customer brought it in to show me after we’d had a bit of a chat about compact cameras. He left it with me to tinker with, and even said I could put a roll though it… but I was too scared that I was going to drop it or lose it, so I didn’t. It actually already had a dent in the top plate, which added to the idea that it was something I could easily damage. As such, it just stayed behind the counter for a week or so until he came to collect it, slightly disappointed that I hadn’t tried it.
Regardless of the fact I didn’t use it, the time it remained in the shop was enough seed a fascination with the series in me. Back then, as I guess I have just hinted at, I was a lot more in awe of older cameras, particularly valuable ones. I’d never even seen a Leica in real life at this point, so this little Rollei was at the time one of the most interesting and valuable older cameras I’d handled.
To this day they remain a little jewel-like to me. They feel solid, or perhaps a better word is dense since they dent quite easily. They are also mechanically pleasing, albeit a little fiddly, and just generally feel like high quality objects that I think look quite technical… or at least that’s how I remember perceiving them when I first handled the 35S.
Despite appearances, and short of the how the subtle differences in features and design impacts on the user experience (something I will come to in a mo), they’re actually very simple cameras. They just have everything a metered manual camera requires to function crammed onto a tiny body. There’s something about this cramming of the features that makes them very satisfying to me – not least because they manage to look as good as they do despite being so small.
My Rollei 35 cameras
As I said at the beginning of this review, I now own both a German Rollei 35 and Singapore 35SE versions. I can honestly feel no difference between the quality, though I am sure there must be some out there that prefer the original German cameras. Personally, I’m not fussed about the German provenance of the earlier model – just as my favourite Leicas were made in Canada and Portugal, I see no benefit in being fussy about where a camera was made. In the case of my original model, I just liked the idea of having an early Tessar model to go with my late Sonnar model.
Zone Focusing Joy
My Rollei 35SE was very kindly gifted to me by a reader of the website a good few years ago now – and, to say the least, I loved it. It totally reinvigorated my appreciation for zone focus photography. In fact, I’d possibly go as far to say that sealed the idea in my mind that Rollei 35 series camera are up there with the absolute best of the zone focus cameras.
That might sound a little like hyperbole, but from my point of view, the choice to shoot zone focus is a choice to limit oneself. And to my mind, there should always be advantages to imposing such limitations.
Zone focusing has – as many of its advocates will tell you – the potential to be the quickest way to focus. Not through shot-by-shot focusing, of course, but through good anticipation and pre-focusing. Get to grips with pre-focusing and the Rollei 35 series camera can be a very quick camera to shoot with.
But the real key advantage that comes with this speed is the size of the Rollei 35. There’s nothing to stop you from zone focusing with a lot of older SLR or rangefinder cameras, not to mention the vast swathes of other zone focus cameras from a wealth of other brands of camera. But the Rollei 35 cameras really are tiny. As such, if small size is your primary desire for a camera, and zone focusing is either something you can live with – or indeed something you enjoy – then they make for an obvious choice in my opinion.
Focusing method aside, as I have already said, the manual operation combined with this tiny size is the key attraction to the Rollei 35 cameras to me. There are very few 35mm film cameras that are as small as the Rollei 35 series cameras, and there are none that I know of that take 35mm film that offer entirely manual controls. It’s true, they aren’t the least fiddly cameras out there. The small aperture and shutter dials on the front aren’t perfectly easy to operate. But for me, this isn’t an issue. These camera are all about being prepared. Pre-focusing and pre-setting exposure settings to as close a degree as is predictable will definitely reap the best user experience.
Rollei 35 (/T/S) vs. Rollei 35SE (/TE)
As I’ve already said, the later ‘SE’ and ‘TE’ cameras had a light meter inside the viewfinder and a battery compartment on the outside. The original Rollei 35 cameras and the ‘S’ and ‘T’ variants had the light meter on the outside and the battery compartment on the inside.
When I first had it, I came to really enjoy how the SE worked, though if you read my review, you’ll see me comment that the LED light meter almost spoils the view through the very nice viewfinder. That said, I did find a knack for using it that allowed me to make minor changes to the camera settings with it to my eye, and found myself very comfortable using it that way.
Interestingly, especially reading that review back with a few more years of my photography journey under my belt, I find myself with a different perspective. As someone who had less experience with manual cameras at the time, I think I found a way to find favour with the viewfinder based light meter readout for the added confidence it gave me in terms of correct exposure.
These days, I’m somewhat less concerned about shooting based on a camera’s meter reading, and slightly more concerned with making a metering judgment based on the combination of a light meter, my awareness of the film I’m shooting, my desired end result and the environment I’m in. I’m also slightly more aware of the ramifications of over and under exposure. For a start, you’ll note in that old review that I mistook underexposure for overexposure in my results…
The result of all of this is that were I to shoot the ‘SE’ now, I think I might find myself a little less happy with the disruption to the view through the finder that the LEDs cause. With the intervening years of experience using non-metered cameras, I’m also a lot more comfortable using external light meters.
Because of all this, I now find using the light meter on the top of the camera very appealing. It’s coupled to the camera’s settings, so when you look down at the top of the camera you can change the settings and see the meter readout responding. Combine this with being able to set the focus settings and depth of field scale, you have everything in front of you to be able to adjust the settings to that which are appropriate for the subject without having to even lift the camera to the eye.
The result of all this is a sense of preparedness. The process of presetting the shutter and aperture and pre-focusing the lens is innate to the activity of shooting a zone focus camera, and the early cameras make this feel very natural to me now.
Additionally, where I previously thought the external battery was an advantage just in case the batteries ran out mid-roll, those sorts of concerns are much lower on my list now. As someone who used to find comfort in a viewfinder-based light meter, I would have felt a little lost without it. These days, if the meter in the Rollei 35 died, I’d just rely on Sunny-16-gut, or more likely just revert to using the Lumu app on my iPhone. Though I would lose the benefit of the coupled meter, the experience wouldn’t be that different either.
There’s no doubt, there’ll be a lot of photographers out there who also absolutely prefer a camera with a light meter in the viewfinder. For them, finding the knack I found with the SE will likely result in a more comfortable user experience. Alternatively, for those who are have greater preference for an approach to photography that involves presetting will likely find preference for the older style meter.
For me, now, that’s where I am at. I find it much easier to use the early Rollei 35 by pointing it roughly in the direction of the sort of light I want to shoot, looking down at the top of the camera, reading the settings off the two dials, and twiddling them until I get the meter to match with what I feel my gut thinks is the right exposure. I just need to pay more attention than I did when I shot this roll…
Sonnar vs. Tessar
I suppose the next logical direction for this article would be to compare the Sonnar and Tessar lenses. Unfortunately – at least in terms of image quality – I’m in no position to make a full and proper comparison. I’ve not shot either of them enough to comment fully, and shot the SE too long ago to judge the results against my current Tessar results anyway.
But, one thing has struck me when reading my previous review is that I used to be a lot more concerned about finding cameras that worked well in lower light, or at very least in a broader set of circumstances. This seems to be one of the key arguments in favour of the Sonnar-lensed models. It’s a f/2.8 over the Tessar’s f/3.5 maximum aperture. Of course, the difference between 2.8 and 3.5 isn’t that great, neither have a light meter that works in lower light, and from my personal perspective now, neither would make an obvious choice for lower light shooting anyway.
But again, I think this speaks more about my personal preferences now versus what they were then. When I was thinking about adding an older model Rollei 35 to my collection, my primary interest – aside from just wanting an older one to go with my newer one – was in owning one with the light meter on the top of the camera. Of course, there was some thought to whether or not I should go for another Sonnar or get a Tessar one, and I was motivated a little bit to have the Tessar just to have one of each. But when I thought about how and where I would now shoot a Rollei 35 camera, I knew the slower lens would be plenty adequate for my needs.
I really love shooting zone focus. At some point last year I sold my Leica iiia in favour of a ic because I never used rangefinder on the iiia. My 28mm f/3.5 Voigtlander lens mounted on the ic makes for a perfect combination of small size and total manual control for wondering around shooting in the daytime. The f/3.5 maximum aperture of that lens has never been as issue.
If I know I’m going to go somewhere that might be lower-lit, I just don’t take that camera. For me, the Rollei 35 fits into the same category as my Leica ic – it’s a daytime camera. A camera for broader depth-of-field snaps where zone focusing is easy. And therefore – for what I want it for – the f/3.5 lens is more than adequate. Your mileage may vary, but that’s my rationale, and I’m sticking to it.
Sorry none of this answers the Sonnar vs. Tessar debate properly… what can I say, Google is your friend. In fact, if you do that search, you might come across Calogero Randazzo’s article that has lots of comparisons here. I like his conclusion too: “Get one of these, no matter if S or T, go out, shoot, print and enjoy!”
As I said at the beginning of this article, I got my original Rollei 35 from Jeremy Rata of Filmfurbish. I’ve known Jeremy for a little while now; a few years maybe. He’s written for 35mmc and I’ve sold him kit before. He’s a Leica shooter, and quite discerning when it comes to the quality of kit whilst also not being snobby. He has, for example, made a good case for a couple of the better Chinese M-Mount lenses.
So when he got in touch with me to say he had a lockdown plan to set up a company refurbishing cameras, I was all ears. I was even more interested when I hear his initial focus was to be Rollei 35 series cameras. He’d managed to team up with an ex-Rollei camera engineer who was going to do some of the more complex repairs. Jeremy was then going to use the best bits he could get his hands on to put together Rollei 35 cameras that were good enough that he was comfortable offering them with a 12 month guarantee.
He sells the cameras boxed with manuals, accessories and even a roll of Rollei film. He also grades them very well and honestly, so you know when buying one exactly what you are going to get. In the absence of new film cameras in the marketplace, I find it very difficult to argue with this sort of service/offer. The best thing is, taking into account inflation, they are still cheaper than they were when they were new.
The primary criticisms of these cameras are the facts that they only offer zone focusing, can be a little bit fiddly to use and that they quite often come dented or broken.
The fact they are zone focusing is of course a limitation, and it will be a deal breaker for some. For me, I love the fact that they don’t have a focussing aid in the viewfinder. As they are, the viewfinder is wonderfully bright, and as I have said with a bit of forethought zone focusing can actually be an advantage rather than the opposite.
It is true they are a little fiddly to use too, but again with forethought and using them as they are intended makes for a user experience that quickly makes light of their fiddly nature. And anyway, the tiny size of the camera brings advantages that outweigh the compromise in my opinion anyway.
On both zone focusing and the small size advantage, I think Trevor Hughes’ street portraits of Bike Messengers with the Rollei 35SE go a long way to prove what can be achieved with these cameras in the right hands.
And, of course, if you’re worried about dents or functional issues buying off eBay etc, now you have the option to spend a little bit more and buy one from FilmFurbish too.
For me, they are total gems. I doubt I will ever sell either of mine – despite the fact that I don’t and won’t use them very frequently – they just feel too perfect not to own. There are very few cameras that I think all die hard film photographers should own at some point, but I find it very hard not to make that statement about the Rollei 35!
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