Long before Instagram started the square format craze, before phones were smart and way before I was born, there was another square format fashion sweeping the world; the Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex (TLR).
First released in 1929, the Rolleiflex was loved by professional photographers for it's image quality and coveted by celebrities for it's stylish appearance. With the winning combination of high quality optics, beautiful build quality and the ability to produce stunning 6cm x 6cm negatives, it was a huge hit; production went on in one form or another until 2014!
Little Brother - The Rolleicord
Sadly, as I'm neither a professional nor a celebrity, I have to make do with the Rolleiflex's little brother, the Rolleicord. Please don't pity me too much, despite being the consumer grade camera, these boxy old things were made to very similar specifications.
The main differences being a slower taking lens and a film advance knob, rather than the an advance lever on the 'flex. It still has the great glass and build quality in common with it's more revered big brother, but without the big ticket price tag.
My particular model is a Rolleicord VB, one of the last models built in the 1970's and it's just the most beautiful looking camera; they don't make 'em like this any more!
If you've looking to purchase a TLR Japan Camera Hunter has a nice guide although all the prices are in Yen. In the UK a Rolleicord can usually be had for between £150 for a scabby but usable example to around £350 for a mint one. If you can't stretch to that there are a plethora of Japanese TLRs such as Yashicas, Mamiyas and Minoltas, which can be picked up cheaply and are interesting camera's in their own right.
Shooting with the Rolleicord
The vintage appearance of the Rollei can be a massive advantage if street portraits are your thing; people want to speak to you and ask about the camera, they will usually happily pose for a photo with it after a quick chat. Not so great if you are trying to be inconspicuous, these boxy old things attract attention!
I'll admit that when I first bought the camera I was pretty intimidated and confused by the controls, the inverted image on the viewfinder and the lack of metering; even loading a film had me stumped for a while until I realised I needed to order a spare empty 120 film spool to wind the film onto!
If you've only ever used a modern camera be prepared, using the Rollei is a bit of a trip back in time, but once you've mastered it you might not ever want to shoot with anything else.
As I said, loading had me stumped for the first minute, 120 film was new to me and the camera hadn't come with a spare 120 spool........once you have an empty spool in the camera, loading is pretty easy.
With the empty spool in the upper position, feed the film backing leader into the slot, make sure the film is centralised and wind on with the back open until the arrows on the film line up with the dots on the camera. At this point close the back and continue winding until you feel a stop, use your thumb on the roll of film to keep some tension in it as you wind.
The frame counter on the right hand side should read "1" and you're now ready to shoot your 12 frames, use them wisely.
There is no meter on the Rolleicord, so I use the sunny 16 rule and overexpose / expose for the shadows / just guess if I'm shooting negative film; Hamish at 35mmc.com has a nice guide to abusing negative film's good nature.
If you're shooting slide film you'll need to be more accurate with your exposure settings; a handheld meter and knowledge of how to use it is a must....... although I'd be lying if I said I'm very good at using a handheld meter...... but then I don't shoot slide film!
The controls are as basic as it gets when it comes to making pictures, no program mode, no auto mode, just full manual control.
The shutter speed and aperture are set by way of two small levers either side of the shutter. The shutter speed range is 1 second to 1/500th, it also has a bulb mode for using a remote release cable and X-sync for flash control. The aperture goes from F3.5 wide open to F22, note that shooting on medium format will yield shallower DOF than the same aperture on a 35mm camera.
Once set shutter and aperture settings are locked together, this allows you to vary either the depth of field or shutter speed setting without changing the exposure value, quite a useful feature. I usually set the exposure for the shadows and let the film latitude take care of the rest.
Focusing and Composing
The biggest difficultly when composing with the Rollei is that the image on the ground glass is inverted left to right, this takes some getting used to and can be hilariously difficult for a unsuspecting user to get to grips with...... just ask a friend to take your picture for evidence of this!
I find it best to roughly compose, then glance up at the subject when adjusting the framing and down again to confirm the composition is the best way to avoid getting tied in knots by this.
Focus is adjusted using a nice big knurled knob on the left hand side of the camera, focus from 3ft to infinity takes around 3/4 of a turn. The viewing lens is slightly faster (F3.2 vs F3.5) than the taking lens so you get a touch more DOF than the picture you see on the ground glass.
Parallax due to the separation between the viewing lens and taking lens can be issue as you get close to your subject, if using a tripod I raise the centre column a couple of inches for composing and then drop it down for taking to eliminate this issue.
The standard focusing screen is OK but a modern replacement screen can make a huge difference; mine has a split prism in the middle for critical focusing and bright ground glass, I'd recommend this if you have a Rollei and struggle to focus it.
The shutter is cocked with a lever under the lens, this needs to be done after you wind on and before you shoot......you will forget and miss some good moments at first, I know I did. My Rollei has a soft release shutter button which I find really tactile in use, I'm led to believe the standard shutter release is a bit awkward but YMMV.
Double exposure prevention is via a small lever on the left hand side of the front plate, when the red dot shows you can make double exposures by cocking the shutter again without winding on, double exposures are always fun.
If you're going to shoot slower than 1/30th then a tripod and remote release is recommended, a standard threaded remote cable screws into the socket after the shutter button has been removed.
If it's really windy, I compose and focus then close the viewfinder cover to reduce the amount of surface in the wind.
Shooting with the Rolleicord is always fun, but very deliberate and slow. I find this is an advantage rather than a limitation and I have a great hit rate shooting this way.
So, now you know how to use the Rolleicord as well as I do.
I made the brave (stupid?) descision to take my Rollei on a friend's stag do in Berlin, seeing as the camera was made in Germany I thought it was appropriate.
I shot 5 rolls of Ektar 100, all metered using sunny 16 and erring on the side of over exposure, all shot whilst either drunk, hungover or both.
Dumfries and Galloway
A family holiday to a less visited part of Scotland was a great chance to get out the Rollei and take some snaps. All metered using sunny 16 and shot handheld.
Aberdeen and Dunottar
Aberdeen has some great coastline and in February some pretty bleak weather to go with it. These were all shot from a tripod as it was windy as hell and very gloomy, all shot at F8 and 1/4th or 1/8th of a second shutter speed.
After the initial unfamiliarity and difficulty of using a manual TLR, shooting with my Rolleicord has quickly been cemented as my favourite way to shoot film. Once I got the hang of the controls I was hooked.
There is something deeply satisfying about the ability of this beat up old box, the response people have to it and the images it can produce.
If you have the chance to pick one up, I'd recommend the Rolleicord VB iun a heartbeat, but mine is not for sale!
Do you shoot with a Rolleicord or another TLR? I'd love to hear your thoughts on shooting with an old school TLR camera and see your work.
Leave your thoughts and links in the comments below.