Rollei 35 SE – Camera Review

A couple years back, I wrote about my experience shooting a camera from Rollei’s series of universally lauded compact viewfinder cameras. The Rollei B35 was the lowest-spec model of the 35 range, and I found it to be just about the worst camera I’d ever tested. It was as sturdy as a graham cracker, as ergonomically pleasant as an irritated pufferfish, and produced miserable images from a nightmarish combination of sponge-soft lens and unforgiving focus system.

By some accounts the B35 was and is a decent camera, but it simply didn’t work for me in even the most rudimentary ways. As a result of this horrid experience, and without totally realizing it, I’d developed a deeply rooted aversion to the entire Rollei 35 range that would keep any camera in the series cameras out of my hands for the next two years. It wasn’t until a customer traded one in toward the purchase of a Leica M3 that I again had my mitts on one of these most diminutive machines.

The model traded was the 35SE, and from the moment I pulled it from its packaging I knew this 35 would be a far cry from the B35 of my past. And after shooting it for more than two months I can affirm that the differences between the Sonnar Electronic 35 and the B35 are less Mercedes versus Volkswagen, more Mercedes versus one-wheeled skateboard.

The SE has it in all the right places – stellar build, a performance lens, tiny form factor, and one of the most surprisingly intuitive control systems I’ve ever used. What’s more, after immersing myself in the world of Rollei 35 for six weeks, I’m sure now that of the Rollei 35 range, this camera (or the TE) is the one to own. Let me tell you why.

Actually, let’s first quickly clear up all this naming nonsense. There are quite a few models of Rollei 35, and while the range seems crowded and convoluted at first, it’s pretty easy to keep track of where each camera sits relative to the others in chronology and features.

To simplify things as best we can, we start with the Rollei 35. This was the original model, and featured an incredibly sharp Tessar lens (40mm/3.5). For a while, this was the only version available. Later, a model with a faster Sonnar lens (40mm/2.8) would be released. This version was named 35S, and to differentiate the Tessar model from the Sonnar model, the original Tessar equipped cameras henceforth were named 35T. These cameras all featured old-fashioned Selenium light meters (match needle style) for meter-assisted manual shooting. Up to this point, all Rollei 35 cameras were essentially the same machine (with minor academic differences), just with different lens. Easy peasy.

Further refining the concept, the Rollei 35SE and TE were, as you might expect once again, Sonnar and Tessar equipped cameras. These models are different from the original S and T, however, in that the match needle Selenium light meter has changed to a more responsive and streamlined electronic light meter with impressive LED readout array placed in the viewfinder. Simple enough.

Economy models existed were also made with fewer features, inferior materials, and a low-spec lens. These are the 35B (with a Selenium light meter), 35C (without a light meter), and 35LED (electronic meter). Achtung! These models should be vigorously avoided.

And that’s just about all you need to know about the nomenclature of the Rollei 35. The naming system tells us rudimentary facts on the camera’s makeup – what lens will be equipped, what metering system it will sport. From there, further research can be done to determine where the camera was manufactured (if this matters to you – nationalism is uncool), details of optical coatings, and other trivial details.

Boring stuff concluded, let’s get to the camera.

The original Rollei 35 debuted in 1966 to critical fanfare. At the time, it was the smallest 35mm film camera ever made, and even more than fifty years later remains among the top three smallest cameras in the world. The camera was capable and robust, and the buying public took note, gobbling up more than two million copies over the span of its production. Today, the allure is as strong as ever. This is an impressive camera, and it all begins with that form factor.

Nothing can really prepare you for just how compact this camera is. There’s a lot of talk in the photo geek-o-sphere about this or that camera being “pocketable,” and most of the time these pocketable cameras aren’t. With its minuscule outer dimensions and retractable lens, the Rollei 35 is actually pocketable. Granted, if you’re sporting tight jeans you may present some unflattering bulges, but in a coat, in a jacket, in average-fitting pants, you’ll be comfortably stowing the 35 when not in use. It’s fantastic, and the perfect choice for when you want your camera to take a backseat to the day, yet still be capable enough to produce stunning images – a rare and lustful combination of traits.

Build quality is excellent. And even though my model was made in Singapore (who cares?) it oozes quality. In the hands, the camera is dense, weighty, and purposeful. Squeezing and twisting produces no unwanted squeaks or flex. Mechanical actuations, such as those found in the film rewind lever and film back opening lever, are firm and precise. Shutter speed adjustments are equally precise, and aperture adjustments are smooth and refined. Focus throw is weighted and deliberate. Even the battery release switch clicks with a satisfying resistance.

If there’s one aspect of the camera that satisfies less than the rest, it’s the action of the film advance lever. While the lever is surprisingly strong given its impossibly thin dimensions, it lacks the kind of refinement found elsewhere in the camera. It levers away from the body with an almost sickening series of crunches. All’s well inside – the film isn’t being torn and the mechanism is working as it should – but it’s just not the kind of smooth film advance we find in cameras like the Nikon FM or Leica M. In light of the quality found in the rest of the package, the offense is forgivable.

In the field, the Rollei 35SE is transcendent. It uses a system of controls that are so refined and elegant as to be nearly unmatched in vintage cameras. I can’t stress it enough, and this exemplary system is brought to us by virtue of two distinctly ingenious design decisions that turn shooting this camera into one of the best experiences you’ll ever have with a fully manual machine.

The first visionary design is the camera’s exposure meter and, specifically, the way that Rollei chose to implement its readout. The onboard light meter allows the photographer to determine proper exposure by adjusting lens aperture and shutter speed coincidental to the loaded film speed. As settings are adjusted, the camera effectively displays when the chosen settings will result in a proper exposure based on available light.

In previous versions, the Rollei 35 had a light meter readout on the body of the camera. This meant that to check exposure, photographers would be forced to lower the camera and view a needle on the top deck. With the SE (and TE), the meter is provided within the big, bright viewfinder by way of three vertically stacked LED lights. The top and bottom lights are red to indicate over-and under-exposure, and the center light is green to indicate a proper exposure. This alone wouldn’t make shooting the camera anything special. Many cameras have light meters and many have their readouts displayed in the viewfinder. While it’s a fantastic feature, it’s not groundbreaking. The reason the Rollei’s operation becomes elevated over its contemporaries is in the way its controls are organized.

Its control dials are are placed on the front of the camera to the right and left of the lens. To the left of the camera (from the back end) we find the shutter speed selector, which provides speeds from 1/500th to half of a second (and Bulb mode), and to the right we find the aperture adjustment (and incorporated ISO dial). These dials operate as you’d expect – rotate them and the values of shutter speed and aperture change. But what you might not expect (without spending some time with the 35SE) is that these little dials are magic.

Here’s how it works. You’re framing a scene and ready to take a shot. You need to know your exposure, so you half-press the shutter button. The lower, red LED alights telling you that your current settings are under-exposing the scene. You need to adjust your shutter speed or aperture to get that LED to rise to the center and turn green. How do you do it? On many cameras, you’d rotate a dial on the top plate counter-clockwise or clockwise, depending on the camera, or you’d spin a ring around the lens in the same unknown direction. With the Rollei, things are much simpler.

You need the LED to go up. So what do you do? You push the outer edge of either wheel up. You don’t need to think about it. You don’t need to wonder if you’re adjusting in the wrong direction. There’s no guessing. It’s almost as if you’re simply prodding the LED to rise by poking it upward with your fingertip. It’s the same if the scene is over-exposed. Just pull downward on the far edge of either control dial until the LED moves downward to the center.

Of course, you should have an understanding of aperture, and know which of the two dials you are most comfortable adjusting to make your shot properly exposed. The simplicity and intuitiveness of this system is hard to match in a classic, manual-only camera. It creates a shooting methodology that is so incredibly quick and effortless. There is no guesswork, no looking at dials, no raising and lowering the camera to check readings or settings. You lift the camera to your eye, move one hand or the other in one direction or the other, and take your perfectly exposed shot.

What this means is that anyone used to manual cameras will feel right at home, immediately understand the ethos of the machine, and shoot nothing but excellent shots. And anyone new to the world of manual shooting will find the 35SE a worthy tutor, and indeed, one of the best cameras on which to learn the art of exposure.

And not to be overlooked in light of all this functional prowess, is the simple fact that the Rollei makes incredible images. Its lens, a Sonnar design by Carl Zeiss and (in this review copy) coated with Rollei’s HFT coatings, produces stunningly sharp, contrasty images with no distortion and brilliant color. Wide open it performs beautifully (so long as focus is correct), and stopped down it renders in an ultra crisp yet wonderfully artistic way. It’s a lens that produces images that dance the border between modern and vintage.

But I’m gushing just a bit. Let’s reign it in.

The lens does suffer some pretty substantial flares when shot directly into the sun, and though we should almost expect this of a forty-year-old camera, it’s worth mentioning. That said, while this effect is clinically an imperfection, film shooters today will almost certainly love it for the very same reason. We shoot film cameras to enjoy the artifacts that we’ve lost to the digital age – artifacts both tangible and optical.

Compared to the outstanding implementations of exposure control and its wonderful viewfinder, other practical facets of the 35SE do fall a bit short. Specifically disappointing is the camera’s method of focus. As mentioned, all Rollei 35 cameras are viewfinder cameras. That means we don’t enjoy any in-viewfinder focusing aids. There’s no rangefinder mechanism, no focusing screen, no split-image spot, and certainly no autofocus. What we’re left with is a camera that demands zone-focusing.

For those unfamiliar, zone-focusing is a system of focusing in which the photographer is expected to understand aperture and the way it influences depth-of-field, and combine that knowledge with an ability to accurately estimate his or her distance to target. Essentially, we look at the front of the lens barrel where a readout shows distance markers and a depth-of-field scale, then rotate the lens to our desired focus distance. It’s a system that’s easier to understand and use than it reads, and when shooting at F/8 or so (the camera’s sweet spot) we’re likely to make images in which everything is sharply focused without needing much adjustment of the focus ring. Set the ring to just the near side of infinity, point, and shoot.

That said, there are certainly moments in which, without the assistance of an in-viewfinder focusing aid reminding us to double check, we can expect to absent-mindedly shoot a few frames without adjusting focus. It happens. To me, it happens a lot, like when I missed my Bresson-like decisive moment and failed to capture my masterpiece, “Squirrel Jumping Over Puddle” – tough break.

All told, with a few missed shots and an occasional out-of-focus failure, the Rollei 35SE presents a package that’s one of the very best classic, manual cameras available today. Form and function are equally represented, with stoic and purposeful design that complements intelligent control systems, it’s a camera that talks the talk and walks the walk. It’s gorgeous, reliable, uses commonly available batteries, has an astoundingly capable lens, and will comfortably travel anywhere. For all this and more, it just might be the perfect camera for the modern day film shooter.

Coming off the bitter disappointment that was the B35, I had low expectations for a camera about which I’d heard nothing but praise. I was skeptical. I’m skeptical no more. The 35SE is a true classic.

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