The Rolleiflex SL35M is everything that camera likers like about Rollei cameras. It’s all mechanical, and all manual. It’s strong and robust. It’s simple to use, and the lenses (with this camera they are interchangeable) are great. All of this makes sense. The SL35M has Rolleiflex written on it, after all.
On the other hand, it has Rolleiflex written on it. Which means it’s heavy and big. It’s clunky and clumsy. It’s limited to all manual mode. And we could buy a better Japanese camera for less.
All of that is true. Don’t argue. Rollei fan or not, accept it. Rollei’s are great, but by nearly every metric, the Japanese cameras are better.
But that’s not to say that shooting the Rolleiflex SL35M is an unpleasant experience, or that buying one is foolish, or that owning one isn’t a joy. The Rollei SL35M is a lovely camera with plenty of upside, and I just ended a week of shooting one happy to have had the experience.
Origin of the Rollei SL35M
Despite a gentleman’s agreement between the founders of Hasselblad and Rollei that precluded each brand from manufacturing the core product of the other (Hasselblad focused on SLRs while Rollei concentrated on TLRs), Rollei did eventually branch out to create more camera types.
They made medium format SLRs to compete (somewhat ineffectually) with Hasselblad, 16mm compact cameras (for spies?), and a well-loved compact for 35mm film (easily the most successful of their non-TLR designs). Beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the ‘90s, they even made a range of 35mm SLRs.
While none of the cameras outside of their TLR lineup ever really caught fire, in the commercial sense, they weren’t bad cameras. Rollei simply struggled to keep up with the extremely successful, efficient, and well-funded Japanese camera companies. And it was no different with the SL35 series.
Beginning with Nikon’s F in 1959, amateur and professional photographers alike had spent a decade flocking to the SLR camera by the time Rollei got involved. Their first 35mm SLR, the Rolleiflex SL35, was introduced in 1970, quite late in the competition. With this camera Rollei intended to offer high end Rollei-engineering to the fastest-growing group of customers in photography.
The SL35 was an all-mechanical, full manual camera with a new Rollei bayonet lens mount and a cloth focal plane shutter. The shutter was capable of speeds up to 1/1000th of a second, and it featured a through-the-lens light meter with a match-needle display in the fixed viewfinder.
Real camera nerds would read that last paragraph and say, “Alright. Decent specs.” Unfortunately, I left out a key detail.
The SL35’s TTL light meter was outdated the moment the camera launched, because the light meter only registered a reading when the lens aperture was closed. Even in 1970, this was old tech. Japanese SLRs had long before established wide-open aperture light metering as the baseline methodology of any decent SLR.
Four years later Rollei updated the camera to include wide-open aperture metering. The new model also added a built-in accessory shoe. This new camera was called the Rollei SL350. Today, the SL350 is far less common than other models in the SL line, and is therefore more expensive.
Rollei finally had a 35mm SLR with the features that people expected. And then Rollei’s SLR lineup went through some big changes.
The domination of the camera industry by the Japanese companies didn’t only impact Rollei. Other German camera makers were feeling similar pressure.
In 1972, the German company Zeiss Ikon AG Stuttgart succumbed, and the brand decided to end camera production to focus on lens manufacturing (for which they were world-renowned). As a part of this liquidation, Zeiss’ brand names (of which Voigtlander was one), their designs, factories, and research were sold or transferred to other entities.
The Voigtlander brand name and some of Zeiss designs were acquired at this time by Rollei. This acquisition included the latest of Zeiss’ 35mm SLR designs, a camera called the SL706. Rollei planned to take this camera and introduce it as a new model using the Voigtlander name. Rollei also intended to continue production of their own 35mm SLRs, the SL35 and the SL350.
But there was a problem. The camera inherited from Zeiss used the Universal Screw Mount, or M42, lens system. Rollei’s SL35 and SL350, on the other hand, used Rollei’s own bayonet mount lens system (known as the QBM). Maintaining production of both lines of cameras meant that Rollei would need to produce their lenses under two mount systems. As a small player in a big market, this made little sense, so Rollei made the decision to end their own camera in favor of Zeiss’ design, but to preserve their bayonet lens mount.
In 1976, production of Rollei’s SL35 and SL350 was ended, and the former Zeiss camera was adopted and developed to use the Rollei QBM bayonet lenses. This new camera would be released under the Voigtlander name as the VSL1, and under Rollei’s own name as the Rolleiflex SL35M.
In that same year, Rollei also released the Voigtlander VSL2 Automatic and the SL35ME, which added automatic exposure through the aperture-priority methodology.
In 1978, A final SL camera called the Voigtlander VSL 3-E and the Rolleiflex SL35 would add a new electronic shutter and LED indicators in the viewfinder, to replace the earlier cameras’ match-needle display. This camera could also use an external winder and motor drive.
In 1981, Rollei went bankrupt, and their SL line ended while they focused on other products.
Specifications of the Rollei SL35M
- Camera Type : 35mm Film, 24x36mm image area (full frame)
- Exposure Modes : Manual Only
- Metering : Through the lens metering with CdS cells, Center-weighted full-field measurement
- Viewfinder : Penta-prism, instant return mirror. Focusing screen with diagonal focus indicator, micro-prism ring, and ground glass Fresnel lens
- Viewfinder Information : Aperture indicator, metering range limit indicator, light meter needle
- Lens Mount : Rollei QBM (Quick Bayonet Mount)
- Shutter : Horizontally moving cloth focal plane
- Shutter speeds : Bulb, 1 – 1/1000 seconds
- Flash Mount : X and FP switch-over flash sync at 1/40 of a second for center contact and cable contact
- Weight : 895 grams (with 50mm F/1.8 lens)
Using the Rollei SL35M Today
The Rollei SL35M is nothing more than a basic camera from the 1970s. It has the same specs as dozens of other models from Minolta, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Mamiya, Ricoh, Olympus, and others. There’s nothing here that can’t be found elsewhere, except maybe that QBM lens mount. And that’s nothing too special.
The controls are quintessential “classic camera” fare. Shutter speed is controlled via a dial on the top. It’s positioned next to the shutter release and thumb lever for film advance. There’s a rewind knob opposite and an ISO selector beneath that. On the front we find a self-timer lever, lens release button, and a depth-of-field preview plunger for manually closing the lens aperture. The back has a film frame counter, a hinged film compartment door, and a viewfinder to look through. The bottom is where the battery goes, there’s a tripod socket, and there’s a button to press when rewinding the film.
If you’re the kind of photo geek who’s used a classic 1970s 35mm SLR, you’ll acclimate to the Rollei within literal seconds. If you’re new to film, this is an easy camera with which to learn.
Though basic, things at least feel excellent. The dials and knobs and levers all function beautifully. True to Rollei standards, everything actuates with mechanical surety. There’s significant resistance in the film transport as we cock the advance lever, and the mirror and shutter fire definitively when we press the shutter release.
The viewfinder is nice and bright. It’s contained within a fixed penta-prism and shows a focusing screen with a focusing micro-prism band in the center surrounding a diagonally oriented split image rangefinder patch, which interestingly splits into three sections and not the usual two. The light meter needle is positioned on the right-hand side, and swings well when the exposure parameters are within its field of register. The top of the VF shows the currently selected lens aperture, while the selected shutter speed is not displayed.
Throughout my time with the Rollei there were no surprises. Film loading was fine, and normal. The viewfinder worked beautifully. There’s nothing tricky about the lens mount. Film advance and firing were standard, though it does vibrate with mirror slap, making longer exposures a bit shakier than I’ve found with other cameras. The light meter works well enough.
I never used the self-timer because, frankly, the less time I spend in front of a camera the better. And I never used the depth-of-field preview because I don’t need to preview depth-of-field. I tested these functions, and they worked as one would expect, but they didn’t factor in my picture-making.
With any interchangeable lens camera system, like this Rollei, it’s arguable that the lenses are more important than the camera. I believe that to be true, anyway.
Despite this importance, when writing about an interchangeable lens camera it’s almost irrelevant to talk about specific lenses, since I’ve not used every lens for the system, and since every lens performs differently. That said, when reviewing interchangeable lens cameras, I always touch upon the range of available lenses and upon any obvious strengths or weaknesses in the line. So, briefly, let’s do that.
Rollei’s SL35M uses, as mentioned, Rollei’s QBM lens mount. This means that any QBM mount lens will naturally mount to the camera. However, it should be noted that lenses made for the earlier SL35 and SL350 will only meter in stop-down metering mode, which means that photographers using older lenses on the newer SL35M will have to use the camera’s depth-of-field preview lever to achieve an accurate meter reading.
That detail noted, the range of available lenses for the QBM system is full. Most of the lenses were made by Carl Zeiss, but there are also a range of Schneider lenses, as well as Rollei lenses.
The range of available Carl Zeiss prime lenses begins with a 15mm Distagon and climbs right up to a 1000mm Tele-Tessar. Spattered throughout are specialty lenses with fast apertures (the 35mm F/1.4 Distagon, the 50mm F/1.4 Planar, and the 85mm F/1.4 Planar), fisheye lenses (a 16mm F/2.8 F-Distagon), and mirror lenses (both a 500mm and 1000mm Mirotar).
Outside of Zeiss primes we fine Schneider primes in 35mm, 50mm, 135mm focal lengths, and two perspective control shift lenses in the 35mm PC Curtagon and 28mm PC Super Angulon.
Rollei offered their own prime lens range as well, starting with a 14mm fisheye and reaching up to a 500mm mirror lens. In addition, Rollei produced two macro lenses for their QBM, as well as a full range of zoom lenses, starting with a 28-80mm zoom and progressing up to a maximum zoom embodied in their 50-250mm lens.
All told, there are approximately fifty QBM lenses available from these three manufacturers, more than enough to satisfy the needs of film shooters today.
I repeat, I’ve not used every lens in this system. I doubt anyone has. However I wouldn’t hesitate to measure these lenses up against their era-correct equivalent competitors. I have faith in Zeiss and Schneider and Rollei to make glass equal to Nikon, Canon, Leica, etc.
[Sample images from some expired film (why do I keep doing this to myself?). Your results will be better and varied, depending on which lens you use.]
A Few Words on Singapore
I’ve noticed over the years (and specifically noticed again while researching the SL series of cameras) that many other camera likers who like cameras enough to make their job writing or talking about them have at times poo-pooed the Rollei SL35M and other Rollei models for the sin of having not been manufactured in Rollei’s glorious motherland of Germany. Which is correct. The SL35M and the cameras that came after it weren’t made in Germany. They were made in Singapore.
Does this bother me?
I’ve never been to Germany. I’ve never been to Singapore. I wasn’t even born when Rollei went bankrupt in 1981. I have no idea what the conditions in those countries are today, nor what they were when the camera was made, nor how the factories were run, nor how dedicated the staff of each factory was to the creation of a good product.
In a lifetime of labor, however, I’ve noticed that most people employed at a good job tend, in order to keep that job, to do the best job that they can. I assume that the jobs within Rollei factories regardless of their geographical location, Germany or Singapore, were considered good jobs by those who held them. Consequently I suspect that the people making Rollei cameras did a good job making them, regardless of where they were on the planet and regardless of whether they were named Franz or Wei.
I’d caution against listening to anyone’s opinion on the topic of products of the same design by the same manufacturer made in Country A versus Country B, unless they can tell you the name of the man or woman in both country’s factories who swept the floors on Wednesdays and what the lunch canteen served on Fridays.
The unfortunate habit of hobbyists in many hobbies to fawn over one country’s workforce while maligning another country’s workforce is simply soft-core jingoism.
My Made in Singapore Rollei works great.
Closing Thoughts and Should You Buy?
If you’ve reached this point in the article, you’re one of two types of camera nerd; the Thinkers, and the Lovers.
The Thinkers will be people who like cameras, but only buy the best, or only buy the cameras that help them achieve their goals in photography. Thinkers will have read the piece, appreciated the history, enjoyed the photos of a camera that they’ll never own, left a nice comment about my excellent writing (right?) and moved on with their lives.
The Lovers are different. And there’s an easy way to tell if you’re one of them.
Did you feel a flutter in your chest when you saw the picture of the Rollei at the head of this article? Did you feel an unyielding urge to hold one? Have you already opened additional browser tabs? Is one of them eBay? Did you already search for an SL35M, just to see the price? Did you already check your account balance? Did you, in fact, already buy one?
If you answered any of those questions in the affirmative, you’re a Lover. You love cameras and you want them all, even if the one you want isn’t necessarily better than the ones you’ve got.
So, should you buy a Rollei SL35M?
If you’re a Thinker, if you care about taking pictures more than you care about owning beautiful cameras, then you should not buy one. There are much better cameras than the Rollei. More important, there are much better cameras that cost much less than the Rollei. Any Japanese SLR, for example, from almost any decade. Any $40 Canon EOS. Any Nikon N series, or Nikon F series. Any Minolta SLR. The list could go on for decades (and in fact, it did, long after Rollei stopped making SLs).
But if you’re a Lover, well, you’ve already checked eBay and homed in on the one that’s meant to be. So, go for it. Buy it. The Rollei SL35M is a beautiful camera and a wonderful creation. It’s well made, makes all the right noises, is fun to use, and makes great pictures. You’ll love it as much as you love every other camera in your collection. Which is, a lot.
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