Rollei 35 S Compact Camera Review

The Smallest Fully-Mechanical 35mm Film Camera With a Fast 𝒇2.8 Lens

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Rollei 35 S is a premium model from the German manufacturer’s ultra-compact 35mm film camera series. They are the smallest manually-operated shooters ever made and some of the best-looking ones, too.

The black model reviewed here is one of the 260,000 copies manufactured between 1976 and 1980. The entire series ran from 1966 to 2015 — a remarkable time span for such a competitive market. Their iconic design earned them a huge fan base of admirers, including the queen of England herself.

But it’s not just the looks that make Rollei 35 S: these cameras pack a fantastic 40mm 𝒇2.8 Zeiss Sonnar lens and a remarkably accurate light meter. Along with their quiet leaf shutter, these tiny machines can help you produce sharp, contrasty images full of saturation and character.

Alas, Rollei 35’s aren’t perfect — no camera is.

Portra 160 with Rollei 35 S.

A brief history of Rollei 35 cameras.

Rollei 35 is a product of Heinz Waaske’s design that he conceived in his garage in the 1960s. His radical innovation pushed miniaturization to its absolute limits, given the technology and materials available at the time.

The world of photography has always been gravitating towards miniaturization. 35mm film was specifically invented for still cameras as an alternative to bulky glass plates. The “small format” invention caught up quickly as the cameras using it could finally fit in a reasonably-sized bag. Later on, the standard 24mm by 36mm exposure rectangles got cut in half by half-frame cameras to create even smaller bodies, followed by 110 film format and APS-C.

Unfortunately, formats smaller than that of the full-frame 35mm film created grainier images, especially back in the 1960s when they didn’t have advanced high-resolution emulsions like Ektachrome or Provia. Heinz’s goal was to make something that did not rely on those kinds of compromises — a full-frame 35mm film camera that could fit in a pocket.

A tiny Rollei 35 S, next to a roll of Portra 160 film and my yellow coffee mug.

Heinz’s invention preceded the advanced optics design that allowed smaller wide-angle lenses to sit close to the film plane, like those of the legendary Olympus XA and Minolta TC-1 cameras. As a result, he had to create a special-design extension tube and a shutter/aperture mechanism that used miniature rods to trigger the apparatus.

But before Waaske’s elaborate design could become a world-renowned camera, it forced him to shop several manufacturers, all of whom, including Kodak and Leica, rejected his idea.

At the same time, Rollei, a behemoth camera manufacturer in decline, was desperate for innovative products to resurrect their former glory. By chance, they finally caught the opportunity following a serendipitous meeting with Heinz, who by this time became discouraged and suspicious of camera manufacturers. Eventually (and thankfully), a contract was struck with the only requirements by Rollei being a switch to using their suppliers’ Compur shutters, Zeiss lenses, and Gossen light meters.

Since its introduction, Rollei 35’s went through a number of changes, including a shift to production in Singapore — without any quality compromises — and, finally, a major upgrade to the lens system from the 4-element 𝒇3.5 Tessar to a 5-element𝒇2.8 Sonnar on Rollei 35 S. Both lens designs were licensed from Zeiss and manufactured by Rollei. Interestingly, the initial lens tests revealed a design flaw during close-focusing that ended up costing Rollei time and resources to fix.

Rollei cameras were epxensive. They retailed at $189.95 upon their initial release in 1966, which is $1,650 in today’s money. A notable exception was — and still is — Rollei 35B that featured 𝒇3.5 Triotar lens and a battery-free selenium light meter. Today, it’s roughly less than half the price of the non-B variants.

Not counting the very expensive Rollei Classic models sold up until 2014, over 1.5 million Rollei cameras were made in the 48 years of the series’ life.

Rollei 35 S design and operation.

Despite being one of the smallest full-frame film cameras ever made, Rollei 35’s are a little bulky for a jeans pocket — unless you wear yours baggy and don’t mind a small brick weighing them down. But there’s no camera that can give you complete manual control over shutter and aperture in a package that small.

Rollei 35 S measures 3cm ✕ 9.5cm ✕ 6cm (1.18” ✕ 3.75” ✕ 2.36”) and weighs 325 gram (11½oz). When folded, its lens protrudes an additional 1cm; when extended, it adds 2cm to the camera’s 3cm width.

If you want to go smaller, look no further than Olympus µ[Mju:], Minolta TC-1, Voigtländer Vito C, Chinon Bellami, and Olympus XA. All these cameras can fit in the pocket easier and weigh less. However, they won’t give you the option to input your exposure manually — although TC-1 will allow you to override its exposure meter in various ways.

With Rollei 35 S, you have the freedom to set your own exposure settings — but you don’t have to use Sunny 16 or an external meter — the camera comes with a fantastic CdS match needle light meter. It’s very simple to use: a small window next to the shutter button shows the travelling needle that you must “match” with the little red arm with a round hone that moves when you change your shutter speed and aperture. If your needle appears under a red tab on the left side with the camera’s lens away from you, there isn’t enough light to make an accurate reading.

Rollei 35 S’ shutter dial is beautifully placed to the right of the lens as a large wheel with a film type reminder on its face. It adjusts the camera’s relatively quiet leaf shutter between 1/2s and 1/500s, plus Bulb.

The aperture dial on the opposite side features the film ISO control on its face that accepts anything between ISO25 and ISO1600 with ⅓ stops in-between. The aperture dial will allow you to switch your f-stops to higher values uninterrupted while sounding reassuring clicks every ⅓ stop. However, if you want to open up your aperture to smaller f-numbers, you’ll need to press the small metal tab underneath the wheel to unlock it. This additional measure is there to prevent accidental aperture adjustments as you hold this tiny camera with your right hand.

I must add that the design of this camera is remarkably well-balanced despite the multitude of controls, markings, and features packed in this camera. Rollei 35 S looks simply beautiful — especially in black.

Rollei 35 S top plate and front panel (left) and its viewfinder side (right).

The shutter button is somewhat confusingly placed inside a protective ring that prevents accidental exposures right next to the lens release button. It has a threaded port for shutter release cable — a feature I’m yet to try on any of my film cameras — essential for taking long exposures on a tripod. The shutter won’t fire unless the lens is extended.

The lens release button lets you fold the lens back into the camera’s body by holding it down as you twist the lens barrel counterclockwise slightly; once you’ve done that, the lens can be safely slid inwards. However, the lens release button will be locked until you wind your film with the film advance lever. This is done to protect the shutter mechanism inside the camera with its very particular workings. Unfortunately, this also translates into a cumbersome procedure just to get the camera back into your pocket — not counting the lens cap that you may want to place on top of your pricey camera.

On the viewfinder side of the camera (it’s back), you’ll find a small silver tab next to the eyepiece window that you’ll need to pull up once you’re ready to rewind your film. The film winder lever is at the bottom of the camera.

Next to the winder, you’ll find a tripod hole along with a film counter window — a very unique position for such a gauge.

Rollei 35 S features a hot shoe for your flash as well — also on the bottom plate.

 ☝︎ Further reading:A Simple Guide to Using Flash on Film Cameras.”

Rollei 35 S bottom plate.

One of the most difficult things to figure out on Rollei 35 S without instructions is how to remove its film cover to load the film. After a few minutes of trial and error, I finally got it to release the film cover that comes off entirely together with the bottom plate. To do so, you’ll need to flip the wedge-looking metal tab up (while holding your camera with the lens pointing down) located next to the film counter using the stacked silver washers as a grip for your thumb. The cover then can be slid off the camera’s body via rails on its sides.

Loading film into your Rollei 35 S requires you to first flip the pressure plate down and away from the lens’ rear element. You can then maneuver the film leader into the takeup spool on the left (while holding the camera with its viewfinder eyepiece on the top) so that about 1cm or half-an-inch is hanging on the other side and fit the film canister into its place on the right. Before you close your camera, you may want to extend its lens and advance a frame or two (while clicking the shutter button between the advancements) to secure the film on the takeup spool.

Rollei 35 batteries.

Mercury batteries were common when Rollei 35 S cameras were in production. They were used for their consistent 1.35V voltage during the discharge and a much greater capacity than modern cells. But in the 1990s they were finally banned for their toxic component, detrimental to our health and environment.

Rollei cameras were made for PX625 mercury batteries that no longer exist. But you have a few options to get your camera’s meter working again.

Your first option is to get Wein MRB625 Zinc-Air Battery that produces the same voltage and has the same shape. It’s not very common, so your best bet is probably eBay or a specialized battery retailer. These batteries don’t last as long as their mercury forefathers — about six months — so you’d be better off buying a few if you plan to use your camera for longer than that. Rollei 35’s CdS meter does not turn off; thus, keeping your camera on the shelf won’t help — unless you remove the battery also.

Your second option is to get an adapter that will drop the voltage of a modern 1.5V battery and fit in your camera perfectly. But you’ll need to ensure that it indeed sets the proper voltage as the ones that don’t will affect the accuracy of your meter’s reading — the link above should guide you to the right place.

Your third option is to have your camera modified by a reputable shop to be usable with 1.5V batteries.

And your final option is to avoid dealing with the meter altogether. After all, Rollei 35 S is a fully-mechanical camera that needs no electricity to operate; it’s just the meter that you are powering. Furthermore, unlike the Rollei 35 SE, this camera does not have any exposure markings in the viewfinder, so its operation will be completely unhindered without the meter.

Note that to replace your battery, you’ll need to open the film cover and use a dime (or a small coin) to unscrew the shiny metal cover that’s located in the film canister’s place.

Portra 160 with Rollei 35 S.

Shooting Rollei 35 S.

I love how my Rollei 35 S looks; I love holding it in my hands. I appreciate its fully-mechanical nature, which lets me set exposure without relying on a light meter. But it’s not a fast camera to use.

Taking a shot means pulling out the lens and twisting it lightly clockwise, removing the lens cap, measuring light, framing, and only then clicking the shutter button. This process isn’t particularly lengthy, though pocketing the camera again is cumbersome: you’d have to advance the frame, hold the lens barrel lock button while twisting the lens counterclockwise, slide it back in, and place the lens cap on.

Rollei 35 S makes somewhat loud and slightly suspicious sounds as the film is advanced — same as Rollei 35B. The film advance lever isn’t particularly glamorous; it’s a thin strip of metal, although it looks beautiful when worn — a golden brass colour is underneath the black paint.

The shutter button is well-balanced, although a little tight to the touch. You may be able to take photos at 1/30th of a second if you have a steady hand, but that will take practice.

I love operating the shutter and aperture wheels — I think they’re clever and are easy to use. FYI: my hands are average size for a man.

I’ve never had a problem with the location of any controls, including the hot shoe mount. With flash, the camera tends to create somewhat ominous shadows behind the subjects, however.

The viewfinder is reasonably bright with bright lines and parallax markings clearly visible thanks to its mirror finish. It’s large and very easy to use with glasses.

Zone focusing with Rollei 35’s is fairly easy. The lens has markings for both feet and metres with the depth of field indicators on the barrel. The link above will take you to my guide on how to estimate distances quickly and accurately; with the right technique, your images can be as sharp as with any other focusing aid.

Rollei 35 S comes with its own detachable wriststrap. It looks good, though it’s not very practical as the loop has no way of tightening and thus isn’t particularly secure unless you actively grip it with your fingers.

Portra 160 with Rollei 35 S.

Zeiss Sonnar lens and image quality.

My Rollei 35 S was sold to me with a flaw that the previous owner neglected to mention: there’s a noticeable loss of sharpness in the lower-left corner of every image. But I won’t hold this against this otherwise incredible lens.

Rollei 35 S Sonnar 𝒇2.8 40mm lens is remarkably contrasty with minimal flaring, strong micro-contrast and high resolution — particularly in the center. It produces wonderfully-smooth bokeh that is unique and pleasant in its appearance. The lens remains sharp even when shot wide-open with only a slight loss of resolution in the corners.

My favourite property of this lens, aside from its strong contrast and smooth out-of-focus renderings, is the level of saturation it generates with colour film stocks. The images created with this lens stand apart from most other cameras I’ve used; they are uniquely crisp where they need to be, colourful, and pleasant to look at. At least that’s my opinion — it’s possible that it can create too much contrast for someone’s liking; you be the judge.

Of course, there’s some barrel distortion on a lens this small, although it’s not noticeable unless you’re taking up-close photographs with strong geometric lines. This is easy to fix in post-production. I haven’t noticed any chromatic aberration, and the flaring — even without a hood — is minimal.

Aside from its wonderful properties, I also love how this lens looks on the camera. It has a large front element that balances out the design of the entire apparatus. Unfortunately, disassembling the lens for cleaning or infinity focus adjustment will have you first remove the ring with the markings somewhat forcefully, as it’s glued to the barrel. Not a huge deal, but a hint for those looking to make repairs adjustments to their Rollei.

Portra 160 with Rollei 35 S.
Portra 160 with Rollei 35 S.
Portra 160 with Rollei 35 S.

Build quality.

Rollei 35 S is built really well. It feels very solid, with most of its components made of metal, and the plastic parts fitted snugly with very fine tolerances. Nothing feels flimsy about this camera. The only compromise I can think of is the plastic back cover with a simulated leatherette grip texture. Even then, the texture matches the leatherette on the front of the camera perfectly, and its plastic construction saves a considerable amount of weight. By the way, the back cover isn’t entirely plastic — the bottom plate is metal.

Even the wrist strap is good quality. This is in contrast to Minolta TC-1’s embarrassingly shabby strap — thankfully, replaceable.

35 S is a little better-constructed than its cheaper cousin, 35B, which’s plasticky light meter is a sensory disappointment. But on the whole, the differences are minimal. 35 S is just a better-looking and better-performing camera that costs more. I think it’s worth the extra investment.

By the way: Please consider making your Rollei 35 S camera purchase using this link  so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!