Medium format joy with a budget Rolleiflex

While not quite Leica premium, Rolleiflex is a premium brand. Which means you pay a lot (sometimes too much) for what you get. Any Rollei with a fast lens (2.8 is fast in the medium format world) is expensive. Any recent Rollei is expensive. Rare or collectable Rolleis are stupid expensive.

But older, slower-lensed Rolleis are in the Yashica and Mamiya TLR price range (around £250), so you can experience Rolleiflex joy (and there is joy to be had) at a reasonable price.

Rolleiflex Automat 1

My cheap Rollei is an Automat 1 from around 1937. The ‘Automat’ bit means it senses when the film is at the right point to start to exposure counter. Which is nice. It’s got a simple 75mm 3.5 lens.

Rolleiflex Automat 1

What’s good about it

  • The uncoated Zeiss lens gives great colour and atmosphere, especially with Portra 400 – you can make beautiful pictures with this camera
  • You can see the aperture and shutter settings from above and change them with your thumbs – lovely
  • It’s relatively small
  • Beautifully built – it’s 82 years old and has only needed servicing once (as far as I know… the camera has been in my family since the early ’70s)
Birmingham Museum tea rooms. Rolleiflex Automat 1. Kodak Portra 400.
Linden tree. Rolleiflex Automat 1. Kodak Portra 160. (The orange colour-cast is down to a mistake I made photographing the negative.)
Birmingham. Rolleiflex Automat 1. Kodak Portra 400.

Flo. Rolleiflex Automat 1. Kodak Portra 400.
That’s me in a Hepworth sculpture in the early ’70s. My dad took this pic with the Rolleiflex Automat 1. The film stayed in the camera for about 30 years. See: How long does film last.

What’s not so good

  • The screen is really dull (even after a CLA)
  • The minimum focusing distance is about 6 miles
  • You can only select 1/500th before the shutter is cocked. Because I always wind on (and cock the shutter) after a shot (just can’t get out of the habit) this means the max speed is 1/250th
Rolleiflex Automat 1 – focusing screen. The camera’s Achilles’ heal. It’s way dim.

Is it better than similarly-priced alternatives?

In this price range, let’s say around £250, the only TLR (or any other 6×6) that I’d prefer is the Mamiya C220. I really like the Mamiya. It has sweet lenses (interchangeable), a relatively bright screen, macro-like focusing distance and makes lovely pictures. But it is big and a bit uncomfortable to use. The Yashica Mat is cheap to buy and has a lovely bright screen, but the image quality isn’t quite there (that said, my Yashica’s lens may be a bit foggy).

So, if you want a beautifully engineered camera that will last forever, produce lovely photos, and you don’t mind a dull screen and no close focus, a low-end Rollei is a great choice.

Rolleiflex Automat 1

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