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Shooting with a Rolleiflex Twin Lens Reflex

Whilst I shoot the vast majority of my images with a digital rangefinder or digital SLR, I still enjoy packing one particular quirky camera from the 1950s in my bag when I head somewhere for photography.

The camera in question is a 1958 Rolleiflex 3.5F which has been in my family for decades and is still cherished and turning out lovely sharp images. I can use it to shoot anything, anywhere: on the streets, in the studio, and in the countryside. It's perfectly adept everywhere that I want to shoot. So what is it that makes this strangely shaped camera so good?

The first thing you will notice when picking one up, is how bright and clear the viewfinder is. Especially if compared with other film cameras of the era. It's such a pleasant way to compose images even compared with viewfinders on the latest digital SLRs, it's so bright! This really matters when trying to focus manually at wide aperture as depth of field is pretty limited wide open, or when shooting in fairly dark environments like an indoor studio. There is a fold-out magnifier to help you guarantee razor sharp focus as well. I actually have more success with this style of focussing than with the split-screen method used in many rangefinders.

The viewfinder is also in a really good position for comfortable and discrete shooting on the street. When you do not raise your camera to eye-height, you're able to shoot without being noticed, even though the camera itself is pretty big. The very quiet shutter helps with this too - so does the absence of a mirror noisilly clapping out of the way when you commit the image to film.

Shooting on the street

This lack of mirror also means that you can continue to see through the viewfinder whilst the shutter is operating. This is quite a comfortable way of working in the street and the studio. Envious SLR users are instead subject to the screen blacking out when the shot is taken.

Shooting in the studio

The viewfinder's position at the top of the camera, means you naturally use the camera at waist height rather than eye-height. This helps you spot new perspectives when shooting on the street, and means you can shoot at a position more flattering to models without crouching down and getting back pain in the studio!

If you enjoy shooting 35mm with film because you like the different personalities of different film types, then you will love shooting medium format film. And I do. I have some real favourites like Kodak Portra, thanks to the way that colours, particularly pale skin tones, are rendered onto this family of film. When you shoot with the medium format sized frame, the image is much sharper thanks to the smaller enlargement needed to get to a decent scan or print size, and hence the less of an impact that grain can have on the image.

When you get the images back from the scanner you can be blown away with the amount of contrast, and the incredibly rich black and white tones if you like to shoot black and white. The lens on my 3.5F (a 75mm Carl Zeiss which can open to f/3.5) results in stunning sharpness and image quality across the frame. Note: this is not a telephoto lens, the 75mm lens is the equivalent of a 45mm lens if shot on a 35mm camera.

It's also nice to shoot with a camera that is quite different to what you might be more used to. I like to shoot with this camera and be challenged by the square aspect-ratio of the images it produces. What can I do with this shape of frame that I can't with a rectangle?

Do not be put off by the lack of modern technology or the age of the camera - it's really easy to use. Loading the film is a bit tricky but just watch an example or two on Youtube and you will get the hang right away. You must remember to push the film through all rollers otherwise you wont be able to advance the film without wasting it. Advancing the film is easy - the large handle on the right will automatically stop and neatly fold away when you have advanced the film exactly one frame. Unlike some cameras of the era, advancing the film sets the shutter to be ready to take another shot - this is a manual separate step on equivalently old cameras. Focussing it feels good, you can quickly master how to focus sharp images thanks to the clear viewfinder, and when you are shooting on a bright street you have enough margin of error in the depth of field at f8 or f11. Setting the exposure is a little more tricky as by default when you increase aperture size, the shutter speed will slow down (allowing you to quickly change exposures for depth of field without counting the stops in your head), but you can hold in a small button to stop that happening. It takes only a small amount of practice.

If you can't make this your go-to regular camera, there is no need to worry about idle batteries failing or leaking - there are no batterie in the camera. The meter is powered by light falling on the meter, an incredible idea for the time. Though I would today recommend carrying a separate meter as the meter was never designed to last for sixty years.

If you shoot in the studio, you will need a 'PC Sync to Hotshoe' adapter, as your flash trigger is probably designed to fit on the hot-shoe atop of a more modern camera. You can buy these for a few pounds from ebay sellers. Mine activates the flash reliably.

What are the downsides? When you look through the viewfinder, the image is reversed on the horizontal axis. This means things on the right hand side of the frame appear on the left. It's unnatural at first to pan left in order to crop or include an image element on the right of the frame, but you do adjust quickly. It can help to look at the subject before moving the camera whilst adjusting. The other problem is that when the subject is very close, it's impossible to compose accurately because you look through and shoot through two different lenses which have two different positions. Not a problem if the subject is more than a few meters away but a challenge if shooting something at the closest focus point of one meter. Particularly photogenic locations will involve quite a bit of film changing - there is enough room for 12 images on each roll of 120 film. Which, by the way, is not inexpensive to have developed or scanned! Film, development and high-resolution lab scanning total to about £2 per frame, though this improved by much more than half if you can scan yourself. Lastly, when shooting on the street, you will become quite interesting for other photographers to talk to!

You can change the viewfinder and focussing screen, but I have never tried any other options. Please let me know in the comments if you think I missing out.

I definitely think about composition more, and shoot more carefully when shooting on film, particularly with the Rolleiflex, so tend to be happier with the Rolleiflex images at the end. That means there's a bit of selection bias between my images recorded digitally and film, but since the name of the game is nice images, I don't care how I get there.