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Retro Style: Rollei 35 RF with Sonnar 40/2.8

The M Files series continues: Part 4 of 9


Another grand name: Rollei. The manufacturer of the forever-young, tiny Rollei 35 with its built-in lens. The inventor of an ingenious slide projector in which two images from the same magazine can be cross-faded. The company that produced some of the finest 6×6 cameras, culminating in the legendary Rolleiflex. And now a rangefinder camera? Well, with Rollei, it mainly shares the name. The Rollei 35 RF is nevertheless an interesting camera. And this is mainly, but not only, due to the 40/2.8 lens with the prestigious Sonnar designation.

The Rollei 35 RF truly cannot deny its family. It was not built by Rollei in Braunschweig, but by Cosina in Japan. Even the somewhat misleading “Rollei Germany” inscription on the bottom cannot hide this fact. Particularly as the legend next to it read: “Made in Japan”. 

The Rollei 35 RF is, apart from design details, a modified Bessa with mechanically controlled shutter speeds and a built-in light meter. In its original packaging, the camera seems more valuable than its Bessa sister—in outer appearance at least. Even a kind of presentation stand is included—another case of unboxing.

A camera that cannot deny its breed 

When you hold the Rollei 35 RF in your hand, it seems weightier and more solid than its sister model, the Voigtländer Bessa R2M. But most likely it is only because of the matte silver chrome plating, which undoubtedly gives the camera a high-quality look. Also, the medium grey rubber coating in the grip area looks premium. Fact-checking shows that both the Bess R4M and the Rollei 35 RF weigh 450g.

Nevertheless, the camera was not a great commercial success. When it was launched in 2002, it was so obviously a Cosina that only a few customers wanted to pay the extra price, dealers told me. The Sonnar lens was apparently not a convincing sales argument either. The camera was discontinued after a few years.

There is plenty of space in the viewfinder

However, there are a few special features. The rangefinder has a base length of 37 millimetres and a magnification of 0.7, so the image the user sees is of a similar size to that of the Leica M6. But in this viewfinder, there are only three framelines that need to be activated with a manual switch: 40, 50 and 80 millimetres. This is due to the Rollei lens line-up that was planned (and only partially realised). 

You can’t shake off the feeling that a lot of space has been wasted in the viewfinder after all. On the other hand, spectacle wearers can also get a good view of the frame for the shortest focal length, 40 millimetres. With longer focal lengths and high-speed lenses, focusing can be tricky, the effective base length of the rangefinder being only 25.6 millimetres.

One last thing concerning the viewfinder: Other than in the Bessa R4M (The M Files, part 2), the focusing patch is integrated into the parallax correction system. It moves down left as you are focusing closer. As a Leica M user, you will not know it differently since the first M3. But not all Cosina-made rangefinder cameras sport this feature as you will read in The M Files, part 5.

Exposure metering built-in, but no auto function

The viewfinder is otherwise of the decent Cosina quality that we have already seen on the Bessa R4M: bright and clear, but the focusing patch in the middle seems slightly smaller than the one in the R4M, and it has rounded sides. 

For exposure metering, there are arrows on the minus and the plus side and a red dot when the exposure is correct. This looks very similar to the Leica M6TTL, but the wheel for the shutter speeds runs against the display logic just like on the classic M6. Overall, the feel and ergonomics are very similar to the Bessa R4M, which I have already written about in this series. The same applies to the operation.

Rollei Sonnar – this is intended to ring a bell

What is really interesting about the Rollei 35 RF is the lens. Originally, three lenses were planned for the camera; they were to be adapted to the Leica M bayonet via the well-known adapter ring from the Leica Screw Mount. Besides the 40/2.8 Sonnar from the kit, an 80/2.8 Planar was also offered. 

Both lenses were named in honour of two legends of camera technology. The 40/2.8 alludes in name and technical data to the best lens ever fitted to the outstanding 1960s and 1970s Rollei 35 pocket camera – the Rollei 35 was available in a top-version with a 40/2.8 Sonnar by Zeiss. The 80/2.8 Planar, on the other hand, was the standard lens for the medium format Rollei. 

The plan was obviously to resurrect these grand names for the Rollei 35 RF. I have never seen or used the 80 myself, and the one second-hand offer I ever noticed was outrageously expensive. It was planned to add a 50/1.8 Planar to the camera, which even had a Voigtländer lens hood (!) on the official promo photo. Whether it was ever built in series, I do not know. According to a press release from Rollei, all three lenses were a “Carl Zeiss design”, but the name appears nowhere else.

To look at, the tiny lens is a pleasure…

Back to 40/2.8. Its full name is “Sonnar 1:2.8 f=40 mm HFT, Rollei Germany”. HFT stands for Rollei’s own multi-coating. At the bottom, the lens bears a “Made in Germany”. This is astonishing because the lens is very reminiscent of some Voigtländer lenses manufactured by Cosina (it even has the same nice metal hood as Cosina’s first version of the Voigtländer 15/4.5). 

Like the 21/4 or the 35/2.5, it has a focus tab and two wings on the aperture ring. The small lens hood is fixed, the inner thread takes filters of size 39. The matt chrome finish comes across as elegant, and the green numbers on the feet scale look chic and unusual. The aperture ring runs as smoothly as with the best Leica lenses, and the focusing mechanism is even more precise than the Voigtländer standard. 

If you look at the lens bayonet, you can see the screw mount adapter very clearly, parts of it shimmer in bright brass. The whole lens lies surprisingly heavy in the hand, and it looks really nice. Just to compare, the Sonnar weighs in at 192g while Leica’s Summicron-C 40/2 is only 140g and is a full stop faster (both measured with caps).

… and to look through, the Sonnar is nice to say the least

I once heard that the Sonnar was assembled from Cosina parts at the Rollei factory after the lenses had been given the company’s own HFT coating.  This is not confirmed, but plausible. In any case, the 40/2.8 is not only a beautiful lens to look at. The inner values are good, too. Although one would expect the name “Sonnar” (from German Sonne, bright as the sun) to be used for very fast lenses, it also suits this 40/2.8 quite well because it historically also stands for compact yet excellent lenses. 

What you should not expect is a unique bokeh like the 50/1.5 Sonnar from Zeiss for Leica M mount shows: On the one hand, a 40/2.8 has quite a lot of depth of field already wide open due to optical laws. On the other hand, what remains of a blurred background in close-ups and with the aperture wide open, is good to look at, but in no way unique. 

So, the 40/2.8 is a good lens, with good (but not excellent) sharpness right into the corners fully open and with a pleasing bokeh. But in my eyes, it is not an exceptional lens apart from being so small. Just to give you an idea: It is not larger in full working mode than Leica’s last Elmarit-M 50/2.8 in the collapsed state.

Click on any image to enlarge and view a slide show of all pictures in the article

Film examples

Digital examples

40 is a wonderful focal length, but for M bodies too exotic

It is a pity that 40-millimetre lenses are awkward to use on most cameras with M bayonet when matching frame lines are not preset. However, 40 is actually an excellent compromise between the two most common focal lengths for rangefinder cameras, 35 and 50 millimetres. As far as I know, apart from the Rollei 35 RF, only the Bessa R3A/R3M, the Leica CL and the Minolta CLE have framelines for this focal length. For estimating with the 35-millimetre framelines, which are much more common, the difference is a little too big, I felt in my tests. But if you are not too fussy to fill the 24×36 millimetres of film exactly, you can certainly try.

Conclusion: The Rollei 35 RF may be the best Bessa ever, but it remains an irrational choice

In summary: The special thing about the Rollei 35RF is the lens. The camera may appear to be the best Bessa ever built… but it remains a Bessa. The lens feels great and offers good image quality. Used prices for the kit regularly exceed 1500 Euro. A little bit of passion for Rollei or some other slightly irrational motif is probably necessary to afford this camera. 

But once you have gotten over it, you will not be disappointed by the Rollei 35RF with the Sonnar 40/2.8. Just as the millions of users of the old Rollei 35 (my mother also has one in the drawer and would never part with it, although it has been unused for years) have never been disappointed. After all, the choice of the prestigious Rollei name for the camera and more so for the lens is not correct but not entirely presumptuous either, even though there is so much more Cosina than Rollei in both.

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  1. One of my lifelong (photographic) regrets is that I once had both the 40mm and 80mm lenses but subsequently sold or part-exchanged them – for what, I no longer recall. They are almost impossible to find now, and even when found command much higher prices than I can justify to buy them again.

    • Dear Alan, I can image how much you regret to have sold the gear. I saw the 80mm lens only once and did not buy it because it was too expensive. I don’t think I will ever come across a cheaper one if any. I hope you have fun with your memories of this special camera at least. All the best, JP

  2. .
    2002 was a bit late to introduce a ‘new’ film camera, especially with such a weak specification.

    2002 was also the year of the M7 ..yet another repetition of the same old Leica M product, but (finally) with optional automatic exposure. And the M7 was available with the 0.85 (85% life-size) viewfinder, so with a 68-ish mm actual base-length (the gap between its rangefinder windows), so with an effective rangefinder base-length (68.5 x 0.85) of 58mm, it would focus much more accurately, and with much longer lenses, than the Rollei 35 RF.

    The Cosina Rollei, with its very short rangefinder length of only 37mm (just a bit longer than the 1973 compact Leica CL’s 31.5mm) and with a magnification (or rather diminution!) of 0.7x has a usable rangefinder base-length of only 26mm compared with that contemporary M7’s much more accurate effective base-length of 58mm.

    (The 1980 Minolta CLE – an updated Leica CL – had a base-length of 49.6mm, and a diminution of .58x, giving an effective base-length of 29mm ..so slightly longer, with more accurate focusing, than the twenty-two-years-afterwards Rollei 35 RF..!)

    Cosina saw the future, though, and – in conjunction with Epson, who supplied the electronics – they made, just two years later, another camera using the same body; the first-past-the-post Epson R-D1 APS digital rangefinder, beating Leica’s M8 by two years! ..And with a life-size viewfinder, giving an effective base-length the same as its actual base-length of 37mm ..it had far more accurate focusing, and could be used with longer lenses, than that ‘Rollei’ 35 RF.

    • I agree in all points, David.

      The Rollei 35 RF was one last desperate attempt to capitalize on the grand name of Rollei. Not that the camera is bad, but it has all the limitations you and I pointed out. It would have come late already in 1990 if you consider the achievements of the beautiful Minolta CLE. I also see the built-in weakness of limited rangefinder accuracy. A Leica M3 from the Late 50s performs better.

      But the rangefinder paradox remains of course: Focusing with this type of camera is least precise when you need it most (fast long lenses). Probably it are these very idiosyncrasies that keep drawing me towards these cameras.

      Best wishes and thank you for your always so valuable comments, JP

  3. Thanks again Jörg-Peter. You got me hooked with the series. This 40mm sonnar is a stunner. Looking forward to the series follow-up.


    • My pleasure, Jean. I got hooked up myself. Had I known in advance how much work The M Files would be I think I would not have started right away. All the more satisfying is all the appreciation from you all. And yes, the lens is the interesting bit in this kit. JP

  4. The Rollei/Zeiss heritage really shows in these photos. I had a Rollei 35 many years ago, but I sold it. I acquired another one at the last Photographica Fair in London before Covid. I have yet to use it , but you have tempted me to run a roll of film through it. The larger camera is interesting, but I am not really tempted to acquire one, but if I saw the 40mm lens available I might just buy it.


    • Dear William, thank you for your feedback. Do use the Rollei 35. It is an eternal classic, immortal and brilliant even today. Never mind the 1.35 volt battery issue. Just guess as you will have to do with distance setting. JP

  5. I’m very tempted — I have used the 35 since it came out and took it out again yesterday in covid abandoned New York. Very discreet. Your landscapes are really beautiful — they remind me of my area of Burgundy – if I can ever get back to my cottage there! Thanks for your series – they tempt GAS but are simply satisfying to read.

    • Thank you, Tony, and my apologies for triggering your GAS. I am a victim myself, and The Miles finally gave me a good reason to stack up some gear. Well, at least I use it for actual photography. Your reminisce of Burgundy is very appropriate. It is not too far from here, and the Pinot varieties that are cultivated in our area are called Spätburgunder, Grauburgunder and Weißburgunder (noir, gris, blanc). Since the young generation has taken over the vineyards, even the quality can compete in many cases. Cheers, JP


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