The Smallest* 35mm Film Camera, Its Quirks, Operation, and a Brief History9 min read by
As far as full-frame cameras go, Rollei 35 surely is compact — even by today’s standards. But it’s not just the size that makes this little lens box desirable. Averaging $300 across different models in the series, it can fetch over $10K for special editions. Even the Queen used a Rollei.
☝︎ Further reading: “Compact Full-Frame 35mm Film Cameras Under $200.”
About the size of a pack of cigarettes, Rollei 35B (same as B35) sports a 40mm 𝒇3.5-22 Carl Zeiss Triotar lens with a shutter capable of firing between 1/30th and 1/500th of a second. This particular model has most of its controls on the lens barrel and the selenium light meter with the ASA dial on the top plate, which lets you measure for ISO 25-1600. The weight is about three hundred grams or just over half a pound.
Out of the long lineup of Rollei 35 cameras, 35B is the cheapest. Its light meter, although requiring no batteries, isn’t as accurate as CdS cell-powered ones on the pricier 35’s. B’s assembly is also known to have gotten through iterations of cost-cutting exercises. The Triotar lens isn’t nearly as desirable as the 𝒇2.8 Sonnar ones.
* — Rollei 35 is still the smallest fully manual film camera that takes regular 35mm cassettes; however, it lost its absolute smallest title since its introduction in the 1960s.
It’s easy to dismiss precision optics as inferior when the brand name or specs suggest it isn’t a top-of-the-line product. Casual Photophile, an otherwise excellent film-related website, calls Triotar “criminally” substandard.
There may indeed be drawbacks to the Triotar design; perhaps they are somewhere within the technical data specs. Still, it’s no plastic lens. As seen from the photograph above, and its cropped version, there’s plenty of detail to print large. Shot on Rollei RPX 400, the grain is the only real limiting factor in this portrait of Norah.
Some variants of Rollei 35B were manufactured in Germany. Mine was made in Singapore though I haven’t found any evidence suggesting that the country of origin impacts quality: just the price tag. Even then, it’s easy to fake those things as the removable film cover hosts the label — easily swappable between camera bodies.
All Rollei 35’s produce an odd noise when advancing onto the next frame as if they’re crumpling the film. This is due to a unique shutter mechanism required for a camera of this size. I found it somewhat disturbing at first but easy to get used to. To be fair, there are all kinds of sounds you’ll hear after handling enough old cameras.
My only initial gripe with the Rollei is a janky light meter dial that tends to have the indicative numbers peel off. And the tiny lens cap, rarely found in original condition with these cameras.
Rollei 35B in-use.
Compared to Olympus XA, the smallest 35mm full-frame rangefinder, Rollei feels a little bulky. It has pointy edges, hefty metal construction, and a lens that I’m uncomfortable sticking into my pocket without a tiny, protruding lens cap. Still, it is very compact — the only choice for a mechanical/manual body of this size.
As such, the Rollei is really easy to carry. It won’t fit in those sexy skin-tight jeans, but there’s no problem hiding your 35B in a hoodie or a jacket pocket. Because of its compactness, the camera has the advantage of always being around.
35B isn’t a fast camera. Out of the pocket, you’ll need to extend the lens and turn it clockwise until it clicks. Don’t forget to take off the lens cap. Measure the light. Estimate the distance, i.e. zone focus. Frame the shot, then press the shutter.
To slip the camera back into the pocket, you’ll have to wind the film, which makes the lens barrel collapsible again, and put the lens cap back on.
There’s more to collapsing the lens on Rollei 35Bs. Having wound the film, you need to press and hold the small button with a red dot to the lower left of the lens. Then, rotate the lens barrel counter-clockwise for about ten degrees, after which you can finally slip it back inside the camera body.
The technical reason for having to advance film before retracting the lens is the unique shutter mechanism construction of Rollei. To save space, the clockwork mechanism of the camera is separated from the shutter blades — the former fastened in the camera body and the latter in the lens tube. Both components are connected via tiny shafts, which could only release the lock after cocking the shutter.
Compared to one of the fastest ready-time cameras I own, Pentax PC 35AF, good to snap as soon as you can bring it to your eye, 35B lags significantly in terms of time to click. To be fair, Pentax uses electronics to focus the shot; the Rollei relies on an entirely different method.
The unique, whimsical features of Rollei 35B.
The size and lens operation aren’t the only things that set Rollei 35B apart.
Having used a variety of cameras with unique film advance controls, the 35’s left-side position of the crank doesn’t feel awkward or strange — though it is recognizably different. A small wedge of sheet metal with a single-stroke mechanism, it feels right to occupy my left thumb, keeping my right hand free to grip the camera and release the shutter.
The top-plate selenium light meter is quite accurate on my copy, though the design feels a little cheap and awkward. The numbers indicating shutter speed tend to peel off on these cameras; I drew mine by hand on a small paper cut-out and glued it on. There are no batteries to worry about, which is nice, considering that other Rollei 35’s require special adaptors to function. Still, I found the match-needle operation a little confusing, leaving me wishing for 35C, which is the same camera, sans the meter.
When operational, selenium meters, despite their drawbacks, are almost magical. These devices never run out of juice; they perform just as well as they did back in the ‘60s without any maintenance when found in good condition. They are always decoupled, meaning that the cameras they are attached to are always operable in manual mode. Useful for tricky lighting and when combined with more powerful hand-held meters. Of course, this also means that you have to change the settings on your camera according to the light meter’s guidance by hand and can’t expect full automation.
Most camera bodies can comfortably fit in a film rewind knob, an accessory hot shoe, a film counter, a light meter, and a shutter button on the top plate. Not the Rollei. Here, those controls are evenly split between the top plate and the bottom plate/film cover.
Curiously, this requires mounting your flash below your lens, which tends to cast ghostly shadows on the walls behind the subjects photographed. This is a point of complaint within most reviews of this camera. Truth be told, most camera-mounted flashes rarely produce flattering lighting. The best way is to hold the flash away from your lens for better control over shadows and exposure. This may not seem possible with this camera since it does not have a PC sync cable port — but it is.
☝︎Further reading: “A Simple Guide to Using Flash on Manual Film Cameras” — learn how to use an external flash with manual cameras without hot shoe or PC sync cable.
A brief history of Rollei 35.
Back in the ‘60s, Heinz Waaske designed a prototype for the world’s smallest full-frame 35mm film camera, along with the special shutter mechanism, at his home. Having departed his employer, Wirgin, following the rejection of his invention, Waaske shopped other manufacturers to produce his camera. He’s been turned down by Kodak and Leica; Rollei brought him on.
As a result, Rollei 35 brought a remarkable design to the consumers, unsurpassed in size for fully mechanical full-frame cameras. Even digital bodies with lenses can not match ‘35’s compactness today.
With Rollei 35 out of production, the brand that delivered gradually declined into obscurity. Often regarded as high as Leica, Hasselblad, and Contax, Rollei no longer makes cameras in 2021. Today, it’s just a brand that licenses its logo to Maco to sell emulsion and a few other businesses, including MiNT, for their instant film camera as Rolleiflex Instant Kamera.
Where to buy your Rolle 35B camera.
Your local camera store isn’t likely to have one; the “B” variants are rare. However, I found a few copies of the camera here.
As with any other camera bought online, you should take your time examining photos and ask questions about things that aren’t pictured: the viewfinder, whether the camera makes any odd noises — other than the clicks described above — and its overall functionality. Best copies are sold as “tested with film.”
❤ By the way: Please consider making your Rollei 35B camera purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!