Rollei 35B

The Smallest* 35mm Film Camera, Its Quirks, Operation, and a Brief History

11 min read by Dmitri.

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 as much as $10K for special editions. Even the Queen used a Rollei.

About the size of a pack of cigarettes, 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 one of 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 either. 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, which is the smallest 35mm full-frame rangefinder, Rollei does feel 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. Perhaps the only choice for a mechanical/manual body of this size.

Pentax PC35AF is another premium compact camera. Having been released about twenty years after Rollei, it manages to pack auto-focus and auto-exposure along with flash into an only marginally larger body. It’s also cheaper, though its build quality is not as solid, and it doesn’t provide that sweet manual, fully-mechanical action Rollei has.

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, 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. I don’t mind the lens cap action as much as having the tube locked in an extended position until the next frame advancement feels clumsy and restricting.

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. Rotate the lens barrel counter-clockwise for about ten degrees, after which you can 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.

How to focus with Rollei 35, or any zone-focusing camera.

Zone- or scale-focusing means guessing the distance to the subject and dialling that value on the lens. This method is practiced on cameras like Rollei 35, where this is the only way, but can also be used strategically on rangefinders, like the Electro 35, FED 5b, Vitessa, and SLRs. It is, sometimes, possible to zone-focus faster and more accurately than an autofocus computer.

Zone-focusing isn’t difficult, though it does take some time to get used to. Even wide-open and close-up, one can estimate the distance quite accurately. Other than the lack of practice, shallow depth of field is the only real hindrance when zone-focusing, which isn’t a big problem with Rollei cameras — having a relatively wide 40mm lens and the widest aperture of 𝒇2.8 on all models.

Focusing Triotar 𝒇3.5 wide-open isn’t difficult. You can even get those sweet bokeh shots right if you remember what a foot/meeter looks like.

When I was a preschooler, my grandpa taught me a metre being roughly the width of my extended right arm to my left elbow. Today, the metre ends at the left side of my chest. My feet, being size men’s 9US, are a bit shorter than a measuring foot. We’re all a little different, but there’s no need for extreme precision. The advantage of using your body to measure distance is that, for the people, it’s a natural thing to do.

As with most lenses, up-close distances require some accuracy; as you move further from your subject, this need diminishes. The furthest mark, 20’/6m, is so close to the infinity that you can confidently leave your lens in that position and get everything between 10’/3m and the horizon in focus as long as you are shooting at 𝒇16. Wider apertures like 𝒇3.5 require to be a little more precise since the depth of field is diminished.

Rollei 35B shows markings in feet on the top part of the lens. Metres are at the bottom.

 ☝︎Further reading: “A Beginner’s Guide to Film Photography” — learn more about depth of field in this extensive guide on how to shoot film.

My biggest obstacle to focusing Rollei 35B is remembering to do so, rather than doing it accurately. The same lack of habit plagued my shots when I was starting to learn how to use rangefinders.

The photograph of a morning sky and the lonely condo, above, illustrate my grief over the forgotten focusing step. The picture is taken at around 5 AM, after which I realized that I forgot to change the distance from up-close to infinity. The light changed dramatically in that short time, leaving me stuck with a blurry photograph of my desired light, and a sharp but a drastically different one, below. My wife, with her half-frame Ricoh Caddy, which also requires estimation, is a lot better at avoiding these kinds of blunders.

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, 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.

Top view of a Rollei 35B with the lens fully extended. The light meter is set up for an ISO/ASA 100 film via the small metal wheel at the top of the camera/middle of this image. The plastic transparent dial under it is rotated towards the 1/500th shutter speed, which I drew by hand with a pen on a small piece of thin cardboard. The needle shows that the safe aperture to use in these lighting conditions is 𝒇8, which I would have to change from 𝒇3.5, as marked on the lens barrel. You can almost see the shutter speed set to 1/500th as well, partially obstructed by the camera’s tiny body. At the tip of the lens, the distance is set to just under 10’, and on the left, you can see a counter, pointing to the 21st frame elapsed.

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; when found in good condition, they perform just as well as they did back in the ‘60s with no maintenance. 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 a 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.

Bottom view of a Rollei 35B. The film rewind knob is on the left, unlocked by pressing the button on the right of the tripod hole. The film cover is unlocked by rotating the two black tabs around the tripod hole counter-clockwise. The hot shoe is on the right. The numbers on the lens barrel are the metre equivalents of the focus distance on the other/top side.

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 a complaint within most reviews of this camera. Truth be told, camera-mounted flash rarely produces flattering lighting. The best way is to hold 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.

Photographing subjects on Rollei 35 in landscape mode with the flash attached casts somewhat unusual shadows, as the light is emitted from below the lens.

A brief history of Rollei 35.

Rollei 35 is a remarkable design, unsurpassed in size for fully-mechanical full-frame cameras. Manufactured with quality components, the camera is made to create great images without the bulk.

Many regard the German brand as high as Leica, Hasselblad, and Contax. But in 2020, Rollei’s glory days are far gone. The business’ turbulent end of the century resulted in poor product quality, sluggish sales, and an endless circle of bankruptcies.

Notable new goods that bare the Rollei brand today are the film and paper, made by Maco, under license. MiNT also licensed the name for their instant film camera as Rolleiflex Instant Kamera about two years ago.

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, in his home. Having famously 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. Since then, the camera was in production for 26 years, until 1992.