I had a chance to borrow a Rollei 35 from my friend George last fall, and I carried it with me a little bit on a trip to Minnesota’s ‘north shore’ along Lake Superior. It’s a fun little camera that’s beautifully built, a little bit quirky, and has great optics packed into it’s tiny body.
I’ve long wanted to use one of these little cameras, and when I first picked it up, it felt as finely built as I had expected. This camera is truly pocketable at about the size of a typical modern point-and-shoot digital mini camera. As a matter of fact, it’s smaller than my Lumix point-and-shoot, though the body is a little thicker. I believe this holds claim to being the world’s smallest 35mm camera, and there’s some clever German engineering built into it to make it so small. When you hold it in your hand, it’s kind of hard to imagine that a 35mm film cartridge will fit in it. The back slides off the camera to reveal a kind of puzzling interior. What’s puzzling (the first time you open it, at least) is that you can’t see the lens opening – where the heck are you supposed to put the film? There’s a unique hinged pressure plate that you swing down to load the film, then close it back over the film before sliding the rear door back on. It’s those little touches that make the camera really unique and allowed them to keep it so small. Every piece of the camera seems to have been engineered with an eye toward minimizing the size. And it worked well.
The little 40mm Zeiss lens retracts into the body for very compact carrying, and slides smoothly out and locks in place with a slight twist. That sliding and twisting motion and how the lens subtly locks into place speaks to how the whole camera feels in your hands — a feeling of fine design and craftsmanship. It feels solid, smooth, finely finished. It has a heft for it’s small size that tells you there’s not much plastic in this camera.
With no rangefinder (that would have taken up way too much space), you’re stuck ‘zone-focusing’, or ‘guess-focusing’. Guess at the distance and set the dial on the rim of the lens. Shutter speed and Aperture are set on the two front dials, as is film speed (yes, there’s a light meter – a simple match-needle meter found on the top of the camera body). I found setting aperture and shutter speed a bit tedious on these dials, but I suppose you’d get used to it.
And some more photos taken with it…
Can you spot the ruffed grouse in the photo above? Strangely, he let us walk right up a few feet from him after I snapped this photo, and he just slowly sauntered off into the woods. Usually they’ll flush if you get close to them and stop.
These last two shots are along the Pigeon River, which separates Minnesota from Canada here. So the other side of that river is Ontario. We had fun with our son throwing rocks into Canada. This was an important transportation route for the fur traders up to the 19th century. The North West Company had a post at Grand Portage near the mouth of this river on Lake Superior until 1801, where there’s now a recreated fort and a nice museum. I was intrigued to learn recently that the US/Canada border follows this route, and the many rivers and lakes that make up the jagged northern border of Minnesota, because of the importance of the route for the voyageurs working for fur trading companies in both countries. The route was so important that fur traders from both countries needed to share the route, thus the national border was set up following the main travel path of the voyageurs.
Follow-up Comments about the Rollei 35: While I love the Rollei 35’s look and feel, I’m not enamored with actually using it. I only shot one roll of film with it, so this opinion is not based on extensive use, but I found it a bit tedious and finicky to actually use. The tiny size is great for carrying in a pocket, but detracts from it’s usability in my opinion. I love holding it and marveling at the beautiful fit and finish, the high-quality machined parts, the overall feeling of a fine quality instrument. It’s a beautiful little camera, and an engineering marvel. But actual useability feels like it suffers from the small size. For a compact camera, I’d rather slip my Trip 35 in a jacket pocket — it’s not as small, but is easier to use, though it lacks manual exposure settings. But if I’m going to be setting exposure manually, I’d also like to be able to focus through the viewfinder, so I’d rather carry a small rangefinder camera. In the pre-digital camera days, I probably would have been more impressed with it’s small size and would have liked it more, but today the small size isn’t enough to make me love it. The fact that I shot just one roll of film, and it’s been sitting on a shelf for several months seems to confirm these feelings.