One of the finest TLR (twin lens reflex) cameras to grace planet Earth, the Rolleiflex 3.5F is a classic masterpiece of German engineering.
Back in 1928, in the bustling town of Brunswick, Germany, Reinhold Heidecke created the very first Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera. This peculiar name is a contraction of Roll film and the designer’s last name: Heidecke. Although the mechanics of twin lens – which allow you to preview the scene through a “viewing” lens and shoot it through a “taking” lens were not new – Mr. Heidecke’s creation was compact, elegant, easier to use, and an instant success.
About 30 years later, the firm of Franke & Heidecke introduced the Rolleiflex 3.5F. Boasting a fast and extremely high-quality lens (both the Zeiss Planar & Schneider Xenotar), the 3.5F quickly became a favorite model of both professional photographers (like David Bailey & Diane Arbus) and serious amateurs. And maybe even your grandfather or great-grandmother! It served as a less expensive and more lightweight sibling to the Rolleiflex 2.8 – a comparable model with a larger-aperture lens.
Using the Rolleiflex 3.5F is an adventure in old-school manual controls. A small top-mounted lightmeter takes in the outside light levels and powers a small match-needle readout, which is integrated into the film advance knob. This shockingly accurate meter works with your pre-set ISO speed and guides you to the proper aperture & shutter speed. You focus through the top down viewer, which includes a small built-in magnifying glass for more precise work. One roll of 120 film gets you 12 brilliant 6×6cm shots. Standard tripod and cable release threads are included with the camera – allowing for easy long-exposure & self-portrait shooting.
Like the other Rolleiflex TLR’s, the 3.5F is cast in a sturdy metal body. It’s a bit heavy to lug around, but no worse than a thick professional SLR. It’s definitely a looker, and will get you lots of attention on the street. People like to pose for photos in front of it. Given its price and complexity, this may not be the best choice for your first TLR. But if you’ve tried a less expensive model and liked it, then the Rolleiflex 3.5F is an excellent upgrade and a true collector’s item!
Tips and tricks
In these days of megapixels and mobile phones, plenty of folks have never seen an old-school top-down viewer TLR camera. Take advantage of this with stealthy street portraits. Walk around the city streets with your eye plastered to the Rollei’s screen and just wait for that perfect candid shot of a bystander. It’s not far off!
Although the Rollei’s focusing screen is big and bright during the day, all bets are off in low light party situations. It’s nearly impossible to focus properly on someone’s face. Which is a pity, as medium format flash portraits – when shot through the 3.5 Planar or Xenotar lens, are freaking incredible. The solution to this is (1) use a powerful flash, (2) use ISO 400 film, (3) set a small aperture of f/16 and (4) pre-focus your lens to around 1.5m. Now, as you walk around, just be sure to stand about 1.5m from your subject. The long depth of field caused by the small aperture will ensure that subjects at about the right distance are crystal-clear.