I’ve spent a good portion of the year shooting the Rolleiflex SL66, and while it’s not the easiest camera to use it is in fact one of my favorites. The first medium format SLR camera that Rollei produced, the SL66 is often compared to Hasselblad’s 500 series cameras. In some ways it’s not equal to that famous and famously long-lived model. But as I’ve discovered in the past six months, the Rolleiflex SL66 is actually a more capable and more interesting camera than its Swedish competitor.
The Long Road to the Rolleiflex SL66
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Rollei enjoyed remarkable success with their immensely popular line of TLR (twin lens reflex) medium format cameras, the high-end Rolleiflexes and the consumer-level Rolleicords. These twin lens reflex cameras were incredibly well-made, featured excellent lenses, and were easily capable of making beautiful images. However, the inherent limitations of the TLR camera meant that Rollei TLR cameras weren’t ideal for a variety of photographic situations or for photographers who needed a more versatile camera. Most TLRs, including Rollei’s cameras, couldn’t offer interchangeable lenses or zoom lenses, most couldn’t achieve very close focusing distances, and they could be slow and cumbersome to use. The answers to many of the troubles of the TLR camera would be found in the SLR camera (single lens reflex).
At the same time in which Rollei’s cameras were at their peak in popularity, Swedish camera makers at Hasselblad had made great progress in creating a high quality SLR medium format camera. In 1948 they released the Hasselblad 1600 F. While this camera was made in limited numbers and proved to be quite fragile and expensive to produce, it laid the groundwork for what would become one of the most successful cameras in medium format photography.
In 1953 Hasselblad released a much-improved version of its SLR camera. This was known as the Hasselblad 1000 F. This camera was elegant and refined, could mount numerous exceptional lenses and accessories, and had essentially solved or circumvented nearly all of the limitations of the TLR camera. In 1954, the influential American photography magazine Modern Photography reviewed Hasselblad’s new camera. They shot over 500 rolls of film through the 1000 F and intentionally dropped the camera twice, after which it continued to function perfectly. This did much to improve the reputation of the Hasselblad camera around the world, and excited many photo nerds about the prospect of owning a new SLR medium format camera.
Seeing that the SLR was certainly a worthy rival, and possibly even a replacement to the TLR camera, Rollei began development of their own medium format SLR camera in 1955. This new Rollei SLR camera was informed by many of the design choices of Hasselblad’s undeniably excellent SLR camera. But Rollei intended to improve on the concept of the Hasselblad SLR in a number of technical ways while continuing their own legacy of extreme robustness in mechanical design. In 1957, however, Victor Hasselblad and Dr. Reinhold Heidecke (heads of Hasselblad and Rollei, respectively) reached an agreement with one another that each man’s company would not compete in the other’s market. This gentlemen’s agreement meant that Hasselblad would not create a TLR camera and Rollei would not create an SLR.
This is an interesting moment in photographic history, for a few reasons. First, I’ve never found any evidence that Hasselblad was interested in creating a TLR, so it seems that Hasselblad stood to lose nothing by striking this deal. Conversely, Rollei had spent quite a lot of money in the development of their nascent SLR, which in accordance with the new agreement they’d be forced to abandon (or more accurately, “mothball,” as we’ll see). Rollei’s cameras in 1957 were selling extremely well, it’s true, so in the short term at least Rollei may not have perceived this agreement as one which would hobble their business. But most observers would have predicted even in 1957 (two years before Nikon released their first SLR) that SLRs were destined to be the camera of the future. It’s also intriguing that mere months later Hasselblad would release their most successful camera ever – another medium format SLR.
The 1957 release of the Hasselblad 500c would effectively cement Hasselblad as the premier medium format camera-maker for the next sixty years. Indeed, the Hasselblad 500c was in production in various forms until 2013. And this astonishingly long-lived tree of success had its seed planted in 1957, possibly during a handshake between two titans of the photographic industry.
in 1960, Rolleis’ Dr. Heinrich died, effectively ending the gentlemen’s agreement. By 1962, development of a Rollei medium format SLR was gradually resumed, and in 1964 Rollei’s new general manager, Dr. Heinrich Peesel, urged the company’s designers to have a new SLR camera ready to be unveiled at 1966’s Photokina fair in Cologne.
Lead designers Richard Weiss and Claus Prochnow spent the next two years working to create Rollei’s first ever single lens reflex medium format camera. Importantly (at least for those of us who wonder if the products we’re using were designed and built to the absolute highest standards) the development of the camera cost 3.5 million German Marks, an amount approximate to 9 million US dollars today. The resulting 6×6 camera was unveiled as planned in 1966, and logically named the Rolleiflex SL66.
What is the Rolleiflex SL66
The first sentence in the Rolleiflex SL66 user’s manual succinctly states the intention of Rollei’s designers in making the SL66. It begins, “A camera for experts…” And the Rollei SL66 is indeed that, in ways both good and bad. It’s a camera built for pros, but it’s fully manual nature means that it’s not for the inexperienced or those who aren’t willing to learn.
While the camera’s spec sheet is impressive in that it hints at ultimate capability, what’s most interesting about the SL66 is a select few features and functions which other similar cameras simply don’t have. So, let’s start with these few stand-out features.
The Rollei SL66 is differentiated from the Hasselblad in a number of ways, the first and most easily recognizable being the focusing mechanism. Where the Hasselblad uses a focusing helicoid in its lenses, the Rollei SL66 uses a bellows system whereby the entire lens is moved closer to or further from the focusing plane. This allows for focusing as close as 5 centimeters. Already we’re seeing the SL66’s improved versatility compared to its closest competitor at the time of its release.
Another thing that sets the Rollei apart is its ability to reverse-mount its lenses without the need of any adapters or special equipment. By simply removing the lens, flipping it around, and mounting it backwards to the lens mount, the camera is able to focus to extreme close distances for macro photography. Increased versatility, again.
One other unique feature of the SL66 is the camera’s ability to tilt its lens up or down by 8 degrees. This interesting trick is usually only available on large format cameras or through the use of specialized tilt lenses. This tilting lens board mechanism, used in conjunction with the included Scheimpflug indicator (named after the Austrian surveyor T. Scheimpflug who formulated the mathematical rule to calculate depth of field on a tilted focal plane), allows the photographer to actively adjust the plane of focus to increase or decrease depth of field or to selectively focus in ways which other camera systems can’t. In fact, as I type these words I fing it difficult to think of a similarly-sized camera that’s capable of this action.
Full Specifications of the Rollei SL66
- Camera Type – Single Lens Reflex
- Format – 6x6cm (6×4.5cm accessory back); 120/220 Roll Film (220 no longer available)
- Models – SL66 (1966-1982); SL66E (1982-1986); SL66X (1982-1992); SL66SE (1986-1992)
- Shutter – Mechanical focal plane shutter; 1/1000th of a second to 1 second; Bulb mode
- Focusing – Manual focus
- Viewfinder – Interchangeable focusing screens; Standard waist-level finder with magnification loupe; Optional metering prism (uncoupled)
- Lenses – from 30mm to 1000mm; Made by Carl Zeiss, Carl Zeiss Jena, Rollei HFT, Novoflex, and Rodenstock; Including two leaf-shutter lenses for flash sync at all speeds (80mm and 150mm)
- Flash – 2X PC Sockets X anf FP; Flash sync below 1/30th of a second, or at all speeds with leaf shutter-equipped lenses
- Weight – 1.9kg with 80mm lens; 4lbs 3oz.
- Dimensions – 156 (width) x 172 (length) x 111 (height)
These special features, Rollei’s excellent build quality, and the robust general spec sheet all came at a high price – the SL66 cost $1,300 when it debuted. Compared to the Hasselblad’s price point of $750, this made the camera a hard sell. But hey, the thing was made in various types for almost twenty years, after which it was produced until 1992 with additional electronic improvements. Obviously someone liked it. And after using one for the better part of the year I understand why it sold, even at that higher price.
I should also mention that even today, the Rollei tends to be priced higher than a Hasselblad with the same lens.
Shooting the Rolleiflex SL66 Today
The Rolleiflex SL66 is heavy. Let’s get that out of the way. To be precise, it weighs 500g more than a Hasselblad 500, but 350 grams less than a Pentax 67. So, in the realm of medium format SLRs it strikes a good balance. And remember that those two cameras can’t do what the SL66 can do, for what it’s worth. And also remember that this weight is the product of Rollei’s fanatical focus on mechanical precision and quality.
It’s genuinely true that there is no camera that feels more solid or confident in the hands. Others may match it, but none are better. The Rolleiflex SL66 is a mechanical work of art made of over 1,000 different components. Its clockwork mechanisms and thickly sturdy construction dichotomously evoke both the compact 35mm Leica camera and Linhof’s large format machines. Or, if we’re reaching for non-photographic comparators, it feels like an enormous mechanical wristwatch without the delicacy; like wearing the clock of Big Ben on the wrist, if such a thing were possible. It feels like a tool, clicking and thunking and ratcheting and clacking. And all the while it looks simply beautiful.
In practical use, there’s a strange tension between ease and methodology. For those photographers who have used an SLR medium format camera such as this, it will at once feel familiar. However even for these photographers there will be moments of pause.
The common stumble will come from the bellows-style focusing system – but not for every photographer. Rollei’s design has the focusing knob positioned on the left-hand side of the camera, just as in their TLRs. For Hasselblad shooters accustomed to quick focusing with their lens-mounted focusing rings, the Rollei will feel slow. And it is slow, comparatively. But the trade off for this lack of speed is that we’re afforded finer focusing precision, as well as a greater range of focusing distances. As mentioned, some of the Rollei’s lenses allow focusing as close as five centimeters. Just remember not to poke a finger through the exposed bellows material. That would be tragic. In the end, just as with similarly-designed Japanese medium format SLRs, the focusing methodology works fine. Whether it works better than the Hasselblad is, I suppose, a matter of taste. I personally find focusing a Hasselblad easier than the Rollei, but I value the Rollei’s focusing range. It’s a tough call.
The camera’s focal plane shutter has its pros and cons as well. Versatile speeds, all-mechanical, durable. However, flash sync is only capable at speeds from 1/30th of a second and below. For those photographers who need flash sync at higher speeds, only two lenses are available with leaf shutters. These come in the studio-centric focal lengths of 80mm and 150mm (denoted as having a leaf shutter by the “LS” in their model names).
The tilt mechanism is intriguing, but getting the desired results from using it can be elusive. The Scheimpflug principal is, after all, a confusing idea for those who haven’t shot large format cameras. The way that I use it is pretty simple (and admittedly a bit naive) – if I’m shooting a subject which is not parallel to the focal plane and if I want the entire subject to be in focus, I use the tilt mechanism and hope for the best. It works some of the time. And in the cases where it doesn’t work entirely, I’ve found the images made in this way are still gorgeous. Unpredictability is one of the delights of shooting film in the modern era. If I wanted clinically perfect photos I’d be shooting whatever Sony mirrorless just released last month.
Shooting wide open and nailing focus can be a challenge, as with any manual focus camera, I suppose. But with a waist-level finder this is made even more challenging, as precise focus often means raising the camera to the eye and focusing through the magnification loupe. After that, we usually recompose the shot and in doing so it’s possible (likely) that our pin-point critical focus has been lost. This is really more of a note on using any medium format SLR handheld. It’s just tricky without an eye-prism, eye-prisms for the SL66 are expensive, and most SL66s won’t come with one. That said, spend the money and you’ll have effectively eliminated one of the trickiest aspects of using an SL66 in the field.
The mirror mechanism is one of the more advanced ever made. Like in some smaller 35mm cameras, it uses a pneumatic system to minimize mirror shake. When we fire the shutter, the mirror begins its swing slowly, accelerates, and then decelerates at the conclusion of its swing. This makes for a much finer feeling at shutter release than we have in something like the Pentax 67. And yes, it is noticeably smooth. In addition to this, the mirror features a mirror lockup mode for tripod shooting or long exposures when we want to totally eliminate as much movement as possible. There’s also multiple exposure capability, which is always fun, even if I’m terrible at multiple exposures.
There’s no built-in metering system, unless we buy the very rare and very expensive metering prism, but even this prism mounted on the original SL66 is not coupled to shutter speed or aperture. So we might as well buy an accessory light meter to mount to the Rollei’s left-mounted accessory shoe and save some cash. If we want to get the creature comforts of built-in metering we’ll need to spring for a later model of the SL66 – the SL66E and SL66SE offer through-the-lens metering and TTL flash metering, while the latter offers spot-metering as well.
The shutter release button terrifies me. It protrudes from the front-right of the camera at an odd angle, something like 45º. I can’t help but fear that one good, accidental bump against a hard surface would sheer it right off. To its benefit, there’s a built-in cable release socket, and the release itself is lockable with a simple twist.
The film advance and shutter speed selector are positioned on the right-hand side of the camera body, and they work as we’d expect. Actuation of each is incredibly precise and fine. The shutter speed dial slams into its detents with impressive responsiveness, and the film advance action is smooth and fluid. The controls fall where they should, and the camera is a joy to use.
The lenses are comparable to the Hasselblad system. The short of that is – they’re world-class. With lenses from a 30mm wide-angle to a 1000mm tele and most everything in between, it’s a complete system.
In my time shooting the Rollei SL66, I’ve had nothing but fun. It is such a charming camera. From its beautiful styling and its luxurious haptic feedback to, of course, the lovely images that it makes possible. It’s just a timeless device of real quality, and I love it.
The list of superlatives which the Rolleiflex SL66 can claim over the other cameras in my collection is extensive. It’s the prettiest camera I own. It’s also the heaviest camera I own. It’s the most interesting camera I own and of all the cameras I own, it has the most bizarre combination of unique features. Of all the cameras I own, it’s the most challenging camera to use, possibly because it’s just so different to all the rest. Most important of all, it’s the most fun camera I own. It may even be my favorite camera! Just don’t take away the rest.
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