TRAVELS WITH A ROLLEIFLEX | Episode 2 Part 3 (in which we go shopping…)

When I first got my new (old) Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera (see here and here) I knew I would need some equipment to go with it but, being profoundly ignorant about vintage cameras, I wasn’t quite sure what to get.  A few months on and I have learned a bit and spent a bit more.  Here’s what’s currently in my camera bag,  what I’ve found works, and what I probably wouldn’t buy again (the things I think were excellent purchases are in bold below):

  1. Billingham Hadley Digital bag: I knew from the outset that (though it is lovely and the design is perfect) I would not want to put into tough daily use the original Rolleiflex leather case that came with my camera.  I’ve never been a great fan of Billingham bags, always been more of a Think Tank girl myself.  But I walked into the Wex showroom in Norwich, there it was on the shelf, it fit the camera perfectly with a space at the side for my exposure meter and a pocket for film, phone etc, and I knew I’d found the perfect bag.
  2. Sekonic L-758D exposure meter: I already owned this, it fits in the bag nicely and it does the metering job perfectly.  Though to be honest these days I mostly use the Pocket Light Meter App on my iPhone – it does the job just as well for a fraction of the price.
  3. Mechanical Cable Release: I had faint memories of using one of these with my original Rolleiflex, in particular for long shutter speeds and tripod work.  I remembered right.
  4. Film: add to taste! I am currently still playing the field but loving, in particular, Kodak T-Max and Ilford Delta 3200.
  5. Eddycam Camera Strap: My decision not to subject the original Rolleiflex case and strap to daily use means I need to find an alternative strap for my Rolleiflex.  I tried going without a strap for a bit but it felt too risky.  I tried one of the Optech Pro straps I use on my DSLRs but it was too heavy for this little camera.  I’m currently using a beautiful Eddycam strap, nice and thin, butter-soft elk hide leather, and it feels heavenly about the neck.  Ideally I’d like something narrower still, with a quick detach system for tripod use but meanwhile this strap is suiting me nicely.
  6. Gitzo GT1544T Travel Tripod with Really Right Suff BH-30 Ballhead:  Compact, light as a feather, small enough to tuck into a big handbag, astonishingly stable.   I’ve had this tripod-head combo for several years, it’s my back up for my DSLRs when I’m feeling too lazy to carry a big tripod.  Married to the Rolleiflex it is a match made in heaven.
  7. Rolleifix quick release tripod mount: You could screw an Arca Swiss plate direct into the base of a Rolleiflex, but it is not a good idea – the base of these cameras is thin and soft, and you can allegedly damage it by screwing in a tripod plate direct. Instead the advice is to use one of these Rolleifix plates  which are designed for the job and spread the load properly.  I got mine on Ebay. It works beautifully.

Footnote: Have you ever walked into a camera shop and had one of the staff come up to you and say “Please, please, let me look at your camera”?  No, neither had I, till I got my Rolleiflex.

 

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TRAVELS WITH A ROLLEIFLEX – Part 2 Episode 2

It’s a couple of weeks now since I walked out of the camera shop with a vintage Rolleiflex camera in hand and a silly grin on my face.  Our first weeks together have been blissful, as all the best honeymoons are.  I remembered how to load the film, no problems at all (it’s like riding a bicycle…). I remembered too how very pleasant is the experience of shooting from the solar plexus, how you as photographer remain present in the moment and connected with your subject in a way you never can be when you hold a camera to your face.

My experience with the viewing screen is more mixed.  Mine is one of the older Rolleiflex models and the screens of these are very dark indeed.  When I first looked into it indoors, I was sure something was wrong as I could see almost nothing.  Outdoors it’s a little easier – light and shadow are definitely distinguishable.  You can change the screen (at significant expense) for something brighter like a Maxwell screen but some say that the original Rolleiflex screens are better for the way the subject jumps into focus when you find the sweet spot.

When I picked up my first batch of films I naively thought 400 ISO was going to be plenty fast enough.  Alas, no! (How we have all come to rely on the stellar high ISO performance of modern DSLR cameras in recent years!) Measuring light levels indoors or on typical overcast winter days, I realised I was going to have to work at very wide apertures and very, very slow shutter speeds.

In spite of the practical challenges of shooting on an old camera like this, there is something very endearing about this way of shooting. The pace is so different from what I have become used to. Take out an exposure meter (or use an iPhone app to measure the light level) and set your aperture and shutter.  Lift the viewfinder, compose the scene roughly, focus roughly, walk about a bit, or even a lot – as the lenses of these cameras are fixed focal length you need to move much more to work the composition.  Lift the magnifier to the viewfinder and focus properly. Check the exposure again, think about depth of field, think about how slow you dare go with the shutter, and change the settings if necessary. Check the focus, lower the magnifier, check the composition.  Breathe in, half breathe out and hold it. Shoot.

There is also an unexpected advantage to the very dim viewfinder: the way it renders a scene as shapes and light and shadow encourages much better attention to composition and helps me to see how the scene would look in black and white.

Anyhow, I expect what you’d really like is to see is what sort of photographs a seventy year old camera manages to take? I quickly put two films through the camera to make sure everything was working.  Started off with the Kodak Tri-X and the family dogs (as you do) in fairly low indoor light.  For the second film I tried Kodak T-Max and decided to throw caution to the wind, took the beast to Cromer Pier on a day when the wind was so strong it was difficult to stand and the waves were sending spray everywhere.  With some trepidation took both films to Bayeux in London, who offer a 24hr develop and scan service.  And the next day I received an email with my scans attached.  It seems I have not bought an expensive bookend but an actual working camera.  I can apparently hand hold 1/15s without camera shake.  I can apparently focus manually using that impossible viewfinder.  And that tiny little lens is astonishingly sharp.  A couple of my test shots are below.

FOOTNOTE: For my first two films I used Kodak Tri-X and Kodak T-Max 400.  I am straightening verticals in LR, doing slight tonal tweaks in Photoshop and a final tint.  No cropping.  Am loving the way these images print, grain and all…

Kodak Tri-X 400 f3.5, 1/15s
Kodak Tri-X 400 f3.5, 1/15s
Cromer Pier Kodak T Max 400 I think f8 and 1/15s
Cromer Pier Kodak T Max 400 I think f11 and 1/4s
Cromer Pier Kodak T Max 400 I think f14 and 1/2s
Cromer Pier Kodak T Max 400 I think f11 and 1/2s

TRAVELS WITH A ROLLEIFLEX – Part 2 Episode 1

I have a new camera.  Well, not exactly new as it’s even older than I am, but new to me anyhow.

This story goes back a long way, all the way to my childhood in fact.  My first proper camera was a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex, a delight to handle, immensely flattering of a novice photographer’s skill and always remembered by me with particular fondness.  So when my husband found an article about vintage cameras and suggested he bought me one as a birthday present, I said yes.  It took a little while to bring this project to fruition – about 15 months actually, while I hummed and hawed over which model I wanted (I was absolutely sure I wanted a Rolleiflex) and fretted about asking him to pay the astronomical prices now asked for the sought-after later Rolleiflexes with Planar lenses.  I tried to buy one on eBay but the seller got very shifty about my inspecting and collecting in person, which started alarm bells.

So in the end I decided the best was the enemy of the good, and a couple of weeks ago I pottered off to the splendid Aperture in London and bought the first Rolleiflex I’d actually held in my hands for more decades than I care to count.  To be honest it was a sale the moment I set eyes on it, and when I opened the case and smelled the wonderful musty, musky smell of my childhood photography days, like Proust I was completely lost.  I went through the motions of trying different shutter speeds, checking the crank worked, the focusing knob was smooth, and the lens was clean.  But it was already a done deal.  Aperture offers buyers a couple of weeks’ grace to put a film through the camera and check all is well, so it felt a safe decision. Would it take pictures still, over half a century since it was made? Would I remember how to use a camera like this?  Or had I just bought a rather expensive bookend?  To be honest I didn’t much care.  Hell, here was a portkey to my photographic past, and I was in!

For those interested in the technical side of things, my new plaything is a Rolleiflex 3.5B with a Carl Zeiss Tessar f3.5 75mm lens, also known as the 3.5 Rolleiflex MX-EVS type 1, made some time in the early 1950s. Not the best or the most sought-after model, but probably very similar to the one I owned the first time round.

FOOTNOTE:  Of course this is not intended to replace the stable of Nikons that I use for my professional work.  But I think I will learn from the discipline of using a very simple camera on which not much can be changed and which requires me to work very slowly and carefully.

Rolleiflex f3.5 Tessar