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
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.
In the next episode of The M Files we will take a look at another camera with M mount: the Zeiss Ikon with the 25/2.8, 35/2.8 and 50/2 Zeiss ZM lenses
Follow The M Files, our eight-part series on non-Leica M-mount cameras
- Introduction to the M Files series
- Wider perspectives—the Voigtländer Bessa R4M
- Konica Hexar RF with Konica 50/2
- Rollei 35 RF with Sonnar 40/2.8