This is no easy claim to make now is it? People are so invested in the ‘best camera’ concept and there are so many cameras out there that could claim the crown. Hassy’s, Leica M’s, FM3A’s, Linhofs etc.
I have fallen in love with the images from those candidates myself over the years but there’s just something about this choice that I can’t automatically relegate to second place. It is a close fought thing though. I know the M3 would be top of the pile for so many and it might just be for me too although I actually prefer the M2 with a fast 35 and so this would definitely need to be hashed out properly if one were to make an all-time favourite pick. In the meantime, if it had to be just one and only one and you put a gun to my head, you’d still probably have to pull the trigger after you got annoyed at me still not being able to make my bloody mind up, the original solid brass Leica M’s and the 3.5f Rolleiflex take the crown kind of equally. However, having already written a lot on this site over the last few years about classic Leicas, let’s examine the case for the ‘Flex in a tad more detail shall we?
I, like so many Rolleiflex nutcases, have rotated my way through ownership of many of them (probably more than I’d like to admit to publicly) over the years and so I have had ample chance to see the pros and cons of each. I have to say, the 2.8f’s very nearly win out as they are also dear to my heart but in terms of real world use, the images that I get (and handling and carrying around), I just have to give the 3.5f’s the nod. If there are any hardcore devotees of the 2.8f out there that would beg to differ, fear not…I really do understand. Indeed, there are many useless debates in the world of the Rolleiflex user and the top two offenders would have to be those of a ‘Planar vs. Xenotar’ and ‘3.5f vs. 2.8f’ nature. Woe betide anybody daft enough to enter such debates into internet search engines and then try and find the time needed to actually wade through all the info and arguments that will come your way. Let me save you the trouble: In both of the above ‘battles’ , the correct answer is usually somewhere in the ballpark of ‘they are as good as each other, choose the one you prefer’.
So, why do I prefer the 3.5f Planar? Why is it one of the truly VERY best cameras ever?
Simply put, I find the 3.5 to be more compact, less bulbous, easier to handle and carry, nicer to use, cheaper to buy (and sometimes find accessories for although that one doesn’t always hold up lately) and better proportioned to look at. When I have had both in my rotation (which has happened from time to time), I always felt drawn to the 3.5 when leaving the house and going to grab one. I also like the ever so slightly wider field of view with this model, sure it’s very slight indeed but I find it a useful edge. Again, if all you ever wanted was to do natural light portraits, the (ever so slightly) longer 2.8 lenses and one third of a stop extra speed might serve you well but for me I find that a non-issue really and I do shoot a lot of Rollei portrait stuff that isn’t on this site for various reasons). Also, a Rolleinar close up filter for either camera might make some of that a moot point anyway.
I have found a higher number of my best ever pictures were taken on 3.5f’s, although I am not sure that this data really means much as even assuming that I owned 2.8’s for as long a period of shooting in my life (which might actually be true come to think of it), if I always reached for the 3.5 when going to shoot then my bias got in the way more than anything else I suppose.
One thing that I am certain of however is that the 75mm 3.5 Zeiss Planar 6 element lens is my all-time favourite Rollei lens ever. This is coming from somebody who’s owned most of Leica’s best brass stuff and somebody who likes the look of 50’s and 60’s Germanic, hi-res lenses more than any other. Sorry to fire shots here but these are also the words of a former Hassy owner. Believe me, this lens is where the buck stops. They say that Rolleiflexes can’t change their lenses like a Hassy. Very true, but if this is the only lens you have on your camera (and you have a hood on it, ha) you will possibly never want to use another one anyway. It is simply THAT good. Surgically sharp, beautiful out of focus areas and a great all round balance and compromise of a design that works well for everything and anything that I personally like shooting.
I think the 3.5f late models really were the Magnum Opus of the Rolleiflex cameras, and by default, the TLR per se. Just handling, holding and operating one is a magical experience. The first time you get to see the negs that were born inside one, you simply will not have the words.
By the time that the factory were putting these together, they had already written the book several times over and really knew what they were doing. The 3.5f marked the last of the 3.5 ‘Automats’ which was a continuous production run of several decades. These are the crème de la crème of the classic Rolleiflexes from an age of workmanship and engineering that are sadly long lost. With the very rare exceptions of the classic all brass Leica M’s and their brass lenses of the same era, I have never seen or owned anything quite as well thought out, beautifully well-made and so long term solidly reliable as these cameras. Just a German rock of sheer photographic awesomeness. The golden period, the heyday, call it what you will but I call it 3.5f.
I recommend a late model but not a whiteface as they are too costly and don’t take photos that are any better at all. I sometimes even think that the whitefaces were perhaps ever so slightly cheaper to produce for the factory at a time when high end TLR’s were becoming a hard sell. The fact that they are newer and made in less numbers is the only thing that makes them now (ironically) more expensive and desirable to collector types. I had a rough one once and I really wouldn’t want to part with the extra money for one again to be honest. As with all Rolleis (of the classic era), condition is more important than individual model differences and with cameras of this age one really should remember that. I recommend finding the number one repair person for Rolleiflex in your country (many countries have one or two and their names are legendary in such circles and so easy to find on the net) and having it serviced immediately after purchase unless you know 100% for sure that it is in perfect working order (for example maybe you are buying from a friend or trusted camera dealing expert). My point is perhaps that all things being equal, and given the choice between two freshly serviced and guaranteed 100% working cameras, a 2.8f and a 3.5f, I would go for the latter. Of course, in real life, that situation doesn’t always present itself to us. Even if it happened like that, it would also have to line up with the right time for our bank balance as well of course.
After several months of nothing but Rolleiflex shots on the blog, I thought I would turn the tables and actually show you some shots of the cameras themselves, all of these have belonged or do still belong to myself in recent times. After the odd dog and bad luck crap shoot, I have also been lucky enough to own one or two of the very highest grade ones both cosmetically and mechanically in the past. I have been paring down and finding a nicer example here and there to replace tattier ones. If any readers wish to do a deep dive on this subject, I highly recommend starting with John Phillip’s impressive and highly obsessive guide to Rolleiflexes (which is THE book by the way, the Rolleiflex bible and the only book you should consider against ALL other Rolleiflex publications out there) and then take things from there.
Anyway, sorry to sound like a collector again, I’m actually not. I strongly dislike it when I start to amass too much stuff. I normally do best with just one or two of my favourite cameras and a fridge full of film. That’s about where I am at with my photography at the moment, I simply cannot recommend a Rolleiflex highly enough to you…please get one, and just shoot with it often. You will be so happy you did. In the meantime here are some shots of mine, past and present, to tide you over.