Last year my father sent me his Rolleiflex 3.5F, dating back to 1960 or thereabouts. It’s had a few issues in the time I’ve been using it, mostly a sticky shutter that has necessitated some repair, but mostly works just fine.
The Rolleiflex is a medium format camera, exposing negatives that are 6 cm x 6 cm in size, and uses a single fixed 75mm taking lens as well as, this being a twin lens reflex camera, a second lens for viewing and composing your shot.
No interchangeable lenses for this camera. And a square format image too (unless you chose to install the Rolleikin adapter that allows 35mm film to be shot in portrait orientation).
Film too. In each of these respects this camera differs from the full-frame or crop-sensor Canon digital SLRs that I have been using exclusively for the previous nine years.
Before I started using the Rolleiflex, I might have considered it to be hopelessly obsolete and limited compared to what I can do with my Canons and my large collection of interchangeable lenses, and to some extent that opinion holds. It is limited. It is obsolete.
But it takes beautiful photographs, and, furthermore, photographs that seem to have a quality and aura that sets them apart from the digital pictures than have been my mainstay over the years. What’s more, the medium format negatives provide detail and smoothness that completely surpasses that obtained with the same type of film used in 35mm format.
I have also found it to be less limited than I predicted. If anything, using this camera reveals how many times the images that mean the most are those that most closely resemble what one sees with the naked eye. Certainly there is a place for telescoping or wide angle viewing in photography, but when I’m out with the Rolleiflex I do not often find myself wishing for these ways of taking a picture. Instead, I find myself composing on the square viewing screen of the Rolleiflex an image that most pleasingly strikes my eye. An image that very closely resembles what I see when I look up from the camera. To adjust the scene, I move myself and the camera.
In this way, the Rolleiflex is training me to become a very different kind of photographer from what I was before. Each roll of 120 film has room for only twelve exposures, an absurdly low number of available shots for someone used to firing off hundreds, even thousands, of exposures during a digital shoot. Now I consider very carefully just what I going to capture. As a result, each shot becomes far more meaningful and precious. The worth, in terms of images captured, of my photography has now increased many times over that obtained with dozens of digital exposures, many being meaningless variations of the same scene.
I began last year with the purchase of Canon EOS-M, a capable but limited mirrorless digital camera that is convenient to use from a size and weight point-of-view, but gave me exactly the same sort of pictures that every prior Canon digital camera I owned gave me. Was this the breaking point that led me away from digital and towards film? Over the summer, I used a Canon Elan 7E, a 35mm film camera that was compatible with many of the SLR lenses that I had collected for digital photography. The results were sufficiently pleasing that I now maintain an active film camera with me whenever I go out to photograph, even if I am primarily shooting digital.
Adding the Rolleiflex to my collection has furthered this expansion away from digital photography and moved me deeper into the world of film. Deeper, in truth, into the world of photography. A far larger and more encompassing world than the one I had chosen while wedded solely to digital picture taking.
For all these reasons, this past year has been the most instructive and exciting in my entire photographic career – if career is the right word for a hobby.