Use one camera and lens for a year. And you’ll learn a lot about photography.
Well, this is my report after spending a year with a Rolleiflex 2.8F TLR camera with a Planar Carl Zeiss 80mm. Not only did I learn a lot about photography, but a lot about this camera too.
I bought this camera to expand my photographic frontiers (pun intended) into medium format film. I thought it would teach me some new ways to approach photography and allow me to experiment with the image making process beyond the computer. What I found was a lesson in history, mechanics, and a fresh approach to my own photography.
History in Your Hands
The Rolleiflex TLR camera has been around since 1929 and during its 80+ years it has been in the hands of some of the most celebrated photographers. Robert Capa, Alfred Eisenstadt, Vivian Meier, and Richard Avedon to name a few. This camera has a lineage that can sometimes intimidate you but once you get one in your hands, you realize why they all used and loved it so much.
The first time you hold one you soon realize this is no slouch and the weight of the solid metal camera tells you why they are still around making great pictures after decades of use. These are made like bricks. Flip open the focusing hood for the first time reveals the world in TLR. Backwards and disorienting but fascinating like watching a movie on a mini screen. Everything about this camera is unique and fun to learn.
Mechanical levers, dials linked to cogs and sprockets all are part of this metal wonder. Operating the camera is slow and methodical. Every move is a step towards making a photograph, not snapping a picture. Suddenly you feel the gravity of being a photographer.
New Ways, New Vision
If you’re a traditional photographer using a DSLR type camera you have a couple of humps to get over when switching to a camera like the Rolleiflex TLR. First is using film, which I have been using since my childhood. It requires a lot more forethought to what you will be photographing and how. Deciding to use color or black and white, then negative or slide film (color reversal) is part of the creative process when going out to make photographs. This is a huge departure from digital where you can decide those parameters after you take your photo using the digital Raw format.
Second is the way you look at the world through a TLR camera. Instead of bringing the camera up to your eye to frame a composition, you have to look down through the finder and see a backwards image when composing. I found this exercise interesting because it removes you a bit from the scene and allows you to take a distant look at the scene as a picture is projected on glass. You’ll also find yourself working within the square format which is a big change from a traditional digital camera and a restricting parameter to your composition making.
Operating a Machine
Outside of these different approaches, there is a learning curve to the mechanics of the camera. Nothing too complicated but a couple of things to know so you’re not wasting film or making mistakes. I found these out the hard way and had wasted a couple of rolls of film and a few frames in the beginning.
If you don’t properly load the film and miss inserting the film between the first two rollers, the counter has no way of stopping the crank and you will fly through the roll in a few turns. If you accidentally hit the multiple exposure switch you will double expose your frame unintentionally and potentially ruin the photo. Lock your shutter button and you may miss a moment forgetting that it is locked unlike most digital cameras. All these can be learned but it’s part of the process of using new equipment and sometimes painful to experience.
Slowing it Down
Once you get past the mechanics of using this camera it’s time to start creating. The creative aspect of using this camera is my favorite. The difference in aspect ratio, use of film, and looking down on the finder all combine to get you out of your usual routine and force you to look at the world differently. Of course there is a nostalgic feeling too using a camera that’s 60 years old and thinking about some of the masters who held a camera just like it really does change your perspective. This new process made me slow down and really take a look at what ever I was going to capture. Using a roll of 120 film with only 12 exposures makes you consider each frame you capture carefully. Each frame can run you $2-$12 after film and developing expenses. No spray and pray like some do with digital. You really need to make this picture count when you expose a frame on medium format film. That in itself will temper your shutter finger.
Creativity before the Photo
One of my favorite parts of this process is choosing the film you’re going to use. This is not really dependent on the camera but if you’re new to film it’s going to be a new experience. As I mentioned earlier, you can choose black and white or color. Then you have the option of slide or negative. Each has its own characteristics and can dramatically change the image you create. I tried quite a bit of different film types and it really is a lot of fun to experiment with different looks. Especially when you haven’t used it before and have no idea what you might get. Add another level of options and try expired film. This can be a whole lot of fun but also disappointing. You may get some cool results but you may also get a roll of blank film. All part of the experimental process of using film. Currently I’ve been on a spree of expired Ektachrome Tungsten flavor which produces a bluish image. Unless of course you cross-process it when developing which will warm it up.
All of these choices can make it hard to pre-visualize your photo outing. Sometimes you don’t know what you want until you get there. Keeping a small variety of film with you can help make those decisions when you finally see your subject. Sometimes your hand is forced because you still have a few frames left in the camera. All of these are creative boundaries which pushes your vision beyond using presets in Lightroom.
Some will ask if this is a landscape camera, a portrait or any other type camera. I’ve tried it with many different subjects and I think you can use it with any of your favorites. I have provided a few samples with different subjects so you can make your own opinions. My opinion is the Rolleiflex is a great camera for any occasion and can adapt to any situation. It will open up your creative eye and force you to work differently. The experience has made me gain a new appreciation for photography and brought a new perspective to mine.